Explore Sri Lanka - a diverse, sociable and flavoursome paradise
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
...to get it started – Sri Lanka has it all: beautiful beaches, a lush green vegetation, a great versified fauna and flora, natural wonders, World Heritage sites, steep mountains and above all real friendly people with a welcoming heart – and of course the mouth-watering food – however train your taste buds before, if you are not used to spicy foods.
Sri Lanka is such a great tourist destination that it is hard to fill all in one trip – but hey, what a good excuse to come back! After some troublesome years of civil war, the deadly Tsunami catastrophe and the recent terrorist attacks, Sri Lanka is rising again. Tourists are falling once again in love with this stunning island. With its recent popularity Sri Lanka can get crowded during the peak season and accommodation is hard to find. However the island is so big that you can still escape the main tourist streams and venture in some more unknown corners of the island.
As Sri Lanka has so much variety, the program choice depends on your interests. You can just relax in one of the many beach hotels, go surfing or enjoy some traditional Ayurvedic treatment (herbal based consultations, massages and wellness programs). However all that would not do justice to the great world, waiting to be explored outside your hotel walls.
So in this Blog I will describe a small round trip that we did for 10 days including some of the main touristic sites, beautiful nature experiences and some days to relax on the beach. I booked a car and driver through a fantastic travel agency (see contacts below). I would recommend you to do the same, if you like to have some guiding along the way. Otherwise you can also rent a car by yourself and do some great round tours on the island. But watch out as traffic within cities is chaotic and in my point of view they drive on the wrong side of the road :-) (yessss, I know my British friends will see that the other way round). You also need to calculate much more time as you are used to, due to the lack of highways (except one from Colombo to the South). All main roads cross through densely populated villages en route, which slows down the traffic drastically. Thus 100 km can easily take you 3-4 hours driving.
Also a word about the weather and the monsoon season – depending if you are East or West of the Island. Raining season of the East Coast and Northern Region is during the winter season (October to March), on the West Coast and Southern Region it is exactly opposite. However the weather in Sri Lanka not always sticks to the plan, so expect some short downpours outside of the traditional seasons as well. In the central Tea Region cold and often foggy weather will await you, so even in the summer season bring some warm cloth with you up there.
If you are from the Nordic countries, specifically Sweden, I can recommend you a travel agency that is specialized in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan owner and his team are taking great efforts to promote this beautiful destination. So if you like to have a worry-free-full-service-package get in touch with them.
Orient Tours / Don Jayatilake and Katarina Hellman – firstname.lastname@example.org / www.orienttours.se
If you are from other parts in the world you can also get directly in touch with the excellent local agent:
Ceylon Tours / email@example.com / www.ceylontours.com
They arranged a real nice driver/guide for us – Lucky. Super safe driver with a great knowledge of all the sites plus every day a remarkable clean car – we were actually wondering when and how he fixed that every night :-) in some of the historic sites, we had a local tour guide in addition for detailed explanations.
Here he is - Mr. Lucky himself, I promised him to put his picture in this Blog post.
Arrival into Colombo is convenient with many international airlines connecting the island to your home countries plus easy immigration formalities. Check Sri Lanka visa information on www.eta.gov.lk
Part One – Central Sri Lanka / Cultural Triangle
We arrived in the late morning hours, opted to skip noisy Colombo and headed direct to the central part of the island with the major attraction of Sigiriya Rock. It’s a mere 180 km drive, which will set you back with around 4-5 hours - told you :-) en route you can observe the busy street life of the villages and do some stops for some excellent roadside fingerfood – chillies here we come……the fire in your mouth is best extinguished with some bread or crackers and NOT with water!!!
Comment on the food – as I said it is really tasty, but might be too much for some of our western stomachs. So in case of any problems along the way, go to a local pharmacy or even a general supermarket to purchase some great herbal medicines. English is widely spoken in Sri Lanka, so an advice for the right remedy is easy to get. The local brand Siddhalepa is well known and has some excellent products for stomach ache as well as oils for muscle and neck pain – I highly recommend to bring some stock home with you!
Amaya Lake Hotel
But back to our tour now. The first hotel of our itinerary was a property from the local Amaya brand – Amaya Lake Hotel (www.amayaresorts.com/amayalake). Beautifully located at the shores of a lake, where often elephants can be spotted. The resort stretches over a huge area, nestled in beautiful natural surroundings.
You will be warmly welcomed from the local rabana music group, before entering the lofty reception area. Rabana playing was very popular back in the years, where almost every village had its own rabana group, mainly consisting of women. Competitions were held and rabanas were used during wedding ceremonies to welcome the bridal party (thanks Sriyani for this information!).
After check-in, a golf cart will bring you to your assigned bungalow. The bungalows were spacious with rustic interior (maybe a bit dark for my taste) and very clean. Nevertheless a good clean is not always a guarantee, so we had an interesting ant street through our bungalow.
The main open-air dining hall, a bar and the pool plus their excellent Spa is located in the public area. Traditional Ayurveda treatments are also on offer (you can even book yourself into longer treatments that are going over 1-3 weeks).
Higher classed bungalow types, have their separate pool and restaurant area. All guests can enjoy further entertainment like yoga classes or cultural dance shows plus theme dinners.
During a walk down to the lake you are surrounded by a beautiful tranquil nature scenery.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The next morning before breakfast, we set off for our climb onto the Sigiriya Rock. The ancient rock fortress is a popular image for the island´s tourism promoters and thus gained huge popularity. The advise from our driver to come very early was therefore wise, as we were ahead of the main crowds. The stairways are super narrow and already in that early hours were quite some people there – so I actually don’t want to imagine an hour or two later :-) and our trip was in August, which is not the peak season.
Sigiriya is an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning. King Kasyapa has built his ancient capital on the plateau of this almost 200 meter high rock, overlooking the plain lands and forests of central Sri Lanka. There are a lot of steps to take, but with an average fitness level you will reach the Plateau in around 20 minutes. Approach to the rock is over a wide entrance lane, crossing a park where monkeys can be spotted.
Once you reach the base of the rock, the steps will bring you up further until you reach an adventurous looking construct of ladders and a spiral case, leading you to the remains of some beautiful frescoes. It is believed that once, the sides of the rock were completely covered in these frescoes, which created the largest picture gallery in the world. Nowadays you can only imagine how impressive that must have been with the few vanishing left-overs.
Passing through the so-called Mirror Wall you reach a small plateau for the final climb and well YES, it requires the courage to trust those people who have built these stairs. Not recommended for people with fear of heights, as the stairs clinch freely to the side of the rock.
At the bottom of the stairs you pass through some giant lion paws, which are believed to be the remains of the massive lion statue forming the entry gate to the fortress. From here the rock got its name as Lions Rock.
On top you can enjoy a beautiful view over the surroundings and the plateau itself. Worth all the sweat of the climb!
Alternatively to the crowded Lions Rock – you can climb a smaller rock just beside, which is also open to tourists. Of course you can’t say afterwards you have been on the Lions Rock, but entrance fee is much cheaper plus the photos that you can take from there onto Sigiriya are spectacular ….just saying :-)
Minneriya National Park
Another attraction of the area is a conglomerate of some national parks, in which you can observe wild elephant herds. Usually you can see up to 150 elephants coming together at the waterholes and lakes. What an impressive spectacle to see these majestic animals plus small baby elephants around you.
However in contrast to the great pictures, we have a backside of tourism as well. The park got so popular that visitors almost outnumber the animals and herds of jeeps following the elephants. I was actually surprised that the animals stayed so calm and relaxed – well, they are unfortunately used to it, but as a conclusion I see this experience with mixed feelings. I think the only way to protect this beautiful nature reserve is to raise ticket prices and to restrict the number of jeeps drastically.
The National Park has other residents as well...
The impressive historic city of Polonnaruwa is also an UNESCO World Heritage site. Built as an ancient kingdom in the middle of a very fertile land, the city became a thriving commercial and religious center. It later lost its importance and became an abandoned city emerging into the depth of the jungle. Due to tropic diseases and wild animals in this region the remains of the city stayed for long time undiscovered.
So get the Indiana Jones feeling, while venturing through the many remains of temples, tombs, stupas, statues and other historical remains.
The ancient city can be visited either on foot or you can rent a bicycle for the exploration of further archaeological sites within the city area.
Well, not everybody is interested in history…..
Part Two – The East Coast / Passikudah
Due to the monsoon season at the West Coast – we chose to have our beach days at the dry North-Eastern Coast at the Amaya Beach Hotel in Passikudah (www.amayaresorts.com/amayabeach).
Compared to the Amaya Lake Hotel before, this hotel was a much more modern-styled property. Interior was sleek, clean and minimalistic with large rooms all in bright and fresh colors. There was one main dining restaurant, a beach snack bar plus pool bar and lounge. The Spa was excellent with some amazing Spa packages including Ayurveda treatments as well. Thanks Robin for the wonderful massage!
The hotel was nice in general, but how to say: I was missing somehow a “soul” – it was a bit too lean and sterile for my taste. The biggest disappointment was the pool, without a nice design, the hotel is missing a tropical feeling. Plus no way to properly swim in that pool – it is long, but very shallow. For adults it is just a standing-around pool, as you will knock your knees while swimming.
The garden area is however large with nice palm trees and enough sunbeds for all guests.
The beach itself is very narrow with many pieces of shells and corals – so swimming shoes are advisable. If you however take a walk to the left of the hotel, you reach a wide open beach with white sands and a turquoise sea. Perfect to take a swim or do a beach walk. Additional hotels are located along this beach as well.
If you walk to the right side of the Amaya Beach Hotel, you reach a much wilder beach stretch, where you can observe some local fishermen.
Big plus of the Amaya Beach Hotel was the food – which was at all times super fresh and tasty. The morning buffet was sumptuous with many Asian, Western and local dishes. My absolute favorite was a local dish called hopper – which is basically a kind of thin, crispy pancake topped with an egg and other items of your liking. Veryyyyyy yummy.
For dinner, if not already included in your package, you can either choose between a buffet or a-la-carte menu both with local and international items. Due to its many international guests the food is trimmed down in terms of spiciness, allowing you to enjoy the local cuisine without burns in your mouth.
Part Three – Kandy and its surroundings
After three days of sun and sea we left our small beach retreat and set off for our drive to Kandy. On the way we stopped at the famous Golden Temple or Dambulla Cave Temple as it is also called, a World Heritage Site. We didn’t had the time to visit the largest and best preserved temple complex of Sri Lanka from the inside – but also the outside is impressive with a massive golden Buddha Statue.
Next stop was at one of the Spice Farms around Kandy – showcasing all about natural based medicine and herbal remedies. The huge selling room seemed rather a tourist trap to me, although our driver was claiming the opposite. Nevertheless I bought some overpriced cream and oil for home and the results were quite good, I have to admit. The place was called Royal Spice Garden – but there are many similar places in the area.
In Kandy we checked-in at the Cinnamon Citadel Hotel (www.cinnamonhotels.com/en/cinnamoncitadelkandy), beautifully located in a lush tropical forest at the shores of the Mahaweli river. The nice pool deck and the lofty, colonial-styled lobby are overlooking the river. From the balconies or terraces of the rooms you can hear the birds and breath-in the nature around you. Food at the restaurant was excellent.
Main public areas with reception hall and pool overlooking the river.
Room interior plus view from the balcony.
Kandy's main attraction is the World Heritage Temple of the Tooth (www.sridaladamaligawa.lk) – The temple lies within the complex of the former Royal Palace of Kandy and the Sacred Tooth is mainly a symbol of power throughout history – whoever holds the Tooth is said to hold the government power in Sri Lanka as well. There are three daily rituals open for tourists – but be aware that it can get super crowded during ritual performance times.
Temple entrance within the Palace area.
Kept behind the curtain, the Sacred Tooth is only revealed during ceremony time.
Flower offerings to please the Gods. Beisde food and other items even headache pills are offered!
Kandy Lake unfortunately with rain.
If you book your tour through an agency for sure you will also have a Cultural Dance Show in the program. And yes, that is a pure touristic thing, but somehow I liked it. Different ritual and folkloric dances will be performed plus the famous fire dance at the end of each show is indeed spectacular.
Kandy is also known for a very famous festival that takes place in July/August – the Elephant Festival or Kandy Esala Perahera. The Festival goes over a couple of days with various historical processions – the last day is the most spectacular. You can see different types of dances, performances and traditional costumes in the parade – but the most impressive part are the participating elephants that are all decorated with blinking lights. You can get tickets for seating areas through the hotels or an agency, which I advise you to purchase as the standing areas are extremely crowded. People are coming from all over Sri Lanka and other countries to witness these processions.
Unfortunately we missed the Festival just for few days, but at least on our way back to Colombo the most important elephant, the carrier of the Sacred Tooth, passed by. Together with his owner he lives near the capital and every year this famous elephant sets off for a 5 days walk to the Kandy Festival. He is well known and people on the way are often keen on popping some treats in his mouth. Lucky told us that the elephant has some favorite stops en route, as he already knows which street vendors has the sweetest bananas.
Another main attraction of Kandy is the Royal Botanical Garden (www.botanicgardens.gov.lk) – famous for its orchid collection and some rare samples of plants in its huge territory. Let’s just take a picture walk here to enjoy some of the highlights of the garden.
Kandy is also the starting point of a very recommended train trip – it’s scenic, it’s authentic, it’s basically Sri Lanka as its best! Getting train tickets might be a challenge, so get your hotel or agent involved or at least reserve your seat a day in advance at the station. Tickets for the first class mean more comfort for tourists including air-conditioning, but a regular ticket is more fun and gives you the great opportunity to mingle with the locals. Take the 2nd class were you can get a reserved seat, as the 3rd class are very uncomfortable wooden benches only. Without a reservation expect to stand over hours. Once the train is rattling along, feel the wind blowing in your face while standing on an open door – that´s the sense of freedom.
The train station in Peradeniya (close to Kandy) is a walk back in time and what looks like a museum is still fully functioning.
First part of the journey is cutting through the fertile tropical surroundings of Kandy´s low-lands. At each station local vendors will sell snacks through the window. If you have a good stomach go for it or otherwise bring your own food with you.
Later the train climbs up through a forest until the first tea plantations of the mountain area. Temperatures are dropping, the air gets fresher and often this area is covered in mist and clouds. You can get off in one of these stations to visit a tea factory or you can take the full 4 hours ride to Nuwara Eliya or the 6 hours to Ella.
We got off in Nuwara Eliya where Lucky picked us up from the station (well, he was much faster by car, then we in our train :-)) We had a lakeside-lunch. Unfortunately it was raining and chilly.
Main sight of Nuwara Eliya is the tudor-styled Old English Post Office with red bricks, opened in 1894 and still in operation until today.
Visit the market area to get an idea of the local produce and daily life.
Stay a night in one of the cozy hotels to enjoy the cold weather and go on some hikes around the area. We for our part, left the same day back to Kandy – the car drive is equally scenic as the train ride.
The drive is also a good opportunity to buy some of the excellent teas first hand in one of the factories. If you are not doing the train ride and you like to visit a very good factory near Kandy, I can recommend the Embilmeegama Factory on the road to Colombo (www.embilliantea.com) – especially their green and white tea selection is excellent.
The drive back to Colombo from Kandy takes around 3-4 hours. We still had time before our flight, so we took a quick tour through the city center. Well, Colombo is not a must-see city more a gate-way to paradise. With a restricted time schedule, just skip it.
Main sights are the old colonial buildings like the Cargilis, which used to be a fancy department store back in the days, but now has seen better times. Along the Corniche area modern towers, stylish malls and entertainment complexes have been recently constructed.
Further a visit to the lively streets of the market area around the Red Mosque is an interesting experience. Everything you can think of, is sold in the crowded shops. Cheap backpacker hostels can be also found here.
A colorful Hindu Temple and the beautiful Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque are also located here.
So this was my inspiring trip through the great variety of Sri Lanka. The island is getting more and more popular, so go there now before the big rush!
If you need any further travel ideas or you have any questions related to this beautiful island, please get in touch at any time.
Some of the places that we have visited on this trip were recommended from a german friend of mine, who called Sri Lanka home over many years and was running a kite surfing center there. Unfortunately he passed away recently.
R.I.P. Thomas - you were a great motivator for me to follow my ideas and dreams. First step is this Blog and next step my own little travel company soon. You are missed.
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