I had got to the end of January thinking that I had been missing Asia for far too long and I decided to book a trip to Sri Lanka with my travel buddy Roger. Mad decision taking into account the moment we were in (just about to relocate) but definitely one of the best decision EVER. Now that I have been back in Europe for a couple of weeks I can say it was one of the best short trips (only 15 days) that I have ever organized in such a short time (less than 2 weeks). We came back at the beginning of March, after 15 days of rice and curry, with memories full of bright colours, the head inebriated of freshly cut flowers and incense fragrances and with a bit of suntan too 😉
I have not been to India yet (on my to do list!) but my travel buddy, that went there not too long ago partaking in a rickshaw challenge, said that Sri Lanka is not too different in smells, flavours and colours, with the big advantage that being such a small country makes it quite easy to move around – a lot easier than the vastness of India. Unfortunately, in 15 days I haven’t been able to reach some of the areas that have been recently developing tourism, recovering from the destruction of the civil war and that would have surely deserved a visit. Still, what I saw was beautiful and the 15 days in Sri Lanka were an absolute delight for all our senses (smell in particular).
A few things to take into account when it comes to planning your journey:
Sri Lanka is a pretty small country and some of the destinations that you will probably visit are reachable using their railway system. The best source of information for train journeys, how to book tickets, which seat to choose etc is, as always, The Man in Seat 61. Booking Sri Lankan trains can be a bit tricky and on some trains (Kandy-Badulla, for example) it needs to be done in advance if you want to get a good seat (that to me meant only a window seat with the option to open the window itself for the fabulous views). I have used Visit Sri Lanka Tours (English/Sri Lankan agency) on 2 train journeys and I was absolutely happy with them. I booked my tickets while in the UK (paying with Paypal) and I collected them as soon as I arrived at Colombo airport. Easy! You pay a small commission (of course) but it saves you the hassle of not knowing whether you will get a good seat and it allows you to plan your onward travels.
For all the other locations not covered by railway, you have a few options: 1) local buses without AC 2) local buses with AC 3) private or shared car 4) tuk tuk.
Do take into account that local bus drivers are nuts; though they don’t drive as bad as Laotian bus drivers (just as an example), they do drive extremely fast and it seems that the bigger the bus, the faster it goes, whizzing through villages packed with school kids, markets, traders etc making the whole experience a bit nerve-racking. Whatever transport you choose will depend on 2 main factors: price and distance. In our travels, we have always preferred local transport (less comfortable but much more fun!) but this time having only 15 days we realized that on some occasions it was vital to be able to cut short our travel time, having more time to visit whatever our next destination offered. For this reason, we opted for a private car on 2 occasions (Ella/Kataragama and Mirissa/Colombo Airport) and it was the best choice; more expensive than the local transport (and without that local feeling) but definitely worth it to save time. Also, take into account that having your own private transport allows you to stop and visit something else whilst en route, and that’s a big plus when it comes to discovering a country. Whatever means of transport you will choose…barter, barter, barter is the general rule for every transport (except local buses and trains). It’s not impossible to obtain a fair price that makes everyone happy.
Plenty of tourists choose to hire a car with driver for their whole time in Sri Lanka and that is not as expensive as some may think but you will need to shop around before choosing your driver (or use one agency that will dramatically inflate the price); though it can be a good option (particularly if you have got kids and if you are travelling in a group) and offer you more flexibility, although you will surely miss out on some fun experiences!
Sri Lanka has accommodation for all budgets. It’s not as cheap as South East Asia but in the end with a bit of research we were able to find decent accommodation at a decent price (pre-booked, to save time). We found that home-stays offered the best value accommodation with a true Sri Lankan experience (around $15-20/night with breakfast).
Most guest houses and home-stays offer meals, eating in is a good option for at least 2 reasons: 1) food is always fresh and made from scratch and 2) you get to know your hosts better.
Taking into account Sri Lanka’s lush nature and wildlife, it’s worth trying to go off-the-beaten track for a couple of days, sleeping in the jungle or remote settings being surrounded only by nature and its noises… and its residents :-). These experiences will need a bit more investment (both in time and money), nothing astronomical but absolutely worth every single penny.
We visited Sri Lanka in the second half of February and we had AC only in a couple of rooms. If you are on a budget it’s not a must but if you struggle with heat and humidity (especially coming from cold winter), maybe it’s something to factor in. All the rooms we stayed in except 2 (that my boyfriend chose) were generally pretty basic (standard bed, small table and chair), very clean and all came with mosquito net.
I was a bit unsure whether I would enjoy the local cuisine as much as I did in SE Asia, but I turned out that I loved their curries so much that I had it for breakfast (including deep fried fish curry at 7 AM), lunch and dinner. They can be very spicy but (hopefully!) they will tell you if the dish you have ordered is mind-blowing and you’d better opt for a milder one.
In the most touristy locations (Kandy, Ella) you can easily find Western food but personally I stuck to Sri Lankan food during our entire trip and only had one cappuccino over 15 days and the effects where…let’s say…catastrophic, so I quickly went back to my Ceylon tea and fresh fruit juices. My body was no longer used to milk and diaries (apparently I had no problems at all in eating tons of curd…!!) at the point that, once back in the UK, it took me over a week to get back to normality, eating and drinking the usual huge quantities of cheese and milk. Panic over.
Sri Lankan food is reasonably priced and with $10/12 a day you will eat well (sometimes a lot less). It’s worth having breakfast in your home-stay for a couple of dollars since – in most cases – you will eat so much that you will skip lunch. Also take into account that sometimes a rice and curry portion could be enough for a couple of people if not more (portions are huge) so unless you are particularly ravenous you could easily share one.
Fresh fruit is plentiful and absolutely delicious; the most common you will find will be papaya, mango, pineapple, guava and watermelon, usually squeezed in refreshing juices.
Throughout our 2 weeks in Sri Lanka we didn’t have any problem with food and we tried as much as we could; one thing that we avoided was the buffet food (you don’t know how long food has been sitting there) and the so called short-eats, a sort of Sri Lankan snacks. Restaurants and bakeries arrange trays of these baked and deep fried goods and when you order they leave the tray on the table; you choose what you want and then the tray goes back half empty to be restocked. I am sure they are delicious but they go through several hands before going straight to your mouth so, unless your body is ready, if you want to try what short-eats are, just go to a proper bakery and choose a bit of everything. Safer and equally yummy.
To get to know more about Sri Lankan cuisine, have a look www.seriouseats.com, plenty of information on what to expect from Sri Lankan food and mouthwatering pictures.
Sri Lankan people are absolutely lovely. Particularly in the destinations off-the-beaten track, they will need your smile first to feel comfortable to approach you and talk – which it seems they can’t wait to do. Once they overcome their initial shyness, that’s done: their English might be broken but they love to practice, kids and elderly with no difference and they will try their best to communicate. Thinking what their country has gone through in the last decades, it is still quite striking that smile is what you see more often on their faces (both Sinhalese and Tamil). Smile, in the end, keeps the world moving.
Nature and wildlife
Apart from the amazing pagodas, cave temples, pilgrimage and spiritual sites, religious celebrations etc, Sri Lanka is possibly one of the most striking destinations I have been so far with such a stunning nature (including some amazing unspoilt beaches) and wildlife.
As soon as you leave the big cities (e.g. Colombo and Kandy) and just take a stroll or a bike ride on any side road, you will find yourself surrounded by amazingly colourful birds, beautiful bright butterflies, lushly green vegetation and any time is the right occasion for an unexpected encounter. We have been to Yala Natural Park but some of the most amazing animal encounters happened outside the park: an elephant crossing right in the middle of the road while en route from Ella to Kataragama, shining bee-eaters whizzing through our path, a crocodile chilling out in the lake just outside our nature resort, dozens of bright peacocks just a few meter from us, giant fruit bats in a city park, hungry monkeys on our way to the cave temples….everywhere you turn, there is something amazing to watch.
And above all, her majesty….the blue whale, a few hours off Mirissa coast and undoubtedly the most shivering animal encounter I ever experienced.
What else? Get a good guide, surf the travel forums and you are ready to go!
Get ready to be gobsmacked! 🙂