6 Unexpected Ways Sri Lanka Took Me Completely By Surprise!
On a map, Sri Lanka appears like a teardrop dwarfed by its Indian neighbour to the north-west. Previously overlooked in favour of other South Asian destinations such as Vietnam or Thailand, Sri Lanka is now becoming a hot-spot for tourists and backpackers alike, each with aspirations of unlocking the secrets held by a country the locals call “The Wonder of Asia”.
I’ll openly admit, I landed in the capital on a midweek, late-night flight from the Maldives, with very little knowledge of Sri Lanka (aside from my familiarity with their national cricket team). The next 3 weeks would turn out to be an incredible journey, shattering my misconceptions and stereotypes into a thousand pieces, leaving me with nothing but respect and admiration for a country that until a decade ago was embroiled in civil war.
Being completely honest, I had expected Sri Lanka to be very much like its larger, sub-continental neighbour; crowded, dusty, noisy and with salesmen on every corner pressuring their goods onto you like rampant sharks with a taste for blood (don’t get me wrong, I loved India - you can read my two diary entries from India here and here). What I found once I dug deeper under the skin of this island, couldn’t have been any further from my expectations.
Here are 6 unexpected ways that Sri Lanka took me completely by surprise and left me with impressions that will last a lifetime…
1. Just how green it is
Sri Lanka is approximately the size of Wales; another country known for its lush, fruitful landscapes and stunning vistas. It seems having a surface area of around 25,000 square miles is not the only thing these two countries have in common – Sri Lanka has greenery as far as the eye can see once you leave the cities behind. As you travel around the island, scenes of thick forest, bright green paddy fields and tall palms await you. These views are a world away from many of those I experienced across the majority of India, technically just 30 miles offshore.
Travelling by train from Hatton to Kandy, we climbed high into the hills via winding tracks, across gorges and rivers. It truly was an experience words struggle to do justice. The train rarely exceeds 40mph as it ascends through tea plantations and forests but do you really care? The views are to die for!
2. It can rain. A lot.
Unfortunately, you can’t enjoy that much emerald scenery without the rain to nurture it. Many parts of Sri Lanka are drenched under an average yearly rainfall of 2,500mm, mainly thanks to the monsoon weather that hits the island each year. Even whilst I’m here, much of the centre of the island succumbs to at least a shower or two every other day. Quite refreshing after hours spent walking the hilly streets of Kandy!
Plenty of rainfall also leads to stunning waterfalls and rivers that surprise you as they seem to leap out from behind the trees as you pass by on the nearby railway line. Many ponds and lakes can be found dotted around the countryside, occupied by a wide range of Sri Lankan wildlife; including turtles, frogs, countless species of fish and insects. Lilies and lotus flowers blanket the water and add a dash of purple, blue and white to the pleasing picture.
3. Off the beaten track is best
As with any country that has ever had a guidebook written about it, Sri Lanka has sights and destinations which have capitulated under the influx of tourists and now no longer have the charm that they maybe once had. Does that mean you shouldn’t visit them? No, of course not, but be aware that this great country has so much more to offer away from the souvenir stands and queues found along the beaten track.
Climbing Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) is a feature of this nation which many travellers cross off their bucket list whilst here. The 5,500 steps lead to a 2,243m (7,359 ft) altitude Buddhist temple which charms religious pilgrims and tourists alike. Unfortunately, its popularity has also attracted many traders which clutter the route all the way up and the bottleneck at the top somewhat spoils the history of the site, although no queues can ruin the majesty of the sunrise from the summit! A 2am start to the trek is well and truly worth it, trust me.
Another world-famous landmark – Sigiriya is famed for its Lion Rock Fortress; a natural volcanic rock formation which was adapted into a settlement by King Kasyapa around the turn of the 6th century. To accommodate modern day visitors, the fortress now has a staircase built onto it, easily taking tourists to the top at the expense of a hefty 5,000 rupees fee (£25/$30) –more expensive than many other highlights of Sri Lanka that I visited. The views from nearby Pidurangala rock exceed those from the Lion Fortress in my opinion, and what’s more, the climb is much more enjoyable for those able to do it – centuries-old stone steps mark the path to the halfway mark, followed by some light scrambling to take you to the summit. All this for 10% of the entrance cost of its sister…and far fewer visitors!
4. It’s incredibly easy and cheap to get around
Sri Lanka’s transport infrastructure may be a little dated but it still works perfectly well! Frequent train schedules link the main destinations across the country and for those that are away from the tracks, buses fill in the gaps. Everything is relatively punctual but can take some time to get to its destination. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing given the chances are you’ll have an awe-inspiring view from the window.
The costs of travelling around Sri Lanka are incredibly cheap too. Train tickets that took me across the country can be purchased for around £3 or £4 for 2nd class ($3.75 or $5), while bus tickets cost only a matter of pence. There are, of course, the usual methods of transport; tuk-tuks and taxis offer to take you across large distances and can be a convenient way to explore the country but naturally cost far more than trains or buses and don’t always arrive at their destination any sooner, due to many Sri Lankan highways only being small A or B roads.
One final note on public transport – be prepared to stand. The more popular train and bus routes that cannot be reserved will often fill up quickly. If you can reserve a seat, I recommend that you do; otherwise you can be left pinned between tourists and locals alike, which when the fans don’t work and it’s in excess of 30°C, isn’t the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
5. Sri Lanka’s people are incredible
During my travels across Sri Lanka, I’ve spent over half my time frequenting local homestays. I’ve found these to be a great way of meeting local people and understanding more about the history and culture of whichever place I’m visiting. The welcome I’ve received as I’ve arrived at each and every one of these people’s homes has been nothing short of incredible. A warm smile and a chat greet you and you leave with a lifelong friendship.
Now I’m no fool and I understand these people make a living from providing a service and so guest reviews on booking.com and similar websites help to provide regular customers, but everybody everywhere seems to constantly go the extra mile.
Sumith, a 50-year-old homestay host, and his wife were one such example. They opened their home to me during a visit to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. The home-cooking was beyond anything I’d eaten before and they even threw in extra meals for free that were above and beyond the bed and breakfast we had paid for! Spending the afternoon watching cricket from their living room and a free tuk-tuk ride across town when we thought we’d miss our train, just cemented the thought that Sri Lankan people are incredibly friendly, generous and helpful.
The many small acts of kindness and friendship you encounter every day just go to show how truly special this country is; be it a stranger offering to take your rubbish and find a bin for you, a man leading you to where you want to go because you don’t understand directions in Tamil or Singhala or a group of young Sri Lankans inviting you to join in their game of street cricket!
6. You’ll put on weight despite the exercise you’ll do
One harsh reality of a long visit to Sri Lanka is that you’ll climb mountains, trek through jungles, ride bicycles for miles and miles but not seem to shift any weight from your midriff. There’s one simple explanation for this – the food is delicious and plentiful!
I must have put on more than a stone in weight in the time I’ve been here – just under a month. At each and every homestay I’ve visited, incredibly presented platters of food would appear for breakfast, lunch and dinner; each one more impressive than the last. Mountains of tasty basmati rice mixed with vegetables, eggs, spices and sausage, colourful curries with more flavour than you could imagine and plates of fruit bigger than bin lids would all be placed before you by the homestay owner, bearing an enormous grin and awaiting your approval.
Of course, after hours preparing this feast and all the love and care taken over it, you simply have to eat it all. It just helps that you actually want more after you’ve finished – it really is that good!
Sri Lanka has been an incredible adventure which has challenged my views and expectations. It’s a nation which has welcomed me with open arms and left me with more memories and friendships than I could ever have imagined. This country is certainly one I’ll return to; you could spend years here and still be surprised by what it has to offer hidden away.
If you want to wander for hours around the European-style streets of Galle, see an international cricket match in Colombo, hike to dizzying heights at Sri Pada, surf at Hikkaduwa, take a history lesson at the likes of the Polonnaruwa ruins or simply kick back, relax and enjoy many of the stunning beaches or forests, you have it all within reach in Sri Lanka.
I’m certain I’ll be answering Sri Lanka’s call once again in the near future.