On arrival, I took a taxi to Negombo, the “cool” part of Colombo. The next morning, I rode the scenic train to Galle, a 15th-century Dutch fort on the southwest coast. Walking through the old Dutch hospital and along the stone city walls, it almost felt like I was in Europe… except on the Indian Ocean.
Perhaps the most fascinating stops were the Underwater Archeology museum; a free gem museum where you can watch artisans make jewelry; and the not-to-be-missed sunset from the Galle wall.
I wasn’t watching where I walked as I approached my guest house, and was almost whacked by a meter-long monitor’s tail!
If you’re serious about learning to surf, spend a few days at one of the surf camps in the Mirissa-Midigama-Weligama area. These come with daily one-hour land lessons, followed by about two hours of in-the-water instruction. This is really the best way to learn to surf, as buying a one-hour lesson on the beach will only cover the very basics.
For more experienced surfers, several surf camps and hotels offed “guided surf” packages, but if you’re on a tighter budget or are confident in your surfing, you’ll save money by just renting a board and hopping on a tuk tuk. Don’t miss Lazy Lefts, Lazy Rights, Fisherman’s Bay, Sticks (where you’ll surf among traditional Sri Lankan stilted fishermen!), and Temples.
I told myself I’d stay at Elsewhere Surf Camp for a week… but I ended up staying for two! The waves were mellow, and the spots weren’t generally crowded. I found myself in the water every sunrise, midday, and sunset. (Except for one, when I got a little skunked.) Plus, it came with a few free yoga sessions!
What could be better?
The main activity is here is the Jeep safari tour. It’s not cheap, but it's not prohibitively expensive, either. You’ll be spending about $25 just to get into the park, and that’s not including the Jeep tour -- which you can set one up through your hotel for $16-30... or book online for $60-100. I booked through my hotel. It is unclear to me if this is the sort of thing where you "get what you pay for," or if booking online is a rip off.
However, there is definitely power in numbers: the more people you buy your park entry ticket with, the cheaper it will be per person. You don't even have to know each other -- just grab some people in line to buy your ticket with, and you'll each end up saving $5 or $6.
(Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know this until it was too late, and spent 4,200 rupees on my ticket, while most other visitors spend 3,400 or less.)
However, driving alongside a large male elephant, it was hard to worry too much about the money. A few moments later, a mother and her baby emerged. By the end of the tour, I’d seen three crocodiles, eight elephants, at least twelve different bird species, and more buffalo than I could count. Not to mention leaf monkeys and a bird riding on the back of a spotted deer.
Unfortunately, my driver got lost (or something), and we never made it to Polonnaruwa. (Travel advisory: don't book with Sri Lanka Exclusive (SLE) Tours. They are the absolute worst. I've since looked up their reviews, and wish I'd done that in the first place. They have 1 star, and one reviewer even said that his driver intimidated him and shook him down for money.)
Instead, I strolled around the lake in Kandy:
The next morning, I booked a Beyond Escapes trekking tour of rural Hiriwaduna ($30), just outside of Sigiriya The tour was packed with action! I gave a detailed summary of why this was my favorite part of the cultural triangle here -- but here's the tl;rd:
It started with an oxcart ride through rice paddies, with the driver stopping to point out bird species, chameleons, and peacocks along the way.
Next up was a boat ride in a traditional boat, down a river that was completely full of hyacinth, lotus leaves, and water lilies. This might have been my favorite part of the day, as the countryside was almost too vibrant to be true.
The river opened up into a lake, from which I could see the famous lion rock, the main attraction in Sigriya.
There's a reclining Buddha about 3/4 of the way to the top, and you'll have to do a bit of scrambling to make it to the top top.
And I saw a ton of monkeys along the way.
There are several other free tours in the Sigiriya/Dumbulla area, including spice and herb gardens; ayurveda "holistic medicine" gardens (it's fun to see the stuff, but don't buy into their pseudoscientific claims -- the difference between this and Western medicine is that Western medicine has been tested for safety and efficacy, and "holistic medicine" has not); and tea plantations.
Also, if your safari driver tries to force you to pee in front of him, don't be a passive, submissive idiot. Be firm and tell him no, and then complain about him to your hotel or booking agency. Sri Lanka is a lovely place, but there are definitely some very forward perverts and creeps. (See also: Sorry, But No. Not Every Part of Every Culture Deserves My Respect.) If you can't be assertive, learn to be before you go.
Enjoy your trip!