My first proper experience in Asia; you may sense some extra excitement in this post. Seeing is believing I guess, apparently such places are as beautiful as they look on computers’ backgrounds. Sri Lanka is a country with a large population density (ranked 42nd globally), therefore the distances between towns are pretty short, which allows for a lot to be seen. Unless you plan to spend a minimum of two weeks in Sri Lanka, the north and south should be chosen between. So, if you’re planning a 10 day trip, it is advised to pick central and northern parts, or central and southern parts.
I spent 10 days on the island, exploring the southern parts in addition to some towns in the center. Spent only the arrival day in Colombo, then started venturing on the coast to Hikkaduwa, Galle and Tangalle before heading inland to Yala, Udawalawe, Sri Pada (Adam’s peak), Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. The real treasure of Sri Lanka lies in its golden sandy beaches and impressive wildlife in the jungles, so spending only the arrival day in Colombo and heading to Hikkaduwa in the afternoon seemed adequate.
Trying to figure the way around the airport, surrounded by travel agencies’ harassment, came across a man, Bandara, who was holding a sign in the arrival area with a name on it. Started cracking a conversation with him, to find him offer tours in his car around the island for half of what the agencies were offering (40,000 LEK, $260 – 10 days). He was holding the sign as a camouflage, since only tour agencies are allowed to operate in the airport. On a separate note, visa is obtained upon arrival for US citizens and costs $40.
The man drove to all the places discussed in this post, organized the national park tours and was always wearing a smile on his face, although his English was pretty limited. He was very loyal, dependable for the most part, and worked really hard to make my Sri Lankan experience worthwhile.
He also came along the new year’s eve hike to Sri Pada (Adam’s peak), the place where Adam is believed to have set his first footsteps on earth, according to the four major religions. Watching the first sunrise of the year with our boy Bandara from the top was spectacular.
The capital, lies close to Negombo (where the airport is) and a few attractions worthwhile. Lots of Buddhist temples are scattered around the city, the ones I visited were Seema Malaka and Gangaramaya. I was specifically impressed with the symmetrical designs and decorations of these temples, but bare in mind that it was my first time in a Buddhist temple.
On another note, towards the oceanfront, several little shacks are situated, selling a variety of finger food and general items. It’s not really a beach, more like a promenade. Close to that area, Colombo harbour is present, which is one of the busiest ports in Asia due to its strategic location in the Indian ocean. Within the same area, the parliament and Colombo lighthouse are found as well.
About a couple of hours south of Colombo lies Hikkaduwa (pronounced: Ee-ka-do-wa), a destination popular for beachgoers on the coast. As you enter the beach town, several hotels and guesthouses right on the beach will be apparent. Accommodation is generally cheap, although not the cheapest according to Sri Lankan standards.
Stayed in a decent establishment called ‘Top Secret’, a double room with A/C and private bathroom was $26/night. The hotel is known for hosting parties in the area, so if you need a more chilled and relaxed place especially at night, staying a little south is recommended. Most (if not all) of these beach hotels have their own restaurants and they all serve fresh seafood every day. Around sunset, the fishing boats return to coast with nets full of fish, where tourists occasionally help pulling out of the water, given how heavy they are.
The ocean at Hikkaduwa is wide open, making it a great place to surf. Surf lessons, boards, etc. can be easily attained at various stations on the beach. A popular surfing point is in front of Mambo’s, another hotel and restaurant next to ‘Top Secret’.
Across the beach, the other side of town has two lagoons (Hikkaduwa and Rathgama) where small ‘catamarans’ can be rented to have more of a ‘jungly’ experience. Such tours can be organized from the hotel you’re staying at, just ask and they will bring someone who knows the area. On occasions, you get to see the locals working, such as the photo above; these women are collecting coconut husk to make rope!
We asked the boat owner to grill us some fish and calamari that we freshly bought from the market, and ended up having this meal on his lakeside wooden deck.
Roughly 30 minutes past Hikkaduwa. Galle (pronounced: Gol) is another coastal town, containing a popular fortress built by the Portuguese, but later fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century. The fort is considered the largest standing one in Asia, built by Europeans during the colonial periods. The fort area contains numerous accommodation options, although pricey. Most bars are located there as well; grabbed a beer at ‘The Hammock’ and finished it by the observatory area of the fort.
Away from the fort, a little bit inland is where the locals reside, you find a more authentic experience and good Sri Lankan food.
Next was Tangalle (pronounced: Tan-ga-le). A pretty hip beach town about an hour and a half past Galle. The beach town is less popular than Hikkaduwa, more beach relaxation was accomplished. The beach is equally nice (if not better than Hikkaduwa), and the seafood was to die for. Thirsty? No problem, climb any palm tree, get a coconut, crack it open and drink its water. The yellow coconut especially contains a lot of water.
My personal highlight was ‘Oceana’, a seafood restaurant with a nice view and outstanding Mahi-mahi. Had a great chat with the fisherman, who offered a fishing trip the next morning as well.
Yala National Park
One of the most famous safaris in Sri Lanka is carried out at Yala. The park is especially famous for leopards, although we spotted an elephant family early on. Peacocks, monkeys, white-bellied sea eagles, giant lizards are among the hosts as well. The landscapes are incredible and the wildlife is rich.
The park is regarded to be a touristy one, however, the amount of jeeps in the park were not that many. Easy navigation throughout the spacious park was possible.
Accommodation is possible near the park, potentially at Kataragama, although decided to head west to Udawalawe to spend the night, and have an early start for the other park the next day.
Udawalawe National Park
More popular among locals, Udawalawe is another rich national park in Sri Lanka. I saw many elephants, that anytime I closed my eyes I would see them. This happened for at least a day. Highlight: seeing an elephant take a bath in a green sea of algae full of buffaloes, top left picture below.
Anyway, the park is relatively smaller than Yala, making the wildlife density bigger, and easier to spot wild animals and exotic birds.
While in Udawalawe, the elephant orphanage can be visited. The place helps any elephants in the wilderness that require any type of care. Lots of baby elephants that got lost from their families are hosted there.
The orphanage is open for the public to view the feeding three times a day, at 9:00, 12:00 and 15:00.
Sri Pada (Adam’s peak)
As mentioned earlier, the peak is where the first footsteps of mankind were placed. It is particularly famous for Buddhists, considered a pilgrimage. The place is believed to be Buddha’s last presence on earth, before reaching Nirvana. You get a chance to view a footprint, Buddhists believe it belongs to Buddha, Hindus believe it is Lord Sheva’s, Muslims believe it belongs to Adam.
I would say the hike up is strenuous, about 5,200 steps, and takes about 3.5 hours. The route is well illuminated at night, and full of shacks selling basic food and beverage necessities for a marked up price of course.
New year’s eve was a busy evening for the hike, but the view of the sunrise was breathtaking and very worth it!
The weather on the top is relatively cold, requiring a fleece layer or so. Accommodation is possible at the bottom of the peak, although the decision was made to head to Nuwara Eliya after the descent.
Built by the Brits, the city exhibits a large colonial architecture influence. Nuwara Eliya (pronounced: Nu-wara El-ye) is popular for its tea plantations and relatively colder weather (since it is 1,868m above sea level).
Stayed at Queenswood cottage, hotel is made entirely out of wood and preserves its classic touch. Moreover, tourists particularly visit the city to experience the tea factories and generally learn more about the tea making process. The city has not much going on, which made it a perfect place to relax, after the difficult hike up Adam’s peak.
My highlight in Nuwara Eliya was taking the train to Kandy, which was a ride in the mountains with extraordinary views of the tea plantation fields. The train holds a British colonial feel to it.
The largest city after Colombo visited on this trip was Kandy. Kandy was my final stop, spent a day there and got to see the main attractions. The architecture of the city was pretty chic; Queen’s hotel, the one I stayed at was 178 years old! It was truly like a maze inside.
Among the things to see in Kandy are the national museum and the ‘Temple of the Tooth’. The temple houses the relic of the Buddha’s tooth. On the other hand, while in Kandy, ‘Helga’s Folly’ is a psychedelically designed hotel where you can go for a drink or so. Pretty cool (and trippy) decorations.
On a nice day, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya should be visited. The garden is close to Kandy, and worth visiting; containing plants, trees and flowers from all over the world. it was truly impressive. Not to mention that it’s home to lots of bats!