Travelling Sri Lanka as Covid-19 hit!
2020... Ha! What a year to be alive!
In the Autumn of 2019 Lois and I planned a trip to Sri Lanka for March 2020. It was a bit of a 'bucket list' trip I suppose! It took me months to plan an itinerary that would allow us to experience the very best of the country in a 2 week trip. Some of the things on our agenda were Scenic Railways through the jungle, exploring Ancient Rock Fortresses, going on a Safari, and visiting paradise beaches on the Indian ocean. It was set to be maybe the best trip we'd ever been on together.
As you may have guessed, this is not a "travel guide" type of article.. this is simply my experience of Travelling Sri Lanka as COVID-19 HIT the world! I find it quite interesting hearing peoples personal experiences of where they were, what they were doing, and how they reacted as Covid-19 became fully apparent to the world and started to take full effect. So I thought I'd share my experience of this, as I was on the other side of the world.
So, let's start at the beginning...
It was 2 weeks before we were due to leave England and take a flight to Sri Lanka. A few Coronavirus cases had been reported to have reached the UK. Up until then it was just a story we'd heard, of a virus in China that had recently started to affect areas in Italy & Spain. But with little information about it, nobody seemed concerned and life continued as usual. A few days before our flight (as cases started showing up in different places around the world) we checked out Coronavirus cases in Sri Lanka, and there had been just 4 in total, with 2 fully recovered. With the UK still in a relaxed stance and cases not increasing a great deal, we boarded our flight to Sri Lanka.
When we left on 13th March there were just 207 cases of Coronavirus in the UK.
It felt like in the time we were travelling, things suddenly got a lot worse.
Whilst at Singapore airport - waiting for our connecting flight to Sri Lanka, an announcement was made that anyone travelling from Paris or Berlin would not be able to complete their journey to Sri Lanka. They had been banned and were told to fly home immediately. Things started to feel quite strange at this point!..
When we landed in Sri Lanka there were now another 30-40 new cases reported there and the country started to panic! We started receiving messages via email and WhatsApp with cancellations on things we had booked. Our Elephant Care Day (a day spent with Elephants, helping to look after them) was cancelled. Our Safari Tour was cancelled. Our Scenic Railway was cancelled. And our taxi from the airport to our first accommodation was cancelled!
Then as we were about to go through to passport control, all passengers travelling from the UK were told that the Sri Lankan government had now banned all UK citizens from entering the country. Our choice was to enter on the condition that we have to self-isolate for 14 days (in their provided isolation units - which would not have been very nice to say the least), or to pay for a flight back home, if we can get one.
We were all put into a room where staff tried to help book flights for us. We sat down and looked at flights on our phones. Cheapest flight we could find was £1,500 and departing in about 8 hours time. A man from the embassy gave us updates now and then, but didn't seem to know exactly what was going on. We couldn't understand why they'd let us fly here if we were banned.
Some people booked flights, but we waited another half an hour, just to see what further information there would be - as it all seemed a bit uncertain. Then to our surprise another man entered the room and told us all there had been a mistake - the ban on UK citizens came into effect after midnight tonight - so we were now allowed to enter the country.
It was a very rocky start, and of course we felt quite strange being in this situation and only JUST being allowed into the country. But there were a lot of people in our situation, which made us feel a little better. We befriended another couple who were on our flight and they offered to share their taxi with us, so we could get to our hotel. This same couple helped us out a lot during the next 2 weeks, sending us updates and news on what the Sri Lankan government were doing with the current situation, so this helped us stay extra safe. Thank you Jordan & Gemma!
Our first stop in Sri Lanka was KANDY.
We stayed here for 3 nights and although our Elephant day had been cancelled we were still able to get out and explore the area. We were staying right on the Mahaweli Ganga river which was beautiful to see by boat.
Another one of our plans was to take a day trip out and travel North to Sigiriya and check out the Sigiriya Fortress - or Lion Rock as it is also known. We called to check it was open to the public and they said it was - so we booked a driver. From Kandy it was a 2.5 hour drive. When we arrived they had just decided to close it off to the public due to Covid-19, so we couldn't climb it as we planned. This was of course very disappointing, especially after that drive! Instead of leaving straight away we took a tuk-tuk to drive around Sigiriya Fortress from a distance and took some photos. It was an incredible place to see. We then started the 2.5 hour drive back to Kandy!
It really seemed like the country was in a major panic and everything started to close down. The next place we were due to stay, down in Ella, cancelled our reservation without warning. Thankfully we managed to find somewhere else to stay in Ella, the day before we left Kandy.
On a positive note - we got to see some beautiful parts of the country on our drive from Kandy to Ella. We also stopped off at the Damro Labookellie Tea Factory & Plantation, which was great!
During our time in Ella (which turned out to be just 2 days) we explored the Nine Arch Bridge, Little Adams Peak and the little village of Ella - which we were pleased we got to do before it went into a full lockdown!
After our 2nd night in Ella I decided we needed to leave. From what I was hearing it seemed like a more restrictions were coming and I didn't want us to be stuck where we were - as the accommodation was very basic and we were nowhere near an airport. So we decided to leave Ella a night early and travel to Galle, which was our final stop on the trip.
We arrived in Galle in the evening of Thursday 19th March. The airport was just 2 hours away from Galle, so it felt better here. The place was so beautiful too!
The next morning we were told that at 6pm tonight the country is going to be going into a national LOCKDOWN until Monday and that nobody can leave the hotel and no non-essential travel is allowed. This made me very glad that we left Ella when we did, as it was a long drive and we would probably not have made it here before 6pm.
Before the lockdown came in to effect we went into town to speak with Sri Lankan airlines for some reassurance that our flight wasn't going to be cancelled. We also visited the Galle Dutch Fort, which was a really interesting place.
Galle Fort was first built in 1588 by the Portuguese, then fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century. Therefore it is known as the Galle Dutch Fort. It is a historical, archaeological and architectural heritage monument.
The British took over the fort in 1796. Sri Lanka remained a British colony from 1815 till it became an independent island nation in 1948. The Lighthouse in this photo was rebuilt in 1939 after it's original structure from 1848 was destroyed by a fire.
We spoke to a few locals whilst walking around the fort. One of them approached us and opened a little wooden box full of old coins that he had found and collected over the years, from the fort and buildings nearby. He had Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial coins. We bought a British coin from 1815.
Over the next few days we had to stay in the hotel as there was a national lockdown. We had some concerns over our flight, as the flight time kept changing and almost every other flight scheduled in the coming days were cancelled! Our families back home were understandably worried as well - but we just tried to make the best of a bad situation and stay calm, safe and positive.
Lockdown was lifted for 8 hours on Monday 23rd March, so we finally got to walk down to the local beach!
This was Jungle Beach - probably our favourite beach we've ever been to!
The next day the UK government urged all UK citizens abroad to return home as soon as possible. So I called Sri Lankan airlines and managed to move our flight forward about 36 hours. We left Sri Lanka on Thursday 26th March. Our flight was the only one not cancelled that day...
So that was our story of travelling Sri Lanka as Covid-19 hit the world! To be honest we still had a really nice time, considering the situation. But it sure was a surreal experience and something we won't forget!
When we returned home on 26th March there were 2,129 cases of Coronavirus in the UK. A rise of over 1,900 in under 2 weeks. The UK then went into it's own lockdown and the story continued from there...
Crazy times! Let's hope for better things in 2021!
Thanks for reading.