Due to its shape and location in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is often called ‘the teardrop of India’. But we’re certain this affectionate nickname doesn’t do this pintsized tropical island any justice at all, when it’s so full of sun and huge smiles.
Oh, and tea. Lots of tea.
A place full of sunshine, big smiles and tea might seem complete… but there’s even more to Sri Lanka than that – a lot more. From authentic experiences with the warmest locals to unique wildlife encounters (whales, turtles, leopards and elephants!), awesome trekking and world-class surfing, this south Asian destination offers so many exceptional journeys for travellers. The best bit? For now, Sri Lanka is still a little bit ‘off the beaten track’, meaning you’ll have these experiences somewhat to yourself.
Here are ten reasons why you should stop, drop everything, and fly to Sri Lanka. Right now.
Picture one town, bang in the centre of Sri Lanka, easily accessible from the capital of Colombo, and full of cool temples, awesome restaurants and stunning views – that’s Kandy. Picture another, smaller one a two-hour train journey away, right up amidst Sri Lanka’s grassy hills and tea plantations. That’s Ella, and the slow, chugging train journey between the two is quite possibly one of the best in the world.
Ensure you book a window seat in as much advance as possible, pack some snacks and a copy of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, then prepare to not read single page of it, as Sri Lanka’s inspiring landscapes unfold in front of you…
Time it right, (i.e. set your alarm for 5:30 am, grit your teeth and bear it) and you’ll be in for the chance of a real-life Life of Pi moment. Sri Lanka is one of the best-value places in the world to spot the largest animals in it – blue whales could surface mere metres from the boat you’ll be bobbing around in.
Mirissa, in Sri Lanka’s south is the best place to spot whales between November and April. Outside of these times, it’s Uppuvelli and Trincomalee in the northeast, that will offer you a chance to get up close.
Is it a fortress? A monastery? Why is it so high up? How did that rock it sits on get there? Nobody can work it out. Head an hour north from Kandy and clamber to the top of this curious rock, through the giant stone paws of the lion that once guarded it, and you’ll be in for some stellar views. Psst. we’ll let you in on a secret too. Head up Pidurangala Rock for sunset afterwards, for arguably even better ones!
Hiking Adam’s Peak
We’ll forgive you for assuming Sri Lanka is all warm beaches and tropical jungles. But Adam’s Peak soars 2,423m high, and his temple-clad peak is reachable via 7000 steps.
This place is shrouded in religious significance for not only Christians but Buddhists and Muslims too. Big ol’ Adam is said to be where not only Adam (of Adam and Eve fame), but the Buddha and the prophet Mohammed first landed on the earth. Those who make a torch or candle-lit midnight pilgrimage to stand in their footprints are rewarded with views as far as Colombo and the ocean.
And let’s face it, what backpacking trip would be complete without at least one real, buns of steel, fist pumping, joy-jumping snapshot on the top of the mountain you just conquered?!
What is it about this endearingly named village that makes it every traveller’s favourite? With its laid back people, uplifting colours, amazing day hikes amidst the endless tea plantations, fresh mountain air and burgeoning bar and restaurant scene, it’s easy to see why us travellers get glued here, often physically and always mentally, for a long time.
Trek Big Adam’s little brother, Little Adam, stroll down the railway line to the three arch bridge, or simply kick back with an endless supply of tea (we recommend Ella Flower Garden for the best views).
Ever cried from laughter with a stranger who doesn’t speak a word of the same language as you?
Sri Lankan locals are known to be warm, welcoming, laid-back, and heaps of fun. Open up, let them in, and accept their invitations (these will often range from free guided tours of their neighbourhood to dinner, and from an impromptu game of drunken musical statues, to a full-blown hiking trip with their family).
A seasoned nomad might travel every other country in Asia, and not see a wild elephant. That’s until they reach Sri Lanka. On this island, you’re more likely to spot a yellow ‘Caution! Wild Elephants’ sign on your road trip, than one advertising rides on the back of them.
Udawalwe National Park in southern Sri Lanka offers the best opportunity to spot elephants all year round, but if you’re lucky enough to be visiting the country in August or September, you’ll be there to witness the Elephant Gathering in Minneriya, a short drive from Sigiriya.
Take a jeep out to the lake here, and you’ll witness hundreds of elephants munching away in their most natural habitat, all wagging tails and flappy ears… and teeny tiny babies.
If Bali comes first in Asia for the best waves, Sri Lanka comes a close second. Arugam Bay on the east coast, and Hikkaduwa on the southwest, near Galle and Colombo are a magnet for those svelte, tousled haired surfers and sea gypsy stereotypes. We recommend grabbing yourself a bungalow on the beach, ordering a bottle of Lion and waxing up your board, even If you’re a beginner.
And of course, wherever there’s surfing, there’s all night parties! Is there anything better than watching the early birds catch the best waves when you haven’t been to bed yet?
The Cultural Triangle
Hire a bike, grab some mates and feel the dusty wind in your hair as you peddle around Anuradhapura, a huge complex of temples a few hours north of Kandy. Nearby, you’ll be able to take in lofty Sigiriya and the awesome, Buddha-filled and monkey-strewn cave temples of Dambulla.
These temples and monuments are all within a few hours bus ride of each other and public transport is cheap, easy and frequent.
Sri Lankans take the concept of Indian cooking to another level. More spice, more garlic, more ginger and some deliciously wacky offerings set them apart from the usual fare you’ll find elsewhere in the south Asian subcontinent.
Let’s start with breakfast. Where else in the world can you wake up and expect your first meal of the day to be a curry? (Yes, we’re serious). Then there’s the string hoppers: flat discs of soft noodles, perfect for drowning in your daal.
Lunch will typically consist of more daal and naan, best served from a bustling street stand for less than a £1. Then, there’s the mother of all hangover cures. We repeat. Sri Lanka is home to the mother of all hangover cures: Kottu. This dish consists of chapatis chopped, tossed and fried with spices, garlic, vegetables, meat, chicken, egg or even cheese, before being served up on a huge steaming plate. To sample the best, head to the famous Hotel de New Pilawoos on Galle Road in Colombo.
Another absolute must for any foodie touching down in the capital of Colombo is a sunset trip to Galle Face Green for tea, just a ten-minute walk from Hotel de New Pilawoos. Here, if you have the room left, you’ll find plastic tables and chairs full of locals crowded round smoking food stands, offering everything from fresh seafood, to noodle dishes and curries. Dig in!
Want more excuses to pack your bags and head to this year’s hottest destination? Head over to our Sri Lanka travel guide to check out the cheapest flights there, plus adventure tours and more…