Travel Guide: Sri Lanka

With a chunk of time left between leaving Indonesia (post Vipassana course) and going to India (pre yoga teacher training), I had around 20 days to play with. Umm-ing and ahh-ing I decided on Sri Lanka (I booked my flight the day before the 10 days of no phones on the course, flew out the day after – I can’t comprehend how much I enjoy the playing life by ear thing), I’d heard and seen beautiful things from the country, including how it is easily compared to Bali 30 years ago, and what a truly stunning country it turned out to be – if it isn’t already on there, make sure to add Sri Lanka to your “must visits”. The most varied landscape and wildlife for such a small country, welcoming and friendly people and almost my favourite part – mountain hikes and white sandy beaches all within a few (crazy cheap bus or train) beautiful hours.

Price: 2/5

Best places to watch sunrise/sunset:

Sunrise

Pidurangala, sigiriya

Little Adams rock, Ella

Weligama Beach

Sunset

Akila restaurant, Weligama

Galle Fort

Coconut hill, Mirissa

Where to stay:

The hostels in Sri Lanka are definitely a lot more hit and miss, I’ve had some really good ones and some not that great ones. I booked most through hostel world but actually a lot of hostels don’t use that (I think they take a high percentage of the booking), so booking.com is another good option. The choices can sometimes be pretty limited, with no clear picks and also they get booked up especially on the south coast!

Colombo: The Spin Inn, lovely little hotel with great staff. The Bunkyard Hostel, a good base close to lots of good cafes.

Kandy: the three three five hostel ok, this one was definitely not the fanciest hostel I’ve stayed and the choices are limited but the owners are literally the cutest ever – they even made us packed breakfasts when we had early trains to catch.

Sigariya: we stayed in a hostel here but I can’t say I would recommend – they did do super smoothie bowls but it was a bit misleading and I honestly got bitten to death by insects – no really surprise seeing as we were practically in the jungle but it was frustrating!

Ella: Ella view & the hangover hostel. Both good choices for Ella – though Ella view was up a SUPER steep hill (the tuk tuk driver waited until we arrived to tell me his handbrake didn’t work and we needed to get the suitcase out ASAP – not an easy task!)

Hiriketiya: dots hostel. Literally everyone I spoke to in Sri Lanka recommended this place, it gets booked up quickly but it’s definitely worth it – 5m from the beach, lovely accommodation, free surfboard hire, the best free breakfast I’ve had and like many hostels on the coast there is yoga every day.

Mirissa: I honestly couldn’t recommend the hostel we stayed at in Mirissa, but I’ve heard good things about Mister hostel.

Weligama: beatroot hostel. This was another recommendation and it was great. Super chilled, still quite a few insects (by here I had found some Sri Lankan natural insect repellent which helped) and close to the beach for surf.

Where to eat:

I like to try the local cuisine as much as possible and Sri Lanka totally pulled it out of the bag. The food was epic, even for someone who doesn’t like spicy food (most restaurants will automatically reduce spice for westerners but I always asked, just in case). Some of my favourites:

Colombo:

Cafe Kumbuk

Plus Nine Four

Kiku

Tea at the T-Lounge

Kandy:

Balaji Dosai

The Muslim Hotel (a bit grungy, but tasty)

Ella:

Chill

Dream Cafe (get the Sri Lankan breakfast!)

Hiriketiya/Dikwella:

Dots – pretty good food, western prices

Verse Collective

The Grove

Beach front restaurants for typical SL food

Mirissa:

Shady Lane

Squeeze Me – some of the best smoothie bowls!

Weligama:

Ceylon Sliders

Akila (Sri Lankan food with a beautiful view)

Galle Fort:

Church street social

Isle of Gelato (also in Colombo!)

Poonies kitchen

Hoppa

I’m also told that Bed Space in Unawatuna is fabulous.

Some of the Sri Lankan foods I was recommended to try are:

String hoppers

Hoppers

Godamba Roti

Coconut Roti

Kottu

Wadi

Pol sambol

Lamprais

Curd and kithul treacle

Wattalapan dessert

How to get around:

My hotels/hostels organised my transfers to the airport which were around 2600-3000 rupees (about £15). I think that’s a pretty good deal, and saved any hassle at the airport which I was very grateful for, especially after a delayed flight and late night arrival.

Otherwise on foot or tuk tuk was my main transport within each place – and yes, we managed to fit two people, a rucksack AND a my suitcase in a tuk tuk. It was fun. The general advice for tuk tuk pricing is 50rupees per km but I definitely paid over that every time, I don’t know if that’s out of date or I’m just an easy customer but most of the time if you know how far you’re going you should have an idea. There is Uber or Pick Me in some of the bigger urban areas which end up much cheaper, otherwise I’ve been told to use metered tuk tuks only but honestly, I don’t think I found one that was! To get from place to place I pretty much stuck to public transport. The trains are great but I still haven’t quite got to grips with the booking system – I think you can buy a ticket the same day as unreserved (some trains you can buy reserved seats in advance, eg mine from Colombo to Kandy) at the kiosk but dont leave it too late as they can get crazy busy. I would also recommend 2nd class, it has opening windows and not as crowded most of the time…Kandy to Ella the exception! Ask a few people which platform just to be sure but I never had any problems. The buses are also crazy cheap, think £1.30 for 5 hours but they can get pretty packed. They’re usually on good time, mainly because they drive like a bat out of hell. My bus from Ella to Dikwella even had a comfort stop where we could all get off for 5 minutes and get some refreshments (fresh pineapple for me!). Both the buses and the trains had people popping on every so often with snacks and drinks.

How to enjoy actively:

Surfing – Weligama is a great place for beginners, it has a beach break and nice waves. Otherwise there are so many spots along the coast surf worthy.

Hiking – mainly in the inland hill country, especially around Ella, are some beautiful hikes. Start early because it gets HOT during the day. My favourites were Little Adams Peak, Ella Rock & Pidurangala.

Yoga – more so in the South, it’s so easy to find places to practice – most hostels have classes daily otherwise there’s lots of shalas. One of my favourites was Soul and Surf in Ahangama (which is mainly a retreat place) but it had a beautiful, open shala and you can stay for breakfast and a chill around the pool afterwards. The only problem was not getting ripped off by the tuk tuk drivers afterwards as it’s in the middle of knowhere!

Not exactly active, but wellbeing certainly – there are lots of places to get a massage and extremely reasonable (we paid around £12 for a 60 minute massage at Secret Root Spa, Mirissa – on a recommendation here). There’s lots of ayurvedic treatments on offer too but I would try to go off a recommendation where possible.

What to do:

Safari

There are lots of different national parks in Sri Lanka for a whole range of wildlife. We did Kaudulla from Sigariya, there’s also Minneriya close by too. There’s over 200 elephants that move between the two so it’s definitely worth listening to local advice about which to visit when you’re around. We paid 6000 for a jeep, it was a 4am start and we almost didn’t make it because heavy rain the night before had washed away the road! Luckily our jeep driver found a different way in and we were only 1 of 3 in the Park. They recommend an evening safari because the elephants are usually out around the water before bed but we did a morning and were so lucky to see so many, even crossing the path in front of us (the other two vehicles saw none!). We also literally got covered in mud when the jeep got into boggy ground (at least 5 times), which i guess just added to the adventure. So wear something you’re not too bothered about, just in case!! We saw lots of other wildlife too including Sri Lankan foxes, eagles, deer, monkeys, junglefowl and peacocks but the main highlight was definitely the elephants.

The parks in the North are, from what I could tell, better for elephants but the parks in the south you might see leopards and other wildlife too.

The parks also get crazy busy, sometimes with 40-50 jeeps driving round and racing through when there’s sightings which is sad and hopefully there will be limits put on soon.

Hikes

As above, in Sigariya we enjoyed doing Pidurangala rock which is the cheaper alternative to Lions Rock and means you get a view including lions rock – I think it’s a harder climb but it’s worth it, and a scramble at the end. There’s crocs in the water near to Lions Rock which you walk past to get to Pidurangala (basically walk straight past the entrance of Sigiriya rock and follow the path along and you’ll find it. We spent probably 2 hours at the top snacking, relaxing and enjoying the beautiful views.

Next hike: Ella’s rock. There’s lots of different ways up to the rock but we found this video really helpful. There’s lots of local people that are happy to guide you up (some even tell you you’re going the wrong way…) but it really is super easy to find on your own. The only part missing from the video is a right turn when you reach the small shop selling water part way up, but the people there actually pointed us in the right direction! The view point part way up is worth stopping for and the last part gets quite steep, the view is 100% worth it. I did get a leech on the way back down, so maybe wear long socks to avoid….unless you want a leech of course. It took about 4 hours total, including about half an hour at the top. There are lots of dogs around which some people say guide you up the hike, but I think they just enjoy some human company and go where you go – still it’s nice.

The other hike we did was Little Adams Peak which you can do within 1 hour, it’s mainly steps, pretty steep but not too many (compared to Adams Peak which is a tasty 5000!). There are a few viewpoints of you carry on along down and up each of the hills, which is more scramble-y but fun.

Nine Arch Bridge

In Ella the bridge is quite spectacular, we got there by walking along the tracks (just look out for trains, don’t worry they don’t go that fast!) for about 30mins. It’s usually pretty busy, i think more so if a train is coming but definitely worth a look and we enjoyed just relaxing on the bridge for a while surrounded by all the green.

Cooking course

The food in Sri Lanka is next level tasty so I was really excited to do a cooking class – we did it at Matey Hut and it was 2000rupees. We learnt how to make 8 different veggie curries (and got the recipes too), as well as coconut milk, rotis and poppadoms. Can’t wait to (attempt) to remake them..

Try the local fruits

So many delicious fruits to try and when we went to the markets (Kandy was the best), we were given all sorts to sample. The apple (aka mini) mangos and avos were insanely good. Soursop another new favourite and I’m pretty sure he called it cheese fruit but I can’t fin bay such thing on google..

King coconuts are everywhere, and delicious.

Find the stilt fisherman

I found the near medigama, by chance as I drove past and asked the tuk tuk to stop. I know there are some “fisherman” that just wait for tourists to come and then jump up so watch out. Near the Doctors House, Matara I’m told they fish the week before a new moon, early morning, lunchtime and dusk.

Enjoy the journey

The train from Kandy to Ella is apparently one of the most scenic train rides in the world. And also the busiest, especially if you get the morning train. The landscape is breathtaking and the experience is totally unique. The doors are wide open (in 2nd and 3rd class at least) and people hang out for fresh air, and photo opportunities! I think it’s possible to book in advance but when we went the day before we weren’t able to, so it was a case of getting to the station at 7:30am for an unreserved ticket on the 8:45 train. I wasn’t expecting it to be busy because it wasn’t high season….but there was a queue when we arrived. Then it was a case of trying to guess where 2nd class would arrive in the station (I think it was around half way, maybe a bit further away from the station building) and jumping on as quick as you can – not so easy with a heavy suitcase, please take my word for it. Of course the train was already pretty busy (some people recommended getting to the station before Kandy to beat the crowds and get a seat but we couldn’t be bothered/I really wasn’t expecting crowds!) so we stood for the journey, which was fine – I managed to store the beast and we were stood between the two open doors. We enjoyed the views sitting out of the doorway, until my friend hit her feet on the rapidly approaching concrete platform and had some impromptu first aid from a kind German couple whilst hanging out in the doorway on one foot – if you’re going to stick your feet out, make sure to watch out for stations and pull your feet it! Many, many snacks are for sale by men walking up and down the train and hanging in the windows at stations – we had some wadis and the chai tea looked delicious (if you were sat down and stable!).

Beaches

My favourite beaches were hiriketiya (not much sand as the sea always comes far in), Dikwella (10 minutes away from hiriketiya, but empty), Mirissa (long stretch of beautiful beach – if you walk the whole way along you get to coconut hill, and Weligama – though there was lots of rubbish some days which is such a shame.

Visit Galle Fort

You probably only need a few hours but it’s beautiful, one of my favourite cities with Dutch colonial architecture – so lovely to wander and “walk the fort” as well as browse the shops and enjoy its beauty.

Other helpful bits:

The wifi in Sri Lanka is terrible, I don’t remember one place where it worked even ok!

The coffee is Sri Lanka is also (in my opinion) not great, I kept hoping it would be better but sadly it didn’t, I would stick with tea (when in Rome).

I didn’t particularly enjoy Kandy, though it may have to do with the rain! It never helps my impression of cities. I would spend half a day in Kandy – we had some frustrating experiences being followed and hassled by some men, which I think tainted it a bit. It’s worth going to the viewpoint over the lake and perhaps the temple of the tooth if you weren’t temple-d out, like me! In Colombo I visited the Gangaramaya Temple, Viharamahadevi Park and wandered around the Fort. There’s also lots of shops there too (The Good Market, Urban Island and Park Street Gourmet were my favourites).

The insects are INSANE, I’ve never had so many bites – worst (for me) in Sigariya and on the South Coast.

It’s a multi religion country and I tried to cover up my shoulders and/or knees as much as possible. Don’t wear swimwear away from the beach, I even saw signs specifically saying it was offensive to the locals.

There are dogs everywhere, pretty much all friendly but they can get territorial with each other.

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