Ins and Outs of Traveling in Sri Lanka
I recently had a week in Sri Lanka and had the most fabulous time! Smiling friendly people, endless beaches, majestic mountains, famous tea, cheap prices, yummy healthy food, and plentiful coconuts - what more could a girl want!
Before visiting, when I pictured what the landscape would be like in Sri Lanka, I imagined gorgeous palm tree-fringed and golden-sand beaches and vibrant blue water. In reality, it was this plus much more! What I didn't know about was how stunning the centre of the country would be with all its waterfalls, mountains and tea plantations. When you can get uncrowded, picturesque beaches, misty mountain tops and lush greenery as far as the eye can see all I'm one short week, I'd say that's a holiday win!
While Sri Lanka is a fairly small country in terms of size, if you've only got a week or two, it's best not to be too ambitious with your itinerary as getting from place to place can take longer than expected. You might want to pick up a handy Lonely Planet guide to help with researching different areas to visit. In building our itinerary, my travel buddy, Jenni, and I felt a trip to Sri Lanka would not be complete without a trip to the South Coast beaches (many will just visit this part of Sri Lanka and spend their entire time here). We flew into Colombo, which is pretty anticlimactic, and headed south the following morning. The main hub of the South Coast, and first stop before the iconic beaches, is a town called Galle, which is in fact a fort full of colonial buildings / hotels. It's a World Heritage Site and worth a stop if you're an architecture or history buff. We visited several beaches along the way, but Mirissa, Talalla, and Tangalle were where we spent the majority of our time. The latter two were far and away our favourites and already beckoning me to return! After several days of sun and surf, we headed inland to Haputale which is in the Hill Country region. This area is a beautiful part of the country and much cooler temperatures than on the coast. Here, we visited (and stayed at) tea plantations, hiked mountains, played in waterfalls and enjoyed the peace and quiet. Close by is the more touristy town of Ella which is where we spent New Year's Eve and did a few stunning nature walks. From here, we continued north west to Kandy via Nurawa Eliya. Kandy is at the bottom of the Cultural Triangle and has attractions such as the Temple of the Tooth Relic and the World Buddhism Museum. A week went by in a blink and before I knew it, I was heading back to Colombo to fly to India.
To get around Sri Lanka, you will need a driver unless you're majorly budget-conscious or really keen to cram yourself on a bus or train for hours with a gazillion other people. A car/driver costs about 50 bucks a day which I found to be well worth the investment considering we visited various regions and were very much on the move. If you're staying in one spot and only need wheels for traveling short distances, tuk tuks are readily available and very cheap.
The Sri Lankan people are lovely and friendly. I noticed almost immediately how many of them have the most beautiful big smiles and bright white teeth! They are always smiling and saying hello, where are you from, and what is your name. As a general rule, they were very pleased to see tourists and keen to be helpful. And they all called me madam which I thought was quite cute :)
Sri Lankan rice and curry is the go-to meal on every restaurant menu, particularly for lunch. The set up of this cheap and cheerful (and often spicy!) meal is more like a personal banquet in which you are given an individual plate of rice (usually white unfortunately) and about five or six different small dishes made of vegetables, meat or fish, plus chutneys, to add to your plate and mix together. Almost like your own DIY curry! The variation of dishes differs from place to place but usually there is a thick and velvety dahl (my favorite!), marinated long beans, curried beetroot, coconut roti, and a take on potato curry. Most of these dishes incorporate one or several of the following herbs/spices: chilli, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, curry leaves, mustard, tamarind and coconut milk. All delicious and highly medicinal! While Sri Lankan food has an (in)famous reputation for being ridiculously spicy, there was never any smoke coming out of my ears at any of my meals. I wouldn't say I am spice queen by any means so my guess is that the Sri Lankan chefs have learned, over the years, to tone down the spice factor for blatant western tourists, much like myself. For those of you spice connoisseurs who are a bit disappointed reading this, never fear! There are many ways available to ramp up the heat in your meal, i.e. asking the waiter to make it "hot" and adding sambol and/or chilli paste to your plate.
Near the coast, excellent fish is widespread, with seer fish being a favourite. You can get your fish fired up in a curry or simply grilled with a bit of lemon along side a salad. The latter was my choice for dinner at restaurants while we were at the beach.
Tropical fruit is divine in Sri Lanka. I gorged on mango, pineapple, papaya, bananas (the little sweet ones!) and coconuts. The coconuts here are different to the Thai coconuts we get in Australia. Their King Coconuts, which have a subtly sweet and mega-hydrating water inside, are big and bright orange. They are available to buy for 40 cents at almost every roadside stand so you'll never run out of coconut water here. Sri Lanka also has fury brown coconuts (that are actually found inside big green coconuts - crazy I know!) which are traditionally sold for cooking (blend the flesh with water to make coconut milk) but when this little blonde coconut fiend is in town, they are also sold for eating! I would ask the roadside vendors to hack it open and dig out the hard flesh with a machete (no easy task) so I could eat it as a snack. Delicious!!
With an abundance of tropical fruit, fresh fish and vegetable-based curries, it is pretty easy to eat healthy while in Sri Lanka. I will point out, however, that nutritious snack foods are hard to come by unless you're happy with fruit only - a perfectly fine option but sometimes I need a bit more! I visited several different grocery stores and had very little joy finding unprocessed healthy snacks. The best I could come up with was raw cashews and devilled chickpeas (devilled means infused with chilli). So if you're a snacker, you might be wise to pack some of your healthy faves so you don't have to rely on scouring the less-than-average supermarket shelves.
Considering Sri Lanka is a third world country, preventive measures for food- and water-born illness are always advised. I didn't take any extreme caution against getting sick and I found everything to be more sanitary than I expected. I only drank bottled water (duh) but still brushed my teeth with tap water (I know, naughty right!). Each morning, I took a probiotic to help my gut fend off any nasties and two chlorella tablets to ensure I was starting my day off on a green superfood foot. That's about it! Never had any significant tummy troubles which says a lot coming from a girl with a digestive tract often on the fritz.
Dissimilarly to many other third world countries, there is nothing to buy in terms of touristy trinkets so don't promise your loved ones at home that you'll come back bearing gifts. I found it extremely refreshing not having to constantly decline well-meaning vendors asking (or harassing) me to buy their crafts and other such touristy paraphernalia. Other than food, the only thing I purchased in Sri Lanka was a couple of postcards. Lucky, as I'm struggling with space and weight in my luggage as it is!
Provided that my knowledge of Sri Lanka is limited to only what I saw and did in a week long stint around the south-western region, I hope the above information is useful in inspiring you to visit this beautiful country and in helping you form an itinerary of your own. Feel free to contact me if you're considering traveling to Sri Lanka and have any questions or want more info. I'd be more than happy to help!!
P.s. Stay tuned for more on Sri Lanka. In the next post, I'll provide some tips on where to stay and what to do! :)
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