Marisa's Guide to Sri Lanka
Lush and peaceful Sri Lanka. Little did I know in 2011 that it had just endured a violent civil war and one of the most devastating tsunamis in recent history.
All I knew was:
- I was glad to be taking my first vacation since becoming a teacher (I earned it, believe me!) and surprisingly...
- I was quite nervous about traveling to Southeast Asia for the first time.
Uncharacteristically, I barely planned my trip and instead was going along with a group of Canadian teachers. We decided we would “just figure it out when we get there.”
Luckily for me, this laissez-faire attitude led us into some pretty amazing adventures but for you, dear reader, I’ve assembled the best of the best in the industry with knowledge I wish I had back in the day.
Let’s not be mistaken. Sri Lanka has changed. Hotels have sprung up all over this magical island and Instagrammers are falling for it’s siren call. It’s easy to see why - it’s full of UNESCO world heritage sites, fragrant spice gardens, mountaintop tea plantations, safaris, and palm filled beaches.
You need at least 2 weeks to see the whole of Sri Lanka. The infrastructure in the country is still developing and it’s not exactly easy to zip from place to place. The major UNESCO sites are hours away from each other and you will spend at least a day in transit between places.
The long drives makes for a great time to ask your travel companion all your burning questions or finally master meditation.
We befriended our driver and spent the entire time learning about his family, how the education system worked, what it meant to be in an arranged marriage, and most beautiful of all, his observations on how no matter how much privilege you’re born with, each person has their own unique challenges to overcome.
Having one consistent driver throughout our stay made it more pleasant and enjoyable. We got to know him so well that he invited us to his house for tea and we were able to see the (literal) fruits of his labor, a beautiful hilltop home and garden with its own temple and a house next door for his children.
There is something so special about being invited to a local’s house, no? Yet, we’d think nothing of it if we were back in our neighborhoods at home.
I’d highly recommend using one driver throughout the journey so you can learn more about the country and stop and go at your convenience.
Here’s how I would plan my trip to Sri Lanka now:
DAY 1 - COLOMBO
Arrive in Colombo. While this bustling city may not be for everyone or reflect the tranquil nature of the rest of the country, you can fight off your jet lag by resting one night in a central hotel.
If you’re feeling ambitious, grab a tuk tuk tour of the city and hop through food stalls, bars, and enjoy a meal at the iconic Gallery Cafe, the one time office complex of famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa.
Side-note: Geoffrey Bawa is known as the creator of “tropical modernism” and I can’t think of a better term for what I aspire for in my life.
DAY 2 - 5 CULTURAL TRIANGLE
Get ready, today’s your first of many long drives. You have a 4 and a half hour transfer on windy roads through dense rainforests but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views and photogenic street side fruit stands.
When you arrive in Sigiriya, you’ll be in the cultural heart of Sri Lanka. You can take your pick of ancient temples and cities to visit.
Hike to the top of Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock, built on top of a huge boulder in the 5th century. A palace. A rock fortress. The hidden castle of King Kasyapa. A Buddhist monastery from the 14th century. The eighth wonder of the world? No place in Sri Lanka has generated as many theories and legends as the rock set amidst stunning scenery.
For an epic view, charter a private balloon ride with the sunrise.
Cycle through the ancient city of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura consists of more than a dozen archeological sites.The most important/significant sites are the three largest manmade stupas in Sri Lanka. You will bike along flat terrain and can make stops along the way for pictures and to enjoy the scenery.
Visit the Dambulla Caves
The Dambulla Cave Temples are the largest and best-preserved rock cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. If you love historic art, you will love the ancient statues and painting depictions of Buddha inside.
Catch the sunset from Mihintale
Mihintale is a mountain peak near Anuradhapura and it is considered a pilgrimage site, with several religious monuments and abandoned structures. The view is spectacular and few tourists make the trek.
DAY 5- 7 KANDY
Kandy is the perfect tranquil break you will need after a busy few days of exploration. The surrounding area is lush and tropical but you’ll have to be on the lookout for nosy monkeys.
Before checking into your hotel, you may want to visit one of Kandy’s many fragrant spice gardens or take a stroll through the Botanical Gardens.
For the spiritually curious, you can attend a service at the Temple of the Tooth, said to hold one of Buddha’s sacred teeth. When I lost a tooth, I got 25 cents from the Tooth Fairy but I guess a temple full of offerings is a better alternative.
In the evening, attend a show of traditional Kandyan dancing, which almost always includes some form of fire.
DAY 8 - 11 TEA COUNTRY
Tea Country - Tea Tails
Discover the age-old tea making process. Walk in the footsteps of the planters who traversed the lush trails before you. The views over the hills are incredibly beautiful and you'll have a whole new respect for how much backbreaking work goes into a single cup of tea. You'll get to try the various teas fresh from the factory.
Spend your day doing whatever you want in blissfully perfect surroundings. Hike the trails shimmering mountain lakes, charming villages and enchanting misty forests. Make sure to utterly spoil yourself at the scrumptious afternoon high teas in flourishing, colorful gardens. Take the time to rest and relax in one of the luxurious bungalows, perfectly enveloped in warmth from a crackling wood fire, watching as the captivating mists rolls across the landscape.
DAY 11- 13 SOUTHERN COAST
Your next two days are for pure relaxation. Spend your days frolicking in the aquamarine waves and squelching your toes in the golden sand with coconut fronds fanning you with a gentle breeze.
Visit the Galle Fort for a glimpse of the colonial past.
Day 14 DEPART SRI LANKA
On your last day, you'll drive back to Colombo for your flight home.
Magical, mythical, green and turquoise Sri Lanka has a rightful place on every traveler's bucketlist. There are endless possibilities to customize your trip.