The ‘Bit of Everything’ Itinerary: Trying to take in as much of Sri Lanka’s variety, in the most manageable route.

Sri Lanka has so much on offer for such a tiny island. A verifiable tropical paradise, it is surrounded on all sides by stunning palm-fringed beaches and clear blue seas. If you can tear yourself inland long enough Sri Lanka is green with rich rainforest, lush mountains and huge, ancient man-made lakes. Peppered throughout with the ruins of the kingdoms that inhabited them.

For you fauna fans, Sri Lanka is practically bursting with all creatures great and small. It is the best place in the world to see the Asian elephant in the wild and probably the best place to see wild leopards as well. It has the highest density of amphibians on the planet, 435 species of bird, 250 species of butterfly and 208 species of reptile, half of which are found nowhere else. The seas are so crowded with tropical fish, dolphins and massive whales that every night turtles drag themselves ashore just to get some peace and quiet…and to lay eggs. You’ll be sick of nature by the end of your trip.

You could happily spend months exploring all that this little gem has to offer, but sadly many of us have jobs and lives. So here is a handy guide to how to get the best out of Sri Lanka if you only have 3 weeks to do so. Public transport is good where you can find it, but rail access is limited to a few spidery arms of track creeping out of Colombo and road infrastructure is somewhat chaotic. So where possible I’ve also included the all important ‘How‘ to get from A to B, if of course, you haven’t hired a driver for your trip.

NOTE
With two monsoon seasons, Sri Lanka truly is a year round destination, you just have to be aware of which side of the island to visit at which time of the year. Although there’s never a perfect time to visit the whole island, just keep in mind that ‘monsoon’ isn’t as horrific as it sounds, and usually just means an hour of heavy downpour on an otherwise gloriously sunny day. As a brief guide, here are best times for different areas:

SOUTH-WEST DRIEST MONTHS – December to April (June, July and August tend to be good too)

NORTH-EAST DRIEST MONTHS – February to September

THE ELEPHANT GATHERING – July to November

TURTLE EGG LAYING – Year round but peak season is roughly December to July

  1. Colombo

  2. Habarana and The Cultural Triangle

  3. Uppuveli and Nilaveli
  4. Kandy to Ella Train

  5. Ella

  6. Yala National Park

  7. Tangalle

  8. Mirissa and Galle

Sri Lanka 3 weeks

Day 1: Colombo

For most international travellers, this is the gateway through which you will enter and exit Sri Lanka. Colombo is by no means a highlight of the country but well worth a day’s exploration while you’re in the area. Shuffle around the chaotic Pettah Bazaar if you land early enough, and spend your evening watching the sun plunge into the Indian Ocean from the legendary Galle Face Hotel. This luxurious colonial landmark may look leagues out of the average backpackers budget, but is actually no where near as pricey as it seems. Treat yourself to some beer battered prawns and a daiquiri. Live a little.

Sri Lanka Itinerary Galle Face Hotel

The Galle Face Hotel

If you’ve not lived too much, catch the 6:05am train from Colombo Fort to Batticaloa, and get off in Habarana at 11:16am. The 1st class carriages do get booked up far in advance, but 2nd class never sells out and frankly is far better than any commuter train into London. A ticket will set you back about $2, so dig deep.

Days 2-4: Habarana and the Cultural Triangle

Despite the deceptively bold font used on the map in my Lonely Planet, Habarana is little more than a dusty strip of town inhabited by loitering tuk tuk drivers offering tours and safaris to any passing white folks. The train station itself is a crumbling ticket office a few miles outside this bustling metropolis. However, Habarana’s central location makes it a great place to base yourself whilst visiting this part of the island.

The Cultural Triangle is home to the ruins of the great ancient Sinhalese capitals. In their 12th century heyday these powerful kings built magnificent jungle fortresses, lavish palaces and devotions of all shapes and sizes to their beloved Buddha. They fought off invasions from mighty Indian rulers and completed spectacular architectural feats. But the reason they prospered so well in a climate so unsuited to mass agriculture was due to the genius of kings that came centuries before them.

Whilst most of Europe was running around in forests with paint on their faces, the Sinhalese were building a system of enormous reservoirs, known locally as ‘tanks’, to ensure that the huge quantities of rain that drenched the country during monsoon season could be used throughout the year. This meant that rice and other crops could be grown in even the driest of months and Sri Lanka could soon comfortably support a population density far greater than it’s similarly tropical neighbours.

Today, this ancient irrigation system is still keeping the locals Minneriya Baby Elephantfed. It also means that at certain times of year this part of the country holds host to the largest gathering of elephants in the world. From July to November, as the dry season slowly scorches Northern Sri Lanka’s natural lakes and rivers, elephants march through fields, roads and villages as far away as Trincomalee for the biggest pachyderm pool party of the year. And they never forget their trunks.

The elephants migrate from tank to tank as they recede and dry up at different paces, but the bigger tanks always draw the bigger numbers. The 18.9 kmMinneriya Tank (which was built over 1700 years ago) in Minneriya National Park is the best place to see large numbers of the animals. In peak season up to 300 elephants of all ages can be seen in one day. Unfortunately lots of elephants means lots of tourists, and towards the end of the year it can seem like there’s just as many jeeps as jumbos, but a good driver should manage to get you away from the wrong herds and into the company of the right ones.

You can comfortably see all the major sights around here in 2 full days. You’ll need to hire a driver which should cost about 6000 rupees per car per day (you’ll need a jeep for the national park) without entry fees. Logistically, the following schedule is a good way to set our your days, in either order:

Day A

Head to the ruined ancient capital of Polonnaruwa in the morning. Whilst certainly interesting, this is definitely the weakest of the sights, and if you’ve ever visited Angkor Wat or Bagan in Myanmar then you’re likely to be quite underwhelmed. If you do go make sure you take socks with you. Shoes are forbidden within most of the religious structures and the granite stones hold the Sri Lankan heat like a poptart.

Sri Lanka Itinerary Pollonuruha

Get your driver to take you for lunch somewhere and head to Minneriya National Park for no earlier than 2:30/3pm. The elephants stick to the shade of the forest during the hottest hours of the day and only really emerge into the open in the late afternoon. Take a good camera and any zoom lenses you own. You’ll regret it if you’re stuck with nothing more than an iPhone.

Minneriya Elephants Gathering

Minneriya National Park

Day B
Sri Lanka Itinerary Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya

Sigiriya Rock is the enormous hardened magma plug of a long eroded volcano, jutting arrogantly out of the forested landscape like a giant fist. At 200m high it dominates the skyline for miles around, and throughout history has been a monastery, a palace and an intimidatingly impenetrable fortress. The 1200 steps to its peak were once only accessible through the mouth of a giant lion intricately carved into the rock. Which gives Sigiriya its alternate name, ‘Lion Rock’. Sadly only the lion’s two huge paws remain today, but they’re impressive enough to paint a vivid picture of how magnificent the completed structure must have looked.

At the foot of the rock, beautifully landscaped gardens with sophisticated water features and air cooling systems display the brilliance of early Sri Lanka architects. And for those of you not so easily impressed by ancient engineering, there’s a bunch of women with their tits out painted on the walls. So something for everybody.

Sri Lanka Itinerary Lion Rock

The ‘Lion Rock’ Entrance

For an entrance fee of about $30 you can see both the gardens and the tits up close. It also allows you to climb the windy and winding stairs all the way to the ruined palace at the summit and all the spectacular views that come with it. However, for a tenth of the cost, you can climb nearby Pidurangala Rock, which has similar carvings, frescos and structures, better views (you can see Sigiriya from the top), and far fewer tourists swarming in front of them. Sigiriya itself, is admittedly more impressive, but not ten times more impressive. If you have the energy and time, climb both. But if costly entrance fees and crowds are something you’re trying to avoid, choose Pidurangala.

When it comes to lunch time make the most of it, because you have another huge, sun-baked climb coming up this afternoon. If you’re willing to splash out, head to the Heritance Kandalama Hotel, a certifiable masterpiece built into the mountain and swamped by the jungle. The hotel was designed by Sri Lanka’s greatest modern architect, Geoffrey Bawa, who also designed the Sri Lankan parliament. If budget is more of an issue, maybe just grab a coffee here and fill your tummies at a local curry joint.

Sri Lanka Itinerary Heritance Kandalama

Heritance Kandalama Hotel

Rested, fed and watered, head to Dambulla Caves. You may well feel like you’re sick of buddhas by now, but these 2000 year old declarations of religious fervour are very much worth the scorching climb.

dambulla-cave-temple-sri-lanka

Dambulla Cave Temple

King Valagamba initially converted the caves into a temple way back in the 1st century BC as a thanks to the refuge he sought here whilst exiled by South Indian usurpers. And over the centuries they’ve been added to, gilded and painted in by dozens of buddha-loving monarchs that followed. There are 153 buddha statues in total, 3 kings and 4 gods residing within the 5 caves. Start at the cave furthest away from the entrance and work your way back, that way they’ll get more impressive as you go along.

Where to stay?

Because you’ll be travelling everywhere by car, immediate location isn’t hugely important in the Cultural Triangle. Which is a great excuse to stay somewhere very much away from civilisation and bask in Sri Lanka’s abundant nature. There are several eco hotel and luxury treehouse type options in the area but most of these are real wallet-lighteners.

An exception to the rule is Galkadawala Forest Lodge, just a bumpy dirt track ride through the trees from Habarana. Galkadawala is an relaxing forest haven that is so chilled out it’s horizontal. It offers luxury without pretence, and at a fraction of the price of it’s contemporaries. Within walking distance of two large lakes (one is literally a stone’s throw from the lodge balconies…but don’t do this. Locals bathe there), the area is crawling with monkeys, birdlife, and even elephants. But most importantly, food here was some of the best, if not THE best we had in Sri Lanka, and was dished out onto our plates with a relentlessness that to an outside observer could be considered barbaric. At times I felt like I was being cultivated for fois gras.

Days 5-8: Uppuveli and Nilaveli

Hopping back on the same train line as you took to Habarana will take you all the way to Trincomalee, and the tranquil nearby beaches Uppuveli and Nilaveli.

These gorgeous stretches of sand lie on the newly opened Tamil frontier, that has only realistically become accessible for tourists since the civil war ended only 7 years ago. They were both popular tourist destinations before the civil war, but were decimated by the Tsunami in 2004, effectively wiping what tourist infrastructure there was literally off the map.

Nilaveli beach

Nilaveli beach

Now both beach villages are slowly, but certainly surely, becoming tourist meccas once more. Currently, both are still gloriously undeveloped in comparison the the south coast resorts. Uppuveli has more accommodation choices, a handful of restaurants along the beach all serving fantastic fresh seafood, and a few more in the small network off alleys back from the sea. The vibe is definitely in the camp of ‘backpacker’, with the most dominate presence being that of the very South East Asian inspired Aqua Inn. But hands down my pick of the pads are the gorgeous Silaa Cabanas, luxury huts at bargain prices hosted by the most heartbreakingly lovely couple you’re ever likely to meet. And amazing home cooked food to boot!

At the moment, it is at just the right level. The beaches are uncrowded and peaceful, the accommodation low key, no rush for the few palm-leaf-roofed sun loungers, cocktails and beers available from the odd bar if you want them, and 100% Sri Lankan relaxation. However, it won’t stay this way, so enjoy it now before the package tourists waddle along to complain about the local food and geckos.

A further 10 miles up the coast away from Trincomalee, Nilaveli has been a little slower with the constructions than Uppuveli. Nilaveli’s beach is bigger and cleaner, its sea is more crystal clear, and there is almost nobody else around to spoil the view. There are a smattering of guesthouses and homestays in the alleys off the beach, a couple of tastefully small hotels, and the odd shack selling blood sugar boosting provisions.

The only downside of this is that there are currently no restaurants if you’d like to eat on the beach, and no sun loungers on which to shelter from the blazing Sri Lankan sun. Although the vast land clearings behind the beach getting ready for development indicate it might not be this way for long.

Just off Nilaveli beach is the beautiful reef-fringed Pigeon Island. A snorkelling haven that is still covered in broken coral from the tsunami. The reef is making a great recovery however, and I got so burnt following reef sharks stalk around the shallows that I think my back actually developed crackling.

Day 9: The Kandy to Ella Train

Often described as the The World’s Most Scenic Railway Journey, the train from Kandy to Ella is itself a destination.

Sri Lanka Itinerary Kandy to Ella Train

Kandy to Ella Train (photo by Madoc Hill)

From Trincomalee, take the 5 hour bus to Kandy, or if you’d prefer a little comfort a private taxi shouldn’t cost too much. For most train journeys, a 2nd class ticket is more than adequate, but for such a spectacular ride I would always recommend booking ahead and reserving a seat in the observation carriage if you can. Which has huge cinema screen windows looking out over the misty tea plantations and stunning verdant hill country. This isn’t a fast train, so such lie back and enjoy the world pass you by to the clickedy-clack soundtrack of the Sri Lankan railways.

Many would list Kandy as a stop on your Sri Lankan itinerary. It’s a popular destination that I feel largely lies in it’s role as the second largest city in the country and the home an old tooth. However, if you’re spending time in the hill country (as this itinerary orders you to do) I’d choose Ella over Kandy any day.

Days 10-11: Ella

Before you head down to the beaches spend a leisurely day or two exploring Sri Lanka’s hill country. For some reason, Ella’s guesthouses seem to produce some of Sri Lanka’s best home-cooked food, so hiking up to Ella Rock, Little Adam’s Peak, or any of the area’s waterfalls, temples and viewpoints are great ways to burn off those calories. When you’re not working up an appetite, explore tea plantations, take amazing photographs and drink in the views through Ella Gap. On a clear night, you might even be able to see the soft glow of lighthouses over 100km away on the south coast.

Sri Lanka Itinerary Ella

View From Little Adam’s Peak

Day 12: Yala National Park

Yala is leopard country. In fact, it’s thought to have the highest concentration of leopards on the planet. This doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to see one though. Leopards are shy, silent and extremely well camouflaged creatures, and many people spend days in Yala without seeing so much as a spot. But, if you’re going to see a leopard in the wild, this is your best chance, and the animal’s rarity makes it all the more heart-stopping if you do catch sight of one. As well as leopards, Yala is home to sloth bears, crocodiles, monkeys, deer, water buffalo, 215 species of bird, mongooses (yes, that is the correct pluralisation) the elusive fishing cat and of course, more elephants.

leopard

Yala National Park is a huge expanse of land, most of which is off limits to visitors. Arugum Bay sits on the east side, and Tissamaharama sits on the west. Luckily, the entrance to Yala West (the main park) is at Tissa, which is only a bus ride away from Ella.

There has been no accommodation in the park since the tsunami in 2004. However there are some great safari camps and wilderness lodges around the road that runs into the park, and some cheaper options in nearby Tissamaharama.

Be warned that at the height of the annual drought, depending on how dry it has been that year, Yala usually closes to visitors. This usually falls in September and lasts for 4-6 weeks.

Days 13-15: Tangalle

Really, I could pick any couple of beach towns along the south coast here. There’s dozens of beautiful strips of coastline, many very similar but all slightly different. However, there’s nothing to stop you visiting them all. The bus service along the coastal road is cheap and continuous, and if you’ve got good enough bladder control for Sri Lankan roads then bike rental is also readily available. But you need a base, or more specifically for such a long stretch of coastline, two bases. And you could do much worse than Tangalle and Mirissa.

Sri Lanka Itinerary Tangalle Beach

Rough Seas in Tangalle

Tangalle is a relatively large town, but a few hundred yards to the east is the beautiful Marakolliya Beach, a golden stretch of sand pincered between the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean and the stillness of Rekawa lagoon. Along this strip of sand and palm trees lie a dozen or so collections of cabanas and hammocks that go for hotels in these parts. From here you can go and check out the Hummanaya Blowhole, allegedly the second largest in the world. If you throw a coconut in the hole right before it blows it will shoot out like a cannon ball, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t allowed and I’m totally not endorsing doing it.

In the other direction you have Rekawa Turtle Watch. A conservation project that aims to protect the thousands of sea turtles that come up onto Sri Lanka’s shore’s every night to lay their eggs. At peak season (March to July) up to 15 turtles a night can come up onto Rekawa beach to lay their eggs, in low season it may just be the one, or sometimes none at all.

Sri Lanka Itinerary Rekawa Turtle Hatchery

Baby Green Turtle heads out into the world from Rekawa Beach

The Turtle Watch volunteers and staff, many who are ex-poachers, patrol the beach looking for signs of turtles coming ashore whilst you wait off the beach at the visitor’s centre. Bring snacks, water and maybe a book, it could be a long wait. When they see a turtle, they will take you to see the mother first digging her egg chamber, then laying the eggs, before dragging her exhausted body back into the waves.

It’s an absolutely fascinating experience that sits very much in the ‘once in a lifetime’ category, and far more pleasant that the human equivalent. If no turtles are sighted by about 11pm, you are excused your 1000 rupee donation fee and sent home. But even if the turtles do let you down, the view of the bejeweled night sky from Rekawa’s unlit beach will not.

Days 16-20: Mirissa and Galle

Mirissa Beach

Mirissa Beach

Just an hour or two on a bus up the coast from Tangalle is the breezy beach town of Mirissa. The winding coastal road just a minute from the sand provides any amenities you may need, and the dusty tracks leading off it add to the great collection of restaurants provided by the guesthouses lining the beach.

The weather is fine, the happy hours are lengthy and not-quite-gentle waves are just right for both swimming and body boarding. Mirissa is the perfect spot to lay your sarong for a few days and forget that the daily grind is just a few days away. There’s even a bakery tuk-tuk that tootles up and down the road at sporadic intervals, twinkling Beethoven’s Für Elise as it passes like a carboholic’s ice cream van.

From Mirissa, you can head out on day trips to fellow beach towns Unawatuna and Weligama, or just grab a bike and search for your own. Mirissa is the biggest fishing port on the south coast, which means fantastic seafood, but the abundance of marine life (and more importantly, the plankton they feed on) in these waters probably also goes some way towards explaining why the coast here is so good for whale watching. In particular the biggest animal ever to flop about on earth, the Blue Whale. Between November and June is technically whale watching season, but it’s not uncommon to see them year round.

Just up the coast is the wonderfully preserved Dutch fort town of Galle. It’s expensive to stay in Galle, and although the old town is stunning, there’s not a huge deal to do here so a day trip will suffice. Wander the cobbled streets, drink lassis on the porches of creaky old mansions and just enjoy being in somewhere completely different to the rest of the country.

Galle Fort

Galle Fort Lighthouse

However, keep your eyes open and your pockets closed, particularly around the bus station, as pickpockets and scam artists are abound here. With no shame in sounded like a middle-class xenosceptic, trust nobody until you’re within the walls of the fort. Humour them, sure, string them along like when the accident claim people ring and you’re bored at work, just don’t actually hand over any money or believe a fucking word that comes out of anyone’s mouth.

Finally, when you’ve milked every last second you can out of the glorious south coast. Head up to Colombo on the express train from Weligama, ideally just in time for your flight home.

By Sam