[As written for Travel Eye, hosted on The Huffington Post UK, June 2012]
Far away in the Indian Ocean lies a little teardrop of an island called Sri Lanka. It’s situated just 20 miles off the southeast coast of India and is tiny in comparison to some of the big islands out there – being just 268 miles long and 139 miles wide.
Although Sri Lanka is thought of as a rather exotic island, it exudes a gritty feel. Arriving in the capital Colombo on the southwest Coast, you can’t miss the occasional cow aimlessly wondering down the main road and it’s a common sight to pass an old sarong-clad man on a stool outside his shop, pouring some rice and curry into his mouth. Navigating the roads is also quite the experience – if you make it from the airport to your hotel without having your hands over your eyes at least once, you’ve been lucky. But that doesn’t mean you should worry – the taxi and bus drivers negotiate these roads day in day out, they know what they’re doing.
But it’s only once you leave the dusty hustle of the big city that you will really begin falling in love with Sri Lanka (it’s not easy getting gushy over the constant bibbing on car horns in the city). Because away from the big neon bar signs and flashy brass-selling stores, you’ll find jungle, long stretches of golden-sandy beaches and ancient ruins – all of which will have you looking on in awe.
The food is divine too – you won’t resist the coconut-based curries which ooze flavour and spice, without being too hot for your taste buds. And if you choose to wash it down with a king coconut which has been chopped open for you on the side of the street – you’ll feel like you’ve never tasted something so refreshing!
There are so many sights, smells and sounds to take in, but here are a few of my favourites; a few gems that you just can’t miss in Sri Lanka. It’s worth the winding car ride to get there and even the tenner you might have to pay to get in. But the beauty you see once there, well that’s raw and untouched and definitely worth it.
The Temple Of The Sacred Tooth Relic
Up in the Hill Country lies Kandy – a city of history and lush green hills. The town centre is set just by a gorgeous lake and it is here that you’ll find an array of gemstone specialists, antique stores and sari makers.
The air is lighter and cooler up in Kandy – a definite relief from the smoggy atmosphere of Colombo, but it’s the scenic beauty and the culture that will really grab you. Just around the corner from the town is the Temple Of The Sacred Tooth Relic – an ancient Bhuddist building which houses (as the name suggests) the relic of the tooth of Bhudda. As you can imagine, this is a very important place to the locals.
You can watch the monestary rituals being performed three times a day (at dawn, at noon and in the evening) and you are welcome to wander through the grounds to the temple itself. Remember, it is custom to take off your shoes when entering the religious building and shoulders and legs knees must be covered.
The Tea Fields
You may not know this, but Sri Lanka is the world’s third largest producer of tea – impressive huh! And considering us Brits drink a lot of the stuff, it’s very fascinating to see where it all comes from. Not far from Kandy, you’ll find a whole host of tea plantations – which put together provide over one million people with jobs.
Just by taking a stroll, you’ll see the local ladies picking the leaves from the plantations – and if you stop off at a factory, you’ll get a good lesson on how those leaves go from being on a plant to being in a tea bag. You’ll also get a complementary cuppa at the end, which is totally worth it.
Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage
This little sanctuary on the road to Kandy is a place that will make your heart melt. Here you will meet young, elderly and sick wild elephants who have been brought in because they need constant care and attention from local volunteers and workers. The staff will encourage you to be active and if you’re not too nervous, do offer to feed the baby eles their milk. You can also have your picture taken next to any adult-eles who are feeling photo-friendly (at least one usually is).
If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can even go on a bit of a ride through the trees on the back of one of the trained elephants. The £10 ride comes with a caretaker and someone who will look after you and talk you through the trail – so you’re never on your own. And there’s even a chance for a little play in a local stream if you’re up for getting splashed.
And if you’re there around sunset, ask to follow the elephants down to their bathing grounds – a nearby river. Here you can watch the large herd play in the water while you enjoy a well-earned juice and roti in the nearby café.
Fancy a bit of a hike – or better still, a great view? Then this SL gem will fit into your trip nicely. Sigiriya Rock Fortress – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is a 1,214ft high stone structure in the central district of Sri Lanka. It’s thought to be a ‘magma plug’ from a now extinct and long-disappeared volcano.
The walls of Sigiriya show scribblings from pilgrims and it’s thought that the rock was used as a shelter for a monastery way back in 5th Century BC. The surrounding gardens make a scenic walk beforehand and of course the view from the top is quite special.
Even the local little kiddies and old aunties are able to make it to the top. Just beware, there are quite a number of steps so bring plenty of water and take it easy.
Ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s medieval capital and it’s here where you’ll get to be really adventurous with your history.
The ruins of the ancient city are there to be discovered and within the area, you’ll find the left overs of palaces, dagobas, temples and walls. It’s truly beautiful to see.
Nearby Habarana and Dambulla are worth a visit too, because you’ll find scattered ruins en route.
There is also a rather locally well-known wild elephant who always seems to be hanging out on the road to Dambulla.
Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada)
Another sky-high feature of Central Sri Lanka is this stunning 7,359ft conical mountain. Visitors from all faiths come from miles around to make the trip to the top of Adam’s Peak – all in order to see the ‘sacred footprint’ which lies near the summit. Thought to belong to Buddha, this footprint is over 5ft 11in in length.
You’ll need to be fit to scale this one – so it may not be one for all the family, but it certainly is something unique if you do decide to do it, especially if you start the hike early enough to watch the sunrise from the mountain. It really is a wonderous view from up there! The trip to the top and back down can take up to seven hours, so give yourself plenty of time, carbs and water!
December to April are the best months to visit – the other months of the year are likely to bring heavy rain to the area.
Unawatuna and south coast beaches
Drive south of Colombo on the Galle Road and you’ll eventually reach the south coast – and here’s where you’ll find some of the prettiest beaches on the island. There are palm trees-a-plenty and a series of cute boutique hotels to stop off at if you fancy lunch or even a stay.
Avoid the rainy season and visit Unawatuna between November and March – the snorkelling reefs are beautiful and you’ll find plenty of backpacker pals and family holiday-makers to chat to. If you prefer a bit of isolation, Mirissa Beach just down the road is more of a sleepy village and has a slow sandy stretch to go with it.
Yala National Park
Imagine driving down an old sandy path and coming face-to-face with this fella above. That’s the kind of adrenaline rush Yala can give you. Of course, it can’t be guaranteed that you’ll see every animal on the list (spotted deer, wild buffalo, mongoose, jackal, sloth bear, crocs), but if you look hard enough, you’re bound to see a fair few elephants roaming about often with their young in tow – and if you’re super lucky, you might spot a leopard.
The national park itself is found on the South Coast and covers a crazy 100K hectares of jungle. The best way to see it all is on a jeep safari – because the locals know the best places to take you. Early morning is the time to be there, or at dusk. Always have a guide with you.
A two to three day visit is usually the right amount of time to see as much as you can, so if you choose to stay in the park, be prepared to pay extra for the good location. It is worth it – walking up to the sound of elephant cries at 6am is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ things people talk about.
Batticoloa and the East Coast
Trincomalee usually gets all the East Coast attention, so it’s about time the laid-back town of Batticoloa got some love. Stop here for the night and you’ll be privy to some stunning sunrises – and if you can wake yourself up early enough, make sure you head to the beach to watch the fishermen bring in their catch. It’s quite a stunning sight – and if you make a stop off at the market on the way back from your early morning escapade, you’re likely to be eating some of that goodness for lunch!
The East Coast is slightly less developed than the rest of the island beaches so if you’re after some old-school Sri Lanka, this is the place to be. Nearby Aragum Bay has even been making its way up the popular lists thanks to its great surf.
Flights to Colombo from London Heathrow begin at around £750 return.
Entry into Pinnewala Elephant Sanctury is currently Rs2000 which is about £10, depending on the exchange rate.
Yala National Park is probably the priciest of these recommendations – but is well worth forking out that extra bit. It’s approximately £20 for a half day safari, which includes entry fees, guide and jeep – although guides will expect a tip. It’s £10 if you’re bringing your own vehicle, but a 4×4 is recommended and guides charge extra. Accomodations prices vary according to season and availability. These are best booked in advance.
Entry to Sigiriya National Park is approximately £15. But you can also buy a Cultural Triangle ticket which will allow you entry to the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, cave temples of Dambulla, and Sigiriya rock for £30. This ticket is valid for 14 days.
Finally, an energetic climb up to Adam’s Peak won’t set you back anything at the moment, but it will require an early morning start!
PICTURE CREDIT: Karen Edwards