Sunset on Sri Lanka’s west coast, Pamunugama, Sri Lanka
After spending nearly three weeks touring the paradise island of Sri Lanka, traversing the varied natural and cultural landscape, and hopping from one World Heritage Site to another, I finally found a phrase that I believe best captures this exotically familiar destination: India Lite.
Years ago I described India as being “in your face“. Sri Lanka by comparison is more like an energetic tap on the shoulder. It has all the elements of a trip to India without any of the extremes. It’s not as noisy, crowded or dirty as India – while at the same time its attractions, ruins and architecture aren’t nearly as jaw-dropping either. Overall it’s a good trade-off, and if you’re someday planning a trip to India, it’s a great introduction.
But enough about India – Sri Lanka is a worthy destination in its own right. I will now share my insights on some of the top things to see in this tropical wonderland.
Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island located just off the southeastern coast of that other country I inadvertently keep mentioning. Roughly the size of Ireland, Sri Lanka packs a lot of variety in a small package. Ranging from palm-fringed beaches, steamy jungles, rugged mountains and even semi-arid plains, you won’t have to go far for a little diversity.
Since it’s an island, you’ll arrive in Sri Lanka either by air or sea. Assuming you’re not on a cruise ship, your international flight will land at Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) which is closer to the beach/fishing town of Negombo than the capital Colombo. With many flights either landing or arriving in the wee hours of the morning, you might want to consider a brief stay here at either the start or end of your journey. The main beach is broad and (relatively) trash-free with many reasonable lodging and dining options nearby. It’s not the French Riviera, but still a pleasant place to spend a night or two around your flights.
The capital is by far the most cosmopolitan destination to be found in the country. The area around the Dutch Hospital and World Trade Center is where you’ll find the fanciest hotels and most happening shops and restaurants. If you’re looking for a night on the town – along with some stunning sunset views from the rooftop bars – this is the place to be. Other than that, there are some great shopping opportunities in the Pettah Market, and for great city views and high brow accommodations (or even just afternoon tea) the classic Mount Lavinia Hotel in the southern suburb of (you guessed it) Mt. Lavinia is a setting right out of the 1800’s. It’s not a must-see world city by any means, but if your travels through the country leave you yearning for some more modern comforts, it’s certainly worth at least a night’s exploration.
Galle as seen from the ramparts, Galle, Sri Lanka
Heading south along the coast (or better yet, inland via the fast and traffic-free highway) the former Dutch stronghold of Galle boasts a fort and old town that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort walls jut out into the Indian Ocean, providing some great sea views and a scenic walking route along its perimeter. Within the still intact ramparts is a tightly-packed warren of heritage homes and boutique shops and restaurants. After watching the sun set on the west side, cross over to the east side to the Dutch Hospital (yes, Galle has one too) for dinner looking out to sea.
Catching rays at Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka
Just a few kilometers south of Galle is the beach town of Unawatuna. Set around a crescent of protected water, it’s a great place to catch some rays, and if you want to hang out for a few days there’s plenty of cheap accommodation to be found. If you’re looking for those iconic shots of fishermen out in the water up on stilts, just go a few more kilometers down the coast to Koggala – but be prepared to pony up if they catch you trying to snap off shots without offering some payment.
View from the stairs on Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
Located well inland at the Peak Sanctuary area (it will take a good 4 hours from Colombo), this Buddhist pilgrimage site is a popular destination with nature lovers as well. Avoid coming on full moons and holidays unless you want a crowd, and be prepared for a grueling climb up seemingly never-ending stairs. The goal is to arrive by sunrise to see the amazing landscape materialize into view. In my case, I got a great view of the inside of a cloud, but still took pride in making it to the top. I learned a lot during my exhausting ascent (and equally exhausting descent) and have lots more to say on the subject, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice to say, if you’re fit and up for a unique adventure, work this place into your itinerary. Worst case scenario, the lush greenery of the gorgeous tea country will be worth the trip on its own merit.
Pilgrims come in all forms in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Once a mighty religious center, this World Heritage Site still buzzes with Buddhist activity centered around the gigantic stupas that rise out of the surrounding jungle. For those less interested in religious affairs, you can still walk among the many ruins or admire the troops of langur monkeys that roam the sprawling complex. Be sure to buy your entrance ticket or else you’ll risk the wrath of the officials.
If you’re not Buddhist, you might not find this place terribly interesting, and honestly I was put off by the tremendous amount of trash thrown about by visiting pilgrims. This is the first time that I’ve ever visited a World Heritage Site for which it wasn’t worth going out of my way, let along the price of entry. But if you’re in the neighborhood, it is certainly not something you see every day.
View from the top at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Arguably the most-iconic site in Sri Lanka, this fortress perched atop a rocky outcropping is a World Heritage Site that is worth both the price of entry and the effort needed to reach the top. Meaning ‘Lion Rock’, there’s little to suggest a lion other than an enormous set of ‘paws’ carved at the base of one of the myriad stairs that wind their way up to the top. If you’ve already climbed Adam’s Peak, this will seem little more than a stepladder by comparison.
An ascent starts with a ground-level walk through stone pools and gardens before you hit the stairs. Once past the ticket check-point, you’ll be routed up a spiral staircase to view a collection of ancient paintings of buxom Sri Lankan women of days past before spiraling back down to continue your trek along the cliff face. Passing the giant lion paws, you’ll have some more vertical moments before reaching the ruins of a citadel up on top. The view is fantastic, with hills, mountains and the occasional statue poking up through the nearly uninterrupted jungle.
Family time at Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka
Close to Sigiriya, is Minneriya National Park. This woodland of evergreens and scrub forest is home to a variety of wildlife, but the stars of the show are the herds of wild Asian elephants that roam freely. If you come during the dry season (June-September) they’ll likely be congregating around a series of artificial reservoirs in large numbers. My late afternoon visit (we were the last Jeep in) had us arriving to a group of herds that conservatively numbered around 100 elephants.
At the park entrance you have to pay an entry fee plus a little something for a required guide that will join you in your vehicle. Figure between $15-20 U.S. The route will take you through a rutted dirt road where you can see monkeys, peacock and other residents, before opening up to a grassy plain around the water. Be prepared to get up close as the elephants graze their way across your field of vision, and be extra prepared for some great photo opportunities as baby elephants weave their way in and among the adults looking to feed, run and play. If you care anything for animals, and the chance to see them in the wild, this stop is a must-see.
Relaxing riverside in cooler, dryer Kandy
Once the site of an enduring kingdom, Kandy is a bustling city perched in the mountainous interior of the country. Its main claim to fame is the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth. But even those of other faiths will enjoy its scenic setting and cooler, dryer temperatures compared to the coast. I’d suggest at least a day here to take in the sights or at least cool down a bit.
Bath time at Pinnawala, Sri Lanka
If you don’t feel like trekking all the way out to Minneriya, the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawala is a decent stand-in. While a far more “pre-packaged” experience than an elephant safari in the north, it does allow for some up-close interaction, and is ostensibly, all for a good cause.
After buying your ticket, you can watch the handlers bottle-feed some younger elephants. And for about $2 you can buy a basket of fruit to hand-feed an adult elephant who will be more than happy to take it off your hands. Just a side note: elephant tongues are puffy and sticky, so you might want to bring some hand-sanitizer for when you’re done.
Next you are granted access to a side street brimming with souvenir shops (including the ubiquitous elephant print pants you’ll see everywhere) where you can also watch a herd being brought down to the river for a bath and some playtime. Bear in mind that you will be asked to show your ticket, so hang on to it. You can also run ahead to the Hotel Elephant Park which overlooks the river where they bathe. Order a snack or beer and revel in the sight of more than a dozen elephants spraying and splashing around in the swift-moving waters at the edge of the jungle.
Looking back on what I’ve written, it’s obvious that I saw quite a lot in my nearly three weeks in-country. But by no means did I see it all. However, I saw enough to clearly affirm that Sri Lanka has a wealth of attractions to keep a visitor busy across a broad range of interests, and that there’s enough to see, do and experience to justify the tedious amount of travel time to get there. If you’ve never been to the subcontinent, Sri Lanka is a great introduction to this fascinating region of the world. And if this is as far as you go, it will still be one place that is very much worth the price of admission.
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