Sri Lanka

12 days in Sri Lanka

I chose to visit in late December / early January to make use of some of the ‘freebie’ days of leave over Christmas and the New Year but also I was planning to spend a lot of time in the south west, which is best visited between December and March. Sri Lanka has two monsoons to make sure you check the weather for where you’re planning to visit before you start planning your trip. I flew with Qatar Airways from London and really enjoyed the trip, my first on an A380.

Day 1: arrival in Colombo

I arrived sleepy and mildly apprehensive after I don’t know how many hours of travel from London via Doha. After picking up a local sim card (this proved invaluable for knowing where I was when on the bus) and some currency in the arrivals area, I jumped in a taxi for the 40-minute ride from the airport to my hotel. I was quickly showered, dressed and back out the door, arriving just in time for the must-do walk along Galle Face Green at sunset. Children and adults were enjoying the water and street vendors sold pineapple snacks and short eats.

Finding no room at the inn at Ministry of Crab I had a curry at Semondu restaurant next door in the Dutch Hospital complex, enjoying my first of many Lion lagers by candlelight. Dinner was tasty but I’d heard so many good things about Ministry of Crab that I made the decision to get a reservation for my return to Colombo at the end of the holiday. I stayed at Steuart by Citrus, which is perfectly located next to the Dutch Hospital Complex and walking distance to the station. It was nice enough, but at around £90 for the night, it was a little steep. After a night of broken sleep, and slightly confused about what time it was, I was up at 4am for the train to Anuradhapura…

The beach at Galle Face Green, Colombo

The beach at Galle Face Green, Colombo

Day 2: Colombo to Anuradhapura

I walked to Colombo Fort Station in the dark, giving a wide berth to the various stray dogs milling around seemingly harmlessly in the street. Despite getting to the station at 4:50am for the fast intercity train to Anuradhapura, it was already booked up in advance (first error of the trip) and so they were only selling second class tickets for the 6:25am, much slower, train.

The train journey from Colombo to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

After a bit of a wait in what was already becoming sweltering heat, the train finally pulled in. Before it had even stopped hordes of people were jumping into the carriages and I followed suit with my huge backpack. I settled into my seat for the long journey up the coast and we pulled out of the station to dawn starting to break over Colombo.

Trains in Sri Lanka

I was apprehensive about my plan to make it around so much of the country by bus and train when I saw how busy the train to Anuradhapura was. It turned out to be one of the busier trips of the journey give it was still the holidays and many people were moving back and forth between the cities and smaller towns and villages in the countryside.

View from the train, Sri Lanka

Although it was near impossible to move around the train for people packed into the seats and aisles, men and women selling short eats would board at various stops with baskets of freshly fried treats piled up and scattered with chilis. There was a pleasant breeze from the windows but being packed so tightly in the train made it extremely hot, especially at the longer stops on the route when the breeze from the windows stopped.

The train finally arrived a little after 11am and I grabbed a tuk tuk to my accommodation, a lovely little guest house called Levi’s Tourist (for the princely sum of £19 for the night!) I’d definitely recommend this place, it was a little bit out of the way from both the town and the archaeological sites, but the staff were super friendly and helpful and the food was great. Rooms were basic, but great for the price and there was air con and a mosquito net- what else do you need?!

Lime plastered dagoba Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

After a quick change, it was back into the tuk tuk to see the sights of Anuradhapura. It was tough going in the afternoon heat wandering from site to site, even with the tuk tuk. My unacclimated feet roasted on the tiles around each stupa and I scurried past loitering monkeys, my travel foe (more on that when I write about my time in Cambodia!). I hit the main sites, the Sri Maha Bodhi, said to be the oldest historically authenticated tree in the word at over 2,000 years old, the elephant pond and the Abhayagiri Dagoba dating from the 1st century BC.

Bathing pond (Kuttam Pokun) Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

For some reason the tuk tuk driver could not be persuaded to drop me at the archaeological museum, despite driving past it repeatedly! I headed back to the hotel early, exhausted from the heat and travelling. A wonderful dinner of beef curry at the guest house and an early night brought my first full day in Sri Lanka to a close.

My tips for this leg of the journey

Book your train tickets in advance where possible if you want to be sure of travelling in 1st class (or travelling at the time you want to travel where the whole train is 1st class!). But don’t shy away from 2nd class travel- it’s an experience in itself and perfectly acceptable.

If I did this trip again I’d go straight to Anuradhapura from Colombo airport to skip out the unnecessary back and forth heading into Colombo and back.

Anuradhapura was an important city in Sri Lanka’s history, becoming the first capital in 380 BC, but it was one of the more underwhelming sites on my trip. If you’re doing a big tour of Sri Lanka it should absolutely be on your list, but due to the time to get there and back, for shorter itineraries you could safely skip it out.

An alternative way to structure this part of the trip would be to base yourself in Habarana for a few days to cover off Anuradhapura, Dambulla and Sigiriya and Polonnoruwa as a succession of day trips with some relaxation and pool time thrown in rather than moving on each day. This is definitely the approach I would use if I recreated my trip.

For train information The Man in Seat Sixty-One site is absolute invaluable.

Day 3: Anuradhapura to Habarana

Finally a more reasonable start to the day! After the first of many extremely generous breakfasts in Sri Lanka I left for my first bus ride of the trip. I thought nothing could be busier than the train, but I was wrong. Not only were there even more people, so many it was impossible to move, the food vendors still somehow made it up and down the tiny aisle when we stopped at a bus station.

Luckily, I managed to get a seat when I got on and kept it the rest of the 2 hour trip to Habarana. My seat mate offered me some of his short eats from the vendor, which I declined, still full from the massive omelette breakfast. As we sped along (faster than the train I should point out) the breeze billowed through the windows and cleared out the stifling air.

The bus stopped near the hotel but I still needed a tuk tuk for the short drive. The frame was almost rotten through, but the guy was friendly and gave me his number so I could call him the next day to take me to Dambulla and Sigirya bright and early. I had chosen to stay at the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, a five star hotel which is part of the Cinnamon Group. It was New Year’s Eve and I was alone on the other side of the world, so it was my little treat to myself.

The pool areas was wonderful, fringed with palm trees, and as the grounds back onto forests and fields it is wonderfully peaceful and lush. Or at least it would have been if the New Year’s Celebrations hadn’t kept me awake with awful, thudding music until past 1am. It’s also very close to Minneriya National Park, but I didn’t visit as I was headed to Yala National Park later in the trip.

Lion Lager by the pool, Cinnamon Lodge Habarana

I spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool, dodging various rain showers and watching squirrels bouncing around the place. Later in the afternoon the monkeys ventured towards the bar but were quickly dispersed by the guy with the monkey shooing job, armed only with a catapult. It was too little too late, a packet of biscuits and some bar snacks had already fallen prey, but they soon moved on under the onslaught of projectiles.

Huge trees in the grounds of Cinnamon Lodge Habarana

I watched the sunset in the beautiful hotel grounds. Dinner was a mandatory buffet given it was New Year’s Eve. Some ghastly evening entertainment accompanied the dinner while I feverishly Goolgled for a driver to take me from Polonnoruwa back to Colombo in a few days’ time (after a quote of £80 from the hotel!) having finally decided that I’m not made for the night train. I decided to stay up and see the New Year in (my first ever away from home) despite the early start the next day. And with that, it was 2016.

Sunset in Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, Sri Lanka

Day 4: Dambulla and Sigiriya

I don’t think the day was hotter than any other day, but you really feel it when you start the day climbing a huge rock and finish it climbing another huge rock. Sigiriya was about 15km from my hotel, so a pleasant and cheap ride in my tuk tuk (if it would survive the journey).

Sigirya is beautifully lush and the rock formations are striking and colourful. It’s a long way to the top, but with many rewarding views over the surrounding countryside and a number of frescoes halfway up the rock in a sheltered gallery. The final ascent commences between two giant lion paws up steep ladders.

Colourful rocks at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Colourful rocks at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Even with the wind and a dump of rain on Sigiriya I needed some time to cool down once I’d made it to the top. Just as I summited there was a huge downpour. I cowered under my poncho with a tree for extra shelter. The resulting clouds and mist once the rain passed were rather dramatic, making the monkeys I photographed look especially pensive and brooding.

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A monkey looks out from the top of Sigiriya rock

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The view from the top of Sigiriya rock

On to Dambulla after a quick banana snack, just a short trip down the road about another 10km. The Royal Rock Temple, five caves absolutely filled with paintings and carvings, totally spectacular and worth the sticky climb up the hill to see them. The size of the caves and amount of detail was breath taking – not something to miss. The tuk tuk ride back to the hotel was a welcome relief generating a much needed breeze.

Next I hopped on the bus to Polonnoruwa, the wrong one as it turned out (thanks, tuk tuk driver)- luckily the conductor asked someone who was getting off at a small bus station further along to escort me to the place to wait for the right bus to continue my journey. Here my local sim card with internet access saved me as I noticed I had passed my guest house (which was slightly outside of Polonnaruwa) although the bus driver disagreed with me when I asked for directions. After asking several people and not getting a clear answer, I decided to ditch the bus and look for a tuk tuk, which took me on to Tishan Holiday Resort.

These guys are gunning for the number one spot on TripAdvisor in Polonnaruwa and they absolutely deserve it, I hope it happens. This was my favourite stay of the trip, the food was out of this world. They took my order when I arrived and off I went to the pool (yes, for £20 a night, they have a pool) to cool off. The pool is awesome. Rigged with colour changing lights it looked absolutely amazing as the sun set and it light up the night. I was alone out there watching the sunset and the growing number of bats circling overhead in the twilight. As it started to rain, hundreds of tiny frogs emerged and fringed the swimming pool croaking away.

After my dip I was treated to a feast of a huge plate of rice and 8 accompanying dishes of various curries. It was absolutely amazing and I still look back on it as my favourite meal of the trip. I definitely recommend staying at Tishan Holiday Resort for the food alone (and of course the crazy colour-changing swimming pool).

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The crazy colour changing pool at Tishan Holiday Resort in Polonnaruwa

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Amazing dinner of rice and curries at Tishan Holiday Resort in Polonnaruwa

My tips for this leg of the journey

Habarana seemed tiny, although I didn’t explore it, but there’s everything you need within the Cinnamon Lodge hotel complex (although it’s around £100 a night, so wouldn’t work for those on too tight a budget), which offers plenty of tours and day trips to the surrounding areas (but check the prices- you can probably do better organising it yourself). If you’re not a fan of budget travel then staying here for a while and making day trips to the neighbouring sites at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa (a little over an hour each if you had a driver) would make a great two or three days before you moved on.

When a tuk tuk driver tells you which bus to get on, it’s worth checking with the conductor or driver where it goes before you hop on! But don’t worry too much, everyone I met was very helpful, and as long as you find a way to communicate, your fellow bus riders will be able to help you find your destination.

Sigirya Rock

Looking up the steps to Sigirya Rock, Sri Lanka

Day 5: Polonnaruwa

Day 5 – so many temples: after a massive breakfast of fruit, omelette, and my first ever hoppers (both the plain and the string variety) I headed out to tour Polonnaruwa. I only had until 3pm when I had to be back at the guest house and ready for my driver to take me the 5 hours back to Colombo (planning fail). The site is younger than Anuradhapura and in better repair, it also feels far more Indiana Jones, if that’s your bag (it’s certainly mine),  more tightly packed with more individual buildings to explore and a lot more intricate in its detail. Everything was on a smaller scale than Anuradhapura and yet somehow more impressive.

I started at the Archaeological Museum, which I suspect is overlooked and underappreciated by visitors. I recommend you make this your first stop, as it gives you a good background to the history of Polonnaruwa so you know what you’re looking at later. It’s pretty well laid out and very informative, not something to miss. The route I followed from there was to move north from the museum to the ‘Royal Palace Group’, on to the ‘Quadrangle’ and then the ‘Northern Group’ and finally to Gal Vihara.

The Audience Hall in the Royal Palace Group at Polonnaruwa

The Audience Hall in the Royal Palace Group at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Carved Lion on the Council Chamber, Polonnaruwa

A carved lion stands guard over the Council Chamber in the Royal Palace Group, Polonnaruwa

10th Century Shiva Devale No 1 at Polonnaruwa

10th Century Shiva Devale No 1 at Polonnaruwa

The Gal Vihara Buddha carvings is one of the most striking sights in Polonnaruwa, including a huge standing Buddha and a reclining Buddha 14m long. They are beautifully carved with serene yet expressive faces. Nearby is the beautiful lotus pond, Nelum Pokuna (which I sadly saw in passing from my speeding tuk tuk) and the Tivanka Image House, which contains a series of frescoes. It is not very well lit, and the cloudy sky the say I visited didn’t help.

My favourite was in the ‘Northern Group’ which contains Lankatilaka, a tall and long temple containing a huge standing Buddha as well as the Kiri Vihara, which 700 years on still retains its original lime plaster. While smaller than some of its cousins in Anuradhapura, there was something extremely pleasing about its dimensions and I found it more impressive. The Quadrangle is also a treasure trove of temples and ornate carvings and I spent a huge amount of time here and in the Royal Palace Group taking photos of the carved balustrades and moonstones.

All too soon it was time to head to the guest house, grab a quick shower and wait for my ride to Colombo. Just as I thought there was no end to the lengths the guest house would go to accommodate me (having allowed me to shower in a spare room before I left) then presented me with a little statuette of one of the Polonnaruwa statues as a souvenir of my stay. Love this place.

The drive to Colombo was surprisingly pleasant despite the 5 hour car ride. After stopping to watch two young elephants playing together on the side of the road (my first elephant sighting!) we had an uneventful journey passing through town after town as the sun set at 6pm on the dot as it does every day when you’re so near the equator. My driver was completely incredulous when I told him it was light until 10pm in summer in the UK.

After a pleasant dinner in the Cinnamon Grand ( I don’t remember which restaurant, only that the food was spicy and I sat next to a koi pond), it was another early night for a 4:30am start for the south coast.

My tips for this leg of the journey

Yes, trainers are comfortable for all day walking and probably better for your feet, but by the time you’ve unlaced them and taken them off for the third time to enter a temple, you start to lose patience. I always forget about the need to remove shoes and so I’m always unprepared- it is a lot easier if you wear flip flops or something else you can easily kick off and slip back on.

Polonnaruwa deserves a full day, I had to cut my time here short before I was really sated. If anyone tells you it’s a half a day job, ignore them.

I had originally planned to take the sleeper train from Polonnaruwa back to Colombo, but then I chickened out of it because I was alone, didn’t know what I was doing, and I like to be comfortable (I also should never have Googled pictures of toilets on Sri Lankan sleeper trains).

The way the train timetables work means that it is far easier to either use Habarana as a base, as I’ve already explained, as there is a train in the morning from Habarna back to Colombo, but nothing in the afternoon (unless you want to arrive at 3:30am), or to do this portion of the trip in reverse, going from Colombo to Polonnaruwa, then on to Habarana for Dambulla and Sigiriya and then up to Anuradhapura, as there is a far better selection of trains going from Colombo to Habarana / Polonnaruwa and then back from Anuradhapura (a choice of 6 arriving in Colombo at a sociable hour).

The Quadrangle Polonnaruwa

A monkey looks over the Quadrangle at Polonnaruwa

A Polonnaruwa monkey looking out over the ruins

A Polonnaruwa monkey looking out over the ruins

Seated Buddha statue Polonnaruwa Quadrangle, Sri Lanka

Kiri Vihara in the Northern Group at Polonnaruwa

The 700 year old lime plaster of Kiri Vihara in the Northern Group at Polonnaruwa

A moonstone in the Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Lankatilaka in the Northern Group at Polonnaruwa

Lankatilaka in the Northern Group at Polonnaruwa

Day 6: Mirissa Beach

Up at 4:30am (again) for the 6:10am express intercity to Mirissa. It’s not really an express train, it goes about 20 mph, but when it’s such a lovely journey who’s counting? You need to do this train ride, it’s amazing. And do it at this time in the morning; as you leave Colombo you have the sea to the right and the sunrise to the left. Three wonderful hours of trundling along inches from the beach, the doors and windows open each side the whole length of the carriage with the breeze pouring in. The journey was the roomiest and most comfortable of the journey so far, so much space I could keep moving seats as the scenery dictated.

I took a lucky guess and hopped off at Weligama as I was fairly sure it was closer to Mirissa than Matara, where the train was headed. I was right. I grabbed a tuk tuk and headed for my accommodation. I turned up in the middle of breakfast (which I hadn’t yet eaten) and sat down to some fruit and omelette, which seems to be standard Sri Lankan breakfast fare in hotels and guest houses.

After a stroll around to give them time to set my room ready I hit the beach in earnest. The beach at Mirissa is beautiful. Fringed with palms and deep blue water with white sand. It’s the first tropical beach I’ve ever visited. I spent the day in and out of the sea, a necessity when it’s 35 degrees and the sun is burning hot.

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Beautiful Mirissa beach

Although I didn’t indulge, it is easy to see why surfing is so popular here; even on a calm day there are some reasonable sized waves breaking. It makes for quite a tiring swimming experience. There are also numerous whale watching tours available, although it’s worth doing some research to find a reputable one. I had read that these types of tours can change whale migratory patterns as they try to avoid the boats, so I decided I would give it a miss.

I had a break from the sun for a late lunch at No 1 Dewmini Roti Shop (look it up), where I ate most days in Mirissa. The place is rammed morning, noon and night so it’s worth coming either early or late for lunch and dinner to avoid some of the crowds. They do great kottu roti, one of the best things to eat in Sri Lanka. It’s chopped up roti fried with meat and vegetables and egg. Just go easy, because ‘medium’ heat in Sri Lanka is probably a bit hotter than you’re expecting.

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Amazing kottu roti from No 1 Dewmini Roti Shop

Day 7: more Mirissa beach

Another day of much needed relaxation and a more sociable start to the day. Slightly pink from the sun, despite using up all the aloe vera I could find in my bag the night before, I headed back to the beach for a day in the shade.

For dinner I walked along the beach and discovered that all the cafes and restaurants moved their tables onto the sand for the evening. Each restaurant had laid out its fishy offerings at the front so you could see what was on offer and choose your dinner. I picked myself a butter fish from a boat full of ice and had him simply grilled with some chips and salad. As with everything in Sri Lanka it took its time to make its way to my plate, but it was absolutely delicious and a wonderful experience to sit eating fresh fish by candlelight, right by the sea with the sand under my feet. A lightening storm some way round the coast kept me entertained while I finished my meal and I headed to bed content after a relaxing day and ready to hit the road again.

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Choosing my dinner

My accommodation for these two nights was Lemazone Inn, which is almost on the beach (but isn’t right on the front). It was a nice stay, they serve breakfast right outside your room on a terrace in the sun, which is a nice feature, the rooms were large and clean and they have a very reasonable rate for laundry. It was, however, probably a bit more expensive than it needed to be about £60 a night, I think other guest houses in the area were under £30 so it’s probably worth doing some research.

My tips for this leg of the journey

The equator sun always takes you a bit by surprise when you come from a country where you need to squeeze every bit of vitamin D out of the year. I didn’t get horrifically burned, but any amount of burned is not ideal either for your health, or the practicalities of carrying a heavy back on your shoulders. Ever since this trip I’ve worn a rash vest with an SPF 50 in the sea to protect my shoulders when I’m somewhere with especially strong sun – I’d recommend the same for anyone fair skinned or who would rather not put sun screen on every 30 minutes, because that is what you need to do.

Mosquitoes will bite you through anything, especially if it’s tight and black. I made the mistake of thinking my black leggings were mosquito-proof and I could take a break from the DEET. Wrong. If you wear anything skin tight, especially if it’s dark, you still to give yourself a good mist of DEET or other protection or you’re going to be someone’s dinner.

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Delicious fruit for breakfast

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Mirissa beach at sunset

Day 8: Mirissa to Yala National Park

After treating myself to a lie in, breakfast and a final hour on the beach I headed to the bus stop and was straight onto the 350 to Matara, which only took 30 minutes. After wandering slightly perplexed around the bus station at Matara, which is rather large and busy, I found the right stand for the bus to Tissamaharama (or Tissa for short). I couldn’t quite believe what awaited me inside. The entire inside was resplendent in images from Disney’s Tangled and punctuated with flashing lights. The journey was straightforward and took more or less bang on three hours (the 340/1 bus…I think?)

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The bus to Tissa – the most extraordinary bus in Sri Lanka (or anywhere?)

Once at Tissa, it was the last leg of my journey and I picked up the bus to Kataragama which in just 20 more minutes would take me right to my hotel. A tuk tuk driver at the bus station assured me that the bus took an hour and a half (to get to somewhere 18 km away!) and that I should instead give him 800rps for the journey. I took the 36rps bus instead which was very quick and efficient. This took my 4 hour journey from Mirissa to a whopping 191rps…just under £1!

At my hotel there was time for a quick evening dip in the pool to relax and then I waited for dinner at 7:30pm, which seemed forever as I’d had no lunch. The only thing they didn’t have on the menu was curry…rather disappointing. But I filled up on some fried rice and went to bed early after a long day of travel.

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Beautiful Mirissa beach

Day 9: Safari in Yala National Park

Sri Lanka is great for wildlife watching as it has more than 100 protected areas under government guard, which covers more than 8% of the country. Yala is famous for its leopards, which is why I headed there as a fan of cats both big and small. I asked the hotel to organise me an afternoon safari after a morning by the pool, starting at 2pm. I had a safari booked for early the next morning, which is when it’s recommended to go in order to see the most animals when it’s cool in the morning. I thought I’d give myself the best chance of seeing leopards by doing two excursions. My hotel booked safari cost around £50 and my pre-booked safari around £90.

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Rare daytime sighting of a cobra, Yala National Park

You need to book your own driver and vehicle but Yala provides you with a guide for your 4 x 4 as part of the price of entrance. Both guides I had were really knowledgeable about the animals themselves and also the best places in the park to head to for a good chance to see them, they were also very respectful of the animals and it didn’t feel as though we were chasing anything about the park, just stopping and watching quietly when we came across something.

We entered by the Kataragama entrance which was nearest to the hotel. On the way in we saw a family of boar, who came out to meet us looking for food. There were a number of adults accompanied by their tiny little stripy offspring. The babies hung back sheltered by the bushes, a bit unsure of the jeep. We stopped and watched them for a while, although they quickly tired of an audience when they realised they wouldn’t be fed.

We saw a water buffalo and a mongoose before we’d even got inside the park. Just before we reached the gate, there was a big grey and black monkey (a grey langur) hanging out in the tree watching us bounce by. I hadn’t quite appreciated how bumpy the roads would be, I thought a 4 x 4 would absorb some of the impact, but it was an extremely rough ride being thrown all over the place for several hours.

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Where’s the snacks?

Inside the park at last we saw two crocodiles lying out on the grass, mouths open to regulate their body temperature. Blink and you miss them, they’re so well camouflaged against the landscape. As we continued on we saw plenty of birds: green bee-eater birds, Sri Lankan junglefowl and whole flocks of painted storks.

We also came across a clearing filled with the Bambi kind of deer. They were super cute sat there munching on grass, preening themselves and getting groomed by some fellow birds. I watched them for ages through my binoculars. As we passed more boar it transpired my guide was fluent in both English and Disney as he pointed and shouted ‘Pumba!’

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A grey langur welcomes us to Yala

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Sri Lankan junglefowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka strutting his stuff in Yala

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A painted stork, pretty in pink in Yala

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A green bee-eater bird in Yala National Park

At one point a cobra crossed the road in front of us, which is apparently a very rare sight in the day time as there are so many of their predators active during the day. After several hours we picked up the pace a bit in search of leopards zipping all over the park as mud flew up from the road and spattered us inside the 4 x 4. It was growing late and the park would be closing soon. I was overwhelmed by the amount of different animals we’d already seen, especially the crocodiles and the cobra.

The sun was slowly slipping from the sky as we rounded a corner, and there in the middle of the road stood a huge female leopard. My guide told me she was the mother to one cub. She ambled along the road slowly and didn’t seem to notice us watching. We thought we was heading into the bushes away from us but instead she leapt onto her hind legs to scent mark the bushes with her face, then crossed the road to mark a tree on the other side.

Eventually she slipped out of sight into the bushes. It was such a wonderful experience as they’re so elusive, even in a place like Yala where there are plenty of them. After our sighting a number of other cars turned up looking for the leopard but we headed off in the other direction away from the crowds.

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A beautiful female leopard crosses our path in Yala National Park

We continued for a while hoping to see more and stopped to watch the sun set over a watering hole then headed back as the park closed. My guide said I had been super lucky to see both the cobra and the leopard- I did pretty well for my first ever safari! It was an early night for me, exhausted from the bumpy ride and needing all the sleep I could get ahead of my 5am safari the next morning.

My tips for this leg of the journey

Yala is a bit out the way but well worth the journey. It’s a pleasant enough bus ride if you’re already on the south coast. Make sure you enter through the Katagarama entrance rather than the main entrance near Tissa to have the park to yourself.

I didn’t do an all day safari but based on how tiring I found it in a jeep for several hours I personally wouldn’t want to do it and much prefer the two half day safaris I took.

Go with the flow- you can’t control which animals you see so try not to have too many expectations about the safari and enjoy everything you do see. Make the most of the guides’ knowledge of the animals and ask plenty of questions.

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Bambis everywhere! Yala National Park

Day 10: another day another safari

Another early start! Probably not everyone’s idea of a holiday, but I wanted to make sure I made the most of my time in Sri Lanka and came back having seen as much as I could see in the 12 days available.

I was far less impressed with this safari, which was far more expensive, turned up 10 minutes later, presented an entirely unappetising breakfast and then drove nearly an hour from the hotel to the entrance to Yala in Tissamaharama instead of the Katagarama entrance near my hotel. We sat in a huge queue to buy tickets and get our guide before entering and then we just sat in a traffic jam of 4 x 4s processing around the park in a big queue. It wasn’t quite the magical experience I’d had the day before in an almost deserted park, people now outnumbered the animals considerably.

However, we saw a beautiful sunrise over the park and five or six elephants, which I hadn’t seen at all the day before. We had a nice pit stop on the beach for breakfast; it was nice to take in the scenery and have a break from driving. We saw many more birds and water buffalo and searched in vain for some leopards.

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Sunrise over Yala National Park

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One of the many elephants we saw on safari in Yala National Park

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A peacock looks out over Yala National Park

I was back at the hotel in time for breakfast, which was welcome after such an early start. I had a chance to shower off the dirt from the safari and gathered my belongings and it was time to hit the bus station. The bus to Galle left at 12:30pm…I decided not to wait for the ‘semi luxury’ bus to Colombo at 1pm.

We sped along with the windows open and the breeze billowing in through the windows. We made excellent, thanks in part to the driver’s creative pick up and set downs at bus stops, often just slowly to a crawl to let people in and out without coming to a complete stop. It took just 4 hours and 5 minutes to travel the 170 km from Kataragama to Galle.

Lovely scenery again, but a bit less interesting having seen it all in reverse only two days previously! Sadly my bus also lacked the pizzazz of the Disney adorned bus from my first journey. There wasn’t even a TV blaring Sri Lankan soap operas, which was the usual source of entertainment for long bus journeys.

I finally arrived at Galle, once again sticky with sweat and exhausted from the long ride. A tuk tuk took me to my accommodation; Araliya Villa Fort Guest House. It was a lovely little place with attractive communal areas for breakfast and beautifully positioned bang in the middle of Galle Fort and walking distance to everything in the Fort area. After yet another shower (under the foot tap as I couldn’t work out how to use the shower and was too desperate to wait!)

I headed out just in time to catch the sunset from the walls of the Fort with numerous other tourists and locals. I headed to the restaurant more or less next door to my guest house, Fortaleza for a delicious (and extremely welcome) coconut fish curry and a lion lager.

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Cloudy sunset over Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

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The sea and sunset over Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

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Lion Lager and a coconut fish curry for dinner at Fortaleza

My tips for this leg of the journey

I didn’t explore either Kataragama or Tissa, although it seems there are some temples of interested which might be worth a visit if you have slightly more time on your hands.

I couldn’t work out whether or not I needed to book a safari ahead of time to make sure I got on one; it didn’t appear to be necessary and in hindsight I probably could have spent less money on the two safaris had I booked them both once I’d arrived.

Once again the bus was a triumph of ease and relative comfort, don’t shy away from the bus when travelling in Sri Lanka, they work, they get you where you’re going as quick as anything else, and you get to watch all the scenery pass by.

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A crocodile chills in the sun in Yala National Park

Day 11: Galle Fort

Fried eggs for breakfast today instead of the usual omelette- still came with the standard massive pile of fruit. This is something I always miss terribly when I leave Asia, being given mounds of pineapple, watermelon and papaya as though they’re apples and oranges.

Today I followed a walking tour of Galle Fort, a Unesco World Heritage Site, from my Lonely Planet guide, which takes you right around the Fort to the main attractions. This tour takes you from the north of the Fort in a clockwise direction starting at the clocktower, engineered by the British in 1882, along the walls past the Main Gate (also British-built) and past the Amangalla Hotel, down to the lighthouse via the Dutch Reformed Church and Dutch Hospital, past the Flag Rock and then back up the west side of the Fort.

Walking along the walls of Galle Fort

Walking along the walls of Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

The Amangalla was built in 1684 for the Dutch governor and his officers and today is a hotel and restaurant. You can pop into the lobby and bar areas for a quick look- I tried to grab some lunch here but the restaurant was full! Instead I opted for a look around the Dutch Hospital and picked A Minute by Tuk Tuk to eat a light lunch at with a beautiful view of the sea. There are lots of nice shops in the Dutch Hospital, including a tea shop, Withered Leaves, where I took the chance to stock up (over a year later I’m still working my way through it).

View from the Dutch Hospital, Galle Fort

View from the Dutch Hospital, Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

Most of the older buildings in the Fort are Dutch including the charming Dutch Reformed Church, originally built in 1640, although the present building dates from the 1750s. The paving of the church is made from beautifully carved gravestones from the old Dutch cemetery, which is well worth a look- the church also makes a welcome respite from the heat. I also made a visit to the Marine Archaeological Museum, which showcases Galle’s maritime history.

There are a number of other museums in the Fort, which I didn’t visit, including the National Maritime Museum and the National Museum. They all charge entrance fees, but are very reasonable, with the most expensive still under £4. The full walking tour around the Fort if you take your time is around 4 hours, but gives you a great overview of the area. Once you’ve seen the sights, it’s nice to spend the evenings wandering the smaller roads and alleys discovering the many shops and restaurants.

The ships arrival board at the Old Lloyd's Office Galle Fort

The ships arrival board at the Old Lloyd’s Office Galle Fort

Shops inside the Dutch Hospital in Galle Fort

Shops inside the Dutch Hospital in Galle Fort

The Dutch Reformed Church, Galle Fort

The Dutch Reformed Church, Galle Fort

Once again I took a walk along the walls at dusk to watch the sunset among throngs of others vying for the best spot. A number of locals were jumping off a rock into the sea below, which grew rougher as the wind piked up. When you see the waves you can start to understand why the seas around Galle are littered with shipwrecks.

Afterwards I wandered around shopping until my 8pm dinner reservation. There are some rather nice shops scattered about Galle Fort and bought myself an aquamarine and silver ring as a souvenir of my trip- it’s long been a tradition of mine to buy myself an unusual ring when on holiday when I can find one. I arranged to pick the ring up the next day before heading off to Colombo.

Elita Restaurant came highly recommended both in Lonely Planet and on Tripadvisor and I had managed to make a reservation the day I arrived, which is pretty much a necessity as it is very popular, although it didn’t seem you needed to book far in advance. I was presented with a white board of the ‘fresh tonight’ options and chose the yellow fin tuna steak. The service was slow, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary in Sri Lanka, and after about a 40 minute wait I got an extremely fresh a beautifully cooked tuna steak the size of my head. The fries were really diabolic, but when you get half a kilo of tuna and a lager for under £15 it’s hard to complain.

Sunset over the sea at Galle Fort

The locals jump from a rock in the sea around Galle Fort

Waves crashing at sunset around Galle Fort

Waves crashing at sunset around Galle Fort

Sunset over Galle Fort

Sunset over Galle Fort

My tips for this leg of the trip

As I didn’t visit Kandy and Ella on this trip, I do regret not going to a tea plantation, which is an easy trip from Galle or the neighbouring beach towns if you head to Hundungoda Tea Estate, which is around 20km from Galle.

Day 12: back to Colombo

I awoke to my last day in Galle, which had been one of my favourite stops as everything inside the Fort is walking distance and I finally had a few days in one place. It was another unbelievably sweaty day. Galle sits in a kind of recessed pit within the walls, so it’s wonderfully breezy when you’re up on top of the walls overlooking the sea, but when walking the narrow streets it can feel rather airless.

I headed to the train station first thing while it was still (relatively) cool to buy a ticket for the 14:45 to Colombo. I also took the opportunity to visit some of the local supermarkets. One of the surprising thing about Sri Lanka is the popularity of cream crackers.

I had been intrigued by the amount of billboards and other adverts for cream crackers that I’d spotted while travelling around the island by bus and train, so was interested to see the huge variety of brands on offer in the supermarket! I’m not sure I’ve ever been conscious of their existence outside of the UK! I sat down and had a fresh coconut to drink while waiting to pick the ring I had bought and was having resized. For lunch I headed to Lucky Fort, which came highly recommended on Tripadvisor. For about £5 you’re served the 10 curries that are fresh that day, mostly vegetable with one meat dish (I had chicken). Wonderful food and very filling for one person, was really enough for two.

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Huge lunch at Lucky Fort Restaurant, Galle

After eating far too much I collected my bags from the guest house and was back off out to the train station by tuk tuk. The train was rather busy with tourists moving between the coastal towns and Colombo, as well as a good deal of locals with luggage. I was lucky enough to get a seat but spent the journey with my bag crushed between the seat and by legs. Not quite so pleasant as the spacious journey down!

Once again it was a race against time to see the sunset. After a tuk tuk ride and a slow check in, I headed to my room with minutes to spare, jumped into my swimwear and hit the rooftop pool. The view from the pool at Cinnamon Red Colombo is breath-taking. I sat in the pool watching the sun set over the buildings of Colombo. What a wonderful experience!

It’s not the best hotel, down to the service rather than the facilities, but you really can’t beat the view from the infinity pool, so it’s probably worth a stop- you can visit the bar in the evening even if you’re not staying in the hotel.

Once I was showered and changed I still had time to kill before my late dinner reservation so I grabbed another Lion lager (if you’re a lager connoisseur then Lion is a good one to try) and enjoyed it immensely with a delicious bowl of cashew nuts flavoured with curry leaves.

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Sunset from the roof of Cinnamon Red Colombo

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Sunset with a beer in the rooftop bar at Cinnamon Red Colombo

Later that evening it was finally time to eat at Ministry Crab, which I couldn’t get a table at when I first arrived in Colombo 12 days ago. Ministry of Crab really is a Colombo institution and it is full to bursting day in day out. It’s hard and messy going pulling apart a sauce-covered crab with your bare hands, but endlessly satisfying and it was delicious. I don’t doubt there are better crab places in Colombo and at a much more reasonable price, but the Dutch Hospital is a lovely setting for dinner so sometimes it’s worth paying the premium.

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My dinner at Ministry of Crab, Colombo

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Crabzilla! The menu at Ministry of Crab, Colombo

Day 13 – the last day: not a real day of sightseeing, more a day of waiting to leave. I head to the National Museum, which was walking distance from the hotel. It houses all sorts of paraphernalia (from weapons to statues to royal thrones) from Sri Lanka’s history and is most interested although rather airless as it does not benefit from air conditioning.

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One of the treasures from the National Museum in Colombo

Colombo National Museum

Inside Colombo National Museum

After the museum I wandered through Viharamahadevi Park, which is Colombo’s biggest park. I would have never noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by one of the park workers, but when I looked up I saw that the trees were absolutely full to the brim with fruit bats. They seem somehow both tiny and cute while also alarmingly large. I stood watching and photographing them for some time, intrigued by the contrast of their membrane wings and fluffy heads.

All too soon it was time to head to the airport and the long journey home. What a wonderful couple of weeks exploring Sri Lanka- I had seen so much and yet there’s so much I didn’t have time to explore! In my upcoming posts I’ll share with you the details of how I put this trip together from the rough itinerary, to booking accommodation, finding good local restaurants and how I found my way around on public transport. Stay tuned…

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Just hanging out – fruit bats in Viharamahadevi Park, Colombo

Sri Lanka travel tips

Based on my own experiences I’m sharing some practical tips for travelling to Sri Lanka including what to take, how to get around, and how much it’s going to cost you.

  1. Do I need a visa to visit Sri Lanka?

You will need a visa to travel to Sri Lanka but it’s very straightforward to obtain electronically. You’ll also need to make sure your passport is valid for 6 months. It’s possible to get a visa on arrival (which is what I did), although it’s recommended that you get one before you travel to avoid delays, which you can do here: http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/

Tourists visas are normally issued for a maximum period of 30 days. For more information for UK citizens, including advice for staying healthy while you travel, you should always check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.

  1. What should I pack for Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is hot all year round and depending when you travel it may also be quite wet.
The sun is extremely strong as you’re right on the equator so make sure you have everything you need to protect yourself from the strong sun. A hat is a good idea, but if you’re not a hat person (I’m not) then an umbrella is a good way of keeping yourself covered when you’re in an exposed area. It also doubles as an actual umbrella for those unpredictable showers.

I also recommend taking a loose, light shirt to put on to cover your arms and shoulders- yes it’ll be a bit warmer and sweatier, but it’s hard to keep on top of sunscreen application when you’re trying to enjoy yourself and I for one really hate to be greasy all day – this is great alternative.

In hot humid countries I always favour wearing my gym gear as the fabric is engineered for sweat-wicking so you don’t feel like you have sweat soaked clothes clinging to you all day. It also packs up small, washes easily, doesn’t crease and is stretchy and comfortable. People usually recommend that you wear loose cotton clothes in hot countries, but I always find that when you’re sweating a lot you end up feeling constantly damp. It’s not the most glamorous way to dress, but I’m off enjoying my adventures and don’t especially care what I look like!

And don’t forget mosquitoes which are omnipresent in Sri Lanka, I used a mosquito spray with 50% DEET. Nearly everywhere you stay will either supply mosquito nets or have air conditioning meaning you don’t need one. I took one with me but never used it- you could probably do without if you have a big enough supply of repellent.

Other must haves include:

  • A torch (some areas can be badly lit and it’s sometimes dark inside temples)
  • Binoculars (for safari and for looking at the diner details of temples and other ruins)
  • A small backpack for sightseeing
  • A rash vest to protect you from the sun when you’re swimming
  • Flip flops (easy to take on and off when visiting temples)
  • Some disposable ponchos, easy to carry and great all over protection for sudden downpours
  • Sunscreen, mosquito repellent and aloe vera – take plenty as you’ll struggle to restock in many parts of Sri Lanka
  • A hat, sunglasses and umbrella
  • A local sim card from the airport (you can relax about which bus you may or may not be on when you can GPS locate yourself on Google maps!)
  1. How long should I stay in Sri Lanka?

This entirely depends on how much you want to see and what you want to do. It’s a small island but a lot of the transport is quite slow so it takes some time to move from place to place. You can speed this up by hiring a driving but this is obviously more expensive and you miss some great experiences on buses and trains.

There are plenty of ways of constructing great itineraries for any length of stay. I’d recommend 2 to 3 weeks if you want to do a really comprehensive tour of the island with some relaxation built in, but you can equally have a great time there for just a week if you are realistic about the ground you’d be able to cover and focused about what you want to see.

  1. How can I get around Sri Lanka?

Public transport is cheap, easy and regular. Buses tend to get less regular after 6pm and the trains can be infrequent for longer journeys, but this is nothing some up front planning won’t address.

Because everyone uses the bus, there are plenty of people able to help you find the right one, so you don’t need to worry too much about how you’ll get to your next destination- chances are you will.

If you want to travel first class on the train then you typically need to book ahead as these tickets do sell out in advance. You can do this in person at the station up to 30 days before travel, or a quick Google will give you the relevant telephone contact for the line you wish to travel on.

Second class travel is perfectly ok, sometimes it can be crowded and sweaty but it’s all part of the experience and with the windows and doors open you get a nice breeze which means the heat is far from unbearable. The same goes for the bus.

Check out the website The Man in Seat Sixty-One for up to date train times and lots of other useful travel information.

  1. What should I eat in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lankan food is great and very varied. Take the opportunity to try as much as you can, as it’s not always the easiest to find when you get home.

Short eats

‘Short eats’ are Sri Lankan snacks that are available on trains, buses and pretty much everywhere else. These are usually deep fried snacks made from lentils, tinned fish and lots of spices. Ulundhu Vadai are little donut shaped deep fried lentil snacks mixed with spices. Fish cutlet is a round, breaded deep fried ball of potato and tinned fish mixed with spices. Enjoy these with a nice fresh king coconut- delicious.

Hoppers

Hoppers are another Sri Lankan staple, usually served at breakfast. They come in different varieties; plain hoppers are little bowl shaped crepe-like pancakes made from rice flour for dipping into sambol and dhal. Sometimes they come with an egg cooked into the hopper which is, you guessed it, an egg hopper! You also get ‘string hoppers’ which are batches of rice flour find noodles shaped into a hopper shape. These are delicious with coconut sambol. Don’t shy away from Sri Lankan breakfast in favour of Western staples, you’re missing out big time.

Curry

Far more interesting and varied than is suggested by me lumping everything together under the title ‘curry’, but my personal favourites include Sri Lankan chicken curry, pumpkin curry and cucumber curry. Take any opportunity you get to have a selection of small curries with rice when you’re eating out or in a guest house, which gives you the best chance to try as much as possible. A good dhal is hard to beat and luckily it’s served with most dishes in Sri Lanka.

Kottu Roti

Literally ‘chopped roti’ mixed with various combinations of meat, prawns, egg and vegetables. This is a street food staple and in cities and towns across Sri Lank you hear the characteristic sound of chefs chopping the roti on a griddle. I tried it for the first time in Mirissa Beach at No. 1 Dewmini Roti Shop and it did not disappoint.

  1. How much do things cost in Sri Lanka?

The exchange rate at the moment is around 190 Sri Lankan Rupees to the Pound (or about 150 to the Dollar or 160 to the Euro). As with many destinations, you can pay whatever you like for accommodation. Sri Lanka is rapidly developing a luxury market, especially beach resorts, so you can easily pay £200 – £300 a night for the best accommodation. However, most guest houses will be around £15 – £20 a night. There are also plenty of options in between those prices points so Sri Lanka is a destination which suits most budgets.

Public transport costs are negligible and private driver costs vary but will be around £50 per day, which is obviously relatively better value when you’re not on your own.

Food varies depending where you eat, but I rarely paid more than £10 for a meal, and often it was far less.

Entry fees to archaeological sites will probably be your biggest expensive with many charging around £20.

My whole trip, which was not designed to be a budget holiday, came to about £1000 total for two weeks. For two people, you could probably do it for £750 each.

 

 

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