This time last year I was spent two weeks traveling around Sri Lanka with a girlfriend. Knowing little about the country other than what we uncovered online beforehand, we set off to see as much as Sri Lanka as we could in our two week timeframe. During those two weeks I was not only blown away by the warm welcome we received from the locals but by how easy it was to explore temples, tea plantations, treks, trains, beaches and come face to face with a leopard – all in one destination.
These were the highlights:
We spent our first night in Colombo to help with our jet lag but also because it seemed rude to land in a city and head straight out of it (as some of our research suggested we do.) We spent that first afternoon in Colombo booking our onward train to Kandy and visiting the Gangaramaya Temple, a Buddhist Temple built in the 1800’s. From the outside the Temple is not particularly intriguing but the library and museum of curious items gifted by patrons certainly are. Most unexpected perhaps were the vintage Rolls Royce and Mercedes Benz in the courtyard and the stuffed elephant in the display hall. (I thought it was a realistic replica at the time but reports online seem to suggest it is it was once living ☹)
Later we followed the locals’ lead and headed to Galle Face Green to watch the sunset and sample some street snacks before dining at the upmarket restaurants in the restored Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct. Our accommodation for this first night was rather upscale too, we’d checked ourselves into chandelier and rose-decorated The Kingsbury so we could have 1 night of luxury. ($145 per night at time of booking.)
The train to Kandy takes just 3 hours but at the other end is a city vastly different from Colombo. Kandy’s central majestic lake is surrounded on all sides by lush green hills dotted with homely guesthouses. After checking into the Green View Boutique (which came with the green view it promised) we wasted no time in visiting Kandy’s biggest tourist draw the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Home to Sri Lanka’s most important relic – a tooth of Buddha – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth is a large complex consisting of several temples and museums as well as the shrine of the tooth itself. Visitors don’t actually get to see the tooth – it’s kept in a gold casket, which contains a series of six dagoba caskets of diminishing size – but you do get to admire the vibrant floral offerings the devotees bring. There is another elephant shaped surprise at this temple too – the stuffed remains of Raja, one of the most celebrated elephants in Asia. Raja served in Buddhist processions in Sri Lanka for 50 years and when he died in 1988 the government ordered it a day of national mourning.
Aside from the temple and lake there is not much to see in Kandy itself but there is plenty to explore in the surrounding area. We hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to take us to the Botanic Gardens (an expansive and romantic place), a tea factory, batik shop and spice garden.
There are a limited number of restaurants in Kandy town; most tourists dine at their guesthouse. Wasanthi, our host, would whip up a 12 course curry feast each night we stayed at her Green View Guesthouse ($50 per night for twin room). She would lay out tables for the guests across her homely garden and living room and would call you from your room when it was ready (just like mum used to!) For this dinner service she charged approx. £3.50 – including soft drinks and ice cream!
The day before leaving Kandy we walked to the train station to purchase our tickets for the onward journey. Our next stop was Ella, a tiny town perched in the centre of the Hill Country. The journey from Kandy to Ella takes 6 hours by train but has to be one of the most scenic railways I’ve ever had the pleasure of riding.
Nestled amongst farming hills, waterfalls and tea plantations, Ella is the perfect base for hikers of all abilities. We chose the moderately challenging climb up Ella Rock and thanks to the help from a local farmer made it to see the spectacular views at the top (we would have been hopelessly lost otherwise). Other trek options include a climb of Little Adam’s Peak, which takes you directly through a tea plantation to a chorus of ‘hellos’ from the workers.
There are a handful of guesthouses and restaurants catering to tourists in Ella. We stayed at the newly opened Ella Rock House ($35 per night) and were greatly helped by the manager when it came to arranging a driver to our next destination. Aside from hiking there is the gorgeous Rawana Falls to visit in Ella, although the mountainous ride there can get rather hairy and you’ll have to watch out for the wild monkeys lurking in the trees.
Yala National Park
From Ella we hired a driver to take us down to Yala National Park. Yala National Park is a 1200 square kilometre area of scrub, forest, grassy plains and lakes in the southeast corner of Sri Lanka, which is best known for its leopard population. The park is divided into 5 blocks and Block 1 is thought to host 25 leopards alone. On our 2 game drives with the luxury operator Leopard Safaris we spotted deer, peacocks, buffalo, families of elephants, hundreds of rare birds and even rarer – a female leopard basking in the sun. It was a truly unforgettable moment.
After all that adventure we were ready for some time relaxing on the beach and Sri Lanka has some truly spectacular ones. Our route back to the airport in Colombo would take us past a wealth of options – Tangalla, Mirissa, Unawatuna, Bentota – we really were spoilt for choice.
We chose Tangalla for the first stop due to its proximity to the national park and because we had read about the miles and miles of pristine coastline. Whilst the promise of secluded beaches turned out to be true, in reality it was a little too isolated for us two girls. Our hotel, Lagoon Paradise Tangalle ($110 per night), had a great pool and beach bar but being situated at the far north end of Marakolliya beach meant we were cut off from the restaurants and guesthouses near Medaketiya Beach. (The beach roads are unlit at night and transportation is limited.) We ended up dining at our hotel every night, which whilst tasty, was a little repetitive.
I’ve written some advice about booking a good guesthouse in Sri Lanka here!
For our last few nights we moved to Unawatuna and were a little closer to the action. As one of the more built up beach resorts, Unawatuna has a number of guesthouses, restaurants, bars, tour operators and yoga classes to choose from. It’s still a fairly laid back town, there are specific ‘party nights’ which run in certain bars twice a week, but it has a friendly vibe with lots of chilled cafes and restaurants directly on the sand. Plus it is only a bus ride away from the historic fort town of Galle.
Built by the Dutch in the 1600s, Galle Fort (recognised as a World Heritage Site by Unesco) is an unexpected taste of Europe on the Sri Lankan coast. You can walk the Fort Walls and inspect the old Bastions, then explore the historical laneways filled with souvenir boutiques, art shops, courtyard cafes as well as many old government buildings. We only spent a day in Galle but had we had the time I would have liked to stay longer.
If you are looking for a holiday that involves good food, friendly people, trekking, wildlife, yoga and beach time you are in luck – Sri Lanka has got it all!
*All prices in USD, correct at time of booking in Feb 2014