Coming from India, Sri Lanka felt like a completely foreign land. We thought it would be more like India but it was very different. Because it is still a relatively new destination for travellers, we found it wasn’t set-up as well for tourists. Things were expensive, especially the entry fees into sites. Transport was either very cheap but claustrophobic because of the way they cram their people onto public buses, or very expensive if you want to hire a car and driver for the day. There was no middle ground and we felt India offers more options when it comes to transport. However, a highlight for me was how friendly people were, simply for the sake of being friendly. They would say hello to you as you walked past them on the street, and that was all. Contrastingly, in India people said hello because they wanted to coerce you into buying something from them. The food in Sri Lanka was only so-so, but the choices for western cuisine were vast and always delicious.
We flew from Delhi to Colombo, but the city itself is further way than the much closer Negombo. We opted to spend the night in Negombo as our flight into Sri Lanka landed very late at night. The airport is going through renovations and expansions so flights coming and going to and from Colombo are only at night. We didn’t spend any time in Negombo except for the night and our breakfast the next morning. I know some people spend time in this beach town, but it looked rather boring to me. It is a great option for one night once you land in Sri Lanka, though.
Kandy was the first real location we spent time in and along with other tourists, a great place to begin your Sri Lankan adventures. It’s a town in the middle of the country with a man-made lake in its centre. We enjoyed the markets, the western-style shopping centre, and embarked on a day-trip touring the city and its surrounds. The Royal Botanical Gardens were lovely, and the tours of the spice gardens interesting. The gem museum was likewise interesting but there was a lot of pressure to buy gems and jewellery after the lengthy tour. Stand your ground if you are not interested, but barter hard if you are! The last stop was the big Buddha on the top of the hill overlooking the city of Kandy which was a very nice way to end the day. The local food was delicious in Kandy, especially the chicken rotis.
Most people do day-trips from Kandy to Sigiriya but we highly recommend staying there for the night and then getting up extra early to hike the rock. That is the most enjoyable way, because you can enjoy the hike up with less tourists breathing down your neck or catching up to the slower ones. As the hike is rather steep and the climate a bit humid it can be challenging for older or unfit tourists but otherwise easy. The views are unbelievable and we spent about 2 hours at the top taking it all in. (I also did a small painting while checking out the view which took about an hour). After descending and getting to our guesthouse for a shower and a nap, we ventured out to climb the rock opposite Sigiriya rock in order to see it at sunset. This climb was easy as well, but the last five minutes or so require some manoeuvring and you really need proper shoes. I saw some tourists doing it in flip flops, so it’s doable, but probably a bit scary and I’m sure they were thinking “damn, should have worn proper shoes”. Again, the view was worth the climb. Just remember to cover your shoulders and legs as the trailhead goes through some holy grounds where locals will get angry if you don’t cover up or pay their silly fee.
Perhaps since we’ve already been to the ancient cities of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we were not super impressed by Polonnaruwa. Or, we were hot and sticky from the humidity and just couldn’t muster the interest in these ruins. Not sure which it was, maybe a little from column A and a little from column B, but you certainly do not need to spend the night in this city. Sure, do a day trip from Sigiriya to your next location (perhaps Nuwara Eliya or Ella) but don’t waste precious time sleeping here as the ruins can be seen in a couple of hours at most if you’re sort of moderately interested, or a half day to full day if you’re really interested. If you’ve seen Angkor Wat, you’ll be sort of interested.
We skipped Nuwara Eliya which some tourists would gasp at and wonder what the point of going to Sri Lanka was if we didn’t hike Adam’s Peak. We should have done it. We don’t feel we made a major error, though, as we loved our time in the cooler city of Ella in the mountains. It was absolutely wonderful to find western food that was excellently prepared and presented. From this town you can also find great walks and tours to do. A highlight or two for us was “Mini-Adam’s Peak” which was a lovely stroll up the mountains to gain gorgeous views of the emerald green hills and tea plantations. Also, 9 Arches Bridge was a nice walk down into a picturesque valley with an aesthetically beautiful bridge. If you wait until 5:30pm you’ll catch the iconic blue train making the trip around the bend. Ella was a nice break from hotter climates and to be honest, from local food (which we did enjoy too of course). From Ella we also took a train to Haputale merely to enjoy the train experience in Sri Lanka. We booked two days in advance for the First Class Observation Car and it was worth it because we had windows on all three sides and could really enjoy the views. The train was very slow though as it took 2.5 hours to go 25 kms, so if you do it, bring snacks. We were starving by the time we got to our destination, and the options for food were poor once there. We caught a tuk-tuk back to Ella which took about an hour.