Sri Lanka was the first Asian country I visited along with my boyfriend back in the summer of 2010…and we got hooked ever since! Bring us to Asia anytime, please!
Asia shocked me in a good way and I totally fell in love with this continent and its culture (the farther east I went before was Turkey). I read about many backpackers who went to Bangkok and nothing was the same for them anymore…well I never went to Thailand, but the same happened to me in Sri Lanka, the amazing “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”.
As we didn’t know what to expect on a journey that felt so different from the previous ones, we decided to rely on a young travel agency who seemed down to earth, eco friendly, benefitting locals (we had a local guide and driver and we stayed in simple “no chain” accomodations) and of course it didn’t ruin our low budget!
We soon discovered there was nothing to worry about Asian travel and understood we could have done everything by ourselves, but we had a good time anyway with the small group of people we spent the time with (2 other couples and 1 girl).
Our itinerary of 16 days (August 2010) was full of amazing discoveries and magic explorations. Here are the first ones.
Outstanding places to include in your Sri Lankan visit:
My first memory of Sri Lanka is the humidity. The right second we went out of the airport we were totally and hopelessly wet so beware of this fact if you go during the monsoon season!
Unfortunately we didn’t get to visit the commercial capital of Colombo because, after we landed in the late afternoon, we directly took a taxi to Negombo, a city very close to the airport (more or less 10 km), where we had previously booked a room with the Hostelbookers website.
We found Negombo to be a sleepy beach town although it’s one of the largest cities in Sri Lanka and a major tourist stop because of the nice beaches and the airport proximity.
It was already quite late for us and so we just walked a bit in the dark streets around the hotel, soon realizing it’s common to have no street lights and huge road holes…but we also understood there was nothing shady or dangerous apart from minding your step.
Use your common sense as everywhere but, generally speaking, Sri Lanka is very safe as are the other Asian countries I visited.
We then had dinner in the garden of a very little and cozy restaurant and I tasted Sri Lankan food for the first time: so tasty and spicy, I loved it! But I also felt the power of the green chili monster…only the brave will be able to eat it!!!
Do you know what is a tuk tuk? It’s the typical 3-wheel taxi honking its way all over Asia.
We took our first one to go to Marawila, another beach town where we should have met the tour group at midday. It took about 1 hour for more or less 30 km.
The drive was so pleasant and funny! We immediately thought about exporting a tuk tuk business in our home town 😀
Our driver was very nice and talkative and of course tried in every way to candidate himself as our tour guide for the rest of our holidays, showing pics about previous tourists and so on, but sadly we have to dismissed him.
That was how we understood we should have organized the trip by ourselves and how I recommend you to do if you want to visit this beautiful and friendly country on your own terms.
Of course, an organized tour is also a good option, but I suggest to use local agencies to benefit more the Sri Lanka economy…after a 20 years long civil war and the tsunami tragedy, they really need much needed tourists money.
Olenka Sunside Beach Hotel was the place where we would begin our tour. It was nicely located on the long sandy beach and we had a clean room with a nice balcony overlooking the pool. I still remember the good breakfast with an awesome selection of tropical fruits.
From Marawila I advise you to do a boat tour on the nearby river (I fell in love with monitor lizards! They are so huge and cute to my eyes!).
“Travelling Metalhead” Fun Facts:
From the boat, we saw a lot of funny signs like the one you can see below…want to change your life?
We spent a good amount of time exploring the area by boat and we also got treated to a delicious coconut drink right from a palm tree and some delicious coconut slices chopped in front of us.
Another interesting place to go to is the Negombo Fish Market with its bustling stands and extensive beach filled with fishes left to dry.
Sigiriya was an ancient palace, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Everybody visiting Sri Lanka must go there…it’s really interesting to see and it’s unbelievable to think how they built it.
In around 5 hours of driving in our mini van, we arrived at the base of the mighty Sigiriya Rock (200 m).
At the bottom of the rock, after you buy your tickets at the entrance, you will find the remnants of the ancient gardens of the palace and then, going up a flight of spiral stairs, you will find amazing frescoes of half naked women.
Then, passing through the ancient Lion Gate (unfortunately, only the big paws remain) and climbing a last steep flight of stairs, you are able to see for kilometres around…amazing!
We were sweating like hell, but cute monkeys kept us company on the way up and of course the astounding view at the top was a great reward.
“Travelling Metalhead” Fun Facts:
My boyfriend and I were happily descending back from the top, when the rest of the group (who was already down at the Lion Gate) started to waved at us and “said” with hand gestures to be silent and shut up…we soon realized there was a very BIG beehive underneath!
You can imagine how we were speachless…so beware of that (I don’t think they will ever remove it) and don’t speak too loud!
Anuradhapura was a capital of Sri Lanka from the 5th to the 10th century and it’s yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here you will find a lot of interesting ruins and ancient stupa.
You will also find the Sri Maha Bodhi, a tree sacred to Buddhist. Do you know the story? This tree has grown from a cutting of the original bodhi tree in India under which Buddha reached enlightenment. Here you will see many devotees handing their offerings. This place really exudes spirituality…even if a storm hit the place and soaked us completely!
Of course you have to expect sudden rain during monsoon season, but generally it doesn’t last much.
After visiting Anuradhapura, you can take a trip to Polonnaruwa which was another ancient capital of Sri Lanka during the 11th century and it’s also listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Here you will wander through the remains of a complete city (roads, government buildings, temples, shrines…) and you’ll find a lot of beautiful and elaborate stone carvings.
The architecture I appreciated the most was one of the largest stupa in Sri Lanka: Rankoth Vehera.
Entirely made of bricks, it has a diameter of 170 m and a height of 55 m. I really could feel its strong power.
Another masterpiece is the Gal Vihare (rock temple) where there are 4 Buddha statues carved on a single, large granite rock face. This temple is really well preserved and the “reclining” Buddha is one of the largest sculptures in Southeast Asia…a really amazing piece of art.
6. Minneriya National Park
After we visited Polonnaruwa, we went to Minneriya National Park (near the town of Habarana) for a safari tour.
We went around with a jeep and a guide who was very friendly and knowledgeable…he explained a lot of interesting things about many plants and every animal we encounter.
We saw many different kind of birds, lizards, chameleons, buffaloes and a lot of majestic elephants of different ages (also very young).
Seeing so many wild elephants (the number was really impressive) was truly one of the highlights of all our Sri Lanka tour…amazing!
The next must see is Dambulla, where there is the largest cave temple complex of Sri Lanka. There are more than 80 caves in total although you get to visit mainly 5. And guess what? It’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At the entrance of the site you will see a massive gold Buddha (sooo cheesy…I loved it!) but don’t let it turn you down…after going up a stone staircase of over 350 steps with monkeys all around, you will reach the caves (and a great view on the forest below, of course)! You will see so many beautiful statues and murals that you will forget time.
The town itself is nothing special, but it’s a center for the spice trade so we got to visit a “spice garden”, a plantation close to the city where we had an explanation about many different plants and we were showed how to prepare a curry paste. The tour was later followed by a delicious spicy meal served on big green leaves. If you can, I think it’s a nice experience to try as we learnt a lot about many spices and fruits but beware of the workers trying to sell you their products…it’s a normal businness after all, but I got to buy things I later regret. Well, I gained experience for later trips!
We then visited a very important site for Buddhism history: the ancient Aluvihara temple.
This was the place where the most important set of Buddhist scriptures was first written on palm leaves on 29 a.c. (before that, everything was orally passed on). Sadly, the original manuscripts were destroyed by British troops in 1848.
We got to see a monk demonstrating the art of writing on leaves and then we visited the caves with big and colorful Buddha statues.
But the greatest memory I have from Matale is its Hindu temple: Sri Muthumariamman Thevasthanam.
I’m very grateful we were brought there as I truly loved the place. I didn’t see many tourists…it’s a real pity it’s not well known.
If Buddhist temples inspired me serenity, the Hindu temple was a real shock: it was fierceful, colorful, powerful, stunning. I could really feel a different kind of spirituality and I must say I perceived it more and truly enjoyed walking around the site.
“Travelling Metalhead” Fun Facts:
We tasted durian for the first time!
We heard a lot of funny stories about this “interesting” fruit and wanted to try it so badly that when we saw it in a market stall, we immediately stopped and bought a piece of it.
The seller cut it with a big knife and give it to us…it was delicious!!! It felt like eating thick cream (so much that I was fully satisfied after few bites) and we also didn’t think the smell was so bad.
Mission accomplished 😀
Do you want to know more? Wait for the second part…