Sri Lanka is a country on the rise, and in terms of tourism going through a bit of a boom period. Thanks to its lush highlands where scenic hiking spots compete with 100m waterfalls for attention, world-class tea estates giving tours and free samples, sights like the cave Buddhas and Sigiriya, plentiful beaches perfect for relaxation or surfing with beach side restaurants delivering fresh seafood. Add to that the seemingly endless line of Lonely Planet, Tripadvisor, BBC travel or just about any other travel magazines Must visit in 2018 lists, Sri Lanka is home to people spanning the spectrum from wealthy resort seekers to families, backpackers on their first trip to seasoned veterans and more frequently people over-using #wanderlust and claiming to be an “influencer”. Sri Lanka has something for everyone, so you might as well get your credit card out now and book a flight.
After arriving from India, Sri Lanka is like its chilled out younger sibling, its cleaner, more quiet and laid back, not-quite-as-good-on-the-cricket-field younger sibling. After arriving at the airport just outside the capital and financial hub Colombo, we negotiated with the seemingly universal dodgy airport tuk-tuk driver to jump on the local bus to Kandy. Kandy is the largest city in the highlands, and often used as a staging point for heading to the likes of Dambulla for cave Buddhas or the “lion rock” Sigiriya. While our initial plan was to head to up Sigiriya for its famous panorama and ruins at its base, the price tag of over $40 AUD pp was way too much, especially as we planned to later climb Adam’s Peak, for free. Mark had been to the Buddhas last time, so we decided to take in the pleasant surrounds of Kandy for a day or 2 before heading off. If you’ve never been you could head into the royal palace, or to the temple of the sacred tooth, said to be a tooth of the buddha, although you’ll never know, because you can’t actually see inside the room with the tooth, and even if you could, it’s behind a cloth, it’s a matter of faith one assumes (ask any Warriors Rugby League fan how that works out).
We left Kandy for Delhouse, the small town at the base of Adam’s Peak. Being outside high season gave the town something of a post-apocalyptic feel, with the streets airily quiet, except for a handful of crazy street dogs and monkeys. The peak is a pilgrimage point for the Buddhist majority country, with people flooding in during high season, in 2018 starting Dec. 22. Being early had its benefits, meaning we completed the roughly 2hr (if fit) climb alone. Faced with a hike in the dark we left our hostel at 3.30am. Either way, bring a headlamp or torch as they only switch the lights on during pilgrimage, maybe someone needs to preach the gospel of LED, or someone needs to fall down the frighteningly steep stairs for them to keep the lights on year round. Reaching the top, a gaggle of white faces greeted us, a sign of the new-found popularity of the country, when Mark completed the climb 6 years ago, he felt like an interloper, in the minority, with most coming for spiritual reasons, and see the footprint of Buddha, the shadow cast by the peak shortly after sunrise, in the ever-present valley mist. We weren’t as lucky with sunrise this time, but it was worth the exercise nonetheless.
We charted a course for Nuwara Eliya and hopped on another rocking local bus complete with neon lights, blasting local music videos, with samosa salesmen jumping on and off meaning you’re never too hungry. Nuwara Elyia is a small town in the highlands, famous for its tea with many plantations in the area, serving everything from small single estate teas to supplying the likes of Lipton and Dilmah. While surrounding the area is beautiful, the town has a peaceful little main street with bakeries and cafes, tea shops and hole in the wall restaurants serving local favorite (and pretty much all you can buy in SL) Kottu, like a stir fry, with chopped up roti bread mixed in. Our stay in Nuwara would have been nowhere near as enjoyable if we hadn’t stayed in what we both agree is one of the best hostels we’ve ever stayed in. The Laughing Leopard hostel is simply a must if backpacking through the area, with owner Ashwin sorting everything, from trips to the highlights, local suggestions, home cooked meals and even a nightly booze run, and it even has a fire pit! He organised a local driver to take us to the amazing Ramboda falls, 109m high among forest, and a short drive away from many tea plantations, where you’ll be shown around and given samples for free.
Moving on, we took Ashwin’s advice to head down to Udawalawe national park, the oft overlooked sibling of the much vaunted Yala national park. For the same price it would have cost for climbing Sigiriya, we were able to get a morning safari and breakfast, sweet deal. Udawalawe is located in Central South Sri Lanka, and home to plentiful bird life and a vast array of animals, including Asian Elephants and Leopards. We had been in the park no more than 3 minutes before we saw a herd of Elephants, wandering freely among the trees enjoying their breakfast. Tottering around and following mum was a little baby. Seemingly unperturbed by our presence they came fairly close, before a street dog that had somehow not only found its way in, but survived, begun approaching the elephants. It didn’t take long for mum to flair out her ears and make a charge. No doubt regretting its barking the dog retreated, as did we. We drove around for 3.5hrs spotting all sorts of birds, including cute little bee eater birds, water buffaloes, seemingly every Peacock ever born and more Elephants as they roamed their domain. The park really isn’t too crowded for what is on offer, and at times we felt like the only car, not something we’ve heard about Yala, so if you’re looking for a cheaper less crowded alternative to Yala, Udawalawe might just be the spot for you.
Heading down to the coast for some ‘much needed’ relaxation, our first stop was Mirissa. The whole South eastern coast line was devastated by the 2004 boxing day tsunami, and has since rebuilt itself into a mecca for tourists. Mirissa was our first stop, it’s perfect for a beach holiday, with a great beach, pristine water, and be it hotels or resorts, hostels or home-stays there are plenty of accommodation options to suit any budget, and nothing is much further than a short walk away. With restaurants right on the beach, it’s perfect to grab a beer or cocktail, and a fresh fish, to relax after a hard day of chilling. Up the road is Weligama, where we stayed at Spindrift Hostel, another example of a hostel done right. Weligama is a perfect place to learn to surf, it’s the main activity here, with about 200 (or so it seems) local surf schools, just rock up, choose someone who seems nice and away you go, they all offer the same rental prices ($15 AUD for a 1.5h lesson, and $2/h for board rental) , so you don’t have to think too much. Martina took the opportunity to live out any land locked citizen’s dream, to jump on a board and ride the waves. With the waves playing ball she was able to stand her first time, and by the end of our time there she was able to paddle out herself and catch a few waves! Quite the achievement for someone who spent their first 20 odd years without a beach.
We moved up the coast the day before our flight from Colombo, thinking we would spring for the extra 30c for 2nd class to try to ensure a seat for the 3.5hr journey. There really was no point as we squashed our way in, getting ever more tightly packed as we got nearer the capital. Colombo doesn’t have a great reputation as a touristy place, with little to offer the masses than a proximity to the airport. So we used the last day to stock up on Sri Lankan tea, have a nice dinner at one of the best crab restaurants in the world (without having crab) a couple of drinks, and that would be our time here.
Heading to the airport all we were left to do was to reflect on the last 4.5 months of travel. The many highs (literally in the case of Everest base camp) and the thankfully very rare lows (being left at a border and a stolen phone). Asia has been incredible, but as we leave it behind for the very different surrounds of a Swiss winter, our next leg will take us to Africa, with our dream and goal being Cairo to Cape Town over land. So we hope you’ll enjoy on the second leg.
We hope you have great New year period.
So @catchustravelling on Instagram in the new year, with new adventures in a new continent.