2023 – Sri Lanka

I had wanted to revisit Sri Lanka, with Ali, for some time.

My previous visit had been in July 2019, shortly after Ali and I had met, but the whole Covid pandemic and shutdowns prevented us visiting before the autumn of 2023.

That the Sri Lankan economy crashed in November ’22 and the then president was forced from office didn’t help.

Things seemed a bit calmer in 2023 and so we booked a trip to the Hotel Citrus in Hikkaduwa. Gaz and I had visited the hotel in May 2017 (for my 60th birthday) and again in May 2018.

The Citrus is one of Hikkaduwa’s larger hotels, and we were able to get an all-inclusive package, flying Emirates from Stansted via Dubai. My old friends Phill and Anne live close to Hikkaduwa, so it was an opportunity to catch up with them, and their ‘house boy’ Lakshan, although I’m guessing he’s now in his thirties.

We left home at ten on Wednesday November 1st, driving to Ali’s mum’s house, we then drove on to Stansted, arriving at about eleven. Ali’s mum was to take the car back to her house for the duration of our trip.

Check-in and security checks took a while longer than we might have hoped, but we were still in the lounge by eleven forty. I’d paid extra to skip the queues at security and the need to navigate the maze of duty-free shops.

The flight itself was delayed before take-off, we were due to fly just before two and finally took off at three fifteen. We only had a two hour transfer time at Dubai, so we were a little concerned that we might miss our connection.

We actually landed in Dubai at two AM, leaving just forty minutes to transit one of the world’s largest and busiest airports. There were Emirates staff as we left the aircraft gathering the various groups of transferees and we learned that our connecting flight was leaving from Gate C6, while we’d disembarked from an ‘A’ gate; this necessitated some brisk walking through the terminals and a ten minute bus ride. Somewhere near gate C6 I managed to miss the end of a travelator, took a tumble, and wrenched my shoulder.

We boarded the second flight at two forty, and it finally took off at three AM, another Boeing 777, but this one a little older and more careworn than the first. The pilot made up the lost time, and we landed in Colombo just a few minutes late at eight thirty-five.

Passport control and baggage reclaim was chaotic; nobody had warned us we would need to complete an ‘Arrivals Card’ so we ended up queuing twice at Passport Control, but were pleasantly surprised afterwards when our baggage showed up on the carousel. We met our taxi driver who then disappeared to fetch his vehicle while we spent ten minutes watching the mayhem of the taxi ranks. We were on the road by nine fifty.

In the four years since my last visit to Sri Lanka the Government (or possibly the Chinese government) have built an expressway from Colombo airport that connects with the expressway that heads southwards. As a consequence, our expected four-hour journey was significantly shortened, and we arrived at the hotel at around eleven thirty.

 

Phill and Lakshan joined us in the bar at about four, and we spent a couple of hours catching up and passing on the groceries (HP Sauce, cheese, mayonnaise, and Henderson’s Relish). Phil was looking frailer than when we last met, but he remains cool. We stayed in the bar after they left and we watched a glorious, if cloudy, sunset.

The sunset should have been a warning, while we both fell into a deep sleep – neither of us had slept on our outward journey – the night was punctuated by a tremendous thunderstorm.

The storm had passed next morning (Friday)  and Ali enjoyed a pre-breakfast swim in the hotel pool.

After breakfast – Ali was enjoying ‘curry’ at every meal – we adjourned to the lawn a few feet from the sandy beach. The sea was stormy, there may be bathing opportunities down the beach, but offshore coral means the Citrus has red flags permanently flying to dissuade bathers.

At lunchtime we met the ‘Mercury Holidays’ tour rep, the same one I’d met in my previous visits in 2017 and 2018; she claimed to recognise me (I suspect the hotel management had prompted her) but she was again disappointed when we were clearly not interested in any of her excursions.

I booked a massage in the hotel spa, which eased my sprained shoulder a little.

Later, we crossed the main road, the traffic was much, much lighter than previous stays, checked out the supermarket opposite.

The rest of the day was spent chilling, until just before sunset when we adjourned to the bar. We enjoyed a few more drinks after dinner and had a reasonably early night.

The BBC weather forecast was for rain on Saturday, but the day dawned sunny and bright, Ali enjoyed another pre-breakfast swim.

Then, after breakfast, we met up with Lakshan for a trip to Galle; I’d brought some fabric to have my trusty denim waistcoat copied and wanted a few ‘Oxford’  shirts made. Anne had identified a well-regarded tailor in Galle and the hotel Citrus manager had agreed with her recommendation. The gentlemen in the tailors were okay with my waistcoat request, but pointed across the street to a department store for me to buy the fabric, twelve metres at about a pound sterling a metre.

We finally agreed that we would collect the tailoring on Friday, at a very good price, then Lakshan drove us into central Galle. I was looking for the ‘Heritage Café’ which previously had a vintage Morris Minor parked outside, but we ended up at the nearby ‘Pedlars Café’ which also had a vintage Morris. We enjoyed a glass of Passionfruit and Lime Juice, then strolled through Galle Fort to the ‘Tap Room’ bar in the ‘Old Dutch Hospital’; I’d visited a couple of times in the past with Gaz.

Galle Fort - November '23

From there we walked the battlements to the famous Galle lighthouse and called Lakshan to run us back to Hikkaduwa; he dropped us at JLH – another of the places Gaz and I had haunted in the past where we enjoyed some prawn noodle soup and a beer before walking the hundred yards or so back to our hotel along the beach.

Back at the hotel, we had a couple more drinks while watching the clouds gather, the skies finally opened just as we returned to our room for a rest before dinner. And they opened! The BBC are reporting the start of the north-east monsoon and so thunderstorms are not unexpected.

The rain paused long enough for us to stroll down to dinner, but was starting again as we headed back up to bed. The hotel had filled up with Sri Lankans for the weekend and a crowd of them were dancing enthusiastically to a deejay.

After the travails of Saturday we had planned a quiet Sunday, Ali’s birthday and our second wedding anniversary. Gaz had prompted the hotel and they decorated our room with flowers, balloons, a cake and towel animal. We adjourned down to the greensward by the beach; I took a late morning walk down to the local market, about a mile away, at the local station. It was a hot walk, so I grabbed a Tuk-Tuk back to the hotel. Ali stayed by the beach.

Once again, the heavens opened at about four so we retired to our room. Dinner was a seafood grill (not included in the All Inclusive package) comprising lobster, king prawns, cuttlefish, tuna and mullet – accompanied by chips and side salad. It was all delicious, followed by another complimentary cake.

Anniversary/Birthday Dinner = November '23

Monday dawned bright and sunny, while the hotel ground staff cleared the wreckage from the previous night’s storm. We wandered down to the beach after breakfast to find that our preferred sunbeds had been reserved for us. The hotel staff are friendly and keen to help us, partly – I suspect – in hope of a tip – but also because we few brits are keen to engage with the staff and are polite. Most of the hotel guests are ‘Russian’ – Kazakh according to one who actually spoke to us – and behave arrogantly.

We spent most of the day chilling by the beach, the hotel’s resident monitor lizards wandered past a few times.

Phill and Anne messaged us to suggest they come over for a drink early evening; Anne had just returned from a trip visiting her family in Sheffield and she regaled us with stories of her travails getting back from Sheffield to Sri Lanka,

The hotel had a live singer in the bar and the place filled up, including several that Phill describes as ‘Goan refugees’. The Indian government refused brits entry in 2022 and many who would have spent their winter months in Goa found themselves in Sri Lanka. One couple told me they spend nine months of the year travelling, but their ‘home’ base is actually Galleywood, Chelmsford.

Tuesday was a glorious morning, with scarcely a cloud in the sky – if you were to believe the BBC weather we would be suffering permanent downpours – in reality the clouds gather late afternoon but much of the day time is beautiful.

View from room 620 - Citrus Hikkaduwa

We’d arranged to see my friend Joy, who runs a nearby charity that I’ve done some work for in the past. She was expecting other visitors so said she’d send her Tuk-Tuk to collect us after breakfast.

After a somewhat confusing journey, a few kilometres north of Hikkaduwa, we arrived at the ‘Village of Hopes and Dreams’ that Joy has created since the 2004 tsunami. We saw the sewing room, soap manufacturing capability, the kindergarten and the gardens. We also met her Anglican priest, his son and daughter in law.

We returned to our hotel expecting to be collected mid-afternoon, but after waiting in reception for what seemed a very long hour, we gave up and returned to the bar for a few beers and a club sandwich. Thankfully the late afternoon rain held off, but there were flashes of lightning out to sea after dark.

The lightning flashes continued through the night, but Wednesday dawned bright and sunny. We headed down to our preferred sunbeds after breakfast and spent the morning reading our books. Lakshan was due to collect us at lunchtime but sent his father as his Tuk-Tuk had suffered a puncture. Lakshan’s father took us up to Phill and Anne’s beautiful ‘colonial’ house up in the hills for a drink.

From there we headed over to ‘Asian Jewel’ for lunch; I’d visited several times before, it’s just around the corner from the villa that Gaz and I rented four years ago, now sadly dilapidated.

Lunch at Asian Jewel - November '23

Lunch was, as always excellent and Dale, the hotel owner, joined us for a chat. He and his wife have split and he has become a star of the local karaoke scene.

Which was appropriate, as our hotel hosted a karaoke evening; it comprised mostly of groups of teenage girls shouting tunelessly to ABBA’s ‘dancing queen’ or Cher tracks, interspersed by grim Soviet songs. Dale’s enthusiastic renditions of ‘lounge’ classics went down well.

Many of the young girls ended up, fully clothed, in the hotel pool.

Thursday morning dawned cloudy, with a threat of rain, but the sun burned many of the clouds away to leave a bright, sunny morning. We had a pretty clear day – our Saturday departure was starting to loom in our future – so we returned to ‘our’ sunbeds for the morning, indeed for much of the day.

The rain came again, after a magnificent sunset, we popped over the road to the supermarket to buy a few gifts before dinner in the hotel, the food has been consistently good throughout our stay.

Stormy Sunset - Hikkaduwa '23

Friday morning was beautiful, we were back on ‘our’ sunbeds – the pool guy reserved them for us – until Lakshan collected us at midday to return to the tailors to collect my order. On our arrival the tailor told us that the order would not be ready until ‘after two’, so we got Lakshan to drive us to the ‘Lady Hill Hotel’, which overlooks Galle city, for lunch. The food, while dramatically flambéed, was unimpressive, but the views over Galle were wonderful.

Galle from Ladyhill Hotel - November '23

We returned to the tailor and collected three new shirts and two denim waistcoats, while the days of ‘next day’ tailoring seem to be long gone, the quality and price were most acceptable.

The rain held off, and we joined Phill and Anne at the chic ‘Reiff’ hotel, a mile or so from our hotel; it has rooftop bar and we enjoyed views of what was probably the most beautiful sunset of our stay.

Sunset 10th November '23 - Hikkaduwa

As an aside, the hotel was just a couple of doors away from Arthur C. Clarke’s former home. It’s one of the few regrets I have in my life that I didn’t call him when I found his number in the phone book back on our first trip to Sri Lanka.

Arthur C Clarke's home - Hikkaduwa - November '23

Arthur C Clarke’s home

From ‘Reiff’ we were taken up to Lakshan’s house, a few hundred yards from Phill and Anne’s, it was Lakshan’s wife’s birthday and we’d all been invited to dinner, a rare privilege.

Saturday morning was possibly the best morning of our stay, with an almost cloudless sky. We enjoyed our final morning by the beach before returning to our room to finish packing. We’d negotiated a slightly late checkout, after which we enjoyed lunch and a couple of drinks – our ‘all inclusive’ package had expired.

Several members of staff came up to bid us farewell and said they looked forward to seeing us again ‘next time’. While it’s easy to be sceptical, the staff had been friendly towards us throughout our stay. Most of the hotel guests were ‘Russian’ (some Kazakh and some Belorussian) and their attitude to the staff (and other guests) was frankly appalling; the guy who handed out the pool towels told us that more than seventy pool towels had been stolen.

The staff in the supermarket over the road watched shoppers like hawks to prevent shoplifting.

Our car arrived on time at two fifteen, the trip to the airport – through a torrential downpour – took just two hours and in true ‘hurry up and wait’ fashion we waited another hour to drop our bags, having already checked in online.

By the time we’d been through immigration we figured there wasn’t time to justify paying for lounge access, but found a bar serving cans of Lion lager (that were about 50p each in our hotel) at five dollars a pop. Further justification for not using the lounge came when ‘Final Call’ popped up on the screens a full hour before our scheduled departure; we scurried to the gate and then waited another half hour to board the aircraft, which then left twenty minutes late.

The flight from Colombo to Mahe in the Maldives took just over an hour, where most of the passengers deplaned. We stayed aboard for about an hour and a half while the aircraft was prepared for the next leg to Dubai. We had a distraction when a German tourist was forced to deplane when the cabin crew determined that his booking for the Dubai sector was actually for the following night.

We landed in Dubai at one thirty AM, but had to wait for our stand to come available. Once through security and into the terminal it becomes apparent that THIS is the ‘city that never sleeps’, it’s as busy at two AM as any British shopping mall on any given Saturday. We still had about six hours before our Stansted flight and so decided that the ‘Marhaba’ lounge – in the eaves of the terminal  building – was justified; even if they threatened to evict us after four hours. The waiters inside the lounge were much friendlier, one brought us some breakfast and a couple of bloody marys.

Cautious not to outstay our welcome, we ducked out of the lounge and into the constant throng of shoppers/passengers and strolled down to our gate; a much less stressful experience than our outbound journey.

Our final flight was very comfortable, landing at Stansted on the stroke of midday, from there things got stressful. We were forced to take a bus to the terminal building, queue for twenty minutes to get through the immigration e-gates, then waited a full half hour for our baggage to appear on the conveyor. Thankfully we’d booked the same limo company that we’d used for our summer trip to Dubai; the driver was waiting for us and he swiftly whisked us to Ali’s mum’s house, where we enjoyed a brief cuppa and catch up before we drove home.

We arrived just before three PM, which meant we’d been travelling for twenty-nine hours. We’d enjoyed a really pleasant trip to Sri Lanka, but both agreed that – if we were to return – we wouldn’t use that Emirates routing.