How I Got Over My Anxiety to Bring my Kids to Sri Lanka

Aurelie’s cousin, Laure, brought her 2 kids to Sri Lanka earlier this year for a sunny family holiday. She was extremely reluctant at first about bringing her children to the “pearl of the Indian Ocean.” Read all about how she got over her initial fears:

You are probably used to hearing from Aurélie, my cousin, but she asked me to write this blog post about why I bought my kids to Sri Lanka for a winter getaway this January (2015, in case you are reading in 2016). This is a first for me. I have never actually written about my holidays so bear with my first try.

I had only been to Asia once before my Sri Lanka holiday with kids. It was back when I was in university. The trip was a backpacking journey in Thailand with my roommate. I don’t think I have to elaborate when I say we didn’t take route most suitable for kids. I really wanted to vacation at an exotic Asian destination once more since then. When Aurelie moved to Sri Lanka a while back, she kept insisting that I should visit the country with my family. Aurelie had nothing but praise for Sri Lanka, but I was extremely reluctant to bring my kids (a 4-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter too smart for her own good). I wasn’t sure that they would have the comforts they needed, and the safety, in Sri Lanka. However, with Aurelie’s assurances I decided to come.

jetwing lighthouse sri lanka galle

Worried about bringing kids to Sri Lanka? Don’t be.

Our Sri Lanka vacation definitely required some more work than our regular Christmas holidays in southern France. My first worry was how the kids would cope with a long international flight. The longest plane ride they have been on was a one-hour or so flight to London. The flight landed before they could get fussy. This time, I took tips from seasoned in-flight parents and packed their favorite blankies, plenty of snacks and electronics to keep them occupied. They slept mostly through the 10-plus hour flight, and when they were awake, they were too busy watching in-flight Pixar movies to throw tantrums.

When we landed in Sri Lanka early morning, we were greeted by Somaratne, our extremely friendly driver-guide who directed us to an air-conditioned car. The heat can be intolerable after knowing nothing but freezing cold for several weeks. He asked if I needed car seats for my children. Yes, please, thank you. Before I came, I was very worried about transportation arrangements in Asia. In Thailand, the traffic had been crazy and even little babies were carried in tuk tuks and motorcycles without any sort of protection. Aurélie was quick to assure me that we would get a safe and reliable driver, a good car and car seats if needed. Indeed, Somaratne drove wonderfully. The kids, after some initial fussing about the heat, had calmed down inside the car and were very curious about the destination.

waiting child

Waiting for long plane ride.

After about a 3-hour drive, we arrived at Galle in the island’s south. We were warmly welcomed at our charming guesthouse by the beach. We were served refreshing drinks and scented towelettes.  The kids immediately loved our room, which was vividly decorated in orange and green. Even though it was a guesthouse, the room was clean and we had all the amenities we needed. We all had a hot water shower and took a much needed nap before lunch. When we were back up, the kids were hyper and ready to discover Sri Lanka.

We had lunch before we went anywhere. I was worried that the food would be too spicy for the kids, but it was not. We were served a mix of western-style food and curries. My kids got their first taste of local cuisine with some mildly spiced yellow lentil curry. My son loved it, my daughter not so much. Aurélie called to see how we were getting along. So far so good.

rice and curry

Tried curry for the first time!

That afternoon, we went out to explore this foreign city so warm and sunny in January. Somaratne said Galle used to be a historic seaport, but this was of no interest to the kids. They were more interested in the hustle and bustle of the city—roadside fish sellers, men selling orange coconuts with straws sticking out, weird-looking buildings and loud tuk tuks. We went to the Galle Fort, which made me feel like I’ve taken a trip back into the 19th century. The Portuguese-built Fort retains its colonial era atmosphere that was so in contrast to what we had seen elsewhere in Galle. There were little European-style cafes, homemade ice cream shops and many souvenir shops. We walked hand in hand on cobble streets laid out by the British. My daughter loved the fact that it was once an actual stronghold and kept talking about gunfights. We had our supper at a lovely little café serving French cuisine, well, the Sri Lankan version of it anyway. It was nice for the kids to have some familiar food.

Galle fort

Exploring stunning Galle Fort.

The kids had already fallen in love with Sri Lanka on our second day. We drove to the kid-friendly Vijaya beach for some sun and sand (I’ve been so looking forward to this). The lovely beach was not that crowded and there were mostly other families there, both local and foreign, to my relief. The sea was wonderfully calm for a short swim. In the end, we all ended up making castles out of golden sand until it was time to go. We definitely loved our first taste of Sri Lanka. After we were well relaxed, we met Jaya, our guide for the cycling trip Aurélie had planned for us. He had kiddie bikes that thrilled them beyond belief. (My 4-year-old traveled with me in a baby seat.) We began our slow ride through the amazing Sri Lankan countryside. Our car carefully trailed us in case the kids got tired. The kids were easily wowed by paddy fields and farmers in loincloths, things they haven’t seen before, not even on TV.

Vijaya beach

Child-friendly and captivating Vijaya Beach.

We took a break and Jaya suggested some coconut water, and the kids tried it out of sheer curiosity. I didn’t like the sweet water much, but they did for some reason. My daughter said it tasted like soda without the bubbles. Oh, well. Surprisingly, our cycling trip went without a much fuss. The trip was shortened to accommodate the kids. I was kind of worried about how the local villagers might perceive us, but that proved baseless. The villagers were extremely friendly and smiled at us at every turn. Some even waved at the kids.

king coconuts

Roadside orange coconut stall!

We didn’t think our trip could get any better, but then we went on a safari to see elephants at Udawalawe National Park. The kids, and I admit me too, thought it would be like an open zoo tour. Absolutely not. We got on an open-top jeep that thrilled the kids even before we started. Then we zoomed through a windy road and into grassland where wild elephants grazed freely. We didn’t even have to find elephants, they were just there. I wanted to take a photo of the shocked faces when my kids saw an elephant for the first time. But I missed because I was too busy gawking, too. There were lone elephants, mini groups and big herds with baby elephants carefully flanked by their mothers. I couldn’t say our family had been this dazzled by anything, ever.

Elephant gathering

Grazing elephants at Udawalawe.

The elephant safari was exciting enough, so we enjoyed some more beach time at Unawatuna. Aurelie loved this place, and no surprise, I ended up loving it, too. During peak season it can get a bit crowded. But it’s safe for kids, which is what I care about the most. The sea was calm like a pool for the kids to swim. There were couple more days enjoying the beach and the hotel pool, watching local TV (apparently my kids found it very engaging to watch cartoons in a foreign language), and then we were on our way to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s unofficial capital.

Unawatuna

Calm and alluring Unawatuna Beach.

We met Aurélie there, who guided us around Colombo before our flight. We drove around the colonial quarter in Fort (why does a tiny island have so many forts?), which bored the kids so we went to Galle Face Green seafront promenade (so called because it faces Galle). It was lovely for a stroll but there were kite vendors there so of course we ended up chasing two little kite flyers all over. There were street food vendors there, too. I tried some isso wade prawn patties. The kids got sealed and chilled Milo drink packets. It’s better to just avoid street food completely just to be on the safe side.

galle face colombo

Flying kites at Galle Face, Colombo.

I thanked Aurélie for such a lovely holiday. I was proven wrong after all. Sri Lanka wasn’t scary, too dirty or unsuitable for the kids at all. Now that I’ve shed my fears, I plan on bringing my kids here for another sunny vacation! This holiday was way too short to discover all the wonders of Sri Lanka. There’s the Cultural Triangle, the Hill Country and even the east coast to see. And I hadn’t even considered the whale and dolphin watching tours. Can’t wait for those on our next trip.

Sri Lanka is generally safe for kids, but do be cautious about some things. Don’t let them eat anything sold on the streets. Stick with a travel agency to find good hotels (those online photos can be deceiving). Hire a reliable driver and a car, because public transport is a nightmare with kids (Aurélie said even the local parents rarely take kids on public transport). There are plenty of supermarkets at all major cities to buy diapers, baby food, medicine and emergency snacks. Ask around for child-friendly places to tour, as some places can be too noisy or too tiresome for kids. Oh, and pack plenty of insect repellant and sunscreen and you’ll be more than fine.

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