There’s a lot more to Sri Lanka than sandy beaches and vast fields of tea. Did you know it’s one of the most diverse places on the planet? The nature is absolutely stunning and when you throw the culture into the mix as well, it’s no surprise everyone and their mother is currently planning a trip there. I was fortunate enough to explore the country for two whole weeks over the Christmas break and saw countless of incredible places. It’s very hard for me to pick out the best, but here’s five experiences you should definitely put on your to-do list if you haven’t yet.
KANDY TO NUWARA ELIYA TRAIN JOURNEY
Train journeys in Asia are quite an experience on their own, but the one from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is considered to be one of the most scenic. And scenery is what you get! The train takes you through forests, villages, past waterfalls, rolling hills full of lush green tea plantations… It’s stunning! So much so you don’t even realise you’re stuck on train for hours on end. I was happily snapping away with my camera every second of the journey and taking advantage of the open windows and doors, despite my dad’s disapproval, haha. I’m still alive, with no body parts missing, and I managed to take a couple of sick shots as well, so I guess we can call it a success.
If you’re planning to take the journey yourself – and you should – make sure to book your tickets at least a couple of days in advance at the train station, as they often sell out. You have three classes to choose from, the first two being more touristy, with padded seats and fans, while the third one is a bit rougher and can be crowded. I think the prices start at €2,50 per person. Cheap as chips!
As the journey usually takes over five hours, make sure to take the window seat, bring some water and snacks (sometimes you can buy fruit and fritters straight from your window when the train stops at intermediate stations), and be prepared for delays. The trains break down on a daily basis, so don’t be surprised when they announce your train won’t be coming for a while. In our case, a while meant two hours, teehee.
YALA NATIONAL PARK SAFARI
When I hear the word safari, Africa is usually the first association I get. Before visiting, I had no idea Sri Lanka has so many animals living out in the wilderness, so maybe you too would be surprised to hear you can spot hundreds of species of birds, monkeys, elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, deer, buffalo and even leopards!
Yala National Park has one of the highest leopard densities in the world, believe it or not, and some people travel there just to see this magnificent creature in its natural habitat. We were told not to expect anything, though, as some people spend weeks in the park before seeing one, and even then, it might be just a tail hanging down from a tree… But I guess the universe had a surprise in store especially for us! We managed to see it in all its glory, chilling by the trees, not even far away from us. I was gobsmacked. It’s something I’ll never forget! Obviously, I can’t promise you to be equally lucky, but either way, leopard or no leopard, the safari was an amazing experience.
Sigiriya, also known as the Lion Rock, is a giant stand-alone rock formation listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It used to be the home of the king, and there are still the remains of the palace to be found on top, as well as frescoes and gardens in front.
While I can’t say the climb was my favourite part thanks to my dodgy knee and my fear of heights, I have to admit I felt a true sense of accomplishment after winning the battle of those 1200 stairs, and the views from the top turned out to be well worth the effort as well. If the number of stairs freaked you out, don’t worry. If I can do it, so can you. Considering my fitness levels are at the all time low, and my knee injury barely allows me to bend my knee, I think I’m the best proof everyone can do it. I actually didn’t find it as physically strenuous as I did mentally exhausting. I’m so afraid of climbing up somewhere high my legs instantly turn into jelly and I can’t even move. I think that’s enough of a proof you are just as if not more capable. There’s a lot of resting stops too, so you can go at your own pace and take some photos along the way.
I do have a few tips, though. Bring enough water, because you will sweat out all bodily fluids, and set off early. And by early, I mean at sunrise. Yes, you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night unless you want to climb up there when the sun is scorching hot and there’s hundreds of people around you attempting to do the exact same thing at the exact same time. The crowds we saw on the way down were insane and trust me, you do want to avoid them.
CYCLING AROUND POLONNARUWA
The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa is another UNESCO World Heritage Site worth a visit. The ruins span over 4 km, so it’s best to rent a bike and cycle it out. You can see the Royal Palace and dozens of temples, which you’ll need to be dressed for appropriately to check them out from the inside. I suggest you to wear a top which covers your shoulders and trousers that cover your knees. Alternatively, you can also bring a scarf you can wrap around yourself. I always carry one in my backpack whenever I’m exploring Southeast Asia, because there’s gorgeous temples around every single corner.
Before you enter any temple, you also need to take off your shoes, so flip-flops are your best friends when it comes to Polonnaruwa. Unless you want to practise tying your shoes, hehe. And do prepare having your feet burn. The stones are hot, hot, hot! Now that I think of it, it makes sense why all Japanese tourists had socks with them. Maybe I should copy them next time.
PINNAWALA ELEPHANT ORPHANAGE
I’m writing down this suggestion with a caution. If you’re looking for a proper orphanage, this is probably not the place to go. Pinnawala started as an orphanage, and all elephants are still either rescued or born there, but the place now resembles a ZOO and is there mainly for the purpose of tourism if you ask me. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any other elephant orphanages I could recommend instead, so this is the only place I can comment on. The reason why I’m including it is because I have an unexplainable obsession with elephants. I just love them and feel like a kid in a candy store when I have the opportunity to get up close to them, and this place provides you with just that. You are able to walk up to them, feed them, bathe them… the whole shabang.
I have to say, I didn’t get the impression elephants were treated poorly. I enjoyed watching them roam around and having a bath. They seemed happy and I didn’t see any getting stabbed while I was there. But a few were chained, which is what I had the biggest problem with. I understand they probably had to be due to safety reasons; however, it still left a bitter taste in my mouth. That and the keepers who are too hungry for money. They take your camera to take photos of you and then pester you for extra money even though everything is already included in the unusually expensive ticket price. A bit of a bitter sweet experience, really. It is one of the most popular and unique places in Sri Lanka that everyone still wants to go to, though. I was looking forward to going and enjoyed my time there, but I’m hoping to find a proper, less touristy orphanage next time.
Now that you’ve made it until the end of this very long blog post, I would like to invite you to check out my YouTube channel for even more Sri Lanka content. I was vlogging every day of my trip and now put together a playlist of all the vlogs I filmed. I poured my heart and soul into them, so I hope you enjoy them! Just a warning… there’s no way you won’t want to visit Sri Lanka once you give them a watch.