Influencers, travel magazines and tourism operators lauded this island jewel, which, on a map, looks as if it has been delicately placed by hand off the south-east corner of India.
But in April 2019, tragedy struck the popular island paradise. A series of carefully planned terrorism attacks during Easter Sunday religious services left the country grief stricken and many tourists wary. All this after a 30-year civil war ripped the country in two, and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami claimed more than 30,000 lives.
However, if there’s one place that – despite these immense challenges – can still warm your travel soul better than a cup of Ceylon tea and Kottu on a cold night, it’s Sri Lanka.
With rainforests, postcard beaches, beautiful smiles, ancient temples and abundant wildlife, the hardest part of visiting Sri Lanka is deciding where to start, and whether to travel in the back of a cramped tuktuk, or with your legs dangling out the side of a train. We’d strongly recommend both.
Here are eight reasons you need to put Sri Lanka at the top of your bucket list:
The ancient capital of Kandy (4 hours from Colombo) is often overlooked as a tourist destination. Considered more of a springboard to the golden triangle of historical sights in the north, Kandy is a city for wandering, people watching, and a place with an unrivalled food culture, with influences from Southern India and Europe. Lunch upstairs at the Kandyan Muslim Cafe is a must. Don’t be fooled by the simple decor; the food here is hearty and the service is warm. A half-roast chicken Kabul is not to be missed.
2. Wasgamuwa National Park
There’s an abundance of National Parks to choose from in Sri Lanka, including the popular Yala in the south east. But nothing compares to Wasgamuwa National Park, which is one of the most biodiverse and protected areas in the country. On the edge of the park sits an important wildlife initiative, which brings into focus the human elephant conflict in rural Sri Lanka (farmers kill around 225 elephants every year, and elephants kill 60-80 people annually). Project Orange Elephant (run by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society and supported by The Intrepid Foundation) encourages local farmers to cultivate produce which elephants are not attracted to, like orange trees, which masks the smell of other crops and food stored in homes. On Intrepid’s Wildlife and Wilderness Expedition, you’ll have the opportunity to meet with farmers, local scientists and conservationists, who are all searching for new and innovative ways for humans and elephants to coexist.
Stepping into the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Dutch fort in Galle is like stepping back in time. The ancient buildings criss-cross their way throughout the city, and getting lost in the maze of cafes, restaurants and patchwork of colonial architecture is all part of the adventure of coming here. Enjoy lunch at Hoppa Galle Fort (famous for its Currylicious Pancake Hopper Set), before strolling around the fort ramparts as the hot sun sets over the Laccadive Sea.
The journey to Ella by train is as magical as the place itself. Don’t bother with a First Class air-conditioned ticket, because you’re going to want to sit in a doorway. This is a prime piece of train real estate as your colonial-era carriage seems to both limp and dance through a dense jungle and alongside sheer escarpments. With more tourists, Ella has lost some of its original hippy hillside charm, but a visit to the instafamous Nine Arch Bridge, and the tough hike up Ella Rock, are still two local highlights that are not to be missed.
5. Maskeliya or Hatton (departure point for Adam’s Peak)
Tea is still very much at the centre of Sri Lankan culture, and as your train to Kandy or Ella winds its way through century-old tea plantations, be sure to make a stop at either Hatton or Maskeliya and visit one of the grand old colonial tea houses, once controlled by the British. You should also consider a pre-dawn hike Adam’s Peak (Sri Padi); the pilgrimage to the summit of the highest mountain in the country usually starts at 3am and finishes with a sunrise breakfast.
6. Arugam Bay
This typically sleepy surf town becomes a swell magnet between the months of July and October, drawing barrel-seeking Europeans and Australians every year. Surfers from around the world laud Arugam Bay as one of the best breaks in Asia, and during high-season the streets heave with late-night dinners and parties. Minutes away from Arugam Beach is Kumana National Park (formerly known as Yala East National Park). Kumana sees fewer crowds than Sri Lanka’s other parks, and is home to an abundance of wildlife, like leopards, elephants, crocodiles and white cobras, making it an incredible spot for a morning or evening safari.
The Indian influence on the streets of Jaffna is enough to remind you that this was a city dislocated from the rest of the country for more than 30 years. During the civil war this was Tamil Tiger heartland, but since swinging its doors open to tourists in 2009, it’s become a favourite for those looking for something a bit off the beaten path. Getting to Jaffna is not easy, so spend at least a few days here at the local market, or travelling by boat out to one of the remote islands of Nainativu or Delft (you should do both).
Better known as ‘Trinco’, this east-coast harbour (about 4 hours from Jaffna) is famed for its deep blue water and white sandy beaches. Nilaveli Beach is the perfect local spot to park your scooter and chill for an entire day in the shade of a palm tree. From July to October, pick a reputable diving company such as Angel Diving and you could be one of the lucky groups to swim alongside a whale shark or two.
Feature photo by Stephen Parry.