8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, thousands of elephants, 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, most people seemed surprised. I was asked numerous questions. Is there anything to do? What are the beaches like? Is it safe? There are countless viral videos doing the rounds on the Maldives, and Mauritius is on every list of top honeymoon destinations, but little is known about the diverse Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka. Perhaps that is part of it’s charm; wouldn’t it be nice if it stayed that way? Unfortunately, that is unlikely. This hidden gem is becoming more and more fashionable. There are so many reasons to visit Sri Lanka, that it won’t be long before it is on the next Lonely Planet’s ‘Best Islands To Visit’ list. My advice – go see it before the crowds arrive! So what is so special about this country that is the same size as Ireland?
Located in the Indian Ocean, expect numerous white sandy beaches, stunning scenery and a hot tropical climate. But you probably already knew that much… However, unlike some of it’s neighbours, Sri Lanka has so much more to offer. There are a staggering eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites (FYI Ireland has three), thousands of elephants, hundreds of leopards, tea plantations, amazing food and let’s not forget it’s low cost of living. 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.
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 Istanbul via the Maldives. Fortunately, the flight times gave me the perfect opportunity to take some pictures of the Maldives from the plane.
You can combine your stay with a few days in the Maldives but we went straight to Colombo. We overnighted in the 5* Movenpick hotel which I would 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.
There is only one highway in Sri Lanka, roads are not one of its strong points! With 6 road deaths every day and 1.2 million tuk-tuks, it is not a place to hire a car either! I would 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 every day life and of course, see all the highlights. We were able to make impromptu stops along the way, when we spotted photo ops or needed to find the VIP toilets. These DO actually exist and are predominantly used by tourists. All I can say is thank God our driver knew where to stop, there is no way you would find them alone.
Elephants, elephants and more elephants – one of the main reasons to visit Sri Lanka
One of the main reasons to visit Sri Lanka is to see elephants. 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 we all 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 and while I believe they are helping many elephants who may not be able to fend for themselves in the wild, my overall feeling was that it is not somewhere I would like to revisit.
Kaudulla National Park on the other hand, was amazing! Located beside the more well known Minneriya National Park, this is where thousands of elephants roam freely between the two parks. We took 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 and we saw hundreds over our two hour safari.
One of the highlights of my trip was the climb to the top of this ancient rock fortress. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is hard to imagine how a palace was built on the 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 faced my fears. I made it to the top and felt a great sense of 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: 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.
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 caves for our first stop and saw over 150 Buddha statues and frescoes, inside five small caves. I found Dambulla 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 Relic in the cultural capital of Kandy. Another incredible sight, this 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. It is a busy tourist trap and my advice would be to make a brief stop here. For a more authentic experience visit the small town of Nawalapitiya. I loved walking around there. The people were so friendly and posed happily for photographs. Polonnaruwa is another remarkable temple and if time permits, should definitely be considered. Top Tip: Make sure your shoulders and legs are covered before entering Temples in Sri Lanka and this applies to both men and women.
Another highlight for me was our stay amongst the Tea Plantations. The journey from Kandy through the mountains was spectacular. But when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we ended up staying in one of Sri Lanka’s best hotels, the Ceylon Tea Trails. It was probably one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in and if you can manage to stretch your budget, I would 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 personal butler asked my colleague if he wanted some nuts. He duly accepted his offer but after a few minutes wondered why there was a delay, only to discover that he was actually roasting 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. To top it all off we took a seaplane from outside the hotel to our next stop! This might sound a bit extravagant but actually it saved us an 8 hour drive, not to mention the journey itself was incredible. I saw first hand the advantage of booking with a Travel Counsellor. They anticipated that the 8 hour drive would hinder our experience in our next location and organised a seaplane transfer instead. Top Tips: 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
If you want 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. We did manage to come across a friendly elephant on the way to the park though. We got so close to him, I could almost touch him, it was another amazing experience. We also managed to spot a sloth bear in the park! Top Tip: Make sure you check that the main park (Block 1) will be open before planning a visit. If you want to see elephants, Minneriya or Kaudulla offer better viewing opportunities.
Sri Lanka’s Beaches
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) we 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 looked impressive 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.
Thankfully we stayed a night in the Jungle Beach Hotel on the east coast where the beaches were superb, the water 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 would 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.
“Why stress? There will always be fish in the sea and bananas on the tree”, was a memorable quote from a Sri Lankan man when we asked why everyone was always happy. 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.