If you are in transit for 48 hours at the Sri Lankan capital airport at Colombo, here's what you could do with a free transit visa.
Negombo is a small coastal town sandwiched between the Sri Lankan capital city of Colombo and Bandaranaike International Airport. It takes about 30-40 minutes to reach it from the airport, and another one-hour journey will take you to Colombo itself.
The main thoroughfares of the town have a very touristy look, yet Negombo is not a crowded destination. It has enough restaurants and clubs to indulge in entertaining evenings; at the same time, you could easily stay away from loud cheers and parties, if that is not your cup of tea.
You will get a free transit visa for 48 hours stamped into your passport upon arrival at the airport. Free accommodation will be provided for passengers of SriLankan Airlines. However, you will be paying some extra bucks for your ticket. SriLankan Airlines gave me two different fares: One with accommodation and one without. The accommodation provided was a 3-star hotel next to the beach. After comparing prices, I decided that I could easily arrange for a 2-star stay on my own, book for a 48-hour stint and save on my airfare.
The immigration officials at the airport may not like the idea of getting a free transit visa not arranged through the airline. However, the Sri Lankan Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) website does not require passengers to arrange a transit visa through the airline. The officer advised me to arrange it through the airline next time. I made it clear that I had obtained the ETA approval notification and showed him a copy of it. The website clearly mentions that ETA for transit purposes is free of charge.
Angurukaramulla Buddhist Temple
Situated at Temple Road, close to the city centre, Angurukaramulla Buddhist Temple is more than 200 years old and is a great place to visit if you love culture and architecture. The façade of this temple cannot be missed from outside, as the six-meter tall Buddha statue and dragon-mouth entrance are eye-catching. The dragon-mouth entrance is unusual for a Buddhist temple, however, we are told that this is to ward off evil spirits. Inside the temple are colorful statues, sculptures and murals from different episodes of Buddha's life. The reclining Buddha is very noteworthy.
Though Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, Negombo has a very high population of Christians. Some of the churches of architectural value to be visited are St. Mary's and St. Anne's.
This sprawling market (smelly and chaotic) is worth a visit in the early morning, from 7-10 a.m. On one side you have the dry fish and on the other the fresh fish. There are quite a few photographic opportunities of fishermen, vendors, middlemen, customers, agents and, of course, the fish on display.
There is golden sand here and the beach runs all along Lewis Place and Ettukala, close to the touristy areas of the city. Try street food here. There is plenty to choose from, including seafood teasers like fried crab.
The Dutch remnants
On your sightseeing, ask the driver to stop by the Dutch Clock Tower and the canal. The Clock Tower and the adjacent building are now the Negombo Prison, whereas the canal, built by the colonialists, is put to good use by fishermen to access the coast. Their houses are situated on either side of the canal, and their boats are anchored in the canal.
Transport to Negombo
The Airport Taxi counter is just next to a row of moneychanger booths. Normal fares to Negombo hotels will be between 1880 (US$12.48) and 2000 Sri Lankan rupees. With a little bit of traffic it might take about 40 minutes to reach your hotel.
My plan was to experience as much as possible of this small little town in the little time I had. Going by that objective, I wasn't keen on checking into any superstar hotels by the beachside.
When you get into Lewis Place, you come across several chic-looking 2-star accommodations, where you can be quite comfortable in air-conditioned rooms and with free brekkie. Blue Elephant Tourist Guest House ($32-45 per night) was not a bad choice at all. It has a small boutique shop at the entrance, where you may buy souvenirs and well-embroidered clothes at moderate prices. The hotel is just one kilometer away from the Negombo Beach Park and an array of restaurants and clubs that make up the nightlife scene of this tiny town.
Blue Elephant provides free Wi-Fi and can also arrange transport for sightseeing around Negombo and to the airport. Their airport shuttle can cost anywhere between 2000 and 2500 rupees. If you are taking an early morning flight back it is better to arrange it with them than trusting any local taxi/tuk-tuk driver. The rooms here are quite comfortable and have excellent bathroom designs with a capsule shower area.
Other accommodations that are available for the same budget: Milano Residencies ($25-35 per night), just a stone's throw away from Blue Elephant, in the same street; Angel Inn Guest House ($28-36 per night), also close by; and beach side hotels like Heritance Negombo, Topaz Beach Hotel and Jetwing Blue.
Whereas the budget accommodations are located on the other side of the road, the 3-5 star hotels are on the beach side.
There is no dearth of hip restaurants and you will not be disappointed with the choice of food they offer in Negombo. Sri Lanka is a very inexpensive country for tourists, and that is probably best reflected in the food prices that you read the menu. When the dishes arrive on your table, the huge quantity surprises you, making you wish you had ordered one plate of fried rice for two persons.
Many local delicacies here are Indian-inspired, however, on a closer inspection, you can easily taste the Sri Lankanness distinguishing it from its big brother's influence. The way chicken is chopped and minced, the way coconut chutney is prepared and the inclusion of certain vegetables in curry are some facets that give Sri Lankan cuisine its individuality.
I managed to visit at least three restaurants during my short stay:
This is a cricket-themed restaurant, at least in its name and the names of its different sections: The Batsman, The Oval, The Bowlers, The Umpire's Lounge, The Bounadaries and LBW-Leg Before Wicket Bar. Lord's has recently been voted the No. 1 restaurant of Negombo. Reservations are highly recommended, especially for dinner after 6 p.m. You may choose your preferred section. The neon lights create a party ambience here, and the whole atmosphere becomes quite vibrant late into the evening. Live music is played non-stop at The Batsman.
Just half a kilometer from Lords', this is a multi-cuisine restaurant offering a very spacious environment. Fried rice here was one of the best I have ever tried and so was the chili chicken rice. I didn't try the spaghetti carbonara we ordered, but according to my wife it was pretty excellent as well. All dishes came on big plates and we had to box some of it back to the hotel.
This is quite close to Blue Elephant and provides a mixture of eastern and western delicacies. The service here was faster than at Coconut Primitive. It's much smaller than the previous two, but has good ambience and good food. It also provides big portions, so better try to share the food and save even more.
Some other restaurants I wished to try but had no time: King Coconut, by the beach side, and Tusker Restaurant.
Pramod Kanakath is a full-time teacher and a part-time travel writer and photographer with publications in The Guardian, BBC, CNN, SilverKris (Singapore Airline's inflight mag) and several others. Check out his works at www.premtravels.me and follow him on Instagram at @premkan.