Sri Lanka has been on my “bucket list” for a long time and yet I am glad that I experienced it so much more extensively with this round trip than with my original idea of an Ayurveda holiday.
On February 3, 2022, after a pleasant overnight flight with Emirates and a corresponding short stopover at the impressively designed Dubai DXB Airport, we landed in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in the morning local time.
Immigration worked quickly and all fellow travelers seemed to be well prepared. This means that in February, entry required the local ETA visa, local Covid insurance and a PCR test for vaccinated people, plus the corresponding electronic health authorization, in which all information and documents on the vaccination and test status had been uploaded electronically. We were able to prepare all of this well from Germany, even if the local websites seemed a bit slow and outdated.
Day 1: Colombo City Tour & a first sunset
At the airport we were met by our first “driver guide” Rohan in his Honda, a simple model that didn’t seem ideal for a week’s tour of the island, so we changed vehicles and drivers on the same day.
By the way, the whole system of driver guides works by word of mouth and any hotel or agency can provide them. It’s mostly freelancers who bring in their own vehicle and their personal language pack. With only 30% of the population speaking English, this is important to clarify and ideally try.
The local partner of our agency “Travel to Nature”, “Antiquity” was very accommodating here and so a more pleasant, newer hybrid vehicle was available the next day and our new driver had a sense of humour.
Therefore a short digression on driving in Sri Lanka. In fact, the main means of transport recommended to tourists is to take a driver or travel parts of the country by train, which can only be booked through tourist agencies. The buses are numerous and run at high speed, but unfortunately cannot be planned at all.
Within a few days and with the appropriate local experience you can then switch to tuk tuks (the locals call them the Indian three wheelers) or take a scooter or motorbike. In Colombo, most of the tuk tuks are a meter long, so you don’t have to negotiate here, but everywhere else you do.
Back to the trip, around noon we arrived at the traditional, colonial Galle Face Hotel in Colombo for the first time. There they explained to us at check-in the respective music noise pollution of the room category we booked, on the one hand there was music until about 11 p.m. and on the other until 1 a.m. Accordingly, with a 4.5 hour time difference, we chose the quieter side for this stay and then the other, picturesque side with a sea view when we returned at the end of the trip. And indeed, in Colombo people party with good music until the middle of the night.
Our first day in Sri Lanka was marked by the celebration of the annual Independence Day from British rule the next day, February 4th. This meant, above all, that you could see flags everywhere, some roads had been changed and the presence of heavily armed young military men, who, however, politely let us walk past everywhere.
Today, a few weeks later, things are different, because the country is currently being shaped by a severe economic crisis and is almost insolvent. The omicron variant of the corona virus, the expiry of corona aid, high inflation and rising interest rates had already clouded the economy before the Russian war against Ukraine began.
We spent the afternoon with a walk, a stop at the hipster café Kumbuk and a tuk tuk ride to a few of the central sights, Independence Square , the impressive Gangaramaya Temple and one or the other colonial-looking government building, always close to a cricket ground, from small and played big. A skilled tuk tuk driver brought us back in time for sunset to enjoy on the Galle Face Hotel’s checkerboard terrace.
In the dark we dared to go to Galle Face Green again , a rather dry stretch of green where one or the other food stand offered curries, crab cakes and other delicacies, a good idea since it was mainly the locals who came there.
Day 2: The Sacred Rock of Sigiriya, Coconut and Eco-Resort Experience
Our tour into the country started the next morning and with it the not so comfortable getting up early for us. We were treated to a fantastic breakfast at the Galle Face Hotel, where we were able to try the famous Egg Hopper for the first time, a fried egg in a thin, not too sweet pancake batter. Delicious!
Our witty driver guide Sheldon made getting up early easier and soon granted us a refreshing roadside coconut break. The coconut in any form is one of the main ingredients in Sri Lankan cuisine and makes the curries and co. particularly delicious here.
Today’s destination was the holy rock Sigiriya , up to there we were made familiar with the traffic, which is also very active on Sundays and public holidays. For about 4-5 hours we passed jungle forests on the roadside, mango trees and rice fields. This is a good time to mention that Sri Lanka introduced organic farming without pesticides by decree in 2021, which aggravated the country’s problems due to the initial crop failure. And there have been many of them since 2020 due to the loss of tourism. Due to the country’s status as a low-risk area, deserved by a 70% vaccination rate and low incidences, tourist utilization improved noticeably in February, but some hotels and restaurants remained closed.
Sigiriya Archaeological Park was worth the trip as was the sensational Jetwing Vil Uyana Eco-Resort . First to Sigiriya. Here you will find amazing things, from colorful, finely painted rock carvings to millennia-old irrigation systems that provided the large sacred area with water and decorative elements.
Here you can also find various old writings on the walls, variations of Sinhala , which is still unique today . A somewhat bold hypothesis is that our familiar @ sign may have been inspired by Sinhala.
You could climb the Sigiriya rock itself once via a spiral staircase to see the unique fresco paintings of various divine virgins and then via another path to get to the fortress at the top, where one or the other gang of monkeys had also moved. Unfortunately, this was also a place to marvel at the lack of environmental awareness on the part of the uneducated, who left scraps of everything from diapers to plastic bags for stray dogs and monkeys to inspect. On the way back we also made the first encounter with the local mosquitoes, which of course were promptly present around 5 p.m.
Jetwing Vil Uyana Eco-Resort deserves a special mention. The complex consists of wooden houses distributed around a lagoon, some on stilts. In between there are sandy paths and lots of wonderful birdsong. The open library, the central pool and the lounging restaurant at absolutely moderate prices invite you to linger.
One of the highlights of our stay was meeting the resort’s “resident crocodile” at a safe distance and taking part in the evening nature walk with the resort’s own naturalist and marveling at the flora & fauna and the starry sky. This was the first time we saw what we considered to be the secret national bird of Sri Lanka – a male peacock displaying its magnificent plumage high up in a tree. Even more important was the sighting of the very endangered lorikeet, a rare species of small monkey that has found a new home through the protection at the Eco Resort. Equipped with night vision lamps, we saw about three of the rare animals.
Day 3: Polonnaruwa and more amazing animals, Ayurveda as it shouldn’t be
Our second day in the Central Province took us from the Jetwing to Polonnaruwa , another archaeological site where the kings of Sri Lanka resided after the period in the first capital , Anuradhapura .
The route from Vil Uyana to Anuradhapura is a bit further than Polonnaruwa, which is why we chose the latter for this trip, but Anuradhapura would be on the agenda next time. Another benefit of this tour was that it passed wild elephant territory, so we actually met two of the day’s friendly pachyderms on our morning drive. In fact, the elephants here are to be treated with due respect. About 200 elephants are still killed by people in Sri Lanka every year, but also about 80 people by elephants. A few unreasonable tourists had experienced just the day before that Mr. Elephant didn’t think their getting out of the rental car was a good idea and then rolled it around three times.
In the old royal city of Polonnaruwa from the 11th and 12th centuries AD we could admire many exciting ruins in the hot sun, with various buildings, royal statues and good descriptions that helped us to understand the history of the respective royal generations and Buddhism. Also in Buddhism, for example, the subject of relics played an important role and so a tooth and a bowl of Buddha ended up in the possession of the royal houses of Sri Lanka.
In history, Buddhism has also been threatened several times and was brought back together by King Parakramabahu.
Also worth mentioning was the installation of a toilet, based on the system that can still be found in some French establishments today.
At the edge of the archaeological park, one or the other trader also offered his carvings and other souvenirs for sale. We took the chance to exchange money and for delicious coconut and lime juice.
We continued to the large-format Buddha statues by Gal Viharaya , which invite you to worship in different poses. Here we also found the list of the many rules that a Buddhist monk had to live up to, even humor was punishable.
In the afternoon, Sheldon had the idea of taking us to an Ayurveda institute that actually offered massages and oil forehead infusions at cheaper prices than in the hotel, but also a little less quality. The head massage began with rather unpleasant sensations, namely pulling on the hair, the massage on hard loungers was a little less relaxing and of course the oil ran everywhere and could not be removed by the cold shower there. We were unable to communicate with the non-English speaking practitioners and the conclusion remains that it is worth checking things out in Sri Lanka for quality before booking them.
We used the evening at the wonderful Jetwing Vil Uyana for a delicious dinner by the pool – with the always associated papadams – crispy dough made of lentils and chickpea flour – the above-mentioned tour into the jungle and to read the biography of the impressive Sri Lankan businessman Herbert Coorey, that Jetwing built and developed over many national crises. His focus on “customer experience” was particularly impressive and the care his descendants took for the employees of the Jetwing Group, even during the Covid times.
Day 4: More temples on a road trip with spice
After breakfast, of course with egg hopper and crocodile, we made our way towards Kandy , the last Sri Lankan royal city.
Only about 15 km on the way was the rock temple complex of Dambulla on the program, a complex hewn into the rock, which had to be climbed over many steps.
Arrived at the top, the temple was just closed for the daily, short prayer break of 15 minutes. In the temple there were again loads of Buddha statues from different periods to be admired, and excitingly a sculpture of the next expected Buddha, whose name and face you already know: Maitreya, but he still has about 2000 years to appear. However, some of the rock chambers have been surrounded with white brickwork for protection, which makes the view from the outside a little less impressive.
On the way on the country road towards Kandy, we were surprised by the range of ornamental fish along the way and a short stop at the wood carver, who showed us not only tropical woods such as rosewood but also the great possibilities of creating colors with the so-called rainbow wood.
The next stop brought us closer to ancient naturopathy through a guided tour of a Spice & Herbal Garden, at the end of which we were introduced to about 20 medicines, from stomach remedies to cold feet remedies and mosquito repellent. The highly trained guide even rewarded us with a wonderful upper body massage at the end of the tour, which compensated for the failed Ayurveda treatment the other day.
Arriving in Kandy, we had two hours to browse the botanical garden and it was spacious, full of exotic plants, giant trees and bamboo, with a suspension bridge as an attraction, but without many flowers. Overall, the park made a rather unkempt impression, which we associated with the country’s economic situation.
Directly afterwards we had to hurry to experience the evening ceremony in the famous Temple of the Tooth and that worked out well, despite the semi-automated ticket vending machine and the small line at the shoe deposit, which is always a resourceful businessman for 20 -25 rupees per person organized.
A visit to the Temple of the Tooth Reminds some travelers of monuments in Jerusalem, where the crowds of visitors are led past the grave and birthplace of Christ via guided paths. The actual temple is reminiscent of Thai architecture, the priests drum and play the flute, which makes the atmosphere devout.
We spend the evening with a short foray from the very service-oriented new Ru Boutique Hotel to the Hideout Bar, where we could listen to a live musician with a direct view of the bar. Cool tourists and local hipsters met here, albeit at correspondingly high prices. The curry then remained just as spicy and delicious as usual. We ended the evening with a small round of pool billiards, for which we improvised a bit in the hotel.
Day 5 & 6 To Tea Country and the End of the World
And on we went by train, one of the “must haves” in Sri Lanka. Unlike the timetables, however, the trains make a fairly modern impression. The only curious thing about the trip to the highlands and thus tea country were the many vendors who got on and offered all sorts of delicacies and the open doors to the adjoining wagon, where one or the other tourist cavorted and had a unique train ride feeling. Already on the trip you could marvel at green fields with tea pickers and rich vegetable fields.
Arrived at the Nanu Oya station , Sheldon, who had covered the 4.5 hour journey by car in a slightly shorter time, drove us to the next boutique hotel, the villa of a former British governor who had built the Somerset Estate here in the highlands . From there we went on an extensive hike through the tea fields. Here we also learned that Ceylon is not a type of tea, but simply tea from Sri Lanka, which was christened Ceylon by the respective colonial powers.
The history of the colonial masters, who brought the tea-growing industry, which is still important today, is of course also a history of immigrants – Indians in particular settled here – and an example of egocentricity, such as that of the Englishman who shot over 200 elephants and killed the population for Sri Lanka thus disseminated. In Sri Lanka, very few elephants have tusks. Perhaps that’s why we didn’t warm to this Amaya Group hotel, whose UK restaurant prices gave us a chance to explore other fine alternatives in Nuwara Eliya , like the Indian at the Grand Hotel and the chef at the Jetwing St. Andrews.
The next morning we hit the slopes before sunrise, and this time you could literally see it. The roads in Sri Lanka are excellent and in many places better than in Europe, but in the national parks the natural paths have been preserved and so we drove in a local vehicle towards the fairy landscape of the over 2000 m high Horton Plains for about an hour because of the fog rose on the steppe. From there we hiked about 9 km to the so-called “ Worlds end ” a really nice view, but above all a great marketing coup. We didn’t meet any special animals on the way, but we did see other tourists and exchanged one or two Sri Lanka tips with Poles, French and Swedes.
After this early start we were treated to a very special coffee, tarts and samosas at the highly recommended Grand Coffee Bar near the Grand Hotel.
In the afternoon we were introduced to the secrets of tea processing at the Tea Factory “Pedro” and learned that it is much less expensive than coffee, mainly due to the short fermentation time and that this industry is also regulated in Sri Lanka. Finally, we were able to try our hand at the hotel’s own putting green.
Day 7 – 9 On safari, one always looks for what is least available
The next morning takes us through beautiful mountain landscapes and past the hipster paradise of Ella back to the lowlands and south. Destination: the most famous of the national parks – Yala . On the advice of the agency, we had booked a 1.5 day safari to cover further distances. However, this plan was thwarted by the National Park Office, which had currently only released the eastern part of the park.
Before we started the first safari stage, we had the chance to visit the beach at Jetwing Yala and paid respect to the warning signs that had been put up.
A safari is a choppy affair with lots of dust so we were fortunate that our first tour was blessed with some animal sightings from: elephants, crocodiles, water buffalo, iguanas, various birds. I was particularly taken with the colorful bee-eater, which we only knew from the label of a delicious Austrian wine.
Even if it was much too early, the next day we went back to the mogul slope. In fact, all the drivers in the park seemed to have only one goal, to point out leopards to the tourists, and so at the suggestion of leopard tracks, many noisy Toyotas converged, which probably had the opposite effect on the critters. But then an animal could be seen through the binoculars and the target was fulfilled. Our apparently fairly inexperienced safari driver was then able to be navigated to other parts of the park by Sheldon and we were fortunate enough to be able to make the company of several male peacocks in the rut and a black or coati frolicking quite close to our vehicle. Even a not-so-cheerful bull elephant with the rare tusks was calmed down a bit by Sheldon’s speech and let us go.
The headaches caused by the jerking and lack of caffeine, the two-hour lunch break on a river whose only attraction was the toilet house and the curry we had brought spoiled the fun a bit, so we ended the safari day early. We then enjoyed the sunset swimming in the really really long infinity pool and with the local gang of monkeys in the trees for company.
And again there was a sandwich breakfast, with the Jetwing offering the best sandwich breakfasts of the whole trip, with extra eggs, croissants and banana cake. The surprise of the day was another two-hour safari in the smaller Udawalawe National Park , whose main attraction, apart from the omnipresent peacocks, were the wonderful, cheerful herds of elephants and cows. They showed us and their babies how to get the best out of the fresh trees and how to support each other when things are not going so well.
Day 10 & 11: People speak Russian and surf
Now the second part of the trip, freed from the schedule, could start. The fantastically designed Eraeliya Boutique Hotel just outside the surfer hotspot of Weligama on Sri Lanka’s south coast helped massively to relax us. We were able to enjoy an excellent dinner and breakfast in the patio furniture in front of our room and with direct pool and beach access. There and in many other places, they talked colonially about the butlers, who could be called at any time, but this mainly concerned the serving of the dishes. Colonial butlers were probably a little faster.
The architecture of Eraeliya fits perfectly with the history and landscape, however, it was designed by a Russian architect who fell in love with the place. For the first time on our trip, we also experienced a tourist focus on the beach, in this case with cool young, hip people and among them a lot of Russians whose English was on a similar level to that of the Sri Lankans.
Inspired by the positioning of Weligama as a surf hotspot and the many, many cheap offers from surf schools, we ventured onto the board and into the surf on a cloudy afternoon – after a thorough pre-selection of the surf teacher’s language skills and strengthening ourselves with a Sri Lankan coconut pancake.
Within the hour we received didactically valuable tips, only some of us were less able to implement them and only one stayed on the board once or twice longer. Still, it was fun and we just looked amazing with our boards.
Day 12: Portuguese, Dutch and British in Galle Fort
After two days in the paradisiacal Weligama we continued by taxi to the Unesco World Heritage Site Galle or Galle Fort.
All three colonial nations left their mark here, mainly in fortifications, cannons and a few pretty inner-city buildings reminiscent of southern European or Caribbean old towns. Among other things, the Dutch left their hospitals in Sri Lanka, which were expanded into shopping and restaurant miles in Colombo as well as in Galle, which are pretty and historically based.
In the newly renovated design hotel “The Fort Printers”, which had a history as a printing shop and boarding school, we felt very comfortable and then roamed around and through the city on the fortification wall.
Galle also showed the richness of Sri Lanka in precious stones, which were offered here by well-trained jewelers and dealers. A collector’s free “Historical Mansion” museum showcased an oddity or two.
In the best hotel in town, the Amangalla, we enjoyed a colonial high tea before we retreated to the hotel to protect ourselves from the thunderstorm.
Day 13-17: Beach life, full moon and tsunami memories in Hikkaduwa
Today we took advantage of the inventiveness and “can do” attitude of the Sri Lankans to cover the almost 20 km between Galle and the beach town of Hikkaduwa , including our luggage. It was our pleasure.
Upon arrival at the beautiful Villa Saffron with 5 rooms, there was a delicious banana smoothie and 5 WiFi codes for different areas of the small complex, which leads me to a brief digression on the subject of mobile data in Sri Lanka. The WiFi infrastructure in most hotels was very marginal and hardly made video calls possible in the hotels. Even our car for the first week was supposed to offer wifi, but that only worked in Colombo and then never again. In fact, the most stable data connection was via the local Airtel SIM card purchased at the airport, the cheapest provider, but as it turned out later not the most stable, this was probably Dialog.
In the Villa Saffron we also had a fantastic view of the pool and the sound of the sea lulled us to sleep. Breakfast and dinner could be taken directly in front of the spacious room, of course outdoors, and every morning began with a hot, healthy broth with local herbs, in addition to the classic fruits, egg dishes or curry.
In the afternoon we walked the endlessly long beach of Hikkaduwa to the north for the first time, which is lined with hotels, bars and restaurants. Our destination: Turtle Beach, where two huge sea turtles were actually washed away by the strong surf towards tourists. Resourceful Sri Lankans sold this some seaweed as turtle food.
Those who like it a little quieter didn’t get there on Valentine’s Day in Hikkaduwa, because the day was celebrated with a concert and fireworks, where it didn’t matter whether you were single or in a couple. So we went to one of the many fruit bars during the day and other bars in the evening and danced along.
The next day we broadened our horizons by renting a moped / scooter for 1500 rupees (7 euros) a day after simple negotiations, which probably belonged to a buddy of the agency at the Red Lobster Restaurant, but was therefore 50% cheaper to rent. Here again the entrepreneurship of the Sri Lankans was at work and we had two helmets and fun in the wind. The good mood was only spoiled because our destination was the improvised tsunami museum , about 5 km north of Hikkaduwa.
Few people know that in 2004 Sri Lanka was the second most affected country after Indonesia, with fifty thousand deaths. In the second devastating wave of the tsunami, the world’s most dramatic train wreck to date happened right in this place. There, in her former home, a 40-year-old Sri Lankan woman told us about the difficult time even after the tsunami, when people had to stay in tent shelters during the rainy season, for example. We were deeply touched and at the same time grateful for the happiness we could now experience in Sri Lanka.
The next day was full moon and thus one of the regular holidays for Buddhists, on which, among other things, no meat and alcohol was consumed. We were happy to stick to it, also because we had just finished our “Dry month” and “Veggie month” on Valentine’s Day. During the day we drove through the lagoon landscape with the scooter and were provided with offers by one or the other local, for example of marijuana, which we of course turned down. In the evening we had the chance at Seenigama Sri Devol Maha Devalaya Templeto attend a ceremony appropriate to the day, in which various Buddha figures were poured with a liquid and, of course, a lot of sacrifices, mostly in the form of flowers, were offered. Here at the stand we got out the Frisbee and invited local boys to play, who gladly returned it.
We then experienced the sunset at a restaurant between the railway tracks, lagoon and Buddha shrine and enjoyed king prawns and mango juice.
The many sides of the Indian Ocean still had to be explored under water, which turned out to be a bit challenging. First we tried Coral Beach, where a colorful mix of people explored equally colorful fish quite close to the surface with swimming and snorkeling goggles. We also needed three attempts and at least three wounds, because the mostly dead corals could not be avoided.
In good spirits we signed up for a combined diving and snorkeling excursion on the high seas for the next day. And we found the high seas, because the boat needed an experienced captain to arrive at the diving spot only 20 minutes away, which unfortunately wasn’t a snorkeling spot as we had wished. Maybe it was the sea that day, but neither divers nor snorkelers saw more than a handful of fish. Instead, the snorkeler was caught by cnidarians or jellyfish and brought home fairly common pustules as a souvenir. However, these only showed themselves in their full form the next day, so that we could really enjoy the last sunset and long walk on the beach with a stop for lobster and piña colada, and a few dance numbers in Mambos.
Day 18: Farewell and Bazaars in Colombo
We had our return trip to Colombo organized by the agency Travel to Nature or local partner Antiquity and met our third, very pleasant driver guide Nilan, who after many years as a flight attendant at Emirates now prefers to bring people closer to his homeland. On the approx. two-hour drive towards Colombo, we got to know Sri Lanka’s highway for the first time, again an excellently maintained road and as a highway pay highway.
From the Galle Face Hotel , where we were again warmly welcomed and with the usual warning about live music, we made our way to the Galle Fort and Pettah areas , which we had to skip on our last visit. Two things were impressive about Galle Fort: 1. the artificially raised island that was just being built there, which also reminded of Dubai because of the visitors dressed appropriately in Arabic and 2. the contrasts between the elegant presidential palace, of course in a former colonial building, and colonial ruins on the other hand, just a few meters from the Presidential Palace.
Immediately afterwards we began to browse the Bazaar district of Pettah, which seemed to have an infinite scope and only gave orientation by changing the product themes per street. Entire streets were alternately full of small and large shops, from electrical appliances to lamps, to fabrics, to shoes, to suitcases, to food ingredients. And in between, the so-called “Red Mosque” showed itself to be an architectural jewel. After we had successfully done our shopping for spices, we used our last rupees for a tuk tuk ride back to the hotel, where we could end the evening with a view of the sea, a flag ceremony and one or the other mosquito bite.
With “Ayubowan” one wishes oneself welcome in Sri Lanka and a long life and I wish the readers this and thank you for the interest in this impressive journey, which will hopefully be worthwhile for everyone in Sri Lanka, when times will hopefully calm down again soon.
Beate Rosenthal, guest author