"Sri Lanka? Oh, how pleasant, I've just been there myself!," a lot of people comment when we mention that we are going to Sri Lanka. In recent months, the diamond-shaped island just south of India has become a very popular destination, not least, undoubtedly, due to some cheap flight offers from Europe, which was also one of the reasons for us to go.
Altogether we spent four weeks in Sri Lanka, the full extent of the tourist visa and just long enough to see most areas.
Our main motivation for the trip was to visit the early Buddhist sites and the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka in the centre of the island and this was where we headed first, visiting Kandy (pre-colonial but not quite so ancient) and the oldest Buddhist sites at Anuradhapura and Mihintale. After a detour to the coastal town of Trincomalee we returned to the "Cultural Triangle" to visit Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Sigiriya. Our next destination was the highlands, where the famous Ceylon tea is grown and where we expected to find British colonial atmosphere (we didn't, really). And finally, the beaches of the South. This order of destinations reflects our priorities when we set out, but in the end it also corresponds to our ranking in retrospect. In fact, we could have done without the last week on the beaches, which wasn't unpleasant, but couldn't compete with the rest.
We loved most of the historical sites we visited, many of them being UNESCO World Heritage sites. With entrance fees ranging from about 20 $ to 30 $ for the major sites, they were expensive even by international standards. Nevertheless, we found the prices appropriate at least for Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, where whole ancient cities are spread out, taking a whole day of relaxed and enjoyable cycling to discover. Actually we would even have preferred to spend several days there, but the ticket is only valid for one. We also liked some smaller sites, such as Mihintale – where the first Buddhist missionary converted the Sri Lankan king as early as the 3rd century BC! – or Buduruvagala, a rather out-of-the-way rock carving of several huge Buddhas. The only place that we found completely overrated and overpriced was Sigiriya (see our separate blog post).
Nature & Beaches
"Oh, they are looking at a dandulena," some locals comment unsurprisedly when they pass us excitedly taking photos of a strange animal eating the flowers of a tree we haven't ever seen before either. The nature in Sri Lanka was exotic, omnipresent and overwhelming – in spite of the country being densely populated. Like all tourists, we also went to a national park to see elephants and unusual birds, which was stunning, but what intrigued us far more was the variety of plants and animals everywhere around us, even in the towns. A heaven for birdwatchers, undoubtedly.
The beaches however, much praised as they seemed, were less inviting than we had expected. Some were beautiful to look at with fine white sand and coconut palms, but had too high waves for swimming (at least for us) and no snorkelling, others were small and crowded with sand of mixed quality.
Accommodation, food and transport
Compared to South-East Asia, accommodation was not particularly good value, but with around 20 € per night for an acceptable room still inexpensive. We did not book ahead and sometimes had to look at quite a few rooms to find something acceptable. We usually stayed in a private double room with bathroom and fan (half of the time only with cold water, which was fine as it was hot). For 30–40 € you will get a more tasteful room with air-con and hot water.
As there are many Tamil people living in Sri Lanka, we had expected to find a lot of good vegetarian South Indian food there. While local eateries were cheap they usually did not have many choices for vegetarians.
Most of the time we had Kotthu (fried bread with vegetables) or rice and vegetarian curry (rice was of a terrible quality more often than not). For breakfast we usually bought fruits, rather than having the quite expensive but sumptuous breakfast at the guesthouses.
Transport on the other hand was plentiful and incredibly cheap. The roads were not too bad, but for some reason everything remotely connected with public transport was quite time-consuming. We also took the famous slow train into the Hill country – which according to guidebooks and blogs is one of the absolute must-dos. Again, we feel we could have done without it. Atmospheric as the mountainous tea fields were, the train was just plainly overcrowded, because every tourist feels compelled to go on that train. There are only a few trains per day and the small amount of reserved seats is usually snatched up by tour operators weeks in advance.