When planning the itinerary for Sri Lanka, I had clear in my mind that I would have liked to soak myself in a mix of culture, wildlife and beach, opting for small guest houses or home-stays. I also wanted to avoid some of the most touristy locations (even though some of them must – inevitably – be included in the itinerary), which is not an easy job since Sri Lanka is a relatively small country. To do this, I decided to choose – for example – Anuradhapura instead of Polonnaruwa, having read on plenty of blogs that the latter was a particularly busy site (and being smaller than A’pura it feels a lot busier); I opted to sleep in the jungle for a couple of days to fully disconnect; I chose a couple of home-stays and a more secluded beach in Tangalla area (Marakolliya), to avoid lines of sunbeds and beach crowds. If I had had more time on my side, I probably would have like to go up to Jaffna and east to Arugam Bay…but life is all about choices and I am absolutely pleased with our whole trip. Sri Lanka truly exceeded our expectations. Just one stop that – insight – I would have probably avoided or arranged differently is Mirissa (which I will detail better in my next post), despite being an absolute must for whale and dolphin watching.
As far as pre-booking accommodation, though it’s not a thing that I would do normally, I think it’s quite important if you want to maximize your time in Sri Lanka. Do not expect to find the same amount of guest houses that you may find in any touristy street of South East Asia (Thailand or Cambodia for example), where you just have to knock one door after the other to get a good rate and a decent bed. In Sri Lanka it can involve more money and a lot more time to actually find accommodation on site and it’s not always cheaper. In some cases, we had to use booking.com since we needed to be as flexible as possible with the reservations; in other, we booked directly with the guest-house/home-stay and got better rates 😉
DAY 1 – COLOMBO
We landed at Bandaranaike Airport around 3:20 PM, on a Qatar flight with a couple of hours stop-over in the amazing Doha airport that makes even Heathrow T5 look old-fashioned. We had arranged an airport pick up through the owner of the place we booked (Airbnb); the drive to Colombo took almost 1,5 hr due to bad solid traffic, which seems to be quite normal in Colombo) and unfortunately once arrived the Airbnb room turned out to be a bit of a disappointment and definitely the only unwelcoming owner of all the Airbnb experiences that we had in the past (mainly in the US) and of all the Sri Lankan people that we met throughout our 2 weeks. Anyway, got over that quickly, had a refreshing shower and left our room for a bite to eat at the Green Cabin, a nice and reasonably priced restaurant with an outdoor garden just a 10 min tuk tuk ride from where we were. Loved my first Sri Lankan rice and curry! After dinner we walked all the way to the Galle Face Green, a sort of vast green area that locals use to chill out and relax; we got the first glimpse and breeze of the Indian Ocean, walked through the evening food stalls and then got a tuk tuk back to our place. We were trying to become tired so to sleep all the way through until next morning and beat the jet-lag.
If you are planning to catch a train the following morning, I suggest you sleep near Colombo Fort area to avoid a really early start; Colombo traffic is terrible and you don’t want to start your onward travel missing a train.
***Before you leave the airport: buy a Sri Lankan SIM card at the Mobitel counter at the airport arrivals (at the same place where you can pick up your train tickets, if you pre-book them with visitsrilankatours.co.uk). We chose the 500 rps SIM card (with no data – but you can get data for 1200 rps) and we used it almost daily and still had over 300 rps credit when we left. We used it to phone to the guest houses to confirm our arrival (some of them will offer free pick up), arrange pick ups with tuk tuk drivers, phone different drivers to get the best price for a private car etc. Plenty of local kids and teenagers that we met asked us our phone number just to keep in touch and I have the feeling that by the end of our trip half of the Sri Lankan population had my number 🙂 ***
DAY 2 – COLOMBO to ANURADHAPURA
We had previously booked 2 tickets on the observation car on the 6:25 AM train from Colombo Fort to Anuradhapura; as we had already picked up our tickets at the airport, we just needed to be at the train station a couple of minutes before the train departed. The train pulled in, we got onto our seats, got “comfy” (comfort is really a big word here) and enjoyed the bumpy journey – just over 4 hours (buy drinks at the station since on the train they are ridiculously expensive – for us tourists).
Amazing country side and great scenery = travel mode ON.
We arrived in Anuradhapura New Town (which is not particularly attractive but it’s where all the services are) with a torrential rain that didn’t look like stopping any time soon. After checking into our room (Sacred City Resort, a clean new guest house just off the main road…don’t get put off by the work in progress look on the outside; the rooms are spotlessly clean and the owner is lovely and really helpful), we decided to take a bit of a gamble with the rain and visit Mihintale, almost 30 min tuk tuk drive to Anuradhapura. Worth the effort since when we got there it stopped raining and we could visit the site with a decent weather. If you have a spare afternoon in A’pura, it’s a good destination: the views are stunning (I am sure on a sunny day they would be even better!) and almost no tourists at all. It’s mainly a local pilgrimage site and it is particularly nice to wander around shoes-less with very few fellow tourists around.
DAY 3 – ANURADHAPURA OLD CITY
We had decided to leave early – immediately after our rice and curry – to get to Anuradhapura Old Town by bike (just a 15 minutes cycle from the new town) and spend all day visiting the site – which is vast. We rented the bikes in our guest house and off we went. There is this lovely feeling of cycling in the Asian sun, taking in the smell of the blossoming frangipani trees in the morning breeze, amidst the school kids waving at you and you feel pervaded by a sense of extra freedom mixed with a massive dose of enthusiasm. You are not really cycling: you are floating in a new country, amidst new colours, new smells and new noises. And that couldn’t be more exciting! N.B.: put plenty of sun cream on to not spoil the excitement: despite having plenty on we managed to burn our hands/arms in the first Sri Lankan sun which was definitely hotter than it looked. 😦
The entrance fee to Anuradhapura for foreign visitors is steep ($25), this is a fact. Is it worth? For the experience that we had, absolutely yes. In some areas and in some temples we were almost the only Western tourists and the majority of the time we cycled on our own without meeting a soul (except monkeys and beautiful peacocks), getting lost among ancient ruins. Apparently going all the way up to Anuradhapura (in reality it’s just 4 hours train from Colombo) is a detour that most people with only 15 days in SL don’t take, but the “effort” is that, once there, you truly feel a minority; we were trying to stay aside, almost hiding to not disturb the hundreds of pilgrims that flocked the grounds. As in many other places in the world, you do realise that whereas you are there merely to visit a site, hundreds of thousands of people make the journey to Anuradhapura (or any of the other pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world) only once in a lifetime and their experience should be most important than our pictures. Often in Sri Lanka I kept my camera switched off, feeling that it would have been an intrusion to take any pictures.
Particularly moving was the evening puja (a daily religious ceremony). I haven’t seen anything like this before and I guess it will take me a while before seeing it again. I will not spoil the surprise by posting any picture, as it was a big surprise for us: try to be at Ruwanwelisaya around 5.30/6.00 PM and enjoy the amazing mix of music, dances and the procession itself. We spent from 8.30 AM until 3 PM in the park, got back for a bit of chill out and around 5 PM the owner of our GH kindly drove us back, just on time for the puja.
DAY 4 – ANURADHAPURA to SIGIRIYA (via DAMBULLA)
A bit of planning was involved in this stop. I wanted to do 2 things in Sigiriya: 1) climb Sigiriya rock early in the morning (which is again a steep $30 for foreigners) and 2) climb Pidurangala (just 500 rps), which is the rock just opposite Sigiriya rock, during the sunset. Now, this took a while to be planned since we also wanted to visit Dambulla Caves temple on the way. We decided to take an AC bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla (1,5 hr), get a tuk tuk to the caves (just 10 min), dump our backpacks somewhere, visit the caves and then get a tuk tuk to Sigiriya, where we had booked an home-stay.
The visit to Dambulla caves and the Golden Temple worked perfectly since we left our backpacks with the police on site (for free) and we could visit the temples easily (we didn’t pay anything to enter but I suspect that was a one off for some unknown reason). It’s a bit of a climb up the steps, particularly in the heat of the day (we were there around 12 PM) but nothing hard – just mind the monkeys that looked particularly hungry 🙂
We spent a couple of hours between the Cave Temples and the Golden Temple and then got a tuk tuk to Sigiriya (700 rps). We had a bit of an argument with the tuk tuk driver: he called our home-stay for directions – despite we clearly showed him where it was on our map, he claimed it was fully booked and didn’t want to drive us there so we demanded to be dropped off at Sigiriya bus station (which is basically a cross-road). No issue with us since we were only 5 minutes walking from there and since we had previously contacted the home-stay to confirm the booking and our arrival time. Quite proud of myself too since I had printed out all the maps to reach our accommodations from the drop off point to show them to the drivers so…no cheating please! 🙂 Always contact your accommodation prior to arriving asking how much (roughly) you should pay by tuk tuk from the bus/train drop off (unless they can arrange a free pick up).
Anyway, got to our place (Camellia Home-stay) and were absolutely delighted to have booked it. They only have one room and they made their best to make us feel at home – and they absolutely succeed! The room is simple (no AC) with a private veranda looking over their lush gardens, in a lovely country side setting that made us forget almost immediately the noises of Anuradhapura New Town. We settled in, had a chat with the owner’s son (Nihl) and then arranged our onward movement. Since it was baking hot we decided to try our luck and knock on a couple of luxury hotels in the area to take a quick dip at their pool. Absolutely recommended to refresh from the journey and recharge the batteries before the Pidurangula hike. We chose the Sigiriya Hotel for a very simple reason: it was the cheapest to offer a pool entry ticket. But it also turned out to be the one with best views!
A dip in their pool is only 400 rps (vs the 1200 that we had been asked at the Sigiriya Village) and absolutely worth it!
We got back to our room around 3.30 PM, quick shower, got the bikes prearranged at our place and rode to Pidurangala. The bike ride itself is stunning through the countryside; I would suggest leaving Sigiriya not later than 4 PM to have enough time to cycle there (20 min), climb up (40 min) and enjoy the gorgeous sunset. The climb up is not too hard, except the last bit but perfectly doable (the locals suggested we could do it with our flip-flops, but I’d strongly advise against! 🙂
We stayed on the top of the rock until the very last ray of sun was gone, enjoying the stunning views and particularly the lack of tourists (no more than 20 people up there) and then cycled back like nutters to avoid coming back in the pitch black. A torch (which we had left in our home-stay!) could be useful if you are planning to head back to your accommodation in the dark.
We ate at our place (a delicious Sri Lankan rice and curry freshly prepared by the mama!) and went to bed early surrounded by the relaxing and peaceful sounds of the countryside.
DAY 5 & DAY 6 – SIGIRIYA to POLWATHTHA ECO-LODGES (1 hr from Kandy)
If you are planning to climb up Sigiriya rock, be ready for an early start – otherwise I would say don’t even bother, taking into account the crowds of people that were entering the site when I left (mainly Japanese, Chinese and American tour buses). We woke up early (6 AM – my boyfriend kept asking me at which point of the trip he would have been allowed to stay in bed later than 6 AM!), had a massive breakfast and got a tuk tuk to Sigiriya rock, getting there at 7.15 AM. I had planned to climb on my own since my boyfriend doesn’t particularly like heights (and I wouldn’t recommend it if you are afraid of heights or suffer vertigo) so I paid the entrance fee and off I went (bring water with you).
Sigiriya rock is impressive both by size and shape; the gardens are beautiful, with the lotus flowers waking up in the morning sun. In my opinion, the views from the top are not as impressive as from Pidurangala but still very nice on a clear day. The problem is that just after 8 AM Sigiriya gets absolutely packed with tour buses which means hundreds of people climbing up – most of them shouting (not sure why, since there are clear signs reminding that loud noises can provoke hornets’ attacks). I took my time at the top, wandering around and taking a few snaps but when it started to get too crowded I decided to leave. Quite rightly as you can see from the crowds entering….
Got back at Camellia Home stay at 10 AM, quick shower (needed after the climb) and we were ready to go. We got a tuk tuk back to Dambulla and then an AC bus to Kandy, arriving there in 2,5 hrs. Now, the great majority of people that we had met before or after Kandy, stayed downtown; not sure why but thank God we didn’t. I didn’t particularly enjoy Kandy except for the walk around the lake, the bakeries, the Temple of Tooth and a couple of things more. I didn’t enjoy at all the masses of tourists, the touts, the rip-offs and the noise/contamination. Having said this, plenty of people stay in Kandy and like it, I suppose it’s quite personal, as anything else.
We arrived in Kandy, took the 654 local bus in the square between the clock town and the market towards Digana Village (40 rps – 45 minutes ride), got down at the KM 14, where a jeep was waiting for us to drive us to our next destination: Polwaththa Eco Lodges. They are located just over 15/20 minutes drive from the main road where the bus leaves you, in an absolute idyllic setting in the middle of the jungle. If you want to switch off, that is my best recommendation and I can’t recommend it enough. They offer different types of accommodation, including some more on the expensive side; we choose the cheapest one, at $57/night half board and we found it perfect. I am not saying that it’s super cheap but 3 days/2 nights there felt like a unique experience. I have been an early bird all my life but waking up at 5 AM with the all jungle residents waking up with you is a complete different story. We spent the great majority of the time outside our mud hut, just enjoying the views, exploring the jungle around the lodges, finding animals hiding in the vegetation (screaming when it was a big one!) and playing with the local dogs.
The staff of the Eco lodges was absolute amazing (all Sri Lankan young guys, with very good English); they offer a half board package (which is a must since they are right in the middle of nowhere) and food was truly delicious (and in huge portions), possibly the best we had in Sri Lanka. One of the reasons we decided to stay in an Eco Lodge was to go on a trek; though I usually prefer to go on self organized hikes, this time was a bit different: having only 15 days in Sri Lanka, we wanted to try to get to know as much as possible and talking to local people is always the best way to do it. The staff at Polwaththa Eco Lodges organizes plenty of very informative treks at very reasonable prices; we chose a 12 km one, through the local villages, the tea plantations and with amazing views over the Knuckles Range. We finished the trek with that great feeling that comes when you feel you are learning stuff apart from enjoying yourself.
DAY 7 – KANDY
After spending a few hours in the morning bird-watching outside our mud hut (if someone – a few years ago – would have told me that I would have become a bird watcher fanatic I’d have laughed out loud!!), we packed our bags, got drop off at the main road and got on the 654 local bus heading to our next stop. Since we still hadn’t visit the city yet, we decided to stay 1 night a bit closer to Kandy to be able to visit what the city had to offer. We stayed at the Romance Hills Hotel (20 min by bus outside Kandy), a stunning new small hotel managed by a super friendly chap with great views over the countryside outside Kandy. And with the first amazingly comfortable bed in Sri Lanka 🙂
Since our room was not ready yet, we left our bags and got a tuk tuk to Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (you can get there by public transport, but we were a bit short of time). Just a few Km outside Kandy, they are a true oasis out of the town madness and definitely worth spending a few hours.
Bring a sarong, some food and drinks and have a picnic in one of the shaded corners of the park (just avoid the trees where the fruit-bats hang around since it might be a quite unpleasant experience!).
We got back from the gardens in the late afternoon and decided to eat in, since the following morning we would have had to wake up early (again!).
DAY 8 – KANDY to ELLA
Kandy is the 2nd city in Sri Lanka and the main reason why it’s so famous and packed with tourists (both locals and foreigners) is because it is the home of the Temple of Tooth that houses the relic of Buddha’s tooth. Though there has been some discordance among non Buddhists over whether the tooth is actually here, I think that we are really not in a position to doubt since other religions get excited for a lot less. Sacred relic aside (which obviously is why thousands of pilgrims flock the town throughout all year and particularly during the Kandy Esala Perahera Festival in August), the compound where the temple is hosts other interesting temples and the Royal Palace itself. Once again, if you are planning to visit, go early. Our plan was to visit the Temple in the morning and then catch the 12.31 PM train from Peradeniya (a short tuk tuk ride from Kandy downtown) to Ella (the journey itself deserves a post). We arrived at the Temple of Tooth by 8 AM which in my opinion was a bit too late since at 9.00 AM the place was already packed with tour buses and hundreds of tourists pushing on the internal stairs. 3 pujas are held throughout the day and we were there at the one of 9 AM but I suppose the 6.30 AM one would have been a lot better and far less crowded (but if you have experienced the Anuradhapura one, is nothing compared to it). Particularly nice is the area just outside the Temple, dotted with dozens of stalls selling flowers for the offering (for inviting they look, you are not allowed to smell them since they are Buddha offers).
The monks saffron robes, mixed with the hundreds of pilgrims (the great majority all wearing white outfits), it’s quite a striking image if compared to how we attend religious celebrations or processions back home.
If only from a chromatic point of view, I can’t help thinking that lotus and jasmine flowers, white and saffron colours are a far better combination than our chrysanthemums with black and dark outfits. (Sri Lankan people also wear white at funerals and the graves of the people who have just passed away are adorned with white ribbons).
TO BE CONTINUED…….