We were ahead of the trend last summer when we flew across the world to explore the country Lonely Planet has named its number one destination for 2019 – Sri Lanka.
After more than a year of saving and planning, we headed to Gatwick to board an 11-hour flight. After a 2 hour stopover in Dubai and the time moving forward 4.5 hours, we finally landed in Colombo, ready to discover everything this corner of Asia had to offer.
We created our own itinerary after watching YouTube videos and reading reviews, booking everything in advance to ensure we made the most of our three weeks circling the south of the country.
Our first night was spent in Negombo, then we made our way to Kegalle, followed by Kandy, Ella, Arugam Bay, Yala National Park, Tangalle, Mirissa, and finally, our last night was spent in Unawatuna.
Here’s what we got up to during our time in South Asia…
What to do in Sri Lanka
Animal lovers will be in heaven in Sri Lanka – it is a huge part of the reason we chose to go to this beautiful country.
Firstly, elephants – my favourite animal that I had been desperate to volunteer with for years. We caught a glimpse of these magnificent creatures on several occasions including driving past one that was stood in the middle of the road eating a bunch of bananas. But, at The Elephant Freedom Project in Kegalle, we got to walk, feed and wash Seetha – a 44-year-old elephant that had been rescued from 27 years of hard work. As well as spending time with the elephant we also visited a school to speak to the local children and went to the dung factory, where they turn poo into paper. Meeting Seetha was, by far, my favourite moment of the trip – if there is one thing you do while you are there, it has to be this.
On the southern coastline we snorkelled with turtles, although, due to it being the rainy season the water was quite murky and I actually snorkelled over the top of one for some time without even realising. It was an incredible experience but I am just keen to do it in clearer water now.
Then we went to Rewaka Beach after sunset (where David Attenborough filmed the turtles) and saw one heading back to sea after abandoning the nest it was building. We were told that this isn’t uncommon and they will often come back later to try again. The people who now patrol the sand here are protecting the eggs they used to poach.
We also visited a turtle sanctuary where the eggs are buried to protect them from being poached – apparently, one turtle can lay up to 100 eggs and the temperature of the sand will determine their sex. We saw three-day-old turtles that were due to be released into the wild – they take them to the beach and let them run down to the sea as they would have done naturally. A few were two weeks old, they had been too weak when they were initially taken for release. As well as babies there were several that had been rescued including one with a deformity that meant its shell was the wrong way round and two that had fins cut off by fishermen when they had become trapped in their net.
In Mirissa we got up early to go whale watching. It was an eventful journey out to sea but this was quickly forgotten when we spotted blue whales. They are so big we only managed to catch sight of parts of them including their blowholes spouting out water and their tails.
There are a number of national parks in Sri Lanka. We decided to go to Yala, the country’s most famous where we saw elephants, crocodiles, hummingbirds, monkeys, peacocks, warthogs and buffalo. We did a full day safari – 12 hours – which was perhaps a little too long but well worth it when, after catching a glimpse of the elusive leopard throughout the day, we managed to spot one as we were leaving. We had the jeep to ourselves and while earlier we had been sat alongside others to try and peer at them through binoculars, this time it was just me, Dan and the driver following the leopard as it walked through the bushes, mere meters from us and caused the monkeys in the tree to go crazy. It was a very special and unforgettable moment.
There were also thousands of men, women and children of all ages walking through the park as we drove around and sleeping under the stars near our campsite. We found out that they were on a pilgrimage, from the top of the country to the bottom.
As well as discovering all the wonderful wildlife we also soaked up the culture which included a visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy and seeing a traditional dance show. We went on a mangrove ecotour where we were meant to see crocodiles but apparently they were ‘all sleeping’. We drove past miles and miles of the tea plantations that this country is famous for and visited a factory to see how it was made and sample some. In Ella, we walked up Little Adam’s Peak to take in the view and walked across the Nine Arch Bridge. We also saw the stilt fisherman and I climbed up there for myself.
Arugam Bay: This part of the coastline is a surfers paradise. Many hotels and restaurants line the beach which provides a beautiful backdrop. We spent a morning stretching in a rooftop yoga class as the sea breeze gently blew in and the waves crashed in the distance. During the day we walked between the sea and the pool, which were a few steps apart and after the sun went down we settled down at the bar next door to watch films on the beach
Tangalle: This beach is so deserted it can feel like you have it to yourself. We stayed right on the beach, falling asleep to the sound of the ocean. The sea is very rough here and too dangerous to swim in. It is, however, the perfect place to unwind away from the crowds. You can settle into a hammock as palm trees sway gently in the breeze above your head and get stuck into a good book.
Tip: It was rainy season while we were here. This didn’t ruin our experience at all, however, if you plan to visit the south and want to avoid this, then travel between October and April. During these months the rainy season moves up towards the north.
Mirrisa: The devastation of the tsunami that hit this country in 2004 is still evident on this beach but its natural beauty shines through nonetheless. The restaurants that line the beach rent out body boards to enjoy the waves with and offer sun beds for relaxing. You can climb up the rock here to take in panoramic views of the coastline.
Where to stay
We stayed in 10 different places during our time in Sri Lanka. Half of it was booked through Booking.com and the other half on Airbnb. Homestays, as we discovered on arrival, are incredibly popular here however, accommodation ranges from luxury hotels to budget-friendly hostels, to suit all needs.
During our time at the Elephant Freedom Project we stayed with the family who run it. Our room could have slept four people (one double and one bunk bed) but we had it to ourselves. There were five other people staying at the same time as us in the other bedrooms which varied in size. The family were among the most welcoming and accommodating people we met – I felt like I had been there a lot longer than two nights when we left. Rooms are available for as little as one night and as long as three weeks and all meals are included. These are cooked by the family but as part of our experience we helped prepare lunch – the food here was probably the best we ate during our entire holiday.
In Ella we stayed at River Splendour, a homestay that had a waterfall in the back garden and monkeys wandering around the front. It boasts beautiful views across to the mountains and was only a short tuk tuk ride from the main area.
Arugam Bay Roccos was a slightly more expensive one but we stayed here across my 30th birthday and wanted somewhere a little more special. It’s in the perfect location, right on the beach and has its own pool.
Yala Big Game Camp is where we stayed when we visited the national park and it was one of my favourites. It’s situated a short distance from the main entrance and a jeep safari is part of the price. After you have spent the day searching for wildlife, you head back to camp where a BBQ dinner is prepared around the campfire before settling down in your tent ahead of an early wake-up call.
Out first night in Tangalle was spent in a Treehouse and the next two in Mangrove Beach Cabana. Both were unique and magical experiences – and something I had always wanted to do.
Tip: If you stay at the beach cabana make sure you have cash on you. This is the only one we hadn’t paid for in advance and we had been charging food and drink to our room, assuming we could pay for it all on card and we couldn’t. It is fairly isolated so would have been quite a long journey to go and get the money out.
We stayed in D Canal House in Mirissa. This beautiful accommodation was pure luxury without the price tag. It’s a short distance from the main road but they provide a free tuk tuk to take you there and back.
Our last night was spent at Cantaloupe Aqua in Unawatuna. This was one of our most expensive but it was our last night and our room had a Jacuzzi bath that was in front of the floor to ceiling window that looked straight out onto the sea.
Where to eat
The locals were so hospitable, most places we stayed included breakfast which tended to be various fruit alongside eggs. We ate a lot of rice and curry which was rustled up with fresh ingredients. To drink, we sipped local tea in the morning, King Coconuts during the day and Lion beer when the sun started to set.
A few restaurants that stood out were:
Kandy: The Empire Cafe was situated right next to The Temple of the Sacred Tooth and was the perfect place to grab a bite to eat before heading in to explore.
Ella: If you are looking for live music then head to 360, if you prefer a more laidback vibe, then upstairs in Chill is the place to be. Leave your shoes at the door and take a sat on one of the bean bags before ordering a healthy smoothie.
Mirrisa: Shady Lane can be found tucked away beyond the main strip. But, it’s worth a visit for the refreshing King Coconut, Insta-worthy smoothie bowls and avocado on toast.
Arugam Bay: Etnico was located next to our hotel and as well as serving up delicious cocktails they showed Tom Hanks movies on the beach. We also loved Bay Vista, where we did rooftop yoga before devouring a healthy breakfast in the vegetarian cafe.
Tip: This is the perfect destination for vegetarians and vegans with coconut at the heart of many dishes and plenty of vegetable-based curries.
How to travel
It isn’t uncommon to see cars overtaking buses that are overtaking tuk tuks, on blind bends, hands firmly pressed on their horns.
As you travel around the country you are likely to pass various animals including elephants – we had to drive around one on the way to Yala that was stood in the middle of the road eating a bunch of bananas as well as stray dogs. You’ll see dogs everywhere – wandering through the cities, on the train tracks, up mountains and on the beaches.
There are various ways to move across the country. The cheapest is by bus although we didn’t do this because it can double the length of the journey. If you plan this in advance it is possible to share – we did this with a lovely Australian couple from Ella to Arugam Bay which made a long journey much more enjoyable and far cheaper!
The most common is with a driver. This can be organised by your accommodation and is ideal for long journeys, reasonably priced and a comfy way to travel.
Tip: You can haggle on the price, especially with transport. But, I’d allow about £10 per hour of your journey. This can vary depending on whether you book a car through a hotel or the host at a homestay. The latter tends to be significantly cheaper with a far more informative, friendly driver – in our experience.
You have the option to use the same driver for the duration of your journey but we chose not to do this, booking each one separately. When booked through Airbnb drivers tended to be a friend of the host who offered useful advice and stopped to show us places of interest.
Our driver from the Elephant Freedom Project to Kandy stopped at a temple, tea factory and forest that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. This was ideal when we had no plans for that particular day until the evening anyway.
The train to Ella is a must – it’s described as the most beautiful train journey in the world and it definitely is. We stayed in Kandy planning to take the 7-hour train to Ella. However, because it is so busy we ended up using the same driver to go to Nuwara Eliya. We drove past miles of tea plantations (one alone was more than 60 miles long), stopping to take in the beautiful views before arriving for the 3-hour train journey. It’s worth getting it from here because it’s shorter, your more likely to get a seat and you still get to see the breathtaking views. Not only is it far prettier than your commute to London it’s significantly cheaper, you’ll part with little more than a pound.
Tuk tuks are perfect for short journeys because they are fun and cheap.
What to pack
- Insect repellent and bite cream – I got eaten alive.
- High factor sun cream – of course.
- Raincoat – especially if you are going during rainy season like we did
- Imodium – just in case…
- Lightweight, long trousers / top and a shawl – to cover up in the temples.
There was so much more I wanted to do that we simply couldn’t fit in, so if you have been inspired to visit Sri Lanka yourself, don’t forget me…