Sri Lanka is an island about a third of the size of Great Britain situated in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Southern India. I visited India in 2013 and loved it and was expecting it to be quite similar. In reality it was completely different. Whilst India felt very urban and built up, Sri Lanka only really has one city- Colombo- where about 20% of it’s residents live. Most of the other ‘cities’ are more what we would call towns or even villages. So much of the country is completely rural with very little building or infrastructure. I’ve never seen a country so vividly green and the hill country of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya in particular was so outstandingly beautiful!
Top Tip: Get the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya to go through the heart of hill country. Get a ticket in second class (not air-conditioned so you can have the windows open) and spend 3 hours watching the world go by.
Sri Lankan people come across as having a reverent level of respect for their country and a lot of this seems to be linked with the Buddhist religion that the majority of the country practices. I’ve been to a few Buddhist countries before and in Sri Lanka it was highly prevalent. We got in a tuk tuk one day and the driver offered to take us to a local temple and he walked us round all the different buildings which it was formed from explaining the different practices and showing us how he meditated each day. Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha seem to reach into every facet of Sri Lankan life and so many people were happy to share information about it with us. Beyond the religion though, there are so many uniquely fascinating cultural aspects of Sri Lankan life – we witnessed some Sri Lankan dance at the Cultural Centre in Kandy (would highly recommend), were invited into someone’s home for tea and Jaggery (a type of treacly sweet) and were greeted with such kindness and hospitality everywhere we went.
The Cultural Centre in Kandy is located just round the corner from the Temple of the Tooth .It costs 500rs to visit and shows are at 5pm and 7pm.
I am planning on doing some more writing on food in the near future because I’d love to share some of the recipes which I have gathered in my travels. The food in Sri Lanka did not disappoint! I wasn’t expecting there to be so much variance between Sri Lankan and other South Asian cuisines but there were some really distinctive elements. Rice and curry is the national dish which is normally a mound of rice served with 3-4 different currys (normally one meat/fish and 2-3 vegetable), a chutney, a sambal and some poppadoms. The spice levels are much milder than Thailand and Northern India and suited my western palate perfectly. It’s so delicious and I loved that at every meal you got to try lots of different things. Aubergine is really popular and is often mixed with tamarind for a sort-of sweet and sour, sticky vegetable dish called Bringal Mojo. Coconut is a ubiquitous ingredient that is included in almost everything! Sri Lankans use every part of the coconut and we had coconut milk in currys, coconut flesh in salads, coconut water in soft drinks, coconut shells to make crockery, coconut leaves to make carpets…
One of the best meals I ate was on a village tour with Ella Tours. They offer a day trip to a local village from Nuwara Eliya and a home cooked lunch
For such a small Island Sri Lanka has incredible biodiversity. The flora is part of what makes the scenery so spectacular and a visit to the Botanical Gardens in Kandy is a must-do. The Orchid garden in particular was absolutely beautiful. In terms of fauna, we visited Yala National Park for a half-day safari and were lucky enough to see elephants, buffalo, mongoose, iguanas, howler monkeys, spotted deer and a huge variety of birds. We also visited the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala but I wouldn’t recommend it (more on that in a later post).
We stayed at the Thaulle resort in Tissamaharama to access Yala National Park. A half-day safari costs approximately $50.
As an island, there are a lot of beaches in Sri Lanka to choose from. We visited 4 coastal areas – Yala, Bentota, Mirissa and Negombo and I would have loved to have gone to the less-developed northern half of the island (something for another trip) but couldn’t fit it in to my two week itinerary. From the beaches I did see though, there is a huge amount of choice between more heavily developed areas like Negombo (reminded me a bit of Legian in Bali – developed with some lovely restaurants) and more remote stretches of sand with very few other people in Mirissa. I had wanted to fit a dive in but unfortunately again ran out of time. I was also booked to go whale watching but decided to cancel as I read some fairly scathing information online about the distress this can cause to the whales and was unable to find an operator who subscribed to ethical practices. Having four days on the beach at the end of my trip though was a sheer luxury and they were some of the nicest beaches I’ve seen anywhere in the world!
Points to Note:
- Sri Lanka isn’t expensive by western standards but it’s also not as cheap as other destinations in Asia. Budget £5-15 for hotel meals and double that if you’re adding alcohol. Attractions typically charge more for tourists than for locals.
- Wifi access is patchy at best. I would recommend visiting one of the many desks at arrivals at Bandarainake (check spelling!!!) airport and picking up a tourist sim card. This will cost you about £10 for 5GB of data and 4G is available in most places
- Buddhism is highly respected in Sri Lanka and there have been cases of tourists being stopped at arrivals for having Buddhist tattoos and refused entry. Never take a selfie with Buddha or have a photo taken with your back to him- instead stand to one side for photos
- Sri Lanka doesn’t have the worst infrastructure I’ve encountered but travelling 30 miles by car can take upwards of an hour. Allow extra time for journeys particularly for catching things like international flights. The only train journey I did was from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya and it was excellent. If you don’t want to book a tour in advance you can arrange for a car and driver from most hotels or from arrivals at the airport. This is a very reasonable way to get around and I would imagine the roads would be very difficult to get around as a non-local driver. Tuk Tuks are everywhere and are incredibly cheap. A 5 mile round trip cost me less than £2.
- In less touristy areas expect to get a lot of stares and attention if you are wearing anything short or revealing. In case of any doubt, dress conservatively. Shoulders and knees must be covered when visiting religious sites. Bikinis, shorts etc. are widely worn and accepted in the more beachy resort towns.