Travelling around Sri Lanka: the highs and lows

Seeing as Sri Lanka is the one of the world’s most talked-about tourist destinations at the moment—Lonely Planet recently named it the number-one country in the world to visit in 2019—we arrived there full of excitement to explore it. We’d heard stories of an abundance of national parks, beautiful beaches, and fascinating pockets of history, so we had high hopes for the final two-and-a-bit weeks of our travels. 

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We’d planned a relatively hectic itinerary that did a loop around the bottom two-thirds of the island using a combination of taxis, trains, and buses to get around. For such a small country, you’d be amazed how complicated it is to get from place to place. In particular, the country has very underdeveloped road infrastructure, which quadruples most average journey times.

From the airport to Sigiriya: our first taste of Sri Lanka’s underdeveloped transport infrastructure

Our first journey on the island set the tone for the transport fun to come in the next few weeks. We wanted to get 90 miles from the airport on the west coast to Sigiriya, and seeing as there was no direct train, the only options we had were a bus or a private car. We did a bit of research and discovered a direct bus that would take between three and four hours. All we’d need to do was get a local equivalent of Uber to drop us at the bus station, then we’d be all set for a relatively long, but cheap, journey. Simples, right? If only!

The driver that picked us up—in what can only be described as a motorbike with a tiny car shell around it—insisted that the bus route we’d found didn’t actually exist and that, in fact, it would be his pleasure to drive us to Sigiriya or a bus station an hour away that would take us there. After some negotiating, we agreed for him to take us to the bus station he’d talked about. When we got there, he kindly waited with us at the bus stop to make sure we got on the right one, but after three full—we’re talking busier than a rush-hour tube—buses went past, we reluctantly asked him to drive us a further three hours to our destination.

The journey ended up costing us about 6,000 rupee, which was much cheaper than if we’d taken a private taxi in the first place, but also much more than the bus we’d planned (about 400 rupee total). And while we didn’t trust our driver in the first place (it’s hard to know if someone is being genuine or trying to get more money out of you), he turned out to be a lovely chap. Despite languages difficulties between us, we had a great chat about cricket (big plus for me) and his life in Sri Lanka. He even stopped halfway on the journey, bought us coconuts, and showed us how to drink and eat them the local way; using a sharp slice of the top of the coconut to scoop the raw coconut once you’d drunk the milk. 

Our first driver
Amazing first meal

 

Pidurangala: an incredible first stop

Anyway, we arrived in Sigiriya and had an amazing meal in a random roadside restaurant. We were brought nine different Sri Lankan curry dishes (see above), each of which was a different vegetable spiced in a slightly different way. We said to each other that if the food was like this for the next two weeks, we’d be two very happy people. Sadly, it wasn’t…but we’ll get onto that. We spent a day in this area and wished we could have stayed longer. Sigiriya Rock is a beautiful sight, and one which we saw in its finest light by climbing up Pidurangala Rock (the rock next door) for sunrise. The area surrounding the rocks felt very wild, with locals warning us not to stay out after sunset in case you got trampled on by the elephants that roam at nightfall, and this really added to the area for us: It felt like you’d see wildlife you’d never seen around every corner, even from the balcony of our homestay as you can see in the pictures below (see all pictures from travelling around Sri Lanka here

 

Kandy: some nice parts, but too busy, and we experienced food poisoning for the first and only time on our trip

From here, we took a surprisingly stress-free bus to Kandy—Sri Lanka’s second largest city and the northern gateway to the hill country. The less said about this part of our stay, the better: We found it too busy, rather unexciting (I mean, why all the fuss about a sacred tooth that you can’t really even see?), and we both got food poisoning on our second night, which wasn’t the most enjoyable experience considering we were taking the six-hour train from Kandy to Ella the next day. We did enjoy our trip to a local tea factory and the botanical gardens, but that’s about it.

Train from Kandy to Ella: magical, spectacular, but spoilt by getting the Kandy Craps

It was a shame that we got food poisoning when we did—the first of our travels, we must add—as we’d been really looking forward to the train journey. It’s something we’d heard a lot of great things about, with many other tourists describing the winding journey through Sri Lanka’s verdant, tea-clad hill country as one of the best train journeys in the world. Sadly for us, the first half of it was spent sharing a seat with a local woman while desperately hoping last night’s bout of food poisoning wasn’t going to return on this very crowded train. Luckily it didn’t, and by the second half of the adventure we felt fit enough to sit in the open-door of the train, dangling our legs outside and soaking up the incredible views. 

 

Ella: so much beautiful countryside to explore

We then spent two days in Ella and loved exploring this part of Sri Lanka. We weren’t the luckiest with the weather—grey skies, fog, and rain were on the menu for most of the time—but we had a great time finding and exploring the Nine Arch Bridge (designed by the British in the early 1900s) and Little Adam’s Peak regardless. The former was a popular spot with locals and tourists alike, but the view of this man-made, colonial railway bridge in the middle of a jungle and tea plantation certainly was a sight to behold. Little Adam’s Peak—named after the much larger Adam’s Peak further east—was a short, easy, but rewarding hike with spectacular views of the valleys around Ella from the top.

Udawalawe: great elephant safari, but very little else

A fun bus ride later—not busy this time, but bombing downhill around hairpin bends for an hour—we aimed to catch another bus to take us to Udawalawe, but all the buses were full, or so we were told, so we had to fork out for a taxi instead. This time the car had no seat belts and the driver overtook anything and everything in sight, so we couldn’t wait to get out of the car. Definitely a journey to forget. Udawalawe town was also a place to forget: There were very few places to eat out and there was very little to do, bar the safari, which was the reason we chose to go here.

We did a safari on our first morning, and I’m not sure if we were lucky or if it happens to everyone, but we saw twenty-plus elephants in the first hour, which was a pretty spectacular sight. Udawalawe is known for its large, 500-plus wild Asian elephant population, and we certainly weren’t disappointed. We also managed to negotiate a very reasonable price for a private safari with the kind owner of our homestay, so the main cost we had to pay was the national park entrance fee. This was set at $15 per foreign adult (compared to $0.84 per local adult), plus an $8 service charge, a small vehicle fee, and tax. While these prices aren’t terrible, it did leave us wondering what would happen if we charged foreigners 15 times the price to enter somewhere like London zoo…

 

Bundala and Yala: more national parks to explore

From Udawalawe, our extremely kind and friendly homestay owner gave us a low rate for a lift to our next destination on the south coast: Bundala National Park. He even stopped halfway, got out the car, and told me to drive a bit; partly so I could say I’d driven in Sri Lanka, and partly because he wanted to take a video for his friends of me driving his car! Here, we’d planned to stay for two nights over Christmas in an Airbnb overlooking one of the national park’s bird-filled lagoons. However, a series of laughable/woeful errors (I’ll spare you the details) from our host meant that we could only stay for one night, so we ended up having a shorter trip here than planned. When we accepted that our host was beyond useless, we changed our plans to catch the bus on Christmas Day rather than Boxing Day to our next destination, while still doing a safari around a different national park, Yala, early in the morning on Christmas.

This was a totally different safari experience to the one we did at Udawalawe: While we saw an abundance of wildlife, particularly elephants, at Udawalawe, we had to be much more patient at Yala to find a leopard, which is the predominant reason why everyone flocks to Sri Lanka’s most popular national park. After an uneventful first hour where we didn’t even see a peacock (if you’ve been to Sri Lanka you’ll understand that these beautiful birds are everywhere), our driver spotted a leopard sunbathing on a rock in the distance. While we couldn’t get too close, both of us agreed that seeing a leopard in the wild was a pretty majestic sight. Aside from a motionless crocodile and some bathing water buffalo, that was all we saw in Yala. But this didn’t matter: A leopard is what we’d come to see, and see one we did! Ironically, we saw way more wildlife on the way home from the park, including a huge wild elephant, a pair of pelicans, and some more rambunctious monkeys. 

 

Mirissa: a relaxing and beautiful beach town that gets how to treat tourists

After our safari, we took a three-hour bus ride along the south coast to beach town of Mirissa. Lauren, pretty fed up of bad road safety by this point, said this was one of the worst/scariest bus rides she’d ever been on. Fun times on Christmas! But hey, we made it safely. With the highs and lows of the last few days behind us, we were very ready to relax on the beach with our books for the next few days. And that’s exactly what we did. In fact, we loved the daily rhythm of this part of our trip so much—wake up, snorkel with sea turtles and amazing fish, drink fresh coconut, read on beach, lunch, read on beach, watch sunset—that we decided to spend the rest of our time in Sri Lanka here. So, the final five days of our trip were spent soaking up the sun, beach, and turtles, and we left Sri Lanka and headed back to London (!!!) as two very relaxed and happy people.

 

Travelling around Sri Lanka: our final thoughts

While we arguably experienced some of the greatest lows of our trip on the island—from food poisoning to feeling unwelcome and ripped off at times—we also had some amazing experiences. After reflecting on this part of our trip, we concluded that Sri Lanka is a country that’s still relatively immature when it comes to tourism and that, for backpackers, this meant there were more highs and lows than in other more mature tourist destinations, such as Vietnam. We have no doubt whatsoever that if you went to this beautiful island with a larger budget, you’d likely cut out the lows we experienced and have an even more incredible time.

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