Sri Lanka was my first experience as well as the first stop of my 7 month journey in Asia. It well and truly exceeded my expectations. My fears of not being able to sleep due to mosquitos buzzing around were completely unwarranted and the people so welcoming and helpful that it made travelling easy! After spending 3 weeks travelling around Sri Lanka here are my top 10 things to do, complete with tips:
10) Visit the temples
Sri Lanka is just seeping with culture and a lot of that is derived from religion, with the main ones being Buddhism and Hinduism. There are temples scattered all over the country, with even beautiful intricate designs being found in random villages!
The hindu temples are easy to spot with their beautifully carved exteriors proudly displaying all of their Gods. My favourite was Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil (try and say that out loud!) in Colombo as it was just so tall and colourful (pictured right)! If you’re in Colombo make sure you also check out the Jami Ul-Afar Mosque, it is a beautiful designed red and white mosque and just nothing like anything I’de seen before!
Buddhist temples are designed to inspire peace and symbolise the five elements (fire, water, air, earth and wisdom). The temples include not just the buildings but the surrounding area, and you will be expected to remove your shoes in order to enter and also be dressed appropriately with your shoulders and knees covered.
I would recommend visiting a temple during their time of worship, at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy this was at 18h00. It was just amazing to witness the singing, drumming, the offering of flowers and the lighting of incense.
Be careful not to take photos with you back towards a buddha statue, as this is extremely disrespectful to buddhists. It’s fine to take a photo of a statue just make sure you’re facing it!
9) Eat Sri Lankan food
I’m sure you’re familiar with curry – but how about Sri Lankan curry? It’s different from the super saucy Indian curry we are used to and you usually get a selection of little bowls to accompany your rice filled with delights such as dhal curry (lentils – bog standard curry) to coconut leeks to spiced courgettes!
You should also try a Kottu! I’d never heard of it before coming here and it quickly became a favourite! It consists of diced up “rotti” (a sort of naan bread) fried with veg and whatever takes your fancy (with the classic being a chicken kottu).
On the average menu you’ll also come across a lot of egg fried rice (this is SO cheap!), and western dishes (if you ever feel spiced-out!)
If you stay in a guesthouse generally the host will offer to cook you a (very reasonably priced) local meal, I did this a few times and loved the experience so much more than an impersonal restaurant.
Then of course there is all the fresh fruit! Pineapple, mango, banana, king coconut! Definitely a must!
8) Visit a tea plantation
Enjoy a period of cooler weather in the mountains of Nuwara Eliya! There are plenty of tea plantations to visit with my personal favourite being Mackwoods Labookellie, here you can visit the factory and taste the tea for free! You can tip the guide or buy some tea in the gift shop as a “thank you”. If you wish to try your hand at tea leaf picking, just head downstairs into the valley. For a tip the workers will be happy to lend you a basket to collect the leaves (you attach this to your head) as well as take you amongst the tea leaf bushes – perfect photo opportunity!
Nuwara Eliya is another place where Google Maps is slightly off – the main town is located west of the lake, not east! Although in a tutuk it’s not far.I actually stayed down the hill in Blackpool at an airbnb that was only 10$ a night (and could sleep up to 6 people!).
The Kandy – Ella train doesn’t pass through Nuwara Eliya itself but you can get off at Nanu Oya which is about a 8km away.
7) Visit an ancient capital
Sri Lanka has a fascinating history with various kings and also British colonisation affecting the location of the capital a total of 20 times!
Two ancient capitals, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, have many beautiful ruins of temples, buddhas and palaces, you can visit them for around 25$ per person each time. As I was budget backpacking I didn’t want to fork out to visit two ancient capitals so did some research into which might be more up my street and finally chose Polonnaruwa due to its location (near Sigiriya), the huge buddhas, and also the fact that it’s not as ancient as Anuradhapura (which was the capital from the 4th to the 11th Century) so that the ruins would be in better condition.
If you visit Polonnaruwa make sure you hire a bike or tuk tuk to take you around as the ruins are all spread out, I would also suggest wearing sandals / shoes that you can easily take off as you will find yourself continuously taking your shoes off to enter the remains. What I found amazing is the fact that you are allowed to walk on the ruins and into the ancient temples, you can stand on the intricately carved elephants that decorate an entranceway and are over 1000 years old!
6) Talk to the locals
I wrote this before for my Iceland blog but I find it so important so here it is again! You can learn so much from talking to the locals, like how they pay 300% tax on cars! Or how they hid their martial art (yep Sri Lanka have their own Martial art!) and spices from the British during their colonisation.
Sri Lankans are easily the nicest warmest nation I have ever visited with people going out of their way to help you, so it won’t be hard to interact with them (plus generally they all speak amazing English). Even in a tuktuk the driver will be happy to chat about their life! Literally every child I saw waved and said hello, just too cute!
5) Climb Sigiriya
Another ancient capital of Sri Lanka, this site was selected by King Kasyapa to be his capital city (around 477-495 AD). The rock is around 2500 million years old and nearly 200 metres high. At the top you will find the remains of the kings palace as well as a breath-taking view of the surrounding area. On a plateau about halfway up the rock the King carved a lions head and fore paws (only the latter remains) into the structure of the rock, giving the rock its name “Sigiriya” which means “lions rock”.
I would recommend going early (it opens at 7am) in order to avoid the crowds and also the heat as walking up all the stairs can be taxing! Make sure you visit the gardens and museum on your way out.
Tickets again are around 25$ per person. If this is out of your budget you can also climb up a hill next to Sigiriya for just 3$, you’ll have a beautiful view but you’ll miss out on the ruins.
Also please note that Dambulla is not where it appears to be on Google Maps but a few kms south of that – I found this to be the case a few times!
4) Catch the Kandy – Ella train
You will find one of the most beautifully scenic trains in Sri Lanka, taking you from Kandy to Ella (with loads of stops in-between) through rolling hills filled with tea plantations and waterfalls! As the train doesn’t move very fast due to all the turns you can hang out the doors and windows – just make sure you hold on tight as it’s a bumpy ride!
All of this for only 50-500 rupees (around $1) depending on how far you go and in what class. Travelling on a budget has never been so easy or beautiful!
You can reserve seats for this train if you want to sit in first class (expect to pay more) you can do this from any train station in Sri Lanka, we got second class tickets on the day and just joined the scramble for seats on arrival (I saw a few locals throwing their bags through windows to claim a seat so maybe worth a try!) so no worries if you’re not sure of your plans – you can always hang out the door!
Make sure you buy some snacks from the vendors on the train – the samosas are delicious!
3) Watch the sunrise over Adams Peak (or little Adams Peak!)
As I visited Sri Lanka in November (not peak season) I decided against climbing Adams Peak, or Sri Pada as it is known locally which means “sacred footprint (It is believed that Adam took his first step on earth at this point, and Buddhists believe it was buddha). December to April the pathway is lit during the night as most start their ascent around 1am in order the reach the peak before sunrise. After speaking to locals I heard that November was the worst time to visit as it was the longest amount of time since the path was trampled, making it overgrown and populated by lots of animals such as snakes. The weather had also recently been cloudy so just another reason not to go.
I wasn’t disheartened though as I learnt that there were two beautiful hikes to do in Ella; one up Ellas Rock (pretty hardcore) and another up “little” Adams peak (takes about half an hour from the bottom).
I left my apartment around 4h30 in order to reach the summit of little Adams Peak before sunrise. You definitely don’t need a guide, the entrance is as per Google Maps but when the map tries to make you wiggle up the mountain DO NOT FOLLOW! We made this mistake and ended up climbing up through super overgrown pathways! There are stairs to the top, which we saw but decided against going up as we didn’t know where they led, totally regret it!
Once you reach the summit you are rewarded by misty mountain tops in the distance and the sun slowly illuminating the sky orange and pink, definitely worth it!
2) Go on safari
I love elephants and was so excited for the chance to see them up close and personal in Sri Lanka. At first I’d heard about the various elephant orphanages and “sanctuaries” there are (such as Pinnawala), but the more I read the more turned off I was about going (some are in chains / they use spiked sticks behind the elephants ears to move them / the people working there care more about tips than the elephants… etc).
So ethical safari it was!
Seeing elephants in the wild did not disappoint! I went to Udawalawe National Park which I chose due to the fact it is smaller and less touristy than Yala but with just as many animals – so higher chance of seeing elephants. We saw loads! Solitary males, smaller female groups with babies and even large groups! A few of the males came right up alongside the jeep, which was simply magical!
I did have to fork out for this though – the jeep was 4000 rupees (around 25 euros), I could have shared this amongst more people to make it cheaper but I liked the idea of sharing it with only my partner! If you get a jeep from the entrance you should be able to haggle down to 3500 rupees, I booked ours at the hotel for the ease of not having to get a tuk tuk to the entrance and haggle. The entrance to the park was 7000 rupees for 2 people (so around 20 euros each).
When you enter you can chose to have a guide or not – we decided to and I am so happy that we did! He was super knowledgable and knew exactly where to go to find the elephants! You can then tip them whatever you feel they deserve. The guide was also great at pointing out various bird species and lizards and all the other animals who live in the natural park – there aren’t just elephants to see!
1) Swim with wild turtles
Next to the safari this was one of my favourite things that I did in Sri Lanka. Firstly because I am a massive animal fan and secondly because the turtles are HUGE! There is nothing quite like swimming alongside a turtle nearly as big as yourself!
You can find them all along the south coast – we found a few in Wijaya beach (near Unawatuna) and also Hikkaduwa. I would warn you off touching them as I don’t think they like it, but swimming alongside them is just as exhilarating and I even found a bit of the green seaweed they love and tossed it underwater in the turtles direction for him to gobble down!
Be careful of turtle egg nests on the beaches (they’re a nice pretty mound), generally they should be on more secluded beaches but try not to step on mounds of sand just in case!
If you want to see some baby turtles and also learn how one local hero rehabilitates disabled turtles (ones who have lost flippers) head to the turtle hatchery just north of Hikkaduwa (and right opposite a huge buddha statue). It costs 500 rupees but is well worth it as the owner pays fisherman a premium to bring in the disabled or hurt turtles and endangered eggs so he can help them.
So there you have the top 10! 3 other memorable things that I did that don’t quite make the cut were:
1) Whale watching boat tour in Mirissa -honestly this was very underwhelming for the price (around 40 euros!). Obviously you can’t get near the blue whales and they are huge so can’t jump out the water so you only see a vague fin in the distance (my photo is super zoomed in!)
2) Cultural dance show in Kandy – interesting to see the dances and outfits but was not amazing and cost 1000 rupees (around 6 euros)
3) Getting lost walking along Tangalle beach from Turtle point – I watched the sunset from here which was simply beautiful! and there are so many of these funny white crabs, they scuttle around so quickly and dance around the waves!
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