Practicalities of travelling to Sri Lanka with a Family

My family travelled to Sri Lanka & this site tells our first hand experiences.

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Security Issues in Sri Lanka

It was only at this point the issue of security started to dawn on us. We were aware of the issue between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government but had been assured that his was “in the north”. The tour deliberately stayed clear of these areas (which was a shame in some ways as the north has a very different culture to the south, being mainly Hindu). However, after one of our friends as if he could have our flat screen TV if we failed to return, Lisa and I did a bit further investigation.

At this point we found that while the Foreign Office didn’t warn against going to Sri Lanka at all, it said:

  • Stay away from the North (seems good advice!)
  • Don’t travel on public transport as there have been incidents of attacks on buses and trains (well we’re not actually planning to go by public transport but this sounds a little worrying)

  • Stay away from Yala National Park (ah.....this is where we’re camping on safari!)
  • In addition to this, the BBC new website reports that a government minister has recently been shot dead in Colombo and that the government have decided to withdraw any pretence of support of a 2 Year Norwegian peace treaty. Now we’re worried but we’ve already spend more than £6000 on the holiday (this is the accountant speaking).

    After a few sleepless nights imagining our car being pulled over by soldiers of either side and being shot in the street (you can see I have a vivid imagination!) we contacted Red Dot. Nicola was calm as always, she said she believed the Yala advice would be lifted soon – there had been an incident because there was an army base within the boundaries of the park but that this was all sorted. However if we wanted to switch to Udewalawe National Park then this would be no issue. We’re really wanted to go to Yala as this is the ideal place to see leopards but in the end, the weather in Yala was bad anyway and we switch to the more elephant focussed Udewalawe.

    You may be thinking that at this point we would sit back and relax, waiting for the day of our holiday to arrive. Oh no – you obviously don’t know me too well yet. Research now reaches a new level. On a weekend away with Lisa in Dublin, I spend a good deal of time reading about Sri Lanka and this just fuels my preparations.

    My research veers off now into more cultural research. I’ve read the history of Sri Lanka, previously known as Ceylon (the tea is still known as Ceylon Tea) – well the abbreviated versions in all the guide books. The gist of it is that there are two main cultures based around two main religions – the Singhalese (mainly Buddhist) and the Tamils (Mainly Hindu). Both seem to originate from India – the Singhalese from Southern India, the Tamils from further north.

    The conflict between them is more of a classic minority discrimination than a religious one however. I am certainly not going to pass judgement on this conflict from my limited knowledge but it seems that the majority excluded the minority for quite some time and eventually the minority Tamils decided to do something drastic about it. It’s a real shame given the peace loving nature of the two religions and the obvious generosity of all those we met in Sri Lanka. In an effort to get more acquainted with the culture and security situation, I found quite a few Sri Lankan radio stations (boy did I get some stick for listening to them!). Many have English news although the music is somewhat exotic for my taste.

    Animals in Sri Lanka

    According to the guides, there are 5 varieties of venomous snakes. The guides give you little information – just enough to get you worried! A bit of further research reveals a mine of information about how to avoid getting bitten and what to do if you are. Kate starts panicking about snakes and her worries are not reduced when I announce that there are also scorpions and tarantulas. At this point I don’t mind telling you that I had in my mind that we’d be walking along the street, stepping over snakes and pulling scorpions out of our beds before settling down to sleep. I couldn’t imagine getting much sleep especially on safari and this brings me to the children’s other big worry – how will we stop the animals coming into our tent and eating us while we sleep!

    I also get a lot of stick and ridicule from Lisa for my preparation for Leeches. The guide books give advice about taking a small amount of salt to get leeches off – apparently if you try and pull them off they damage your skin. Lisa obediently returns from shopping with a salt cellar. Its low sodium – I don’t know anything about salt or leeches but a debate ensues about whether low sodium salt will have the same effect on leeches as normal salt! In the end Lisa declares me paranoid, refuses to take the salt (the right decision as it turns out!) and bans me from any further research on the perils of animals in Sri Lanka.

    Travel Money while in Sri Lanka

    This is probably a good time to talk about money. There was some confusion about the amount of cash that could be taken into Sri Lanka. We ordered £500 of Sri Lankan Rupees from the travel agent but we were told that we could only bring £20 per person into the country. Red Dot disagreed but to be on the safe side we decided to just take £100 (£20 each including all the children) for emergency money and then take Sterling and change it there. While this had not been our intention, it is now my preferred method for dealing with overseas currency. The rate that you get is so much better when you get to your destination (and much better at the airport than in the hotels). It is obviously not as safe as travellers cheques but they are such a pain to get changed. In the end we took £500 sterling and for safety stored some in each of our hand luggage.

    We also did manage to get money out of cash point machines in Sri Lanka although as you’ll see later, they do have limitations.

    We also had a problem with credit cards. In Sri Lanka, credit cards are widely accepted but with the exception of hotels, it was mainly the old manual slips. When we returned to the UK our credit card was used 3 times on Chinese websites before being blocked. We got our money back but the hassle it caused was enormous. I’ve since decided that the best way is to get a new credit card, just for use on the holiday and cancel it when I return. Not only should this prevent the fraud (which usually happens a few days after the holiday) but it means that if the fraud does occur and the card needs to be cancelled it won’t that you have to cancel your normal card and disrupt your normal finances.

    Medical advice when going to Sri Lanka

    With a few days to go, the children’s excitement reaches fever pitch! They’ve printed out pictures of all the animals they are “going to see”. They have also got journals to write down their experiences. However, there is one hurdle still to cross – the dreaded jabs! Fortunately most of Sri Lanka is free from Malaria so no tablets to be taken. This is another area where the guide books let you down. They list every possible disease leaving me (the hypochondriac) to believe I might need injections for Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis and Yellow Fever! Now clearly there must be a risk otherwise they wouldn’t even mention them but the GP recommended only Hepatitis A & Typhoid for everyone and Lisa and I need boosters for all the normal stuff – diphtheria, polio etc.

    The visit to the doctors however was not pleasant. The order of having the jabs seemed important so as not to leave the most nervous to the end! But the children basically decided for themselves. Lisa went first – to show us all how it’s done. Callum (probably the most nervous and talks incessantly to cover his concern) went second followed by Kate, Tom and Myself. In retrospect it might have been better to bring them in separately as while the injections were fine, the impact on the children going second and third was evident. Tom was pretty scared by the time it was his turn but to his credit he toughed it out!

    By this time the packing is intense. I bought any number of anti-mosquito protection items (although malaria is not high risk – mosquitoes abound!). We had the standard “jungle formula” (with DEET). But I also had plug in mosquito fumigators, mosquito wrist-bands and mosquito coils. I am not certain any of them really worked. During the holiday we all tried different things with different levels of effort but we all got bitten. It is pretty inevitable but still worth the effort to minimise the bites. It is also definitely worth changing for dinner – putting on long trousers and a long sleeve top which definitely helps keep them away during the evening.

    We put together a checklist of items to take which can be found at the back of the book. I am not claiming it as comprehensive but it served us well. So, luggage packed, tickets and money ready, we set off on our trip of a lifetime.