Destination Overview: Sri Lanka

What I loved (and didn’t love) about Sri Lanka

Imagine the mystique and sensory stimulation of India – sans the hassle. This is how a friend described Sri Lanka to me as I pondered options for my next travel adventure. Determined that my partner’s compulsory Christmas leave would not be wasted, I shortlisted destinations that I thought would provide plenty of ‘wow’ moments and decent weather. The lure of the subcontinent won out and I travelled to this teardrop-shaped isle south of India for a 2 ½ week holiday. Here’s what I found..

Five things I loved about holidaying in Sri Lanka

1. The astounding variety and proximity of attractions and experiences

Sri Lanka is only about the size of Tasmania, yet its diversity of landscapes, cultures, and attractions is remarkable. The country has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than you can poke a stick at, including:

  • Galle Fort – historic port town: its Dutch-colonial era architecture, labyrinthine lane ways, cultural diversity, and exotic spice trade past captivate all who venture through its fortified gates;
Galle Fort, Galle Fort Gate, Dutch colonial guest house, Galle lighthouse
Galle Fort, Sri Lanka
  • The Cultural Triangle, comprising ancient Buddhist cities and cave temples, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, and the soaring rock fortress at Sigiriya.
Dambulla Cave Temple, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sri Lanka.
Dambulla Cave Temple, one of many UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites in Sri Lanka.

Travel to one of Sri Lanka’s many national parks and you’ll experience excellent wildlife viewing including wild elephants, leopards, sloth bears, peacocks, monkeys, and abundant bird species.

Uda Walawe National Park Sri Lanka, elephants
Uda Walawe National Park’s elephant population gives East Africa’s famous parks a run for their money.

Then there’s the unmistakable British Colonial influence in the mountain regions: tea plantations blanket the highlands and the British-built railway network snakes through the spectacular hill country – considered one of the world’s most scenic rail trips.

Sri Lanka's High Country - stunning landscapes, world famous rail journeys, and high tea at The Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya.
Sri Lanka’s High Country – stunning landscapes, world famous rail journeys, and high tea at The Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya.

After all that activity, a stay along Sri Lanka’s extensive sandy coastline is great for some R& R.

What amazed me about Sri Lanka is that travel from one region to the next is generally not much more than a two hour drive. And each region is so distinct in climate, culture, built and natural environments that you’d almost swear you were in different countries.

2. Sri Lankans are really lovely people

The Sri Lankan people have been through so much – three decades of civil war that finally ended in 2009, and the 2004 tsunami that claimed the lives of around 30,000 people.   Yet in spite of the unimaginable hardships they’ve endured, Sri Lankans are among the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. My experiences with locals were overwhelmingly positive; I found most people to be friendly, patient, respectful and pretty laid back. There was the occasional over-zealous tout, however I can’t recall being excessively hassled at all.

Galle Face Green Night Market, Colombo.
Galle Face Green Night Market, Colombo.

3. Sri Lankan food

Ah, yes the food! Sri Lanka is a spice mecca, in fact 90 percent of the world’s cinnamon is produced in Sri Lanka. The beautiful flavours of cumin, turmeric, cardamom, chilli, coriander and many more pervade Sri Lankan dishes.

My favourite dishes were the biryanis (basmati rice cooked with loads of spices and meat or vegetables), Kotthu (chopped rotti fried with vegetables, meats, cheese, egg – whatever takes your fancy) and the aromatic fish curries accompanied by coconut sambol (shredded coconut, lime juice, red onions, chilli and spicies). YUM!   I never tired of eating Sri Lankan dishes – I found both street food and more upmarket restaurant fare to be a culinary joy.

Sri Lankan cuisine
A selection of dishes I enjoyed in Sri Lanka – Lobster curry, buffalo curd and treacle, and chilli crab.

4. Unique and boutique accommodation options

My Sri Lankan accommodation included a gloriously restored Dutch mansion in Galle, a wonderful home stay with a Sri Lankan family in the highlands town of Ella, and a luxury tent in an eco tea lodge with jaw-dropping scenery.

Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge
Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge

5. Lack of tourists. Not yet mainstream.

I travelled to Sri Lanka in December/January – high season, especially for Australians. Tip: Many Sri Lankan properties are quite small, and I recommend you don’t do what I did, which was leaving it until two months before my trip to book accommodation.

Yet in spite of it being high season, it never felt like the place was overrun with tourists (except for a couple of notable exceptions like Sigiriya). I’m going to attribute this to the fact that most Sri Lankan properties are quite boutique in size and the country doesn’t yet have the tourism infrastructure of a mainstream tourism destination.

Five things I didn’t love so much about holidaying in Sri Lanka

1. Hospitality skills

Service standards can be a little inconsistent, even at premium hotels, resorts and restaurants.   Sri Lanka’s tourism industry is a relatively young one and the inexperience of hospitality workers was quite noticeable. However this is easily forgiven because the people are just so damn nice.

2. Traffic

Traffic chaos reigns in Colombo and Kandy. Don’t even think about driving in these cities. Allow yourself plenty of time to get to your destination. You may find that walking will get you to your destination faster anyway.

3. Having a driver

Hiring a private driver and car is really popular among travellers to Sri Lanka because the distances between regions and attractions are relatively close. I booked a driver and car for the Kandy and Cultural Triangle portion of the trip. My driver, Pathum, definitely helped me optimise my holiday time in this region and his driving skills were impeccable.

What I didn’t like so much about having a driver was being taken to “tourist” restaurants and attractions without consultation.  My worst experience of this was an unscheduled trip to a gem museum (translation: show room for a gem shop in a street replete with them.). I know this goes with the territory, but I generally avoid overtly touristy and inauthentic travel experiences like the plague. Next time I’ll be sure to communicate exactly what I’m wanting to do each day, including where I’d like to go to eat.

4. Stray dogs

You can’t go anywhere in Sri Lanka without seeing large numbers of stray dogs. I saw many dogs in such bad shape that it was quite heart breaking. I don’t know if it’s because my travel memories from other South East Asian countries have lost their sharpness but it felt to me like the problem was worse than I’ve seen elsewhere.

5. Sri Lankan Beaches

I’m going to sound like a complete beach snob here, but I live in Perth and I just can’t concur with the general consensus that Sri Lanka has some of the best beaches in the world. I visited a quiet stretch of beach outside of Tangalle – it was pleasant and palm tree-fringed, but the current was a killer and I couldn’t go much farther than knee deep into the water without having my legs swept out from under me.

The beach along the Tangalle township had a cool beach vibe but the building development right up to the sand line and rubbish in the ocean kind of spoilt it for me. An Australian couple I met while in the high country described their underwhelm at the beaches up north too – I’ll concede this is not a statistically valid sample size so I invite you to judge for yourself.

Still, it’s nice to have some chill time on the coast, but I’m just saying don’t go to Sri Lanka expecting Australian beaches.

Should you consider Sri Lanka for your next trip?

I’d recommend holidaying in Sri Lanka without hesitation. It has so much to offer and is such a compact size to boot. I found it to be a relatively easy holiday mostly due to the people being so warm. Tip: Book your trip as soon as you can before tourism development goes into overdrive.