Trains, tuk tuks and terrifying traffic – our first impressions of Sri Lanka – Negombo, Colombo and Galle

With a long journey ahead of us and a 3am start, it would have made sense to get an early night, but 10pm the night before our flight found us with our clothes hanging all over the room to dry and Caro attempting to dry our hiking boots with a hairdryer. True backpacker problems.01Three flights and some 30 hours of travelling later, blessedly broken up by 5 hours in a lounge in Singapore airport (thank you to the Kemps, it was amazing), we arrived in Sri Lanka just after midnight on the 1st February. By the end of flight 3 Caro looked really pretty.02All was going swimmingly on arrival; we had no issues with our visas, our bags arrived, we purchased an undoubtedly overpriced sim card and easily found our pre-arranged taxi to our guesthouse in Negombo. We pulled up to the guesthouse at a quarter to one and there was absolutely no one around, no answer on the phone nor to persistent rings of the doorbell. Mild panic and sleep deprived hysteria were just starting to set in when a bleary-eyed lady appeared and ushered us to our room, where we promptly collapsed on the bed.

Our visit to Negombo was very short lived but still educational. Our very kind hosts gave us a lovely breakfast and, as they were going in to Colombo themselves anyway, gave us a lift to Colombo Fort train station at a reduced price. We hadn’t been able to see much from our taxi the previous evening save for the odd religious statue and the glowing eyes of Negombo’s street dogs. During the day the traffic ramped up to full on crazy with tuk tuks, scooters, bicycles, cars, buses, people and dogs all contriving to turn two lane roads in to eight lane insane asylums. Our driver alternately chatted with his sister in the seat behind him, talked on his phone, texted and very occasionally looked at the road. James gripped the sides of his seat and went to his happy place.

We were deposited with many smiles at Colombo Fort train station and were on our own in Sri Lanka for the first time. We succeeded in getting cash and securing second class tickets to Galle. The man in the ticket office informed us that there was a Galle train on the platform which was due to leave, so we hurried over the bridge, were pointed in the right direction by another helpful local and threw ourselves on to the train, which remained firmly stationary for the next 20 minutes. We were wedged in between compartments with all of our bags but soon managed to arrange ourselves in to a position of passable comfort and only hoped that the train doors would remain open for the whole journey.03It was a marvellous journey. Locals selling fruit, water and what looked like deep fried seafood made their way from one end of the train to the other touting their wares and performing impressive contortionist acts to get around the people and bags jammed in to every available space. After about half an hour the train had emptied out a little bit and we managed to secure ourselves the best seats in the house.

The next hour and a half was spent leaning out of the train doors and absorbing the sights. It seemed to be laundry day with clothes hanging from every possible fence and branch, laid out on the floor and, somewhat dangerously, between the two sets of train tracks. We have since learned that every day is laundry day in Sri Lanka.06The Colombo to Galle train runs along the coast so we were treated to tantalising views of golden sand, blue seas and palm trees interspersed with a mix of houses cobbled together from bits of wood and corrugated iron or, occasionally, bare brick and concrete.0708We arrived at Galle station and were immediately ripped off by a tuk tuk driver. Although we didn’t realise it at the time we had paid more than double the appropriate amount for our very short journey in to Galle Fort (500 rather than 200 rupees) but as this came to all of £1.50 difference we felt that it was quite a cheap lesson to learn. It was also our first time in a tuk tuk and we marvelled at the tardis-like quality that meant that we and our mountain of backpacks were packed in fairly comfortably. It can all seem a bit overwhelming the first time you arrive, even in a country as friendly as Sri Lanka, but don’t worry, it begins to feel normal very quickly and you will find yourself leaping in and out of tuk tuks and marching around bus stations with confidence within a couple of days.

In the course of the short journey, our driver managed to communicate that he was a coin enthusiast, as are all tuk tuk drivers it seems, and was delighted with the New Zealand dollar coin we handed over. He pointed us down a dubious-looking-to-the-first-time-visitor alleyway and sped off.09For our first full day we had treated ourselves to a bit of luxury and the dubious alley opened up in to a beautiful courtyard and guesthouse. Secret Palace Guest House was beautifully furnished and well-appointed and just what we needed to fully recover from our journey. We learnt from our host, Gayan, that he had recently completely renovated the building over the course of 30 nights to avoid the prying eyes of the local officials, as following the rules can apparently take years. Gayan pointed out two other buildings on the alley which have remained undeveloped shells for years due to falling foul of permit bureaucracy.

After our first rice and curry lunch, we spent the afternoon wandering around the ramparts and weaving streets of Galle Fort. Whilst there are a fair few tourists around, it was lovely to see the green open spaces being used as sports grounds for the local school PE lessons as well. The tourists did mean that the inevitable tourist attractions were in attendance in the form of snake handlers bearing pythons, James looked the other way and went to his happy place.

There is plenty of history in Galle Fort but you won’t find much information provided actually on the ground, fortunately Caro was armed with her trusty Lonely Planet and acted as tour guide.10Tip: the ground along the ramparts is uneven, do not read your guidebook whilst walking, you will go arse over tit.

We have the habit of digesting tiny bits of information from Lonely Planet and becoming instant experts. For example, the titbit: “note that you can tell which part of the walls were built by the Portuguese and which parts were Dutch-built: the latter designed much wider walls to allow for cannons to be mounted”*  soon had us pointing to sections of wall and going “ah this is definitely a Dutch bit.”11We were so thirsty for something truly old and we devoured the sights and sounds of Galle Fort.

We returned to our guesthouse at about 4pm, Caro lay down on the bed and didn’t get up again until 8am the following morning. James went out and admired the sunset from the fort walls before having dinner on his own for the first time in 4 months. Out of practice for such things, he forgot to take any form of entertainment with him and swiftly returned.

The following morning we had a gorgeous looking and tasting breakfast that we very much hoped would set the standard for our Sri Lankan trip.


Back at Galle station we noticed that someone had turned the end of one of the tracks in to a garden, complete with trellis.

17Our train to Welligama was only half an hour late and much quieter than the one from the day before, so we sat in seats and watched the world go by in the form of small towns and beach resorts.  We hopped out of the train and in to a tuk tuk for the short journey to Mirissa beach where we had planned 4 days of rest and relaxation.

* Sri Lanka Lonely Planet, 2015 Edition, pg. 106

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