Asia, Sri Lanka

Fast Approaching Lockdown: My Experience of Being a Tourist in Sri Lanka During COVID-19

April 6, 2020

A lot of you may criticise me for choosing to fly out to Sri Lanka at the beginning of last month, considering the rate at which the coronavirus was spreading in countries like China, South Korea, Iran Italy, Spain, the UK and the US.

However, on the date that my flight was scheduled, there was just one reported case of coronavirus in Sri Lanka compared with over 300 in the UK.  Since the UK had reported its first case in January 2020, life in my home country had continued on as normal for over two months.  I was only planning to be in Sri Lanka for three weeks.  There were also no cases in the county in which I live (Shropshire), and I’d not travelled anywhere beyond my hometown since coronavirus first spread to the UK.

So, if I travelled there was no danger of me of spreading the virus, and the country I was travelling to presented a much, much lower risk than the one in which I currently resided.

There were also no advisories on the FCO website recommending that travel to Sri Lanka was potentially unsafe or presented any immediate issues.

If I chose not to travel, I would also lose the money I’d paid out for my flight, as well as three weeks of leave that I was not permitted to carry over.

In short, I was not being advised not to travel, and it was also potentially a lot safer for me to be in Sri Lanka than the UK.

And then there was the cost of my flight (£513) and the monetary value of three weeks’ leave (around £900), which amounted to over £1400 altogether.  I was not anticipating that the whole trip would cost me that much, including all my spending money!  So if I didn’t go, I would’ve effectively spent more money than if I actually went!

Judge me as you wish but I weighed up the pros and cons and I chose to travel.  I flew out to Sri Lanka on 10 March 2020 and arrived on 11 March 2020.

Little did I know just how rapidly things would change in the country and what strict measures their government would employ to try and contain the virus.

Here is my account, day-by-day, of my Sri Lanka adventure as the country quickly headed towards a total lockdown, travel became challenging, and getting out of the country became virtually impossible.

Oh, and I’d advise grabbing a pot of tea or a bottle of wine before reading, it’s a long one!

11 March | Colombo |1 case reported

Status | At this stage the situation was normal.

I had to complete a health declaration form (which also stated that I hadn’t travelled from any high-risk countries – of which the UK was not considered one) before I was allowed through immigration, but otherwise arrival was no different to any of my previous experiences of border control in foreign airports.

I checked into a wonderful guest house in the Colombo 5 district (just south of Cinnamon Gardens) that was a perfect little oasis of calm and tranquility in the middle of the bustling city.  Mahasen by Foozoo has a rooftop terrace and garden as well as a couple of chill-out areas indoors, and offers unlimited tea and coffee and free drinking water, a strong and reliable wifi connection wherever you are in the property, and an inclusive “Sri Lankanish breakfast” (their words!) every morning.  It’s also home to several playful resident felines, who were the whole reason I chose this guest house in the first place.

Mahasen by Foozoo guest house, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Click here to check availability and prices at Mahasen by Foozoo.

I then spent the remainder of the afternoon (of which there wasn’t a great deal left) exploring the neighbourhood in which my guest house was located.  There’s certainly no shortage of shops, cafes, and restaurants in Havelock Town, but it’s still only an easy 20-minute tuk-tuk ride to the Fort and Pettah districts and even closer to Kollupitiya and Cinnamon Gardens  There’s also a couple of interesting Buddhist temples in Havelock Town – Asokaramaya and Isipathanaramaya were both within walking distance of Mahasen by Foozoo.

Asokaramaya Buddhist Temple, Havelock Town, Colombo

12 March | Colombo | 2 cases reported

Status | Situation still normal.

I signed up to a Colombo city walking tour around the Fort and Pettah neighbourhoods.  The fact that I was the only person on this tour was perhaps the first indication that fewer people were travelling at this time compared to a time prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

After the tour ended I walked south to Galle Face Green and ended the day at Seema Malakaya Meditation Centre, overlooking Beira Lake.

Seema Malakaya_ Colombo_ Sri Lanka

13 March | Colombo and Sigiriya | 4 cases reported

Status | Normal service continues.  Still oblivious to what lies ahead.

I’m not sure whether there was only one train per day from Colombo to Habarana (the closest jumping off point to Sigiriya) but I was only offered a seat on the 3 p.m one, so I still had a whole morning in Colombo at my disposal.  First of all I headed out to Viharamahadevi Park, where one of the gardeners there approached me and proceeded to introduce me to a wealth of different plants and flowers (as well as flying foxes nesting in the trees) that I totally would’ve missed otherwise.

Of course he wanted paying, but I totally didn’t mind giving him 500 LKR (around £2) in exchange for enhancing my enjoyment of what would otherwise have been a fairly ordinary visit to the park.

Viharamahadevi Park, Colombo

After leaving Viharamahadevi Park, I booked another tuk-tuk via the Uber app (this is a great way of getting around the city; check out this post for more tips) to Independence Square, and then squeezed in a quick visit to Gangaramaya Temple before heading back to my guest house to pick up my luggage.

When I boarded the train at Fort Railway Station, I didn’t really have any idea how long the journey was going to take to Habarana (or, in fact, what onward transport options I’d have when I got there).  The gentleman at the ticket office didn’t seem to understand my question and the information online seemed to suggest a journey time of anywhere between one hour 10 minutes and six hours.  One and a half hours later and it looked like we were half way, according to my map.  But then we veered off on a track heading north, came to a dead end, and then headed back in the direction we’d come from, completely skipping the scheduled stop at Dambulla!  We pulled into Habarana station nearly five hours later.

It was pitch dark and there was no sign of any buses nearby, so I jumped in the nearest tuk-tuk (there was no point haggling because he could clearly see I had no other option) and headed towards my home for the next few nights – Sigiri Rock Side Home Stay.

14 March | Sigiriya | 6 cases reported

Status |  The Sri Lankan government declares the 16 March a public holiday in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.  Simultaneously,  all film halls and theatres under the National Film Corporation suspend screening films until further notice, all major events and public gatherings are banned for two weeks, and Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith requests that all churches refrain from conducting Sunday and other Mass until end of March.

At the time though, I was unaware of these developments.

Following a discussion with my very helpful host the night before, I made the decision to visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa on my first day in Sigiriya.  He arranged a tuk-tuk for me to the Inamaluwa junction, where I picked up a local bus to make the remainder of the journey.

The bus was full and made a random stop on route in the middle of nowhere, where the driver proceeded to abandon the vehicle for around 20 minutes.  So, a fairly standard local bus journey really.

Ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

I rented a bicycle to explore the ruins and it was absolutely the right thing to do.  Firstly it cost me just 400 LKR (£1.76) and secondly I was able to move around at my own pace, with no time restrictions other than the fact that I had to drop the bike back by 5 p.m in order to catch the last bus home at 5:30 p.m.

15 March | Sigiriya | 11 cases reported

Status | Dehiwala Zoo, other zoological and botanical gardens and National Parks under the Wildlife Department will be closed for two weeks from today.

I realised at the time that this would mean I would no longer be able to go on a safari in search of elephants (boo!), but I didn’t realise that it would also result in the closure of hiking trails.  And I’d planned to do four separate hikes during my three-week-long Sri Lanka adventure.

This morning I woke up early (4:30 a.m) in order to climb Pidurangala Rock.  My host had offered to drive me and a couple of German girls who were also staying at the guesthouse to the start of the trail, three kilometres away.

This rock is a spectacular vantage point from which to gaze upon Lion Rock, yet only costs 500 LKR to climb as opposed to $30 (around 5600 LKR) to climb Lion Rock.  It’s a pretty short climb but there is a lot of bouldering involved towards the top, including squeezing your way through a very small gap between two massive rocks.

Pidurangala Rock, Sigiriya

I was back at my guest house eating breakfast by around 7:30 a.m, so I had almost a whole day to kill before I needed to think about climbing Lion Rock in time for sunset.  As a result I decided to jump in a tuk-tuk and head out to the Dambulla Cave Temples.

The temples themselves are incredible (there are over 150 buddha images and statues, some dating back 2000 years), but what I hadn’t realised prior to visiting is that the location is equally as stunning.  And another bonus is that the place is overrun with monkeys.  If you like monkeys, of course.

Dambulla Cave Temples, Sri Lanka

At around 3:30 p.m I started to make my way towards Lion Rock.  I contemplated not doing so because of the price of the ticket, but I’m very glad I changed my mind in the end, because there’s so much more to see and do here than simply climbing the rock; it’s a completely different experience to Pidurangala.

Whilst I hadn’t really noticed at either Pidurangala or the Dambulla Cave Temples, I became very aware of just how few tourists were around when I entered the grounds of Lion Rock.  I’d been warned that the steps up to the top get so busy that I’d be queuing for hours to reach the summit (hence why I allowed a sufficient amount of time), but my experience was very different.

I climbed the steps with ease, passing only three other people as I did so.  When I reached the top at around 5 p.m, there were a total of six people up there and even at sunset itself I counted just 15.

Lion Rock, Sigiriya

16 March | Sigiriya and Kandy | 19 cases reported

Status | The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) requests that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa extend the Public holiday to one week.  The Sri Lankan Government decides that people arriving from the UK, or having travelled through the UK, will not be allowed to enter Sri Lanka from midnight.  The FCO advises against all but essential travel to the country.

I discovered that Sri Lanka had closed its borders to people travelling from or through certain countries (Republic of Korea, Italy, Iran, Belgium, and Norway were also on that list) over breakfast that morning.  At the same time my host informed me that a couple of his English guests (who’d only arrived the day before) had arranged to fly back home later that day.

That latter fact sent me into a mild state of panic.  Did they know something I didn’t know?  I then spent the next half an hour or so attempting to source some more information about the situation.  While I was doing so I received a message from the guest house I was due to stay at in Kandy:

“I’m sorry to tell you but the person who makes the rooms is little bit sick.  I will talk to booking.com and try to relocate you to another hotel because its dangerous. We are going to the hospital now.”

And just like that, the shit had gotten very real.

There was nothing on the FCO website advising tourists to return home, but I now wasn’t sure how safe it was to travel to Kandy.  Yes, there was no proof yet that the member of staff in question had the coronavirus, but people were clearly getting very scared and the government had taken a series of steps in very quick succession, in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

I quickly shot an email off to Sri Lankan Airlines (the airline I was due to fly home with) to check whether, if there was likely to be a problem with me flying home on the 31st, they would notify me well in advance.

I was due to leave for Kandy that morning, and in the end I decided that I would still go because I figured that until the government issued any official advice that I should leave, I was still safer in Sri Lanka than I was in the UK.  I also figured that, if I did need to get to the airport quickly, I’d be better placed to do it from Kandy than Sigiriya.

So, I found myself some alternative accommodation in Kandy and headed to the Inamaluwa junction to jump on a bus.

Being on a bus full of people was also making me feel rather anxious, and I was very thankful to have secured a seat by an open window.  I stuck my head out of the window like an excitable dog for the entire duration of the journey to Kandy’s Goods Shed bus station.

Kandy Lake, Kandy, Sri Lanka

As it turned out, my new guest house was lovely and the owner was incredibly welcoming.  However, following a conversation with a dutch couple who were also staying there, I discovered that many of the local shops and restaurants had closed (I guessed as a result of today being declared a public holiday) and they’d had trouble finding somewhere to get any food.  They recommended the nearest place they’d found to be open, and I duly headed there for dinner.

17 March | Kandy | 29 cases reported

Status |  Government extends the public holiday for another three days until 19 March.  The exceptions are for health, banking, food supply and transportation.

Before heading out this morning, I checked the FCO website for updates and was relieved to find that no further advice had been issued.

I was aware that the botanical garden in Kandy was closed but I hoped to be able to tick all other items off my itinerary.  My first port of call was the Sacred Temple of the Tooth, and sure enough it was still open, however all visitors were required to wash their hands thoroughly in an iodine solution before entering.

Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

After visiting the temple (which I can 100% recommend), I decided to walk the entire circuit of Kandy Lake before heading up to Helga’s Folly – a bizarre hotel/art gallery/surrealist fantasy that “could have been dreamt up as a joint project between Gaudí and Dalí” (Lonely Planet).

I grabbed some food and something to drink at Buono (if you want to satisfy your craving for good coffee and avocado toast, this is the place to come!) and finished my day up at the Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue, overlooking the city.

The day had, considering the situation that was unfolding, passed pretty uneventfully.  It made me breathe easily once again.  Yes there had been a few locals in the city that had whispered “corona” under their breath as I passed (although the virus began in China, the locals in Sri Lanka seemed to believe that Europeans/white people are responsible for its spread), but on the whole I’d felt at ease wandering around the streets of Kandy and had been able to do pretty much everything I’d planned to.

Helga's Folly, Kandy

I was just coming to the conclusion that maybe I’d been panicking unnecessarily when I opened a message from my mum imploring me to come home.

She’d heard that Peru had closed their borders completely, leaving hundreds of UK tourists stranded in the country and she was worried that the same thing would happen to me here in Sri Lanka.  There had also been some major developments in the UK, with the closure of schools and public entertainment venues, alongside the reduction of tube and railway services.

I tried to reassure her that as soon as it was necessary for me to come home, I would do so.  But once I knew my mum was worried (really worried), I could not rest and I could not properly enjoy my trip.

I promptly sent a couple of follow-up messages to Sri Lankan Airlines on Facebook and Twitter (I’d not had a response to my email), asking for confirmation that, should I be required to leave Sri Lanka before my flight is scheduled, I’ll be given enough notice to allow me to re-schedule my flight.  I also asked them how I go about changing my flight and for details about any earlier flights that were running.

18 March | Kandy | 42 cases reported

Status | The government announces a curfew along the central and north west coast, stretching from Puttalam to Negombo, just north of Colombo.  The curfew has been called in order to facilitate searches by the security forces for Sri Lankan nationals who may have evaded quarantine measures when they returned from Italy.

I heard about the above via a conversation on Facebook Messenger with an ex work colleague of mine, Jan who was staying in Negombo (she’d arrived in Sri Lanka just two days after I had).  It was actually rather comforting to have someone to talk to in the country who was sharing the same experiences and concerns as I was, because I’d barely spoken to any other tourists about the situation since I’d arrived.

As I was originally supposed to be hiking in the Knuckles Mountain Range today and I’d seen all of Kandy’s main sights yesterday, I figured I’d check out the museums today and a few of the hilltop temples on the outskirts of the city.  I needed to keep active and keep busy as best I could whilst simultaneously trying to figure out what the hell I should do about the situation.

Unfortunately I discovered that all of Kandy’s museums had also closed, as well as a couple of the hilltop temples I’d planned to visit.  But Lankatilaka Temple was open and it’s absolutely beautiful up there! If you only visit one of Kandy’s hilltop temples, make it that one.  Although the views from the Nelligala International Buddhist Centre were pretty impressive too.

Lankatilaka Temple, Kandy

Thinking that I should probably feed myself before I headed back to my guest house when night fell that evening, I headed back to Buono but found it closed.  I punched cafe after cafe after cafe into maps.me but all of them were closed.  Eventually I found a totally empty Ceylon Tea Cabin whose doors were still open, and ordered a huge pot of tea and some Sri Lankan pancakes.  Meanwhile I opened another message from a guest house I was due to stay at towards the end of my trip, which read:

“Due to the coronavirus pandemic we decided to open the hostel only to guests that are willing to stay for a longer time, until the actual situation has calmed down.  If you don’t want to stay for at least two weeks we have to cancel your reservation.”

Back at the guest house, I opened the FCO website and read an update added late that afternoon:

“The Sri Lankan government has announced the suspension of all flights to Sri Lanka from 19 March.  This could have an impact on outgoing flights.  If you are visiting Sri Lanka, you should make arrangements to leave while commercial means are available.”

And at that point, it immediately became necessary for me to leave the country.

That statement suggested that commercial means would not continue to be available, and the very real possibility of being stranded in Sri Lanka suddenly struck me.  I messaged Jan to let her know.

But then of course, I had to figure out exactly how I would go about changing my flight.  Sri Lankan Airlines had not responded to my email or either of my messages on Facebook or Twitter, and there was a notice on their website to say that you should only call them if you flight is scheduled to leave within the next 48 hours.

Fortunately my friend Jayne came to the rescue and I am eternally grateful to her for doing this for me.  I may still be in Sri Lanka if she hadn’t.

She called the agent I’d booked my flight through (it was a UK number so it would’ve cost me an absolute ton if I’d made the call from Sri Lanka) and was able to move me on to the next available Sri Lankan airlines flight on the 23rd, for an additional cost of £240.

My new flight was eight days before I was scheduled to come home, which meant that I’d miss out on so many places I’d planned to visit.  But I consoled myself with the fact that so many places were closed already, so how much could I see anyway?

As I had accommodation and train tickets booked, I decided to continue with my itinerary as it was and then just make my way back to Negombo (close to Colombo airport) on the 22nd.  Of course, my only fear then was that I would not be able to get back to Colombo, or that my flight would be cancelled. Or, worst case, Sri Lanka would close their airport completely – just as Peru had.

19 March | Kandy and Galle | 53 cases reported

Status | The government decides to further extend the public holiday for eight days from 20 March to 27 March, to both include both private and public sectors, as a remedy to confront the coronavirus pandemic. The government urges the public to work from home and declares a “work from home period” for those eight days.

I’d heard from a few different sources that Adams Peak was closed, and therefore I’d be unable to complete the hike to Adam’s Peak, as planned. This was the only reason I’d factored in an overnight stay at Hugging Clouds in Dalhousie, so I contemplated not going.  But the problem was that I had all my train tickets through the Hill Country booked, and it had been difficult enough to get seats on those three trains as it was.

So, I made the decision to head to my booked guest house as planned.  If nothing else the train journey would be nice and the scenery surrounding Adam’s Peak is meant to be amazing.

I arrived at the train station and collected my tickets, but then minutes before the train was due to leave I opened a message from Hugging Clouds guest house.  It read:

“There is no chance to climb Adam’s Peak, also restricted from police to travel for anywhere after you reach here.  You have to stay in same hotel around 14 days.”

So, I couldn’t stay in Dalhousie and I had no time to alter my train tickets.

Fortunately there was a Sri Lankan tour guide on the platform with a couple of his English guests.  He suggested that I could get off at Hatton Station as planned and then buy new tickets there.  However, I didn’t fancy staying in Nuwara Eliya for the whole three days (it’s cold up there and the parks and tea plantations were likely all closed) so my only other option was to head straight to Ella and stay there for the three days.  It caters better to tourists than Nuwara Eliya, so there was more chance of places (cafes and restaurants at least) being open.

However, Ella is nearly a nine-hour train journey away from Colombo, and even grabbing a taxi to back to Kandy and then a bus on to Colombo would take me the best part of six hours.

The tour guide then suggested I could head down to Galle instead, as it’s only a two to three-hour run to Colombo from there, straight up the highway.  Galle was on my itinerary anyway, just much later on.

Whilst it pained me to miss the Hill Country altogether, I knew that heading to Galle was the right thing to do.

Flowers, Galle Fort

But how was I going to get to Galle?  The next train didn’t leave until 12:50 and it had only just turned 9 a.m.

As the tour guide had suggested, there was a bus.  Whilst I didn’t fancy sitting on a crowded bus with a load of people who may or may not be carrying the coronavirus, I would have considered it, had it have been a short(ish)straight run with no changes.  Unfortunately it wasn’t.

My other option was to take a taxi.  I’d actually got as far as haggling the ‘tout’ down from 18,000 LKR to 13,000 LKR (around £50), but when he spoke to the actual driver, he refused to drop any lower than 15,000 – which I couldn’t afford to pay (£50 was enough of a stretch, but needs must ‘n’ all).

The tout then suggested that his mate could take me in his tuk-tuk for 10,000 LKR (around £40) and that it would take around four and a half hours because he knew some short cuts.  I blinked. Galle was 200 kilometres away.

“Your mate can go that far in a tuk-tuk?”

He nodded.

“What, all the way to Galle?”

He nodded again and smiled excitedly.

And so it was that I made the 200 kilometre journey to Galle in a tuk-tuk.

I won’t say it was the most comfortable journey of my life, but it was a lot of fun and there was a constant airflow through the vehicle, which kept me cool the whole way.

Four and a half hours later though and we were still a long way from Galle.  We eventually pulled into Galle Fort at just gone 4 p.m – a whole six hours after we’d set off.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

During the journey I’d sent a message to the place I was supposed to be staying at in Galle later on to ask if I could change the dates of my stay.  However, four hours later and I’d still not received a reply, and with not much further left to travel I was concerned I’d turned up in Galle without a place to stay.  So, I jumped on to booking.com and booked myself a room in the cheapest, decent looking place in Galle Fort for the next three nights.

It turned out to be lovely, and I was very happy that it would be my home for the next three nights before I headed up to Negombo.  Or so I thought…

20 March | Galle | 66 cases reported

Status | A nationwide curfew to be introduced at 6 p.m tonight, which will not be lifted until 6 a.m on Monday 23 March.

As a result of the above, the owner advised me just after breakfast that he would have to close the hotel.  Most of his staff live outside of Galle so they would not be able to get into work while the curfew was in place.

So, no sooner had I unpacked, I was packing again and moving to a new guest house.

The place I was moving to was only able to stay open during the curfew because the family who ran it lived directly opposite.  It wasn’t as nice, but it was cheaper, it had air con, Wifi and breakfast included, and I figured I was probably quite lucky to have somewhere to stay at all.

I unpacked (again) and set about exploring Galle Fort while I still could.

I followed the self-guided walking tour in my Lonely Planet guidebook, which took me around the circumference of the walls and introduced me to all of Galle Fort’s notable historic buildings and landmarks.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

Even though the curfew was not yet in place, I was already noticing how quiet the streets were, and that many of the cafes and shops that were open when I arrived yesterday had already closed their doors.

In spite of this I decided that I would leave the Fort this afternoon and head out to the Old Railway cafe and shop.  This little place sounded right up my street, but I wasn’t holding out much hope that it would be open.  Fortunately, though, it was!

There is an eclectic, interesting shop downstairs, where most of the clothes and handicrafts are made on the premises from locally sourced materials.  Upstairs is the cafe with a relaxed boho vibe and an enticing menu of soups, salads and mains.

It’s run by a husband and wife team – a Sri Lankan man and English girl – and I ended up sharing a table with the parents of the English girl, who’d been in the country visiting their daughter for the past two weeks.  I wasn’t hungry enough at the time to order anything more than a snack, but I can confirm that their raw cheesecake is to die for and I loved the iced ginger and mint tea so much I ordered two!

The Old Railway cafe and shop, Galle

Back in the Fort all the remaining cafes were closing, but I managed to find one (Pedlar’s Corner Cafe) that was staying open into the evening.  So that’s where I headed for dinner and where I bumped into the Australian couple who I’d met earlier that day wandering around the Fort.  We all talked about what we planned to do the next day – plans that included heading further along the coast to explore a few of the island’s beaches – without realising the full implications of the curfew that was almost upon us.

21 March | Galle | 72 cases reported

Status | Nationwide curfew still in place

Having confirmed the night before that breakfast was served between 7-9 a.m, I headed downstairs at around 8 a.m and wandered across the road, but the gates to the family home (where I was told breakfast was served) were locked.

Fortunately there was a bell outside, so I rang it.

After a few minutes a lady appeared.  I enquired about breakfast but she shook her head,

“no, everything is closed.”

I informed her that I was told yesterday that breakfast is included, but she simply responded again,

“sorry madam, everything is closed.”

At this point I was starting to panic a little.  The only food I had in the room was a couple of bananas, which were not going to last me until Monday morning.  I explained that I had no food and attempted to show her my best puppy dog eyes, whilst simultaneously doing my best to look starving and emaciated.

“One moment, madam.”

She then disappeared for a minute or two and proceeded to unlock the gates and invite me in.

I assumed she was just going to palm me off with a few bananas, but she actually laid on a full breakfast spread for me.

Whilst enjoying said breakfast, I opened a message from the guest house I’d booked in Negombo for the night before my flight, informing me that they have to close their guest house.  This was already the second guesthouse I’d booked in Negombo.

After breakfast, I decided that it probably wasn’t worth the risk trying to get down to any of the beaches further along the coast; I’d just head to one nearby.  The gentleman at the hotel I first booked in Galle had told me that it was okay to walk around during the curfew, so long as I stayed within the Fort area.  So, I walked to a small beach around a minute from my guest house, thinking that if nothing else I’d sit down in the sunshine and read a book.

But, no sooner had my bum touched the sand, a couple of surly looking police officers appeared and instructed me to go back to my hotel.

If I’d have realised that the curfew would mean that I wasn’t even allowed to leave my guest house, I would’ve chosen one with a restaurant and bar, or at least some outside space.  As it was, I was reduced to sitting on the steps outside my guesthouse, looking out over the empty streets and making friends (read: having a full blown conversation) with the street dogs.  I had half a bottle of water left and I didn’t know when (or if) I’d be able to buy any more.  I also needed to book a taxi to Negombo the following day, but there wasn’t a soul around to ask.

Empty streets and street dogs, Galle

It was just at the point of extreme boredom and loneliness that a knight in shining armour (read: “an Aussie bogan in flip flops and a singlet” (his words!)) walked past my guest house.  Recognising each other from the day before, we struck up a conversation and Peter invited me for a coffee with him and Suzanne.  I didn’t think there was anywhere around serving coffee, but they’d discovered that the Heritage Hotel (next to where they were staying) was in fact serving food and drinks.  They’d been allowed to because they had guests (albeit, only enough to count on one hand).

At the Heritage Hotel, I enquired about a taxi to Negombo the next day.  But I was informed that, while the curfew was still in place, taxis were only permitted to drive tourists to the airport, and even that they needed to apply for a permit for (which they could do with a copy of your passport and plane ticket).  So, it looked as though I’d have to stay in Galle for a forth night, and leave just as soon as the curfew was lifted on the Monday morning.  The kind gentleman at the Heritage Hotel offered to sort it all out for me for a cost of 10,000 LKR.

Peter and Suzanne were staying at the Mango House – a hotel I’d shortlisted when looking for places to stay in Galle originally, but immediately dismissed due to the price.  But it was beautiful and I made an instant decision that, if the manager could offer me a room I could afford, I would stay there for my final night in Galle.  He advised me that, due to having hardly any guests (and therefore every booking he could secure is income for him, no matter how small), he could do me a room for half the usual price – $35.  Sold!  Just look at this place!

Mango House, Galle Fort

I hung out with the Aussies for the rest of the day and thanked my lucky stars for that chance meeting with Peter earlier that afternoon.

22 March | Galle | 78 cases reported

Status | Nationwide curfew still in place

Since we discovered that Mango House and the place I was staying at (Frangipani Motel) were owned by two brothers, we were able to arrange for me to have my breakfast at Mango House this morning.  They were already cooking for Peter and Suzanne and the hotel’s only other two guests (an elderly English couple who live in Scotland who had joined us for drinks the night before) so it was simply an extra mouth to feed.

I checked out of Frangipani just as soon as I was awake and proceeded to check in to my third place in Galle in the space of three days.

Breakfast was a delightful affair out on the terrace beneath the huge mango tree, the peace and tranquillity only broken by the odd thud of a mango as it hit the ground.  The Indian Palm Squirrels loved finding the ripe ones and chewing through their stalks to release them from the branch.

Indian Palm Squirrel, Mango Tree, Galle Fort

In fact, watching (and attempting to photograph) the wildlife in the mango tree was probably the highlight of my last day in Galle Fort under curfew.

In between the Indian Palm Squirrels, the Red-vented Bulbuls (they’re a type of bird; we looked it up) and a chameleon with a red head (we couldn’t find his official name), there was always some kind of animal action to keep us entertained.

Sr Lankan wildlife, Mango Tree, Galle Fort

Of course there’s only so much sitting around you can tolerate, even with a good book, a seemingly endless supply of online articles about the coronavirus pandemic, social media and live animal antics.  By mid-afternoon we were all going a bit stir crazy.  So, we all agreed that we’d take a quick walk around the block to stretch our legs.  What harm could that do?

Well, we’d only got a few yards down the road when a local woman asked why we were walking around when there was a curfew in place.  Another guy stopped us by the beach and asked where we were staying.  And then, just moments later a tuk-tuk full of policemen was upon us.  A couple of them got out, one of whom seemed to think he was Hilter and ordered us, in no uncertain terms, to return to our hotel immediately.  Thinking on our feet, we explained that we had left our hotel to get something to eat as ours did not serve food (not a lie; other than breakfast, food was not being served at Mango House).

I’m sure, like we were, the policeman was well aware that the only place left in Galle Fort that was still serving food was the Heritage Hotel – right next door to the hotel we’d just come from.  But he nodded us on, got back in the tuk-tuk and departed.  We knew immediately that we hadn’t seen the last of those policemen and felt sure that they fully intended to employ measures to ensure that we did actually go where we said we were going to.  As a result, we decided that we’d better go to the Heritage Hotel for a coffee, and lo and behold, we saw the policemen driving stealthily past the top of the street just as we did so.

Heritage Hotel, Galle Fort

Over coffee we reflected on just how quickly our carefree Sri Lanka adventure had turned into something resembling prison, where the only two occasions we were actually permitted to leave the gates of our confine were for sustenance or in a pre-booked taxi headed for the airport.

I completely understand and admire the strict measures that the Sri Lankan government had introduced in an attempt to contain the virus, and also how quickly they had chosen to deploy them (we could learn a lot from them here in the UK!), but by the end of that third day in Galle, I just wanted to be back home again.

I marked the end of my last day in Galle by sharing a feast of different curries and condiments at the Heritage Hotel with Peter, Suzanne, Martyn and Anne, accompanied by a little too much beer and wine! 🍻

23 March | Galle and UK | 87 cases reported

Status | The nationwide curfew is lifted at 6 a.m but comes back into force at 2 p.m until further notice.  The FCO adds an update that states: “If you are visiting Sri Lanka, you are strongly advised to leave now, while commercial means are available. Many airlines are suspending flights and many airports are closing, preventing flights from leaving.”

Peter and Suzanne decided to share the taxi with me to the airport in order to attempt to get on an earlier flight back to Australia. They had already managed to move their flight forward to the early hours of the 26th, but with a nationwide curfew in place for the foreseeable future, they too (understandably) just wanted to leave as soon as possible.

However, it seemed that the country’s national airline, rather than helping tourists to get home, was hiking their ticket prices up so high that no-one could actually afford to purchase them.  They were also cancelling flights with alarming frequency.

When I noticed just how many of the flights on the departures board had been cancelled, I felt so grateful that mine was one of the only four running.

Departures board at Colombo Airport

And my flight home (aside from the fact that we weren’t allowed to have any headphones, a pillow or a blanket) passed without consequence.  I lucked out by being seated next to the only empty seat on an otherwise full flight.  A few people were wearing masks but on the whole, most weren’t.  I wore mine for the entire duration (apart from at mealtimes, obvs.) of the flight though.  Considering I often come down with a cold after a long flight, I wasn’t taking any chances.

And the day I arrived back in the UK? The Prime Minister announced that we too were on lockdown for the foreseeable future.  Although I must admit, I’m much happier being quarantined in my home, where I have access to a plentiful food supply, I can drink the water out of the tap, and I’m permitted to leave the house once a day to go for a run.

As I write this, I’ve been self-isolating for six days now and I am a long, long way off being bored.  I have a massive to-do list on my wall that I keep adding to as quickly as I’m ticking things off of, I have a huge pile of books to read on Kindle, and all this extra time inside is also providing me with ample opportunity to write lots of new material for the blog.  Unfortunately, the fact that no-one is researching travel at the moment means that few people will read any of it right now, but hopefully that will change!

What are you doing to keep yourself entertained during this surreal new normal that we seem to be experiencing?

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Fast Approaching Lockdown : My Experience as a Tourist in Sri Lanka During the Coronavirus Pandemic | Gallop Around The Globe

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