Sri Lanka Highlights


Below is a guide to taking in the highlights on a two-week trip for the island.


Colombo or Negombo?

All flights into Sri Lanka’s international airport have a terrible habit of landing in the middle of the night. It’s worth skipping the 1-2 hour drive into Colombo and instead easing into the country by staying at Negombo, a beach resort 15 minutes away from the airport.


Some people skip Colombo, but it is worth a look, with a few special spots and cafes including Galle Face Green, the Cricket Club and Paradise Galleries. Sadly, the National Museum was recently ransacked and most valuable items on display were stolen.


Train- the best (but not only) way to travel

From Colombo, book your train tickets in advance and head up north into the hills. There are four different classes of train tickets- grab one in the observation car and settle in for one of the most beautiful train rides of your life as the train slowly climbs from green rice paddies to steep tea plantations. Allow a whole day up and back to travel by train.


Nuwara Eliya

Highest up is the old British resort town of Nuwara Eliya. In terms of panoramic views, it offers the best train journey through the tea plantations and hills.  Once in town, you can tour the tea factories for a few pounds. Other highlights include high-end travel clothing being sold for peanuts in the markets (most gear is made in Sri Lanka) and taking tea at the grand old British Tudor-style hotels with their manicured English country gardens. It does get cold up here, so pack some warm clothes.


Kandy and the Cultural Triangle

Kandy is the closer option (with more frequent trains), and is an important Buddhist Centre home to the Temple of the Tooth, an important UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kandy is also the starting point for the Cultural triangle, a loop that takes in five of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka, including the ancient cities of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Dambulla. Also worth seeing is the wild elephants who gather at Minneriya National park during the dry season (June-October).


Beach Time: the West Coast

Looping back down to Colombo, the West Coast is the most developed area for tourists. A new expressway to Galle has made it accessible within an hour from Colombo, but the Old Galle Rd and the train follow the coast, a longer, but more scenic journey.


The place attracting the most buzz is Hikkaduwa. For better and for worse, it mimics what Thailand’s islands were like a in their tourism infancy, with  gorgeous stretches of beach, cheap guesthouses, bars and places to party, attracting a few leaching beach boys and hangers on the side. A more tranquil alternative is the beach resort of Bentota.



The old Fort town of Galle is worth exploring. Surrounded by ramparts, the fort was built by the Dutch and has an excellent Maritime Museum that details the shipwrecks along the coast. Wander the ramparts that protected the town from the devastating 2004 tsunami and see if you can find the city’s curious private museum.


Nearby Galle is another popular backpacker beach spot, Unawatuna. Lined with beach umbrellas and beachside restaurants, it is protected by a reef you can snorkel in season.


South of Galle

South of Galle, there are long stretches of untouched beaches and overpriced five star resorts behind big gates. A fair drive from here but a major attraction is Yala National Park, which has a high concentration of leopards. However, the park is overrun with international and domestic tourists and there are concerns about the stress placed on the animals park by overuse (read more here), so consider another of the country’s parks for a more sustainable experience.


The North 

The North of Sri Lanka has been dominated by fighting for ages, making it off limits to travellers until 2009 when things settled down. Trincomalee, an old Military resort town, has emerged as the star destination with its stunning beaches and untouched marine life (diving, fishing or commercial boats were banned because of terrorist threats, allowing the marine life to thrive).  It is a tricky place to get to however- you can catch a flight with the military- but otherwise it’s a bumpy ride up there by car (watch for wild elephants).


And a last word:

Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is in a critical growth period. Try to support sustainable ventures and small owner-operated hotels and be sensitive about what people can and can’t talk about in terms of the war and the current government.  Do a little reading and research on the conflict first, and be aware the country still operates in many shades of grey. It’s also worthwhile being aware of your own safety and keep a low profile- the people are fabulous and the destination is well worth it, but this is still a country taking slow steps into the light again.

We also offer a Discover Sri Lanka holiday here




Manila by jeepney


If you spend any time in Manila you will notice the colourful jeepneys that ply the city’s streets. These pimped-out make-shift minibuses are a legacy of the US Military who left behind hundreds of jeeps in the Philippines after the war. Filipinos converted them to carry more passengers, giving each one a name, splashing it with bright colours and adding a few religious slogans for good measure (‘Nearer my God to Thee’ might be the most appropriate). Hundreds now belch out a constant stream of black bile as they battle their way through the mayhem of the city’s streets. Originally intended to seat around 15 people at a push, it’s not unusual to see 25 crammed into the seats and squatted along the narrow floor.





Travelling by jeepney is by far the most exciting way to get around Manila and get a flavour of the city’s character. Look out for the signs on the front and sides to work out where they go and just jump in – however crowded it looks inside, someone will make room for you. If you’re really lucky you might be able to bag the front seat – the only ones where you have a reasonable chance that you won’t be offering your lap to a smiling old dear. Tell the driver where you want to go and pass your money forward – passengers will relay the money to the driver and any change back to you. Fares are typically between 10 and 20 pesos (15 to 30 pence). A good tip is not to sit just behind the driver unless you want to assume the stressful role of money handler.


If, like me, you end up being the only white guy on the bus, you’ll be met with plenty of curious stares, shy giggles and broad smiles whenever you catch anyone’s eye – the Piccadilly Line it certainly isn’t.  Children in particular seemed utterly fascinated by this over-sized specimen trying but failing miserably to look inconspicuous.




The drive is guaranteed to be fast and furious as drivers cut each other at any opportunity in a cut-throat race to each waiting passenger. There are no clearly marked stops with passengers banging a coin on the roof or shouting for their stop and the driver pulling in without hesitation or any care for the chaos he leaves in his wake.




Getting out is an art form that I never managed to master. Any semblance of dignity I bought into the jeepney disappeared as I banged my head, then my knees and then finally awkwardly jumped out of the back, in the process provoking a final round of laughter as the driver sped off in pursuit of more customers.




The network of jeepney routes is so extensive that you’ll often find one that takes you from point to point wherever you want to go; if not, the driver will soon help you to link up to a connecting service. The jeepney ride is so much part of the Manila experience that even if you have nowhere in particular to go it’s worth just hopping in, calling out a random destination written on the side of the bus and enjoying the ride before taking the return trip back to your starting point. All you need is a few coins, a sense of humour and the willingness to be the object of amusement for a local audience.


You can get Manila included in the Navigator RTW