Sri Lanka Travel Guide
Largely known by the modern media as an island ravaged by civil war and the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s political problems have failed to stem the flow of tourists who come to experience the beautiful coastline, multiculturalism and sheer madness that is Sri Lanka. A ‘milder’ version of India, the abundant natural beauty, bizarre festivals, markets clouded by diesel fumes and constant horn-blowing may or may not enchant you. They also have a pretty good cricket team.
Why You Should Go
What’s Cool: Lunch packets, the swirls of the Sinhalese alphabet, colonial leftovers, abundant wildlife, idyllic beaches, ancient temples and ruins, amazing sunsets, friendly locals and rolling tea plantations.
What’s Not: Ongoing ethnic tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese; scamming touts; monkeys stealing your food; crazy, fearless drivers; Colombo’s traffic clogged Galle road; package tourists crowding some of the best beaches and the intense heat.
When to Go
The tropical climate has two distinct seasons: the dry season and the wet season.
The distinctness of these seasons is confused by the two annual monsoons: the Yala monsoon (May to August) and the Maha monsoon (October to January).
The southwestern half of the country is dry from December to March and wet during the Yala.
The north and east of the island is dry from May to September and wet during the Maha.
The advantage of the climate here is that you can always guarantee that somewhere on the island is experiencing ideal beach weather.
Getting There & Away
After a taste of the reckless driving here, you may well opt for a movie-marathon in your hotel room or a beach-only holiday instead, but getting around isn’t that bad in the quieter parts of the island, so long as brushing the sleeves of a cyclist at 60mph doesn’t phase you. With only one domestic flight route available, your only option for seeing the island is to bring a blindfold befrore getting on a bus. Trains make a slower but more preferable way of getting about, while the taxi and three-wheeler drivers will happily promise to take you wherever you want to go, even if your destination is impossibly far away.
Health & Safety
The driving here is likely to scare the wits out of you, with cars, three-wheelers, cows, bicycles and motorbikes all regularly swerving onto the ‘wrong’ side of the road. With such aggressive tactics, it’s not hard to see why accidents easily happen. Even if you’re not in a vehicle of some variety, an attempt to cross Galle road should wise you up for what lies ahead, with the clouds of diesel fumes and heart-stopping horn blowing not making the task any easier. Aside from crossing the road, there are the well-known ethnic tension hotspots to avoid and the usual array of Asian diseases.
Food & Hospitality
You’ll quickly make friends with the welcoming Sri Lankans, or at least with the local taxi man who hangs outside your hotel each day. With a culture that embraces tourism, you will be made to feel at home despite the menacing presence of AK-47 clad soldiers every 500 meters in Colombo. There is no shortage of first-class hotels with associated health and beauty treatment centres, while the beaches have a reasonable tourist infrastructure. Watch out for dodgy touts and three-wheeler drivers who are determined to get you in their cousin-in-law’s handicraft shop. If they tell you the place you want to stay is closed, give them a ring and find out for yourself. Oh, and don’t forget to eat with your right hand!
One week is enough to scratch the surface of Sri Lanka and get a feel for the culturally-rich island.
Two days relaxing on the beaches of Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna.
Two days exploring the forested hills and paddy fields of Kandy.
Two days driving along the coast to Yala West National Park.
Two days exploring the Cultural Triangle area and its ancient cities.
A day or two at coastal Tangalla or Mirissa.
Two days taking in the capital, Colombo.
Kandy: laid-back hill country capital offers a cool climate and colonial history surrounded by luscious countryside. Pick up some antiques and gems at the busy day markets, but come night; prepare for eerie silence.
Yala West National Park: explore the rocky outcrops and miles of scrubland at this vast park housing the world’s densest leopard population.
Cultural Triangle: a term used for the ancient cities in the Kandy area which include four Hindu shrines and two monasteries. Also within this area is the National Museum and the Archaeological Museum.
Tangalla: only 193kms from the capital, this coastal paradise is the perfect place to unwind and relax by the beach.
Mirissa: a sleepy town boasting a quaint fishing harbor and a calm sandy beach.
Colombo: you’ll either love it or hate it, but either way, don’t forget to experience a walk along Galle Road, where every hour is rush hour.
Unawatuna: one of the busier resorts; expect plenty of package tourists, crowdedness, petty crime and drugs to complement the gorgeous, curved bay.
Hikkaduwa: famous for its deathly road which runs through it, this hectic beach resort is one of the busiest on the island, and has a buzzing nightlife to boot.
Surfing: from April to September, the waves here are one of the biggest attractions, with Arugam Bay pulling in the most enthusiasts, with Hikkaduwa closely following.
Diving and snorkelling: while a large percent of the reefs which surround the island have been damaged, there are still some nice spots at Hikkaduwa and Tangalla.
White-water rafting: those looking for an adrenalin rush can hit the river near Kitulgala, the area where: Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed.
Hiking: only just gaining momentum here, visitors can independently hike up Adam’s Peak for excellent views across the island.
Golfing: with three top-notch courses to choose from and very reasonable green fees, this is one place where tee times won’t be fully booked.
Meditating: if you don’t mind hanging out with lots of hippies, the Kandy area offers several places where you can learn or practice meditation.
Ayurveda treatment: while real ayurveda treatment sometimes takes weeks or months to see the benefits, there’s no harm in dabbling for relaxation.
Festivals & Events
Along with the country’s diverse religions come some pretty frequent festivities, many of which are quite peculiar in the eyes of visitors.
February: National Day is celebrated island-wide with games, parades and dances.
April: Sri Lanka New Year (Aurudu) is marked by astrologically determined auspicious moments, so be sure to consult the local holy man as to what colour you should wear.
May: Vesak is a two-day holiday commemorating the life and death of Buddha with puppet shows, offerings and paper lanterns.
August: Vel sees the chariot of trident-clad Skanda (God of War) emerge from a temple in Pettah to begins its procession to Bambalapitiya.
October: Deepavali, otherwise known as the festival of the lights, is a Hindu celebration that sees lights illuminated and oil lamps lit island-wide.