Following the advice that we need to get out of Saudi Arabia every three months in order to maintain some sanity, we decided to take a tropical vacation to a nearby island that would be “cheap.” Sri Lanka is only a five hour plane ride away and offers landscapes of lush green mountains and refreshing coastlines. Recently we had met several expats who journeyed to the South Asian island and really enjoyed it. After all the sun and heat during the summer months, we felt some rain and clouds would do us good.
Ahh Sri Lanka. A vacation of mixed emotions. A return to nature, spiritualism, fresh food, and relaxation. And a test of patience and wit. We spent six nights and seven days with a total of five different hotels. It was a whirlwind of touring with quite a bit of time in the car driving between destinations, but we left with some incredible memories and lessons. Here are the highlights.
Along the way from Negombo International Airport to Sigiriya, we stopped at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage where elephants are free to roam on the reserve and visitors get to watch them eat, wander, play, work, and bathe. There were many generations of elephants to observe, some with long tusks and even babies.
Leaving Sigiriya the next day, we then drove to Kandy. Along the way we stopped in Dambulla to visit the Golden Temple which is a Buddhist temple with attached museum. Here we observed Buddhists dressed in white and carrying flowers to place before Buddha. We learned much about the philosophy and way of life guided by Buddha’s teachings. Our driver, Prasanna, showed us around and was quick to correct me when I called it a religion. In Sri Lanka, a population of 20 million, 75% are Buddhist, 9% are Muslim, 7% are Catholic, and the rest is a mix of Hindu and other religions.
During this same journey, our driver took us to a spice garden to learn about the varying spices grown in Sri Lanka. A guide led us around the garden and gave us samples and demonstrations to which we oh’d and ah’d. He introduced himself as a PhD student studying Rheumatology who has worked with the UN in Dubai at conferences to help educate Middle Easterners on Eastern Medicine. He said he worked at the spice garden on the weekends giving tours to earn some extra cash for tips. He seemed very knowledgeable about the plants and what natural remedies they are good for, even referring to their scientific names at times. He moved us quickly through the garden and said that they made their own products back in the “lab” which was closed for the day since it was a weekend and therefore we could not see it. A couple of times I pointed to the meekness of some of the plants growing which were supposed to produce enough oil or spice for their lab to make bottled products. Giving him the benefit of the doubt I supplied him with the answer in my question, “Are they just out of season?” Yes, of course, they are out of season.
Towards the end of the tour he was rubbing all sorts of creams and oils on us, giving us a sheet listing the different plants with their descriptions in order to check off the natural products that we would be interested in. We were particularly intrigued by a plant that produces red oil which will help cure achy joints by “building” cartilage. A couple boys came over to give both David and me massages for some small change, again rubbing us down with with the different lotions and potions. We gave them tips to show our appreciation. One interesting demonstration of note was a natural hair removal which our guide rubbed on a patch of David’s leg hair during our tour. This cream was made naturally (of course) by some special plant, and when wiped away, completely removed the hair without any pain. Wow! We said. It had the faint lingering smell of Nair. David had a head cold as well, out came a spoonful of ginger syrup to naturally remedy his ailments.
As quickly as we were led through the garden, we were ushered into the store to conclude our tour. Our guide graciously offered to carry the basket for us and quickly load it with products that we were interested in trying. “What’s on your list? What did you mark? Do you want the King Coconut Oil for your hair? Sandalwood cream for your face? Aloe Vera lotion for your skin? Red oil for your joints? Spices for your cooking? Hair removal cream? Red pineapple syrup to burn fat? Tooth whitening?” We threw it all in the basket assuming these were going to be dirt cheap prices. The packaging suggested third world homemade products and we were so enthused by the prospect of treating all our problems naturally we didn’t pay much attention to the strategically hidden price tags. Many Chinese tourists also crowded the store eagerly pulling products off of the shelves and rushing to buy. It was a mad frenzy. He quickly led us to the register making one last stop in front of a display before ringing us up. “Pardon for the inconvenience, sir, but how about some sexual chocolate to revitalize your love life?”
Within seconds our basket was rung up and they were asking for our credit card. Well, what’s the total? “There on the screen.” Where on the screen? “There.” We look to the lower corner of the screen and in small font our total is given. Really?? That much? What does that convert to in dollars? 850. Seriously. We nearly gave them our credit card to charge us $850 for products of questionable quality! We took most everything off the bill but decided to continue with our purchase of some curry spice, cocoa powder, vanilla and jasmine oil, sandalwood cream, and the all powerful red oil to heal our achy joints. The new total came to $113 which we still felt a little uneasy about, but hey, we’re dumb tourists.
We said goodbye to our guide and thanked him for his time, giving him a tip and wishing him good luck on his studies. We got in the car and Prasanna whisked us away to our next destination.
The rest of the afternoon resulted in the same pattern. Go to a “museum” and get a brief tour, then arrive at the gift shop where you will expect to meet a salesman and extremely high prices for questionable quality goods. Of course we would be offered a “discount” but it was still overwhelmingly expensive. We began to figure that we were being targeted and soon smartened up. We bought nothing at the gem museum which supposedly locally sources its gems although refuses to offer wholesale prices, and we bought nothing at the woodcarving museum which was selling, among other wooden commodities, small cinnamon wooden dishes (admittedly I had my eye on them) for $30 and no less. Give me a break.
As travelers, we will never forget that day in Kandy. We began to see the business transactions for what they were. Prasanna would take us to these traps and if we bought something he would get a small kickback in return. That night at the hotel, I researched the places we went (spice garden, gem, and woodcarving museum) and found other people had the same experience. Meanwhile, David opened the bottle of red oil and proceeded to rub it on his sore ankle. Surprise surprise. It stained the white sheets red. Nothing more than cooking oil mixed with red dye.
Everything came back to me. The phony credentials, the crumpled business card of a western doctor, Linda so-and-so, he pulled out and showed us but then quickly snatched back when I began to look closely, the mysterious “lab” we never saw, the wilted plants, the smell of Nair from the hair removal cream, the rush through garden and the store giving us little time to think, the cheap packaging and labeling with no list of ingredients…
I called the supervisor of the tour company and told him the situation, complaining that we had been scammed and how extremely disappointed we were in Prasanna who took us to this spice garden which was not even on the itinerary. I demanded that I wanted to get our money back for the fraudulent goods that we purchased one way or another. Prasanna, called me back ten minutes later and said that of course it would be taken care of the next day.
On our third day, we toured the rest of Kandy, visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya before making the long drive to Nuwara Eliya. After spending a couple hours in the gardens, Prasanna picked us up and gave us our money back for the spice garden goods. Victory!
By day four we were very fatigued. Moving from hotel to hotel every day was beginning to take its toll. The infrastructure of Sri Lanka is very poor and we mostly drove along two lane winding roads navigating slow traffic, stop lights, stray dogs, and long distances. We slept most of the time in the car since we had a driver to shuttle us around and we were still suffering from a bit of jet lag, but we saw quite a bit of scenery as well. Prasanna stopped several times so we could take pictures at lookout spots along the mountain road. Our next destination was Hikkaduwa where we would have two days of rest on the beach.
Hikkaduwa was a nice respite. We lounged by the beach and pool. The Indian Ocean was too rough to relax in. We even witnessed someone get swept up in the tide and carried out, unable to get back on his own. A Sri Lankan life guard took a surfboard out to retrieve him after the alarm was sounded but it took more than twenty minutes to bring him in. Luckily unharmed, just a bit shaken up. Since the ocean was off limits we swam in the pool instead. The hotel was nicely situated so we could still see the beach no matter where we were. It was a pleasant time.
Finally, the conclusion of our trip. We left Hikkaduwa for Colombo which we felt would be a nice in between rest before we flew out the next day. However, there was not much to see in Colombo after all and we were tired from all the touring. The hotel was a disappointment and we were ready to go home. Sri Lanka afforded us the respite we needed and gave us some wonderful memories. I can’t help but laugh every time I think about that spice garden. However, we will be sticking to a first world country on our next vacation I think.
Traveler’s tips: With quite a bit of reflection, we would recommend staying away from businesses that cater to tourists like the spice, gem, and woodcarving “museums” as the products are of precarious quality and extensively marked up. If you go with a tour company, research the planned destinations. We enjoyed most of the sights we saw but regret wasting our time walking around stores rather than hiking a trail in Kandy. We really only lost a day to the tourist traps after we wizened-up, but it’s still time and money spent (even if we didn’t buy anything).
Also, five different destinations was too much in the end. We chose to stay in Colombo on our last night in order to save travel time between the beach and the airport, but it really didn’t save us much and only added to our aggravation since we were booked in a hotel that catered to locals with thin walls and bad customer service. There was nothing much to see in Colombo aside from some historical monuments and buildings which we could have done without and we ultimately spent most of our time at a decent mall walking around and looking for souvenirs, which were again, overpriced. One more day spent at the beach would have been a better way to spend our last day.