Saturday, 6 August 2011

Sri Lanka - First Impressions

I'm in Sri Lanka, on a trip combining business with pleasure. Here are some initial impressions.

When departing Sydney for Colombo (via Singapore), I was struck by two curious facts. One, no currency exchange counter had Sri Lankan rupees. Two, neither of the two bookstores I saw in the airport had travel guides on Sri Lanka. Mind you, there are travel guides for virtually every country from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and even for cities (San Francisco, for example), but the omission of an entire country was very strange. I put these down to the fact that Sri Lanka is only just emerging as a travel destination after decades of civil war. Let's see how things look next year.

[I did manage to find a travel guide for Sri Lanka at Singapore airport, but the currency exchange counters there had no Sri Lankan rupees either. I had to wait till I reached Colombo for that.]

Coming to currency exchange, an Australian dollar (AUD) trades for about 110 Sri Lankan rupees (LKR), but that still gave me no indication of what I could consider cheap or expensive by local standards. [1 AUD is currently 46 INR (Indian rupees).] Remembering the informal Purchasing Power Parity calculator of The Economist, I asked the driver of the airport pickup car about the price of a burger at McDonalds. He said it was between LKR 250 and 300. A burger in Sydney costs between AUD 5 and 6, so that's a factor of 50. Taking the official exchange rate into account, it means one can buy two burgers in Colombo for the price of one in Sydney. In other words, I should expect things to be half as expensive in Colombo when I convert their prices to Australian dollars.

Cultural curiosities: As an Indian emigré in Australia, I'm gifted with two lenses with which to see the world. My first impression of the streets of Colombo (at least at midnight, which is when I was driven from the airport to the hotel) was that they were definitely not of First World standards, but seemed far cleaner and in better condition than roads in many Indian cities. (Having said that, the roads in Chennai have been getting better the last few times I was there.)

We were averaging 80 kmph, but my driver Harish (short for Harishchandran), said it was impossible to do more than 25 kmph during rush hour.

Harish, as it turned out, was a Tamil, but after an initial attempt to converse with me in Tamil, he decided it was better to fall back to English! I realised the truth of George Bernard Shaw's comment about England and America. Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils are two people separated by the same language!

Three are huge Buddha statues at prominent roundabouts in the city, which I have never seen anywhere else. The airport also featured sayings and slogans based on Buddhism, and I realised I have never before been to a Buddhist country. [India is culturally diverse but overwhelmingly Hindu, Australia is similarly diverse but predominantly Christian, and even relatively cosmopolitan Dubai is unmistakeably Muslim.]

Talking of Muslim, I saw many groups of young men playing cricket on the main roads at one o'clock in the morning! Harish explained that these were Muslims, and since the month was Ramadan, they were enjoying life at night (when there were no fasting restrictions). The next day was a Sunday as well, so it was Saturday Night Fever for these youths.

The next few posts will have more of my impressions as I see more of Colombo.

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