I remember my first trip to Sri Lanka with some clarity. We landed at Colombo International Airport on a nearly empty flight from Kochi, harboring no expectations from this small island nation, of which little was written online until a few years ago. As I walked along the quiet shores of Negombo (a small city between Colombo and the airport), cycled along tree-lined by-lanes, waved hello to young kids who had seen few travellers, gratefully accepted the warm hospitality of my host couple and treated my tasted buds to incredible locals flavors, I knew I was falling in love (Read: My First Impressions of Sri Lanka).
Many years and many trips on, Sri Lanka hasn’t stopped delighting me with its many treasures. Here are a handful of them:
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.
Hike in the Knuckles Mountain Range
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Up in Sri Lanka’s hill country, there is a “corner office” where the palm trees sway, the hills are mist-clad and inspiration flows endlessly. . . Up in the densely forested Knuckles Mountain Range, there’s a village, abandoned by all but one family. They forage in the forest, grow rice, host travellers, live in solitude. Life goals, anyone? 😉 . . Up in what is now the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya, two British men once lost their way, slept in the forest and woke up surprised by how cold the weather could be in this tropical country. The region was christened “Little England” for its chilly nights… and continues to surprise travellers by its misty beauty. . . While I’ve been busy with my book launch across India, Remya from my team is out exploring Sri Lanka ahead of TBC Asia – one of Asia’s biggest travel blogging conferences – in collab with @cinnamonhotels @srilankanairlinesofficial 🤗 . . Have you been to Sri Lanka? What are your fav memories? . . #theshootingstar #tbcasia #cinnamonhotels #srilanka #inspiringmoments
Up in the densely forested Knuckles Mountain Range, there’s a village, abandoned by all but one family. They forage in the forest, grow rice, host travellers and live in solitude. Life goals, anyone? On the Pitawala Pathana hike (also called the riverstone area) amid the Knuckles Mountains, lie 32 isolated, self-sustaining villages in the where people live off their own produce and have long life spans, despite nearly no access to modern medicine. They make a trip to the city once a month through roads that are barely motorable. If the mist-clad mountains, refreshing greenery, pure mountain air and spectacular views don’t fascinate you, the solitary way of life in these villages certainly will.
TSS team member Remya hiked the Pitawala Pathana trail which takes 45 minutes – 1 hour, with Cinnamon Nature Trails. A moderate fitness level is recommended.
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.
It’s a shame that Sri Lankan food is rarely available outside of India, for its gentle spices, often simmered overnight, the diversity of dishes and explosion of flavors makes it one of my favorite cuisines in the world. Being coconut-based, most Sri Lankan food can easily be veganised.
Hoppers appeared on my plate again and again, in many forms – 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 leftover breads and veggies; ask them to hold the eggs), Pol Rotti, Yeast Rotti, curries and rice, I loved it all.
Begin your culinary extravaganza in the heart of Colombo, where Nuga Gama in Cinnamon Grand is a traditional Sri Lankan restaurant centered around a 210 year old banyan tree! Possibly the city’s first and only carbon neutral restaurant, it employs locally and serves up produce from its home garden in a mouthwatering buffer of 30 local dishes, to be washed down with fresh toddy on weekends.
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. Across Sri Lanka, I stayed at unique Airbnb homes, and ended up becoming good friends with many of my local hosts. When I research Airbnbs, I try to pick offbeat locations and look for reviews that suggest that you actually get to spend time with your hosts. Who knows what 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: Some of the experiences on this trip were hosted; others I picked myself. Opinions on this blog are always mine.