From the South of India, our route brought us to a small (relative to India) green diamond of the Indian Ocean – Sri Lanka. Known for its tea, Buddhism and lush beaches, it was exactly that and more. The places we visited were so diverse that we felt sometimes that we’re in different countries and we think it’s best to structure this post based on location.
Not wasting any time, after landing in Colombo Barandanaike International Airport, we decided to make our journey straight to Kandy (as there was so much amazing cultural stuff and nature to see in Sri Lanka, we altogether skipped Colombo as besides a few temples to see, we heard it’s not worth spending too much time in) at the bottom of what is known as a cultural triangle in the centre of Sri Lanka (the area is considered to stretch between Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa). We had read that there is a bus that stops close by the airport and takes you directly to Kandy without having to go into Colombo which is just under an hour away from the airport. Due to our arriving at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon, we were told there is no such bus that day (of course!) and we instead took an airport shuttle to Colombo hoping to make our way from there. Luckily we got dropped off at the central bus station right next to the Kandy bus stand where there was already a bus boating passengers and ready to go in a few minutes.
I have to mention here that we were so happy to find any bus going to Kandy that evening that we embarked without really looking around. The big metal bus with its bench type hard seats and no storage space meant us squeezing ourselves in the little seats with our large backpacks and front rucksacks on our laps. Besides, what we were told was a 2-hour journey turned into long 4 hours holding onto our bags in the backseats so they don’t fall out of the windows whilst our crazy driver raced the monstrous vehicle through the winding mountain roads of Sri Lanka.
The next morning welcomed us in the beautiful city of Kandy for which we had put aside a couple of days to acclimatise and do some of the life admin we had built up since India. Besides the very busy town centre and some previous recommendations to spend as little time here as possible, we thoroughly enjoyed our time here and were not in any rush to leave.
We spent our days walking around the higher end of the city from which you can see down to the Kandy Lake and the city centre, and which is home to Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue (not one to miss!), then making our way down to the bustle of the city looking around the shops and central market, as well as walking around the Kandy Lake at dusk watching the enormous bats leisurely circling above your head (I have never in my life seen so many such large bats openly flying around!).
However, the biggest cultural attraction in Kandy is without a doubt the Temple of the Tooth. This Buddhist temple sits proudly on the side of the lake processing dozens of tourists every hour because it is believed that a tooth of the Buddha is held in its depths (we were silly enough to think we would be able to see it given the 15 dollar admission fee…). Even without the sight of the tooth, the temple is a great sight with intricate wood carvings, beautiful Buddha statues and impressive structures. You can also visit the World Buddhism Museum with the same ticket located within the same complex.
One of the main reasons we ever wanted to go to Sri Lanka (further enforced by Romesh Ranganathan’s show “Asian Provocateur”) was to visit Sigiriya – the famous rock fortress that used to be a palace of King Kasyapa back in the 5th century. Today, you can visit the gardens and climb Sigiriya quite easily as long as you have £40 to spare for the foreigner’s entrance fee (in Sri Lanka, all attractions have prices for locals and tourists). As it’s a couple of hour’s drive away from Kandy, we decided to hire a tuk tuk for a day to take us there and make a day out of it. Whilst I was reluctant to use a tuk tuk rather than a car, it turned out to be a great experience – our driver was super chatty and took us to see a few other places along the way.
We stopped at a Sri Lankan spice garden where you’re given a 20-minute tour by a local volunteer who shows you the plants and explains the health benefits of the herbs and spices.
We also got to drive a tuk tuk! Our driver was answering all the questions Rhys was asking about how to drive it until he got tired of it, and stopped on the side of the road gesturing him to come to the driver’ seat – Rhys gave us a nice ride compared to my jumpy attempt in a car park later on..
The visit to Sigiriya (also known as the Lion Rock) itself took just over two hours at a relaxed pace – we walked around the grounds for a while reading about the rulers that used to reside there, and then climbed to the top to enjoy the breath-taking views of the vast greenlands around it from just over 200 meters above sea level.
Whilst the fee to visit Sigiriya was quite high, I was glad to read the income goes back into the conservation and development of the area. Needless to say, the epic views were worth it all!
To go south from the cultural triangle, you want to take one of the most famous train rides in the world from Kandy to Ella. The journey takes 7 hours but offers breath-taking views around every corner.
Of course, the distance is only 115km here (feel free to work out the speed!) but you don’t get bored watching the beautiful green hills passing by and of course spending some time getting the famous photo like the rest 200 tourists on the train (the only drawback of the trip!).
You are advised to purchase tickets (only £3 one way) weeks in advance if you want to have a reserved seat in a 2nd class carriage (pass on the 1st class with AC where windows don’t open), however we got extremely lucky when we rocked up to the Kandy train station 2 days prior the day of travel hoping to get some reservations and overheard a couple of tourists talking to the Chief Station Master (indeed!) about same. After their conversation ended, we followed the example and soon enough had our tickets secured in exchange of the standard fee (was really surprised he didn’t decide to make a profit out of this) and our polite nodding to the gentleman explaining to us his important role here at the station.
Sri Lanka, and in particular the tea plantation area in the southern center of the island, is still often referred to Ceylon, the name of the country when it was a British colony. Even though it has been independent since 1948, Sri Lankans still use ‘Ceylon’ to name a lot of the companies, restaurants and products which I found surprising at first. Having talked to a few locals, you realize how much they like the British (lucky to be travelling with Rhys!) and seem to be grateful for certain developments, including the railway roads and the tea business itself.
There are a few popular destinations to visit along the Kandy to Ella train route including Hatton (from which you go on to climb Adam’s Peak), Nuwara Eliya (where you can visit Lipton’s seat – the high point in the tea plantation hills where mister Lipton himself started his business. Due to the many British settling into this town during colonisation, Nuwara Eliya supposedly reminds you of an English village) and Ella, where we decided to stay put for a few days.
Just like Nuwara Eliya, Ella offers a few tea plantation tours and we visited Halpé Tea factory which is famous for its black tea. The incredible building that must’ve been more than half a century old stood atop a hill overlooking the vast fields of tea, its lands. The hour-long tour takes you through the journey of how freshly picked tea leaves become the highest quality black tea in the world in just 24 hours by undergoing processes of careful separation of various parts of leaves, drying, oxidation and sorting processes. The most interesting fact was that green and black tea are both made out of the same plant, and also that white tea is actually the highest quality of black tea (mostly called Pekoe tea in Sri Lanka after the Chinese name who were the first ones to start producing tea). The tour ends with the tea tasting on the rooftop of the factory and I would definitely recommend visiting for a merely £10 including your tuk tuk (make sure to come in the morning as they often stop production early depending on the season).
Ella is also famous for a couple of incredible hikes you can take – one of them to Ella Rock (the more difficult one where you might want to hire a guide as the route is quite confusing; we didn’t do this one) and another one climbing up the Little Adam’s Peak and following your way back via the famous Nine Arches bridge.
We did just that and thoroughly enjoyed our morning (the whole thing takes about 4 hours) – again, it is recommended to do this in the first part of the day as it is often cloudy / rainy in the afternoon. The Little Adam’s Peak is not a difficult hike but it has two tops allowing you to move from one hill to another for a different point of view – you can see the beautiful village and the Ella Rock that stands just in front.
Another 30-40 minute walk from Little Adam’s Peak will take you through small mountainous streets and train tracks to the Nine Arches Bridge.
It’s an incredible structure that is still used nowadays and you pass during the Kandy to Ella train ride but of course can’t see the bridge itself! We were lucky enough to see a local train passing by on our way back to the village (which is following the train tracks back) – they start beeping a few miles before so be sure to jump out of the way quickly!
Other than this, Ella itself is a small village with a growing number of bars and restaurants accommodated the many visitors it receives each year. It offers a nice walk through in the evenings looking for the best place to eat (our recommendations include Eon Village Restaurant, Hometown and Matey’s Hut and looking through the little shops. The growing bar scene also means that you can very well have a night out with many places offering happy hour deals every day of the week.
As most activities tend to happen in the mornings, you might have very chilled afternoons here and we would recommend to use one of them to attend a Sri Lankan cooking class. They cost about £10 per person which includes 1-1.5 hour class and a very generous meal afterward (mostly vegetarian).
We did ours at the mentioned Matey’s Hut and I loved the mango, banana, beetroot and orka curries we made along with the chilli and coconut sambel. Feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) for recipes if interested!
After spending some time in the cool rainy mountains, we wanted some sunshine and so spent the remaining 9 days of our time in Sri Lanka on the south coast. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to teach yoga in one of the hostels in Weligama, which is where we based ourselves. The train routes in Sri Lanka are not yet developed to cover the whole of the country and therefore our only budget option to travel from Ella to Weligama was a 5-hour local bus to Matara and then another 40-minute bus to Weligama (if you can afford it, there are taxis / drivers that can take you to the south for about £40-£50).
Weligama is a small bay town famous amongst surfers for its perfect waves, especially suitable for beginners. The whole main street by the sea is therefore lined up with surfing schools and small restaurants – we ended up having our first ever surfing lesson there and really enjoyed it. Be prepared for sore shoulders and ribs as well as the many bruises and cuts from the surf board itself!
Whilst you can sunbathe and swim in the sea in Weligama, you will notice that most people in the water are the ones on the surf boards and so will constantly have to be on guard trying to avoid some of the beginner surfers bashing into you! Nonetheless, the beach does look nice however there’s so many more beautiful ones to choose from on the south coast if you want some quiet beach time (more below).
The Weligama town itself is very small however when we didn’t venture out, we tried to explore the local cuisine as much as possible (because its brilliant!). If you’re ever passing by, be sure to visit Meewitha, Dulnetha and Hungry Birds for the most amazing fish curries, kottu rotis (a spin on a stir fry whereby instead of noodles, Sri Lankans use roti bread cut up into small strips) and seafood soups.
Sri Lanka is also famous for its many National Parks (there are 16 dotted across the country!) and even though we did not have much time to visit more, we arranged a half-day safari trip to Udawalawe National Park. A private drive from the south coast and a 3-hour jeep safari costs about £50 per person, including the park fee you have to pay at the entrance.
This particular park was created back in 1972 and its main purpose is to protect many species of water birds and elephants. And did we see some! Please bear my excitement here as it was my first time ever seeing those beautiful creatures in the wild.
Going back to the seaside, Weligama is located perfectly almost at the center of the southern coast making it easy to reach other beach towns and fishing villages and the best way to do it is to rent a moped (or a ‘scooty’ how the locals like to call it :). For a small fee of about £5 per day, you can enjoy the flexibility and explore much of the south coast without much hassle associated to public transport.
Having your own transport allows to stop whenever you see an amazing beach and move on whenever you’re ready. Along the way, you also might notice local men stilt fishing – a unique Sri Lankan way whereby fishermen sit on wooden stilts / sticks for hours waiting for the catch!
Some of the beaches we visited and would recommend are listed below:
- TALALLA BEACH
A 45-minute drive to the east, Talalla is a small village with a quiet remote but scenic beach. Perfect for spending a few hours with a coconut in hand reading a book.
Mirissa is a popular tourist spot on the south coast of Sri Lanka due to its central location (10-minute drive from Weligama). It is bigger than Weligama with many nice shops, bars and restaurants along the main street and the coast itself.
Also, the beach itself is famous for the rock in the sea that can be reached by walking through shallow water and climbing up it for the best sunset views in between the palm trees.
- DALAWELLA BEACH
Going west from Weligama, you’ll find a few beaches along the way however one of the most incredible spots is Dalawella Beach, close to a bigger seaside town of Unawatuna. Dalawella is a fairly narrow beach framed by tall palm trees and calm resorts dotted along it.
Also, it’s Instagram famous for the swing that a local cafe has built attracting many passers by for a perfect photo opportunity (including me!).
The biggest town on the west south of the coast, Galle is not famous for its beaches but mainly for its fort. Built by the Portuguese and then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century, the fort is located on a small peninsula to the right of the bay.
It is the main tourist attraction for a reason – the beautiful area can be walked around by foot in about 2 hours without a rush to enjoy the ocean views from all angles.
There’s a number of museums, historic libraries and other buildings to visit however the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula undoubtedly offers the most breath-taking views.
You’ll most likely have to pass Galle if you’re making your way from the south back to Colombo / airport as it has the main transport links.
If interested, you can also attend a cricket game (Sri Lankans are crazy about it!) at the stadium right next to the fort or watch it from one of the fort walls with a beer in hand.
All in all, we loved Sri Lanka and would like to go back again to spend more time in this beautiful country! There’s much to explore on the east coast (we have been promised even more of the stunning beaches) and the north which has been less popular with tourism due to the civil war mostly centering there up until 2009. However, the newly established train line from Colombo to Jaffna offers not only another set of beautiful views but also an opportunity to explore more of the history of this interesting country.
SRI LANKA OBSERVANCES:
- The road is ruled by the biggest vehicle – the bus – and the bigger, more decorated, the better. All vehicles to move away as soon as they see a bus approaching from behind or ahead, otherwise will receive a large amount of beeping and flashing lights for not being understanding and adhering to the universal traffic order
- The bus boys (conductors) are the coolest dudes around: they know everyone and chat to everyone, they make Sri Lankan girls laugh and help grandmothers to get onto the bus. They jump on and off the bus with a bundle of cash in their hand and hang around at the door leaning out of the bus as it screams past small villages and towns. Most locals are excited to see travellers and smile at or talk to them but not the bus boys, they’ve seen it all and are not fazed by our presence
- Pavements are a made up concept and a total waste of space. Humans are as much of a participant on the road as any other vehicle and you better stand your ground when that bus is approaching at 70kmph or otherwise you’ll end up in the gutter which are usually at least half a meter deep
- Sea food is amazing but it’s better when you don’t know where your restaurant got it from. The catch of the day is sold from and displayed on wooden stalls by any road – the fish just lays there in all its beauty, no refrigeration required. If there is some ice, you got a premium trader, otherwise be glad they sprinkle some sea water on it time to time
- Tuk tuks that sell baked goods and ice cream have the most annoying tune that doesn’t stop even when they stop to trade. If it’s next to the building that you’re in, it’s your own bad luck
- The only other worse sound to your ears is 5 hours of local pop music on the bus which is so loud that you can’t even cover it with your own music in your headphones at a maximum volume
- The mentioned music is accompanied by very entertaining music videos – they are very melodramatic stories of 3 minutes often involving an unlucky marriage, a refused proposal, a potential suicide, a road accident, a fatal illness or a gangster boyfriend with a gun that tries to kill your wealthy father
- Romance is not dead in Sri Lanka, it’s very well and truly thriving. It is absolutely normal for the young couples to be in a tight hug whilst chilling on a beach, sitting on a bench or have your partner’s head rest on your lap whilst you longingly look into their eyes in the background of a sunset into the ocean
- Stray dogs are a massive issue here and it’s nice to see rescue homes and charities spring up everywhere. You will be sniffed, licked and followed by at least five each day whilst walking on the street
- Nescafé instant coffee is not just a type of coffee, it is its own separate entry on the menu usually more expensive than ‘Coffee’. It’s advertised everywhere and only the worst corner shops don’t have a poster marketing Nescafé
- Same with Milo, even though when asked they often do not sell it
- For Sri Lankan men, it is absolutely normal and culturally acceptable to roll up their vests and rest them just under their chest exposing their bellies. They will pat them, rub them and stroke them right there on the street whilst talking to you and nobody will bat an eyelid
- Nobody will bat an eyelid at a man or woman burping, hiccupping, wrenching, coughing or making any kind of other loud disturbing noise – it’s a natural reaction
- Women love coordinating their blouse / shirt to the colours on their skirt. Whilst the skirts seem to offer a traditional pattern, the tops tend to have some writing in English or a western design. My favourites include a playboy bunny design and a “Clever Girl” embroidery on some 70-year-old grandmas’ tops
- Tuk tuks here are a man’s friend and they will treat them with love. Most will have some crazy interior with seat covers perhaps featuring a famous movie character (ours had Nemo), colourful disco lights and a name or a phrase on the back of the vehicle. Some memorable ones include: Richard, Infant Jesus, I Need Marijuana This Afternoon, Shiva, Cheeky Boy…
- It is only men who drive, hang around in the market squares or by alcohol shops, sell and buy street snacks, surf and chill at the beach (with a few exceptions of families with women in full clothing). It made me really sad when I asked one restaurant lady host if she likes to surf whilst we were in a popular surfing town and she responded: “No, I don’t surf madam, my country not free, your country free”
- Do not buy more than one or two Sri Lankan snacks from a street vendor and by no means buy lots to go with your already greasy kottu roti. If this rule is not followed, please have plenty of digestion aid available!
RHYS AND GABS’ SRI LANKA HIGHLIGHTS
|Food||Chicken kottu roti||Curd and honey (thick yoghurt similar to Greek style with a bit more tang)|
|Drink||Lion Lager||Elephant House – ‘the Nation’s drink’ – ginger beer|
|People||Yo, the hostel manager at Jay’s Bunks in Kandy – spends his days chain smoking and drinking with travellers||The friendliest ever restaurant host lady at Dulnetha in Weligama. She would sneak away from the kitchen every 5 minutes to check on us and have a chat|
|Place||Little Adam’s Peak||Dalawella beach|
|Experience||Learning how tea is made at tea factory outside of Ella||Climbing Sigiriya rock and the stunning views from it|
|Culture shock||Pinching someone’s nose is considered aggressive amongst adults whereas we do it to children||Meat and fish sold on the street – raw and uncovered, placed on wooden stalls throughout the heat of the day|
|Any other||Was surprised how tropical Sri Lanka felt compared to India||I have never had such amazing and so much seafood in my life as I did in Sri Lanka|