Life in Sri Lanka has been happening behind closed doors for a long time. 25 years of war and brutal acts of nature have kept visitors away from its beautiful sights and its rich culture. But the end of the civil unrest in 2009 started a new chapter in the history of Sri Lanka, one that opened its doors to curious travelers and explorers from around the world. Over the last 5 years Sri Lanka has really transformed from being one of the least safe countries for travel, to topping numerous up-and-coming destination charts. So what’s with all the buzz around Sri Lanka?
Last December, inspired by the above mentioned “you-must-go-now-or-you-will-miss-out-big-time charts”, we decided to travel to Sri Lanka and find out for ourselves. What we uncovered surprised us and challenged our expectations. Here is a round up of what we learned.
Sri Lanka Caters to All Types of Travelers
There are a number of different types of trips you can take in Sri Lanka, but if you don’t want to choose, Sri Lanka offers you an opportunity to have it all! South and West coasts are lined with beautiful beach towns: Hikkudawa, Galle, Unawatuna, Mirissa, etc. You could easily spend 1-2 weeks (or even longer!) beach hopping, baking in the sun, diving, snorkelling, eating seafood, watching sunsets and shopping. This is probably the most touristy part of the country and the reason why so many Europeans choose Sri Lanka as their beach holiday destination.
Sunset in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
There is also the Hill Country – Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Haputale, Ella, etc. This area allows you to experience lush scenery, tea plantations, rice paddies, and observe life in the countryside. Expect some really great trekking/hiking/walking trails and a lot of fresh air. The Hill Country is a paradise for adventure seekers and outdoorsy type travelers.
Tea plantations in the Hill Country, Sri Lanka
Hill Country, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s National Parks: Udawalawe & Yala offer wild safari experiences. You can join safari tours and spend days cruising around the national parks, tracking elephants, sloth bears, wild buffalos, crocodiles and, most importantly hoping for a chance to get a glimpse of leopards. Nature and wild life lovers, will find this to be the highlight of their trip.
Sunrise at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Water buffaloes at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Elephants at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Life in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
The East Coast is famous for its surfing, diving and great beaches and is a safe area to visit during Sri Lanka’s monsoon season from April to September. Perfect for beach bums that prefer to avoid the tourist crowds.
Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in the Central and North Central provinces, are a treat for history buffs. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya Rock, and the Golden Temple of Dambulla, sacred city of Anuradhapura, and the sacred city of Kandy are all located within 1-2 hours drive from each other. You can base yourself in Kandy and spend days exploring each one of the sites, and learn about its history and significance.
Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a Great Destination for Travelers With Limited Time
Unlike many other countries, Sri Lanka is a great destination for those travelers whose work (or other) commitments prevent them from traveling for more than a few weeks at a time. You can get around Sri Lanka at a comfortable pace, stopping off at the major sights and taking part in all activities in just 3 weeks. Spending a week along the South and South West coastline, a week in the Hill Country, and a week checking out the World Heritage sights in the Central and North Central provinces. Of course, if time permits, plan to stick around longer. Add the East Coast to your itinerary (keeping in mind the weather conditions), check out smaller towns and villages in the Hill Country, and don’t be surprised if you end up staying in towns along the coastline longer than you expected.
Finding it hard to leave, as we look out onto Galle city on our last day in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s Tourist Path is Not Yet Paved
Travel to Sri Lanka has only been possible since 2009, so it’s no wonder that the country doesn’t have a well developed tourism infrastructure yet. This is one of the appeals of Sri Lanka for backpackers and travelers that enjoy getting off the beaten path. But for many others, Sri Lanka might come across as a difficult country to travel. Transportation in Sri Lanka can be challenging. There are no tourist busses and the tourist train options are limited, leaving you with two options to get around.
1. Hire a driver to get you from city to city in a comfortable, air conditioned car. This makes travel around Sri Lanka easy, but the costs of it add up. Each 5-6 hour leg will cost between $50-$70 US.
2. Go local – from busses and trains to tuk-tuks, the options are widely available. The level of comfort, however, leaves much to be desired, but the experience is worth it.
Accommodation in Sri Lanka is expensive by South East Asia standards. You’ll have no problems finding good hotels and even hostels in the coastal towns. However, it’s a different story in the Hill Country. There are very few hotel chains, no hostels, but lots of tiny B&Bs/Guest Houses and home-stays. We loved staying with the locals, the rooms were always clean and the families were most welcoming. We wouldn’t trade our homestay experiences for any fancy hotel room, but not everyone travels the way we do.
Sri Lanka’s cuisine isn’t as diverse as we expected. Don’t get me wrong, the seafood on the coast is amazing and there are dozen’s of varieties of curries, but that’s really the extent of it. After a few days of rice and curry for breakfast lunch and dinner, you might get a bit tired of the “same same”. In some places, you’ll come across Kottu or “Koththu Roti”, a Sri Lankan dish made from a roti and vegetables, egg, and/or meat, and spices. It’s typically eaten for dinner and is delicious, but it is a lot more common on the East Coast and a bit harder to find in the West.
So is Sri Lanka the Next Hot Spot in Asia?
It just might be! Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is quickly developing, bringing more and more exposure to Sri Lanka worldwide. With new B&Bs and restaurants popping up every week, it’s only a matter of time until Sri Lanka’s development reaches a level suitable for all. There are already plenty of options for those looking for a luxurious holiday destination, or, on the other spectrum, those that are looking for local, authentic backpacker type of experience.
The waiting game is now on for the middle of the range, but I hope that will not be a reason that stops you from visiting this stunning diverse destination. In fact, visiting Sri Lanka before it becomes the next Thailand or Bali is probably the best thing you can do!