Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was never on my original travel wishlist, but it’s been getting a lot of good press lately and a few friends have visited and raved about it, so it leapfrogged several other Asian destinations to the top of my list. I combined this trip with a week in Rajasthan, India. After a week of the intensity of India, Sri Lanka was a much-needed breath of fresh air. I was able to spend a week exploring the southern half of the island with a driver/guide. I was impressed with the beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and cleanliness of the island. Sri Lanka now ranks as one of my favorite destinations in the world.

Day 0: evening arrival in Colombo, overnight in Negombo
Day 1: drive to Dambulla, sunset climb of Pidurangala Rock, overnight in Dambulla
Day 2: visit Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Polonnaruwa ancient city, overnight in Dambulla
Day 3: visit Dambulla Caves, drive to Ramboda via Mathale and Kandy, visit tea plantation and waterfall, overnight in Ramboda
Day 4: visit Nuwara Eliya, catch train to Ella, visit Demodara Bridge, overnight in Ella
Day 5: hike Little Adam’s Peak, visit Rawana Falls, drive to Tissa, late afternoon safari at Yala National Park, overnight in Tissa
Day 6: drive to Mirissa, stop in Tangalle and Matara en route, afternoon visit to Secret Beach, overnight in Mirissa
Day 7: see stilt fisherman, explore Galle town and fort, afternoon drive to airport, evening flight to Abu Dhabi
Day 8: fly to NYC


DAY 1: Negombo to Dambulla + Pidurangala Rock

I arrived at Colombo Airport late and went straight to my guesthouse north of the city. I woke up early and had breakfast on the balcony before taking a quick stroll along Negombo Beach before officially starting my tour.  I met my driver/guide/new friend Shanoi from Sri Lanka Bros Tours shortly after and we began the 3 hour drive to Dambulla. On the way we stopped to have my first of many king coconuts from a roadside vendor. The scenery was so green and lush, with palm trees surrounded by rice paddies and mountains.  We arrived at the hotel and I had some time to relax and nap before our evening hike up Pidurangala Rock.

Pidurangala Rock is more than 650 feet tall, the same height as the famous Sigiriya Rock Fortress.  The large rock outcropping provides panoramic views over the area, including some the best views of Sigiriya.  Another incentive for visiting Pidurangala instead of Sigiriya is the difference in cost. Pidurangala is only $5 compared to Sigiriya’s absurd $30 admission.  I visited both on this trip and highly recommend each, but if you are on a budget, skip Sigiriya.

The 30 minute hike to the summit was not too strenuous, but it was very hot and the climb is a constant ascent. There are a few stops that you can make along the way, including a monastery, caves, frescos, and a few statues. There are also many monkeys and birds around. The very last section involves some light rock scrambling and by the time I reached the top, I was drenched in sweat.  The cool breeze and amazing views made me quickly forget about the hike up and were well worth the effort. I stayed on the top of the rock for more than an hour and caught the magnificent sunset before quickly descending while there was still a little bit of light.

DAY 2: Sigiriya Rock Fortress + Polonnaruwa Ancient City

After some negotiating, my driver and I agreed to try to arrive at Sigiriya Rock Fortress just after the early morning rush but before the morning tour groups.  Our plan seemed to have work as there were a lot of people around but I still had some quiet moments to explore the site in solitude. Sigiriya is probably the most famous attraction in Sri Lanka, hence the $30 fee. The 200 meter tall ancient rock fortress is often called the Lion Rock. The UNESCO World Heritage site has been the royal palace, as well as a monastery. The site is approached through an extensive garden complex that leads to several levels of terraces.  The final set of stairs to the summit are reached by passing through the imposing Lion Gate, where two large stone paws still frame the entrance.

Visiting Sigiriya early helps avoid crowds as well as the midday heat.  The last set of stairs is completely exposed, so it will be hot, but also dangerous, as swarms of wasps have been known to attack tourists.  The top of the rock has the remains of the former palace and city. The site is impressive and it’s easy to see why this site was chosen as a citadel, since it provides endless views in all directions. I spent quite some time exploring the various ruins on the summit, imagining what the former city-palace looked like and enjoying the views.  After descending, we drove to the nearby retention pond to get a different view of Sigiriya from below. Our plan worked out so well, that we had enough time to rest at the hotel before continuing on to Polonnaruwa in the afternoon.

Polonnaruwa was Sri Lanka’s second ancient capital after Anuradhapura and was used from 1070 to 1214 AD during the reign of three different kings. The ancient city is quite large and can be explored by bike or car.  It was over 100 degrees when I visited, so I was glad we opted to use the car to travel between the five main sections of the city.

We started at the former Royal Palace, which is mostly in ruins. The original building was seven stories tall. Colonnades, ponds, and foundations reveal glimpses of other structures in the former royal complex. Next we visited the sacred quadrangle that includes several structures (temples and stupas), including some Hindu shrines. Architecturally, this section was the most interesting to me due to the diversity of styles and building techniques.

Rankot Vihara is the largest stupa at Polonnaruwa at 180 feet tall.  It’s also the second largest stupa in Sri Lanka. It took ten minutes to walk around the circumference of the stupa. Lankatilaka, the next section we visited, has a fifty-foot standing Buddha, a large white stupa called Kiri Vihara, and few other interesting architectural ruins. Our last stop in Polonnaruwa was Gal Vihara, a collection of four rock-carved Buddha statues.  The statues were originally housed in individual structures, but now they are all located under one single canopy for protection from the elements. Additional entertainment is provided by the large groups of monkeys that live in this section of the archaeological park.

DAY 3: Dambulla to Ramboda via Kandy

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high expectations for Dambulla Cave Temple, a series of five cave temples known for their detailed frescoes and statues depicting the life of Buddha. The photos of the caves always seemed dark and the paintings seemed very busy.  After a 20 minute rapid ascent I reached the caves and was immediately glad I had visited. The caves are a bit busy and overwhelm the senses, but I think that’s the appeal. The combination of light, color, and space created a unique environment in each of the five caves. The second part of the cave complex is the Golden Buddha statue and pagoda at the base of the mountain.

After visiting we stopped at the fruit market across the street, where I tried a red banana for the first time. It was a bit tart for my taste, but the market was so vibrant and perfectly arranged, it looks like an advertisement.

On the way to Ramboda we made a quick stop at Sri Muthumariamman Temple in Mathale. The temple was closed for religious celebrations, but we walked around the exterior.

My original itinerary included a very long day with several stops in Kandy.  I decided to nix that plan and keep it simple. I traveled through Kandy and had a great lunch overlooking a river and waterfall, but bypassed the main city.

After Kandy, we visited a tea factory en route to Ramboda. The tour was short, informative and included a lot of tea samples. I arrived at Ramboda Falls by mid-afternoon and walked down to the beautiful waterfall.  My room also had a great view of the waterfall and valley from my balcony. I visited the waterfall again in the morning before heading east towards Nuwara Eliya and Ella.

DAY 4: Train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella

The next morning, we left early to catch the early train from Nuwara Eliya.  The drive from Ramboda to Nuwara Eliya passes through beautiful scenery of rolling hills of tea and is the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country. We arrived in Nuwara Eliya early to get reserved train tickets to Ella. The first class tickets were sold out so I had to settle for second class unreserved seats on the “slow train”.  If you visit this area and know your travel dates a month in advance, use an online service to book your tickets. The second class was fine, but a bit hot and slightly uncomfortable.  My guide was able to secure me a middle seat next to a local lady that was only going a few more stops. The train was very crowded and many tourist were sitting in the hallway.

The train journey was long, but very scenic. I realized that the “slow train” is essentially the milk train, the first train in the morning that brings supplies to the local towns.  We spent half the time stopped at some of the smaller stations along the way as packages were removed from the train. If I knew exactly how long we were going to be stopped at each station, I would’ve done a little bit of exploring of the areas around the train stations.

The best views are on the left side of the train for the majority of the trip – unfortunately I sat on the right side, but was still able to see beautiful scenery. After 5 hours, I arrived in Ella and met up with my driver.

Ella is the most popular town of Sri Lanka’s hill country. The town is full of backpackers, but the surrounding mountains are quiet and offer expansive views of lush valleys.  After arriving on the train from Nuwara Eliya, my driver took me to our hotel high in the hills of Ella.  The views from the hotel and the room were incredible. I quickly grabbed lunch and we drove to Demodara Bridge.

The first view of the Demodara Bridge peeking through the surrounding trees is breathtaking. The bridge contains nine large stone archways and spans a jungle filled valley. I spent some time taking photos on the bridge and in the adjacent tunnel while waiting for the last train of the day to traverse the bridge. It finally arrived, quite late, and afterwards we made our way back to the hotel to end the day.

DAY 5: Ella to Yala National Park

Our first stop on the fifth day was Little Adam’s Peak, a 30 minute hike up one side of the Ella Gap.  This was one of the few times I actually saw tea pickers in the tea fields. I stopped to take lots of photos, but we eventually made it to the top of the peak. I absolutely love Sri Lanka’s combination of lush vegetation and mountainous terrain. The itinerary for the day was packed and required a lot of driving so we didn’t hang out too long at the top.

Our next stop was Rawana Falls, a steep waterfall with several cascades.  After walking around the base of the falls, I downed a king coconut and we proceeded towards Tissa. I slept for most of the four-hour car ride and conveniently woke up for lunch.

Shortly after arriving at the hotel in Tissa, an open-air jeep arrived to take me to Yala National Park. Yala’s main gate is about 45 minutes away from Tissa, but the beautiful landscape kept the drive interesting.  I’ve been on a few safaris, so I didn’t have high expectations for a safari in Sri Lanka, but I was impressed. I also had my own private safari vehicle and guide.

Before we officially entered the park gates, I spotted an elephant across the lake.  I quickly learned that the roads were merely guidelines and we went on an elephant chase.  Shortly afterwards we joined an insane queue to get a glimpse of a leopard resting in a tree.  Many tourists come to Yala just to see a leopard, so I understood the commotion, but this was ridiculous.  Eventually we were able to pass when a park ranger arrived and started clearing vehicles out.

We spotted more elephants and leopards, mongooses, alligators, monkeys, and many birds during the 3 hour game drive. I really appreciated Yala’s unique landscape that combined forests, lakes, interesting rock formations, marshes, and even the sea.  The Indian Ocean is the southern border of the park and there’s an accessible beach.  The day ended with an astonishing sunset on the drive back to the hotel.

DAY 6: Mirissa Beach

After spending most of the trip in the plains and hills of Sri Lanka, I escaped to the South coast beaches for the last couple of days. The drive from Tissa to Mirissa is mostly on and near the coast, so there are periodic ocean views along the way. We stopped at a few beaches on the way to Mirissa, including Tangalle, Wellamadama, and Matara.

Before we even reached the hotel I had my driver stop at the far eastern end of Mirissa to visit the famous palm-tree hill overlooking the Indian Ocean.  I think this spot has gained notoriety from Instagram in recent years.  The scenery is really stunning and it merits its new fame.  The beach here is nice as well and I had planned to return, but ended up spending the rest of my time at the main Mirissa Beach and Secret Beach.

Secret Beach is probably the most beautiful beach I visited in Sri Lanka.  The beach is difficult to reach without a tuk-tuk or a long hike across a couple of big hills.  I opted for the tuk-tuk and it still took 15 minutes to reach the spot.  The  beach area is located in a cove surrounded by landscaped hills.  There were very few people at the beach and I had the ocean to myself.

Mirissa Beach is expansive and my hotel was located right in the center of the beach.  The later part of the day was devoted to relaxing in the pool and the Indian Ocean. The next morning I woke up at sunrise and walked to Parrot Rock on the western end of Mirissa Beach.

DAY 7: Galle

The first organized experience of my last day in Sri Lanka was a visit to see the famous stilt fishermen.  There are no less than ten places to stop to photograph the “fishermen”. I’m sure there are still real fishermen in Sri Lanka, but they are not located on the stretch of road from Mirissa to Galle.  The guys at the place I stopped did catch a few fish, but clearly that was secondary to posing for tourists and requiring tips. Strangely, I enjoyed the experience nonetheless. We made a quick stop at Dream Cabana in Dalawella Beach to try the rope swing. It was higher than I thought and a lot of fun.  I only did a few swings, but it would’ve been nice to revisit at sunset.

Galle Fort was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century.  The fortified city juts into the Indian Ocean on the southwest tip of Sri Lanka and is surrounded by water on three sides.  We spent a few hours walking around the walls of the city overlooking the sea and grabbing lunch before the long drive to Colombo’s airport. 

I didn’t budget any time for sightseeing in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital and largest city.  I enjoyed Sri Lanka immensely and will return to visit Colombo and the northern half of island.


FLIGHTS

  • Sri Lanka Airlines (economy): DEL-CMB. Good cash price for a 4 hour international flight.
  • Etihad (business): CMB-AUH-JFK. I used 70k American Airlines miles to fly from Colombo to NYC via Abu Dhabi.  The first flight was on a regional jet with comfortable seating. The 14 hour flight to NYC was on the double-decker A380 which has Etihad’s new business studio.  The entire upper deck is business and first class. I slept, watched many movies, and ordered food continuously from the on demand menu.

HOTELS

All of my accommodations in Sri Lanka were arranged by my tour company, Sri Lanka Bros, who were excellent. The hotels and guesthouses were all deluxe with nice, modern rooms and great amenities (swimming pools, good wifi, and delicious food).  I would recommend all the places I stayed.

  • Nice Place Bungalows, Dambulla
  • Ramboda Falls Hotel, Ramboda
  • Ella Panorama, Ella
  • Grande Hotel, Tissa
  • Paradise Beach Hotel, Mirissa

HIGHLIGHTS

Yala National Park
I’ll admit that I’m addicted to safaris and my game drive in Yala National Park did not disappoint.  During the 4 hour drive, I saw 2 leopards, a large herd of elephants, crocodiles, mongoose, and many birds.

Pidurangala Rock, Sigiriya
Climbing this huge rock for sunset was strenuous, but the reward was an amazing panorama view of central Sri Lanka.  The location also offers prime views of the more famous Sigiriya Rock Fortress.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Sigiriya
The most famous landmark in Sri Lanka and the most expensive at $30 per person.  The fortress is impressive and the views are worth the trip, but if you are on a budget, you could probably skip it and pay $5 for nearby Pidurangala Rock instead.

Beaches around Mirissa
Mirissa Beach is one of the largest along the southern coast and offers great people watching and swimming. Secret Beach is less accessible but more scenic as it’s located in a cove with large tide pools and surrounded by palm tree covered hills.

Galle Fort
The most popular part of Galle is located within the old fort walls that historically protected it from sea invaders.  I walked around the entire old city embankments overlooking the Indian Ocean.


PLACES TO VISIT NEXT TIME

  • Kandy – last ancient capital of Sri Lanka
  • Trincomalee – coastal town adjacent to jungle
  • Anuradhapura – first ancient city
  • Jaffna – northern capital
  • Wilpattu National Park – largest wildlife park in Sri Lanka

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