Headed to Sri Lanka? If so, snuggle up on your sofa and dig into Sarah’s post – it will give you all the basics you need to plan your trip and then some! It’s a beauty of a post and will help ensure you maximise your time on this island paradise. Happy planning…
I find sometimes the best trips are the ones that allow for flexibility. These trips generally require you to have a little more time and a little more patience especially when you run into challenges (because, really, who knows if you’ll find suitable accommodation for the night?) but they do always seem a little more rewarding.
Sri Lanka was no different – a friend and I packed our backpacks with a vague plan in place, a nights accommodation booked at the start (and two nights at a beach resort towards the end of our stay) and we hit the road. Other than our lonely planet guide book, and our good attitudes we had nothing else planned or booked, and it was the best nine days full of laughter and exploration!
Sri Lanka is absolutely stunning, as are the people, who are definitely some of the friendliest and most helpful people I have encountered throughout my travels. Sri Lanka holds everything a traveler desires – natural beauty that dramatically changes throughout the country, diverse culture, an interesting history and some beautiful historical monuments.
A Nine Day Sri Lankan Itinerary
- Day One: Arrive in Colombo early morning, transfer to Kegalle to spend the day at the Elephant Freedom project & spice gardens.
- Day Two: Bus to Kandy. Sightseeing + Kandyan dancers & drummers
- Day Three: Day trip to Sigiriya Rock & Dambulla Caves + overnight at Adam’s Peak
- Day Four: Adam’s Peak Pilgrimage + drive to Nuwara Eliya and Ayurveda
- Day Five: Bike ride around the tea plantations and train ride to Haputale
- Day Six: Lipton’s Seat and a tour of the Dambatenne Tea Factory. Overnight in Tangella
- Day Seven: Beach Day!
- Day Eight: Beach Day and then bus to Colombo
- Day Nine: Ministry of Crab with an evening flight home.
Getting around Sri Lanka is an adventure! Even though nothing is really far in terms of distance, due to the state of the roads, the mountainous areas, and the lack of infrastructure it is a time consuming and at times scary endeavour.
Buses are the typical way to get around Sri Lanka but they can be an uncomfortable, stop-start experience. Travel on buses can differ significantly depending on the journey you are taking.
Buses around town and between villages are chaotic and completely different from riding a bus in the western world. With local music blaring, the colourful, rickety buses cruise down one lane roads jammed-packed with as many people the bus can hold (and then some) – all sense of personal space a distant memory. Each bus is decorated around the driver’s booth with various posters, religious items, and sometimes even a screen for the passengers to watch movies and music videos. It can be a slow journey with no official bus stops. Instead, passengers wave down the buses, or indicate to the drivers where they want to get off, at which point the driver will slow down and the passengers will disembark whilst the bus is still moving (which can be tricky for a traveller loaded down with luggage – good luck!) Air conditioning is a distant memory, instead ventilation is provided through opened windows and lunch is catered by the various vendors hopping on and off the buses, selling corn and boiled eggs. It’s a totally unique experience and is definitely the cheapest way to get around with a typical bus journey costing around RS50 (Sri Lankan Rupees) – or NZD0.50/USD0.35 depending on where you’re from.
Intercity buses are generally air-conditioned coaches that depart and arrive at typical bus stations. The bus stations are hectic and full of people, and it can be a little tricky to locate your bus but don’t worry! Your bus won’t leave on time, in fact it will generally sit there until they have sold all the seats, so you’ll have plenty of time to get organised. These buses mostly use designated bus stops making the journey a little faster, and are super affordable with a 3 hour coach journey costing around RS860, (NZD8/USD5.80)
Trains in Sri Lanka have limited routes and have been around since the British built the lines in the nineteenth century. While they are competitively priced (at similar prices to the buses), they are far superior in terms of comfort. Though the trains can be slower and there can be substantial delays on the lines, the views and scenery are definitely worth the wait, especially a train ride in the Hill Country. This train runs through Kandy, Nanu Oya and Ella and whilst the weather wasn’t ideal the day caught the train, the views were every bit as spectacular as we were told to expect.
There are three different train classes, with second and third class being quite similar (the main difference being you can’t reserve seats in third class). There are several different first class tickets you can get depending on your requirements and these tickets can be booked in advance.
It would appear that that first class tickets can get booked out fairly quickly though and as it turned out, we were more than happy with our third class tickets (which we took due to a lack of available seats at the time). Fortunately we were traveling outside of peak season and had no issues getting a seat, so didn’t experience the overcrowding on the train which we’d heard can be less than desirable (not everyone ends up with a seat in these cases!)
Our favourite type of transport (and the most popular type of transport for short journeys), tuk tuks are readily available and can be a novel way to get around. Make sure to negotiate your price before embarking on your trip as some drivers can and will overcharge you – don’t be scared to bargain with the drivers and if you aren’t happy with the price try the fifty or so other drivers waiting close by. In general tuk tuks charge around RS50/kilometre, and in Colombo the tuk tuks are metered to ensure a fair fare.
Drivers and Cars:
This option is increasingly popular due in part to how frustrating the transport system in Sri Lanka can be. You can hire a driver and a car for a one off journey or for your entire trip. Hiring a driver makes your journey flexible and saves you time but be sure to negotiate as these drivers can be highly inflated – in fact for one of our trips we managed to knock over RS2000 off our journey.
Drivers that stay with you for the duration of the trip take a bit of effort to organise and prices vary depending of the quality and size of the car (and the types of accommodation you are staying in). Many hotels will have a drivers room to accommodate your driver but if not, you will need to account for the additional cost of booking him/her a room.
Looking for a driver for your trip? Blue Lanka Tours can help you organise your perfect trip including drivers. Our friends used this company and though they were on the expensive side they were very happy with both the service and their trip overall. Their driver, Roshan Liyange was knowledgeable and (in our brief encounter with him) we found him to be a very safe and thoughtful driver.
Throughout our stay we stayed in various types of accommodation – hostels, home-stays, B&Bs, and beach cabanas. Whilst the majority of this accommodation isn’t worth mentioning, the few that are we have included below.
Tangella: Palm Paradise Cabanas
Wanting a few days to relax and unwind before heading back to work made the Palm Paradise Cabanas the perfect choice. The cabanas are set in gorgeous natural setting with a view to the ocean showing through the tropical trees and plants. The whole area is beautiful and the cabanas had great facilities, providing a relaxing and tranquil ending to our trip.
The cabanas themselves were quite basic but very charming. The one we opted for had no air conditioning which made it a little difficult to sleep at night due to the heat, however they had a range of options available and all rooms had several fans (plus the more modern villas and houses included air conditioning).
We were fortunate to have a cabana with views straight to the ocean and only a 200m walk to the sea. It was so peaceful and relaxing going to sleep with the sound of the waves lapping against the beach – seriously, the stuff of dreams!
The beach itself was absolutely gorgeous – the ocean is a little rough but Palm Paradise also has a pool if you’re looking for calmer water. Although the beach is open to the public, it wasn’t very busy and we enjoyed our time there.
Breakfast was included at the hotel and the food was fantastic! Each day we had fresh fruit, orange juice, tea and coffee plus eggs of our choice. There isn’t much around the hotel in terms of bars and restaurants, but the food is great at both the restaurants so there isn’t much need to venture outside of the grounds if you don’t want to.
If you’re looking for a place to unwind for a few days, Palm Paradise Cabanas could be a great option.
Colombo: Clock Inn Hostel
Clock Inn Hostel was perfect for our brief time in Colombo. We just needed somewhere to sleep for a few hours, between our night out and heading to the airport to catch our flight. It was a clean hostel, having several common areas and friendly staff. Each bed had a reading light, and a locker assigned to them (which I always appreciate when staying in a hostel).
Breakfast was included but unfortunately I’m not able to comment on the standard as I slept through the allocated time! The only downside for some would be the unisex communal bathrooms where the wasn’t much room inside the showers to get dressed.
Activities and Sightseeing
Kegalle and The Elephant Freedom Project
Kegalle is located between Colombo and Kandy – the main reason people head to this area is to visit the famed Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. After doing some research on the Elephant Orphanage we decided that it wasn’t the place for us and after some more research we found out about The Elephant Freedom Project. The EFP claims to hire Elephants from their owners to give them a chance of freedom away from the logging industry and other terrible work many elephants see on a day to day basis and though it’s not perfect, the elephants certainly get a better life than they would elsewhere.
At the project you volunteer for the day, starting your day by mucking out the elephant enclosure, before walking with the elephants in the village. After a home cooked meal (that you’ll help prepare,) you will bathe the elephants in the river before bidding farewell to the team.
If you’re wanting to spend time with the elephants, be sure to do your research.
Arriving at the bus station (with no accommodation booked) we headed to the tourist information located next to the train station to ask them to ring ahead to the Burmese Rest. This guesthouse sounded unique – there monks look after the guesthouse whilst tortoises wander the courtyard.
Unfortunately the tourist information centre wasn’t able to give us their opinions on accommodation, or ring ahead to see if they had space but after negotiating a price with a tuk tuk driver, we headed there regardless to see if we could secure a bed for the evening. Unfortunately they were undergoing restoration work and were unable to accommodate us so our tuk tuk driver whisked us off to our second choice of accommodation which thankfully had room for us.
This little expedition gave us our first glimpse of a Sri Lankan city – Kandy was bustling around the bus station and the centre of town, and we were in fits of laughter as our tuk tuk weaved in and out of traffic. The city itself is set around a gorgeous lake and a stroll around the waters edge to the centre of town was a great way to settle in, although we were a little nervous of the monkeys darting from tree to tree! Once in town we explored the Main Market and the busy centre, before heading to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, and attending an early evening Kandayan dance performance.
Sigiriya and Dambulla
Both of these sites are included within Sri Lanka’s ancient cities and we were disappointed that weren’t able to explore this area more due to our limited timeframe.
Sigirya is an immense rock that is thought to have once housed an ancient civilisation – it’s a beautiful site that takes around half a day to explore. The grounds and various frescos are gorgeous and the climb to the top of the rock, though relatively steep, is manageable.
Dambulla is a rock temple that, despite its throngs of tourists, is still an important holy place. It was an incredible site and one not to be missed.
Adam’s Peak is a mountain located in central Sri Lanka, famed for the ‘sacred footprint’ (though just who the footprint belongs to will differ depending on your religions beliefs). You will find this footprint in a rock formation near the summit of the mountain but to get there you will first need to trek to the top with many pilgrims and tourists. With the mountain rising to 2,243m, it can be a challenging walk and the roughly 5200 steps will see your legs shaking at the bottom, regardless of your fitness level.
Nuwara Eliya & Hauputale
Both of these places are located in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. This whole region is absolutely stunning, with lush green scenery and tea plantations as far as the eye can see. The frequent fog gives the area an almost mystical feeling, but once the fog lifts you will be in absolute awe of the beauty that you find yourself surrounded by.
Both places (and the whole region for that matter) offer ample opportunities to visit tea plantations and to see the inner workings of a tea factory. We found this experience very informative and intriguing.
In Nuwara Eliya we hired bikes from our accommodation and rode through the town sometimes referred to as ‘Little England’. Here we biked past old English gardens and colonial houses, before hitting the tea plantations. It would have been a tranquil and serene experience if it wasn’t for all the traffic and tuk tuks honking their horns!
We loved getting lost through the tea plantations and would have loved to explore the area more, only we had a train to catch.
In Hauputale we headed to Lipton’s Seat and the Dambatenne tea factory. Lipton’s seat is a lookout from which Sir Thomas Lipton used to survey his land. The 7km walk is one not to be missed – walking through the tea plantations you are surrounded by their beauty and the many tea pickers in the area. At the end of the walk, you’ll come across a lookout – unfortunately for us though, we were meet by a valley of fog. The walk, however, was absolutely stunning and something we would do again, regardless of the weather.
When people think of Sri Lanka they will often think of it’s striking beaches. Spoiled for options we decided on Tangella Beach to end our trip with a few days of relaxation. It was a fantastic way to end our visit to this beautiful country – the beach was quiet and absolutely exquisite! If we had more time in Sri Lanka, we would have definitely spent more time exploring the coast and the many activities it has to offer – we’d recommend you do the same.
Restaurants and Night Life
Curries are the staple dish in Sri Lanka and they are incredible – colourful and flavoursome, with huge servings, they offer great value for money. Each curry normally comes accompanied with rice and variety of small dishes (usually consisting of spiced veggies and dhal). You can find great curries everywhere and if you’re wanting to stay close to home, your guest house can usually serve you food if you order before a certain time.
Bake House (Kandy)
Located in the centre of Kandy this is a famed restaurant with many locals and tourists eating side by side. Whilst the décor of the place is dated, the turnaround is fast, the dinning is pleasant and the food good. The front of the restaurant serves as a bakery if you want to grab something for the road otherwise you can buy a good curry inside the restaurant.
Slightly Chilled Lounge Bar (Kandy)
This bar, formerly known as Bamboo Bar (some tuk tuk drivers still know it by the old name), has a great vibe and you will find it filled with both tourists and locals. The bar has a range of food and serves standard English fare as well as a variety of other cuisines.
ll Mare (Anantara Hotel, Tangalle)
Being quite partial to good food we decided to splurge towards the end of our trip at this fine dining restaurant. The view was gorgeous, perched on a cliff edge overlooking the ocean and beach below, the Italian menu is as authentic as the Italian manager who runs the restaurant that specialising in perfectly fresh produce. The food is beautifully presented and delightful – we could have eaten everything on the menu!
Ministry of Crab (Colombo)
Located in the Old Dutch Hospital, this is an upmarket area, surrounded by lovely restaurants and a few shops. Ministry of Crab is a modern eatery owned by two former Sri Lankan cricketers, and you guessed, it they serve crab.
Whilst the restaurant have other options on the menu, generally people come for the crab. Here you choose what size crab you want (ranging in size from 500g – 2kgs), and the style you want. It can be a messy process getting the meat out of the shells but they’ve got this covered – just prepare yourself to don a bib.
I can recommend the garlic chilli crab and the avocado crab salad (which was a combination of crab meat mixed with wasabi mayonnaise served in half an avocado). With that said, all of the food was amazing and I would whole heartily recommend a visit if you ever find yourself in Colombo!
Floor by O! (Colombo)
We stumbled across this place as the rooftop restaurant we wanted to dine in was absolutely jammed packed and this bar/restaurant was conveniently located downstairs. The menu is jammed packed with food from all around the world and whilst the food was good, the atmosphere was even better. Being some of the only tourists in there, we were well looked after and almost like D-list celebrities, everyone wanted to talk and dance with us. The DJ had the dance floor packed, spinning tunes ranging from pop to old school RnB and hip-hop. It was an amazing night and I only wish we remembered the name of the club we visited afterwards, as this had us out until 6am with they’re great drinks and tunes!
Is Sri Lanka Really Worth a Visit?
Absolutely! Sri Lanka is the perfect mix of culture and beauty. It somehow strikes the balance between being familiar enough to suit the newest traveller, and vibrant and exciting enough to hook the most seasoned backpacker in. Sri Lanka really does offer something for everyone and for this reason, I’d highly recommend adding it to your travel wish-list… or better still, booking your flights right away!
Headed to Sri Lanka? Don’t Leave Without These Tips!
- Due to old British colonial laws pubs and restaurants won’t serve alcohol between the hours of 11am and 2pm.
- Ladies beware, it’s very hard to purchase tampons in Sri Lanka. As these can be very hard to source, make sure you stock up beforehand.
- Ask if your accommodation has hot water before booking as it’s common in Sri Lanka to have cold water showers.
- If heading to the Hill Country be sure to pack a rain coat – it rains a lot.
Ready to Book? What you Need to Know about Visas in Sri Lanka
Most people will require a visa to visit Sri Lanka but you can apply online for an electronic visa and it’s a fairly straight forward process. They take around four days to process and cost around USD40. To find out more information or to apply for a visa head to the official visa processing site.
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