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Grand Escapades’ Travel Guide To Sri Lanka

Easy To Travel & Full Of Highlights

Train from Kandy to Nuwera Eliya, Sri Lanka

Train from Kandy to Nuwera Eliya, Sri Lanka

Itinerary And Time Of The Visit

Never have we bought a long-haul plane ticket 6 days before departure… But when a window of opportunity of 12 days in February 2016 aroused, the decision was quick. With only 10 days in Sri Lanka, we had to make some bitter choices, as this is not nearly enough for a country that would ideally require 3 weeks or more… Beaches were immediately out of focus, as was soon wildlife watching, because of the lack of time.

We spent 5 days on the Northern Cultural Triangle (Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya & Dambulla), which was the bear minimum to be able to somehow discover those places. Then followed 3 days to get a glimpse of the Highlands and the Tea Plantations (Kandy, Nuwera Eliya & Ella). Last but not least, we headed south for one and a half day rest on the beach in Mirissa and to discover Galle.

 

Why Travel To Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is probably the easiest destination to travel in Asia we have experienced so far:

  • Distances are short and roads are in (very) good condition;
  • The travel infrastructure covers all needs: there is a wide choice of accommodation, from basic hostels / guesthouses to luxury boutique hotels; means of transport range from public buses to relatively affordable chartered taxis; trains offer a different perspective on the country…
  • People are extremely friendly and helpful (we couldn’t believe our eyes when a Tuk Tuk simply stopped to give us directions when we seemed lost on our bikes)
  • The country is extremely clean and hygiene is excellent, much better than most places in Asia

The country also offers a large number and a great variety of highlights:

  • Unique cultural sites (several listed as UNESCO World Heritages);
  • Beautiful landscapes (stunning beaches, breathtaking highlands and tea plantations…)
  • A rich and diverse wildlife, in National Park and for scuba divers
  • And last but not least: friendly & relaxed people, eager to help you discovering their country in the best conditions
Seating Buddha, which depicts the Dhyana Mudra, Gal Vihara, near Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Seating Buddha, which depicts the Dhyana Mudra, Gal Vihara, near Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Tea Plantations near Ella, Sri Lanka

Tea Plantations near Ella, Sri Lanka

Ceylon Spotted Deer (Axis Axis Ceylonensis), Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka

Ceylon Spotted Deer (Axis Axis Ceylonensis), Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka

At the Dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

At the Dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would We Have Wished To Know?

Of course, it would have tremendously helped to have more time to organize the trip… We definitely made quite a few mistakes because we were not prepared enough!

  • Sri Lanka is deservedly a very popular place, both among Independent Travelers and Tour Groups. With limited time, it was challenging to escape the crowds, yet it is absolutely possible! Getting up early when visiting popular sites is critical!
  • Two weeks is a minimum if you want to somehow enjoy Sri Lanka, and 3 weeks would be about perfect, to have the necessary flexibility to discover the country more in depth and travel somehow away from the masses.
  • If you decide to hire a car with driver (a very convenient option, a quite pricy one though…), try to directly negotiate with a driver, if possible. Agencies take most of the money, and the driver ends-up living almost solely from tips, savings on gasoline, and especially commissions from hotels, restaurants & shops where he takes the tourists. This can lead to misunderstandings or even to disappointments, as the driver will push towards the highest commission and not the best travel option. Moreover, when booking a hotel, always ask if they offer (complimentary) accommodation for the driver, else you will have to pay approx. 10 USD per night for your driver…

 

What Would We Do Differently?

A lot! We did quite a few (major) mistakes (due to the lack of time to sufficiently prepare the trip)!

  • Plan Sufficient Time – 10 days is of course better than nothing, but not nearly enough to even get a first glimpse of Sri Lanka. We would recommend at least 2 full weeks to get a good overview (and you will travel at a high speed), and ideally 3+ weeks to experience the country differently and more in depth…
  • Book Your Train Tickets Way Ahead – You can book a train ticket up to 10 days before departure. Especially the leg Nuwera Eliya to Ella is extremely popular amongst Tour Groups, so this leg should be booked as soon as you reach Sri Lanka at any train station. Note that 3rd class is perfectly fine… And anyway, you will most likely end-up in a car reserved for tourists!

    SriLanla-317

    Train from Kandy to Nuwera Eliya, Sri Lanka

  • Do Not Go Whale Watching in Mirissa! – Let’s put this straight: this was the most disturbing and anti-ecologic experience we made in years… Around 30 boats rushed at see searching for the Holy Grail at sunrise. First dolphins were spotted and repeatedly surrounded by this small army. Then, after more than 3 hours search, the so much expected Blue Whale (a single one) was found. As soon as it came to the surface, an army of boats rushed at full speed and surrounded the poor animal, sometimes closely approaching her. Several times, when the Blue Whale reappeared, the rushing and surrounding was repeated, until she finally dived for good.

    One of 30 boats that went "Blue Whale Watching" that morning in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

    One of 30 boats that went “Blue Whale Watching” that morning in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

  • Stay Overnight In Galle – There is something really special about this very well restored Colonial City that invites you for long strolls in the small streets lined with beautiful, low colonial buildings. The flair is absolutely unique, and we truly regret that we did not stay there overnight and did not experience the city at sunset and sunrise, when all those tour groups are gone…

    Amangalla Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka

    Amangalla Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka

  • Do Not Stop In Nuwera Eliya If You Have Limited Time – At 2.000 meters above sea level, it is easy to understand why first English settlers liked this area, away from the heat and humidity of the Coast, and so endlessly green that it might have reminded them of rural England. This place, with its English village feel and its colored cottages, is currently unfortunately boomtown and being disfigured by large hotels under construction. We actually found little to do in and around this busy tourist hub.

    SriLanla-324

    Post Office, Nuwera Eliya, Sri Lanka

  • Take The Train From Haputale to Ella – Yes, the leg from Kandy to Nuwera Eliya is scenic. But we have been repeatedly told that the really breathtaking part is from Haputale to Ella. Actually, the best option is to take the train from Kandy to Ella early morning, and enjoy the 7 hour drive through ever changing landscapes. The best place on the train? Seat at the opened door and enjoy the landscape, your legs hanging leisurely outside.

    SriLanla-318

    Train from Kandy to Nuwera Eliya, Sri Lanka

  • Go To The Temple Of The Tooth (Kandy) In The Afternoon – There are 5 “Opening Ceremonies” during the “Puja”, the daily prayer, when the Shrine is opened and the reliquary with the Tooth of Buddha is displayed to the pilgrims. The morning ceremony is the one all tour groups are heading to… So if you do not feel like being in a temple with hundreds of other tourists, then choose one of the afternoon ceremonies!

    "Opening Ceremony" during the "Puja", Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka

    “Opening Ceremony” during the “Puja”, Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka

  • Rent A Moped Or A Motorbike On The South Coast – The South Coast is very pleasant and abounds with beautiful and quiet beaches. No matter where you stay, rent a scooter (or moped or motorbike)! Traffic is extremely quiet and safe for Asia. This is the best, cheapest and most flexible way to discover the coastal area and:
    • Access deserted beaches (check if you can swim, the current on some beaches is said to be extremely dangerous),
    • Observe those fishermen on stilts (you have to pay to take pictures),
    • Meet fishermen coming back in the morning, carrying their boats on the beach and selling their catch,
    • Join surfers on the best spots, …

      Fisher Boat, Mirissa, Sri Lanka

      Fisher Boat, Mirissa, Sri Lanka

  • Be Ready If You Decide To Visit One Of These “Spice Gardens” – Somehow we let curiosity take over and accepted to stop at one of those “Spice Gardens”, saying openly our driver we would not buy anything. We hoped for at least some explanation about the various spices and their culture, but were taken in for a ride through all those wonderful creams & lotions that let you wonder why anyone on this planet still suffers from any kind of disease… When we refused to purchase anything at the shop (prices approx. 10 times the un-negotiated prices at the market) but tipped the guide instead, we were met with very unsatisfied looks…
  • Beware of TripAdvisor – The recommendations we found on TripAdvisor were especially misleading in Sri Lanka, and we made a few mistakes in the choice of accommodation. Always double check with other sources of information!

 

Highlights Of The Trip

  • Anuradhapura – Riding a bike through the remains of this large antique city is an easy and pleasant undertaking. The highlight of our visit was definitely the Dagoba of Ruvanvelisaya, where large numbers of pilgrims, all dressed in white, covered the colored ribbon around the Dagoba with a new orange one…
    Dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    Dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    At the Dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    At the Dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

  • Mihintale – It is a steep climb to the top, but the reason to be there very early is less the heat than the fact that Mihintale is a spiritual experience early morning, when large pilgrim groups make the climb to pray at the very place where King Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura met Mahinda, who converted him to Buddhism.
    Dagoba of Ambasthale, Mihintale, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    Dagoba of Ambasthale, Mihintale, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    Seating Buddha, Mihintale, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    Seating Buddha, Mihintale, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

  • Galle – See Above: “What Would We Do Differently?”
    Fortified Walls, Colonial City of Galle, Sri Lanka

    Fortified Walls, Colonial City of Galle, Sri Lanka

    Indulging a refreshment in the luxurious Amangalla Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka

    Indulging a refreshment in the luxurious Amangalla Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka

  • The Train Through The Tea Plantations – The best option is to take the train from Kandy to Ella early morning, and enjoy the 7 hour drive through ever changing landscapes. The best place on the train? Seat at the opened door and enjoy the landscape, your legs hanging leisurely outside.
    Tea Plantations near Ella, Sri Lanka

    Tea Plantations near Ella, Sri Lanka

    Woman picking tea leaves, near Ella

    Woman picking tea leaves, near Ella

  • Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa – To us, the real highlight of Polonnaruwa was Gal Vihara, with its four rock relief giant statues of Buddha, carved in the 12th Century. They represent the outstanding Sinhalese sculpting and carving technics at their best.
    Reclining Buddha, which depicts the Buddha's Parinirvana, is the largest in Gal Vihara, near Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

    Reclining Buddha, which depicts the Buddha’s Parinirvana, is the largest in Gal Vihara, near Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

    Standing Buddha, which depicts an unusual Mudra, Gal Vihara, near Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

    Standing Buddha, which depicts an unusual Mudra, Gal Vihara, near Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

  • The Sacred Caves in Dambulla – At first sight, this bustling commercial hub has nothing inviting, but the Sacred Caves in Dambulla are a must-do on the way down to Kandy from Sigiriya: there, you find a stunning collection of rock paintings and of Buddha statues of all sizes, seating or reclining. Not to be missed!
    Cave of the Divine King, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

    Cave of the Divine King, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

    Cave of the Divine King, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

    Cave of the Divine King, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

  • Dining From The Grilled “Catch Of The Day” On The Beach In Mirissa – The best part in Mirissa is definitely having diner on the beach with your feet almost in the water, enjoying the catch of the day (fish or lobster or squid) grilled with a cold beer. This was really nice and all in all a very cheap treat, one we tremendously enjoyed both evenings there!
On the beach in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

On the beach in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

 

How To Go Off The Beaten Track?

Honestly? No idea… With so little time at hand, this was not our focus (unfortunately)!

The Lion Gate and Climbing Stretch, Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Sri Lanka

The Lion Gate and Climbing Stretch, Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Sri Lanka

What Will We Especially Remember?

  • Friendly – People are extremely friendly and helpful (we couldn’t believe our eyes when a Tuk Tuk simply stopped to give directions when we seemed lost on our bikes)

    Having a coconut in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

    Having a coconut in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

  • Relaxed – The Traffic is one of the most quiet and relaxed we have experienced in Asia, far from what you experience anywhere else.
  • Clean – Sri Lanka is simply… Clean! We thought we would have an experience similar to India and were stunned to see squeaky-clean villages and roads and rivers and… everything!
  • Green – The island is one of the greenest and lushest spots I have experienced so far…
  • Colorful… Women dress in those colorful Saris, so beautiful!
  • And White! – Pilgrims at the many Buddhist Temples were always completely dressed in white… So relaxing, inspiring & spiritual…

    At the Dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    At the Dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

  • Disciplined – Schoolboys training for military like parades, in the afternoon

    Uniformed Fanfare plaxing at the “School Olympia”

    Uniformed Fanfare plaxing at the “School Olympia”

  • Elegant – Those uniforms worn by school children, both boys and girl… It was quite a sight, observing them going to or coming back from school!

    SriLanla-311

    Young ladies in their school uniforms, Kandy, Sri Lanka

  • Colorful – The buses in Sri Lanka are colorful, sometimes really arty…
  • Looong – Those lizards can be found about everywhere on the island… Actually called “Monitors”, they can be up to 1,75 meters long! Quite impressive…

    Bengal Monitor or Common Indian Monitor (Varanus Bengalensis), near Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

    Bengal Monitor or Common Indian Monitor (Varanus Bengalensis), near Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

 

Is It Safe To Travel To Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is a very safe country, with very friendly people who are eager to help, a very relaxed traffic for Asia and a very good level of hygiene. Of course, you shouldn’t disregard some basic rules… But that’s the same everywhere!

 

Best Time To Visit Sri Lanka

The best time to visit Sri Lanka is from November to March, in the dry season. This is also the busiest period, and some sites can turn extremely crowed, like Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, the train from Kandy to Ella, or Mirissa…

Outside of this period, it actually depends where you are heading to, as the island has some specific local climates, and when it rains in some parts of the island, it might be actually a good time to visit others…

 

Communication (Language Barrier?)

English is widely spoken, and communication extremely easy. Never did we experience any communication challenges…

 

Getting Around In Sri Lanka

With only 10 days at hand, a car with driver was a very convenient option, a quite pricy one though… We paid all in all 630 € (including tip) for 10 days plus airport pick up & drop off. Nevertheless, with more than 2 weeks, we would also consider using various types of transport:

  • Long distance taxis when other options are not efficient
  • Buses when those are efficient
  • Trains on the more scenic routes
  • And why not a moped or a motorbike for short distances on the Coast
From To Type of Transport Distance
(Km)
Travel Duration
(Hours)
Average Speed
(km / h)
Negumbo Wilpattu National Park Car 166 04:00 42
Wilpattu National Park Anuradhapura Car 57 01:00 57
Anuradhapura Polonnaruwa Car 102 02:00 51
Polonnaruwa Sigiriya Car 55 01:15 44
Sigiriya Dambulla Car 17 00:45 23
Dambulla Kandy Car 72 02:30 29
Kandy Nuwera Eliya Train 77 04:15 18
Nuwera Eliya Ella Car 60 02:15 27
Ella Mirissa Car 183 04:30 41
Mirissa Galle Car 33 00:45 44
Galle Negombo Car 160 03:30 46
Total 982 26:45 37
SriLanla-315

Train from Kandy to Nuwera Eliya, Sri lanka

 

Red Tape

All visitors must have a Visa when entering Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, this Visa can be obtained Online within a few minutes (30 USD for 30 days with double entry). This process is easy & straightforward.

 

Photography – Sri Lanka: Challenging As A Photographer

Sri Lanka turned out to be a real challenge as a Photographer, and this for several reasons:

  • Lack Of Time – We spent on average only one day per city, and hence had no time whatsoever to identify the good spots, and were anyway not always or even seldom in the right place at the right time… I usually try to spend at least 3 nights per place, and that makes a tremendous difference!
  • Lack Of Contrasts – Grey on grey is a killer for many pictures, and the light in Sri Lanka turned out to be most of the time extremely disappointing, even shortly after sunrise or shortly before sunset. So many of my pictures simply lack the contrast and the beauty of a soft but clear light…

    Rankoth Vehera, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

    Rankoth Vehera, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

  • Number Of Tourists – Sri Lanka is deservedly a popular place, and the concentration of tourists can be at times overwhelming. The lack of time and hence the incapacity to be always at the right time in the right place, that is to say also when masses are away, considerably worsened the situation for taking decent pictures.
  • Photo For Money – I am not very found of the principle of “Photo For Money”. Of course, I understand that people who normally do not get any advantage of the booming tourism industry try to improve their lot and ask rich Western tourists with expensive cameras some money for pictures. It depends where, but more often than not, people will expect money if you take pictures of them in Sri Lanka…

    Woman picking tea leaves, near Ella

    Woman picking tea leaves, near Ella

All in all, I come back with less than 100 decent pictures (from 2.700 taken), and probably around 30 good ones. This is one of the lowest ratios in the last years.

 

Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Sri Lanka

We have used quite a bit the Travel Blog “J’aime le Monde”, which has a wealth of information both on organizing a trip and on specific places in the country. It is written in French.

 

Conclusion About Sri Lanka…

I would be tempted to say that Sri Lanka is Asia for beginners, a mix of a country extremely easy, extremely safe & extremely cheap to travel, and in the meantime offering a wealth and a large variety of highlights to discover: some very fine cultural sites, several of them UNESCO World Heritage; beautiful landscapes; stunning beaches; abundant wildlife; very friendly people; …

Sri Lanka has had a very troubled history over the last decades, but seems to be now reborn from its ashes. The island is deservedly and increasingly popular, especially amongst European tourists, so take enough time to discover the country more in depth and to visit the famous places at more quiet moments. You will not regret it!

 

 

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6 Responses to Grand Escapades’ Travel Guide To Sri Lanka

  1. anndre 14. July 2016 at 10:44 #

    Thanks for all this precious information! I will go to SL shortly and will take full advantage of your advice. Stay well!

    • Gilles Barbier 14. July 2016 at 12:08 #

      Thanks for your feedback, Andre
      Do not hesitate if you have questions
      Cheers, Gilles

  2. Lakmini Ratnayaka 15. September 2016 at 9:51 #

    Thanks for posting detailed information about our small paradise. As an inbound tour operators in Sri Lanka, we are extremely happy to see the posts regarding Sri Lanka tourism industry. We can provide you some more images & details of some tour packages if needed. Please accept the greetings from Sterling Holidays Pvt. Ltd

    • Gilles Barbier 15. September 2016 at 10:01 #

      Hi Lakmini Ratnayaka,
      Thank you, but I only post about independent traveling.
      Cheers, Gilles

  3. Kavindu Jayasekara 26. September 2016 at 11:05 #

    Your information helps to promote Sri Lanka tourism industry. Really accept your good work Gilles. I’ve shared your link within my clients. Greetings from Traveler Ceylon Pvt. Ltd.

    • Gilles Barbier 26. September 2016 at 13:38 #

      Hi Kavindu,
      I didn’t write anything with the target of promoting anything, but just saying how I perceived Sri Lanka.
      And I really enjoyed my stay, even though its was too short!
      Thanks for the feedback, and feel free to share my website with anyone interested – I do not earn money with this blog, but am always happy to see that it helps others.
      Cheers, Gilles

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