Six Weeks in
Sri Lanka & Kuala Lumpur by Wheelchair
by Lee Marsh © 2008
6 x Weeks in Sri Lanka with a stopover in KLI am a 52-year-old Paraplegic from New Zealand and I travelled to Sri Lanka on my own in October 2008. I have been to most of the countries in SE Asia several times, but this was my first trip to SL and I organised a 3 x month tourist visa before I left. I travelled in the off-season, most of the tourists are from the northern hemisphere, and my accommodation prices are probably ½ of the peak season rate.
Airport: I stayed 3 x nights here just to break my journey, and because the city is such a great place to visit and the food there is incredibly tasty and cheap.
My first night included a free stay at the Concorde Inn that, although close to KLIA, is a 10 x minute free shuttle ride from it. You cannot walk to it from the airport. It has ramped access with gently sloping paths throughout, although my room had about an 8cm step into it with a bathroom that was ok, but because of the abundance of pipe used, it appeared as if a welder had gone gangbusters. The sink was easy to wheel under and there were stainless steel rails all around the open shower stall, so any balance or leverage problems are covered. Unfortunately the door into the bathroom shuts off access to the shower stall area (who designs these??) so I had to take my footplates off to shorten my length, but it was doable and only a minor problem.
The restaurant was easy to get in and around, ditto the grounds and swimming pool.
It is not the style of resort, nor has the atmosphere, where you would want to stay for more than a couple of nights, its more of a transit hotel.
KL City: I booked via the net after extensive research, and stayed 2 x nights at the Swiss Hotel in Chinatown as they promised on their website that they were “wheelchair friendly”. Don’t go there if you use a wheelchair, just don’t.
One thing in KL you MUST do is take one of the “Hop on, Hop off” double decker buses. RM17.
Completely w/c accessible, air conditioned, cheap, cheerful, helpful and informative staff.
The pass lasts 24 hrs from time of purchase and stops off at 22 major attractions such as the museum, national palace, twin towers, central market etc.
Just get off at any/all stops that appeal, the next bus along will be in about 11/2 an hour.
A must do for every visitor.
Prices in Chinatown: chicken noodles from stall RM4, big bottle of water RM2,
10 x street side charcoal grilled sate’s with peanut sauce and small salad RM6.
It is not a destination that is popular with too many traditional family units, at least during the off-season when I travelled. To me it can be a difficult and frustrating country to visit, so you must be somewhat adventurous and forgiving to enjoy the place.
Many Sri Lankans offered me the opinion that when the war with the Tamil Tigers is over then tourism will increase dramatically. I’m not convinced.
The terror problem never worried me, you see heavily armed soldiers in Colombo and manning the bridges, sometimes they stopped my driver to check his papers, but that was it really. Not too disquieting.
It was very quiet when I visited, and often I would find myself eating alone in a restaurant. Indeed, during the first 25 days staying at Oasis Villa, I was the only guest, except for one night when 3 x Japanese girls arrived late at night, and departed early the next day.
I took taxi’s (really private cars with a driver) whenever I need to travel for a distance, but used 3 x wheelers if I needed to go just a few kilometres. As usual always agree on a price before you start your journey.
Buses and trains are not suitable at all for a wheelchair user, and I have taken them in other countries, but here they are just too packed and uncomfortable.
Taxi fare from airport to Hikkaduwa was US $100 and took about 4 hours.
My driver had to return home straight after dropping me off as it was the anniversary (memorial) of his fathers death a year ago, and his family was cooking a meal for ½ dozen villagers (chosen at random he advised) as an offering, and in respect for is fathers passing.
My first stay was at Oasis Villa’s in Hikkaduwa, a character infused, elegant and peaceful property set in a spacious garden setting with several fish ponds.
The villa was once a grand gracious sprawling hacienda, and I was the only one staying in it!!!
I paid US$20 per night for an a/c apartment of about 60 square metres, and the price included daily room service, towels etc, a simple cooked breakfast with a pot of coffee and fruit to die for. Laundry was also included in that off season price.
You cannot get any other meals at this place, so I had to go out to dinner every night.
The room was lovely and clean, with completely accessible bathroom, shower hose, sink I could get under and a toilet that was easy to get to.
Also, separate kitchen with an old fridge and two gas hotplates.
The entrance from the road onto the property is broken stone gravel and reasonably steep. Going down on your own is ok, but you need someone to assist you back up onto the road when leaving. The room boys are always available for a push if you are travelling alone.
Alternatively there is a back gate you can leave by, its just a longer route.
Hikkaduwa was a good place for a beach holiday. The beach varies from reef, to surfing, to shallow and safe swimming. From the beach front restaurants you can see the turtles feeding in the surf most days. There is not much to buy there, beach clothes, some leather goods, wooden masks, old jewellery.
Night life was almost non existent when I was there, so you need to be able to make you own fun, or entertain yourself.
You must go to Budde’s Restaurant , right on the beach, absolute level access, waves crashing 20 metres away (you need to clean your glasses of fine spray frequently).
A meal of say fresh fish or squid with salad and chips about US$6.
1kg of giant prawns with salad and chips about US$10
As there was no swimming pool at Oasis Villa, a couple of times I took a 200R tuk tuk ride to the Asian Jewel resort. This small ( about 8 rooms) place is the class act of Hikkaduwa, run by expat Brits Dale and Tania in a professional and ultra friendly and helpful manner. Set in the bush/jungle with a canal view, it sits on a rise and is a splendid place to spend some time at. They have an excellent swimming pool that is easy to get into, and the staff were always on hand to assist when I wanted to get out.
They don’t charge for using their pool, they have a good paperback library where you are welcome to exchange a book, no service charge is applied, Tania is a professional cook, you get real linen napkins etc. Although the resort is not suitable for wheelchair accommodation, go there for lunch, a swim and a drink.
Regarding swimming pools in Hikkaduwa, they are, as expected, only in the larger expensive package tourist hotels. I entered several of these and enquired how much would it cost for a casual visitor like myself to come for a swim for an hour and then have a lunch there. The answers were always an outrageous fee, even though in most instances the place was empty!!
Stupid way to run a business to my mind, and I never paid for a swim on principle.
There are two ATM’s in Hikkaduwa that you can use. One has no steps to gain access, but that one only took VISA. You will never be able to enter and shut the door on any of the ATM’s you will encounter in Sri Lanka, they are all tiny sweat boxes.
I never felt threatened at all during my holiday, although dogs can be a problem especially if you are in a wheelchair.
One evening I went down the road to get some delicious Egg Hoppers for dinner, and two mongrel dogs came charging out at me. I grabbed a small block of concrete (rubbish is everywhere) to stove in their heads if I had to. A woman grabbed one of them around the neck, and just said to me "dont". The dogs are rabid – literally - so if you get bitten you have to go all the way back to Colombo Hospital and spend a week getting injections. No one owns a dog, they just roam and the problem is exacerbated by tourists who only come here in the high season. They buy them Chump ( or whatever constitutes canned dog food here,) and put water bowls out for them, "poor doggy" etc, but in low season, no one looks after them so they get hungry and angry.
I took a day trip south to the old Dutch fort which is at Galle Town, and then carried on to Unawatuna just to have a day trip.
Unawatuna was lovely. And quiet. Too quiet. Really a surfers destination where you make your own fun in the water. I didn’t see an ATM here.
I don’t really recommend it as a place to stay if you are in a chair, there is not a township as such, the busiest part of the place was a sandy pot holed lane and all the restaurants I saw had several steps and retaining walls are all along the bay front, so you don’t even get to see the ocean if you are seated.
Galle Fort is a world heritage site and attracts lots of tourists.
Best seen in a postcard is my opinion, unless you thrive on sweltering heat, touts like fly’s, mock and genuine antiques, and crumbling architecture.
Galle Town I liked much better. Lively fish and vegetable markets, a noxious and frenetic bus station, heaps of Buddhist temples, betting shops that take bets on British racing, and heaps of low cost shops serving the locals needs.
Street scene at Galle Fort
Next stop was the one time royal capital Kandy, where I only stayed 3 x nights.
It was a US$120 taxi and 6 hours from Hikkaduwa with a whining driver who spent almost all of our time in the vehicle attempting to manipulate me to spend more money on him. I didn’t like him at all, but he was the cheapest I could find!!!
I stayed at the Thilanka Resort and, to be fair to him, my driver did one good turn for me.
Although I had self -booked into another hotel in the busy noisy centre of town, I trashed that option and the driver got me a special rate of $US45 per night at Thilanka including breakfast and a buffet dinner. This was a good deal as the room was classy and unique with private, and cool, garden gazebo before you entered the room.
This hotel was NOT suitable for a wheelchair user as it had steps to get into the reception area and lifts, and I had to take my footplates off to steer into the bathroom area, but it is such a peaceful location with marvellous views over the lake and town, that if you have a strong companion it is worth it.
The staff were great in assisting me on my own.
Kandy does not have a wheelchair friendly geography, the town is noisy, busy, dusty sloping and hot. The botanical gardens are worth a good 2 hours of your time (US$6) and the terrain is easy.
I stayed 3 x nights in Kandy, and because it is hill country, that was enough as I didn’t enjoy needing help all the time.
Splashed out here and stayed at the Galle Face Hotel $US60 incl buffet breakfast.
A long ramp leads into this 150+ year old masterpiece of construction.
Staying ere is like booking accommodation at a museum, with the added bonus of being able to observe wedding parties on a daily basis.
Much better than the various “cultural’ shows put on for tourists.
The room I have is large, spacious and cool, with a high stud. The bathroom has a 3” lip up into it with a huge toilet area, a basin that I have to use side on, and a bath with a shower hose.
The lifts are those caged double doored contraptions you see in classic movies.
There is even Prince Philips first car he bought on display.
There are two steps to access the Veranda Restaurant, and several steps to get from reception to the caged lifts, BUT, I could, and did, access my room by entering the hotel from the newer wing and rolling down some back corridors.
View from my room window Galle Face hotel
Galle Face Hotel lifts
The final town I visited was Negombo, which was about an hour an a quarters drive (US$40 taxi) from Colombo, but only 20 minutes from the International Airport.
This time I stayed at Golden Star resort in room 1.
This complex was ideal for a wheelchair user, a side entrance to the lobby was available, the property was flat and footpathed, and although the restaurant and swimming pool were elevated, there was a – steep – ramp.
Staff were good at assisting me up this ramp, and also there was a swimming pool attendant to help getting in or out of the pool.
My a/c room was spacious as was the bathroom, easy access under the washbasin (no plug!!) although he shower stall was tiny and the hose length was a bit short.
A buffet breakfast was included in my US$25 per night.
Although the resort itself and the tourist strip were almost perfect for a wheelchair user, I did find Golden Star resort a little lacking in soul, the beach at Negombo was nowhere near as clean and interesting as, say Hikkaduwa, and most of the restaurants in Negombo weren’t right on the beach or facing the sea.
Golden Sands bathroom
I used a travel organisation called “Go- Lanka” for some of my accommodation and most of my booked drivers. Their driver was absolutely professional, their hotel suggestions were suitable for a wheelchair user, and their recommendations re which areas would suit me were spot on.
Sri Lanka is a wonderfully hopeless country, suspended in a time zone, with interesting architecture. I loved the place and the people.
As in other Asian countries, a western traveller will be regarded as a walking ATM machine. Sometimes a local – always a man – will attach himself to you imparting his knowledge or opinion on you in the hope that you will tip him as a “guide”. Sometimes the approach is more overt such as rushing out of a house and crying “you pay me”.
Final warning: I had to alter my return flight home so I went to the Sri Lankan Airlines office at the airport. I paid for my alteration with a credit card, but here was a delay in returning it to me. Although I was dealing with their National airline, I became uncomfortable and enquired what was happening and was advised that there was a problem with my ticket (allegedly the wrong coupon was detached on a previous flight sector). Whether this was true or not I will never know, but the card was out of my hands for around 20 minutes and got copied.
I got home to NZ and weird charges started coming through on my Mastercard.
I contacted the fraud section and eventually my card was replaced and all the charges were reversed.
The lesson to remember NEVER let your credit card go out of your sight.
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