“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin
PRINT & GO
Before your departure, do not forget to check/bring with you:
- Flight reservation
- VISA (for Sri Lanka, you need to apply online through this website: http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/visainfo/center.jsp?locale=en_US . The VISA process shouldn’t take long, normally 2-3 days maximum)
- Sri Lanka Tourism website
DAY 1: KANDY
Sri Lanka has been in my “to-go list” for very longtime, so eventually in March 2016 I decided to pack and go there for 9 days. 1-2 weeks to explore the country is sufficient, since distances are not so huge. Access to the island is very practical (at least from Europe), as there are several flights per week with stop in Doha or Dubai.
Sri Lanka is a wonderful country, a jewel of history, spirituality, and nature. You will spend days with eyes wide open and ready to capture the beauty of every single place around you. For some days you will be surrounded by tea plantations, colonial-style houses, forests, huge trees, wonderful and unique birds, elephants, waterfalls…and all accompanied by the kindness and well-known hospitality of locals.
Before starting with the suggested itinerary, let’s go through some important logistics facts:
TRANSPORTATION. In order to move from a place to another, you have several choice, depending on your level of comfort and budget:
- By train. This is perhaps quite risky, in the sense that trains do not get you everywhere, but just in the main cities. Nevertheless I would suggest to take the train from Kandy to Nuwara Elyia and admire the wonderful sceneries of this journey.
- By bus. This is certainly the cheapest way to travel. There are tons of buses taking you everywhere, public or private, you have the choice. You don’t need to check the schedule since if you miss one bus there will be another one for sure in less than 1h time. However most of buses are overcrowded, with no AC, and with no space for the luggage.
- By tuk tuk. These are the famous “3-wheels” that you will see everywhere: small vehicles running very fast everywhere in the city and outside. It is a nice way to explore the areas and not expensive, although you cannot take for long distances.
- By personal driver. This is a very common mean of transportation in Sri Lanka. You can hire a driver for the day to take you wherever you wish to go. The driver is usually an experienced guide, so he can also give you explanations on the places you are going to visit. Cars are usually very new and clean, with AC. During my trips I have never used a private driver, but since I had short time to visit Sri Lanka and I wanted someone local to guide me, I have decided to go for this option, considering also that having a driver in Sri Lanka is very cheap. In my case, I asked directly to the hotel, in this way I skipped the travel agencies fee, I avoided to pay accommodation for the driver, and I had someone reliable and recommended by the hotel. My driver in Kandy and surrounding was a biologist, so I had the opportunity to have all the explanations about the flora and fauna we were surrounded by. My driver in Sigirya and surrounding was the owner of the hotel, so very reliable and with a high knowledge of the place. Depending the destination, the price can vary from 30 to 70 euros per day. Please make sure also to leave a tip and provide the driver with meal.
Also bear in mind that most of Sri Lanka does not have highways, but small roads (very well constructed, but small), therefore driving 100km might take you almost 3hours, so make sure to plan the distances in a proper way.
SEASONS. As you know, Sri Lanka has only two seasons: the dry season and the rain season, so make sure you book your trip in the right period. March was perfect to me, since it was the end of the rainy season, this means great weather and a lot of post-rain greenery.
ACCOMMODATION. Sri Lanka does not have a lot of big chain hotels…thank God I would say!..because one of the most beautiful things of this country are its people. People in Sri Lanka are extremely kind and with a big sense of hospitality. That is why they have developed a guest-house business; you can find nice guest houses of 3-4 rooms everywhere. You will be living with locals, talk to them, and they will prepare you a home-made delicious breakfast and dinner. In a country like Sri Lanka it would be a pity missing the opportunity to interact with locals! In terms of location, I have always booked guests houses out of the city, I preferred to have a relaxing staying surrounded by nature. The accommodation in Kandy and Sigirya were in the middle of the forest, and it was a real pleasure to wake up with the sounds of birds.
ACCESS TO ATTRACTIONS. This is a budget that nobody considers, but it is a considerable expense to take into account. Basically, in Sri Lanka all entrance to tourist attractions have an entrance fee that is different if you are a local. The most expensive will be Sigirya’s rock and Polonnaruwa, 30 euros. The others go from 5 to 20 euros.
DRESS CODE. Sri Lanka is a country mainly populated by Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim people ( also Christians, but less than the others), therefore the dress code is very sober, especially for women: shoulders covered, nothing above the knees. As tourist, you have freedom to wear what you want, but respecting their dress code should be the best solution, as a respect to them.
FOOD. Food in Sri Lanka is absolutely delicious! There is a huge variety that you cannot miss, starting from breakfast. Breakfast is the main meal of the day so get ready to be served with tons of food. Most of the food is cooked with coconut, so at breakfast you can have coconut pancakes, coconut roti, bread and jam, and a lot of delicious local fruit (banana, watermelon, pineapple, etc). A cup of Sri Lankan tea is a must, there are so many flavors! Water is drinkable, although it is suggested to drink bottled water. At lunch and dinner you can have rice, chicken, curry, and coconut. Food might be spicy, so be careful if you are not so used to it.
And now, let the journey begins!
I landed in Colombo airport at 7AM, so in order to use the full day I drove directly to Kandy (around 3,5h). Once I arrived in Kandy, I had the rest of the afternoon available so I decided to go and visit the Botanic Garden in Kandy. The Botanic Garden is outside the city and it is a wonderful place to have a walk, relax, and explore the huge variety of trees, animals, and flowers that the country can offer. You can also pack a picnic basket and eat there.
DAY 2: KANDY AND PINNAWALA
On the second day, we drove to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. This is a place located at 45mins drive from Kandy and it is a protection center for elephants. Honestly speaking, it is not worth the visit: it is a site built for tourists, in which elephants are not free. For the happiness of tourist, they let them out of the water just once a day and drive them on the road. There is nothing natural, nothing “wild”, do not think it as a safari but more as a big zoo.
On the way back to Kandy, there is usually a stop in the Spice Gardens, another awful tourist trap. The staff over there will guide you through the gardens and will show you all kind of spices they have and how they are used (as medication, as cosmetic, etc). This is very interesting indeed, especially for Western people that are used to take chemical products for everything. Nevertheless the interest goes away when they try to sell you their products at ridiculously big prices (I fell into the trap of a 16euros shampoo!)
After a deceiving morning, the trip got much more interesting in the afternoon. In the afternoon we headed to Kandy, a beautiful town built around a beautiful lake. Apart Colombo, cities in Sri Lanka are not so big, so even though Kandy can be considered big for locals for our standard it is a small nice town. You can have a nice walk around the lake and in the chaotic streets, but eventually you need to end up in the beautiful temple of Sacred Tooth Relic, the holiest Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. The temple enshrines relics of what is believed to be the actual teeth of the Buddha. After Buddha was cremated, his four canine teeth were taken from the ashes. These teeth are regarded as the holiest relics of Buddhism.
After the visit to the temple, you can either enjoy a walk in Kandy either attend a show of Sri Lankan traditional dances.
DAY 3: LITTLE ENGLAND
On the third day, we drove south-west to Kandy (2hrs) to visit the beautiful region also known as Little England. Travelling through this region will be like travelling back in time, during the British colonial period. Especially from an architectural perspective, you will feel like in a little piece of England overseas!
On the way to Nuwara Elyia, the view is simply astonishing: kms and kms of tea plantations, small colonial houses surrounded by beautiful gardens, mountains, waterfalls, an explosion of colors!
Before arriving to Nuwara Elyia, you can stop visiting a tea factory on the way. The visit is very interesting, a guide will take you through the main production processes and machinery used to work tea leaves and arrive to the finished product. Afterwards you will enjoy a delicious cup of tea.
After the visit at the tea factory, you will arrive in Nuwara Elyia. In the centre of the town is the local Central Market. South of the market is Victoria Park spreading over an expanse of 27 acres with well maintained shrubs and trees. The cluster of exceedingly tall eucalyptuses is a main feature therein. Victoria Park though is located at close proximity to the city centre, is an ornithological hot spot where bird lovers would spend long hours. River Nanu Oya that runs through the Victoria Park and a number of lakes within it supports the endemic birds of Sri Lanka as well as migrant birds from neighbouring countries and regions such as the Himalayas. Among the birds are Kashmir flycatcher, Indian blue robin, Pied thrush, Dull-blue flycatcher and the yellow-eared bulbul.
DAY 4: KNUCKLES MOUNTAIN RANGE
On the 4th day we had one of the best experiences of the Sri Lanka tour: we explored the amazing Knuckles Mountain Range. Located at 2hrs drive from Kandy, the Knuckles Mountain Range (so-called because its appearance resembles a set of knuckles in a closed fist) is a major eco tourism venue of Sri Lanka and has been declared a conservation area. It is not a very touristic attraction (which makes it even better!), therefore you will have more chances to enjoy some hours of quiet and harmony with the nature. The region stretches an impressive 155 sq km that contains five major forest formations, a wide variety of rare and endemic flora and fauna and some breathtaking mountain scenery of Sri Lanka . It is a real paradise for those who love to hike or mountain bike, offering numerous mountainous trails that journey across clear rivers, through dense forests, past flowing waterfalls and lush tea plantations, and alongside terraced paddy fields and colourful Kandyan home gardens. You can do a 6km trail (it is not a hard one, even a non-trained person can do it) or even camp there and take your time to explore the other sides of the mountains. No matter what you decide to do, just enjoy this amazing experience as much as you can, enjoy the fresh air, the beautiful variety of animals and trees around you.
DAY 5: DAMBULLA
After 4 amazing days in Kandy and surroundings, it is time to leave the region and go up north, in the well known Cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. I left the guest house in the morning and drove for 3h30mins to Sigiriya. On the way there, we had a stop in Matale, very known for its beautiful Hindu temple.
After the visit of the temple, we drove straight to Dambulla, to visit the first wonder of this cultural triangle. The cave complex at Dambulla is one of the most impressive Buddhist Temples in the world. It was here that King Vattagamini Abhaya (Valagamba) took refuge in the 1st century BCE. He later turned the caves into a rock temple. Later kings made further improvements, including King Nissanka Malla who had the temple interior gilded, earning it the name of Ran Giri – Golden Rock.Dambulla Viharaya contains an abundance of valuable material from the very earliest times till the late eighteenth century, and shows the evolution of the Singhalese Buddhist art. Such vast material in one place, combined with a long history, is a rare find anywhere.
The temples contain 153 Buddha images, 3 images of kings and 4 images of gods and goddesses. There are also 4 main monasteries and it was within this complex that the monks began the militant nationalist movement against the British in 1848. After having climbed a lot of stairs (make sure to have sufficient water with you) you will arrive to the wonderful caves. hese 80 or more caves tell of the inhabitants dating back to the 3rd Century BCE. Five main caves hold the holy Buddhist shrines. The stupa was built in the 5th century AD and the caves contain precious paintings and innumerable Buddha sculptures. Among the paintings, two of the most magnificent depict the temptation of the Buddha by the demon Mara and the First Sermon of the Buddha.
Something very important to bear in mind : in every Buddhist temple you must enter without your shoes. Since temperatures might be very high and the pavement might be hot, always foresee a pair of socks to wear.
DAY 6: POLONNARUWA AND SAFARI
The 6th day will be one of the best days of this trip, since it combines history and nature. First of all, we had 1h drive to reach the beautiful city of Polonnaruwa. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s splendid medieval capital was established as the first city of the land in the 11th Century, A.D. It replaced Anuradhapura, which was plundered, made desolate and laid hopelessly bare to the invading armies from South India. Three Kings dominate the chronicles of the city and the period. The city reached a dazzling but pitifully brief zenith in the 12th century and though ravaged by invasion in the centuries that followed, much evidence remains of the old grandeur and glory.The ruins of the ancient city stand on the east shore of a large artificial lake, the Topa Wewa Lake, or Parakrama Samudraya (the Sea of Parakrama), built by King Parakramabahu I (1153-86), whose reign was Polonnaruwa‘s golden age. Within a rectangle of city walls stand palace buildings and clusters of dozens of dagobas, temples and various other religious buildings. Also for this site, please foresee a pair of socks because you are not allowed to wear shoes in many areas.
The visit of the beautiful Polonnaruwa will take you a big part of the day. Make sure to finish by 16h00 because at 17h00 you need to be in Minneryia National Park (30mins from Polonnaruwa) to enjoy an amazing safari. In order to access the safari you will need to hire a jeep and a driver (if you ask your personal driver he will take care of that). The Minneriya National Park is an ideal eco tourism location in Sri Lanka . The park consists of mixed evergreen forest and scrub areas and is home to Sri Lanka ‘s favourites such as sambar deer, leopards and elephants. This is an incredible place to observe the elephants who come to bathe and graze on the grasses as well as the huge flocks of birds (cormorants and painted storks to name but a few) that come to fish in the shallow waters. The view of the park during the sunset will leave you breathless! This safari is definitely a fantastic experience to admire and enjoy the beauty of Sri Lanka and its nature.
DAY 7: ANURADHAPURA
The 7th day in Sri Lanka will be dedicated to its spirituality and for this a visit to the spiritual city of Anuradhapura is a must! Located at 2h drive from Sigiriya, the sacred city of Anuradhapura, now in picturesque ruins, was once a major center of Sri Lankan civilization. The fascinating ancient ruins include huge bell-shaped stupas built of small sun-dried bricks, temples, sculptures, palaces, and ancient drinking-water reservoirs.
DAY 8: SIGIRIYA AND NEGOMBO
On the 8th day I decided to say goodbye to the cultural triangle by visiting the most emblematic place in the area: the Sigiriya rock. In order not to be victim of the high temperatures, you need to wake up early and start to climb the rock at 7AM. Climing Sigiriya’s rock is not extremely difficult but tiring, first of all because of the humidity, second because of the crowd that will not allow you to be constant in your speed. In general foresee around 1h -1h30m, depending on your rythm.
Sigiriya is one of the most valuable historical monuments of Sri Lanka. Referred by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World this ancient palace and fortress complex has significant archaeological importance and attracts thousands of tourists every year. It is probably the most visited tourist destination of Sri Lanka. Sigiriya rock plateau, formed from magma of an extinct volcano, is 200 meters higher than the surrounding jungles. Its view astonishes the visitors with the unique harmony between the nature and human imagination. The fortress complex includes remnants of a ruined palace, surrounded by an extensive network of fortifications, vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys and fountains. The main entrance is located in the northern side of the rock. It was designed in the form of a huge stone lion, whose feet have survived up to today but the upper parts of the body were destroyed.
Thanks to this lion the palace was named Sigiriya. The term Sigiriya originates from the word Sihagri, i.e. Lion Rock.
The western wall of Sigiriya was almost entirely covered by frescoes, created during the reign of Kasyapa. Eighteen frescoes have survived to this day. The frescoes are depicting nude females and are considered to be either the portraits of Kasyapa’s wives and concubines or priestess performing religious rituals. Despite the unknown identity of the females depicted in the frescoes, these unique ancient paintings are celebrating female beauty and have incredible historical significance.
After this unforgettable experience, time to go back to the hotel, take a shower, pack, and leave towards to coast. Now, if you have more than 10 days available I would suggest you to visit the south coast of the island, it is more “wild”. Unfortunately I was not able to stay longer, so I decided to explore the nearest coast to the airport, Negombo. Negombo is at 3h30m drive from Sigiriya and is located on the coast not far from Colombo. It is a nice town with a strong Christian influence, very clear thanks to the several churches located there. You can book a hotel near the coast and enjoy the beach and its warm sea. In the night, the city is filled with tourists having delicious dinners in the restaurants or listening to music on the beach. I have to say that compared to the mountain side of Sri Lanka I didn’t like so much the coast. I found tourists too noisy and low quality, with no respect of the place or the people, and locals too annoying, but ok my opinion. Anyway a day in Negombo is always worth to enjoy the seaside of Sri Lanka and, for practical reasons, also as gateway to Colombo and the airport.
DAY 9: COLOMBO
On your last day in Sri Lanka you could book a late night flight, in this way you will have enough time for a day trip to Colombo. Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka, and, although not suggested for long staying due to its chaos and traffic, I would suggest to visit it anyway for one day, just the time to visit the main attractions along the lake, explore the centre and immerse yourself in the mess of the city.
Unfortunately my trip to Sri Lanka finished, but if you have more time I would suggest you to visit also Galle and the south, there are interesting beaches and national parks. For sure I will come back one day to visit the rest of this amazing country that will always stay in my mind as one of the best trips ever!