Sri Lanka is for those who found India too sprawling and immense, Thailand too westernised, and Australia and the Americas too expensive. Still emerging into the tourism mainstream, and with prices rivalling traveller saturated south east Asia, the country is a backpacking haven. Trek through valleys of tea plantations, ride the British Empire’s old railroads, teetering on the edge of mountain ranges, and watch whales off the perfect white beaches.
Where to go and why?
Skip Colombo and head East to Kandy, a popular pilgrimage destination, home to the sacred tooth temple, plenty of elephant orphanages and a scenic lake. Check out the British Garrison Cemetery (for the monkeys that live there) and look down at the city from the giant Buddha sitting on the hills above.
Then spend a day or two in time-warped Nurawara Eliya where you can stroll through the Victorian park and lay by the lake like the locals. The cooler climate is great for exploring the nearby hikes and seeing how the humble brew originates at Pedro’s Tea Estate.
Next take the mountaintop railway that winds its way to the travellers’ favourite hide-away: Ella. A tranquil village that’s the perfect place to sit and watch the mist roll in. The centre has a string of chilled out eateries but head up Panawara road, about half a mile for the mountain retreat, a perfect place for a mango milkshake overlooking Ella Rock. Be sure to ask at your guesthouse for directions to any of the beautiful walks through the plantations and hilltops.
Hopefully you would be rest up enough for the next destination; Delhousie, home of the popular pilgrimage of Adams Peak. Backtrack along the rail from Ella and try to resist taking more photographs of the valleys below. Get off at Hatton and catch a bus ,or tuk tuk (should cost around £5) , to the town at the foot of the looming peek. Finding a place is easy as the village seems to have sprung up especially to cater for walkers. Rooms needn’t be luxurious as you’ll follow the crowds and climb the five thousand stone steps at night arriving just in time for the sunrise. A task that one must do while in town.
Head back to Colombo and take the luxuriously smooth highway to Galle, a unique city that’s a blend of Portuguese design and Sri Lanken spice. Hire a bike from Peddlars hostel and follow the huge city walls that encompass the amazing European-feeling fort area– the centuries old barricades are the reason why this part of the city was safe from the 2004 tsunami. Wander around the museums, churches and shops and wrap the day up with a king coconut and curry at Punto Cafe. Perfect! Save another day to find the Japanese temple and Jungle Beach.
Backtrack north to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, once the rich heart of the powerful rulers of the island. Now you can marvel at one of Southern Asia’s greatest crumbling ruins, deservedly an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Oh and there’s also the world’s oldest tree. As with most attractions across the country, expect donations to be requested and guides to be offered. However, feel free to ignore the guides and be patient and smart with the donations. It is best to keep small bills in your pocket for a quick exchange allowing you enough time to continue enjoying the experience– it happens all over the world.
How to get around?
Sri Lankan public transport is wonderfully cheap, and with the fruit, newspaper and lottery sellers jumping on and off and singing their wares down the aisle, it’s more of an authentic experience than taking long distance taxis. On the main routes you’ll probably bump into other travellers labouring with their backpacks and stepping on people’s toes however buses and trains are generally packed with locals. Rates are anything from 100-300 rupees (45p – £1.50). In order to get a seat on a bus heading out of any of the cities it is best to get to a station a considerable amount of time before a bus is due to depart. If you don’t know when that is then there is always an English speaking official eager to help. If you take a tuk tuk to the station chances are the driver will be willing to show you also. Prepare to pay for an extra seat if your bags take one up. Even with this, I paid only 90p for the 3 hour popular route from the capital Colombo to the tourist hub of Kandy. Simply hop on (smaller stops may require a little running jump as buses are reluctant to stop), find a seat and someone will come and take your money. On more rural routes expect curious schoolkids wanting to practice their English. Avoid the slow red government buses.
Trains in Sri Lanka are slower and tend to be busier but can be fun and scenic. A particularly beautiful route is through the lush tree growing region from Nurawara Eliya to Ella, where you can upgrade to a wide windowed scenic carriage for a modest fee. Pay for a ticket at the correct destination or class booth at the station. Again, an English speaking official is around to help. When on the train signs at stations are difficult to find (or just does not exist) and hanging out the door or asking a local is needed.
Another popular, although more expensive, way to travel is by hiring a car and experienced driver, who can take you to the best places and navigate the hectic roads faster than buses. They may also take on a guide role, which giving the Sri Lanken reluctance to label anything, and the lack of useful tourist informations, can be very useful.
Then of course there’s the humble tuk tuk. Although best for short journeys from stations and to hostels or just out of town Buddhas, temples or plantations, it’s not uncommon for tuk tuks to take people in a hurry over a hundred kilometres to a sight. Basically, wherever you are in Sri Lanka, a tuk tuk driver will pull up and take you where you want to go. Best to suggest a price first, based on a 100 rupees per kilometre rate. Beware of packages that offer to take you to lots of tempting places. The price quoted is only for the transport, and the attractions can add supplements for the price to cover a ‘thank you’ to the driver. You may also find yourself being delivered to places and paying unexpected tips for impromptu explanations of graveyards and spices.
Where to stay?
Don’t expect many well established European-style dorms here, but guest house-style hotels and comfortable en-suite rooms are plentiful all over the country. You’ll pay less and have a quieter nights sleep for the ones 1-2kms from the centre, but remember to factor in the cost of a tuk tuk. Most places offer wi-fi, breakfast, and cosy colonial living rooms with a television and a modest bar. Finding a place can be a minefield, as many of the ones in the guidebook have put their prices up, and in quieter towns many aren’t online. A turn up and see tactic is sometimes the only option.
Here’s some of the best I’ve stayed in:
Kandy — Spica House Home.
Large and light en-suite rooms and a dorm. Beautiful garden overlooking the mountains surrounding the city. Run by a charming elderly man who enjoys late night chats.
Nuwara Eliya — McLarens lodge.
Interesting 130 year old Colonial bungalow with three bed rooms and a bathroom down the hall. Sitting in the spacious living room among the original fixtures and watching cricket with a beer is a nice way to spend the evening. Beware that with city tax and breakfast, the price is actually $25, not $15. Still good though.
Ella — Samadhi guest inn
Set among the peaceful sun soaked tea plantations around popular Ella, this homestay offers 2 bed ensuite rooms, breakfast and dinner, and is owned by the most welcoming Sri Lankens I met. Prices from £8 a room. As one of the reviews said ‘arrive a guest, leave a friend’.
Galle — Peddlars Inn
This place will soon be the number one hostel in the city, maybe in the country. New and thoughtfully designed luxury hostel with comfy dorms and a few private rooms. A bed is less than £8 a night, and be sure to check out the real Italian coffee with breakfast.
Head to Sri Lanka soon. Although your plane ride over will be full of westerners, they all seem to diffuse into the craziness of Colombo the second the plane doors open leaving you with that ultimate travelling experience– a destination that’s safe, cheap, and local enough to feel adventurous.