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Reality bites – the lesson learned after living 6 months in Sri Lanka

Remember I told you that in my posts I’m going to give you the full story, not only the sunny side of it?

Not a lot of bloggers are writing about the bad things they encounter during their travels. One reason for this is that we are promoting destinations and services. Just imagine someone writing a nice long list about the shitty experiences in the given country and then telling you to go there. That looks stupid. Controversial at least.

Still, if you only ever read about the positive things, you can be pretty surprised at the end. But don’t forget, every story is different… this is our story. And it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Sri Lanka. Do it! Everyone should see this country at least once!

You’ll find that the pictures in this post don’t exactly match the text every time. It was a conscious decision, to cheer you up even when you are reading about things that are not so nice… No, the truth is that I just realised that I don’t like to picture bad things, I hardly have any photos like that.

One more important thing. Long-time travellers and expats get criticised a lot when they point out things they are not happy with, in any given country. This results in a lot of comments like “why do you live here if you don’t like it” and so on. Well, everyone has the right to form an opinion about something and then express it. It’s that simple.

So if I write about some negativities in a given country, it is not disrespect or the lack of gratitude or anything like that. It is just our story. The way we experienced it. The way we were living it.

Our story ended up leaving Sri Lanka after six months. The original goal was to see if we can live here in the long term.

Quite a few things didn’t turn out the way we planned, mainly for two reasons. First, our expectations didn’t meet reality, and that’s always the best combo for disappointment. And second, we stressed way too much during these six months. I think this was because we couldn’t believe that we really did it, we really sold up and left for the other side of the globe with two small children. And of course, we were stressing a lot about the future, how we are going to manage this lifestyle financially. One day we’ll run out of the money we got for our house and car.

Does this mean that we failed with our 6-months-project? Not at all. It only means that the theory is one thing and practice is another.

We decided to move on and explore other countries, choosing Bali, Indonesia as our next destination. We are having a great time, with very different impressions as in Sri Lanka, I’ll write about it, but now let’s see today’s topic.

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Contents

How did we get here?

Let me just put a very short version here. We sold our house, our car and a significant amount of our stuff back home in Hungary to start an open-end journey with the kids. You can read more about us on our About page, and about why and how we made this decision in this post.

After the decision, we made a list of the countries we thought we’d like to live in for a while. We’ve been to Sri Lanka in 2011. We spent three weeks here on self-organised backpacker-birdwatching-marriage-honeymoon combo trip, and we liked it a lot. It was like India but on a much smaller scale. Back then it looked more developed, cleaner, friendlier… just easier than India. By the way, we love India!

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens in Kandy
At the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens in 2011. Photo © Andras Vasas

We wanted to stick to Southern Asia, because some places are still very affordable, even if you come from a Central or Eastern European country. Sri Lanka wasn’t the best choice in this context, more on this later.

So we made a priority list to help us choose a country. We wanted to live by the sea, to be able to take the kids to the beach daily. We considered things like safety, availability of good internet and so on. Tried to make a rational decision, but ended up making a semi-emotional one. I was warned about the unreliable internet, but I thought it is going to be good enough for us… typical.

Anyway, a decision pretty much halfway between rational and emotional… AND… welcome to Sri Lanka again.

Why everyone should visit Sri Lanka

Nevermind what you are going to read later in this post, Sri Lanka is a wonderful travel destination. Beautiful coastal areas, equally beautiful hill country, exciting culture and history, architecture, abundant wildlife and the tea! Whatever your interests, there are so many things worth to check out.

Scenic train ride from Ella to Nanu Oya Sri Lanka
On the way from Ella to Nanu Oya. One of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

If you like colonial architecture – as I do – Sri Lanka is your place!

One of the most inspiring buildings in Colombo, the historic Galle Face Hotel
The Galle Face Hotel in Colombo is a never-ending source of inspiration. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

Still a favourite destination of mine. The fact that I don’t want to live there in the long term is a different story.

The good, the bad and the ugly

I respect this country, its people, culture, wildlife, nature, everything. Do not think for a minute that we only had bad experiences. We had a lot of great experiences, we met some really wonderful people from all over the world, and we made friends. Friends I’m already missing.

It’s not the case that I want to pour all my frustration on the readers. I have a husband and two children for this task.

A lot of people asked about our experiences in Sri Lanka. Here you have it. The full version.

The good

VISA

It’s pretty easy to get a tourist visa (which is an electronic travel authorisation, ETA) online before you arrive in the country. You get your actual tourist visa based on your ETA at the airport, and it will be valid until 30 days.

If you wish to stay longer, you can extend twice, first for two months, then for another three months. It’s not exactly cheap, but there are more expensive visas in the region.

Kids under 12 get the visa free of charge, BUT only for the first month! I read all the official stuff but didn’t find a word that would state that we have to pay for the extension of the kids’ visa. Then I tried to explain this to the officer… yes, you are allowed to laugh…

The extensions are more expensive than the first month, and it is topped with tax.

There are some excellent blog posts on the net about the extension procedure, google it. Took us between 3-4 hours each time and it was much better than what we expected. Except that if there were a lot of people, the buffet was almost empty at noon already, so with kids I think it’s better to take some food and drink with you.

Our first visit to Immigration was super easy. Our second, not that much. There were masses of people at the office, and it was chaotic, especially for some officers.

Visa extension at the Colombo immigration office
Visa extension attempt number 2. Bring a good book or a lot of GBs. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

We waited more than 4 hours, just to find out that they forgot to put in the extension to all four passports. As it was the end of the workday, they didn’t want to let me back in to tell the officer that I’d really only be happy if we had the extension sticker put into our passports. Luckily, I could catch the man who was sorting out the passports, and he helped. Also, we paid more than what we expected, they told me that the extension is not free for kids. We were a bit confused, it was free on the first extension…

But it’s still pretty good. If you get there before 11 am you have very good chances to get your passport back the same day. Pretty good is not the first thought that comes to your mind after what you just read? Just google tourist visa extension in Indonesia made by yourself for example…

Just be sure that you get all the passports back that you handed in and you have the correct extension stickers with the correct date in them.

FOR FAMILIES

Sri Lanka is a country where families are pretty much respected. You’ll get more attention and help when you are with kids. For example, someone always offered us a seat on public transport to be able to sit down with the kids, we also experienced a lot of help in different forms, mainly because we were with kids.

It’s like they really respect you, because you have kids, and most people will do their best to make your life easier. It is a huge plus when you’re travelling with children.

Repurposed tuk-tuk. Street art in Galle Fort.
So much inspiration in the old Dutch fort in Galle. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

FOR KIDS

The landscape, nature, the temples, the culture, even Colombo with the massive traffic and the skyscrapers, the container ships, the buses, trains, tuk-tuks. All these and more were totally different than what our children were used to. It had some bad aspects – see later – but all-in-all it was very inspirational for the kids, especially for Karsa, who was 5 when we arrived. He draws for hours a day, and it was such an experience to see how he interprets what he sees and how his drawing is changing, developing day-by-day.

In the flow. Karsa, drawing at Ceylon Sliders, while waiting for breakfast. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

The biggest favourites for our children were the scenic train ride between Ella and Kandy, and the botanical gardens where they pretended that they are little explorers and enjoyed climbing every rock or discovering every trail in the gardens. Sri Lanka has really good ones, like the Hakgala Botanical Garden near Nuwara Eliya or the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens in Kandy.

The kids reading the map at Peradeniya Botanical Gardens
They were playing for hours with these maps at Peradeniya, pretending they can read. Photo © Szilvia Molnar
Fun day at Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy, Sri Lanka
OK, little explorers, which way next? Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

HEALTHY EATS

In case you pay attention to what you eat, and you like to follow this routine while on the road, the good news is that there’s an increasing number of quality restaurants and cafés offering healthy dishes and a laid-back atmosphere. You’ll find some of these in the most visited areas of the country, especially in Colombo.

We found really good ones in Weligama too, check out this post!

Avo toast and granola bowl for breakfast at Ceylon Sliders, Weligama, Sri Lanka
What a way to start your day! At Ceylon Sliders, Weligama. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

Are you planning a visit to Sri Lanka? For short-term stay… um, no… actually for any kind of visit, this is a great choice and our favourite travel guide:

PUBLIC TRANSPORT

While you will find this topic in the next category too, I want to point out that there’s a huge plus in it. You can access almost every corner of the country by bus or by train, and it is incredibly cheap. Most of the buses and trains are older than me, but we found them to be generally clean. Loud, but clean.

The bad

PRICES

The country has gotten really expensive in the last 5-6 years. And the quality of most services did not get better, in some cases, it’s even worse. Now that’s bad news.

Our overpriced apartment in Weligama. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

Our apartment in Weligama, for example. Our landlady and her family were really, really friendly. But the apartment itself was ridiculously overpriced, like almost all the apartments on the south coast. It’s not their fault actually. It is the market. First, everyone keeps the price high, and second, many of the tourists will pay this price, without even thinking for a minute about what they are paying for.

This one, pictured above, had two rooms like this, two bathrooms, a small kitchen with very few utensils, a little gas cooker and a small fridge, which we had to defrost continuously. A large balcony. That was the best place in the apartment by the way.

Our kitchen in Weligama… Photo © Szilvia Molnar

No washing machine. No air condition, the fan in one room was the type that only moves through the air, without any evaluable result. The fan in the other room worked only on maximum, which was a bit far from ideal. The wifi – wasn’t included in the price – did work well… in the first month. It got worse and worse, and in the last month it didn’t work at all, I was told because of a change-over process of the service provider. All this for 75.000. Rupees a month, which was about 500 US Dollars back then. Electricity and water included. We had to top up both, as we used more than what they were calculating with.

But it’s 5 minutes walking from the beach…

FOREIGN KIDS

I told you it is a country where families are really respected. That’s not usual in today’s world, and it is something I really respect. BUT. Foreign children get a lot of attention. I mean A LOT! It is part of the culture, and it’s with good intent, but EVERYONE wants to touch them. It doesn’t matter if you live six months in the same place and meet the same people several times. Always… everyone. A lot of kids are OK with it, some of them even like the extra attention. But for my children it was hell. They really, honestly hated it.

They are small. We tried to explain to them, that it is just the custom here, and that people just want to be friendly. Didn’t matter. They hated it and feared to go near local people… for six months. Did they make connections or friendships with local children? One. In 6 months.

Exploring Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Told you it won’t always match the text, but check out the size of this. Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

They weren’t comfortable with the move to another country, to say the least. It was very different from what they were used to, which should be a good thing actually. You know, exploring different cultures, different climate, different food and so on. And at the end of the day, you can be happy that your child will become a more tolerant, more open person on the long-term… or not.

Visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy
At the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Our second visit. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

DIRT

To our surprise, there’s much more dirt and litter everywhere then a few years ago. You can get used to it, and there are regular clean-ups organised by either locals or expats, but at first, it was shocking.

After rains, we couldn’t use some of the beaches, it was so heavily polluted. At a few places, an amazing amount of litter is washed into the sea together with the content of the sewage canals. On the first occasion like this, some local surf instructors told us to take the kids out of the water, because it’s not safe.

Pollution threatening the sea and the beaches of Sri Lanka
After a normal tropical rain, this is all washed into the sea. And much more. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

There are efforts for making sustainable products and recycling, but still on a small scale, so organisations and companies like the Good Market or Ananta Sustainables really need your support, if it is only a like or a share on Facebook.

HAGGLING

I can hear you saying “come on, this is Asia”… well, yes and no. Yes, it is Asia, and yes, it should be the norm to haggle. Surprisingly in Sri Lanka, a lot of people don’t want to. I mean they tell you that you have to haggle, still, some people will just walk away instead of haggling with you.

Tuk-tuk drivers for example. Some of them were even getting mad when they found out that we pretty much know the real prices. Or our landlady for instance. When they showed us around in the apartment and told us the monthly rental price, and we were not responding for 5 seconds they told us that now it is our turn to haggle. Ok, let’s do it, we threw in our offer. Now it’s their turn and everyone – including us – would expect a price higher than our offer but lower than their first one… it’s the way you haggle, a little bit of art, a little bit of psychology, but not rocket science. Instead of this what happens? They tell you that this is not fair and after that point, there’s no way you can get them to lower their price.

SAFETY ON THE ROADS

It is almost non-existent.

After a few really… hmm, let’s call it… INTERESTING bus rides – where we had so much action that we even forgot to take pictures – we decided to take the train instead. If there’s no train to where you want to go, you can consider a taxi or praying… A LOT.

Weligama train station
We became huge fans of train rides in Sri Lanka. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

The ugly

INTERNET

More than bad. I was warned that it’s not reliable, but it exceeded my imagination. If you come here only to relax and travel for a short time it’s OK, maybe you won’t be able to post your photos to Insta immediately. I could live with that. In case you depend on the internet, like a digital nomad… it won’t be fun.

The major problem is that there is no such thing as unlimited (or even broadband) internet. I have heard about people who have heard that it does exist in the country. Practically it doesn’t. People (like owners of guesthouses) buy a certain amount of GBs, which is divided to daytime and nighttime data and at the end of the month when everyone runs out of data, the connection becomes extremely slow to non-existent. Sometimes even if they top up. Don’t ask me why.

The other option is to buy a local sim card (you can do this on arrival at the airport already) and use 4G mobile data. Better, but even like this, I had days without internet connection.

Never had any problems in Colombo though.

Colombo traffic on Poya day
Colombo traffic on a Poya day is quite surreal. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

POWER CUTS

Regular. This is something you can get used to… if you really want to. Does not help the internet problem if you depend on wifi. Almost no one had generators in the area where we were living. Get some good power banks!

Evening at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy
One of my favourite pictures. Evening at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

SUDDA PRICE

A visitor (I prefer this term, but in Sri Lanka, everyone is going to call you a foreigner, or sudda which means foreigner in Sinhala) has to pay at least double price for almost everything. Of course, you don’t have to pay more for mobile data or in a western-type supermarket or restaurant.

Everyone wants to be rich – if possible in 10 seconds – based on the superstition that every single foreign visitor to this country is a billionaire, harvesting money from the trees at home, and not giving any thought on how to spend it. This is present in many countries, but again something that was shocking. Years ago, on our first visit, it wasn’t this bad… or we were just lucky, don’t know. The fact that we were regularly asked to pay double or triple price even on the buses was new to us and the conductors’ own project.

Travelling by bus in Sri Lanka is packed with action
We’ll need a GoPro camera next time we take a bus in Sri Lanka. Colombo, back in 2011. Photo © Andras Vasas

HARASSING WOMEN

An everyday problem, both Sri Lankan and foreign ladies get this type of unwanted attention. Safety, in general, shouldn’t be a big concern, but there are a few incidents now and then, especially on the south coast. There were even some bad ones recently where we lived. Just practice common sense, and you’ll be fine.

I could be even grateful for the Sri Lankan guys for giving me the illusion of being 25 again. That was the last time that a stranger grabbed my bottom. In Hungary, the guys respect your age at least, but here, age or the lack of a supermodel’s body didn’t really matter. Or the fact that once I even had the kids and my husband standing next to me… I’ll leave you a minute for this.

Now back to serious. Attacking ladies or even group of friends is an awful, disgusting thing.

BUT.

One personal note to this.

People visiting Sri Lanka and other countries in this region should really consider the fact that in these cultures it is NOT THE NORM for women to walk on the streets or visit shops or restaurants basically ALMOST NAKED. Learning a bit about the cultural differences and respecting those is not a huge effort at all, and helps to keep you safe. This doesn’t mean you won’t be harassed, I was twice, despite having real clothes all over me, despite having the kids with me. It only means you have better chances of avoiding getting into real bad trouble.

The lesson learned

THE ULTIMATE LESSON we have learned is that when our expectations are far away from reality, we can easily find ourselves downhill. It gets more difficult to handle everyday problems, for example, it’s much more difficult to adapt to changes, it’s hard to embrace the world around us as it is.

We were overly stressed already at home. The fact that from the time of getting into the car that took us to the airport in Hungary up to the time when we arrived 38 hours later in Colombo, Hanga (she was 3 when we left) screamed a lot that she doesn’t want to leave, didn’t make it easier. In fact, in the first five months, every single day she asked us (sometimes crying) “When do we go home to our house?” To the house we sold, just to be exact… and yes, we did our best to prepare the children for this change.

The fact that instead of the planned two weeks it took us almost six weeks to find a long-term rental in Weligama – overpriced, by the way – didn’t help much.

In this state of mind it can be harder to tolerate things which you would get adapted to otherwise, like the litter on the streets or the canals stinking, or that every single snack vendor or tuk-tuk driver wants to scam you, and since haggling is expected but not exactly tolerated by many, your day-to-day activities, like buying basic food becomes a freaking struggle.

Street stall for Sri Lankan snacks
Snacks anyone? Our firm favourite was the one called wadi. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

We tried it. After the first three months, we could have left but we didn’t, we wanted to really give it a chance to get to like living in Sri Lanka in the long term. Well, it’s not exactly true, I wanted to give it a chance, and maybe my son, the others were ready to leave anytime.

Colombo traffic
Skyscrapers and tuk-tuks. Colombo is an interesting place. Photo © Szilvia Molnar

By the way, me and my son, we would like to try living in Colombo, but the rest of the family not, so we moved on to explore other countries. This means that we’ll be moving much more than what we originally planned. But it can just as well mean that we’ll find a long-term base quickly, or maybe we’ll get to like this type of living… there are so many possibilities.

And you know what? We can’t wait to visit Sri Lanka again sometime in the future, there are still so many things for us to see in this wonderful country. We’re thinking in short visits.

This is our story.

It would be really interesting to read yours. Leave us a comment here or contact us on Facebook or Instagram.

Cheers!

Szilvia x

Ps.: This is one of our favourite hotels in Colombo. Nice staff, reasonable prices and great location. In the season there’s a lot going on right in front of the hotel. Food festivals, traditional dances, you just have to step out of the building. Oh, almost forgot to mention, there is a mind-blowing restaurant on the top floor!

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Liz Deacle
Guest

What a fabulous recount of your time in Sri Lanka! I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you but then again you never know these things until you try. At least you won’t grow old – always wondering… good on you! X

Dan
Guest

Thank you Szilvia for a great post. Our family spent a month there in 2015 and we encountered all of the struggles that you described. Our biggest peeve was trying to find a place to do laundry. We were quoted $25 to even $40 for a load of laundry which is likely more expensive than Switzerland.

In spite of that, we still had a wonderful time but are a little sad that future visitors may not get as pleasant of an experience.

Maria
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Maria

Regarding the urge of the locals to constantly approach and touch western kids in some of the countries we had our share of that too. My son (now 6) tolerates it to a certain stage, but then he has also had enough – understandably! From our recent travels in the region I can tell you that Myanmar is top of that list, everybody goes crazy and wants to pinch the chin and touch/lift small kids! And you are asked to pose for pictures/selfies constantly! In Cambodia and Laos he was also very popular, but a bit more moderately. Thailand depends… Read more »

Alyson Long
Guest

Hi. Well you know we love Sri Lanka, or loved. Each time we go it’s more full of tourists, not travellers, tourists. The island is becoming over-run, it’s nothing like the place I remember 20 years ago. I’m pretty sure the locals like this even less than we do and there seems to be anger bubbling under there. But still, I love it and we will be back soon. We’ve spent periods up to a month there and everything you say is true. It’s one place that I know I couldn’t live, unless we had a beautiful home in the… Read more »