Most people go through the centre of Sri Lanka, visiting the spiritual sights of the country. Others may head to the East to visit stunning beaches, whilst the remainder may stick to the South visiting the colonial cities and taking a short break on the southern beaches.
During our trip around the South of Sri Lanka we met very few people following a similar path to ours and we cannot for the life of us figure out why. That means quite a lot of people miss out on the quiet brilliance of the hill country, but lucky for us we got to experience it without the crowds. We find that taking a little detour from the locations well traveled allows for unique interactions and experiences.
We had a short time in Sri Lanka, around 10 days, and we had to make the most of it. To see our itinerary click here. We decided, owing to the modest amount of time we had, that we would cover the Southern colonial city of Galle, go up the centre of the country to see some national parks and then spend some time hanging out in the highlands before returning to the capital and hanging out on the beaches of Negombo.
Here is out list of awesome activities and locations that we enjoyed:
1. Galle Fort
I know I just told you that we would be going off the beaten path a bit, we will. But first, Galle. It has a long colonial history that can be noted in a glimpse of it's architecture. Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later the Dutch in the 17th century, it has been an important city to the European trading companies.
Aside from the interesting history of the city, the food in Galle is some of the most varied in the country, owing to it's various influences. We particularly enjoyed the ice cream from Dairy King at 69 Church street. Go for the ice cream and stay for the conversation - Mr Dairy King has great stories to tell.
Take the time to walk around the fort and extensively explore this charming little city. There is a nice beach just under the lighthouse that can be easily reached and if you go at clock out time you can see many Galle locals taking to the water full clothed. You can also venture outside of the city limits to Galle city, an all together different experience.
Galle can be reached easily by a direct train from the country's capital, Colombo.
2. Udawalawe Elephants
When we started researching our trip to Sri Lanka high up on our list was seeing Elephants. We were very particular about the way in which we would interact with them, we wanted them to be free, not just there for tourists to touch them. A friend that we met in Malaysia traveling recommended going to Udawalawe to see Elephants roaming in the wild. He also told us that it was at a fraction of the cost compared with other locations offering a similar experience. The only catch was it was more difficult to access and the accommodation offerings were limited.
Organising a trip to the National Park could not be easier. We stayed at Superson Family Guest, this cannot be booked online it's a rock up and try your luck kind of place. It is also a simple, cold water shower only establishment. Upon arrival we organised a Jeep to take us into the park, a tour guide and by the afternoon we were watching the lightning strike over the park where we saw tens of elephants as well as their babies. In total it cost us around $100 (USD) for the day.
3. Lipton's seat
Like hiking? So do we! Lipton's seat is a nice 7km hike to the summit offering a beautiful view of the tea fields below. Go for sunrise to see the best view of the day. Follow it up with a good ol' cuppa to cap off the experience.
4. Dambatenne Tea Factory
A tea factory is a tea factory right? Wrong, you can go to a tea factory and not see anything but that would be a waste. I really enjoyed Dambatenne Tea Factory for a couple of reasons; the factory tour actually showed you their manufacturing procedure, they have an awesome tea room and it is set in beautiful surrounds. What I didn't enjoy was the terrible food poising I was experiencing at the time. I actually lost my vision for a while. Not a good time.
If you have the time, you should head down into the tea picker village and get to know the people who pick the tea. We had a great time walking around the town and playing with the children. The Tea Factory is 11km out of town but renting a tuk tuk is very affordable and well worth the journey.
5. Adisham Monastery
High on top of a mountain in Haputale stands the still functioning St. Benedict's Monastery, known as Adisham. Once upon a time it belonged to Sir Thomas Lester Villers, a tea plantation owner who wanted to recreated his English life in Sri Lanka. A charming English style cottage sits alongside the Monastery and in the afternoon when the fog drifts in the whole place takes on an air of mystery.
There is also a little shop where preserves and drinks made on site can be purchased, grab a jar of the wood apple jam for a uniquely Sri Lankan take on an English preserve. Again, you will need transport to the site, but the journey is part of the fun.
6. Train journey
Just about any train journey in Sri Lanka will be beautiful but there are some are so picturesque that the trip is worth it just to watch the world whirl by. My favourite train journey was between Haputale and Ella. The green hills rushed by, only separated by deep valleys. Children yelled out into the dark expanses as we passed through the mountain tunnels. You will be simultaneously impressed and horrified with how many people will cram onto the train and hang out the doors and windows.
Popular with tourists for decades, Ella is a staple stop in the highlands. It is the type of place where people may intend initially to stay for a day or so but quickly come to love the place and stay for a week, or more.
The food of Ella is delicious; curds, fruit, rotti - it's a backpacker's dream, everything is affordable. But, like with every popular destination it is only a matter of time before it becomes overrun with hotels, many were being built during our trip. The beauty of Ella is it's simplicity, we stayed in a cozy little hostel that hugged the mountain offering beautiful views of the valley below.
8. Little Adam's Peak
One of my fondest memories from our Sri Lanka trip was climbing Little Adam's Peak. Lucky for us we did so alone. Before sunrise we rose for the modest climb. It was easy going but the view is stunning. Two peaks cradle the rising sun, making it perfect for some sunrise photography. It is easy to access down a small path at the end of the main road into town.
At the end of this trip we were full of sunshine and awe, the Sri Lankan people are amazing, the country stunning, and the history rich and interesting. We hope if you do get to Sri Lanka you love it every bit as much as we did.