8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, wonderful wildlife, stunning tea plantations and amazing food are just some of the reasons to visit Sri Lanka – read on for lots more.
When I told people I was going to Sri Lanka, the general reaction was one of surprise. I was asked numerous questions. What are the beaches like? Is it safe? Where is it, and what are the reasons to visit Sri Lanka?
There are countless viral videos doing the rounds on the Maldives, and Mauritius is on every top honeymoon destinations list, but little is known about the diverse Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka. Perhaps that is part of its charm – wouldn’t it be nice if it stayed that way? Unfortunately, I think that is unlikely.
Sri Lanka is becoming more and more fashionable with all types of travellers. Honeymooners, culture vultures and back packers are suddenly interested in visiting this remarkable island. So what is so special about this country that is the same size as Ireland?
The many reasons to visit Sri Lanka:
Located in the Indian Ocean, you can expect numerous white sandy beaches, stunning scenery and a hot tropical climate. But you probably already knew that much already… However, unlike some of its neighbours, Sri Lanka has so much more to offer. There are a staggering eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka (FYI Ireland has three).
Despite its size, Sri Lanka packs a powerful punch when it comes to wildlife. It is one of the top five countries for biodiversity in the world, has the highest density of elephants in Asia. Leopards are another common sight in Sri Lanka – the fact that there are no lions or tigers to threaten their existence has helped their survival. The largest animals on the planet, the blue whales, are regularly spotted in Sri Lanka. We didn’t have time to take a whale watching trip this time, but I am already plotting this as my excuse to return!
Sri Lanka is also home to stunning tea plantations, mouthwatering food, and let’s not forget its low cost of living – now are you seeing the many reasons to visit Sri Lanka?
The island practically screams adventure. In fact I urge you not to go for a beach holiday. If you just want to chill out on a beach go to one of the other Indian Ocean islands. However, if it is adventure you seek – go to Sri Lanka.
You can climb a 660 foot tall rock to see the sunrise, go on safari in the afternoon, and flake out on a white sandy beach in the evening. Sri Lanka is an enchanting island that seduced me many times over during my visit. Here are some of my highlights and the many reasons to visit Sri Lanka.
I was lucky to be travelling with a group of Travel Counsellors, who specialise in arranging bespoke travel itineraries with a personal service. Nothing was left to chance and we squeezed in as much as possible in the six days that we were there. We flew with Turkish Airlines who fly daily from Dublin to Istanbul and onwards to Colombo via the Maldives. Fortunately the flight time gave me the perfect opportunity to take some pictures of the Maldives from the plane.
You can choose to combine your stay with a few days in the Maldives but we went straight to Colombo. We overnighted in the 5-star Movenpick Hotel which I can highly recommend. The luxurious bedrooms come with a free standing bath and the buffet is one of the best I have ever had. It was just what was needed before we set off for the cultural triangle in the centre of the country.
Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle
There is only one highway in Sri Lanka, roads are not one of its strong points! With six road deaths every day and 1.2 million tuk-tuks, it is not a place to hire a car either… I recommend taking a private guide to bring you around the cultural centre, even for a few days. Not only will it save you the stress of driving, but you will also learn a lot about the local lifestyle, and of course, see all the highlights.
We were able to make impromptu stops along the way, when we spotted photo opportunities, or needed to find the VIP toilets. VIP toilets DO exist and are predominantly used by tourists. These are a Godsend (I wouldn’t like to see what the local use), and might be difficult to find if you were travelling alone.
Elephants, elephants and more elephants
Seeing elephants in their natural habitat is one of the main reasons to visit Sri Lanka. However, our first stop was Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Founded in 1975 to save elephants who were abandoned or injured in the wild, it is now home to 88 elephants.
We watched them bathe and managed to get great photographs, but I left feeling a little uneasy about the experience. Some of the large males are in chains (apparently due to their aggression), and we were told that these elephants are never released back into the wild. There are mixed reports on Pinnawala, but while I believe they are helping many elephants who may not be able to fend for themselves, my overall feeling was that it is not somewhere I would like to revisit.
However, our second stop, to Kaudulla National Park was a marvellous experience. Located beside the more well known Minneriya National Park, thousands of elephants are free to roam between the two parks. We enjoyed an elephant safari and saw hundreds of elephants together in their natural habitat.
There are so many here, in fact from July to September (the dry season) there is a daily gathering of over 200 elephants at the watering hole in Minneriya. It must be an incredible sight to see. Regardless of when you travel, you are almost guaranteed to see elephants in these parks – we saw hundreds over our two hour safari.
One of the highlights of my trip to Sri Lanka was the climb to the top of the ancient rock fortress, Sigiriya. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is hard to imagine how a palace was built on its summit in the 5th century! In 35 degree heat, we managed to climb the 1,202 steps to the top.
It happened to be a holy day, so it was particularly crowded. This didn’t help my nerves one bit! It wasn’t the physical climb that I had a problem with, but instead the thousands of people hanging off the side of this rock, on what appeared to be a poorly supported staircase.
Despite the nerves I made it to the top and felt extremely proud of my achievement. The views are spectacular and it was definitely worth the climb. In fact, I would do it again in a heartbeat, it was a definite bucket list moment for me.
Top Tips for climbing Sigiriya: Don’t go on a holy day, bring plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes. The climb is supposed to take about 45 minutes but it took us 2 hours because of the queues.
Temples in Sri Lanka
There are several extraordinary temples to see in Sri Lanka, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we couldn’t see them all! We chose the remarkable Dambulla Cave Temple for our first stop. We saw over 150 Buddha statues and frescoes inside five small caves. I found the caves fascinating – not only were the statues remarkably well preserved, but how the caves were built around them in the first place was mind blowing.
Our second stop was to the Temple of the Tooth in the cultural capital of Kandy. This was another incredible sight, as it is an authentic working temple with ceremonies taking place each day. We visited during the evening time and were fortunate to see the prayer ceremony and the temple lit up, in what looked like fairy lights.
We spent a night in Kandy but it was probably the only place in Sri Lanka that I didn’t warm too. I felt it was a busy tourist trap, so my advice would be to make a brief stop there, and move on. For a more authentic experience, try the small town of Nawalapitiya. I loved walking around its colourful streets. The people were so friendly and posed happily for photographs.
I’m told the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is also well worth a visit. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to another remarkable temple. Unfortunately our short time in Sri Lanka didn’t allow us to visit them all.
Top Tip for visiting Temples in Sri Lanka: Make sure your shoulders and legs are covered before entering Temples in Sri Lanka and this applies to both men and women.
Sri Lanka’s Tea Plantations
One of the highlights of my trip to Sri Lanka was our stay amongst the Tea Plantations – in fact this is up there with one of the best experiences I have had throughout my travels. The journey from Kandy through the mountains was spectacular, and the icing on the cake was our home for the night – we stayed in one of Sri Lanka’s best hotels, the Ceylon Tea Trails.
The Ceylon Tea Trails is one of the best hotels I have stayed in, and if you can manage to stretch your budget, I can highly recommend it. The infinity pool must have one of the best views in the world, and the service and food was second to none. During pre-dinner drinks our butler asked my colleague if he wanted some nuts, to which he kindly accepted. A few minutes later we wondered if he had forgotten, only to discover that a chef had roasted fresh cashew nuts to bring to his table.
The Ceylon Tea Trails hotel is an all-inclusive hotel, so all meals, premium drinks and snacks are included in the price. Our amazing experience didn’t end there. Our transfer to our next location was by seaplane from the pontoon at the end of the hotel garden.
This may sound a bit extravagant, but actually it saved us an eight hour drive to our next stop – and the journey was jaw dropping. The tea plantations are stunning from the ground, but even more so from the sky – there were terraced fields as far as my eyes could see.
I saw first-hand the advantage of booking with a Travel Counsellor. They anticipated that the eight hour drive would hinder our experience in our next location, and organised a seaplane transfer instead.
Top Tips for visiting tea plantations in Sri Lanka: Sea planes and short internal flights are quite common in Sri Lanka, because the roads are so poor. If you are planning an itinerary and are finding it hard to fit everything in, don’t forget to check internal flights. We arrived on a Sunday so the tea factory was closed but it is something that is highly recommended if staying in the area.
Yala National Park
Our next stop was Yala National Park. If you are hoping to see a leopard, this is the place to go. There are more leopards in Yala National Park than anywhere in the world. Unfortunately at the time of our visit, the main park (Block 1) was closed, so we were unable to see them.
However, we did manage to come across a friendly elephant on the way to the park. He was crossing the road as we were driving. We got so close to him, I could almost touch him – it was a wonderful experience to see him so relaxed and friendly. We also managed to spot a sloth bear in the park.
Top Tip for visiting Yala National Park: Make sure you check that the main park (Block 1) will be open before planning a visit – the weather / seasons play a big part in the opening of the various blocks. If you want to see elephants – Minneriya or Kaudulla offer better viewing opportunities.
Sri Lanka’s Beaches – When to Visit and Why
Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons: May to December in the south west of the country, and October – January in the north east. Despite being there for both (I visited in October), I travelled throughout the country and saw mostly blue skies, hot temperatures and very little rain.
One thing I did find strange was that we were unable to swim in many of the beaches on the south coast. The currents were too strong and swimming was not recommended, even at the five star Shangri-La hotel!
There are many beach resorts to choose from in Sri Lanka – Negombo being the most popular, which is very close to Colombo. We travelled through Galle in the south which was beautiful and a place I would have liked to have seen more of. It is home to the iconic Stick Fishermen and the famous Galle Fort.
Luckily we stayed a night in the Jungle Beach Hotel on the east coast of Sri Lanka, where the beaches were superb, the water is warm and perfectly safe for swimming. This eco friendly, boutique style hotel used the existing trees in the design of the hotel so it felt like we were in a tree house. It was a little piece of heaven and was just what was needed after an action packed few days.
How to get there:
Turkish Airlines fly daily from Dublin via Istanbul and offer an excellent inflight service, including unlimited drinks. There is a touch down in the Maldives, but the time of the flight allows for some superb pics over the islands.
I recommend using Travel Counsellors to organise your trip as you can see from the above, it is not the easiest holiday to plan on your own. They will ensure you see the highlights in a time and budget that suits you.
Final thoughts on reasons to visit Sri Lanka
“Why stress? There will always be fish in the sea and bananas on the tree”. This was a memorable quote from a Sri Lankan man we met in Galle – it was his reply when we asked why everyone was always happy in Sri Lanka. There are so many reasons to visit Sri Lanka. It is full of friendly people, culture and adventure. It is waiting to be discovered, go see it before the crowds arrive.
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