Sri Lanka is a destination that has been kept under wraps a bit over the last couple of decades. Once a land visited only by the intrepid & the hippies – Sri Lanka has now turned into an affordable, hospitable and exciting place accessible for most (and people are starting to notice!). After months of pipe-dreaming with my girlfriend, in September 2017 we decided to say f*%k the pipe & we booked flights. We made a great decision. We left New Zealand with our hopes high & our itinerary largely unconfirmed in search of an adventure. The below will give insight into how we spent our 3 weeks – as well as why you should stop what you are doing & book flights now.
We started our trip by getting out of Colombo almost immediately & heading for the south-central highlands. Our first port of call was “The Tree House”, Ginigathena. Sitting 10m above ground in a treehouse watching the sunrise over the mountains is a pretty ideal first morning & worth the high price for 1 night of novelty. The south-central highland area is pretty bloody epic all over, from the towering Aberdeen Falls (below) to the spectacular sunrise views such as Little Adams Peak. No matter where you go there is a collection of waterfalls & hikes nearby – the best of which can be accessed from Ella, a small town with 1 main strip of hotels & bars. Catch the train from Nuwara Eliya or Kandy to Ella & go for the early trains to avoid the crowds. We had a train packed shoulder to shoulder standing for 2 hours, but the last 30 minutes sitting in the doorway with our legs hanging out made it all worth it.South-central Sri Lanka is a must do for all the outdoors & hiking enthusiasts out there, we spent 4 days in Ella alone & could have easily stayed more!
Must do: Aberdeen Falls | Demodara Nine Arch Bridge | Visit a Tea-Plantation | Little Adams Peak | Catch the train (from any station > Ella) | Ella spice garden & cooking class
Stayed: “Ella Village Inn” (superb staff & good food) | “the tree house” – Ginigathena (worth a night for the novelty)
Following Ella we got a cab to Arugam Bay (not completely realising the effect of “off peak” on Sri Lanka’s tourist towns) where we were 2 of probably 30 people in a town built for thousands. From there it was national parks for a few days. Before going to Sri Lanka, one of the few things we had booked was 1 night of pure luxury & adventure with Leopard Trails. We arrived & were not disappointed. The afternoon safari drive (3 hours) took us to the western entrance to Yala National Park – home of the ever elusive Leopard. After a couple of hours of seeing brightly coloured birds, giant lizards, elephants, boar, deer, eagles & hundreds of peacocks we finally got a glimpse at a Leopard. Sitting just 5 meters from our truck in the grass having a chill was ol’ mate leo the Leopard. Epic. If it wasn’t for our amazing guide Pila from Leopard Trails, I doubt we would have seen a Leopard. It is worth splashing out and treating yourself at a place like this because the talented guides know how to find what you want to see!
After Yala we decided we needed to go for an Elephant froth – so we went to Udawalawe National Park. The safaris at Udawalawe are a little more commercialised than our experience at Yala with a swarm of jeeps full of tourists around any Elephant in eyesight. But if it’s seeing Elephants up close that you are after – Udawalawe is your spot. We lost count of how many we saw but it was at least 20 – not to mention the massive range of other wildlife we encountered along the way! The Elephant Transit Home daily feedings (9,12,3 or 6)are worth going to – pay a small donation to support the great work this sanctuary is doing to keep elephants alive!
Must-do: Spend a bit of extra $ for good guides at Yala National Park | Drive out to “elephant rock” in a tuk-tuk in Arugam Bay | Hit up the Udawalawe National Park & the nearby transit home for a fix of Elephants
Stayed: “Beach wave hotel” in Arugam Bay (awesome rooms, value for money, resident 2 week old puppy) | “Leopard Trails” in Yala (a well run, high quality night of luxury – worth the money for the luxury tent & knowledgeable guides)
Following a busy 2 weeks we decided it was time to chill. We hit the coast in search of sun, sand & surf. We found exactly that. Of the coastal towns we went to, the most notable were Mirissa, Unawatuna & Hikkaduwa which all had their different draw cards. Mirissa was busier than a dog scratching fleas (from the surf breaks full of “Mr. Imma steal yo waves”(see below) to to some dodgy bus driving), but it was fun! We had a good night on the sauce, met some cool people & ate at some epic cafe’s & restaurants. After 4 nights we moved on to Unawatuna which had a super chilled vibe, with shisha bars & wafts of dank bush weed a common theme. Our last stop & favorite place was Hikkaduwa – a town built on tourism & the epic surfing for all abilities. We parked up for 5 nights at “Chami’s Place” – the best accommodation we had in our 3 weeks (mainly due to the 2 legends running the place – Chami & Tusi). I surfed 2-3 hours a day, building up my confidence until I was eventually taking on the main break (a right & left reef break known to pick up beautiful waves in big swell). Travelling round the coast it would be easy to forget that the area was decimated by a tsunami in 2004 – something the locals have done remarkably well to overcome & rebuild from. There is a tsunami museum near Hikkaduwa, while it isn’t anything flash it is something that every tourist to Sri Lanka should see – if anything just to acknowledge the difficulties the locals have endured, its a sombre experience.
Must-do: Mirissa – Chef Akila Kitchen (best curry we had in Sri Lanka in a dope setting) | Shady Lane (for your insta-worthy smoothie bowls) | Mirissa Main Surf Break (right hand point break – busy)
Hikkaduwa – Tsunami Memorial & Museum | Aroma restaurant | Surfing at the main break | get a “catamaran” and go snorkelling (worth doing the catamaran instead of boat)
Stayed: The Green Garden (Mirissa) | Chami’s Place (Hikkaduwa – Epic hostel with good vibes!)
Sri Lanka is a place full of adventure, unreal scenes & buzzy animals. The mountains are massive & dressed in jungles & waterfalls. The National parks are more than you could hope for & are a nice escape from a human-dominated world. The beaches are golden, with surf breaks at every turn. The food is a delicious & unique combination of flavours. Having returned home, I can’t shake the feeling that I have only scratched the surface. As with any place, it is what you make of it that determines your enjoyment. Sri Lanka isn’t the country for package tours & itineraries. It’s not the place for plans, expectations & everything going to plan. What it is is a great place to kick off your shoes, go where the wind blows & see what happens. Oh – and don’t forget to try the Kottu Roti 😉
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