A few years ago, we were looking for a holiday destination for a ten day January getaway. We looked eastwards (from Europe) and wanted both warm sunny weather, nature and historical sights. There are so many amazing places to visit but we decided upon southern Sri Lanka. And what a great trip we had! Ten days were enough to experience different aspects of the Sri Lankan culture as well as relax on the beach.
Getting there and around
From southern Sweden, we discovered that the easiest way to get to Sri Lanka was to fly Emirates with a layover in Dubai. (That worked well on the way out, but on the way back to Europe our flight from Sri Lanka was delayed and we missed our connecting flight. This wasn’t a disaster since we were able to take an extra day off and suddenly found ourselves on a whirlwind visit of Dubai including visiting the Burj Khalifa. But that’s another story.) The international airport of Sri Lanka is outside the capital Colombo.
For this trip, we used different means of transportation: private taxis, train and local busses. Everything worked well and we felt safe. The train was crowded but we only used it for daytime travel. We arranged the long-distance transfers with private taxis on arrival, which was easy through the airport counter or our hotel.
With ten days to explore Sri Lanka, we decided to stay in the southern parts of the country. Here is our itinerary:
- Beach time in Mirissa
- Glamping and leopard spotting in Yala national park
- Relaxing at the beach in Unawatuna
- Historic sights in Galle
- Temples and elephants in Kandy
- City time in Colombo
No Ella you might ask? Well, we have been to southern India and have experienced the beautiful hills and tea plantations. So due to time restrictions, we decided to skip the hill country in Sri Lanka for this visit, but I would love to go back and take the train through the tea plantations some other time.
We had prebooked a private transfer from the airport outside Colombo to the southern seaside resort of Mirissa. The drive was mainly on the pay highway where the traffic was light. We arrived in Mirissa a couple of hours later and found our B&B on the main road in this small fishing village. Since it was the start of our holiday and we came from the cold in Sweden, we spent the next couple of days just relaxing on the beach. Foodwise, we had some great fish on the beachside restaurants as well as the curry plate very common around Sri Lanka and roti.
If you’re into whale watching, there were ample opportunities to go on a boat tour. We were warned though that the sea can be rough and that most people experience seasickness so be prepared with pills if you go. Mirissa also seemed to be a popular place for surfing. But we were lazy so stayed on the beach during the day. One night, we went to a spa where I had an traditional oil head massage. It was very relaxing and probably good for the hair but plan on having very greasy hair for the next few days…
Glamping safari in Yala national park
When we were thoroughly relaxed and ready for some action, we took the bus to the Yala national park, or actually to the city of Tissamaharama where we were picked up and taken to our campsite very close to the park entrance. We spent 24 hours at the campsite and had a great time at the site which consisted of a few tents and a few buildings such as a restaurant. There was also an observation deck overlooking the national park greenery, perfect for a beer. It felt safe with guards on the lookout for elephants approaching the area at night.
We were taken on two jeep safaris in the park, one on in the afternoon and one at sunrise. We managed to see a leopard as well as elephants and other animals. The safari experience was nice but not as amazing animal-wise as in the national parks of for example South Africa and Kenya.
The meals and accommodation at the glamping campsite was great. Lots of curries and local beer! The transfers worked like a charm as well and we took the bus to Galle after the safari.
This is where we stayed in Yala: Pardus seek (TripAdvisor link as I can’t find a website, we booked through e-mail)
Historical sights in Galle
Galle is the provincial capital of south Sri Lanka and has a long history of port activity. The city is on the UNESCO world heritage list and has many sites, including the harbor and the fortress which was built by the Dutch in 1663. We stayed in a cute hotel close to the sea and enjoyed walking around the streets of the old town and the fort’s ramparts. There is something around every corner with lighthouses, markets and luxury seaside colonial bars and hotels.
Back to the beach in Unawatuna
After our stay in Galle, we were supposed to go up north along the coast. However, the hotel had made an error so we had to have a change of plans. We had passed the small seaside village of Unawatuna on the way from Mirissa and liked the look of it so we decided to go there.
Usually, we book hotels in advance but this time, we arrived at the beach and saw one directly above it that we liked the sight of and just went inside to see if they had any available rooms. It turned out to be a very lucky shot where our room had a fourposter bed, an exquisite front row view of the ocean and AC as well. And so we were back on the beach which was excellent. We ate our meals barefoot in the sand in one of the restaurants and enjoyed every minute of it. The breakfast was in-room service so we ate on the balcony overlooking the ocean, simply perfect.
The southwestern coast of Sri Lanka was hit hard by the tsunami in 2004. When we were in Unawatuna, there was an exhibition with photos showing the damage the wave made. There are also tsunami signs pointing to higher ground and alarms in place now.
Train to Kandy
After a couple of nice days in Unawatuna, we were ready to take the train to Kandy. The train left from Galle and took about xx hours. Kandy is the second largest city on Sri Lanka and is also on the UNESCO world heritage list. The most famous sight is the Temple of the Tooth, which contains a golden box with a tooth of Buddha inside (you won’t see the tooth). The temple areas are busy with elephants, flowers and bells everywhere. You want to wear clothes that cover your legs and shoulders.
Kandy lake is an artificial lake that the last king of Kandy created in 1807. The lake is close to the center of town and has lovely pathways to walk along.
To Colombo through Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage
To get back to Colombo, we decided to hire a driver for the day so that we would be able to stop at some places. First, we went to a spice plantation where we were given a tour of the different plants and then the oil-making plant. We bought some vanilla.
Then, we stopped at the Pinnewala elephant orphanage, which is government run. The nicest part of our visit there was to see the elephants walk down to the river and bathe. We had a drink at one of the restaurants overlooking the river and watched the elephants frolic in the water. I always prefer to see animals free and in their natural habitat, but this seemed to be a well-managed place and the elephants seemed pretty happy and well-fed. Read up and make up your own mind if you want to go. If you want to get a special souvenir while you’re there, you can buy stuff made from elephant dung.
We arrived early afternoon in Colombo. Our flight was scheduled to depart after midnight so we left our luggage at the bus station and then went into the city. We had tea at an English tea house, a nice walk along the coast, enjoyed the sunset, bought some souvenirs and then went to a great crab restaurant: the Ministry of Crab. It was located in a nice area called the Old Dutch hospital. The most famous dishes are whole lagoon crabs from Sri Lanka in various sizes and flavorings. I had the garlic chili crab and loved it. Do make reservations, this is a popular place which is on the 50 best restaurants in Asia list.
And then it was time to leave Sri Lanka!
So – what to eat and drink?
You will find the Sri Lankan curry plate everywhere. It’s a dish that consists of several small bowl with vegetables, a protein like fish or chicken, rice and a roti bread. Fruit juices and coconuts are abundant of course and filled pancakes for breakfast. In the coastal areas we had fresh fish or seafood for dinner every night. For drinks we had lots of beer (the local kind is called Lion) and ginger beer. And in Colombo, there were tea shops that served many kinds of tea and snacks.
In my opinion, Sri Lanka is a perfect destination for a two week holiday. The nature is varied, the sights historical, the food fresh and tasty, the climate supernice and the beaches amazing – what more could you ask for? We call if a kind of “India light” because the island has a lot of similarities to southern India (Kerala) but is more laidback. We very much enjoyed our visit and would love to go back!