As our first stop during an extended sabbatical multi-country trip, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) turned out to be one of our favourite travel destinations. We've never been to a country of this size with an equivalent diversity of attractions - including remnants of former colonial centers, incredibly rich history - ancient capital cities, the cultural heart of Kandy, wide ranging wilderness areas - including safaris and elephant rescue centers, mountainous interiors and vast tea plantations. Oh and they have beaches too! As well, Sri Lanka boasts 8 UNESCO world heritage sites. To put this in perspective, Vietnam, a country over five times as large as Sri Lanka has the same number of UNESCO sites.
We flew into Bandaranaike International Airport just north of Colombo in early March 2019, the entry point for most international travelers. Our first stop was in Bentota Beach where we were able to relax on the beach for a couple days - a great way to adjust to the time change, considering we had flown in from Toronto.
From there we followed a clockwise track along the coast to the far south of the island, to the Dutch colonial city of Galle with its ramparts and fortifications. We continued along the southern coast to Yala National Park where we stayed in "glamping" accommodations and ventured into the Park on safari. Then it was a climb up the mountains to Hortons Plain, and through the tea plantations. Continuing north we entered the cultural triangle starting in Kandy, and continuing on to Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Finally we returned back along the coast to Colombo where we enjoyed the hospitality at the English colonial Galle Face Hotel.
Because we were on an extended sabbatical trip, we were able to move at a leisurely pace, and spent just over two weeks in Sri Lanka. And the drive time was actually quite reasonable. Excluding side trips, our total drive time between major destinations was only 28 hours over this two week period - or an average of about 2 hours per day. I would recommend trying to devote two weeks for Sri Lanka, although you can certainly pack in many of the highlights in a condensed week long trip.
We originally planned to hit the beach as our first stop to help get over the jet lag after the long trip from Toronto. And it was nice to relax on the sand and not feel any pressure to visit the sites, although we were keen to do so. We were also looking forward to some warm weather after departing Toronto in about -10C weather. We didn't realize though that our entry to a climate that was consistently over +30C would be a bit too much of a good thing. So having the cooling ocean breeze nearby was pleasant to say the least.
While the primary focus of a stay along the south western beaches is for rest and relaxation, there are a few other worthy diversions along the coast. During our drive from Bentota Beach to Galle, we made a few stops - Ariyapala Mask Museum, a family run gemstone operation and Tsunami Memorials.
The Ariyapala Mask Museum is a quick stop off the highway where you can take short guided tour of and watch the craftsmen at work making the masks, and pick up a souvenir if inclined.
Sri Lanka is well known for its gemstones and in spite of its relative size is one of the largest producers in the World, mining of 50 varieties of gemstones. We stopped at a small family run operation Meetiyagoda Moonstone Mine to have a look at the small scale mining operation and their jewelry. The operation consisted of a 30-40 foot cave where they dug short tunnels removing buckets of soil in hot humid caves, brought it to the surface, and then used a sieve to find the gemstones.
Meetiyagoda Moonstone Mine
We stopped at two Tsunami Memorials near Peraliya commemorating the tragic loss of live during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Peraliya was devastated by the tsunami, and the location where a train was lifted off the tracks with 1,500 people perishing - the World's worst ever train disaster.
We were able to visit 7 of Sri Lanka's 8 UNESCO world heritage sites, with our first stop being the historical Dutch colonial town of Galle. It was actually originally a Portuguese outpost before the Dutch took it over in 1638. Galle is a popular tourist destination today, with the major draw being the historic walled section of the town on a peninsula jutting out into the Indian Ocean. We joined the crowds for a view of the sundown along the ramparts.
Galle has a variety of guest houses, restaurants and shopping - particularly known for gemstone jewelers. We also came across Embark in Galle, a chain of about a dozen retail stores in Sri Lanka whose profits support charitable work supporting the country's street dogs. And they certainly could use the help with an estimated half million street dogs wandering the country. While travelling across the country we stopped frequently to give out dog food to the ones we came across.
Enroute to our next destination, Yala National Park, we passed through the somewhat strange town of Hambantota. After traveling along a small two lane road we suddenly entered a broad four lane highway seemingly in the middle of no where - with virtually no traffic. With funding primarily from the Chinese, this area not only had a brand new highway, but a large seaport, international airport, conference center and a new hospital. Oddly though, the area seemed almost deserted.
In fact, the international airport built at a cost of $200M opened in 2013 with just two daily scheduled flights, which has now dropped to none. There are claims that 300 soldiers and police were brought in to keep the elephants from entering the airfield as the airport. They have used the hangers for storing rice, and there is talk of converting the airport to a pilot training facility and storage area for mothballed aircraft - certainly not the original plans...
I only found out after our passing through this area that we could have actually visited the Airport as a tourist - not your typical sight-seeing tour, but would have liked to check it out. Wade Shepard has written an interesting piece in Forbes about the "World's Emptiest International Airport".
As we drove past the Convention Center, there was absolutely nothing going on, and apparently it too sits empty most of the time. Equally, the seaport has been a white elephant. The unfortunate reality is the development was approved as a vanity project by former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa who grew up in Hambantota. Burdened with heavy debt that the government could not pay back, Sri Lanka has turned the Port over to the Chinese for a 99 year lease. Seemingly the Airport is also now on the block with India, fearful of the growing Chinese influence, is seeking to secure the airport in a long term lease.
Sri Lanka was not top of mind as a safari destination, so we were intrigued when we learned about the wildlife at Yala National Park. Having never been on safari, we thought we may as well give it a try, admittedly having low expectations. And we were happy we did, our safari excursions here turned out to be a highlight of the trip.
We stayed at a small family run lodge just outside the park - Camp Leopard Safari. Staying in a semi-luxurious "glamping" accommodation, the safari started a little early than expected with a troop of monkeys clamoring across our roof top at about 3am.
We went on 3 half day safaris to Yala National Park and were never bored. Just when we thought we'd seen everything, something new would pop up behind a bush, tree or rock. Although we don't have great photos to support all our sightings, we did see some of the more noteworthy animals in the Park - including a leopard sunning itself on the rocks, elephants, Water Buffalo and perhaps rarest of all the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear. We also saw lots of birds and waterfowl, including Hornbills, Kingfishers, Eagles & Hawks and the Sri Lankan national bird - the colorful Junglefowl. In total, we counted over 70 wildlife sightings - thanks in large part to the sharp eyes of our guide Noyel.
There are three entrances to the Park - Palatupane (southern), Katharagama (middle) and Galge (northern). The southern entrance is the most popular given its location closest to the ocean and near many of the resorts - however it is also the busiest. While researching I had heard the vehicles lining up to enter the park in peak season could be excessive. We went in via the middle gate on two of our safaris and both times there were no mare than a half dozen vehicles. I would suggest this might be the better choice to steer clear of the competing vehicles.
The scenery around Yala was varied and picturesque and was worth the price of admission even before all the wildlife sightings. The large water tanks, or reservoirs, helps sustain the varied wildlife in this semi-arid area. The morning sun against the rock outcroppings was also a popular area for leopard sightings.
From Yala, we headed north into the mountainous interior through vast tea plantations enroute to Hortons Plain, our second UNESCO world heritage site. We stayed at Hill Safari Eco Lodge just outside the Park with an incredible view from a steep mountainside overlooking tea plantations below (contrary to the lodge's name, don't expect to see elephants or leopards up here!). Hortons Plain is a great destination for hikers, having a popular loop route over a few miles that passes through montane grassland and lush montane cloud forest before reaching the highlight - World's End - a vantage point at the top of a vertical cliff almost a kilometer high. The trail continues along a small stream and past a waterfall and small ponds before reaching the dusty museum at the trail head. Keep an eye out for Sambar Deer - we also saw a Giant Squirrel foraging in the trees.
Its best to arrive at the trailhead around 8am so you have time to reach World's End before the clouds start to roll in obstructing the view.
The highlands provide the perfect conditions for Sri Lanka's extensive network of tea plantations. We stopped into the historic Dambethenna Tea Factory which was purchased by Thomas Lipton in the late 1800's. He bought up a number of plantations in the central highlands after a coffee blight devastated the coffee plantations of the time, and converted them to growing tea. We toured the tea factory still in operation today using equipment that is over a hundred years old.
The drive through the tea plantations continue through the British colonial hill town of Nuwara Eliya which many also use as a base to explore Hortons Plain. We did stop in at The Grand Hotel for lunch and a stroll through the town and market before heading on to Kandy, the cultural heart of Sri Lanka located in the center of the country.
Kandy is a picturesque town centered on a small lake where the big draw for tourists and Sri Lankans alike is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) which holds a tooth fragment of the Buddha. While you can't see the actual tooth, you can stand in line for a chance to see the small gold casket shaped stupa where it is held. If you follow the walkway that leads behind the tooth relic chamber, you'll reach a large hall with a series of depictions and explanations (in English) showing the lengthy history of the tooth relic as it passed through various Kings and holy men who hid and relocated the tooth a number of times across the centuries.
In July/August, the 10 day Festival of the Tooth is held. They used to parade the tooth relic through the town on an elephant, but had to replace the real tooth with a replica. If you miss the Festival, you can still see the stuffed remains of Raja, one of the more famous elephants who carried the tooth during the Festival for about 50 years.
We took in the cultural dance at the Kandyan Art Association building along the lake next to the temple complex. The troupe puts on an entertaining, acrobatic performance, capping it off with fire breathing and fire walk towards the end.
Just a little to the west of Kandy we visited the Pinnalanda Elephant Orphanage. The elephants here are primarily free roaming in a large zoo like enclosure, and appeared to be in good health. A few of the younger elephants were chained as a safety precaution. We did notice some smaller family run elephant riding outfits along the road to Pinnalanda. The ones we passed seemed to have very small enclosures for the elephants, and some were chained as well. Not ideal, and if you ride one of these elephants, just be aware that the owners often use negative reinforcement to train the elephants.
On the return to Kandy we also stopped in at the Royal Botanical Gardens. While the gardens are extensive, it was the flying foxes, or large fruit bat that really caught our attention. There were literally thousands of flying foxes passing over the park in the late afternoon.
There have to be hundreds of small temples and historical sights scattered around Sri Lanka. You'll never have a chance to see them all, but it can be fun to stop at a few relatively lesser known sites as you never know what you'll find. One of the more interesting ones we stumbled across just north of Kandy is the Aluviharaya Rock Cave Temple. Through twists and turns, you'll pass through narrow passageways and around large rocky outcroppings, and into narrow caves. While the Buddhist temples we visited were typically tranquil and peaceful, this temple had a different theme all together. It held many gruesome paintings of sinners being punished in hell. It was a bit much for us, although the large group of young innocent school children that passed through seemed relatively unphased.
Kandy is the southern most point of an area called the Cultural Triangle, which includes Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura as the other two anchors. This area contains Sri Lanka's remaining five UNESCO world heritage sites - Kandy, Dambulla Royal Cave Temple, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.
As we headed north away from Kandy, our first stop was the Dambulla Royal Cave Temple. This ancient monastery dates back to the 2nd Century BC. It will take about 30 minutes to hike up the stairs leading to the entrance. You'll enter a large rock ledge that will take you to the cave temple. Just be aware that as with all Buddhist religious sites, you will need to remove your hat and shoes on entry. But you will be allowed to wear socks if you have any, an important consideration on the sun drenched rocks. So unless you want to join the other tourists on a dance across the rocky ledge, I'd highly advise bringing a pair of socks!
Either way, the walk (or dance) to the cave temple makes it worthwhile. The caves are adorned with colourful intricate religious paintings, some of which UNESCO staff could be seen repairing. You'll also find over 100 Buddha statues as well.
In our opinion, Sigiriya is not to be missed on a trip to Sri Lanka. This ancient rock fortress dates back to the 5th century, although there are differing opinions on the history of the site. A common belief is that King Kashyapa moved the capital here after murdering his father. He was the son of a lesser Queen, and was fearful that the rightful King and his half brother Moggallana would invade and take revenge. So he built his fortress on Sigiriya with its 200 meter high near vertical cliffs. Eventually his half brother did return and defeat him in battle, and the short lived capital was returned to Anuradhapura. Sigirya became a monastery for the next thousand years before being abandoned.
Keep in mind there is some climbing involved to get to the summit - about 1,200 stairs. Try to get an early start so you can hike in the shade while climbing up the steepest portion along the cliff face. You will enter through the western entrance through the water gardens, leading through the boulder gardens before reaching the cliff face. Part way up the cliff face you'll have a chance to view well preserved ancient frescoes followed by the Mirror Wall. The Mirror Wall is covered in highly polished white plaster and contains graffiti from bygone travelers, some over a thousand years old.
A little more than half way up you'll reach the Lion's Paws Terrace named for the two gigantic Lion's Paws which is all that remains of a full sized Lion that guarded the final ascent to the summit. On the summit you'll see the remains of the Royal Palace, a larger water tank and incredible views in all directions.
There are plenty of places to stay near Sigiriya, but I would highly recommend staying at the Heritance Kandalama which is about a 20 minute drive away. This hotel is like no other we've stayed at in our years of travel. The hotel is seamlessly integrated with the local setting and natural environment.
On arriving, your first view is actually that of a giant green wall of vegetation encircling the hotel. Our driver Chanaka, who seemed to know everyone wherever we visited, introduced us to the manager on duty. Expecting the simplest room based on the rate we payed, we were pleasantly surprised to be led by the manager to a spacious suite overlooking the Kandalama Reservoir. Although he would not admit it, we are sure it was Chanaka's natural charms that got us the upgrade. Chanaka was also pleased as this was his favourite hotel to visit. In Sri Lanka, many hotels have a separate areas in or near the hotel for the drivers to stay, and he especially enjoyed the hiking he could do near the hotel.
We wandered along the entire length of the hotel checking out the views of the surrounding forest and mountains, with the Kandalama Reservoir below. Geoffrey Bawa, the well known architect who designed the hotel, had taken full advantage of the natural setting. I especially liked the entrance to the main lounge area via a tunnel that constantly had a cool breeze. Sections of the hotel's walkways wound around large boulders. And everywhere, including the rooftop dining area were surrounded by greenery and wildlife. One morning, I saw monkeys, a Hornbill and a Giant Squirrel outside our room window.
On the entrance to the hotel, we saw a large concrete foot on the top of a rocky hill. Our driver claimed that Geoffrey Bawa was flying around in a helicopter seeking a spot to build the hotel, and when he came across the site at Kandalama he dropped his boot out of the helicopter to mark the spot. Great story, although on closer inspection the foot marks the spot of the Kandalama Millennium time capsule place there in the year 2000, to be opened in 2999.
On separate days we visited the nearby historic former capitals of Sri Lanka - Polonnawura and Anuradhapura. Polonnaruwa was the capital starting in about 10th century and the ruins here are younger and generally in better condition than the older capital of Anuradhapura.
We hired a guide and started at the archaeological museum in Polonnaruwa to get an overview of the history and site. The remains of the Royal Palace give hints of what must once have been a massive 7 floor building with 50 rooms. The Sacred Quadrangle nearby has a series of impressive ruins, including the Vatadage which once housed the Buddha's tooth relic.
We happened upon the Gal Potha, a large stone slab with a former King's inscriptions. It is about 27' long by 5' wide - weighing 15 tons, and was carried about 100 kilometers to its current location 800 years ago. Good thing they had help from some elephants!
At Anuradhapura, we took a different approach and explored the ruins by bicycle as they tended to be a little more spread out. There are a number of large stuppas to visit, including the Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba containing relics and a sacred site for many Buddhists around the world.
While Colombo typically doesn't get rave reviews from the Guidebooks, we found there was enough to keep our attention for a couple days. We stayed at the historic Galle Face Hotel which certainly made the time easier to pass. While it might be considered expensive by Sri Lankan standards, we thought it was a relative bargain compared to prices back home in Canada.
Its a great place to spend the evening watching the sun go down, and they even have a little flag lowering ceremony with a Sri Lankan bag piper in kilts - drawing inspiration from the hotel's English colonial past. There is an air of nostalgia as you wander through the Verandah and Travelers Bar that has hosted many famous people over the years - including a lot of writers - Mark Twain, Arthur C Clarke, George Bernard Shaw, DH Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling and Hemingway to name few. The hotel even has its own resident historian and museum.
There are a few sights in and around Colombo depending on your likes. We had the most fun wandering through the Pettah Market in central Colombo. Its a crazy hectic place catering to locals. The area is a few city blocks wide and is packed full of thousands of vendors, both along the street, and tucked in narrow passageways that lead through the surrounding buildings. Vendors were tucked into every conceivable corner of space, we even saw two industrious Sri Lankans running a cell phone repair shop underneath a narrow stairwell. Full of inexpensive goods - you know its probably too good a deal when the packaging reads "Apple Original Product". There is street food for the adventurous - although we passed when we saw workers delivering large blocks of ice to the food vendors for refrigeration.
While in Colombo, its your chance to try McDonald's "Chicken Big Mac", and I must say it was delicious! We also had a chance to try the local Sri Lankan "hoppers" made out rice flour either shaped as a bowl, or in spaghetti like strands.
One final thought - as you plan your trip we would suggest hiring a driver. Renting might be an option, although information on rental options seemed to be scarce... Driving can be a little hectic especially on the narrower two lane roads. Thankfully our driver was quite patient and didn't try to overtake vehicles around blind corners as we witnessed far too regularly. We found our driver through Tripadvisor, and can recommend Aerizo Tours - request Chanaka if available.
It was just following our trip that the devastating Easter bombings rocked the country, and was a set back for the country still healing from its long civil war. This may cause concerns over safety, and may have you questioning whether to visit. I can only say that while traveling in Sri Lanka, we personally felt very safe, wandering on our own in cities and towns, and never feeling threatened in any way. No question, the Sri Lankan people are extremely friendly and hospitable. We hope you will consider visiting Sri Lanka. We met many locals who rely on the tourism industry, and it would be a shame for them the remain idle too long.