I came to Southeast Asia to scuba dive and surf -- so after completing my Similan Islands Scuba liveaboard, a cruise into the heart of Laos on the Mekong River, and a surf-and-turf adventure in Malaysia, I hopped on a flight to Sri Lanka.
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.
For dinner, I had the traditional Sri Lankan 7-curry and rice dish -- and felt a little gluttonous when the waiter came out with seven distinct bowls of food. Yes, it was all for me.
Galle was worth visiting, but I'd had my fill. Plus, it was a little more touristy and exensive than the other areas I'd visited. So the next morning, I took a local bus about forty minutes down the road to Mirissa.
I wasn’t watching where I walked as I approached my guest house, and was almost whacked by a meter-long monitor’s tail!
After I dropped my bags off, I rented a surfboard ($4). Mirissa is a nice break for beginners, as well as more intermediate and advanced surfers. The further out you paddle, the bigger the waves -- but closer in, there is plenty of water for new surfers to practice their “pop up.”
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?
Weligama is a pretty decent beginner's beach. It kind of reminded me of Pacifica, CA.
Sticks was great for intermediate and advanced surfing. It was pretty cool to surf alongside traditional Sri Lankan fishermen.
From there, I took a private car ($45) about two hours to Udawalawe National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular destinations. I'd planned on going to Yala, but people kept saying there were more elephants in Udawalawe, and your chances of seeing a leopard were pretty low no matter where you went.
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.
Getting out of Udawalawe wasn’t cheap or easy -- it turns out the public transportation in Sri Lanka is easy along the coast, but chunkier and slower in the middle parts of the country. I ended up hiring a private driver for the next two days of my trip. We were supposed to see the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, a five-hour drive from Udawalawe; Sigiriya (another 1-2 hours); and, finally, Kandy (3 hours). These were the parts of the famous Cultural Triangle that looked the most interesting to me.
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:
and visited the famous Temple of the Tooth. After so many weeks in Asia, I’d been feeling a bit “templed out,” but this one was very unique and cool -- plus, soon after my arrival, a huge thunderstorm erupted, completely changing the sounds, sights and mood of the place.
If you don't mind huge crowds (err... huger than normal -- I think this place is always a bit hectic, because people are super religious in Sri Lanka), you can go in the evening, when they open the doors and allow you to view the tooth (sort of -- it's encased in gold). There's chanting and music, too, which is kind of neat.
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.
He dropped me off at a traditional Sri Lankan home, where an elderly woman showed me how to make coconut roti and coconut lime sambol. Cooking with her made me feel like I was in a (super short-term) homestay, and she was my Sri Lankan grandma. <3
It was delicious!
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.
I, however, chose not to do the Lion Rock hike. I'd heard that, on top of it being super expensive (tickets to do the hike were in the $25-30 range), it was also crowded ("like ants crawling up a hill"):
And, since you're on the rock, you can't really see the rock. But! There is another hike that is super cheap (just a few dollars), without the crowds. It's called Pidurangala Rock, and your tuk tuk driver will be able to take you there.
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.
While you're in the area, stop in at one of the wood carving shops for a free demonstration about all the different kinds of wood -- including the "magic" color-changing wood that they use to make paint -- and how they carve it.
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.
When it's time to head back to the airport, allow extra time for traffic -- but if someone tries to tell you you need to check in five hours before your flight leaves, call bull. Drivers will tell you that, so they can drop you off early. But locals will tell you a two hours is plenty.
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!
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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