We arrived in Sri Lanka, naively believing it would be the same (or similar) to India, it’s often described as the “light” version of the two countries, but we found that they are worlds apart. Sri Lanka is less crowded and much smaller, people are just as, if not more, friendly. The curries are completely different, less rich with a passion for dried fish that we really didn’t share. There was nowhere near as much vegetarian option as in India, despite the 75% Buddhist population. The beaches are cleaner, the transport is just as mad!
Our route around the country was:
Colombo > Kandy (where we caught an England vs Sri Lanka cricket match) > Dambulla > Polonnaruwa > Sigiriya > Kandy > Ella (the “most beautiful train ride in the world” or the “most crowded train we’ve ever been on”?) > The coast (Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa) > Negombo.
Top tip: the 7 hour train journey from Kandy to Ella has become extremely famous and rammed full of tourists, if you’re desperate for a reserved seat, tickets sell fast when they are released a month before travel (mostly by agents who they resell these at inflated prices). If you miss out of reserved like we did, you have a few options, you can buy one through an agent, just accepting that you’re paying up to 10x the price of the ticket, you can go to the station before Kandy to secure a seat, or we would suggest buying third class unreserved, instead of second class, we ended up moving down to third anyway where there was more room and after a few hours we got ourselves a seat. Sit on the right hand side before Nuwara Eliya and left hand side afterwards for the best views!
Sri Lanka has seen a huge increase in tourism in the last 5-10 years, but it’s clear that no one is bending backwards to cater for your western needs – which we like (excluding a few fancy resorts on the coast which we did not manage to squeeze in!) For example, to travel from tea country to the coast, you either live like a local and take a 6 hour bumpy bus for 300 rupees (£1.40) with no guarantee of a seat or you pay 15,000 rupees (£70) to be taken the same journey by air conditioned taxi, there’s no in-between. We took the former, the bus time table is kept in a hand written note in the Curd shop on Ella high street, it’s not well publicised (probably to help the taxi drivers out). We got a seat no problem, but it was not peak season so a lot less busy than normal.
One thing is for certain, Sri Lanka is beautiful. Everything is green and luscious, so every train and bus ride has amazing views, if a little (read: very) bumpy/crowded. We saw elephants, buffalo, peacocks, sea turtles, tropical fish, monitor lizards (and cockroaches, but we won’t dwell on that). We climbed Pidurangala, Little Adams Peak, up to Uva Halpwette tea factory, and Ella’s Rock. All had spectacular views and best done at dawn, before the crazy heat. Our favourite was Pidurangala, which is not the famous Lions rock in Sigiriya, but the one opposite. It was 500 rupees entry instead of 5000 and we would argue even more beautiful. It is less crowded, we had the entire top to ourselves, whereas we saw a queue of about 100 people for Lion’s rock, although apparently the climb is a little more difficult on Pidurangala, the paths completely disappears at the end and there’s some rock climbing required.
Another amazing day was when we cycled round Polonnaruwa in central Sri Lanka, which contain the restored ruins of what was once the capital of Sri Lanka in around 800 AD, before being deserted by 1200.
Once we got to the coast you can see it is being built up, in most seaside towns there is a parade of shops and bars along the beach, practically touching the ocean, we learnt that it was a lot more built up prior to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that devastated the country. We stayed in a great hostel in Unawatuna with a family and their adorable 2 year old son Leo, who quickly enlisted Isaac to build Lego guns with him. In Hikkaduwa, Isaac managed to bag a serious offseason gem and get a beautiful hotel and swimming pool at a fraction of its peak season price.
1 blog really isn’t enough to do Sri Lanka justice, but hopefully this video Isaac made will show you why we loved it here.