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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!