For me, Sri Lanka was always a bit of an unknown. I will be honest. I didn’t really know much about the country.
I knew it had beaches, produced lots of tea, had wild animals, and had been subject to a long running civil war that you occasionally heard about at the time.
So when my wife suggested to me that we go to Sri Lanka for our next big holiday, I accepted the idea without really knowing too much about the country.
My sister travelled there a few years back. She described the country as ‘surprising’. Having now travelled there, it’s the perfect word to describe it. At every turn, whether it is the nature, landscapes, food or people, it is surprising and spectacular.
Our journey there
First Class baby! This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, brought about by copious credit card frequent flyer points over many years.
Our first leg was on Emirates First Class. This meant we could enjoy the Qantas First Class Lounge at Melbourne Airport (we had to fly there to get the deal on points), including the Neil Perry menu and some cracking red wine. Then, it was onboard the A380 to our first stop – Singapore.
They serve Moet when you first get on board, settling into your suite. Then the good stuff comes out – Dom Perignon when you’re in the air and the tax doesn’t apply!
The flight attendant asked me if I would like to have a shower. I didn’t need one but this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. They give you eight minutes of hot water, which counts down in the shower, and you’re allowed a total of 30 minutes in the ‘spa’. I used my full eight minutes and must have used the next 22 taking selfies in the bathroom.
The food – incredible. I don’t know if I’ve ever had proper caviar before so enjoying it at 40,000 feet is a nice introduction.
Was First Class worth it? Well, it was worth the points. If you can ever do it, do it. But would I pay for it? No way in the world. I would prefer to spend the money on a great hotel room in a great city and eight hours in the air just doesn’t justify the massive price tag for me.
We landed in Singapore late at night, checking in to the Crowne Plaza at Singapore Changi Airport for the night, with our flight to Sri Lanka leaving at around 10am the next morning.
After the opulence of first class, even a step down into Business for the next leg to Colombo was a shock (probably because of the age of the plane and lack of quality food on Sri Lankan). Fortunately, the three hour flight went quickly and we arrived ready to tackle to Sri Lanka.
Cape Weligama and Galle
Cape Weligama is on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, not far from the tourist spot of Mirissa Beach. This was our first stop on our travels.
After meeting our driver at Colombo Airport, we started the drive south. Surprisingly, along a well built multi-lane toll road. Driving in Sri Lanka is an eye opening experience. Clearly, the lines on the road are just for decoration and the horn works as your indicator.
We stopped for lunch at Dalawella Beach, making it just in time before a massive thunderstorm rolled along the coastline. It was incredible to watch as the wind whipped up the surf and lightning struck all around us, even knocking out power at one point.
After lunch, it was a short drive to our accommodation at Cape Weligama. The hotel is one of three that we stayed at, owned by the Dilmah tea family. Situated high on the clifftops, the villas are built into groups of three around a swimming pool, surrounded by private gardens. Our room was massive and the pool was well used, considering the stifling humidity.
The hotel’s main pool looks out over the ocean, with a beautiful beach below and a great place to watch the sunrise. Surfers were dotted through the water, while monkeys played in the palm trees lining the beach.
Cape Weligama is not far from Galle, the famous fort city. We drove to Galle along the coast road – one which was battered during the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. It’s interesting driving around that there is very little to show what happened. The area (at least along the road) has been rebuilt. Also surprising is the fact there is nothing to see in terms of tsunami evacuation routes, like are now commonplace in areas like Thailand.
Along the way, we stopped to see a local fish market, where fisherman were pulling their long lines into the beach filled with fish. It was fascinating to watch – the size of the lines, how the communicated with the boats out at sea, and the sheer manpower needed to haul them in. The market itself is quite primitive. There’s no refrigeration, simply water thrown over the catch every now and then. There was fish, squid, stringrays and more. Nearby, small school fish were being dried out in the sun, so you can imagine the smell.
Closeby was my chance to get one of Sri Lanka’s iconic photos – the traditional stilt fisherman, sitting on their sticks jutting out of the sand, with their fishing lines in hand.
We were warned it is a tourist trap, but hey, we are tourists. We weren’t prepared for the business that they were running.
Our driver suggested we pay 200 rupee for a photo. They wanted 1000. I offered 300. No deal. We went back and forth and settled on 500. Score! Then we realised we were arguing over about $1.20 Australian.
It’s a colourful photo, showing the traditional fisherman with their traditional garb of Billabong and Quicksilver boardshorts, yelling at people on the beach who are taking photos but haven’t paid. Just as I’m sure they’ve been doing for many hundreds of years.
We eventually made it to Galle where it was incredibly hot. We walked the wall of the old city, seeing the famous cricket ground and the wall that protected the city (from the land side, where the enemy was within). Walking around the old fort was tough going in the heat but another massive storm put an end to that, as the skies opened up, trapping us under an awning just half a block from our car as the streets started filling with water.
Further along the coast to the west is Yala National Park, famous for its leopards.
The drive there exposed us to some wildlife of a different type. Even on the multi-lane freeway on the way there, we encountered cows sleeping in the lanes or grazing on the median strip.
Our accommodation for this stop was the Wild Coast Tented Lodge, which is a new hotel right on the coast. The hotel is glamping at its best, with air conditioned tents (more like little cocoons), complete with big beds, air conditioning and big copper clawfoot bathtubs. Outside, wild pigs and water buffalo roam around – at one stage even enjoying the outdoor seating area of the restaurant. The hotel is spectacular and feels like an authentic safari outpost.
The hotel lets you get close to nature. So close in fact that you’re supposed to have a staff member escort you down the path to your room after dark, in case there’s a wild animal lurking nearby. Early one morning, I ignored this advice to walk to the beach to take a photo of the sunrise, only to be met by a herd of wild water buffalo just a few metres away – then a pack of wild dogs sprinting along the beach.
The real wildlife however is a short drive away in Yala National Park. Now we’ve done safari in South Africa and had been warned not to expect the same, which was good advice. On our drive through the park however we saw a range of animals – an elephant, crocodiles and colourful birds.
However, Yala is most famed for its leopards and word was out that there was one on the prowl. We drove quickly to the area, bouncing along the dirt road. Once we reached the area, there was a fleet of jeeps already in place.
This is one of the worrying things about Yala – how many four wheel drives are driving around searching for animals. Within ten or fifteen minutes, the cars were three or four deep along the road. It was the same with our elephant encounter earlier and you can’t help feel that the animals feel threatened. At the leopard sighting, there would have been thirty or forty jeeps parked along the road. For the tourists, it’s not great either as so many miss out on an unimpeded view of the animals. Yala could do with the same kind of controls as other places like India and South Africa where safaris are more tightly regulated.
The leopard sighting however was well worth it and we saw it prowling towards a herd of water buffalo, only to be chased away by one of the big males. It tried again but eventually gave up.
Yala is beautiful but as it quickly develops further as a tourist destination, don’t expect that idyll of stumbling across an animal and being one-on-one with them.
Ceylon tea is one of the biggest exports of Sri Lanka, and there’s an industry that has been built up over more than a hundred years through British colonisation.
Our next stop took us to the heart of tea country, high in the mountains where hills are terraced and filled with bright green tea plants.
We stayed at another Dilmah-owened property, Tea Trails. Who else would you stay with in tea country?
The hotel is actually about half a dozen different properties with bungalows now accommodating guests in luxury. Our Dunkeld bungalow had only four rooms, with a beautiful common sitting area with an open fire. The view from outside was a panorama of the Castlereagh Reservoir below and the mountains beyond. It was spectacular from sun up to sun down.
The service was second to none, with high tea served up in the afternoon and beautiful meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is an open bar for when you want a drink, or you can trouble the staff for a cocktail.
Guests can also eat at one of the other bungalows. We chose to do the walk to another, knowing it was a couple of kilometres away. It didn’t help that much of that was uphill, and certainly didn’t help that we missed a road and walked too far. Fortunately, one of the hotel’s delivery vans went past and we were able to hitch a ride up the last part of the hill.
There is also a fully functioning tea factory on the site. Despite being a big business worth so much, it’s surprising how primitive the production is. Machines and methods are old, and the factory has no windows or airconditioning on the main floors. Just as it was done more than half a century ago.
They say getting there is best part – and in the case of Kandy, this was true.
Train travel in Sri Lanka is very popular, not just with locals but also tourists. There are many stories of travellers wanting to travel on the popular train routes, only to miss out because their ticket wasn’t accepted or the train being full.
From Hatton, we were travelling to Kandy and fortunately our driver got us tickets in air conditioned first class. We were very happy with this, especially after walking past some of the other carriages when we arrived at our destination. In one carriage, a tourist climbed out of the window onto the platform – unable to handle the crowd inside and cut off from the exit. People were packed in like sardines, with faces up against the windows. The train couldn’t leave the platform because people were hanging from the outside (and there’s a narrow tunnel up ahead).
It was a remarkable and eye opening experience to say the least. I’ll never complain about City Rail again.
The city of Kandy didn’t thrill us to be honest but it was good to see the bustling streets, colourful buildings (especially the iconic red and white mosque in the centre of town) and the large lake the city is built around.
We also visited the Kandy Botanic Gardens, a sprawling collection of gardens along the banks of the river filled with colourful plants.
Kandy’s most famous location is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple on the edge of the lake. Here, according to the tradition and belief, the tooth of Buddha is stored behind a series of closed doors. Thousands of people flock here every day – mostly tourists but many of them worshippers. It’s not uncommon to see people praying in the multiple shrines and temples, or laying flowers.
We finished our visit to the city with a cultural show, before heading back to our hotel for curry and cocktails, now becoming our staple diet.
Dambulla and Sigiriya
Next stop was Dambulla and Sigiriya, which provide some of the most spectacular countryside, experiences and history.
The Dambulla Caves Temple experience was impressive. Climbing the staircase high up the mountain, you’re met with a collection of caves on the side of the hill. Inside are hundreds of Buddha statues and it was fascinating seeing them and understanding the history of how the came to be there – in some cases around 2000 years ago.
Our accommodation here was the Heritance Kandalama. It was the largest hotel we stayed in on our trip and certainly wasn’t our favourite due to the size and what we considered poor service.
It is an architectural achievement. Designed by famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, it’s built into the hillside and covered in greenery, looking out over a lake.
It was here that we went looking for animals and I jokingly suggested a large rock in the water was an elephant. The joke was on me however – it actually was one. Walking down to the water, we saw the elephant resting in the water as two young boys washed it. Clearly a captive elephant, the boys invited us into the water to get up close. We politely declined due to being fully dressed. The following day, our driver told us there are crocodiles in the lake.
From our room we could see Sigiriya off in the distance. It was the reason we were here.
Jutting out from the relatively flat landscape, the rock stands out on the horizon and is well known the world over. We heeded the advice to start our climb early before the heat of the day set in.
The climb isn’t for the feint of heart. Parts of it are up steep and narrow stone steps. But the true challenge is the metal staircase that is fixed to the face of the cliff near the famous lion’s claws.
It was a challenge physically – hot, a seemingly near vertical climb in parts and even a swarm of wasps (where a nearby tour guide told us to get down and stay still, which is not easy to do when you’re hanging on for dear life on a metal ladder a couple of hundred feet up in the air).
Was it worth it? Absolutely. A truly amazing experience.
The final stop, albeit brief, was Colombo. Again, a city that is surprising because of its colour and size.
We stayed at the Paradise Road Tintagel Hotel – a hotel with some incredible history, being the home for the country’s Prime Minister and a few years back hosting Charles and Camilla during the CHOGM meeting in Colombo.
Sadly we didn’t have long in this city, just enough time to encounter a tuk-tuk ride into the CBD for dinner at the Ministry Of Crab, arguably Colombo’s most famous restaurant.
Owned by the famous Sri Lankan cricketer Sangakkara, it’s an iconic eatery in the old Dutch Hospital area. We enjoyed the Chilli Crab and Garlic Crab. Total cost about $130 Australian. We’ve had the same at home for about $600!
Our last morning saw a quick trip to the airport for our next leg – to the Maldives. More about that later.
A few final thoughts on Sri Lanka.
As I said at the outset, Sri Lanka is a surprising country. Its landscape, nature and people make it a truly special place.
I do say to people however that we didn’t see the ‘true’ Sri Lanka, as we were very fortunate to stay in some amazing accommodation. I know that not every part of the country has air conditioned comfort with butlers and open bars.
Sri Lanka is still a poor country and one which is developing quickly. The advancement of its tourist industry is at breakneck speed, which of course brings many challenges especially for locals and the environment. While the country is beautiful, there are areas which are quite confronting – whether it’s because of poverty or impact on the environment (it certainly makes you rethink all those plastic bottles of water you consume there).
It’s a beautiful country and its people are beautiful. Visit while it remains the way it is.