It’s now been four months since we left the UK. After our time in Central and Northern Thailand (click here for my travelguide) we headed to Sri Lanka. Here’s a brief summary (check out our couple of seconds a day video on youtube!) of the time we’ve had there and hopefully some hints and tips for those of you that fancy visiting in the future.
Did you know?
- Sri Lanka is known as the ‘teardrop of India’, due to its perfect teardrop shape and being off the coast of India. Obvs.
- It searches Google for the word ‘sex’ more than any other country in the world.
- It was first colonised by the Portuguese in 1505, then the Dutch in 1658 and then the British in 1796. Finally, gaining full independence in 1948.
- 80 – 90% of the world’s cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka.
- The majority of the power for the country is generated by hydropower thanks to it’s many waterfalls and rivers.
- It’s the fourth largest exporter of tea in the world.
- People “waggle” their heads from side to side when talking, it’s not clear what this means, but generally it means “yes”. Very random.
Where did we go and what were the highlights?
STOP 1 – Colombo
- Arriving at Colombo airport we were advised to get the 187 bus located just outside the terminal which took about an hour and cost 140 rupees (approx 60p). This bus journey was our first introduction to how manic Sri Lanka’s traffic system is. We soon learned anything goes, especially with buses who rule the roads.
- Stayed 1 night at My Little Island Hostel (£8 per person per night) in a dorm room. It was ok for just one night, anything more and it wouldn’t of been the most comfortable.
- Just like the hostel, staying just one night in Colombo was enough. In one day we managed to walk along Galle Face, shop in the Dutch Hospital (Barefoot was a personal favourite) and eat samosas and roti.
STOP 2 – Kandy
- The train line heading from Colombo to Kandy is extremely popular. It is deemed the most picturesque train journey in Sri Lanka and getting 1st and 2nd class tickets are impossible to buy at the station, you could travel unreserved 2nd or 3rd class but it’s not very comfortable. To ensure we had a seat we pre-booked our train tickets for this journey and our train from Kandy to Ella through Sri Lanka Tours.
- Stayed 3 nights at Marvel Hills (£14 per person per night) which was a quaint guesthouse away from the mad Kandy traffic with a very helpful owner who provided us with homegrown passionfruit for breakfast. Whilst staying here on our way back from the local ‘pub’ we bumped into a porcupine on the drive, such an experience!
- Whilst in Kandy we were introduced to kottu a traditional Sri Lankan dish which is a mixture of roti, vegetables (meat if you like) and spices all fried together. Basically a good way to use up leftovers. In Kandy we also had our first rice and curry courtesy of Sthree. Check out my last post here on the good work that Sthree do.
- One of the main things to do in Kandy is to visit Sigiriya Rock. Also known as Lion Rock, it is a 200 metre rock that was chosen by King Kasyapa around 500 AD to be the new capital and build his palace on the top (H&S nightmare!). The capital and the royal palace was abandoned after the king’s death but was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. After some research and questioning of many people in Kandy’s bus station we found the early morning bus (7:30am) to Sigiriya costing 116 rupees (approx 50p). The bus took about 3 hours and was definitely an experience. Music blaring, horns beeping, people crammed in the very narrow isles. It’s quite pricey to visit, around $30, but it is worth it. After a sweaty walk up many steps you reach the top of Sigiriya and are greeted with the palace remains and amazing views. Just watch out for the monkeys. By now you’d think we’d be seasoned pro’s at remembering to hide our bananas when monkeys are on the loose… maybe it was the steps and the heat, but we forgot and one cheeky monkey managed to grab two huge bananas Rob had spent at least 5 minutes choosing from a fruit stall earlier that morning. Fair play to the tyke, he managed to get a decent meal from us idiots.
STOP 3 – Ella
- We arrived in Ella by train from Kandy. Again, we pre-booked tickets through Sri Lanka Tours to ensure seats. Travelling through lots of tunnels, tea plantations and mountains, this was definitely the prettiest train journey I’d ever been on.
- Stayed 3 nights at Welcome Inn (£12.50 per person per night) where we were introduced to buffalo curd, honey and fruit for breakfast surrounded by views of Little Adams Peak and Ella Rock, it was a very nice way to start the day.
- Whilst in Ella we enjoyed some decent walks (or hikes as everyone outside the UK likes to call them). On day one we walked up Little Adam’s Peak. It’s pretty easy to find and marked by signposts with a good path all the way to the top. On our way back to town from the peak we ventured down to the nine arch bridge for a postcard picture view. On day two we walked up Ella Rock. I’ve always been told, “never walk along railway lines”, but the only way to get to the start of Ella Rock’s incline is to walk along the railway track. The trains in Sri Lanka are pretty slow, so long as you have a place ahead or behind you in mind to move out the way safely off the track, you will be fine. Once you have gone past Kithaella station take the second left turning and cross the bridge over the river. From there, it’s kind of guess work, so the best way to get to the top is to have Maps.me handy on your phone (I know… I’m advocating it again!). The terrain is very rocky, rooty and steep. It takes about 2 hours of hard graft to get to the top, but once at the top you have an amazing view of Little Adam’s Peak and can try a fresh king coconut sold by friendly locals.
- On day two we also visited the Uva Tea Factory where we learned all about the different types of Sri Lankan tea and how it is made. I really struggled to take off my old Sustainable Procurement hat whilst going round the factory. I asked about payment of the farmers, chemicals used in the process and how safety is managed within the factory. But the tour guide’s English wasn’t so good and my questions either got lost in translation or he didn’t want to give me the truth. At the end of the tour we had a brief tea tasting session and couldn’t resist buying a box of Uva’s finest to carry with us on our travels.
STOP 4 – Talalla
- From Ella we took a taxi to Talalla down on the South coast. Not the cheapest way to travel, but it was much quicker than several trains or several buses. On the journey our driver stopped outside Udawalawe National Park to feed an elephant. This made us feel uncomfortable as it was clear that the National Park safaris were scaring the elephants enough for them to head to the roadside for refuge. We had heard rumours of overcrowding the animals in National Parks with safari jeeps, but this was evidence that it was really happening. It was sad to see and also uncomfortable to be part of.
- Stayed 4 nights at Lagoon Beach (£8 per person per night) where the owner Terrance (aka Big Tezza) cooked up a storm. He used to be a chef and really treated us to some good grub. Breakfast was huge portions of hoppers, dahl, sambol and fruit and dinner was even bigger portions of rice and curry.
- Talalla is a very beautiful, quiet, not too touristy beach. I can see in 5 years time this area will become as popular as the other beach destinations in Sri Lanka, but for now it’s quite untouched and tranquil with only a couple of bars and restaurants in the area.
- Every day an old, very thin man walked up and down, up and down the beach trying to sell shells. We promised ourselves that on our last day we would buy one. His face was priceless and he insisted in posing for a photo. The smile he gave us made us certain we’d made the right decision in buying a shell from him (a shell I am now lugging around in my underwear packing cube for the rest of our trip).
- For me though the highlight in Talalla was meeting Laura and Matt. Finally we had met an English couple that we could chat about the trials and tribulations of travelling without having to speak in a way that a non-native English speaker would be able to understand. They were banter and they also write a blog which you should really check out – Two Stay Wild.
STOP 5 – Mirissa
- We got a tuk tuk to Mirissa from Talalla.
- Stayed 3 nights at Panorama Guesthouse (£9 per person per night) where the breakfasts were huge, unnecessarily huge. It seems some Sri Lankan’s like to prove their wealth by making way too much food, to show that they have income they can waste. Again, this was something that made us uncomfortable as we despise food waste. We tried to eat as much as possible and take away roti’s and fruit for lunch but even then there was still loads left.
- A popular thing to do in Mirissa is whale watching, which we were very dubious about. Morally it didn’t sit well with us. We’d heard stories of over crowded, unsafe, uninsured boats literally chasing whales for people to catch a glimpse. But we were recommended a tour by Laura and Matt that they’d been on and said it was different to the rest. We decided to take the plunge and booked on a tour with the Whale Watching Club. They picked us up from our guesthouse bright and early at 6am and took us to the harbour where we boarded the boat. On the trip we were given lots of food and water and they were very conscious about collecting all litter and making sure nothing went into the sea. The tour sailed a little distance away from the other boats and we managed to see false killer whales, dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, sperm whales and right at the end a blue whale. It was amazing to see these prehistoric, huge creatures in their natural environment. But still it felt like a moral dilemma. We weren’t really doing any harm to the animals, but it didn’t feel natural. Still, we had a great day and if you are looking to do whale watching in Mirissa, for me there is only one company I’d go with and that’s the Whale Watching Club.
STOP 6 – Unawatuna
- Ok, so this wasn’t supposed to be our next stop, we were supposed to spend Christmas in Galle. But we had a couple of issues with parcel deliveries (damn you Sri Lankan customs!!!!!) and the place we had booked in Galle wasn’t as we expected it to be. We therefore decided on a whim to head along the coast to Unawatuna where we could still explore Galle but have a beach close to hand.
- Stayed 4 nights in Ridee Villa (£52 per person per night) which was our Christmas treat to ourselves. It had amazing wifi, a very comfy bed and peanut butter on the breakfast buffet (having hoppers and dahl every morning kind of takes it out of you…).
- Unawatuna beach, well what can I say, it’s pretty gross. It reminded me, not that I have ever been, of Benidorm. Full of sun wisened people (mainly Russians) on uncomfy looking sun loungers drinking Malibu for breakfast. Unawatuna beach wasn’t for us. Luckily a short tuk tuk ride along the coast was Delawalla beach which was much nicer. The best thing for us about Unawatuna was Koha Surf Lounge where we spent most evenings enjoying their food, Lion beer and bangin’ tunes.
- From Unawatuna we took a day trip to Galle Fort which was built by the Portuguese in 1588 and then used by the Dutch in mid 1600’s. It’s a weird mix of European and Asian architecture and culture. The areas filled with quirky shops and you get some good views. It’s definitely a favourite for instagram posers.
STOP 7 – Hikkaduwa
- We got a tuk tuk from Unawatuna to Hikkaduwa.
- Stayed in total 8 nights at Hotel Finlanka (£16 per person per night). This stay was spread out in two different stints. We loved Finlanka and Hikkaduwa so much we decided to come back after a couple of days spent in Bentota.
- Hikkaduwa wasn’t originally on our list of places to visit in Sri Lanka, we’d read it was very touristy and over developed but it actually turned out to be our favourite beach. It is busy and it is developed, but this doesn’t hinder it. It means there’s choice and it means the local businesses take care of their beach because they depend so heavily on tourism. It’s also a surfers paradise and quite bohemian. We found a great place to eat, Salty Swamis is a very successful cafe that serves delicious drinks and even better food. We ate here a lot. Salty Swamis also has a surf shop which sells bamboo toothbrushes, natural suncream and t-shirts produced ethically from garment factory waste materials. Salty Swamis was right up our street.
- Whilst in Hikkaduwa Rob went to Yula Surf School who are a bunch of very cool guys that teach you to surf in a safe environment. By the end of his 3rd lesson he was competent to go out and surf on his own. Result!
STOP 8 – Bentota
- A 40 minute crowded train journey stood next to the toilet (verrrrry smelly) got us to Bentota from Hikkaduwa.
- Stayed 2 nights at Dedunu Home (£25 per person per night) where we were to spend New Years Eve and which was a short walk to the beach.
- Unfortunately I wasn’t very well for New Years Eve. After spending the day on the quiet Bentota beach I stayed in bed feeling sorry for myself and Rob went out for a solo meal to celebrate the end of a wonderful 2018. Annoyingly for me, this meal was his favourite meal the whole time we’d been in Sri Lanka. I hoped so much I’d fell better then next day to go and eat there. Luckily I did! Set by the railway line, Happy Garden served us the tastiest rice and curry.
- On New Years Day the once pristine Bentota beach was covered in the remnants of the NYE celebrations. Bottles, firework debris and cigarette butts were everywhere. Luckily I had My Green Trip bag at hand to help some of the locals make a start on cleaning their beach.
- From Bentota we went back to the lovely Hikkaduwa for a few days until our flight from Colombo to Phuket.
How to get around?
- Traffic in Sri Lanka is crazy. It’s pretty unsafe to walk, get the bus, get a tuk tuk or taxi. Many a taxi journey the driver would pull over to the side of the road and show us ‘proudly’ where a couple of days ago a bus had crashed and killed people. Very bizarre.
- Buses are cheap, but they are loud, crazy and crowded.
- Trains are also cheap, but they take forever and getting a ticket is difficult.
- In a nutshell there is no easy way to get around Sri Lanka. A mixture of tuk tuk, bus, taxi and train is the best option. Weighing up the cost and time of each journey is the best way to make a decision.
- When walking on the road always face oncoming traffic, this may seem obvious, but I witnessed so many people (Russians…) not doing it and nearly getting wiped out overtaking a parked tuk tuk.
- Ask your host what the options are, they can usually sort you out with a cheap tuk tuk. It seems everyone in Sri Lanka has a tuk tuk business on the side.
- Prebook train tickets through Sri Lanka Tours.
Sri Lankan transport is very cheap, accommodation is also very reasonable considering what you get for your money. Food is also reasonable if you go for the local option (approx £3 for a good rice and curry) and as always Western food is more pricey.
- Breakfasts in Sri Lanka are massive, make sure you have a tin or something to stash away stuff for lunch and sometimes even dinner. Somedays we didn’t have to buy food for a whole day.
What will I remember Sri Lanka for most?
Wildlife everywhere, we saw porcupines, monkeys, elephants, puffer fish, sea turtles, whales, glow worms, fruit bats, crabs, buffalo, parrots, hearing the questions ‘tuk tuk sir?’ or ‘where you go sir?’ allllll the time, never being addressed because I’m a woman (all questions were directed to Rob, I obviously don’t have a brain so cannot answer or pay…), men coming round with actual sticks of aloe vera to give you a massage on the beach, spicy ginger biscuits, pervy men (Sri Lankans and Russians) keep your eyes to yourself man!, pollution and dusty roads, dangerous drivers, roti trucks playing ‘it’s a small world’ over and over and over again.
Sri Lanka was an emotional rollercoaster for us. Some days we loved the place and others we just wanted to run away and leave. It was sad to see how their beautiful country is suffering, so much litter, so much pollution, so much cruelty to animals. The boom of tourism in this country will either kill or cure the place. Tourism is bringing money to areas that previously didn’t have any, which is obviously great. But the growth of these areas isn’t sustainable. If they continue to manage it the way they are now, tourism will be short-lived in those areas. People will no longer want to visit because of all the litter and unnatural viewing of the local wildlife. I know that Sri Lanka’s government is under turmoil at the moment and so sorting out tourism and their environment is probably not a priority, which leaves us (the tourists) with the power to spend our money in more responsible ways to drive the change that needs to take place.
We arrived back in Thailand a few days ago. It’s so nice to be back. Orderly(ish) roads and amazing food was just what we needed. My sister (hey Fiona!!!!!) is arriving this afternoon and we cannot wait to see her.
Have you visited Sri Lanka? I’d be interested to know what your thoughts were on the place?
Sending love home and wishing you all a Happy 2019!