Sri Lanka

Beginner’s guide to planning a trip to Sri Lanka- two weeks of exploring the island


 

With the long running civil-war that plagued the country slowing fading in the rear-view mirror, Sri Lanka is emerging as one of the new ‘it’ island destinations, with record-breaking (if somewhat dubious) visitor numbers and Sri Lankan Airlines joining the Oneworld alliance.  

 

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.

 

Galle

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.

You can get flights into Colombo and onto South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand with the Rover RTW

We also offer Highlights of Sri Lanka tours here