I spent three weeks backpacking alone in Sri Lanka from September 15 through October 8, 2013. Below is my review of the trip in the following order: top 5 lists; itinerary overview; city-specific reviews; and lastly, general advice.
TOP 5 LISTS
Top 5 most memorable experiences:
1. Exploring Jaffna and its sobering history by bike (see photos here if interested)
2. Seeing hundreds of elephants at The Gathering in Minneriya National Park
3. Sampling the full spectrum of Sri Lankan cuisine and taking cooking classes
4. Climbing Sigiriya rock
5. Enjoying the sunrise and sunset views of Ella Gap from Mountain Heavens
Top 5 favorite places:
2. Sigiriya (more the rock and Minneriya national park)
4. Nuwara Eliya
5. Trinco/Uppuveli/Nilaveli beach strip
Top 5 favorite foods:
1. Hoppers – a bowl-shaped crepe with crispy sides and spongey base, especially the panni hoppers that are filled with sweet coconut milk
2. Egg roti with chicken gravy
3. Rice and curry – homemade was best, of course!
4. Upma – thick semolina breakfast porridge in Tamil cuisine
5. Watalappam – coconut custard pudding
Top 5 recommended items to bring
1. Mosquito repellent
2. Power plug adapter
4. Smartphone and local 3G SIM (for mapping, internet, calling hotels and restaurants, etc.)
5. Ear plugs
Week 1: Colombo—Galle—Haburaduwa—Matara—Ella
Week 2: Nuwara Eliya—Kandy—Sigiriya—Anuradhapura
Week 3: Jaffna—Trincomalee—Colombo
I flew economy from Addis Ababa to Colombo via Jeddah on Saudia. Nice planes, friendly staff, no delays. We even received meal vouchers during the transit in Jeddah. I got a discounted ticket via Flightfox (see details here).
My flight arrived at 7am. At the airport, I bought a local SIM card from Dialog for R1300, which included 3G wifi and R800 of credit. In retrospect, R800 of talk and text was excessive for three weeks – I still had about R600 when I left. That said, the 3G was fast and R1300 was only USD10, so it wasn’t a terribly bad deal. I also exchanged USD$100 which was more than enough for the first couple of days.
I could have taken a bus to Colombo, but I had a large suitcase with me. The guys at Dialog called a cab for me, which was cheaper than taking the airport cabs. The ride from the airport to Colombo Fort cost approximately R1750. I went a little further South to the Kalubowila neighborhood and negotiated for R2250. It took about an hour to get into town.
Not as terrible as everyone said! I actually quite enjoyed the city, despite the congestion and somewhat chaotic pace of things.
Couchsurfing – it’s a great city for surfing and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay.
Things to do in Colombo that I enjoyed:
1.) Visiting the spice mills and getting freshly ground spices (free – except spice purchases)
2.) Attending an open street fair with food and music (free)
3.) Checking out the restaurants and cafes downtown – Commons Cafe was a particularly good coffee shop with wi-fi and great pastries.
4.) Visit the big Laksala (arts and crafts shop) and see the best of the country’s crafts. It was a good way to figure out what to look for outside of Colombo, often for much better prices. (free)
5.) Cheap, delicious lunch near the train station.
6.) Couchsurfed with some great people
Things to do in Colombo that I did not enjoy:
1.) Getting lost looking for the UNESCO ticketing office (see below)
2.) Going to the beach – it was covered in trash and nowhere nearly as nice as the beaches elsewhere
If you are a student, be sure to visit the UNESCO ticketing office 200m down from the UNDP office before you depart. It’s the only place you can purchase 50% off student tickets to the three main sites in the Golden Triangle: Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, and Polywannura.
Lovely city with a very unique fort area, albeit slightly overpriced and quite touristy. Mediocre dining options. Fun to wander about the alleys in the Fort. Would recommend including in the itinerary, seeing as the trip form Colombo is only 3-4 hours on an easy bus/train ride.
I stayed at Leijay Resort. I don’t know how much it was because I bunked with friends who were long-term guests, but it is rated #1 on Trip Advisor—a title that is fully deserved. The staff were amazingly friendly, helpful, and fun to hang out with. The food was delicious and I even got free cooking lessons from the chef.
Things to do in Galle that I enjoyed:
1.) Exploring the Fort and its restaurants, galleries, and museums. Also, meeting many friendly shopkeepers (free)
2.) Attending full moon ceremony (“poya”) with some hotel staff at a small temple (free)
3.) Taking a cooking class with Jayantha at Leijay Resorts (free)
4.) Delicious gelato in the Fort. Twice. (Il Gelato was the preferred of the two; approx. R200 per scoop).
5.) Relaxing by the pool in Leijay Resort.
6.) Going to Haburaduwa (half hour by bus) to see the turtles at the sanctuary. (R400 entrance)
Things to do in Galle that I did not enjoy:
1.) Eat at Mama’s in the Fort. It had been recommended by everyone, but I found it very overrated and overpriced. (R700 – R1000 per person)
I took the bus eastbound and then northbound from Galle to Ella, transferring in Matara and Weliwaya. The journey was long (8+ hours) but bearable. That said, the last leg from Weliwaya to Ella was the single most terrifying transportation experience during my trip. It was completely dark outside and the driver ripped through the winding mountain roads at 50mph—so fast that a fully-grown man was literally thrown out of his seat during a sharp turn. I didn’t dare look at the steep drop down the cliff. If taking this bus route, best to complete this before nightfall.
Relaxed backpacker central, great for nature and hiking enthusiasts. Better enjoyed as an unwinding destination after exhausting tours through the hill country and ancient triangle. As I was just starting my travels, I was quickly bored in Ella after just 1-2 days.
I did some freelance work in exchange for room and board at Mountain Heavens. Hands down the most beautiful view in Ella. The rooms are expensive (USD$120-140 a night), but they do deliver the value. Even if you don’t stay here, I highly recommend taking a tuk-tuk up the mountain (R150 at most) to enjoy the view from the location.
Things to do in Ella that I enjoyed:
1.) Visiting Dowa Temple and Cave, enjoying some steamed corn outside and hanging out with the family that runs it. (free; donations accepted. Corn – R20)
2.) Enjoying a cold beer while gazing over Ella Gap from Mountain Heavens. (Not sure about the price of beer…maybe R250? )
3.) Dinner at the Jade Green Restaurant (book in advance; R450 pp for rice and curry)
4.) Watching the sunrise over Ella Gap
5.) Hitchhiking along the routes near Ella – motorbikes, trucks, and tuk-tuks alike.
Things to do in Ella that I did not enjoy:
1.) Going to Rawana Falls. It was just on the side of the road and overrun with families and tourists… hundreds of people.
I took the train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya—a beautiful journey through the rolling hills and tea plantations. Second class seats were perfectly fine. Just be sure to snag a spot by the doors if you prefer that to the seat, as that area fills up pretty quickly. Note that the stop for Nuwara Eliya is actually Nanu Oya, almost 10 kilometers outside of the city proper. At of the time of my visit, the road was still under construction and drivers were charging extra to go to town. I paid R1500 for a taxi van, while a friend later paid R500 for a tuk-tuk.
Nuwara Eliya Impressions:
Old British colonial influences, small town vibe. Best for visiting tea plantations. Relaxed and romantic vibe. It was very cold when I visited (September)—I had to wear thick wool socks at night—so be sure to check the forecast and bundle up!
Nuwara Eliya Accommodations:
I stayed at a lovely homestay, Sincere Wilderness, located high on the mountains but only a short tuk-tuk ride away. This was the highlight of my trip. The family, Lal and Grace, were the most gracious, loving people I met during my entire trip. They made me feel completely at home, teaching me Sri Lankan home cooking and showing me around the rainforest. (Lal is a naturalist and incredibly knowledgeable about the nature and history of the place.) I would strongly recommend staying with them if you pass through Nuwara Eliya.
Things to do in Nuwara Eliya that I enjoyed:
1.) Visiting a tea plantation outside of town. I can’t remember the name, but it was just a few km past Labookelie, which is the one most people visit. (Free entrance; can give English guide an optional tip.)
2.) Taking the bus to the tea plantation. I found that the views of hill country rivaled those from the Ella-Nuwara Eliya train ride. Be sure to sit on the left side for the best photo opportunities. (Free)
3.) Cooking lessons with Grace at the homestay (Free; pay for dinner separately)
4.) Getting an introduction to saree (or sari) culture and production at a shop near the bus stop
Things to do in Nuwara Eliya that I did not enjoy:
1.) Paying an unexpected R1500 to go into town. There was some miscommunication and I thought the fare was covered. Be sure to negotiate clearly before hopping into the vehicle!
2.) Getting harassed by local children while wandering through the tea plantations. Handouts are unsustainable and no good.
Touristy city with some good food, beautiful lake, and decent attractions. The Temple of the Tooth and the botanical gardens were both somewhat overrated, so I wouldn’t prioritize those in an itinerary. Nice to see if you’re passing through.
Kandy Accommodation: Mango Tree Hotel
• Price Paid: R1500/night for a double fan room with private bathroom, wifi, hot water, no meals included.
• Comments: Recommended with some caveats. Pros: It was clean and reasonably priced. The outdoor deck was under renovations when I was there, but will be a wonderful place to relax once completed. Cons: The staff was often forgetful and the owner was of questionable character. I went two nights without a blanket because the staff continually forgot about my request.
Things to do in Kandy that I enjoyed:
1.) Eating hoppers from 3pm – 6pm at Siri Ramya near the Muslim Hotel. The egg roti with gravy at the other Siri Ramya location was the best we had in Sri Lanka (R100-200pp).
2.) Watching the sunset at Kandy Lake (free).
3.) Kandyan Dance (500rps/person).
4.) Visiting the botanical gardens and taking a nice afternoon nap in the shade (R800 student price, otherwise R1100 approx.)
5.) Temple of the Tooth – this was only worth it because of the puja ceremony at 9am; otherwise I think it would have been a mediocre experience (R1000).
Things to do in Kandy that I did not enjoy:
1.) The high tuk-tuk prices (R200 from city center to Mango Tree, which was barely 1-2 km).
Sigiriya Impressions: Smaller than I expected, dusty, hot, and not much happening in the town itself. Good as a base for the Minneriya National Park, the main Rock, and its surrounding sights.
Sigiriya Accommodations: Flower Inn (LP guide)
• Price Paid: R1500/night for a two-bed fan room with private bathroom, no wifi, no hot water, no meals included. Western breakfast was around $375 extra.
• Comments: The location is just off the entrance of Sigiriya Rock, which was hugely convenient. However, the staff was somewhat unenthusiastic about everything. Rooms were decently clean but poor value given the lack of wifi and hot water. Might stay there again if no better options are available.
Things to do in Sigiriya that I enjoyed:
1.) Climb Sigiriya rock first thing in the morning. The park opens at 7am and we went as early as we could. It was windy, but we were in the shade during the entire ascent. Also, the crowds didn’t start to arrive until we were descending, around 10 or 11am. Going early is highly recommended. (Normally priced at USD30; I paid half-price for the student ticket in Colombo.)
2.) Elephant safari at Minneriya national park. We departed at 2pm and hung out until sunset. As it was September, the famous “Gathering” of elephants was taking place daily. No disappointments there – we saw over 150 elephants drinking, eating, and bathing! Fabulous. ($R4500 for the jeep, split among four people. Entrance was approximately R2500 each. Total: R3625 per person.)
3.) Enjoying a king coconut and veggie roti in a hut by the road. (less than R100)
4.) Dinner at the popular restaurant just 25m down from Flower Inn. The food was westernized rice and curry, but delicious nonetheless. Just make sure they serve it hot! (R400 per person)
Things to do in Sigiriya that I did not enjoy:
1.) Waiting nearly two hours for the bus that supposedly comes every 30 minutes in the hot hot heat…
Anuradhapura Impressions: Impressive ancient history, enormous dagobas, and the Bodhi Tree. The main sights are somewhat exhausting and expensive, but worth a visit if one is interested in history and religion. I did a bicycle tour in one day (9a-4p) and highly recommend it. While there are plaques and LP guides, I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of the sights. Also, beware if you try to navigate yourself: the roads are poorly marked and people, in general, give poor directions. Try to schedule the Bodhi Tree around lunchtime, as there is a free canteen outside with decent rice and curry, as long as you don’t mind the wait.
Anuradhapura Accommodation: Shalini Guesthouse
• Price Paid: R1400/night for double fan room with private bathroom, wifi, hot water, no meals included.
• Comments: Not the cleanest hotel in Sri Lanka, but it had the basics and the staff was extremely helpful. They let me use their internet and computer for two hours without charge and even made perfect french fries for me at 11:30pm because I was hungry. Rameez was a great guide and took me to the pharmacy when I needed something. Bicycles were available for rent at R300(?) per day. Meals were expensive, but there were plenty of dining options nearby (walking not advised at night due to dark roads).
Things to do in Anuradhapura that I enjoyed:
1.) Bike tour through the main sites in Anuradhapura with Rameez from Shalini (Ticket was R3125, but I purchased the student ticket in advance for approx. R1600 in Colombo. The tour was name-your-own-price and I ended up giving him R1000 after.)
2.) Free lunch with the masses outside the Bodhi Tree Temple (free).
3.) Chilling with the coconut guy outside the first temple and trying betel nut for the first time (R50 for a king coconut)
4.) The French fries at Shalini Guesthouse. Seriously, they were good. (R300)
5.) Dinner and breakfast at Freedom Hotel, a local eatery with average prices and very good curries (R100-200pp).
Things to do in Anuradhapura that I did not enjoy:
1.) Meeting a driver while searching for a hotel and getting taken for a ride. He showed me a few places, despite my request to go directly to Shalini. When we arrived at Shalini finally, he lied and said that a German woman had been murdered there by drunken guests the previous month. I later verified that this was not the case. Shady!
Traveling from Anuradhapura to Jaffna took approximately six hours by bus. You transfer at Vavuniya (pronounced Vow-nya) and then hop on a second bus to Jaffna. There is a security checkpoint (kind of like immigration) somewhere along the highway. Be sure to carry your passport and preferably a photocopy as well.
Jaffna was my favorite location of the entire trip. Raw, recovering, bombed out, and melancholic… the city was not to be seen, but rather to be felt. I didn’t do much sightseeing while I was there. Instead, I rented a bike and went around talking to people, reading in the library, and getting a feel for the history of the war and its effects. The climate was moderate in September. I didn’t visit any of the islands as I was not entirely comfortable traveling as a solo female. Be sure to carry your passport with you as there are security checkpoints on the road from Vavuniya to Jaffna.
Jaffna Accommodation: Sarra’s Guest House 2 (The new one down the street from the old house)
Spanking new building with dozens of immaculate rooms and a pair of friendly staff. The kitchen was not operating, but the staff went out and bought anything requested—from beer to curry to toddy. Pick the rooms facing the back, as street noise can be a nuisance. Bikes available for half-day/full-day rental at a decent rate.
Things to do in Jaffna that I enjoyed:
1.) Jaffna public library (free). There is a little table behind the lobby that is dedicated to the famous Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar. The books have English translations and are well worth a read for insight into Tamil culture. Also, the library canteen in the back has good rice and curry.
2.) Bike around the city (free). The old bombed out train station is a great place for photographs.
3.) Visit a local clinic and talk to the doctor about the health system and their challenges (R200 for consultation and drugs).
4.) Attend Hindu ceremonies at 4:30pm at the main temple (free).
5.) Walk around the city market and look at all the stalls.
6.) Eat traditional Tamil food, such as uppuma and various types of pittu.
Things in Jaffna I didn’t enjoy:
1.) Dinner at Mango’s, a highly rated South Indian restaurant. The uttapam was bland and the chutneys mediocre.
2.) The fish market near the Fort. I was an uncomfortable magnet for the five minutes that I was there. Nobody spoke any English and I attracted too much attention to even photograph or wander around in peace.
TRINCOMALEE / UPPUVELI
Impressions: Trinco is a busy hub with a mix of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim influences, though most people I met were Tamil. Lots of deer wandering about the city – an odd sight. I didn’t stay for long before moving on to a guesthouse in Uppuveli beach nearby.
Uppuveli Accommodation: Shiva’s Guesthouse
R1600 for a double fan room with private bathroom, wi-fi, no hot water, no breakfast.
- NOT RECOMMENDED *** I woke up at 3am in the morning and found a stranger underneath my bed. I screamed, he ran off. Utterly unbelievable. We suspect he was attempting sexual harassment. He stole some cash but left my other valuables untouched. Amazingly, there was not a single hotel staff on site to respond to this in the middle of the night. After the staff arrived in the morning, I recovered the missing wallet in an unlikely location, which prompted a series of aggressive accusations from the hotel that I was “f**king crazy” and “making up stories”. The only person who was sympathetic was the hotel manager, though I was beyond consolation at that point, especially after being cornered and yelled at by four other employees. Lesson: Be VERY careful in the Uppuveli area, especially if you are traveling alone!
Basically, that incident took up most of my night and day in Uppuveli. I went across the street to Coconut Beach Lodge, where I was welcomed warmly and invited to lounge on their premises for as long as I wanted to. It seemed like a lovely place and I wish I had stayed there instead.
I took the night train from Trinco back to Colombo from 7:30pm until 5:30am. First class (R1200; only AC trains on Sunday) was well sold out, so I took a reclining second class sleeper (R530). It was pretty terrible—even earplugs couldn’t mask the noise of the train. If I were to do it again, I would definitely take the overnight AC bus at 10:30pm for just over R800.
I visited during low season in September and opted to find accommodations upon arrival. This turned out to be a good strategy, as most hostels had available rooms and were more willing to negotiate in person. Always haggle – if not, chances are that you will pay more than local prices.
I averaged R1500 for a single private room with en-suite bathroom, fan only, no AC, usually wi-fi and sometimes a hot shower. Breakfast was often an additional R200-300. Bikes were sometimes available for rent for R300 a day. I found that mosquito nets were necessary throughout the entire country, with the exception of Colombo and Nuwara Eliya. Washing services were not common, so be prepared to do your own laundry by hand. (The guesthouse can provide a bucket.)
Hotels will usually provide either Western and/or Sri Lankan breakfasts and dinners. Always give advanced notice (at least 2-3 hours, night before for breakfast orders) otherwise the hotel may not be ready to serve. Local eateries are much more cost effective, as a rice and curry (typically 3-4 vegetarian dishes) is only about R100-150 per person. By contrast, hotels can charge anywhere from R350 for a rice and curry up to R1300 for a buffet.
Sri Lankan food is absolutely delicious, heavily spiced, and quite varied from kitchen to kitchen. Some fun things to try:
- String hoppers and curry/sambol (a spicy shredded coconut mix) – kind of like rice vermicelli served with various curries (usually egg or lentil/dahl curry) and sambol for breakfast and dinner
- Rice and curry – Generally eaten at lunchtime, a R&C comes with a plate of rice and 3-5 curries, usually daal curry (lentils), sambol (as above), some vegetable salad, pumpkin curry, green bean curry, jackfruit curry, egg curry, etc. Fish and chicken are common options, though they were usually less appetizing than the veggie options. Be warned that some chicken curries are actually chicken parts, not chicken meat.
- Hoppers (the round kind, not string)– plain hoppers, egg hoppers (cracked egg in the middle), panni hoppers (sweet coconut cream filling) – generally available late afternoon and early evening
- Tamil specialties up in the north: pittu (mashed rice cooked in bamboo mold; there’s a sweet black version and mild white/red version), uppuma (Sri Lankan cous cous)
- Kotthu – chopped roti bread, stir-fried with onions, spices, some vegetables, and optional meat
- Roti – This comes in many forms. Coconut roti is a flat piece of baked dough with coconut flakes – excellent with chili paste. Egg roti is pulled, oiled dough that’s cooked on the stove with an egg cracked in between the layers; heavenly dipped in some chicken gravy. (Try this at Siri Ramya in Kandy!) Vegetable and fish rotis are usually sealed in a triangular bread pastry on the side of the road.
- King coconut – be sure to ask for the ones with meat (if you like it). R30-40 was normal price.
- Dessert: either wattalapam and/or yogurt at most local eateries.
- Drinks: Arak (local liquor from coconut trees); toddy (fermented coconut or palm drink), and lion beer (very drinkable and available countrywide).
• Rice and curry is eaten with your fingers. Most hotels have a washing basin in the main dining room; otherwise they will have a washing dish on the table. After the meal, the staff will usually bring you another washing basin and some recycled paper for drying.
• Occasionally they will bring a plate of “short eats” – assorted fried and baked pastries on a platter. You eat whatever you want and pay for those items at the end.
• Tea is served VERY SWEET. Ask for no sugar if you want to add it yourself.
For intra-city travel, I took public buses and second-class trains everywhere. It was incredibly cheap and entertaining (think: nonstop vendors, blasting music, and people from all walks of life). Even when I went on an 8-hour bus itinerary from Galle to Ella, the total bus fare amounted to less than R500. Note that the driving is erratic and at times quite dangerous. My main recommendations are to:
• Take the train through the hill country, particularly the part between Ella and Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya’s station name).
• Take an overnight AC bus from Trincomalee to Colombo rather than the noisy, uncomfortable overnight train.
• Get on at the beginning of the route, rather than halfway, unless you don’t mind standing the entire time.
• Keep your train ticket – you need it to exit stations.
Within cities, tuk-tuks, city buses, and rental bikes were the way to go. Many destinations were perfectly walkable. As always, exercise your haggling muscle with the tuktuks. It helps to price check with a local before getting on. Many people prefer to use the metered tuktuk in combination with a GPS, but I found that haggling with non-metered ones worked just as well.
Money, ATMs, and General Safety: Retrieving cash was not an issue. There were ATMs that accepted Visa debit cards everywhere, except maybe in Sigiriya… (I didn’t bother to check.) From both my experiences and my conversations with people, I felt that Sri Lanka was a lot safer than most other countries in terms of pickpockets, theft, and general crime. That said, read about my experiences in Trinco (see above) and always stay on your guard, no matter how safe you perceive a place to be.
Language and Communication: Few people spoke English, particularly outside of Colombo. Tuktuk drivers were often my best bet for getting directions and general advice. If you have any special dietary restrictions, accommodation needs, etc., best to look up and print out the translations in Sinhalese and Tamil before you depart.
Climate: Ranged from very warm to blazingly hot in most places I visited, with the sole exception of Nuwara Eliya, which was situated very high up in the mountains and VERY cold on a September night. While comfortable during the day, I wore a wool sweater and socks to sleep every night that I was there.
A note on scammers: Perhaps because I’m East Asian, I didn’t experience the level of harassment and trickery that has been reported on travel forums and such. Apart from the occasional mark-up, I found most Sri Lankans to be extremely warm, friendly, and curious. For every one bad person that I met, I found 10 wonderful people to make up for it. Even when I was most in need in Uppuveli, having found a stranger in my room the night before, I had so many people speak up for me and take me in. Despite the notorious rep that tuktuk drivers often get, one insisted on driving me (for free) to the ATM and later the train station. He even bought me fresh fruit along the way! I really enjoyed meeting locals everywhere I went… and would certainly advise everyone to give Sri Lanka a try.