I got an assignment: go, check out Sri Lanka. Literally. Just like that. It got me excited as this was a mysterious country for me. All I knew about Sri Lanka was that it had superb tea, wild elephants and great surfing.
The country is not a tourist hub. Not yet. But it seems like during the next decade this might seriously change. Surfers are already here, as the coastline has some amazing breaks. The beaches lure with white sand and turquoise water, the weather is hot and sunny. Sri Lanka is a perfect place for relaxing holidays but in fact, the country offers much more
Travelling around Sri Lanka can be rough. At least that’s how I experienced it. Moving between regions and cities is done in a few different ways, so while you have the option of using national and private buses, trains, private cabs or tuk tuks, the one you choose, will be the experience that you get. Read: you get what you pay for.
My trip was intense and packed with location scouting but even despite that, I had a chance to see a lovely country in which good people struggle to make a living. Of course, you get a lot of well-off people too, self-made or through inheritance, but in general, the country is poor and that is what comes through. Sri Lanka has no heavy industry and exports mainly tea (so delicious!), rubber and clothing, and the mainstream tourism has not found its way here yet, so there’s no real boost for the economy.
Go there while it’s off-the-beaten-track!
Because of the underdeveloped train system, parts of Sri Lanka remain unspoilt and it’s dubious that they will ever witness a bigger degree of development. Trains are the cheapest and the least comfortable way to travel the country, so make sure you book your ticket ahead. Otherwise, stand and bear the journey with joy. The tourist hubs are defined by the railway system. Galle, Ella, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and so on, are the destinations where you’ll find the most developed tourist infrastructure.
The great thing is that these places are really worth seeing and sometimes the train ride is a destination itself. One of the most praised train rides is the one between Colombo and Kandy. It’s a relatively short route, taking you through hills and tea plantations with the train often rolling its way on the side of a mountain.
While you’re sitting in a slow-moving carriage (don’t expect more speed then 50 km/h), beautiful vistas unfold and you often have the world at your feet. Three hours later you arrive in Kandy, but if you thought the views along the way were anything special, continue to Nuwara Eliya. This is the route where the views are at its best and the town of your destination is a very unique place in Sri Lanka.
I ended up in Nuwara Eliya because when I choosing where to go next, I liked the place’s name. Not the best way to plan your travels but on the way there, I met a fellow traveler with a guidebook about Sri Lanka, which reminded me how I liked traveling with a guidebook! It really does make a difference but I often forget to get one. This turns into a trial and error system with everything tested on my own skin.
Nuwara Eliya is definitely a must-see in Sri Lanka. The town used to be a cradle for English people (it’s the coldest place in Sri Lanka) who created their own enclave among great tea plantations. The place was founded in 1846, it hosts a racecourse (so strange to see it there!) and an artificial lake with swan boats – go figure. Many colonial buildings remain intact, such as the Queen’s Cottage, General’s House, Grand Hotel, and Town Post Office, and the local government is engaged into preserving them, so they’re usually restored and impressive.
Another town in Sri Lanka still remembering past eras is Fort Galle. Galle is actually an ancient seaport that functioned as Sri Lanka’s main gateway for centuries and it was known for spice export already around 1400 BC. In the XVI century, Portuguese settlers built a fort called Santa Cruz de Gale but not long after that they had to surrender it to the Dutch East India Company.
The Dutch established the present fort in the year 1663. They built a fortified wall, using solid granite, and three bastions, known as “Sun”, “Moon” and “Star”, which you can still visit today, thanks to the English invaders who gained control over Galle in 1796. They preserved the fort unchanged and made it the administrative centre of the district – a function, which Fort Galle holds until this very day.
Additionally, Fort Galle and the surrounding area attract many expatriates, who have been happily settling here in the past decade. So, if you’re looking for good food and a higher standard of life this is where you will find it. Of course, that also means higher prices.
With the English presence, many Sri Lankan families also rose to power, as trade was good business for both sides. This is something that you will notice when you travel around Galle, as the architecture around the place is very impressive. Colonial houses surrounded by lush nature, built close to the sea and inland, create a dreamy atmosphere and it’s easy to be swept away with wonder.
While local families built most of these buildings, and as such they have been inherited from generation to generation, today the houses are usually in disrepair, as the families have no longer the means to maintain such buildings. Also, the young generation prefers to move to Colombo and built life surrounded by modern comforts.
This is not surprising as the colonial houses don’t feature basic things, such as bathrooms or toilets, and you have to use privy. Having said all that, a significant change is transpiring now and rich local people as well as rich foreigners are buying the ruined Colonial beauties and renovate them to new levels of functionality and splendor.
Sri Lanka is developing fast, no doubt. My bet is that it’s just a matter of time when it’ll become a popular tourist destination. Already there are more and more backpackers traveling the country, so the infrastructure is being constantly developed and appropriated for the foreign tourist’s needs.
Surfers create a strong niche in the country but even they are unable to bring masses to places, such as Arugam Bay, which is way out of any real trail. The closest airport is about six hours by car and there is no train station going to the village, so visiting Arugam Bay is an adventure and that’s the kind of people that find their way here: adventurers.
However, if you’re really bent on getting here, you will be rewarded. It’s one of those places where you can get an idea what Thailand was twenty years ago and if you’re lucky enough, you might see wild elephants taking a shower in the bogs by the road.
When in Arugam Bay, I highly recommend that you rent a scooter (or take a tuk tuk) and discover the area, as the village is located in an amazing area. To the north, you get a lot of lakes with water lilies covering the surface, and in the south you will get wild peacocks proudly walking the rice fields by the roads. A sight to see without a doubt.
The landscape in this part of the country is very idyllic and I couldn’t stop thinking of the Garden of Eden. Beautiful, peaceful and abundant.
My first encounter with Sri Lanka was magical and there’s no other way to describe it. The beauty of the country is incredible and the countryside is quite clean. People are generally sweet and kind, even though you will get to see it all if you travel in a crowded train. Although my trip around the country was intense and very focused on assessing the country, I can say that I checked out Sri Lanka and I can’t wait to go back!
Have you got any tips about Sri Lanka? What’s the best thing to see or a total must-do? Share with me!