Although little known as a touristic destination, Sri Lanka truly belongs on your travel to do list.
The drop shaped island South of India has unlimited natural splendour, ranging from high rising mountains over highlands that are filled with green tea leaves to gushing waterfalls, tropical forests and unspoilt golden beaches.
The cultural heritage of the country is equally impressive. Huge Buddha statues and colourful Hindu temples can be found not only in city centres, but also in the middle of dense forests where, overgrown by trees and flowers, they seem to be silently waiting for their master to return. A third reason to book those tickets is no doubt the food culture. Sri Lanka is synonymous to spicy food and tropical fruits, a dream come true for anyone that loves culinary adventures. Get ready for pure flavours and ever so fresh ingredients while everything is grown and prepared in a traditional way. But please, stay away from the Durian (find out what durian is at the bottom of the article)!
When to go
A little research and preparation will be needed, because Sri Lanka’s climate is characterized by two separate monsoon seasons, each affecting different parts of the island. The first one brings rain to the West and Southwest from April to June. The second and less severe monsoon takes place between November and December and only affects the Northeast. Don’t let the rain hold you back, though. It will typically only rain for a short period of the day and the rain enhances the colours of the landscape with flowering trees and it feeds the stunning waterfalls.
Sri Lanka is positioned close to the equator. This means that the temperature remains fairly constant throughout the year. In the coastal lowlands average temperatures are ranging between 26-30°C. Temperatures decrease with altitude, so in cities like Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, the temperatures will be around 16-22°C. Take into account that temperatures can drop drastically in the mountains and highlands and that it may even freeze during the night.
The diversity of the climate forces travellers to bring clothes that match all different climate zones. You may only need about 2 hours to drive from the mountains to one of the country’s amazing beaches, but during that short drive, there will be a temperature difference that can sometimes exceed 20 degrees.
You will most likely arrive by plane at the airport of Colombo, but then what?
Train: Trains connect Colombo with all tourist towns. There are four different classes available on a train. Some trains with a first class option have air conditioning but we didn’t try those, we went for third class instead. In third class we ended up standing or sitting in the hallway most of the time because there were so many people. At one point we just sat on the stairs of the riding train with the door open, enjoying the view. It’s not the most comfortable way of travelling but the scenic views were worth the trouble. At least I wasn’t hanging on the outside of the train like other people did. Oh wait, I did do that when it was very crowded, super dangerous actually and I wouldn’t recommend it. I hope mom doesn’t read this...
Car: You can rent a car if you are over 18 and have an international driver license but this is the most expensive option to get around. Also, the traffic can be quite difficult to deal with. I can promise you that it will be an intense experience. It’s really busy on the road and all sorts of vehicles are overtaking each other constantly - from a cart that’s being pulled by an ox over countless motorcycles and old cars with scratches and dents to huge overloaded trucks. On top of that, everybody is constantly honking his horn without apparent reason. Complete madness! In between the larger cities, the roads can be in a poor condition, often sandy and muddy. You will drive through rainforest and pass by countless plantations.
The only real option to discover Sri Lanka by car is to hire a private driver. Surprisingly this is way cheaper than renting your own car. Make sure that you trust the company, the car they propose and the driver before you commit to a 2 weeks journey around the island.
Tuktuk: Ideal for short journeys within towns and cities, and for short excursions. Drivers like to paint and decorate their Tuktuks and some of them are true pieces of art. There are plenty of drivers that want to take you on a trip to do some sightseeing. Most of these don’t have a meter that counts the kilometres like a taxi would do, so it’s important to always agree on a set price up front. I met a few friendly drivers and I could convince one of them to let me drive one of these funny little motorcycles myself, which was a lot of fun.
Bus: There are some long distance busses you can take towards the larger cities, but you will need to change between busses a lot to see more remote parts of the island. Most of the busses in the coastal regions have air conditioning, but when traveling inland, you’ll need to prepare yourself for a bumpy ride on a hot and crowded bus.
Bike: At some historic sites you can rent bikes to explore the surroundings. I can really recommend this as some parks are too large to discover by foot. It’s also a nice way to explore the smaller cities.
Where to stay
There are lots of high quality hotels and resorts in Sri Lanka. Most of them have quite good standards, but it’s recommended not to go any lower than a 3 star hotel if you want to have some basic quality in terms of comfort, food and hygiene.
There are also around 60 hostels and you can find some bed and breakfasts in more remote locations.
More and more tourists are discovering Sri Lanka and the accommodation prices are on the rise. As weird as it sounds, you shouldn’t hesitate to bargain over the price of a night’s accommodation. It’s not only common to negotiate prices in shops, but people also do it in hotels and hostels.
What to see
Colombo: You will probably arrive at the airport of Colombo. This is going to be the least exciting city that you will stay in. There are some street markets, a few temples and a museum to visit, but it’s nowhere as beautiful as you would think. There may even be people that want to sell you tickets and offer you a ride to a so called festival or elephant parade, which is a scam. They will lure tourists to a quite place where they will try to steal his belongings. So we suggest to leave Colombo for what it is and to travel to another city so you can experience the real beauty of Sri Lanka.
Sigiriya: This iconic rock is Sri Lanka’s most dramatic sight. It looks impressive from the bottom, but the far sights you can see from the top are even better. So do yourself a favour and climb the 1200 steps while you pass impressive carved lion paws at the bottom of the stairs, wall paintings and ruins of an ancient civilisation. Along the way you will be greeted by monkeys who are now the true rulers of the rock. Take care when you enjoy a snack on your way up, they may steal it right out your hand.
Kandy: Right in the middle of the city, an impressive golden roof towers above the other buildings: it belongs to the world famous Temple of the Tooth. The temple is Kandy’s main attraction and houses the tooth of Buddha. Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic is protected by 7 dagoba shaped caskets and you have to be lucky to actually see the golden outer casket. It’s highly protected, but don’t let the number of soldiers scare you. The temple is well worth a visit and many locals consider it a privilege to see it, so walk around and take in every detail of the temple. The World Buddhism Museum, which is just around the corner, that can give you a broader insight on the Buddhist culture.
Anuradhapura: Lonely planet calls it “one of the most beautiful archaeological sites in South Asia”. Expect enormous dagobas, huge towers and crumbling temples. This city ruled Sri Lanka for a thousand years and the grandeur is still present in its atmosphere.
Polonnaruwa: In order to get a better understanding of the rich history of the region, a visit to Polonnaruwa is essential. There are bicycles for rent at the Vatadage archaeological site, which give you the opportunity to really explore the ruins. Everything is built around the central stupa that once used to house the tooth of Buddha. In this city you can also find the impressive Gal Vihara rock carvings, dating back to the 12th century, and there are 4 incredibly large Buddha statues made by hand and connected to the granite wall behind them.
Nuwara Eliya: Also called “Little England”, Nuwara Eliya is characterized by its mild temperatures and green hills that are often covered in mist. There is definitely a temperature difference compared to the other cities and you will be happy to find a stove in your hotel room instead of an aircon unit. This is one of those places where you’ll be happy to have crammed a sweater and rain jacket in that backpack. On the drive to Nuwara Eliya, you’ll see countless tea plantations that colour the surroundings bright green. Also, strap on your hiking boots and walk towards the Worlds End, which is a scenic lookout on the top of a cliff located in Horton Plains national park. Hold your eyes open, you may spot some monkeys and deer.
Ella: Ella is a green mountain town with misty hilltops. You can hike to Ella rock or little Adams peak, swim in a lake next to waterfalls and visit tea factories along the way.
Yala: Yala is the perfect park for a safari trip. Enter the woodland where you will be greeted by countless monkeys and try to spot the impressive leopard that loves the shady protection of the tree tops. On the grassy fields you can see groups of elephants grazing their way through the landscape. Also keep a close eye on the water: if a floating tree log seems shiny, there is a big chance you just spotted a crocodile.
South side of Sri Lanka: There are plenty of cities at the beach to visit on the South side of the island. The beaches are absolutely stunning. Find a hammock, crack open a coconut and relax. However, you need to be careful when swimming since the ocean is very powerful and the current is strong. Backpackers usually go for small beach towns like Mirissa. With quite some blue whales in the area, plenty of whale spotting tours depart from Mirissa. If you look for comfort and luxury, a hotel in Unawatuna may be your best bet. Stroll around the harbour to see some local fishermen catch your lunch, indulge in the local cuisine and visit a turtle sanctuary to learn about the impact of humans on these majestic creatures.
What to eat
Sri Lanka has been an important stop for ships that travelled between the East and the West. So many cultures have been influencing the local cuisine because traders, immigrants and colonisers have always been introducing flavours of their home countries. The main dishes, whether it’s for lunch, dinner, or even breakfast, are delicious spicy curries combined with rice. If you order rice and curry, you can expect a different dish each time. Depending on the cook, any side dishes can vary between marinated beans, eggplant, carrots, cabbage, banana blossom, jackfruit, beetroot,... If you know that you can’t handle spicy food, you will need to tell the waiter up front. In some cases, the cook will even make a milder dish especially for you.
In Sri Lanka it is illegal to cut down the trees that are naturally growing in your own garden, so almost everyone has a little orchard back home. It’s very common to see houses with a little shop, where the owners are selling their home grown fruit. Sri Lanka has an immense variety of fruits. There are papayas, mangos, coconuts, bananas, jackfruit, pineapples, passion fruit,... The list is endless, and each fruit often has many different varieties. I’ve tasted at least 15 different types of mangos, which were completely different from each other. A true discovery.
A final tip on food
Stay away from durian. It’s a true delight for some people, but you’ll quickly see signs that forbid taking the fruit into public places, such as busses, airplanes and hotels. Durian has enormous thorns and it has an unbelievable odour. The smell is already noticeable from the outside, but once opened you will find a white mushy substance that smells so bad that people will run away from you. I tried it and couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth for the next 2 days. Yuk!
Travel tip 1
There are plenty of sacred ruins, temples and places in Sri Lanka that are connected to different religious directions. Although there are many cultural differences between Hindus and Buddhists, everyone seems to live in harmony and there’s a lot of respect towards each other’s religious preferences. When visiting sacred places, you will be asked to wear clothes that cover shoulders and legs and at times you will even need to enter barefoot. These rules are in place for both men and women. To make your visit more comfortable, I can recommend zip off pants, a shirt with sleeves and footwear that’s easy to take off. If taking off your shoes, make sure to store them in your backpack, since someone may upgrade his worn out sneakers to your hiking boots.
Travel tip 2
At all historical sites, there will be people offering guided tours in exchange for a small fee. Have a little chat to see how good their English is and make sure to agree on the price upfront. On average Rs 1000 should be a good price.
Travel tip 3
Keep the balcony door in your hotel locked. As the stickers on the window may explain, monkeys can open the door and trash the place. Believe me, these monkeys are smart and they know that you have cookies and an apple in your room.
Sri Lanka will be a colourful discovery that pulls you out of your comfort zone in many ways. But the mysterious ruins, charming people and the incredibly tasty food will definitely get a place in your hart. It’s an adventure that sends you home with many stories to tell.