Meandering along jewelled coastlines, misted tea plantations and safari plains dotted with elephants, Emily Herbert is enticed by Sri Lanka - and reveals why it should be on your bucket list
First published Downtown Magazine, Australia
Sri Lanka – where incredible landscapes, ancient history, exquisite cuisine and beautiful people dance under a sultry Indian blue sky. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sri Lanka except I wanted both beach and jungle, exotic food and a rich cultural experience at once. I got it all in spades. Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is a small country with a colossal history peppered with colonisations and rulers. Hints of European influences are spiced with Indian enchantments everywhere you look. I recommend you book your flight at once.
Now bear in mind there is a million different ways to explore a country, and I can only give you my itinerary. The following has a mix of budgets for accommodation, food and activities – we chose to travel on public transport for the experience, but hired drivers and tuk tuks are very reasonable.
ARRIVE: Fly into Colombo and be prepared for sensory overload. The humidity will hit you like an ocean wave, with people clamouring to offer you a taxi ride or a cheap night’s accommodation. Most hotels offer a taxi ride from the airport and if you’re getting in late and bedraggled, it can be nice to find your name on a placard in the crowd. Bear in mind Colombo Airport isn’t in the city, so look for accommodation in Katunayake or Negombo.
STAY: $$ For a relaxing first day or two, book a couple of nights at the Goldi Sands Hotel in Negonmbo, minutes from the airport and backing straight onto the Indian Ocean. Cocktails and fresh mango juice next to the pool overlooking the golden sands the retreat derives its name….need I say more.
DAY TWO: Make your way to the Colombo Fort Railway Station and delve into the bustling heart of Sri Lanka. Buy a ticket from Colombo to Galle – only 2nd and 3rd class tickets are sold on the day and are incredibly cheap. Beware, there’s no air conditioning, just wide open windows! This coastal track winds its way down the country with the waves often metres away. Galle Fort suns itself on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, draped in history. Built by the Portuguese in 1588, it was then extensively fortified by the Dutch who added architectural finery and an elegant European sense. Stroll the narrow streets, wander around the fort walls, and check out the beautiful boutiques. Galle is far quieter and distinctly poised compared to the noise outside its gates. Spoons Café is a must for lunch and Stick No Bills is a fab vintage poster shop.
STAY: $$ Kahlid’s Guest House offers boutique renovated rooms with cool wooden floors and high ceilings. Open air and quaintly decorated, it’s a hidden gem with an included breakfast that’s worth the stay altogether.
DAY THREE: Spend all morning exploring, then jump on a bus from the terminal near the railway station to Tangelle. The locals are incredibly helpful (if you’re cruising on buses and trains, pack lightly!). In a country where only 8 per cent have a car, buses are often packed to the rafters with people hanging out the doors. Many of the more ‘modern’ buses are an experience in themselves, with Sinhala pop blaring from the speakers.
STAY: $$ We chose to stay at this sweet tree house in Tangelle (dubbed Romantic Tree House on Air BnB for those looking) for the novelty alone. Getting up the narrow staircase is a feat but it’s so unique you can’t not. It’s built on the grounds of a hotel that boasts an infinity pool overlooking Tangelle Bay. Do me a favour and order the calamari while sitting pool side, enjoying a cold beer. You won’t regret it.
DAY FOUR: Time to head inland. Spend most of the day luxuriating by the pool, then jump on a bus and head into the jungle. Sri Lanka is a safari lovers’ paradise. Further down the south-east coast is Yala National Park, famous for its leopards. But we chose Uda Walawe National Park, only two hours or so from Tangelle, with less crowds than Yala and boasting more than 500 wild elephants. Heading out to the National Park with the morning sky blushing pink above us is something I’ll never forget.
STAY: $ Mansala Safari House was one of the best homestays we had on the trip. While the amenities are basic, it’s impeccably clean. Owner Tiron can organise an afternoon or morning safari, complete with safari truck and guide. Take advantage of the incredible homecooked Sri Lankan dinner and breakfast prepared by the family for a small extra cost. On Safari we saw a plethora of wild animals from countless elephants, buffalo and crocodiles, our driver pointing out things in the bush the average layman couldn’t possibly spot.
DAY FIVE: Head further up into the tea country of beautiful Ella, a treat for those ready to stretch their legs. It’s also a great way to escape the heat with its cooler mountain climate. Climb Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak for sumptuous sunrise views, and walk along the rail tracks to watch a train cross the famous 9 arches bridge.
STAY: $ - $$ Family run guest houses, hostels and hotels line the streets of Ella, but to really make the most of your stay, choose something with mountain views. Waking up in the morning with the valley spread before you really is incredible. Enjoy a traditional roti at Chill Café or take a curry cooking class at Spice Garden to wow friends and family back home.
DAY SIX: Buy some snacks and get ready for the long haul – a train ride is about to snake up the country with you aboard for the next eight hours. The train ride from Ella to Kandy is impossibly scenic – sit in the open doorways with your legs swinging below you, lush tea plantations flung in every direction. It is a long – and oft hot and crowded- journey but the scenery is worth it. Kandy is built around a giant lake, and like any city is busy, dirty and loud. But it’s also fabulous – with so many places to eat and visit. Visit the Temple of the Tooth, watch a performance by the Kandyan Dancers in traditional garb and pack a picnic and stroll around the exquisite Royal Botanical Gardens.
STAY: $$ Kandy Central Hotel is exactly what it says on the tin. You pay a little more to be in walking distance of everything, and while generic and lacking character, it’s clean, perfectly located and most importantly, has great air-conditioning.
DAY SEVEN: Jump on a bus early morning and head to the Dambulla Cave Temple, a five cave complex filled with more than 100 Buddha statues and paintings, the first of which were created more than 2,000 years ago. From here, it’s time to get indulgent – grab a tuk tuk and make your way to the Five Star Heritance Kandalama.
STAY: $$$ Heritance Kandalama just outside Dambulla is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous hotels built by the country’s most renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa. Don’t be fooled by the dirt road leading to its gates – the enormous hotel is in the middle of the countryside and perfectly blended into the landscape, covered in vines. Look out over the Kandalama Lake from the infinity pool, or sip cocktails while watching the monkeys scamper over the terraces.
DAY EIGHT: Put your sneakers on and cruise on to Sigiriya Rock. This ancient rock fortress harks back thousands of years to when it first served as monastery and then as a Sinhalese royal complex. It’s a dramatic sight and undoubtedly one of the most popular attractions on the island. Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to beat and the heat and be prepared – it’s physically exhausting! It costs around $40AU to climb the steep stairs cut into the rocks sides, and a stomach plunging traverse along the top. Frescoes adorn the walls and once on top, the astonishing views are jaw dropping. The nearby city ruins of Polonnaruwa are worth the look – hire a bike and spend the day riding around them.
STAY: $ - $ There’s a range of accommodation in the nearby citadel, from cheap as chips guest houses, to up market boutique hotels. For something simple check out Sigiri Rainbow Lodge which offers a delicious breakfast, or go a little more upmarket at Hotel Sigyria, with spectacular views of the rock from the pool.
DAY NINE: Spend it travelling back towards the airport – we chose to have one more day in Negombo to chill out before the flight home. Catch up on last minute shopping, eat your final curries, hoppas and samosas and indulge in all the fresh juice you can drink.