Why Sri Lanka?” This is a question that my wife Liz and I are asked all the time. And the answer is, well it charmed us. With 2,000-plus years of culture to be discovered, Sri Lanka is a hidden gem.
Tucked under India, Sri Lanka is an island shaped like a teardrop. While its landmass is roughly the size of Tasmania, it’s got the equivalent of the entire Australian population on it. There is a freedom here that presents the everyday so differently—from how you live, drive and interact with the culture. The easy sense of community embraces you with a smile and unsolicited hello.
We first discovered this country four years ago. A friend asked us to holiday at her beach house near the historic city of Galle. Located on the south coast about a one-and-half hour drive from the capital of Colombo and its international airport we were immediately entranced. Galle is rich with beautiful Dutch architecture. The historic Fort area is packed full of little boutique shops, cafés and hotels. Built by the Dutch in 1663, the 36-hectare Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a working part of the community. Here is where you will find the buzz of energy that makes Galle so enticing.
Galle is a great place for biking. I head out on tarmac country roads for a quiet ride or to explore the dirt tracks off road whenever I can. There is also great surfing. The waves follow the monsoon season, with wonderful learning beaches and challenging reefs. I get an hour’s lesson for under 2000Rs ($20) or you can hire a board for 250R ($2.35).
Nature is in abundance. You can see herds of elephants or leopards in National reserves. We have four parks within a three hours’ drive from our house. And in our garden we regularly see monkeys, birds, mongoose, porcupines, turtles, iguanas and monitors.
We live 20 minutes from Galle close to a lagoon on the coast. We have a comfortable lifestyle on much less than what it would cost us back home. Our cost of living per month comes to about 140,000R ($1,300). We rent our new two-bedroom home for 40,000R ($375). Power and water comes to 8,000R ($75) and our phone and internet bill is 3,000R ($28).
Sri Lanka is a Buddhist society but you will see a strong Christian presence—especially around parts of Colombo. Buddhist temples are dotted everywhere; each village has its own. Each month the full moon festival of Poya is held, characterised by chanting and the making of offerings. The festival is a public holiday, and the bottleshops are closed and no alcohol is served in any of the restaurants or hotels.
The language is Sinhala or Tamil in the North but English is widely used and taught. We have experienced no language issue in our time here. Common greetings are “Where are you going”? or “Your country good sir/madam”?, instead of “How are you?”. English comes from another time and is quite gracious and formal. The locals are friendly and welcoming and a smile goes a long way.
Cricket is a very popular sport. Everyone loves it! It’s a game of joy played in the least expected spots—well often it’s played in any spare spot. Galle has cricket grounds and this year has seen both India and Pakistan play test matches here. Grandstand access is 400Rs ($3.75) or watch for free from the ramparts of the old fort.
It is easy to make friends here. There is an active expat community, with Facebook groups posting what’s happening for those interested. Book clubs, literary festivals, flea markets, animal shelters, volunteering—all are catered for. There are even rumblings of a film festival being started up. We have fitted in easily here in Galle meeting up with our new friends for lunch, openings or exhibitions. All nationalities are represented in the expat community—Dutch, French, Swedes, English, Kiwis and Aussies.
Sri Lanka has a diverse food culture. Here you can find anything you could ever want to eat. We eat out four times a week at a monthly expense of 25,000R ($235). There are plenty of restaurants around us and we can eat Thai, crepes, sushi, burgers, French, Italian, Indian… A meal for two usually comes in around 2500R ($23.50). One of our favourites is fish fingers from a beachside shack nestled into a small rocky bay. They are not on the menu and only locals know about them. Add the local ginger beer and you get one great meal for 850R ($8). And as an added bonus you can eat while watching the turtles feed in the lagoon.
A local lunch pack costs 100R ($1.93)—and it is enough for the two of us. You get three curries (fish or chicken and two vegetable dishes often a choice between beetroot, manioc, brinjal, mango and a dahl) all wrapped to go. It is a great meal with salad. Fish is abundant—tuna, calamari, prawns and lobster. Buy right off the beach or in our case the neighbour—a few are stilt fisherman something this area is famous for.
A couple of local supermarkets provide most items; the imported items can be expensive like cheese, beef and wine. Our weekly shop averages 4000R ($37.50) for groceries and for vegetables/fruit at 750R ($7). Bananas—at 35R ($0.32) a kilo— with the local curd (water buffalo yoghurt) plus kithul treacle (palm syrup) make a wicked smoothie. Mangoes, pineapples, rambutans and pomegranates are all locally grown and only available when they are in season.
Mobile phone costs are very reasonable; we even use ours when we travel. We had our home internet installed within two days and it costs less than $15 per month for 25GB at download speeds we never experienced in Australia.
Since retiring here, we have purchased a beach property to renovate and develop as a holiday villa. Our solicitor managed the purchase and established the compliant structure. A local shareholder is required in order to buy Sri Lanka property. Our next steps are to secure the planning permissions then to start the alterations.
We’re saving a lot on healthcare, compared to costs in Australia. A visit to the doctor costs nothing and medication costs approximately 20% of Australian equivalents. Private hospitals will charge a visit fee 1,000R ($9.40) via an e-channelling site (yes you can book an appointment for the doctor, dentist or specialist you want to see online and at the time that suits you!) Dental care is affordable too. It cost us 5,000R ($46) each for a check-up and clean. My last dental visit in Australia for a clean was $115. More complicated dental work say crowns can be less than 30% of what it costs in Australia. I have had some dental implants and they use the same technology that is used back home but at 25% of the cost.
There are a two types of visas available, Tourist or Resident. We have an annual Residents visa that allows us to run a business. We organised our visa through our solicitor but you can also manage it through a local agent or apply direct to the department in Colombo. However, I think that going through a solicitor or agent is faster than doing it alone and direct.
Sri Lanka has a tropical charm and the phrase serendipity is a word that springs to mind when I think of this beautiful place. Life for us here has been busy in our first year with establishing ourselves and buying property. Slowly we are synching to island pace and loving its charm, cuisine and best of all its people.
GETTING TO AND AROUND SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka works really well for us as a base as it is halfway between Australia and Europe, and we can be in Southeast Asia in a couple of hours for little cost. Airfares are well priced. We can get back to Sydney via Air Asia for $500. Even though we have no desire to go right now when we have so much to discover right here. It is also easy to get to Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur which are all within three hours or you can be in Dubai or Hong Kong in under five hours. We have flown to both London and New York for under $700 and that was at peak times.
And no need to worry about expensive airport parking when you go on a trip. On our first flight from Sri Lanka we discovered that there was no long-term car park. Since we were leaving for 10 days we decided to park in the short-term for 150R ($1.35) and worry about it when we got back. On our return we realised that there was no security and no barriers. So 10 days parking cost us a whopping $1.35 and our car was safe and sound while we were away.
We rent a car, as it is easier and more convenient for running around, getting to yoga or to go surfing at the beach. You need a local licence, this means taking the local licence medical and passing the eyesight and squat test. Why the squat test? We asked the same question. The Transport authority want to ensure you can bend your knees with your bum almost to the floor. Our car rental and petrol for the month comes to 42,000R ($395).
If you don’t want a car public transport is good and inexpensive. There are trains, buses, taxis and tuk tuks. Trains run from Colombo inland to Kandy and up into the highlands—a stunning ride through the tea plantations or down the coast to Galle. A local bus ride costs 20R ($0.18). A tuk tuk will set you back 600R ($5.50) for a similar journey.