Beyond Kandy and Galle, my collection of offbeat Sri Lanka experiences to truly discover the island nation and its hidden treasures.
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. Until a few years ago, little was written online about this small island nation.
I walked along the quiet shores of Negombo, my first stop near Colombo 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 taste buds to incredible locals flavors. I was, quite unexpectedly, already falling in love!
Many years and many trips later, Sri Lanka hasn’t stopped delighting me with its many treasures. Here are a handful of them:
- Experience rustic, sustainable, off-the-grid living at Galkadawala
- Take the spectacular slow train from Kandy to Ella
- Meet Sri Lanka’s last surviving cave dwellers in Gal Oya National Park (truly offbeat Sri Lanka!)
- Swim in the gentle blue east coast waters
- Hike in the misty Knuckles Mountain Range (aka Little England)
- Indulge in Sri Lanka’s (vegan) culinary delights
- Tune out of life at a tea plantation in the mountains at Madulkelle Tea Estate.
- Ditch hotels and guesthouses to experience offbeat Sri Lanka like a local
- Other offbeat places in Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka offbeat itinerary
- What are your most memorable offbeat Sri Lanka experiences? What are you looking forward to most?
Experience rustic, sustainable, off-the-grid living at Galkadawala
If going off the beaten path into a small countryside village is your thing, like it is mine, Galkadawala is your place.
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 (also home to crocodiles!), hiking in the wilderness, hearing stories of her adventures across the country, 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.
Also read: Galkadawala: Sri Lanka’s Best Kept Secret
Take the spectacular slow train from Kandy to Ella
I must confess I’m not a train person.
But chugging up on the blue slow train from Kandy to Ella, 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 excited 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 experienced 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.
Also read: In Photos: The Slow Travel Journey from Kandy to Ella
Meet Sri Lanka’s last surviving cave dwellers in Gal Oya National Park (truly offbeat Sri Lanka!)
Many of Sri Lanka’s best kept secrets lurk around in the forgotten Gal Oya National Park.
I’ll never forget that morning, when we met a member of the Vedda tribe, wearing a blood-stained rag on his shoulder. He invited us to see the home he grew up in – a cave in the wilderness!
Or that evening, when we loaded onto a boat under an ominous sky, to sail on the choppy waters of the huge manmade lake in Gal Oya National Park. When the lake split the forest and formed several islands, the wild elephants here taught themselves to swim and go island hopping. Such a precious sight.
Stay at Gal Oya Lodge, which works closely with local communities, including the indigenous Vedda tribe and on wildlife conservation.
Also read: Gal Oya National Park: Meet the Last Indigenous Cave Dwellers of Sri Lanka
Swim in the gentle blue east coast waters
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.
Also read: My First Impressions of Sri Lanka
Hike in the misty Knuckles Mountain Range (aka Little England)
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. Here, 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.
Also read: Lessons on the Art of Living in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country
Indulge in Sri Lanka’s (vegan) culinary delights
It’s a shame that Sri Lankan food is rarely available outside of Sri Lanka. 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 made vegan.
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. Yet I could never have enough of them.
Kothu was my second favorite. A Tamil-Sri Lankan dish made with leftover breads and veggies; ask them to hold the eggs. Then the 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.
Also read: How to Travel as a Vegan and Find Delicious Food Anywhere in the World
Tune out of life at a tea plantation in the mountains 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 Sri Lanka’s hill country.
On this pretty stretch sits Madulkelle tea estate. 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 first Sri Lanka trip. An experience before which all others paled.
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.
Also read: Tête-à-Tea in Nature’s Lap at Madulkelle Tea Estate
Ditch hotels and guesthouses to experience offbeat 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.
Through the course of my travels, I’ve stayed at unique and eco-friendly Sri Lanka Airbnbs and ended up with treasured friendships with 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 a local.
In Sri Lanka’s hill country, I stayed with a Sri Lankan-Dutch couple in a glass-walled room overlooking Victoria Lake. That stay let me glean a lesson or three into the delicate art of life!
In Colombo, I landed up in the restored old house of a local writer. And in Hikkaduwa, we found ourselves in an off-the-grid, self-sustainable home complete with dry composting toilets 😉
Also read: 7 Epic yet Affordable Airbnbs in Sri Lanka
Other offbeat places in Sri Lanka
On my next trip to Sri Lanka, I’m determined to travel up north to the Jaffna district. Once torn by the civil war, Jaffna has been rebuilding itself. I hear it’s home to old forts, offbeat islands, sunkissed beaches and locals who might welcome you with bruised but open hearts.
Sri Lanka offbeat itinerary
You know I don’t suggest itineraries on this blog, right?
As with anywhere else in the world, I recommend taking it slow, no matter how much time you have in Sri Lanka. Spend your first couple of days in Negombo to get into the Sri Lankan pace of life. Head into the hill country beyond Kandy for a taste of the mountains.
Spare atleast 3 days for Gal Oya National Park. While away a week or three on the east coast if you’re a water baby. And if you want to truly experience Sri Lanka off the grid in all its rustic beauty, please, pick Galkadawala!
Also read: 15 Responsible Travel Tips to Change the Way We Experience the World
What are your most memorable offbeat Sri Lanka experiences? What are you looking forward to most?
Welcome to my blog, The Shooting Star. I’ve been called a storyteller, writer, photographer, digital nomad, instagrammer, social entrepreneur, solo traveller, vegan, sustainable tourism consultant and environmentalist. But in my heart, I’m just a girl who believes in the transformative power of travel.
I come here after a long time with a vengeance to read all the missed posts and I am welcomed by this fab post about Sri Lanka on your home page. 🙂
Hope it was a warm welcome back, Namrota 😉 Good to see you here again!
Always a delight to read your travel stories. Love the blue of Passikudah and the food does look awesome. I can never keep up with you shivya, you keep lengthening my list of “to see” places. I just got back from a six week vacation to US. Was a great holiday. Just I wish I could write travel stories like you. Have written something travel related though…. check it out wen u get time http://justanotherwakeupcall.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/stains-from-a-holiday/
Welcome back, Sapna! I read your post a couple of days back and was thinking that must’ve been quite a vacation (without going online!). Hope you’re writing more soon 🙂
Glad Sri Lanka’s on your list now. It’s just a stone’s throw away, but a whole other world. I can’t wait to go back.
where r u headed next?
did you miss bentota? that was the highlight of my trip! you write so well. 🙂
Thanks Arpitha 🙂
Didn’t go to the west coast since the monsoon was in full swing there. But that’s good reason to go back soon!
I will start with the usual – beautiful post. Your pictures and writing bring alive destinations like no one else’s do. 🙂 But I will end with an unusual announcement you may not have read here before – I went to school with this celebrity, people. 🙂 It’s wonderful to see you going places and going places, literally too. Well done, Shivya! 🙂
Thanks Sakshi, that’s indeed a compliment 🙂
Haha, lucky me to have you as my senior in school. Those were good days!
I really like the post!
I think it’s beautifully written. Did you do some editing to the photo of Passikudah?
I have a blog too- on Delhi- loveyourdelhi.blogspot.in
Thanks Akshita, glad you liked it! Visiting any time soon?
Nope, the Passikudah picture is unedited. It was just that blue in the evening 🙂
Hi Shivya, Great blog and ideas – did you hire a driver before you went or when you got there? I’d love to know your route if you don’t mind sharing – leaving for Sri Lanka on Monday and just planning my route! Melissa
Lucky you Melissa, you’re going to love it!
My route was Negombo > Kandy > Ella > Passikudah > Galkadawala > Madulkelle > Colombo. I usually don’t like cities but absolutely loved the little time I spent in Colombo, and would recommend atleast 2 days there. Highly, highly recommend Galkadawala if you’re a nature lover.
We didn’t rent a car since the bus / train / tuk tuk connect everywhere, and are much cheaper, a great way to meet locals, and a more responsible way of travelling 🙂 Also it’s fun to see what a great equalizer the tuk tuk is; since there are hardly any taxis, everyone gets around by tuk tuk irrespective of how rich/poor they are.
Have an excellent trip, indulge in lots of food, and feel free to ping me if you need any other recommendations 🙂 You can also find all my accommodation reviews from Sri Lanka at http://www.tripadvisor.com/members-reviews/TheShootingStar
Sorry to jump into your conversation, but you said you loved Colombo, Shivya? What do you recommend we do there? My friends and I are travelling to Sri Lanka soon and while we were initially planning to spend a day and night in Colombo, we’re currently not sure if the city is very different from the cities in India. What are your thoughts on this?
My advice: don’t bother with Colombo. It’s hot, humid, especially at this time of the year and damn expensive.
Save that day and spend it in any other city. You would thank me later.
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i am interested to visit sri lanka….need to have more information about tourism attractions…and what about weather in december?
In response our twitter conversation, I spent quiet a bit of time in Colombo with local friends as guides, the city is quite interesting and got a great local tour and fantastic conversations. Then headed to Galle, Hikkaduwa & Unawatuna in the south and then up north to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, had a good mix of the beaches and the hills.Really wanted to make it to the East Coast, apparently after the tsunami it is the preferred destination and a lot of locals and tourists we met on the way said the same. The cuisine was completely amazing, to say the least with a pleasant variety and mix of South Asian. Unfortunately as it was a short and budget trip, couldn’t do the cultural triangle or Jaffna, which since the war is now over is open and highly recommended. That is for a another trip then!
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love this post, and just randomly came across your blog trying to find stuff on Ella. Thanks so much for sharing!
Beautifuly written .. vibrant writing of serene spaces (Galkadawela too!!) You present what we would like all visitors to experience .. the pulse of our country. The pictures are truly awesome. Congrats .. You made a wise decision in giving up your corporate life to travel … and post.
Beautifully written – vibrant writing on serene spaces (Galkadawela included). You highlight some of the experiences we would like all visitors to our shores to have. The pictures are awesome. Congrats … you made a wise decision to give up your corporate career to travel….. and write.
Hi Shivya..just came across ur post, n luved it..myself have quit my corporate job n doing a bit of travelling SOLO:) i am plannin Sri Lanka alone, just want to know if travellin alone is safe for a woman n also minimum days required to spend.. i am looking forward to see the nature part n meditation, so if u have anything in mind to share with me! I will be glad..thx..keep up the good work:) Darshana Gupta (Mumbai-India)
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Hi I am planning a trip to SL, I have a few questions; would u be able to guide me?
1) Are 10 days enough for Colombo, Kandy and Hikkaduwa?
2) 3 days Colombo, 4 days Kandy and 3 Hikkaduwa? (does the no. of days allocated to each destination seem right?)
3) Given more days to Kandy as I am keen on going to nearby places for day trips… good or a bad idea?
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We also loved Sri Lanka, especially Galle and the boutique Kahanda Kanda resort, here is my review of that area
Great things to do. Will have to indulge in them when I go there next month.
Shivya, that tripadvisor link doesn’t open
Can you please share the updated link? Planning a trip for next week and would love to see your recommended hotels and inns.
Also, if possible can you please share what would you do differently if you happen to visit again?
Rafia here are a few things you could do besides what Shivya has suggested, depending on your inclinations:
1. Take the train from Colombo to Kandy. Aim for the observation deck and make sure you get the front seat just in front of the full length glass window.
2. While in Kandy, see the cultural dance which takes place at 6pm each evening, then at sunset go to the Temple of Tooth Relic for the evening pooja ritual, akin to muslim maghreb prayer.
3. Check out the botanical gardens and one of the spice gardens while in Kandy.
4. Hire a tuk tuk [equivalent to our rickshaw] and go for a tour of the ‘cultural triangle’ which includes Dambulla [see Cave Temple there], Sigriya [ Climb Lion Rock there] Anuradhapura [most ancient city] and Polannuruwa [second most ancient city].
5. Go for a jeep safari in Minneriya National Park.
6. Also while in Kandy check out one of the elephant orphanages which are situated just on the outskirts of the city.
7. Take another train to even further up – Nano Oya. From there, take a bus or van [10 min ride] to Nuwara Eliya, the highest hill station in Sri Lanka and the most breathtaking. What’s more, the majority of population here is Muslims, so most of the restaurants here serve Halal food, if you’re particular about that aspect. You can’t afford to miss this place!
8. If seeing ruins of ancient civilization and cultural stuff is not your cup of tea, I suggest going to the south instead of the north. The geography is more or less similar to Pakistan. There you’ll find pristine beach especially in Galle, Trincomalee and Bentota, that is if that’s your thing.
9. Contrary to what Shivya has suggested, I wouldn’t try for Galkadawala. It’s way out of the way and doesn’t offer any extraordinary that you would risk losing a day or two there. Also avoid Madulkelle tea estate, it’s way too expensive. You can find a dozen tea estates when you go up to Nuwara Eliya, so try to see one while up there. Much cheaper. Seen one, seen them all.
Whatever you do, don’t spend a minute more than is necessary in Colombo. It is the most boring place in Sri Lanka, and damn expensive if I may add.
I would be happy to suggest places to stay in different cities of Sri Lanka, but the thing is I went there backpacking and preferred cheap and utilitarian over luxury. You on the other hand will probably be traveling with family and thus want a bit of luxury.
You can find detailed reviews of what I did in Sri Lanka and how much I spent there on my travel blog http://www.travelhustling.com. Shoot me an email if there’s still something you’re not clear about.
It really is an awesome country. Happy Travels!
Thank you so much, Saqib. I was actually considering Galkadawallah; but it sounds a little expensive so far as I have researched. Definitely looking forward to your suggestions on stay-ins. And no I’m backpacking myself. Not into dorms but looking for budget bnbs.
Yes you have to be careful in Sri Lanka. Places like Galkadawala are not ideal for the budget traveler. Since the country is seeing a sudden boom in tourism after the end of civil war, the locals are getting used to charging truckloads of dollars from the largely Western tourists who can afford it all. Which is not a good thing for us South Asians.
Acha you are backpacking? Wow! Good Luck. I’m not into dorms myself. In fact I stayed mostly at bnbs. I did stay at a few wallet-wrecking boutique hotels but I didn’t actually pay them in money. I payed them the same way Shivya does.
Just check my blog again by Friday. I will have put up something useful for you by then.
Wow, interesting information. That things are very interesting to do. By doing that, we can enjoy the flavor and exotica from Sri lanka. but it is important to be known by anyone who wants to travel in Sri Lanka. nice post.
Hey Shivya, which is the most beautiful place you have ever visited?
Going there for my honeymoon.. any tips?
I had visited twice to SL one before Tsunami and after. Now after your I love to go again and explore further. Great piece to read.
Love the way that you make me feeling as though I am experiencing the entire scenery! I’m trying to start a blog now so it really gave me perspective on describing places! Also, came to search for a guide to Sri Lanka! Thanks for your help 🙂
Great post Shivya..! Really liked it…The pictures are electrifying. Thanks for sharing. How was the ella trip.. I really like that part of the country. especially kandy to ella train journey was unforgettable. I really recounted my memories of that occasion.
What an amazing and a fascinating place to visit. I really didn’t know much about Sri Lanka but after reading this post I will surely visit one day. Thanks for sharing such an amazing post.
Also visit Gal Oya National Park. So different to other places and is so peaceful to spend time in. Unlike other national parks, it is yet to be discovered by tourists.
Such good suggestions. Taking the train from Kandy to Ella is one of the best experiences to be had. The East coast beaches are the best in the world.