Where to stay in Sri Lanka when you arrive? Negombo Vs Colombo
We decided that rather than spending our first few nights in Colombo amid the madness of a capital city, we would ease into Sri Lanka by staying at the nearby beach town of Negombo. It is closer to the airport and if you want to see the capital city you can get there by train or bus very quickly from here.
In the end this turned out a perfect choice as we adjusted to the change in culture and pace of this new country. We stayed close to the beach, a short walk away, if you want to stay directly on the beach you need to up your budget. You can find cheaper hotels and accommodation the nearer you go away from the beach hotels, restaurants and bars of Negombo resort. You can read previous article for information about budget accommodation and costs. We’re glad we chose to stay in Negombo, rather than Colombo, for a few days at it was a very pleasant and relaxed introduction to Sri Lanka.
We flew from Goa to Chennai to get a nicely timed connection to Sri Lanka and stayed overnight at an airport hotel in India for the evening. The next morning we were up early to catch our Sri Lankan airlines flight to Colombo. Getting through Colombo airport was amazingly fast and probably one of the best airport exit experiences we have had. We thought we would be in there a while as we had tried to apply for the visa on line in advance but the system would not process our payment.
We knew we could do it on arrival but expected this to be a long queue and wait affair just like Bali Visa on arrival. To our surprise it took just a few minutes, payment of $70 US for two of us and we were at immigration desk for our stamps. Five minutes later we had bought our data sim ($15 US for 8Gb 3G pre pay card) from Mobitel and we went off in search of a taxi. By the way the airport is all rather new and shiny as well and while it has the basics of a ATM’s, phone booths, tourist information counter and coffee shop there is little to keep you there.
Getting to Negombo from Colombo Airport by Taxi or Bus
The pre paid taxi counter is just outside the airport exit and we got to our hotel in Negombo for 1500 LKR. You can walk the short distance to the road and try your luck with a rickshaw, which we are told can be bargained down to around anywhere from 600-800 for the Negombo trip. Its an incredibly short journey and this price seems high now we know how close it is. You can also take the bus, which we did on our return journey to the airport on leaving Sri Lanka and we’ll let you know the costs etc in a later article.
We quickly learned that our taxi driver was a Christian, and throughout the journey he liked showing off the big cross he had on the dashboard and asked us to hold it, the good thing about this was he enjoyed pointing out the many Roman Catholic churches we passed, pleasant enough, but he was preaching to the unconverted.
The original guest house we wanted to stay at was full so ended up in the next door place (Victoriya (sic) Guest House) which was well over our budget. The room was big with AC and hot water, reasonably well furnished and we had a swimming pool to cool down in. It’s a family run affair with a hearty breakfast provided for you and some good local advice. Although this morning a friendly taxi/tour guide was added to the clan and started to ply us with offers of tours around the Dutch areas of Negombo.
After having been here a few days and checking out other hotel and guest house options we realised we got a good deal. You can get cheaper rooms but they were a bit on the dingy side and were without aircon or wifi. It certainly is a bit more expensive than India here for just about everything.
If you are going to stay here for a while in Negombo the best option seems to be a short term apartment rental. We saw some very nice places for much less than we were paying per night with similar facilities.
Getting to Know Negombo
Arriving here direct from India the biggest shock has been the cleanliness, there is not any rubbish floating about the streets which had become something of an all to familiar sight over the last three months. The roads are also a lot more orderly, driving from the airport was relatively calm. In fact so much so, we’re looking into the option of hiring a car or scooter to travel around.
Having spent the last 3 months in India, the price difference initially has been a bit of a shock. Although not expensive, we are in one of the main touristy areas of Negombo, but food, drinks, accommodation and supermarket supplies seem to be about 30% more than India with some things much more pricey. For example Odomos mosquito spray costs us $1.20 US in Goa, but here was marked at nearly 4 dollars in the local shops and local cigarette prices have doubled to US$3.75 a pack. There are a few ‘local’ shops here, one is called Asda and the other Tesco Metro which I am sure have no affiliations to their multinational namesakes, there are no ‘BOGOF’ deals here.
All the restaurants and bars are pretty touristy and there is little for the budget end of the market here. As Negombo beach resort does not really cater specifically for backpackers, there is not much in the way of street food unless you wander a long the beach at the short order stalls, but on the main road you will find one local stall. We sampled everything they had to offer which changes throughout the day. In the day time you can get small sandwiches, egg or vegetable samosas which, unlike their Indian counterparts are either breadcrumb coated deep fried roti parcels or roti wrapped curried eggs.
Both were delicious and cost 30 to 40 LKR each. In the evening the clashing of blunt metal on griddle can be heard as your kothu is prepared. Vegetables , egg, spices and chilli are thrown on the griddle before sliced roti is added to them before adding the marinated chicken. Throughout the cooking process the cook will continually chop up the ingredients with his instruments until you are left with succulent minced morsels of spices and tasty food. We will be trying this many times in the days to come it is just too good, we bought a single portion for 200 LKR which was more than enough for a meal for both of us.
Also all restaurants and bars here add a 10% mandatory service charge which is a little annoying on two fronts. You are never sure the charge gets passed to the service staff and you have no choice whether to tip if the service is appalling. We did try to negotiate having the service charge removed from our bills before ordering in a few places, with partial success.
Most of the hotels and accommodation are situated a few kilometres north of the main Negombo town, if you want to get the local (cartel fixed prices) rickshaw drivers will charge you two to three hundred to get here from Negombo. If you want to save yourself some backpacker rupees there are local buses that in 10 minutes will get you to the main bus station in the city from Negombo for 16 rupees.
For our first two days here the weather had been overcast so there was little point exploring the beach, this was OK as it left us time for planning and easing into the food and culture here. When we did get to the beach we were surprised. Many reviews we had read described it as dirty and disappointing, while it is not the sunbed strewn white sand of other Asian beach paradises, it has lots of sand, warm sea, and enough local life to make a walk down its length interesting.
It is more of a throw your own towel down type of beach with the most people who want the sunbed and service gathered around the luxury hotels further north burning by the glistening pools sipping overpriced beer and cocktails. You can also use most of the hotels and swimming pools by purchasing a day ticket, or pay the lifeguards some cash. The beach is popular with locals and working fisherman, but its very easy to find a spot to relax on your own. Your only distraction will be that of the beach hawkers and those selling boat trips from the beach. Everybody is very friendly and not aggressive in their sales pitches. Negombo beach isn’t one of Sri Lanka’s finest, and whilst it has not been cleaned into an inch of its life, you will see a bit of litter and broken glass and beer bottles, its easy to find a nice patch of sand and enjoy the warm sea for a few days.
Eating Out in Negombo Restaurants
If you do want to have this luxury Negombo experience you can, the four and five star hotels are plentiful and dotted along the best beaches around Negombo town, you will pay around US $200 a night for a room and be charged 500 LKR for a beer and 300 sri lanka rupees for their specially labelled bottled water. If that’s your thing fine, but if you just want a day of luxury you can pay just 700 -1000 LKR ($8) for the use of the pool and a sunbed for the day, but this rises to 900 – 1500 LKR at weekends and public holidays; the more stars the higher the price.
We ate at a couple of restaurants (we had some good news on our tax return back home so thought we should celebrate). Tuskers restaurant serves very good food, its not very Sri Lankan although owned and managed by a Sri Lankan woman and her South African husband, you can bring your own beer and wine from the local wine shop and take it with you. The menu says they charge a corkage fee, but John managed to get that waived. We had a couple of meals here and without being exceptional they were very well cooked, and use high quality ingredients and dishes are presented beautifully (tuna, seer fish and grilled squid which melted in your mouth). A meal costs around 2900 LKR for a starter and main course each (with our own bottles of wine).
In between our treats we ate a little cheaper, our favourite was at the O2 bar for lunch. We had a Sri Lankan buffet for the princely sum of 180 LKR (plus the ubiquitous 10% service charge). You get a plateful of rice and four or five beautifully flavoured vegetable spiced dishes with a small chunk of chicken. We didn’t try the a la carte here but its popular at night and the manager is very pleasant and will offer you unbiased local information on transport and things to do around Negombo.
There are no shortage of places to eat and drink, but with the exception of one or two bars things close pretty early here, with food finishing around 10pm in most places.
Sri Lanka Travel Blog
Over the next few weeks, will be posting plenty of articles about what we go up to in Sri Lanka, including more information about Negombo and other destinations in this wonderful country. If you are interested about what we have to say about Sri Lanka either sign up for our RSS feed so you can receive notification by email of new posts.