Sri Lanka has become a hugely popular destination in the last few years as more and more people choose the tiny island in the Indian Ocean for their holidays. Sri Lanka has a lot to offer. Imagine long sandy beaches, green hills covered in tea and rice plantations, diverse wildlife, valuable historical monuments and a rich culinary tradition.
I visited Sri Lanka two years ago, although I have never blogged about it until now because, at the time I had mixed feelings about my trip. Sounds crazy right? I couldn’t really explain why, but I came back to London feeling tired and underwhelmed. Something hadn’t clicked for me yet.
In the last two years I have often thought about my holiday in Sri Lanka and even longed to be back, many times. So today I am finally sharing my thoughts, photos and travel tips with you to explain why Sri Lanka is a destination that I would love to re-visit.
I travelled around Sri Lanka with a friend for two weeks in July 2014. We flew to Colombo and embarked on a (more or less) round journey around the island by bus, train and taxi. It was fairly cheap, but not as cheap as you might expect especially if you decide to travel with a private car and local guide and stay in hotels and resorts.
Along the way we stopped at popular coastal towns like Galle in the south, Negombo in the west or Trincomalee in the north as well as inland cities like Kandi, Ella and Nuwara Elya, with a short visit to the Yala National Park near Tissa.
One day is enough to visit the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo. You want to get going because there are many other things to see in Sri Lanka. We spent one afternoon there and slept in an AirBnB. The next morning we got on the train towards the old fort town of Galle.
One of the most exciting moments for me was seeing the stilt fishermen off the beach between Galle and Mirissa (we stayed in a guesthouse in Unawatuna). They are not always there, to catch them you need to go to certain spots in the early morning or before sunset. It’s the ultimate Sri lankan postcard shot, so you don’t want to miss this.
The stilts consist of a single pole and crossbar planted out in the sea, on which fishermen perch while casting their lines when the currents are flowing in the right direction. Positions are highly lucrative thanks to the abundant supplies of fish, even close to shore, and are handed down from father to son. [Rough Guides]
Despite all odds, I also liked the fishermen village of Negombo (north of Colombo) where I spent one full day and night before our departure. It was meant to bit just a place to sleep before going to the airport in Colombo and I didn’t expect much from the coastal town, but I actually really enjoyed it.
We asked a rickshaw driver to take us around for two hours and he took us to the fish market on the beach and to the open-air food market in town. The fishermen leave their catch of the day on the shore to dry in preparation for the salting process. Women work hard all day to turn the fishes upside down so they can dry completely.
I loved spending four days on the beach at Trincomalee, Uppuveli and Nilaveli. While it was really beautiful as you can see from these pictures, don’t go there expecting the Maldives (as many tourists do). The truth is that there aren’t many infrastructures for tourists (ie. a range of accommodations, restaurants and facilities). You have to remember than until a decade or less ago this part of the country was engulfed in a tragic civil war.
At the time of my visit, there wasn’t a lot of choice between cheap guesthouses and expensive resorts (where you pay in American dollars and you get a totally Western holiday experience). We stayed at Palm Beach Resort in Uppuveli, a guesthouse run by an Italian couple who has lived in Sri Lanka for 15 years (and even escaped the tsunami in 2004. I highly recommend staying there, not least for the amazing seafood spaghetti they serve for dinner!
The natural sights are beautiful though and there are also opportunities for diving and boat tours. There are a few bars on the beach in Uppuveli with a young crowd of backpackers, so it’s a nice place to hang out for a few days.
My friend and I had decided to spend a few days in Uppuveli to relax at the end of our trip, but in order to do that we had to move around pretty quickly for the first ten days. We changed location every day, travelling sometimes 5-6 hours in a public bus, in very hot and humid weather. We had wanted to make the most of our two weeks in Sri Lanka and we did, but in hindsight I wish we rushed less and spent more time in some places.
A real surprise for me was the hill-country village of Ella: a tiny cluster of houses, a train station and all round them the stunning mountains that form the Ella Gap.
Welcome to everyone’s favourite hill-country village and the place to ease off the travel accelerator with a few leisurely days resting in your choice of some of the country’s best guesthouses. The views through Ella Gap are stunning, and on a clear night you can even spy the subtle glow of the Great Basses lighthouse on Sri Lanka’s south coast. [Lonely Planet]
Unfortunately we only had a few hours and one night to spend in Ella, but that evening was my favourite of the whole trip. I will always remember the peaceful feeling of gazing at the Ella Gap from the terrace of our guesthouse. I certainly hope to go back someday.
The next morning we hopped on the train to Nuwara Elya, a journey that in itself was worth the flight to Sri Lanka. Trains (when available) are a comfortable and affordable way to see the country, and no trip is more scenic than the train from Ella to Kandy, whizzing through paddy fields and tea plantations.
I loved the hill country because of the stunning scenery and the visits to the tea plantations. Tea tasting was one of the highlights of my trip to Sri Lanka. Unlike India where you mostly drink chai (black tea cooked with spices and full fat milk), in Sri Lanka they drink black tea (Ceylon orange pekoe) with a slice of lemon.
More than anything I loved visiting Handunugoda Tea Estate in the south west of the island and learning about white tea.
I also enjoyed the cool weather we found on the mountains. By the time we arrived in Kandy and started our visits of the ancient sites in Dambulla and Sigiriya, the weather had become really hot.
Kandy served as the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom and is the largest city in Sri Lanka after Colombo. I enjoyed visiting the Temple of the Tooth and watching a Kandyan dance performance.
In Dambulla we visited the Golden Temple and the next day we climbed to the top of Sigiriya Rock (nearly 200m high).
While I enjoyed visiting the ancient sites, some of these places were underwhelming, particularly for me Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. I don’t know why I wasn’t wowed by these places, they are part of the UNESCO World Heritage after all. But the infrastructures were a let down, our local guides failed to get us excited about the ruins and temples, and again the heat played a big role in making me feel disconnected with the surroundings. I really wanted to love it all, but some places just didn’t click with me.
What really made my trip in Sri Lanka worthwhile, more than the sights, were the people. Warm, friendly, respectful and kind like the rickshaw driver who offered to take us to our guesthouse for free when we were lost or our guesthouse host who invited us into her kitchen for a free cooking demo.
I didn’t really get this at the time. I was too tired, too hot, too focused on things that made me uncomfortable like carrying my enormous bag, searching everyday for our next accommodation, figuring out how to get from A to B, looking for wifi to blog or worrying about work emails. But those interactions with local people at the guesthouse, on the bus, in the restaurants are what today I remember and cherish the most about my trip.
Almost everywhere we went, we stayed in homestays, except for one night in Nilaveli when we treated ourselves to a luxury beach bungalow. Homestays (rooms rented to tourists on a B&B basis; you can pay extra to get a home cooked dinner) were the best choice for me. They gave me the chance to connect with Sri Lankan people, eat like they eat and really immerse myself in their culture.
Eating local dishes is an essential part of a trip to Sri Lanka and you can really do it in a homestay. Surprisingly, it took us a few days before we found authentic, Sri Lankan food!
In Colombo and in the touristic areas around Galle the restaurants served Western or Chinese food. Think badly cooked pasta, noodles, burgers and pizza. By the time we arrived in Tissa 3 days into our trip and were offered curry and rice for lunch, I was so happy I almost wanted to cry.
Rice and curry is the traditional Sri Lankan staple, cooked and eaten everyday, similarly to the Kerala meals served in Kerala.
Sri Lankan cuisine is in some ways similar to south Indian’s, but it also has unique dishes and flavours you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
The ingredients available changed as I moved from the coast towards the hill country and so the food changed a bit too. Because of the hot climate there is an abundance of tropical fruits, like coconut and jackfruit, which heavily feature in Sri Lankan cuisine together with fresh seafood and spices like ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and pepper.
The most popular dishes come from the Sinhalese majority of the population (mostly buddhist) but you will also be able to taste dishes from other ethnic and religious groups, such as Tamil (hindus) or Muslims.
Dinners in Sri Lanka were similar to the lunches, generally consiting of several curries (a minimum of three or four, but up to six or more) made with vegetables, fish or meat and a large portion of rice – of which Sri Lanka is a big producer.
Other condiments like sambol and chutneys are also brought to the table. My favourite type of curry was dhal made from red lentils cooked in coconut milk with onions, tomatoes, fresh green chilies, spices and pandan leaves. In Ella I had the chance to try the lamprais, a delicious dish of chicken and vegetables slow cooked in a banana.
In addition to curries and rice, Sri Lankan people love to eat street food so whether you’re walking along a road in a town or by the beach you will find hawkers selling snacks from small carts. I am not a fussy eater and I was more than happy to try local snacks, such as vegetable or egg rotis, ulundu vadai (deep fried black gram fritters) or shrimp vadai.
When travelling by train through the hill country I saw many vendors coming onto the tracks to the train to sell fruits and spicy roasted peanuts wrapped in paper cones made from children’s old school homework.
I also loved manioc (cassava) chips which I bought from a food cart on the beach in Negombo.
My favourite Sri Lankan food discovery was Kotthu Roti, the local “fast food”: a stir-fry made with pieces of flaky roti (similar to Indian paratha) mixed together with meat or vegetables, spices and garlic.
The ingredients are stirred and shredded using two metal cleavers with a wooden handle, whilst getting cooked on a flat iron skillet. Kotthu can be found all day long from small restaurants or roadside cafes and is served as a main dish. You rarely see foreigners venturing inside these restaurants, though they are usually worth a try.
Coconut is largely used in Sri Lankan dishes. I have a sweet tooth so I loved having coconut roti for breakfast, but one of their signature dish is actually a spicy coconut relish called Pol sambol. It is made from a simple blend of finely grated coconut, red onions, dried whole chilies or chili powder, lime juice and salt.
Hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes) are the breakfast staple food. They are popular in London now, but at the time in 2014 I had never heard of them.
The batter is made the night before from fermented rice flour, coconut milk, coconut water and a little sugar. In the morning, the hoppers are cooked in a rounded pan shaped like a small wok (traditionally, hoppers were cooked over coconut-shell embers).
Hoppers can be plain and eaten with spicy sambol or coconut relish, but the most popular version is topped with a fried egg.
While staying in a guesthouse in Sigiriya our hosts invited me in the kitchen to teach me how to cook hoppers, which was an incredible opportunity!
As I said before, authentic Sri Lankan food isn’t so easy to find. Ask the locals to recommend their favourite places to eat and don’t be afraid to try the country’s staple dishes. You will find cheaper and tastier food and you will get to experience the real Sri Lanka.
I hope more and more tourists will choose Sri Lanka for their holidays, but also that they will choose to support local businesses and experience the authentic cuisine and accommodations rather than opting for all-inclusive resorts. To me those experiences are the ones that make Sri Lanka a destination worth re-visiting over and over again.
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