[Updated: February 2016]
Forget Ravana; Sri Lanka is now the kingdom of nature. It is here that the Indian Ocean turns a crystal blue and gently caresses a powdery white shore, and waterfalls emerge from deep within the mountains and trickle into little streams through pristine tea plantations. It is here that the influences of the west have stayed at bay, the people are genuinely friendly (Read: My First Impressions of Sri Lanka), and culinary goodness is in abundance.
So go now, and take my list of the indulgent yet immersive things to do in Sri Lanka:
Take the slow train from Kandy to Ella.
I must confess I’m not a train person. But chugging up on the slow blue train from Kandy to Ella (See: In Photos: Chugging up Sri Lanka’s Hill Country), through mist and light rain, was an experience to remember. From the window, I watched colorful umbrellas move briskly across the green tea plantations. I stood by the door, feeling the wind in my hair, waving to kids as we crossed sleepy villages enveloped in clouds. Birds flew in and out of the train, as we munched on spicy peanuts and Sri Lankan “short eats”. We winded along rolling hills covered with lush tea estates, interspersed with small streams, stunning waterfalls, mountain tunnels, pine forests and vast green valleys – one of the most beautiful train rides I’ve done in all of Asia.
The slow train from Kandy to Ella, through Sri Lanka’s hill country, departs twice daily – early morning at 6am, and at noon. It takes 6-7 hours to arrive in Ella. Buying tickets a day in advance is a good idea.
Swim on the east coast.
We didn’t make it to Galle and the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, since the monsoons were in full swing. And I’m glad we didn’t, because the beaches on the east coast were all I needed. A gentle blue Indian Ocean caresses the soft, white, powdery sands at Passikudah. I’ve swum in the waves before, but never in an ocean so shallow and so gentle, you could think you’re in a swimming pool! Although I sorely missed the sunsets on this coast (and couldn’t wake up early enough for sunrise), the evening skies were always streaked a light yellow, orange or red. And we could snorkel right from the shore, into an aquarium of colorful corals and fish.
Passikudah is located an hour away from Batticoloa, and three hours before Trincomalee. Centara Resort and Spa is a lovely new boutique resort, and offers better value for money than its more expensive neighbours.
Get off the beaten path at Galkadawala.
If going off the beaten path into a small countryside village is your thing, like it is mine, Galkadawala is your place (Read: Galkadawala: Sri Lanka’s Best Kept Secret). It took a great deal of Google research to find it, and that’s perhaps what makes it Sri Lanka’s best kept secret. Maulie, the owner and hostess, quit her job in the garment industry in Colombo, and bought a barren piece of land in Galkadawala six years ago. Today, it’s an oasis by the village lake (tank) – a forest lodge built with recycled materials, surrounded by a mini forest, home to colorful birds and giant squirrels. Surrounding it are the rice paddies of the village, and the barren and lush landscapes of north-central Sri Lanka. She grows her own vegetables and most of the food is traditionally cooked in earthen pots; the most delicious meals I had in all of Sri Lanka were here. We spent our time swimming and kayaking in the village lake, hiking in the wilderness, hearing stories of her adventures in Sri Lanka, and laying on a hammock under the trees! Blissful.
Galkadawala is located a short drive away from Habarana, in the middle of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.
Indulge in Sri Lanka’s culinary goodness.
This was probably the first time I travelled to a country without a genuine idea of what it’s food may taste like. There are almost no Sri Lankan restaurants in Delhi (and most of India), and contrary to what some people say, I didn’t find the food comparable to the cuisine in Kerala, atleast the vegetarian dishes. There’s no better way to describe the country’s culinary delights than to confess that I absolutely fell in love with Sri Lankan food!
Hoppers, a signature Sri Lankan breakfast dish, made its appearance in many forms – honey hoppers, egg hoppers, string hoppers served with coconut sambol, potato curry and dhal curry, string hoppers buryani, and plain hoppers served with a slow-cooked cucumber curry. And yet I could never have enough of them. Kothu (a Tamil-Sri Lankan dish made with breads, veggies and eggs), Pol Rotti, Yeast Rotti, Egg Rotti, curries and rice, I loved it all. And if you find no other reasons compelling enough to visit Sri Lanka, let food be it.
Live on a tea plantation at Madulkelle Tea Estate.
An hour from Kandy, the road winds up along the Knuckles Mountain Range, into some of the most pristine tea estates in the hill country. On this pretty stretch sits Madulkelle tea estate, where a Sri Lankan-French team has erected the most luxurious tents on stilts, overlooking the gently sloping mountains above, the terraced valleys below, and tea plantations as far as the eye can see. It was here that I spent the last leg of my Sri Lanka trip, and it was an experience before which all others paled (Read: Tete-a-tea in Nature’s Lap).
At sunrise, we lounged in our balcony, as the clouds engulfed the mountains in a furry coat, then slowly rose with the sun to reveal the majesty of Knuckles. We hiked through the pristine tea trails, watching women work their nimble fingers on the tea leaves, took a dip in the infinity pool literally in the lap of nature, and indulged in the old-world charm of a planter’s bungalow, with wine by the fireplace.
Madukelle Tea and Eco Lodge is located 30 km from Kandy, and is an eco-friendly luxury retreat in Sri Lanka’s hill country.
Experience Sri Lanka like a local
Over the course of my travels, I’ve learnt that there’s no better way to experience a country than through the lens of its locals. On my most recent trip to Sri Lanka (in December 2015), I stayed at unique Airbnb homes, and ended up becoming good friends with many of my local hosts. You could also try spending a day withlocals, on a street food trail in Colombo or a hike through the hill country of Kandy or even learning to drive a tuk-tuk! Who knows what other adventures and perspectives it might lead you to?
What were your favorite experiences in Sri Lanka? Which ones do you want to do most?
Note: I was hosted by Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge, and Galkadawala Forest Lodge on my Sri Lanka trip. Withlocals collaborated with me for this post, and I can’t wait to try out one of their adventures.