29 August 2012
From Bangkok, our flight arrived at Colombo Intl Airport in Sri Lanka early at 8:40 AM local time. Going through immigration was a breeze as they didn’t even look at our visa approval forms that we had printed from the internet. You can get your pre-approved Visa easily through the website Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The cost of the visa depends on your home country. For U.S. citizens the cost was $20/person. We were through immigration and customs within one half hour!
After passing through customs you arrive in the open hall where touts started to approach us for a taxi, but none were annoying and/or persistent, which was a very nice change! As you enter the hall there is a very useful and friendly tourist information desk to the right where you can get a good free map and a tourist guide with decent info between all the ads.
We opted to take the airport shuttle bus to the bus terminal, which is a free service. Another option would be to take a taxi directly from the airport to Fort Station in Colombo which we were quoted at 2,800 SL Rupees (about $21 USD). That seemed expensive to us so we opted to take the local bus which costs 100 rupees/person. Heidi’s backpack also cost an additional 100 rupees, which is a bargain compared to the taxi. We were also told that the time of the taxi would take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. The bus should take a similar amount of time but probably a little longer. So this was an easy decision for us to make … So we thought! The airport shuttle took only a few minutes to the bus terminal near the airport and from there we boarded bus 187 and that’s when it came to a crawl. We were lucky enough to hop on a air conditioned 187 bus, but it stopped every couple of minutes trying to pickup as many passengers as possible. This went on for at least 45 minutes. Then the road was very congested and with so many traffic lights. Three hours after we left the airport we arrived at Colombo Fort Train Station!
Once at the station we found the tourist board office, or more accurately, they found us and brought us to their office. We just wanted to buy tickets to Anuradhapura so they told us where the ticket counter for that destination was located and we were on our way. The cost of the tickets were 290 rupees/person (about $2.25 USD) but these were second class unreserved tickets. We asked if they had any first class seats and the attendant just laughed as he shook his head ‘no’! Our train was to leave at 1:45 PM so we had a little over an hour to wait so we found our platform, number 4 then went to find some cheap and yummy snacks, veggie rotis and some sweet buns. We spent about $2 and had a decent meal!
At around 1:30 PM the platform suddenly became very crowded and people began standing next to the platform vying for position to get on the train. We figured we would have no problem getting a seat since we thought this was the original starting point for the train. But we were wrong and realized that we better grab a spot as well. So with our backpacks on we both stood at the platforms edge and waited anxiously for the train as did hundreds of other passengers. At around 1:40 PM there was an announcement but it was in Sinhalese, and therefore, we didn’t understand a word of it but since a lot of people left their spots and sat down we assumed the train was late. However, we weren’t certain of this since many others were still anxiously waiting on the edge so we did as well. Finally, at 2:30 PM our train rolled in and the mad dash began. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if you were already waiting on the platform edge or had your spot planted out. People began pushing from all directions. Heidi and I had a plan that she would hop on and try to grab us seats. Since I was carrying the bigger bags I was quickly pushed out of the way, but Heidi squeezed her way in! That didn’t matter, because this train was already mostly full when it arrived at our station! The only remaining seats were quickly taken by the pros who deal with this regularly and there was no chance for us foreigners to get a seat and they knew it! Some passengers even sent it their luggage through the windows to try to claim seats! I was lucky to squeeze my way on even with a large backpack and a front pack! I couldn’t find Heidi since it was jam packed with people so I had to yell into a cart to try to find her. Luckily she responded and I could breathe a sigh of relief even though I couldn’t see her and I couldn’t move as we were so tightly packed like sardines.
Suddenly after about 5 minutes the shoving stopped, which meant that no others were trying to get into the car and finally there was a little movement that I was able to squeeze my way into the car where Heidi was located. Some of the locals looked at us with amazement. Probably wondering what we were doing on this train with them and we must be crazy to have a large backpack! As I squeezed my way through the train car, the locals were kind enough to let me pass and someone even moved his bags from the top compartment and several others helped me put the backpack in the top compartment,passing it from person to person like an assembly line. This is something we had experienced in India and people here were just as kind to help out. Eventually, we got all three of our bags in the top compartment and Heidi and I were standing next to each other yet still crammed like sardines in a can. We were all hot and sweating profusely rubbing up against complete strangers, yet the locals were calm and some were even joking with each other. I wanted to scream and get off that train but it was impossible and what were the options? Well, we could try to get our bags and squirm our way through the throngs of sweaty stinky bodies and get off and take a bus that we had heard would be the same thing but possibly even more uncomfortable than this? How could that be possible? The other option, and this was in the back of my head as the people at the information center at the airport had warned us that their public transportation is not good and that we should hire a taxi. Suddenly, paying $60 – $80 dollars for a taxi to Anuradhapura didn’t sound so bad. It was too late and we stood there for 15 more minutes in the hot car without air conditioning and the fans were off since the train was not moving.
As we both stood there with expressionless faces we could see that many of the locals were very curious of us and some even smiling but we didn’t have it in us to respond. The wife of the man who moved his bags for me gave Heidi a few friendly glances then finally motioned to Heidi to come to her and sit down and like magic a seat that was meant for three people (but was seating four) now had five! They either have a really good heart and/or took pity on us and let Heidi sit. Either way, I was relieved as was everyone else standing in our car. Not only because Heidi got to sit down but now there was a inch more of space for us to fill!
As the train began to move slowly out of Colombo even more passengers entered the train and we somehow made room for them all. About an hour after the journey began a few passengers began to get off and soon the family that helped us with our backpack and let Heidi sit motioned to me that they were getting off soon and offered me a seat. I felt so grateful and must have thanked them 10 times!
For the next four hours the train stayed crowded and there were people standing. It wasn’t until the last hour of the journey that everyone was able to sit and be comfortable. What was supposed to be a 4 – 5 hour train ride was actually 6.5 hours by the time we reached Anuradhapura. We stayed at the Milano Rest House which is situated between both the new station in Anuradhapura and the old, so we got off at the first one at about 8:00 PM. A tuk tuk driver offered us a ride to the guest house for 150 rupees and I had no energy to haggle with him. Besides, it was only a little over $1 USD for the short ride.
Next time, we will either hire a taxi or take our chances on the bus. Because with the bus they are so frequent that if one is full, you can just wait for the next. At least we should be able to get a seat with this tactic … Right?
Welcome to Sri Lanka!