I was first tempted to visit Sri Lanka as an 18-year-old. Tickets were booked, tours organised and bags packed when, BANG!! I got rear-ended in a car accident the morning I was due to leave and instead of checking in to my flight, ended up checking in to the casualty ward with a minor head injury!
Since then the siren call of Sri Lanka has lured me from its lofty position at the top of my travel bucket list. My decades old desire to visit, coupled with a huge amount of hype for the sizzling hot destination turning the island paradise into something of a destination unicorn, attaining such fantasyland status in my imagination that it’s going to have to work very hard to live up to expectations. But when I finally do get to visit, Sri Lanka not only does exactly that, but leaves me utterly seduced and wanting more.
Here are 10 things to do in Sri Lanka that will exceed your expectations as much as they did mine.
1. Enjoy some fishy fun at Lellama Fishing Market
You’ll smell it before you see it, a giant tapestry of fish laid out to dry in the early morning sunshine. At Lellama Fishing Market in Negombo, fishermen untangle fishing nets as workers stack and haul massive baskets of yellowfin tuna to market.
Little stalls are set up selling the piles of fresh fish, crabs and assorted sea creatures. It’s fragrant, fabulous and an authentic introduction to the local way of life for those who love to get amongst the locals.
2. Explore Sri Lanka’s best beaches
Sri Lanka is encircled with gently arcing golden-sand and white powder beaches lined with swaying palms. Whether it is swimming, exploring coral reefs or just lazing under one of the aforementioned palms you desire, beach babies will be in their element. Mount Lavinia Beach in the west is a popular sea-bathing spot and the beaches at the fort town of Galle on the South West coast are famed for their beauty. Further South is Unawatuna and sleepy Mirissa, an intimate palm swathed beach, while at Kaththaluwa and Ahangama you can watch traditional stilt fisherman do their thing.
3. Climb to the top of Sigiriya Citadel Rock
For its size, Sri Lanka packs a hefty archaeological punch with eight UNESCO World heritage sites, the most famous of which is 1600-year-old Sigiriya Citadel Rock, a 200-metre-high column of stone looming large over the plains of Dambulla.
The ancient complex is said to have been inspired by the Buddhist Alakamanda, an elaborate city of the gods built amongst the clouds. You can reach the palace ruins and soak up the mystical views at its apex by climbing up 1200 steep steps and twisting ladders past moss-coated boulders, walls strewn with perky bare-breasted nymphs and through lion-pawed gates.
4. Go underground at Dambulla’s Golden Temple
Located in Dambulla, this is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The cave ceilings are alive with kaleidoscopic whirls of vivid colour and murals depicting the Buddha’s life. Despite the throngs of people making their pilgrimage to the dimly lit caves, the cave’s 153 Buddha statues all rock a look of such nonchalant calm that one can’t help leaving feeling equally serene.
5. Head back in time at Polonnaruwa
The ancient royal capital of Polonnaruwa is packed with extraordinary treasures, including the rock-cut Buddha statues of Gal Vihar, the relic shrine of Hatadage and the ruins of the former Royal Palace. Dating back to the 10th century, the massive structure is said to have housed 1000 chambers inhabited by the King, his family, familiars and some rather unlucky servants, whose thankless tasks included the wiping of the royal butt.
6. See Asian elephants in the wild at Minneriya National Park
Way back in the 3rd century BC, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monarch established the world’s first wildlife sanctuary and the country now boasts swathes of protected land including Minneriya National Park, half an hour and a couple of random roaming roadside elephants from Polonnaruwa.
We feel like we have won the elephant jackpot as we spot more than 100 wild and happy elephants roaming free and at their elephanty best. Our late afternoon safari even affords us the chance to spend an hour with a group of teenage male elephants just metres from our safari vehicle. There isn’t another human soul in sight as we watch the boys frolicking, rumbling, teasing and playing during their daily bath. An incredible ethical wildlife experience that leaves us wowed.
7. Enjoy a Sri Lankan feast at Priyamali Gedara
The food of Sri Lanka has my taste buds dancing in perpetual giddying motion. A highlight though is at Priyamali Gedara, a rural farmhouse style eatery hidden down a dusty road near Polonnaruwa. Curries are lovingly tended to over hot coals as coconut rotis are flipped, curry pastes are pounded and rolled, fresh coconut is ground, river fish and chicken is fried, and at least a dozen sambals and condiments are prepared, all by hand by local home cooks. Did I mention the curries? Seduced by the colour and aromatic punch of the simmering pots of gold, it takes all my willpower not to dive right into their bubbling depths.
8. Make the Pilgrimage to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth
Kandy’s Temple of the Sacred Tooth, located in the royal palace complex, is home to Sri Lanka’s most revered Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha. Visiting during puja (offerings and prayers) allows visitors a brief peek into the heavily guarded upstairs room that houses the relic.
It’s quite a sight, but for me the highlight is the noise and clamour of the traditional drummers drumming and horn blowers honking while the temple’s monks pray in the seclusion of the shrine. Serene it is not, but it is certainly uplifting.
9. Make time for tea at Sri Lanka’s Grand Hotel
We drive high into the hills where lush and leafy tea estates teeter down the rugged mountainsides until we reach Nuwara Eliya for a taste of ye olde British culture at The Grand Hotel.
An elegant colonial confection, built in 1828, sweeps me back to the days of the Raj. I am so lost in imagined conversation with ghosts of guests past, and mentally indulging in grand tea parties with my pinky stuck out just so that I almost forget I’ll be doing just that, over a towering high tea of dainty cakes and savouries in just a few moments.
10. Ride the rickety Blue Train in Sri Lanka
Shake and rattle as we roll on the rickety Blue Train from Ella to Kandy. We’re seated in a cabin packed with laughing local musicians and passengers dangling decorously from open doorways as they attempt to snap the perfect selfie. It’s undoubtedly one of the most fun, and breathtaking, commutes I’ve ever undertaken and another not to be missed experience in Sri Lanka.
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