There are so many things to share about Sri Lanka’s beauty–the lush tea fields, towering mountains and blue oceans are just a few—but what made my trip so profound are the less tangible experiences. Maybe it’s the fact that the country is steeped in Buddhist values or perhaps it’s the lack of Western regulations. Whatever the case, the result of my 10-day trip was a feeling of uninterrupted freedom. One of my biggest takeaways was the motto embodied in Sri Lanka: Responsibility to respect others and to enjoy your life fully.
10 days. I could have done with four more days and wouldn’t recommend anything less than seven.
You will fly into Colombo on the West Coast. I flew with Sri Lankan Airlines (One World Alliance) direct from London, which was a breeze. Once in the country, plan to travel to a new area either every day or every other day if you want to maximize the time. Not the most leisurely of holidays, but being my first time to Sri Lanka, every day held a completely different wonder which I wouldn’t have changed.
I went with my best girlfriend from childhood. Being in a twosome made things really easy. It’s a very romantic place so I highly recommend the trip for couples as well.
Sri Lanka is a relatively small country with what feels like an endless amount of ground to cover, so we hired an independent tour guide recommended through a friend (who had been just the month before we arrived). This completely made the trip—not only was he local, so we experienced places we never would have seen on our own, but the stress of finding transport on what could be anywhere from one to four-hour journeys was non-existent.
Daminda Bandara Tours can be contacted by email–and if you tell him your preferred level of luxury, anything specific you want to see or do and your flight details, he will book all accommodation, pick you up at the airport, travel with you throughout your stay (as much or little as you like) AND provide final transport back to the airport. We spent the entire time with him and it was invaluable to have local knowledge plus someone that spoke both the native languages, Sinhala & Tamil.
The country, much to my surprise, accepts both Sri Lankan Rupees and USD. For the bigger purchases such as tour guide and accommodation, most people prefer to be paid in US Dollars, so come with enough US currency and then take out Rupees upon arrival for smaller purchases.
Best Day Time Activities
It varied so much from day to day, so I’m naming my five top daytime experiences. They’re not to be missed!
1. Climb a Mountain
The hike to one of Sri Lanka’s national parks, Horton Plains, is an amazing experience. The view doesn’t get much better.
2. Go on a Safari
As we made our way south to the desert lands of Yala, we did an early morning Safari which yielded all sorts of critters, reptiles and thankfully, two herds of elephants. Well worth the trip.
3. Visit a Temple
Buddhist culture was one of my personal favorite takeaways. Not only because it was something new for me, but it was beautifully simplistic in that it can be broken down into one simple rule of being a good person, and with that in mind, being good to the Earth and the people that inhabit it.
Helpful tips for this visit: You should wear mostly white clothing that covers your shoulders and most of your legs. It’s customary to bring a gift of flowers to the Buddha which are strictly for him. I accidentally went to smell the flowers we bought and was swiftly told “only for Buddha!,” so keep the local culture in mind and enjoy only by looking.
4. Walk the Tea Fields in Ella
You can’t even imagine the shades of green until you see it in person.
5. Pick a Beach
Any beach! Every one we saw was stunning. We went to the west coast to Mirissa and Galle.
Best Night Out
There is little to no nightlife in Sri Lanka, plus it’s early to rise if you want to beat the crowds at a few of the more popular places (such as Horton Plains). If we did anything, it was a few sunset drinks. Hands down best place for sundowners was 98 acres in Ella. It’s perched in the mountains overlooking a valley below. You have a 360 view of the lush mountains and typically there is a dense fog that rolls in in the evenings which is spectacularly moody.
Best Thing I Ate
For me, the best food in Sri Lanka wasn’t in restaurants but rather imbedded in an experience; the markets, a roadside roti, or must try—coconut sambal. Our tour guide had a degree in agriculture so he continuously taught us about the plants and food growing around us the entire trip. Until you experience a fresh cinnamon leaf, you haven’t lived!
To paint a picture of the dreamiest yet unexpected experience we had: During a late afternoon spent rowing through a small lake dotted with lily pads, we came across a fish monger catching fish in the lake. Our lovely guide bought four fish from him that we cooked that evening in what was by far the best fish curry I have ever had–and seriously made me rethink all the Western notions of “farm to table.”
Where To Stay
We stayed at eight hotels over the 10 days so in an effort not to overwhelm, I’m narrowing this down to the best two. We closed out the trip on the west coast and seemed to save the best for last. Our second to last night we stayed at Fort Bazaar in Galle Fort. It’s a gorgeously renovated townhouse hotel formerly owned by one of the merchants who settled in the town. The staff is incredibly accommodating and I would highly recommend the Upper Suite, complete with balcony which is on the same level as the library.
Fort Galle was one of the more “westernized” towns we visited, and you can cover the whole thing in one day as it’s quite small. Perfect for 48 hours of relaxing in the hotel’s open air library or by the pool.
Our last night was spent at the most luxurious hotel of the trip, KK Beach. The hotel was recently built in December 2016 and has every comfort you need: good food, pool and even boogie boards! Situated 7.5 miles outside of Galle proper, you do have to arrange transport if you want an excursion, but we didn’t leave the property the entire 24 hours. The hotel backs right up against a secluded beach and since there aren’t very many rooms, you feel like it’s your own private piece of the Indian Ocean. We stayed in one of the penthouse suites (which is bigger than most New York apartments) and the balcony view was perfect.
What To Pack
Because of all the internal travel, pack light. It’s always warm which makes bringing a smaller bag easier. I strategically packed separates I knew I could wear more than once and a few extras; tan sandals, trainers, a couple dresses and of course, swim suits! Be sure one of your dresses is white and covers your shoulders if you want to go to experience the temples as it’s customary to wear white in honor of Buddha.
There is an iconic train journey from Kandy to Ella that definitely lived up to the hype. The carriages must date back to mid 1900’s, equipped with vintage ceiling fans and big picture windows. We boarded the train in Kandy and chugged along into the countries mountain region for about three hours–which was not a minute too long. About an hour into the trip, you’ve reached an altitude where everywhere you look, lush, rolling hills turned into mountains and extend as far as the eye can see. As the train wound through the mountains, we snuck out of our seats and sat on the edge of the open train door with our feet hanging off the edge high above the passing towns with the wind in our faces. I can’t remember ever feeling that kind of freedom.
Why Sri Lanka?
It has a palpable authenticity that I haven’t experienced before. The people, the food, and the genuine respect for the earth left me with a renewed sense of self and my place in the world. The values I embraced and learned on this trip are those which I will carry with me for as long as possible, and hopefully for a lifetime. The last thing was the sense of freedom I consistently felt evolving throughout my stay. Sri Lanka has laws, of course, but they are far less concerned about the little things. If you want to dangle your feet out of the train car or walk to the edge to take in the view, go right ahead. They don’t implement unnecessary safety precautions or put up barricades to obstruct nature’s views, and it made me much more aware of how controlled we are at home, and how controlled even more strict countries are in their day to day. I reveled in that freedom and will always hold it dear.
From: Harper’s BAZAAR US