Hello dear travelers. My name is Maggie and I am a 26-year-old girl from Bulgaria. I started traveling when I participated in an Erasmus+ Programme and other exchange programs. Up to now, I’ve visited 31 countries (mostly in Europe) and I lived in 4 of them. Now, I will tell you about my last adventure. Exploring Sri Lanka was the last thing I did before the pandemic started, and here is how it happened.
After a spontaneous decision, my best friend and I decided to spend the first days of 2020 in Asia. On New Year’s Eve, we grabbed our backpacks and began our journey to India’s Teardrop. After successive flights from Sofia to Dubai and finally, to Colombo Airport, we arrived in Sri Lanka on the 1st of January.
In 8 days, we visited 8 different places in Sri Lanka. Varying from villages to towns and districts to large cities, here are our 8 destinations: Colombo – Pinnawala – Kandy – Sigiriya – Ella – Mirissa – Unawatuna – Hikkaduwa
Visiting Sri Lanka – When and for How Long?
The places we visited are all in the southern part of the island. Before our trip, our friends in the region told us that January wasn’t the right time to visit the beaches. Apparently, winter is the rainy season in Sri Lanka. But New Year’s luck worked its magic, and the weather was perfect. Except for one rainy day, it was all hot and sunny on the southern coast of the island. But if you don’t want to leave it to chance, do check some articles to find out the right time to visit different regions before your trip.
As you can imagine, January in Bulgaria is all about cold winters and layers of clothes. Yet, in Sri Lanka, we had the chance to spend the New Year’s under the sun. We had packed summer clothes, flip flops, and a winter coat just in case, which proved to be enough. And of course, traveling with a single backpack is always comfortable.
If you’d ask me how long is enough, I really don’t know the answer. And I doubt anyone does! In our experience, you can do a lot in Sri Lanka in 8 days. But if you want to visit as many cities and towns as we did, I really advise you to consider the time it takes to travel between places. We had to wake up at 5 am to go to a new city, and it was exhausting. One thing I can say for sure is that exploring Sri Lanka requires a lot of patience.
One Day in Colombo, Capital of Sri Lanka
If you are arriving at Colombo from a European country as we did, brace yourself for a cultural shock. Because from the humid air to the population and currency, everything is different – and very interesting as well.
If you want to buy a SIM card at the airport, make sure to bring some dollars. The prices are pretty good, but if you are in no hurry, it is better to get one in the town. You can go to the city centre by bus – it costs 200-300 LKR per person (1-2$). Colombo is a crowded city with humid air, but you get used to it soon.
In Colombo, you can use the local taxi which is called TUK-TUK. It costs 90-100 LKR per km. So, be ready to negotiate for the price because the local drivers will try to take advantage of your foreignness. Colombo is not really a touristic city, so 1 day is enough to see everything it has to offer. Seema Malaka Temple and Gangaramaya Temple are must-see locations. And if you take a walk down the coast, you will find some good bars and restaurants with an amazing view.
Be careful with the local food – everything in Sri Lanka is spicy and by “spicy” I mean “HOT”. If you don’t like spicy food, better ask the waiter about the dish before ordering.
You can find super cheap accommodation everywhere in Sri Lanka. Prices vary between 6-8$ per double private room. The food is also cheap, as well as buses and trains. The only two things that might be a bit expensive are tickets for the monuments and private taxis. You can ask for a private van/taxi at your hotel/hostel to enjoy the country in a better way.
We used a van from Colombo to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and to Kandy for 50$. Again, be careful with the drivers – they may look nice and friendly, but they still try to take advantage of tourists.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
The Orphanage was one of the coolest places we visited. Feeding the elephants, bathing them, and even just looking into their eyes felt very special. When you arrive, you have to pay the entrance fee. You can also buy a ticket for the bathing which takes place near the river. Later inside, you can buy a ticket for feeding an elephant. All these events are scheduled, and you can find the schedule at the front desk. It is also the most perfect place for taking amazing photographs and tasting fresh coconuts.
In the Ancient Sigiriya
Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress, and it is pretty famous as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, you have to pay for an entrance ticket too. Be careful with the local guides who will tag along with you and start explaining the place. If you want extra information about its history during your tour, it might be a good idea to pay them. But we toured the fortress without a guide. Keep in mind that you will need at least half a day there to climb to the top and down. Meanwhile, be careful with the cute looking wild monkeys running around!
Dambulla Cave Temple
Once again, ENTRANCE FEE. To be honest, it was one of the biggest disappointments of our trip. In Buddhism Temples, you are not allowed to enter with shoes. Okay, we already knew that part. But at Dambulla Cave Temple, they made us pay for leaving the shoes in a wardrobe in the yard. Apart from that, the temple was pretty impressive. It was different from the temples we visited before. The only time it rained during our trip was when we were inside the temple. So we enjoyed the tour covered and protected from the rain by ancient walls.
Kandy, Where Culture and Nature Meets
We spent two nights in Kandy, but we didn’t have much time to visit the city itself. If you have enough time, you can visit the traditional dance shows and the botanic garden. Also, this is the place from where you can take the famous Kandy to Ella train ride. The train trip costs 350 LKR for first-class and takes 8 hours. The first train is around 8-9 AM. We were at the train station at 6-6:30 AM. They let you buy the ticket one hour before the train arrives. Then the adventure begins.
Beware, on the train, you will see a crowd that you never saw before. If you are lucky, you will get to sit on the floor on your backpack. Local sellers will stop by every 10 minutes, trying to sell food and drinks. This chaotic train ride really is the most authentic must-do activity while exploring Sri Lanka. It is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In Sri Lanka’s Las Vegas, Ella
It is impossible not to feel the touristy vibes in Ella. From the moment you step out of the train, you see the western influence on the streets. Bars, restaurants, happy hour offers welcome you. Other than the town center, the most iconic site in Ella is the Nine Arch Bridge. You can visit the site by Tuk-Tuk and walking 1-2 km. I definitely suggest going there at sunset. We did, and it was stunning. After sunset, you can go back to town for dinner and drinks. One of the best things about Ella is that you can find both in late hours.
4 Days Exploring Sri Lanka’s Coastal Towns
If you travel down the coast to the south, you will get the chance to visit many beautiful coastal towns. We started with Mirissa, after a 5-hour bus ride from Ella. A bus ride with locals on narrow winding roads is the charm of exploring Sri Lanka. In Mirissa, we had our first good coffee since we arrived. We also went to a beach party, where we tried the local beer. It was very strong. Later on, we went to Palm Hill and saw a spectacular view.
The next day, we went to Unawatuna where we enjoyed the sun on the beaches a bit more. Then we went to Galle by bus. Galle is famous for the lighthouse and the specific white dress code.
The day after, we went to Hikkaduwa to see some turtles. My main mission there was to cuddle a turtle, but it turned out to be a difficult task. A whole day and night passed without turtles. On the next morning, which was our last, we found them. There were big turtles, ready to be cuddled.
After 4 very relaxing days and cuddling a turtle, we took a train to Colombo. It took us forever to get to the airport, so be careful in your transportation choices. The best tip I can give to you is to have local cash until the end of your trip. Basically, the bus cost 160 LKR per person, Tuk-Tuk cost 100 LKR in total, and the airport shuttle is for free. The train ride from Hikkaduwa to Colombo cost 150 LKR per person. Finally, be prepared for more than a few checks at the airport. Plan your schedule to arrive at the airport at least 2 hours before your flight.
In conclusion, I can say that exploring Sri Lanka in winter is definitely something you need to do! It is also a very cheap destination (if you find a cheap flight). After you arrive, everything is cheap. I was actually surprised that there was WiFi almost everywhere. Also, many people speak English and if you’re smart and careful enough, you won’t have any trouble. If you are looking for great nightlife, it is not the best place for you. Be careful about spicy foods and always buy mineral water from supermarkets. Some symbolic things to buy are spices, tea, and colorful clothes. I would recommend trying the Ceylon tea with milk, and the local breakfast dishes.
I hope my story and advice will be useful while you are exploring Sri Lanka.
Stay safe and keep on traveling!
P.S. If you’re interested, you can check out my project IG profile, where I share more about my trips and photos https://www.instagram.com/maddys_trips.