I have visited Sri Lanka a number of times for leisure, and running school trips. I can’t recommend the place enough. Even to the point where I have been looking at property and future retirement plans. Whenever I hear someone mention they are going to visit, I am enthused to give some tips and recommendations so I thought it would make sense to post here so I can direct people rather than repeating myself.
- Sri Lanka was at civil war for 30 years which means it is underdeveloped as a tourist destination, which is brilliant! (the development not the war), although it is fast making progress so my advice is to visit sooner rather than later before it turns into the next Ko Samui.
- It is a poor country so from a tourist point of view everything is very cheap, you can live like a king and earn your karma by being generous with the locals.
- There is something for everyone here: jungles, beaches, mountains, temples, culture, great food, surfing, rafting, diving, zip lining, cricket, colonial history, very friendly people, amazing wildlife including wild elephants, leopards, turtles, blue whales and crocodiles
- Transport infrastructure is terrible, there is only 1 highway and very little public transport. Driving is a nightmare and should be avoided if possible, get a good driver for long trips and use TukTuks around town. Planing your journey can be problematic without experience as it can take a long time to drive a relatively short distance due to poor roads and traffic etc.
- They speak 2 official languages: Tamil and Sinhala but there is quite a lot of English spoken which makes life easy.
- Getting close to wildlife is so easy in Sri Lanka – taking a safari jeep to spot an elusive leopard, bottle feeding baby elephants or looking for baby turtles making their way into the sea. If you like nature you will love this place. Their national animal is the Grizzled Giant Squirrel, which is the size of a cat with a big pink nose and a brilliant critter to spot while you are out on your adventures.
Places to visit
This will most likely be your entry point into the international airport. To be honest Colombo is my least favorite place in Sri Lanka. Its the only city (by western standards), very busy, not very pretty compared to everything else the island has to offer. If you have the time to spare its worth a day to have a walk at sunset along the Galle Face Green and investigate some of the funky buildings in the city (like a replica of the USA white house). There are shopping malls and coffee shops which you wont find anywhere else in Sri Lanka if that is your thing, although no Starbucks – you can use that statement as a measure of the impact of the civil war!.
Negumbo is a little nicer and actually much closer to the airport (literally minutes away) so if you need a stop off point on your way in or out I recommend Negumbo rather than Colombo – there are some really nice hotels. We stayed in the Jet-wing Beach Hotel which was lovely I would recommend any of the Jet-wing hotels in Sri Lanka they are all nice http://www.jetwinghotels.com/
In Negumbo you can take a boat ride on the old canal system which gives you a good overview of the area and as with all Sri Lanka you will see some cool critters (water monitors, snakes, kingfishers etc.) then you can take a walk to the village fish market where they put all the fish out on the beach to dry and become preserved.
Around Sri Lanka there are loads of cute little palm squirrels (very small like chipmunks) we managed to tempt one into our lush beachfront hotel in Negumbo with a promise of minibar nuts (don’t recoil in disbelief, minibar prices inline with everything else are . . . well . . . . peanuts!
Kandy is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, here you will find traditional dancing shows and of course Sri Lanka’s most valued relic – the Buddha Tooth Relic. Housed in the golden temple overlooking the lake it is certainly worth a visit in the evening to watch the ceremony taking place even if you are not into all that kind of stuff, its beautiful and interesting so well worth a look.
While in Kandy we also visited a Gem mining museum as Sri Lanka is also famous for its gemstones, the only downside being that it was then impossible to leave Kandy without my wife purchasing some samples to take back with us – its never good for me when they need a calculator!
Its so amazing the different landscapes and climate on such a small island, travel up the mountains from Kandy to the Highlands and you will swear you are in Scotland. A fantastic place for a hike, with waterfalls, valleys and the many tea plantations. Do stop at Mackies tea factory for a free tour and then some tea and cake in the cafe after, it a very British colonial experience.
This place is a must for all visitors, a town built inside an old fort. Easy to get to its at the other end of the only highway out of Colombo, just 90 minutes drive from the airport to get right down to the southern coast (where it can take you 5 hours to drive half the distance over the highlands)
Shop and eat in the boutiques, watch the international cricket from the walls of the fort and see the amazing cliff divers demonstrating their skills to the public for a small donation, these guys are bonkers they dive into very shallow water – see the video below!
Marissa is very famous for blue whale watching and turtle hatcheries, both excellent things to do while on the southern coast. However the real gem I can recommend to you here is the resort “Cape Weligama” its certainly not at all cheap ($400 per night) however as its still Sri Lanka you are still getting a great deal, and if you fancy a bit of luxury its money well spent!
We had our own huge private villa with a bathroom bigger then most hotel rooms I have been in. It is situated on the cliff top offering fantastic views, with private sauna & pool. We also had our own butler who would bring us food, pour us drinks, wash and press our clothes among other things. Did I mention that its also all inclusive, your butler will stock your fridge up with whatever you like, bring you afternoon tea and generally try to make you happy.
There are 3 restaurants including traditional Sri Lanka curry, western with fresh seafood caught in the morning and a Japanese for those wanting something a little more contemporary. There is a private beach as well as an activity centre where you can pickup complementary snorkelling gear or borrow a bike to go for an adventure.
I have been to many places and I can honestly say without a doubt this is the most luxurious experience I have ever had, I know we will return here, its not a matter of if, it is a matter of when!
One of my favorite adventures is safari in the national parks, we visited 2 of the main national parks:
Udawalawe – If Elephants are your thing this is a must, there were loads of them, they are pretty sneaky for the biggest land animal on the planet, this chap came out of the undergrowth to cross the road and we didn’t know he was coming until he appeared within touching distance.
Yala – This is my favorite national park, If you love nature I would make this place a must! You can stay in the Cinnamon Wild hotel which is inside the national park, both in the jungle and on the beach. The safari jeep leaves from the lobby and with a little luck you can see the elusive rare Leopard, we saw him but didn’t manage a picture so you will have to take my word how cool it is.
You can sunbath by the pool, watching the crocodiles 20 yards away in the lake. Or see the wild boar with their babies mooching around your villa and the monkeys jumping on the rooftops. One day it was raining we came back to our villa and found we already had guests waiting for us (see below).
This area is the ancient capital, if you like temples, ruins, archaeology and culture etc. then this is the place for you. We spent a day here and I found it very interesting although if ruins are not your thing it can get a little samey. Look out for the giant stone carvings of Buddha – they were very impressive.
Surfs up! – this coast is just full of beach resorts where you can surf, paddle, jet ski etc. We haven’t spent much time in these resorts but they are very popular, look at places like Hikkaduwa, Bentota or Unawatuna to satisfy all your beach and water sport needs.
If you like the idea of privacy and a beach with unspoiled sand where you won’t see a sole, then head for the east coast, pretty much untouched by resorts there isn’t much to do but lets be honest thats what some of us go away for.
I haven’t been any further north than Anuradhapura so I can’t really comment, but I thought I better mention it on here. The advice I was given was like the east coast its pretty untouched by tourists but for good reason – I was advised to use guides and be careful if exploring the North, there are still many dangers such as landmines left from the war.
This was a brilliant day for us, we always look back fondly of the time we climbed the Lion Rock (or Sigiria as its known locally) on the way up, there is loads to see, including very old cave paintings and when you get to the top its an amazing view. I would certainly recommend a guide, they are inexpensive and will explain what everything was used for when this was the kings summer palace. On the way down there are wild monkeys and people selling you stuff as to be expected, but no-one is pushy its a really nice experience.
I have managed a couple of school trips here, we stayed at a brilliant site called Borderlands, I would call it glam-ping, its camping on the river but with amenities, they do some nice food and there is a bar and chill out area with hammocks and beanbags etc. The people are friendly and helpful and the place is lovely and relaxing but the real reason you come here is for the river. If kayaking or white water rafting is your thing then you will love it! The guys will organise and instruct you with everything and provide all the gear for your adventures: https://www.discoverborderlands.com/srilanka/
No trip would be complete without a visit to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. I have mixed feelings about this place and I don’t feel that this post is the place for politics so for the purpose of this article lets assume we don’t have hangups about elephants in captivity and look at the good bits: You can bottle feed baby elephants (@ 9:00am) and get up close to the others for a photo etc. A visit to the education centre is worthwhile so you can talk to the staff and make up your own mind about the place.
Every day at 10:00am the elephants in the orphanage are led out of the grounds, cross the street, down a lane and to the river, where they spend the next few hours bathing and playing – its a wonderful majestic sight to see and a highlight that will sit in my memory forever. There is a hotel overlooking the river where you can get a great view and enjoy a few beers – I really recommend you experience this.
We have used Walkers tours twice and have been very happy with them. If its your first time to Sri Lanka and want a hassle free experience to get around the island and see a variety of places this is a really good way to go, I would certainly recommend them.
Our first trip fully arranged by Walkers – they tailored a private itinerary to suit us and we had a personal English speaking driver/tour guide with our own minivan for the whole thing which was brilliant if we wanted to be flexible we could ask him to stop at places or to drop us off and pick us up etc. We had a gentleman called Chandra and he added real value to our family holiday experience taking us on little “off itinerary” excursions he knew we would like after getting to know us.
10 nights exploring the island with walkers including transport, accommodation, breakfast and dinner in the 4-5* hotels and entrance into any activities etc cost us just over $1,000 USD per head – what a bargain!
Below are links to the blog from our first trip I wrote along with the 2 walkers tours itineraries we have taken.
I have taken hundreds of photos in this amazing place, here is a small selection to give you a flavour.