Travel Journal

Exploring Sri Lanka in April (Colombo, Galle, Kandy, Sigiriya, Yala, Tangalle)

I tend to gravitate towards cold places – and I adore being above the Arctic Circle – so my travel plans often see me moving further from the equator than towards it. But I was invited by Iain's family to join them in celebrating his Mum's birthday there, and wasn't going to say no to that adventure. 

The twelve-day trip was mainly focused on Sri Lanka's south and west – the bottom left quarter of the island, more or less – starting in the capital, Colombo, moving east to Kandy, then north to Sigiriya, south-east to Yala, and then finally to Tangalle on the southern tip of the island. It really didn't take long to get used to being in a tropical paradise.

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Day 1 - Evening flight from Zurich to Dubai at 10:15 pm.

Day 2 - Arrive in Dubai a little after 6:30 am and decide to go on a UAE mini adventure. After getting through the queues at border control, we take the metro from the airport (Terminal 3) to the city, take a few photos of the Burj Khalifa, grab overpriced drinks at the Dubai mall, and head back for our 12:05 pm flight to Colombo. It was absolutely rushed, but still much better than sitting around in the airport. We missed the midday heat too.

We land in Colombo at 6:05 pm, after which we collect our luggage and hit the humidity outside. Then it's a minibus to Galle Face Hotel where food, cocktails, and sleep in our huge hotel rooms await us.

 

Colombo

Day 3 - Lazy morning spent by the pool. Delicious hotel buffet for breakfast and lunch. Spend the afternoon in Colombo, walking through the Fort area and coming to terms with the heat.

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 Photo by  Katie Stepek

Photo by Katie Stepek

Day 4 - Breakfast and lunch buffet at the hotel – again (the food is incredible). Take tuk-tuks to the Galle Fort Railway Station, then walk to Pettah Market for a short wander. After about 10-15 minutes, we feel like we've taken in the atmosphere. It's not really a market where you come to buy something as a memento, unless you want a food blender or flip-flops. But it's just about worth doing if you can handle the chaos.

 Photo by Iain Stepek

Photo by Iain Stepek

The stress of Pettah market gets to us and we look for a tuk-tuk. We end up on an impromptu tuk-tuk tour of Colombo, calling first at a Hindu temple. We leave our shoes outside, pay the 250 or so rupees to enter as tourists, and hit a wall of sound, incense and colour.

Slightly high off the experience of the Hindu temple, we get back in the tuk-tuk and stop at our first Buddhist temple of the trip. It's an afternoon of contrasts, especially after the chaos of the Pettah market. The temples are blissful in their unique ways and it's hard to decide on a favourite.

Before heading back, we see another Buddhist temple. It's smaller, raised above the water, and feels more like a temporary place to enjoy the peace than somewhere to spend hours, if not days, as the previous temple did. But it's here that we stop and talk to a monk, coming from Myanmar to study Buddhist literature, who invites us to come and stay with him at his temple in Myanmar if we ever fancy it.

We compare the Hindu and Buddhist temples to each other, as well as to the noise of the city outside. Then we head back to our hotel with the noise of the Hindu temple still ringing in our ears.

Galle

Day 5 - Set off at 7:45 for a day trip to Galle with Iain and his Dad, taking the train from Colombo Fort Station. We were getting a bit comfortable in our fancy hotel, and this is certainly an antidote to that. The train is packed by the time we buy our tickets, even after arriving half an hour before. We squeeze in next to the open door of the carriage, which is lucky – we get the breeze for the journey. Not so lucky: also being close to the toilet door. The train is about 2.5 hours, and we stand until the last twenty minutes..

On the train, a man comes up to us and somehow convinces my male companions that we need to hire his brother to take us around Galle on a tuk-tuk. There was a definite non-zero chance it was a well-rehearsed scam (and the man on the tuk-tuk possibly not his brother), but it worked out well. If it was a tourist trap, we got to see much more of Galle than we would otherwise. One highlight: a Buddhist temple outside of Galle, set into a rock.

We wander towards a restaurant called Sugar in Galle for lunch, a place that could easily be a brunch option back in England. I have an avocado and feta mash on toast. We later find out that Iain's Mum and sister are eating at the Sugar in Colombo for lunch at the same time. Seems we need a touristy eating day.

We take in the view from the harbour, the Galle cricket ground, and the colonial architecture; which we discuss our mixed feelings about. If you squint, the buildings could be in a European coastal city.

We get on the train to return to Colombo. We have seats all the way back and feel very fortunate. Some are opting to dangle out the train door instead. There's definitely more of a breeze there.

 Photo by Iain Stepek

Photo by Iain Stepek

 Photo by Iain Stepek

Photo by Iain Stepek

Day 6 - We leave our beloved Galle Face Hotel in the morning, getting into the minibus where we'll spend the next three days for the tour portion of our trip. Odi is our guide and Suni is our driver. We like both of them instantly.

Our first stop is an Elephant Orphanage, which I don't like much. A lot of the chained elephants are swaying from side to side, which makes me feel dispirited too. I love elephants, but these are neither wild nor happy.

 

Sigiriya

Spirits lift a few hours later, on the road to Sigiriya. Odi shouts at Suni to stop the minibus. He thinks he's seen an elephant in the field to the left of the road. He's right, from where we're standing on top of a roadside wall we can see several in the long grasses.

We see what we can do with our zoom lenses, then a few minutes later, Odi points along the road; he thinks an elephant is going to emerge from the trees. Again, he's right.

We're shouted at to quickly get in the minibus. The elephant owns this turf, just as it should do. It's a highlight of my trip, and I'm happier than I've been all day.

Things continue to be great as we arrive at our next place to stay, Aliya Resort & Spa. Iain's sister, Katie, had planned every last detail of the trip, and we hadn't seen where we'd be staying. The view definitely exceeded expectations. We got to our room, grabbed our swimming stuff, then headed for the pool at dusk.

Day 7 - An early start, leaving at 6:30 to hike up Sigiriya, the ancient rock fortress that's one of Sri Lanka's most-loved historical monuments.

 Photo by Katie Stepek

Photo by Katie Stepek

Kandy

We return to our beautiful hotel for breakfast, resist the lure of the pool, and set off in the minibus for Kandy. On the way, we stop at a spice garden and a learn a little about Ayurvedic medicine and age-old natural remedies. We see turmeric, cardamon, vanilla, and pineapples growing, taste some cinnamon-rich tea, hear how they use the plants we've seen to cure certain ailments. Before leaving, we boost the local economy with a trip to the spice garden's pharmacy.

We try and squeeze too much into the rest of the day. The culture continues in Kandy, when we see some traditional Kandyan dancing. It's not really my thing, and it's performed in a hotel which doesn't make it feel very authentic. There are some good dancers, but others... not so much. Next, we fight through the traffic to get to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, just in time for the 6 pm daily ceremony.

With hundreds of other tourists. I think back to the otherworldly music of the Hindu temple, and the peace of the Buddhist temples in Colombo. They were less grand, but much less commercialised too. I prefer that. I did love the heaps of fragrant flowers given as offerings here though. They really were beautiful.

We arrive, tired and slightly grumpy after a mess up with the room that wasn't the hotel's fault, at The Secret Kandy. It's a beautiful little hotel, so it's a shame we don't have the time to enjoy it more leisurely. My vegetable noodles and hot cinnamon and date dessert are delicious. It's to bed soon after for another early start.

Day 8 - We leave The Secret Kandy after breakfast at 6:30 am, but we hit traffic (the Sinhalese New Year is very soon) and won't be in Yala in time for our evening safari. Odi works his magic and reschedules it for tomorrow morning. The drive through the mountains is beautiful, passing tea plantations and colourful vegetable stands at the side of the road. We stop at Glenloch Tea Factory, getting a tour of the factory and a sample of English breakfast, green, and white teas. They're delicious. 

We have lunch in Ella, where we see more white tourists than we have anywhere else in Sri Lanka. People have been reading about the beautiful views here, it seems. I wonder if you can say somewhere close by with the same views and less tourists (says the English tourist).

 

Yala

We drive down to Tissamaharama, where we're staying close by to Yala National Park for our safari tomorrow. We're at EKHO Safari Tissa hotel, which has a delicious buffet for dinner. Before then, it's good to sit for a few hours and have some time to read and write with a cup of tea.

 

Day 9 - Get into a jeep at 5:30 am for our safari at Yala National Park, with Odi the guide. We join a line of about a hundred other jeeps, Odi estimates, and our driver runs over to join the queue of drivers for a ticket to get in. We wait for about 15-20 minutes, then we're one of the first jeeps to leave.

It's not long before we're testing Odi's bird knowledge. Little green bee-eater, kingfishers, and green parrots are on the cards.

Odi explains to us that the jeep drivers have a way of communicating about the whereabouts of elephants. A driver motions a trunk with his arm to our driver, which is to signal that the elephants are awake and present this morning. Half an hour later, Odi sees something moving behind a tree. We wait patiently, take a few minutes to explain to everyone where it is (behind that bush, the one that's MOVING), and the elephant emerges. We're spellbound. It makes up for the leopards hiding, sleeping, or just feeling shy.

The afternoon holds a drive to Tangalle, where we're spending the last few days of our trip. Palm Paradise Cabanas lives up to its name.

Tangalle

Day 10 - It's Sinhalese New Year today. I greet it early, watching the sunrise on the beach.

Day 11 - Day two of watching the sunrise on the beach, this time waking up Iain for it too.

We get tuk-tuks into Tangalle in the morning, where we wander around some shops and are offered more New Year delicacies at a cafe where we stop to buy drinks. Then, back to the resort for reading by the pool, cocktails, and an afternoon swim in the sea.

Day 12 - A third sunrise on the beach, this time swimming in the sea as the sky burns behind the clouds. The waves are stronger than they look; I go to breakfast with what feels like a pint of seawater in me.

We check out of our cabana at 11 am, but don't need to leave for Colombo airport until 4 pm for our flight at 10:10 pm. We lounge by the pool, read, and enjoy the great food at the pool cafe for lunch. Sri Lankan vegetable curry for me, for the third day in a row. A rather modest name for the meal considering it comes with seven dishes.

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Four o'clock comes around and we pile into the taxi for the 3-4 hour drive to Colombo. We had expressed some concern to the hotel that the taxi was coming a bit late, something we'd think back to about thirty minutes into our journey when the driver brakes suddenly and a tuk-tuk crashes into the back of us.

We wait for the drivers to settle it, our own driver being quite possibly the worst on the road to Colombo that day. We spend the rest of the journey alternating between disbelief, humour, and fear as he overtakes four vehicles on a corner before swerving back into the correct lane to avoid crash 2.0. We're not convinced this driving technique is getting us to the airport any faster. We calculate we've probably spent more time on the right-hand side of the road than the left. We get to the airport, worn out and hungry, and rush to the gate.

Albeit in a clearly grumpy mood from my lack of dinner, I think back to the pool we were relaxing by just a few hours before, then the countless joyful, peaceful, and vibrant memories I have of the rest of our time in Sri Lanka. It'd take more than an airport rush to change that.

 


A round-up of twelve days in Sri Lanka

 

People

We were met with warmth and friendliness throughout our trip, and I lost count of how many people shook our hands and asked us where we were from (the answer always something long the lines of "mostly Scottish, but one English") (hello!) 

The Sri Lankan person we spent most time with was Odi, our excellent tour guide for the Sigiriya, Kandy and Yala portion of the trip; a rushed, but still brilliant, three days. He was our resident bird identifier (with an incredible success rate), was always ready with a story and a fact, and called me The English Princess. We liked him a lot.

 

Food

My appetite was very, very happy in Sri Lanka. Think three-course breakfasts, at least one buffet a day, and always second helpings. I'm glad, because the food was incredible. My plate welcomed lots of curries, dhal, rice and wonderfully light string hoppers – a side (or component of a main) made of rice flour pressed into noodle form and then steamed. In terms of more non-traditional choices, I consumed more cocktails than I have in the rest of my twenty-three years combined.

 

Culture

Spending some time in the Buddhist and Hindu temples was a highlight of my trip, especially when we visited the smaller, lesser-known, and thus less commercialised ones. In terms of culture, I also enjoyed finding out more about local spices and herbal medicine at the Spice Garden.

We didn't realise until we got to Sri Lanka, but we were there for the Sinhalese New Year. This meant three days of fireworks and lots of special dishes given to us by locals, including intriguing fried sweets like kokis; deep-fried, made from rice flour and coconut milk and shaped in a decorative mould. The holiday also meant a lot of traffic on the roads and for our train journey to Galle, but the extra culture on offer made up for that.

 

Stay

Colombo: Galle Face Hotel - The fanciest place we stayed in. We loved the amazing buffet food, our huge room, and the friendly staff (although the level of attentiveness easily makes you a bit uncomfortable with the hotel's colonial past).

Sigiriya: Aliya Resort & Spa - We loved the relaxing infinity pool and beautiful rooms. The food and restaurant service wasn't very good, surprisingly.

Kandy: The Secret Kandy - I really liked how small and well put-together this place was. It felt like a posh hostel (well, with a lovely pool, delicious food, and a great room).

Yala: EKHO Safari Tissa - This was less pristine and fancy than our other options, but still great. Nice room, really lovely buffet for dinner.

Tangalle: Palm Paradise Cabanas - At a third of the price of our other options, this was definitely worth it. I'm glad we had time to lounge and enjoy the beach, which was literally fifteen seconds from our cabana. The cafe has brilliant food (and it's better than what's on offer at the restaurant), including salads and curries. I drank a lot of earl grey ice teas, others loved the milkshakes and ice coffees. We fell asleep to the sound of the waves (well, and the fans as there isn't A/C, but the waves make up for it).

 

Highlights

Seeing a wild elephant on the road, and then another at Yala National Park.

The view from the top of Sigiriya. Enjoying the feeling of being somewhere ancient, albeit with lots of other tourists.

The food. Thank you, appetite, for responding to all the delicious buffets, desserts and drinks so joyfully.

Experiencing the Sri Lankan railway from Colombo to Galle. I'll never be able to wear that white shirt again, but that's cool.

The views of the tea plantations as we zigzagged up the mountain roads from Kandy to Ella.

The colours and grace of the birds, especially the little bee-eaters and kingfishers.