Traditional fishing near Galle.
Endless beaches, timeless ruins, welcoming people, oodles of elephants, rolling surf, cheap prices, fun trains, famous tea and flavourful food make Sri Lanka irresistible.
The Undiscovered Country
You might say Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight. Countless scores of travellers have passed overhead on their way to someplace else, but years of uncertainty kept Sri Lanka off many itineraries. Now, however, all that has changed. The country is moving forward quickly as more and more people discover its myriad charms. Lying between the more trodden parts of India and Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka’s history, culture and natural beauty are undeniably alluring. It’s the place you haven’t been to yet, that you should.
Buddha in Isurumuniya Rock Temple, Anuradhapura
So Much in So Little
Few places have as many Unesco World Heritage Sites (eight) packed into such a small area. Sri Lanka’s 2000-plus years of culture can be discovered at ancient sites where legend ary temples boast beautiful details even as they shelter in caves or perch on prominent peaks. More recent are evocative colonial fortresses, from Galle to Trincomalee. Across the island, that thing that goes bump in the night might be an elephant heading to a favourite waterhole. Safari tours of Sri Lanka’s pleasantly relaxed national parks encounter leopards, water buffaloes, all manner of birds and a passel of primates.
Mountain of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.
Rainforests & Beaches
When you’re ready to escape the tropical climate of the coast and lowlands, head for the hills, with their temperate, achingly green charms. Verdant tea plantations and rainforested peaks beckon walkers, trekkers and those who just want to see them from a spectacular train ride. And then there are the beaches. Dazzlingly white and often untrodden, they ring the island so that no matter where you go, you’ll be near a sandy gem. Should you beat the inevitable languor, you can surf and dive world-class sites without world-class crowds. And you’re always just a short hop from something utterly new.
It’s So Easy
Distances are short: see the sacred home of the world’s oldest living human-planted tree in the morning (Anuradhapura) and stand awestruck by the sight of hundreds of elephants gathering in the afternoon (Minneriya). Discover a favourite beach, meditate in a 2000-year-old temple, exchange smiles while strolling a mellow village, marvel at birds and wildflowers, try to keep count of the little dishes that come with your rice and curry. Wander past colonial gems in Colombo, then hit some epic surf. Sri Lanka is spectacular, affordable and still often uncrowded. Now is the best time to discover it.
Pilgrims climb the trail to the holy mountain Adams Peak.
Sri Lanka’s Top 10
1. Stunning Beaches
There are long, golden-specked ones, there are dainty ones with soft white sand, there are wind- and wave-battered ones, and ones without a footstep for miles. Some have a slowly, slowly vibe and some have a lively party vibe, but whichever you choose, the beaches of Sri Lanka really are every bit as gorgeous as you’ve heard. In a land where beaches are simply countless, consider the beaches of Tangalla, each with its own personality, and each beguiling in its own way, yet all easily visited in a day.
Sigiriya Rock fortress, Sri Lanka.
2. Travelling by Train
Sometimes there’s no way to get a seat on the slow but oh-so-popular train to Ella, but with a prime standing-room-only spot looking out at a rolling carpet of tea, who cares? Outside, the colourful silk saris of Tamil tea pickers stand out in the sea of green; inside, you may get a shy welcome via a smile. At stations, vendors hustle treats, including some amazing corn and chilli fritters sold wrapped in somebody’s old homework paper. Munching one of these while the scenery creaks past? Sublime.
3. Uda Walawe National Park
A sunny beach near Mirissa, Sri Lanka.
This huge chunk of savanna grassland centred on the Uda Walawe reservoir is the closest Sri Lanka gets to East Africa. There are herds of buffalo (although some of these are domesticated!), sambar deer, crocodiles, masses of birds, and elephants – and we don’t just mean a few elephants. We mean hundreds of the big-nosed creatures. In fact, we’d go so far to say that for elephants, Uda Walawe is equal to, or even better than, many of the famous East African national parks.
4. Ancient Anuradhapura
At Anuradhapura, big bits of Sri Lanka’s cultural and religious heritage sprawl across 3 sq km. In the centre is one of the world’s oldest trees, the Sri Maha Bodhi (more than two thousand years old). That it has been tended uninterrupted by recordkeeping guardians for all those centuries is enough to send shivers down the spine. The surrounding fields of crumbling monasteries and enormous dagobas (stupas) attest to the city’s role as the seat of power in Sri Lanka for a thousand years. Biking through this heady past is a thrilling experience.
Sri Lanka’s history, culture and natural beauty are undeniably alluring.
5. Soaring Sigiriya
The rolling gardens at the base of Sigiriya would themselves be a highlight. Ponds and little artificial rivulets put the water in these water gardens and offer a serene idyll amid the sweltering countryside. But look up and catch your jaw as you ponder this 370m rock that erupts out of the landscape. Etched with art and surmounted by ruins, Sigiriya is an awesome mystery, one that the wonderful museum tries to dissect. The climb to the top is a wearying and worthy endeavour.
6. Bundala National Park
With all the crowds heading to nearby Yala National Park, its neighbour to the west, Bundala National Park, often gets overlooked. But with the park’s huge sheets of shimmering waters ringing with the sound of birdsong, skipping it is a big mistake. Bundala has a beauty that other parks can only dream of and is one of the finest birding destinations in the country. Oh, and in case herons and egrets aren’t glam enough for you, the crocodiles and resident elephant herd will put a smile on your face.
7. Adam’s Peak Pilgrims
For over a thousand years, pilgrims have trudged by candlelight up Adam’s Peak to stand in the footprints of the Buddha, breathe the air where Adam first set foot on earth and see the place where the butterflies go to die. Today tourists join the throngs of local pilgrims and, as you stand in the predawn light atop this perfect pinnacle of rock and watch the sun crawl above waves of mountains, the sense of magic remains as bewitching as it must have been for Adam himself.
8. Kandy Cultural Capital
Kandy is the cultural capital of the island and home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, said to contain a tooth of the Buddha himself. For the Sinhalese, this is the holiest spot on the island, but for tourists Kandy offers more than just religious satisfaction: there’s a pleasing old quarter, a pretty central lake, a clutch of museums and, in the vicinity, some beautiful botanical gardens. In case you need further blessings from the gods, there’s also a series of fascinating ancient temples.
9. Unmissable Galle Fort
Human and nature have joined forces in Galle Fort to produce an architectural work of art. The Dutch built the streets and buildings, the Sri Lankans added the colour and style, and then nature got busy covering it in a gentle layer of tropical vegetation, humidity and salty air. The result is an enchanting old town that is home to dozens of art galleries, quirky shops, and boutique cafes and guesthouses, plus some splendid hotels. For tourists, it’s without doubt the number one urban attraction in the country.
10. Surfing at Arugam Bay
The heart of Sri Lanka’s growing surf scene, the long right break at the southern end of Arugam Bay is considered Sri Lanka’s best. From April to September you’ll find surfers riding the waves; stragglers catch the random good days as late as November. Throughout the year you can revel in the surfer vibe: there are board-rental and ding-repair joints plus plenty of laid-back cheap hangouts offering a bed or a beer or both. And if you need solitude, there are nearby breaks up and down the coast.
When to Go
High Season (Dec-Mar)
Ø The Hill Country plus west- and south-coast beaches are busiest – and driest.
Ø With beds in demand, prices peak.
Ø The Maha monsoon season (October to January) keeps the East, North and ancient cities wet.
Shoulder (Apr & Sep-Nov)
Ø April and September offer the best odds for good weather countrywide.
Ø New Year’s celebrations in mid-April cause transport to fill beyond capacity.
Ø A good time to wander without a set schedule.
Low Season (May-Aug)
Ø The Yala monsoon season (May to August) brings rain to the south and west coasts plus the Hill Country.
Ø The weather in the North and East is best.
Ø Prices nationwide are lowest.
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee (Rs)
Midrange: Rs 6000-20,000
Ø Double room in a good place: Rs 3500-9000
Ø Meals at hotel/restaurant: Rs 1000-3000
Ø Hire bikes, ride trains and use a car and driver some days: average per day Rs 3000
More information: Yamu: (www.yamu.lk) Excellent restaurant reviews, sights listings and more.
Reproduced with permission from the 14th edition of Lonely Planet’s Sri Lanka guidebook, researched and written by Anirban Mahapatra, Ryan Ver Berkmoes, Bradley Mayhew and Iain Stewart, © 2018. Published this month, www.lonelyplanet.com, RRP: NZD$39.99.
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