Well, another foray to a country we never intended going and so glad we did!
Welcome to Sri Lanka
Not only was this our first time to Sri Lanka (there will be more!) this was also our first foray into Airbnb (there has been more!).
Sri Lanka has a very new and relatively limited tourism industry. Due to years of turbulent politics and civil war, it was all but closed off to the outside world of travellers save for cricket – Sri Lanka’s other religion. A destination, due to either personal views or just an ethos of safe travelling was not on the agenda of the average traveller or tourist.
Sri Lanka, having cast aside its differences and somewhat tidied its political house, is moving on at a rapid pace. They have never been keener to start showing off their beautiful country and it’s more sophisticated and polished than you may think, at a very reasonable price!
This attitude is almost contagious; people just want to chat to you in the street. They are eager to impart some wonderful little gems about Sri Lanka you must know or see. They just seem very happy to have you there and are always keen to chat about the cricket.
Where else would you start in Sri Lanka?
Our first night in Sri Lanka was also our first Airbnb experience. After pouring over many profiles we both agreed on Colpetty House, close to Colombo’s city heart it was perfect for exploring Sri Lanka’s beautiful capital.
We stayed at Colpetty for two nights and could not have been happier with our choice. The room was modern, and spacious with en-suite, air-conditioning and very comfortable. The breakfast was amazing; we opted for the traditional Sri Lankan breakfast. Oh how we miss string hoppers for breakfast, we became addicted!
Our hosts were extremely helpful. Being so passionate about their country they were really happy we had no fixed itinerary and were open to their suggestions of what we should do and see in Sri Lanka. This turned out to be a fantastic blessing for the rest of our trip.
The Best of Colombo
Sri Lanka has a very strong Dutch influence including some damn good forts. And the Dutch do a good fort.
An area known simply as ‘Fort’ is the central area of the city named for the fort that once protected it. The beautiful promenade stretches around the seaward sides of the city and is being refurbished back to its old colonial glory. One of our favourite places in Fort is the Old Dutch Hospital. This beautiful old colonial building has been restored and now houses some of Colombo’s best restaurants, shops and spas.
Within the central courtyard area you will find a wonderful social atmosphere for alfresco dining or a casual drink. It also houses one of Sri Lanka’s most famous restaurants- The Ministry of Crab! The only reason you have for not visiting this restaurant while in Colombo is being allergic to Crab! And on this we are serious, so prepare to don the bib, hone your crab cracking skills and make sure you have a booking. It is very popular.
Galle Face Green-
Just south of Fort is a lovely stretch of lawn that continues along the waterfront. This is a very popular place for people to come and chill out, watch the sunset and grab a bite to eat. In the evening food stalls line The Green. Adjacent to Galle Face Green is the grand old Galle Face Hotel. This luxurious old waterfront hotel is also going through an extensive restoration and refurbishment. We went for a pool side lunch of; you guessed it – Rice & Curry and were very impressed. The food was beautiful, the atmosphere and service what you would expect from such a grand old hotel. Make a point of indulging in a meal or a sunset drink here. Its actually very reasonably priced. Word of advice, though; do not encourage the chipmunks! Very cute, but one becomes five and before you know it there everywhere – Not so cute!
When in Sri Lanka, drink tea. Cricket and tea are the two things Sri Lanka is best known for. Good thing we like tea (we are not so good on the cricket!). There are some really lovely spots for high tea; again we headed to the Old Dutch Hospital for this.
Markets – Colombo has an incredible maze of markets not far from the train station in the area of Pettah. It was so big we were not sure when we had moved from one market to the next. Worthwhile spending a few hours wondering around, just try not to get run over though, crazy drivers!
Finally, just go for a wander. It’s a lovely city with great gardens, buildings, food and museums.
Tips for Colombo
Tuk Tuk’s are a great cheap form of transport but save yourself any arguments and only get the metered Tuk Tuks and make sure they turn the meter on. It is also worth having a fair idea the direction you are going so you don’t end up doing a long loop. In general the tuk tuk drivers were excellent, we only struck one who tried to dupe us.
People will want to speak with you and even have their photo taken with you. They are genuinely friendly! For those who have become a little too hardened by the hustlers and the scammers of the world, you do have to change your mindset and relax your guard just a little in Sri Lanka. Still be careful but 9 times out of 10 they just want to chat or say Hi. We only found one place in Sri Lanka where we had cause for concern and that was Kandy. More on that later…
Trains, Trains, Trains
OK, so this is where Mark turns from reasonable human being to crazy train spotter dude. Trains! Yep, he kept that well hidden. I am getting used to it now though. Mark does not just get excited about going on the train he studies the time tables obsessively to make sure we are getting the best train at the best time… Yes, I just tuned out too!
Unfortunately, I must give credit where due. When in Sri Lanka, the third thing you must do other than drink tea and talk enthusiastically about cricket is travel by train. Other than it being the best way to get around the country it is also a lovely experience, in a Faulty Towers kind of way. Train travel is very popular and the trains become very crowded so it’s best to book a ticket in advance.
While the trains are very old you can still book three different classes of travel 1st, 2nd & 3rd and some trains have sleeping cars. Go for first class. It is very cheap and air-conditioned. You can select your seat in advance guaranteeing a window seat. Marks obsessive train research suggests that on the way to Kandy you must sit on the right side of the train for the best views of the tea plantations and country side. This rule applies when the seats are facing the front of the train. Ours were not! The carriage was obviously turned around along with the seat numbers so we were travelling backwards. The old switcheroo! Thankfully the train was not full.
There is also a complimentary service serving Short Eats and of course tea!
At Colombo station when buying tickets or waiting for your train there are a number of deaf and/or mute people wandering around offering assistance to foreigners. They will provide you with their credentials to show they are part of the deaf association and will gesture for a donation. They are not begging, this is their work. Catching public transport in Sri Lanka is not always straight forward so we would recommend accepting their assistance and donate because they offer a great service.
And don’t stress if your train is late. It more than likely will be.
The Hill Country- Welcome to Kandy
Kandy train station is quite quaint. At the entrance you will find more than enough tuk tuk drivers, be aware though, the metered tuk tuk had not really caught on in Kandy when we were there, so you will have to negotiate a price. Make sure you do this before you accept the ride. Being in the highlands Kandy is noticeably cooler than Colombo, even cold at times but very picturesque. The city is also a lot bigger and busier than we envisaged. The big highlights here are the Temple of the Sacred Tooth and the lake.
We stayed at The Clove Garden up in the hills of Kandy. Set in beautiful gardens against the backdrop of the mountains, our hosts Chalani & Priyan have two homes offering two levels of accommodation. The Clove Garden was the cheaper of the two at $39 US/night for a double room with en suite and breakfast. The house was large, bright and airy and they greeted us with tea and cake on arrival! Chalani & Priyan were such lovely hosts. Again, we had no plans so they gave us suggestions of what to do, helped arrange ongoing travel for us and were always available. We were feeling thankful that we had opted to try Airbnb, like our hosts in Colombo, Anu & Romesh they had the kind of advice and recommendations of drivers, places to eat and visit… that you just would not get through a hotel.
On Priyan’s advice we headed to the botanical gardens. This is something we probably wouldn’t have done ourselves but glad we did. Established by the English, these well maintained gardens are worth spending an afternoon exploring. And of course you can stop for tea at the restaurant set on the main lawn in the middle of the gardens.
Let’s get down to the serious business of food. You must stop at the Kandy Muslim Hotel for a meal. This was possibly the best value meal we had in Sri Lanka and the one Mark still raves about. For approx. $5 we both ate an enormous plate of rice and curry, Naan bread and drinks. And we are talking really good quality rice & curry!
If you feel like a refreshing ale or a glass of wine after a long walk and big lunch, note that Kandy’s liquor licencing does not allow the sale of alcohol (unless you are the guest of a licensed hotel) before 5pm.
A walk around the lake which should have been a nice way to spend the afternoon turned into a game of cat and mouse and the first warning signs that you need to have your guard up in Kandy. Thanks to Marks finely tuned Detective skills (30 years of chasing bad guys) he became aware that we were being ‘tailed’ and the game of cat of mouse ensued. We knew he was following us, so we stopped. He became aware that we knew he was following us, so he stopped. We changed direction. So did he. We both stopped. We caught him looking for us. He caught us looking for him. We hid behind a tree. He pretended he was looking at the temple. We then realised (well actually Mark did) it had been the friendly policeman who had bailed us up for a chat earlier that had picked us out as potential targets. We ended up leaving the lake as fast as our legs could carry us in between nervous laughs.
We returned to the lake area at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth later that night for the daily ceremony of the Sacred Tooth. After the ceremony we went to get a Tuk Tuk home and were suddenly surrounded by a group of men who appeared from the darkness. Needless to say we got out of there very quickly. Moral of the story; be careful in Kandy.
The Road To Uda Walawe – Tea & Elephants
From Kandy we decided we wanted to head to Uda Walawe National Park. Uda Walawe offers more than just elephants, it offers lots of elephants!
A big trip if you are counting on public transport. Thanks to Chalani & Priyan at The Clove Garden, we secured a very reliable driver for two days to take us from The Hill Country to Uda Walawe and through all the way to Ahangama on the south west coast.
We left Kandy and wove our way through beautiful country side and mist covered tea plantations. There are waterfalls to stop at along the way as well as plenty of tea outlets and tea factories worth stopping for a quick tour. And of course a pot of tea!
We decided to bypass the usual tourist stop of Ella and stopped for our first night on the road at Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya is more akin to an English country town, dotted with beautiful old colonial homes and hotels, a legacy of the English and Scottish who pioneered the tea industry in Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya was favoured by the English as a holiday destination as the cool climate of the hill country was a reprieve from the heat and humidity of the low land areas.
Thanks again to Romesh & Anu from Colpetty House in Colombo we were fortunate to stay at the famous Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, as guests on their membership. This is Sri Lanka’s oldest golf club, dating back to the late 1800’s. The club epitomises old colonial charm with sweeping verandas around the old club house overlooking the manicured greens, a beautiful spot to sit for tea. Aged timber lines the member’s bar with open fire places and richly upholstered lounges.
This was a special experience for us for many reasons. When you stay at Nuwara Eliya Golf Club you will find comfortable rooms and all the charm exuded by a club steeped in English tradition. In saying that, remember Sri Lanka has just emerged from war and probably a decline in the affluence required to maintain the sophistication of other world renowned clubs. Expect the service to be very courteous, extremely friendly and respectful and with the staff dressed in traditional Sri Lankan service uniforms, quite old world. Be prepared to sit back and relax because the service will definitely not be fast and may even be a little quirky at times but this is part of the charm, it’s as if the staff have been lost in time. This was one of the most delightful evenings we had in Sri Lanka.
On arrival at the bar the staff lit the open fire place for us and served pre dinner drinks while dutifully maintaining the fire. Our head waiter (who reminded us of a more personable Sri Lankan version of Lurch from the Adams Family) bought the menu, we asked if we could have the rice & curry on the menu. He informed us that no, they did not have rice & curry but he could have the kitchen make us a curry, would we like chicken with it? And would we like rice with that. Yes, we too were confused but hey who’s going to argue.
Our waiter then proceeded to rearrange the main dining area so that we could dine comfortably right in front of the fire (it really was freezing). We had such an enjoyable evening, a delicious NOT rice & curry and the quirkiness of it all just further enamoured us to the place.
We left Nuwara Eliya early morning for the drive to Uda Walawe. There is some stunning scenery and a few nice stops on the way past Ella, with waterfalls and roadside stalls selling lovely fresh coconut water.
We arrived at Uda Wallawe at lunch time. Either early morning or afternoon is perfect for seeing the animals. Our driver arranged lunch, a Jeep and a driver to take us through the park. Within about 5 minutes of entering the park we were side by side with a large female elephant and calf.
This park will not disappoint, the number of wild elephants roaming free is really a sight. Stunning birdlife and country side this little safari delivered more than we expected. Next stop – Ahangama on the south west coast.
The South West Coast
We arrived at Ahangama House in the sleepy coast town of the same name after dark. Ahangama House also belonged to our new Airbnb friends from Colpetty house in Colombo. Mark had mentioned to them that we were celebrating an anniversary that day and could they recommend something special for dinner. After we settled in at their lovely retreat style house we were whisked away by Anu & Romesh for a romantic candle lit dinner they had arranged for us on a private beach in Ahangama. This was such an amazing gesture and outstanding hospitality from people we had only just met.
We spent the rest of our trip based in Ahangama doing day trips to all the best of the south coast. Our latest Airbnb was too well appointed and positioned to not take advantage. A large airy 4 bedroom home set in tropical gardens overlooking the rice fields complete with amazing staff to cook for us. All for $50/night.
We did a day trip to Unawatuna which is probably one of the more well know tourist beach destinations and not unlike Kuta in Bali, not really our cup of tea (excuse the pun). In its heyday it was a secret surfers paradise, but this small beachside town is now aimed at the tourist and is far removed from the nicer more low key beach spots dotted along the coast such as Ahangama & Marissa. Unawatuna has all the usual trappings of a tourist destination, hawkers combing the beach selling cheap souvenirs, backpacker bars, western style restaurants, noisy water sports and obnoxious tourists.
Galle- Cricket Anyone? Or Walk the Wall of Galle.
A trip to Galle is as important as talking cricket and drinking tea. Galle is after all home to the famous Galle Cricket Stadium.
Galle is another testimony to the diversity Sri Lanka offers. Mostly made up of the enormous 16th century Dutch Fort, now this is an impressive representation of Dutch Fort building. Once you enter the walls of the fort you find yourself in a colonial city of narrow cobblestone streets, old churches, museums and stone houses. A city inside a city. The old city now has a wonderful arts influence with small galleries popping up everywhere and some wonderful roof top cafes offering a stunning view of this old city.
Highlights of Sri Lanka
The People, Diversity of the landscapes and climates, Amazing food (especially if you love curry), Hoppers and String Hoppers for breakfast!, Beautiful Beaches, The History.
Things to Consider
Certain conveniences, such as you would normally be able to purchase at a 7 Eleven, may not be available outside of the major cities.
Women should be mindful when travelling alone, especially on public transport.
While the majority of the country has a tropical climate, it can get very, very cold up in the hill country. We were a little unprepared for this.
A Special Note
A big thank you goes to Romesh & Anu from Colpetty House in Colombo and Ahangama House on the south west coast. If we had not met this delightful couple, our experience of Sri Lanka would not have been so special.
Feature image by Thomas Keller used under Creative Commons Licence