Exploring Sri Lanka
Written by Amy Quinton and Daniel Newman
This blog post shares some of our experiences and highlights travelling in Sri Lanka for three and a half weeks in June 2019.
Shortly after our wedding we were off and away on a 12 month adventure, starting with our official honey moon in Sri Lanka.
The map below shows our route around Sri Lanka (anti-clockwise from Colombo). We enjoyed all the transport options including private driver (Nisha was excellent), taxi, tuk tuk, train, public and private buses.
Negombo - 1 night
Arriving late we spent our first night at a hotel close to the airport in Negombo, just north of the capital Colombo. We left the next day to catch a train to Kandy.
Taken for a ride
Our train to Kandy wasn’t due for an hour, so we wandered out of Colombo Fort Station to find some lunch. On our way we came across a “friendly” old man called “Rathna” (pictured below) on the street who was “waiting for his motorcycle to be fixed”. He offered to show us the way to the restaurant to “pass the time”. Being the first day of our trip, we hadn’t yet honed our BS radar and fell for his well practised story. One thing led to another and we had somehow agreed to take a “90 rupee” tuk tuk up the road because his “leg was playing up”. He said he absolutely didn’t want any money, but if we wanted we “could post some Australian stamps for his daughter’s stamp collection”. The short trip soon escalated into a whirl wind tour of Colombo. Realising we had been taken for a ride both literally and figuratively, we insisted on returning to the station. We needed Rathna to move before we could get out, so at his request we handed over way too much money “for the tuk tuk” (still less than the price he was asking) and jumped out as quickly as possible. Feeling like gullible fools, we decided this was a cheap lesson in the scheme of scams, and wisened up quickly! (We googled and found that this couple happened across Rathna only one month earlier and wrote about their almost identical experience here and others shared their similar story here!)
Kandy – 2 nights
- We took things slow in Kandy, walking around the large lake built by the last King of Kandy, eating mango with salt and chilli, and seeing the ancient Buddhist temple (well Amy visited the temple while Dan napped by the lake).
- We particularly enjoyed wandering around the botanical gardens in Kandy and hanging out with cheeky resident monkeys.
Adam’s Peak / Sri Pada / Shiva Padam - 1 night
- A beautiful drive through the hills and tea country from Kandy to the base of Adam’s Peak.
- Woke up at 2:30am and hiked up 1000 vertical metres via 7km and 5600 steps to see the sun rise! Ended up saturated inside a thick rain cloud at the peak so no sunrise in sight, but we had a blast nonetheless! Thank goodness for the hot tea stand at the top. We didn’t know Sri Lanka could get as cold as it was that morning!
Nuwara Eliya – 1 night
- Our legs were SO sore and tired after climbing Adam’s Peak!
- To help we had a traditional Ayurvedic oil massage. Dan particularly loved the steam bath. It’s a steam box that you lie down in, but your head is outside so it’s more comfortable than a sauna.
- The train trip from Nuwara Eliya to Ella was spectacular and we had a lot of fun.
Ella - 2 nights
- We enjoyed hiking in the hills and through the tea plantations (although our legs were still sore from climbing Adam’s peak!).
- We got drenched in a torrential downpour on our way home from the hike, much to the amusement of the locals who were all under shelter.
- After drying off and waiting for the rain to pass we enjoyed drinking cocktails in Ella’s trendy restaurant/bars into the night.
Udawalawe day trip
- Very keen to see elephants, on our way to Yala we stopped by Udawalawe National Park, which is known for its large elephant population.
- We had a great afternoon on the safari, but in hindsight we could have skipped this extra stop as we saw so much wildlife at Yala National Park, including a large family of elephants up close.
Yala - 2 nights
- The landscape near Yala was beautiful and different to what we had seen so far, with many rice paddies, lakes and surrounding mountains.
- Our host here (at Yala Peace Cottages) was a friendly, outgoing man called Manju, who welcomed us with a Papaya Juice while keeping one eye on the Sri Lanka vs Australia cricket match on in the background.
- After enjoying so much excellent Sri Lankan food we were excited to do a cooking class here. We had fun learning how to make fish curry, a few different vegetable curries and coconut sambol. We took photos of all the ingredients and hopefully will be able to make it back in Aus!
- The next morning, we rose early for a whole day safari at Yala National Park, including lunch down by a river there. The jeep driver picked us up from our hotel early at 5:30am so we’d be out by 6am to see the early morning animal behaviour. It certainly did not disappoint! We saw SO MUCH wild life, including:
- A leopard, elephants (having a big family gathering and enjoying a bath and tree rub), water buffaloes, wild pigs, spotted deer, antelope, monkeys, peacocks, green bee eater birds, a hornbill, jungle fowl (Sri Lanka’s national bird), many other birds, crocodiles, a mongoose (which we later also saw in the garden), a couple of differnet large lizards/goannas, plus some others animals that we’ve no doubt forgotten to list!
- As you can see from the list above, we were lucky to see so much wild life! Particularly the leopard because apparently leopards are very difficult to spot (no pun intended) in the wild.
Arugambay – 6 nights
- It didn’t take long for us to fall under the spell of Arugambay surf life. We originally planned to stay here four nights but extended it to six nights.
- Amy was always keen to surf. Dan was not so keen, but after deciding to give it a try at one of the point breaks with awesome begginer waves he was hooked!
- We had a great local instructor, Dulip from Excellent Surf School, who showed as the good spots and helped us get into action quickly.
- We also hadn’t appreciated how much jungle and wildlife there was here. On the way to the beach we saw wild elephants roaming around. There are lakes with hundreds of crocodiles too!
Nilaveli Beach, Trincomalee - 2 nights
- After narrowly avoiding an elaborate tuk tuk scam (and feeling proud of ourselves), we caught buses from Arugambay to Nilaveli Beach (15 km north of Trincomalee). Although we’d never been on a bus quite like this (with open windows, traveling some long stretches of dirt road, and Sri Lankan music blaring), we enjoyed the sense of normality that came with being on a bus full of non-tourists, just people going about their day. (We mostly caught buses the rest of the trip, in part because train strikes at the time meant trains were not always available.)
- 270km, 3 buses, and 7.5 hrs later we were gently tossed to the curb and were again alone left to find our way. We wandered down a quiet street towards the beach where we hoped to find a place to stay. We had only positive interactions with people in Nilaveli beach and felt instantly relaxed there.
- On our way we met a friendly French couple. It seemed we had a lot in common and we met them later that evening for a tasty Kotthu Roti and a few too many Lion beers.
- We found an excellent guesthouse, run by an elderly couple and their three (adult) children, at the recommendation of a friendly beach front restaurant owner.
- One of the hosts (Abbas, 40 years old) had studied political geography and mastered in international conflict resolution (or something to that effect). He shared his fascinating perspective on the issues facing Tamil people in Sri Lanka and the history of the civil war.
We asked Abbas about the Tsunami. He told us the family was at home that morning, only 200m from the beach (where we were staying). Fortunately, that morning his father went to the temple on the beach to turn on the lights, and noticed the ocean water behaving strangely. Many people didn’t understand the danger and smiled and watched, but Abbas’s father was alert and gathered as many people as he could onto a tractor and drove to a hill about 2 km inland. Abbas said they sat on the hill and watched as the second wave came in. He was 25 years old. When the water subsided they all went and helped in the rescue missions and clean-up. Not surprisingly, Abbas’s farther still garners a lot of respect in their community nowadays.
- Snorkelling at Pigeon Island was great. The coral reef has been damaged over the years by dynamite fishing, the tsunami and also uncontrolled tourism. The Island is now a Marine National Park which is expensive to enter, but worth it, and hopefully helps to protect the reef.
Jaffna – 3 nights
- Incredible to see all the colonial buildings built (by different Portuguese / Dutch / British colonies over the years) with bricks cut out of large coral pieces from what must have previously been impressive coral reefs around Jaffna.
- So many fishing boats, big fish markets and vegetable markets. Amy wanted to stay and get a house with a kitchen just so she could shop at the markets!
- There are basically no ‘tourist restaurants’ in Jaffna. We enjoyed eating at small local favourites with very affordable prices. They didn’t have menus and we had whatever was on offer.
“Famous” around town
We ventured around by bicycle. It was a pleasant way to get around and local people on bicycles seemed particularly happy to see us enjoying their mode of transport, yelling ‘good morning’ and ‘hello’ with a big smile when they saw us. Students from the uni in town were also excited to talk to us. Back at our homestay, our host joked that we were getting famous in the area. We started to believe it when after flagging down a Tuk Tuk on the street to visit one of the nearby islands, he dropped us back at our guesthouse without us telling him where we were staying!
Anuradhapura – 2 nights
- The scale of the ancient Sacred City here was incredible. Awesome to imagine it as a bustling city 5000 years ago!
- The architecture and plumbing know-how the people of Anuradhapura obviously possessed thousands of years ago is seriously impressive.
- We also enjoyed exploring another ancient Buddhist site nearby at Mihintale for sunset.
- We really enjoyed our guest house by the lake here too (Heritage Lake View). Dinner and breakfast were SO GOOD.
Sigiriya – 2 nights
- Enjoyed hiking up Lion Rock and exploring the ancient artwork and building remains. The ancient city remains were very impressive here, like at Anuradhapura.
- Then it was time to say farewell to the wonderful Sri Lanka, and we packed our bags and jumped on the bus back to Colombo.
A note on water in Sri Lanka
Throughout our travels we observed that, with a bit of planning, we could often access clean water sources to refill our bottles rather than having to buy bottled water. These water re-fill stations are relatively new and not widely publicised. We also discovered that our accomodation often had a certified clean water line that they were happy for us to use if we asked. Or if they didn’t have one, they showed us where to refill in town. But if we didn’t ask the default was to offer us bottled water.
To ensure we had a consistent clean water source without relying on bottled water going forward, in Sri Lanka we pre-ordered some “Travel Tap” water purifying systems from Amazon. We are happy that we now have water purifying bottles for our travels! So good to be able to drink from any tap (or stream, lake etc) safely and not buy bottled water/create mountains of plastic bottle waste.
We plan to publish a seperate blog post soon with more details and specific examples of how to travel around Sri Lanka and other countries without constantly purchasing bottled water.