A ride back in time to Sri Lanka’s colonial past

Sri Lanka is a destination we’ve wanted to go to for the longest time. So much that my Lonely Planet guide is now 3 years old.

We spent 6 full days in Sri Lanka not including travel time and let me say first that I wish we were there for longer. 10 days would’ve allowed us to travel at a more relaxed pace and perhaps see another town.

However, if you are pressed for time, you may find our itinerary useful.

Day 1 – Colombo to Kandy

Upon landing in Colombo international airport at 11:40pm, we booked a taxi which took us straight to Kandy. This was a 3 hour journey (US$50) – we were surprised at the amount of cars and trucks on the road at this time of the night. We took this route anyway as it allowed us to start early in Kandy the following day.

Day 2 – Kandy

We are not massively interested in religious and cultural sites so we skipped the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and other similar sites. However, you will spot massive Buddha temples on street corners and roadsides. In Kandy, what struck us most is the chaotic and polluted roads as our tuk-tuk veered down mountain sides and into the heart of the traffic in the city’s centre. We found the pollution here to be worse than Colombo partly because the roads are not wide enough so your tuk-tuk sits in traffic a lot.

What we enjoyed most in Kandy is the cooking class we took at Thotupola Residence. There were only three students including us, and we learned to make a variety of curry dishes including chicken, green beans, beetroot and lentil. The ingredients were extremely fresh and gloriously colourful and we had to grate our own coconut to make our coconut milk and sambal – the lunch afterwards remains the best meal we had throughout our entire time in Sri Lanka. Don’t forget the freshly fried poppadum, of course.

On the recommendation of our tuk-tuk driver, we had an Ayurvedic full body massage at the Ayvehrda Wadagedara. It was very relaxing minus the oil they poured into our hair which left our hair oily for a day plus more. We paid around Rs 9500 for both of us. Not sure if we were paying a foreign price as the prices weren’t listed.

Day 3 – Kandy to Ella

All the guide books will tell you to take the observation class for the train journey so you can observe the scenery. In our case, we were lucky to even get second class tickets because apparently they sell out a month in advance! We could see many frustrated backpackers who had unreserved seats and ended up standing for hours. For the record, it took us 6.5 hours on the train from Kandy to Ella. We sat on the left side of the train and were convinced that it was the more scenic side. We were lucky to have a group of guys playing local music in our carriages which made the passing hours more enjoyable.

The train journey took up a large part of the day and it was nearly 3pm by the time we got into Ella. Ella is a pretty small town so you can walk nearly everywhere except it’s quite hilly and the roads may not have lights in the dark. Tuk-tuks are relatively cheap (Rs 200-350 to go from our hotel to town).

In Ella, we stayed at an amazing accommodation, the Arana Sri Lanka Eco Lodge and Yoga Centre. The owners, a German and Sri Lankan couple, have built the hotel taking into the natural environment. Everything in our room was made of wood. We had breakfast and dinner here one evening and the food was very tasty. We loved the breakfast which included a variety of coconut roti, pancakes and fruits. The chef was very friendly and never minded us when we asked for the recipe to some of his dishes.

Day 4 – Ella

Considering how chilled Ella was, it’s a miracle that we woke up for a sunrise hike at 5:30am. Our grogginess was quickly awakened when our guide Abi (who had ankles of steel hiking in flip flops) led us up many flights of steep stairs. We were travelling at quite a fast pace and after about an hour, we reached Ella Rock. The sun was up from the horizon already; we would advise starting at 4:30am to capture the best photos. After the sunrise, we hiked another hour or so to Ella Rock where we saw some magnificent views of rolling mountains against the bright blue sky as far as the eye can see. Our thighs were absolutely killed by the end of the hike but this hike was one of the highlights of our trip. For your information, our guide charged Rs 2000 total for the hike.

The rest of the day was spent lounging in town, eating vegetable khottu, drinking copious amount of fresh coconut water, and shopping for a new dress because Sharon didn’t bring enough summer clothes. We especially liked checking out the tea shops which had an abundant variety of tea leaves (e.g. coconut, cinnamon). They smelled so sweet!

Day 5 – Udawalawae National Park

We chose to go to the Udawalawae National Park because Lonely Planet said that watching elephants here “rivals some of the best safaris in East Africa”. Our research suggested that it was best to go on a safari in the morning 6-9am or late afternoon 3-6pm. So we woke up in the wee hours of early morning for a 5am departure to Udawalawae National Park. The car ride was about 2.5 hours. Our hotel kindly helped us arranged a taxi driver who drove us to the national park, waited till we finish the safari, then drove us to Galle (Rs 14000).

Our original plan was to get to the park, find a safari driver which we were told would be dotted at the entrance of the park. However, it seems that our taxi driver had some private arrangements with a safari company so we were (slightly) pressured into a private tour which costed Rs 6000. Sharon hated being pressured/cheated; Jason was convinced that it was worth the money because our jeep looked better. A safari park guide later jumped onto our jeep and introduced himself as a ‘volunteer’ who worked solely on tips. We later realised that many jeeps did not have a guide with them. Our guide expected a tip of Rs 1000 though we gave significantly less. Apparently the minimum wage in Sri Lanka is Rs 10000 per month.

Given the safari company’s name was Crocodile Safari, we were slightly concerned that we would end up seeing crocodiles rather than elephants. Our worries were unfounded as we started to see elephants within 10 mins into the drive. Our guide pointed out the difference between male and female elephants (male is usually alone whereas females hang out in groups). The jeep gets within 10 metres of the elephants so you get to see them at a fairly short distance. We saw five elephants together at most. These elephants did not have tusks; our guide told us this was due to a degenerative disease – probably for the better as the park doesn’t experience any issues with poaching.

We also saw other animals including water buffalo, crocodile, Sri Lankan national bird, green bee hunter and peacocks.

Do not underestimate how tiring a safari can be – Sharon struggled to stay awake in the heat!

Safari costs (total for 2 people):
Crocodile Safari: Rs 6000
Entrance fee for park: Rs 7000
Tip for guide: Rs 1000

Day 6 – Galle

Galle was a 3.5 hours drive from Udawalawae National Park. We stayed at the Green Casa which was outside of Galle Fort and approximately a 10 mins tuk-tuk ride away. Although slightly out of town, the accommodation was spacious with its high ceilings and delicious local breakfast. The hotel’s owner has his own cinnamon plantation and this was evident in the cinnamon scent used throughout the accommodation.

We spent the rest of the day walking around town which included some colonial architecture that must’ve been glorious once upon a time, unfortunately now they are mostly dilapidated buildings. Some have been converted into cafes, restaurants and independent shops. We had lunch at the Peddlar’s Inn and dinner at Lucky Fort where you can try 10 different curries for a mere Rs 1500 for two people.

Day 7 – Colombo

The train ride from Galle to Colombo takes 2 hours and it was the hottest and most cramped journey imaginable. We had the lucky spots standing by the train doors until a lady shouted at us while shoving her pram on board. Slowly we were edged to a space between two connecting carriages and we balanced precariously while the train chugged along. Impressively, vendors continue to walk up and down the train selling snacks such as wade and fresh pineapple.

Once we got to Colombo, we got cheated by the tuk-tuk drivers standing outside the station who took us to our hotel about 5km away for Rs 700. Do not commit such mistake – apparently all tuk-tuks in Colombo are metered and all you need to do is walk further away from the station and flag down a tuk-tuk by the main road.

Colombo is much more urban compared to the rest of Sri Lanka and you get the sense it’s very much a city undergoing rapid development. There were the tell tale signs of McDonald’s and lots of construction going on along the main highway facing the harbour that announces the imminent arrival of hotels like Hyatt.

Our favourite part about Colombo was hanging out at Galle Face Green watching the beautiful sunset which was many shades of crimson, orange and red. The Galle Face Green is a green space stretching along the ocean for about 0.5km and many locals hang out here around sunset and Valentine’s day. There are also many stalls selling street food. We were tempted to try but skipped it given that our stomachs were feeling unsettled at the end of the week. Having diarrhoea at a place where you have to pay for dodgy bathrooms with no toilet paper is not a situation you want to be in! Despite our best attempt to avoid such situation, it happened anyway. On Valentine’s Day. Fact.

The other thing we enjoyed about Colombo was checking out some shops which we wouldn’t find back home. Sharon’s favourite was a shop called SALT which sold dresses handmade using the batik technique. There was also a Fairtrade social enterprise called Selyn which sold products made using the traditional handloom.

Being the capital, Colombo had a lot more choice in the restaurant scene. We tried Monsoon where the modern decor could pass for a hip restaurant in London. If you like curry, The Fat Crab was a great place for spicy crab curry and tiger prawns. We also tried vegetable rotti from local bakeries which was tasty, filling and a total bargain (Rs 40). After many days going without coffee, we finally attended to our coffee craving and tried Hansa Cafe on Lonely Planet’s recommendation. However, it was disappointing as the cappuccino was too milky.

Overall, we had a fantastic time in Sri Lanka. Our main recommendations would be to spend longer in Hill Country, always carry Kleenex and plan your transport routes in advance.