Sri Lanka is a country situated around 28 kilometres off the south-eastern coast of India with a population of around 20 million people. The main ethnicities making up Sri Lanka’s population are the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamil, Indian Tamil and Moor.
What looks like a tiny island on a world map is actually a country that needs a pile of time to explore properly! Just a few days in the capital of Colombo won’t be enough to do the country justice. You need at least a few weeks to explore the different regions of Sri Lanka and if you visit in monsoon season you’ll most likely need to allow even longer. Physical distances between a lot of towns are small but travel times aren’t. Road conditions are generally pretty good but public transport can be very slow and traffic, particularly in the cities, is congested. Colombo and Kandy, two of the most popular tourist destinations, are only 115km apart but it can take up to 5 hours to drive between them. When we were in Sri Lanka a year ago they were upgrading the road between Trincomalee and Kandy. The final 30km was dirt and down to a single lane in many places. That 30km took two hours.
There’s also just so much to see. For such a small nation, it’s amazingly diverse and offers so much to see. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can fill a one month itinerary and still not see everything you want to see.
Accommodation costs and entry to attractions are high, but public transport and food are incrediably cheap. It’s not uncommon to spend $50 per night for budget family accommodation and $1.30 for an air-conditioned 8hr bus ride.
So What Are You Likely To Discover In Sri Lanka?
Exploring Sri Lanka will turn up an awesome mix of wildlife and great food, mixed in with a nation that absolutely adores the game of cricket. Down many alleyways, in parks and all along the beach you’ll find afternoon cricket games in full swing at any time of the year. Should you be from a cricket playing nation, shouts of the names of players from your country will follow you down the street once a Sri Lankan learns where you are from. Strike up a conversation and don’t be suprised if you get invited to play a match.
If you happen to be there on a public holiday almost every backstreet will have a cricket match in progress. Don’t be surprised to find your guesthouse front desk shut between 4-6 on a Sunday afternoon. That’s OK – just look outside and you’ll soon find the staff. In a nearby field or on the street outside playing cricket. Grab a beer and relax – someone will come over between innings to check you in.
Eating in Sri Lanka is a huge adventure. If you don’t like spicy food you should get ready for a burning mouth a lot of the time! There is definitely some non-spicy food available but you’ll have to search for it. Don’t be fooled when a vendor tells you something is not-spicy as it just might not be spicy to them! If you are buying for children buy one item and try it first. Then if it is suitable for your kids you can buy extras. The beautiful thing is food is cheap so trying different things won’t cost you a lot and most things come in small portions. Learn to ask for things without chili. There’s a difference between saying ‘not spicy’ and ‘without chili’.
Eating with your hands is common place in Sri Lanka so don’t get a shock if you’re not used to this. Many meals are served on plates or banana leaves with no cutlery. The idea is to squeeze a mouthful of rice together in your fingertips and scoop up a little curry with it. Pappadums and flat bread are also usually provided – these make great scoops for your food! The beauty of this type of meal is that you usually get to try two or three different types of curry in the one dish. String hoppers and hoppers are fun options your children will enjoy. If you eat out in local places you can enjoy breakfast for as little as $3 for a family of 4.
Elephants, monkeys and lots of sea life are fairly easily found in Sri Lanka. Of course you should always check if the places you are visiting are treating the animals correctly. This can be hard to work out ahead of time but you should definitely make the effort to check. Don’t be surprised if places get good ratings online and when you arrive you still find them distressing. We had researched the elephant sanctuary in Kandy and found they seemed OK online but when we arrived the elephants were poorly treated and kepted in shocking conditions, at least to our untrained eye it seemed that way. Even our children found it upsetting. I believe the reserves down on the south coast have a much better reputation.
But we did see a lot of monkey’s in the wild and enjoyed eating our breakfast every day at the beach in Trincomolee with squirrels begging at our feet. Our hotel even had an elk visit each night to enjoy the watered hotel grass. We weren’t lucky enough to see elephants in the wild but we did see wild peacocks, kingfishers and more cows wandering the beach than we’d ever imagined seeing! Seeing these animals was an extremely memorable experience, especially for kids that have only ever seen them in a cage in the zoo.
Sri Lanka has a rich and varied history. Colombo has it’s mix of colonial architecture, important historic temples and museums. In the centre you can explore ancient ruins like Sigiriya, a UNESCO heritage site and the golden caves of Dambula – two of the most amazing places I’ve seen in my travels. The Dutch city of Galle is completely surreal. If it wasn’t for the tuk tuks inside the walls, the palm trees and the warm temperatures you would swear at times you were walking through parts of Europe. Turn a corner and suddenly you are facing temples and cricket matches.
And of course as you journey towards the east and north evidence of the country’s recent conflicts become all too apparent. By now you probably will have found the poverty in other areas of Sri Lanka confronting but here it becomes harder. Driving around the east, south and west coasts you’ll still see signs everywhere from the devestation of the 2004 Asia tsunami. Graveyards, damanged buildings, tree regrowth. There are a lot of opportunities to learn more about what’s happened in Sri Lanka in it’s recent history, and are still happening, if you just take the time.
Beaches, highlands, cities
As we’ve alread said, Sri Lanka is diverse and you want to give yourself plenty of time to take in a few different locations.Cities like Negombo, Colombo and Kandy are fantastic for for a few days of sightseeing and giving yourself a chance to find some foods you like before getting further afield. They’re bustling hubs which can be fun too. Grab a tuk tuk and go for an explore.
The beaches in Sri Lanka are some of the most beautiful we’ve seen anywhere in the world. Pure white sand and crystal clear blue water. From near Galle all the way around the east coast to the north we saw post card perfect beach after post card perfect beach. The time of the year heavily influences which side of the island you’ll want to head to but regardless of when you go, make sure you spend at least a few days on a beach in Sri Lanka.
For us though, the true highlight of our time in Sri Lanka was the highlands. From Nuwara Eliya to Ella and everywhere in between. The landscape and people were lovely. The temperatures were cool and we had a wonderful time exploring and sightseeing without sweating. The train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella is not comfortable. Think 1920s hard wooden benches, no toilets and fans. But it’s 30c per person and for three hours you can sit with your feet in the doorway of a train watching some of the most beautiful landscape you’ll ever see roll by as you chat to locals or play charades if no one plays english and wave out the window at people passing by. If I had to pick top 3 things I’ve done in 4 years of travel, this train ride would be in that list.
Whether you choose to visit Kandy, Colombo, Ella or Negombo you’ll be able to find great food, fascinating wildlife and most likely a local game of cricket. No matter which region of Sri Lanka you decide to visit, take more than a few days to experience all that this amazing country has to offer!