By Oliver Lynch
Stunning beaches? Vibrant wildlife? Phenomenal food? A fascinating multi-cultural history?
Get all of the above and more in Sri Lanka. In fact, the island nation has become one of the go-to destinations for private tours and group tours. Unlike its bigger neighbour to the north, India, Sri Lanka is a relatively easy country to crisscross without spending days on a train or splashing out on internal airfares.
These are the ten best experiences that set Sri Lanka apart from other Asian tourist destinations.
1. Amazing Wildlife
Sri Lanka is blessed with an abundant and vibrant wildlife scene, meaning a safari tour here is not just cheaper than in Africa, but you stand a great chance of spotting the ‘Sri Lankan Big 5’. Leopards, elephants, Sloth bears, Blue whales, and Sperm whales are the holy grail here. Yala National Park is probably the best nature reserve to spot the three land-based dwellers on that list. Or try your luck at Gal Oya, Udawalawe or Wilpattu national parks.
Travelling with kids? Do not miss Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary. The animals roam freely at this Elephant Orphanage and visitors can help feed and bathe them. The restaurant here overlooks the river where you can see the gentle giants frolicking about – lunch with this view would be an incredible travel memory.
The calm and quiet Mirissa on the southern coast is a hot-spot for whale watching. The ideal time to spot them would be on an early morning tour, between November and April.
2. Fantastic Food
One of the joys of travelling is undoubtedly the food, and Sri Lankan cuisine doesn’t disappoint. As a melting pot of cultures, the island’s cuisine carries influences from the Indian sub-continent, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Dutch colonial era.
Spices are prominent ingredients, which is not unusual for hot flavours in the region. Fruit and seafood feature heavily, as do most meats. Rice and fish curry is a staple, while fluffy pancakes called “Hoppers” are an iconic Sri Lankan dish. Vegetarians will also find themselves quite comfortable finding good food in Sri Lanka - Polos, a local curry made with the versatile jackfruit is the perfect first choice.
3. Surfs Up!
Everyone knows about Bali. But Arugam Bay is home to one of the best surf breaks in Asia, and people are just waking up to it. If you’re not a big surfer, never fear, there are plenty of places to try your hand at this exhilarating sport - or just lounge on the beach watching the surfers.
If you like to hang ten, then you’ll be in heaven here! You’ll find a nice break of around 600 metres with waves as high as 8 feet.
4. Tea Time
Ceylon tea is known the world over as one of the world’s finest, and you’ll find a perfect brew in Nuwara Eliya. Referred to as ‘Little England’, the town was used as a summer retreat during the colonial era. Even today, those who can, often make a trip to cool down in the summer months.
You will find tea plantations and plenty of opportunities to sample a brew. Hiring a local guide will show you the best of the area including tours of tea factories and tea tastings. While you’re in town, take a trip to the Lovers Leap waterfall and the Horton Plains national park nearby.
5. Get Outdoorsy in Ella
Ella, in the heart of the tea growing region of southern Sri Lanka, makes an excellent base for mountain hikes, waterfall excursions and spectacular views. This beautiful little town is one of the best places to enjoy the outdoors in Sri Lanka.
Take a private tour to Little Adams peak, an enjoyably strenuous hike or take in the view at Lipton’s Seat. Check out the rock-cut Dhowa Buddha temple. Diyaluma Falls deserves a day of its own for exploring, and when you need to refresh, get a cup of delicious chai.
6. Let The Train Take The Strain
Getting to Ella is a unique experience in itself. The train from Nuwara Eliya to the mountain town is a stunning leisurely ride with spectacular views, all the way. The three-hour train ride is very popular, which often means it can be hard to get tickets. Using a local guide or tour operator can help you jump the queues and get a good seat. For the most authentic experience, ride with the locals in second class! If you prefer slightly more luxury, first class is also available. Most tour itineraries for Sri Lanka include the train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella, often with your driver-guide travelling with your luggage by road, waiting to receive you on arrival at Ella.
Going the other way, the journey from Colombo to Jaffna also takes you through the heart of this stunning country to the previously troubled region.
7. The Best Beaches
Being on an island in the tropics would have you spoilt for choice in the case of beaches. Hikkaduwa, close to Colombo, is an accessible slice of paradise. Or, head to the northeast for Uppaveli and Nilaveli, two gorgeous and relatively untouched places to lay your towel and get your snorkel. Mirissa, a centre for whale watching, is also flanked by stunning beaches.
Any classic Sri Lanka tour would include this beautiful town with ample time to unwind on the beach. If you get bored of soaking up the sun, there’s always snorkelling, boat cruises, deep sea fishing, scuba diving and surfing!
8. Get to Know the Buddhist Culture
Sri Lanka is home to some awe-inspiring temples, and the Dambulla rock temple is a sight to behold. A UNESCO heritage site, the cave temple complex houses around 157 Buddha statues and intricately painted murals depicting aspects of his life. Even if you’re not a temple fan, it’s hard not to be impressed with the setting and the work that has gone into creating this incredible site.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist temples. A site of pilgrimage, the temple supposedly houses one of Buddha’s teeth in a golden casket. The temple experience itself is spectacular, with morning and evening ceremonies including drumbeats and lamps. Hiring a local guide would help in learning more about these religious sites and traditions.
9. Climb the Sigiriya Rock
Set amidst a sprawling jungle, this monolith is another staple UNESCO heritage site, on popular Sri Lanka travel itineraries. The Sigiriya rock is home to a deserted fortress built on its summit, as well as an array of impressive landscaped gardens and murals - kind of like Sri Lanka’s version of Machu Picchu, only with a shorter hike.
As one of the most visited destinations in Sri Lanka, it can get jam-packed, but the views from the top are unforgettable. The best times miss the crowds would be early mornings or late afternoons. The ascent takes around three hours; be warned, it is steep. But with the spectacular views waiting up top, the hike is worth a try.
10. Ancient Cities Of The Sinhalese Kingdom
Like many countries in Asia, Sri Lanka boasts of ancient civilisations. Today, the Sinhalese capitals of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are some of the best places to get a feel for the grandeur of these Buddhist kingdoms. Carved stone Buddhas, monasteries, and temples give us a peek into the history of the island nation’s rich cultural heritage. Exploring these fascinating destinations with a knowledgeable tour guide is highly recommended for an enriching experience.
If you’re looking to make the most of your time in Sri Lanka, using an experienced tour guide’s services will help you see all the main sights with the minimum of hassle. Book tickets, find your ideal itinerary, and be sure you tick off all the best things to do in Sri Lanka!
Oliver Lynch is a London based writer who travels as often as possible, usually for some kind of crazy adventure like exploring a jungle or going snowboarding. He edits GoneTravelling.co.uk, an online travel magazine.
Image details and license: https://flic.kr/p/8vcWgh (Surfing The Nations, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/246DQSZ (Explore Sri Lanka, CC BY-SA 2.0)