While I didn’t have as many outstanding experiences in Sri Lanka as I did in Myanmar, if you visit Sri Lanka, you should definitely try to frequent these establishments or experiences these sites.
Colombo – 1 night
As I was in Colombo for less than 24 hours I have no suggestions. My hotel for that one night should be a fallback if no other accommodation is available, as in check to see if there are tents available first before VJ City Hotel.
I highly recommend using the train in Sri Lanka. The Colombo to Kandy line is very good, but the Kandy to Ella trip is spectacular! It is in my top 10 travel experiences. As great is the train ride is, remember a couple of things. Firstly, tickets cannot be bought at the train station. You have to purchase tickets well in advance of your trip to Sri Lanka. Thinking you can buy tickets the day of will leave you frustrated. Strangely, the train station does not sell the tickets, but a cell phone company. It’s NOT a scam if you are redirected to a phone company’s website to purchase the ticket. Once you buy the tickets online, you have to find a kiosk or shop from that company to print your ticket out. ONLY PRINTED TICKETS ARE ACCEPTABLE! Do NOT be that angry tourist left at the train depot trying to show a confirmation on your smartphone. Second, the tickets won’t be as cheap as you think. Yes, most things in Sri Lanka are cheap, but not train tickets. At least not first class tickets. There are also second and third class tickets available. First class and First class observation seats are the best for viewing the landscape and countryside. Second class allows for some views of the landscape, but more interaction with the locals which is just as rewarding, and third class while extremely cheap, is going full Sri Lankan. We’re talking a hole for a toilet, often standing room only the entire trip, no view except for the people smashed against you, but getting at least two dinner invitations from the lovely locals you meet while you’re packed like cattle off to slaughter. No matter the class you choose, I guarantee it will be the talk of your trip.
Kandy – 2 nights
While Kandy is OK, I can without any hesitation recommend Notting Hill Country House.
The neighborhood the hotel is in might seem suspect at first. At least I thought so, until we reached the top of the hill where it’s located. It’s in a quiet area, the rooms are all great and the view while having breakfast is FUNomenal! PLUS, the owner Fonseca is as genuine as they come. Extremely friendly, a true professional and beyond helpful. He arranges transportation only with people he personally knows and trusts. The one time his Tuk Tuk driver was busy he stressed about having to use someone new. After the trip he apologized again for his regular driver not being available and wanted to hear all about the new driver to ensure he was up to his standards! If you’re lucky enough to get a room here, make sure you set aside time to chat with Fonseca, you won’t regret it.
One thing I most definitely would NOT recommend in Kandy is the Kandyan Cultural Show. Avoid that thing like the plague! How or why there are positive reviews of this dumbfounds me. Firstly, any tour you do, organized or through a random tuk tuk driver, ends up here. How they describe it makes it sound wow. In reality, it was 60 minutes of the same drum beat continuously banged out by a group of guys who sounded like the Drumming 101 class. I had a migraine when it ended. If the show was 30 minutes long it would be fine. The first 10 minutes are GREAT! You see traditional dress from men and women, traditional songs being sung, traditional dance, all good. Then it becomes an unorganized incoherent mess. The production quality also was a big influence in my opinion. Felt like a couple of guys realized they could make money dancing for tourists and got some friends together. They spend all day lounging around playing video games, then about an hour before the tourists arrive they realize they haven’t planned anything and just decide to improvise after the first 10 minutes. The last 10 minutes are more entertaining because the fire-walkers and fire-eaters come out. Tourists eat it up! Which isn’t a bad thing. Then, as you leave, they have about 10 people standing in the narrow exit pressuring you to donate money for the dancers. Which makes NO sense as you pay an entrance fee to get in! If I had only known…
A true must see near Kandy is Lion Rock in Sigiriya. There are many ways to reach the area, but having a private driver is the most convenient and best value for your money. If you use a bus/tuk tuk combo it’s the only thing you will be able to do that day. A private driver allows you to visit other sites on the way there and back.
And if you stay at Notting Hill Country House, Fonseca will get you his driver Lucky. He’s a great driver, knows a lot about the history of the locations and has great recommendations for things off the beaten path. A GREAT investment. The entrance to the park isn’t cheap, it’s $30. When I say park I mean park, not amusement park. There are no rides or cartoon characters, just grass, ponds, a few animals, small museum and a massive rock. That’s what you get for $30 and it’s worth every penny. It’s a climb! Do not underestimate the climb up and prepare accordingly; towel, water, sunscreen, hat, bring it all.
Ella – 1 night
Ella is an extremely touristy area, but it’s still a place you have to see. Wasn’t there very long but packed a lot in the short stay. Was lucky enough to book a night at Paraiso Home Stay.
It’s as family run as you can get! It’s situated directly in the hills surrounding Ella Rock which commands a breathtaking view. Air so clean and fresh it felt like I stuck two peppermints up my nose! The room isn’t connected to the house of the owners, but to a massive kitchen they are in the process of renovating for Sri Lankan cooking classes. And the wifi works! Many places advertise wifi, but it’s conveniently not working when you arrive, not here; strong signal with decent speeds to upload all of your Instagram photos and make your friends & family jealous. The owners are beyond nice and helpful. I would suggest eating as many of your meals here as you can. The amount and quality of food you get is just sinful. I ate so much I could’ve been rolled back to the room. And this is with the view I mentioned.
I personally had never heard of the 9 arches bridge. Shows how much I know! It’s a place that just screams, INSTAGRAM POST! It’s a place that makes even average photographers like me feel like they have some skills. It is an active train track so be careful while taking photos! Locals do a great job of warning tourists when trains are coming, but keep your eyes and ears open. Not too many tourists were here when I visited in the evening which meant very little wait time for the picturesque photo spots. Probably not a secret to many, but it’s on my hidden gem list.
Ella Rock is not a climb for the out of shape. Then again, maybe I’m just out of shape. At certain points I had to hold on to trees to pull myself up due to the steepness of the trail, or I took the wrong trail. I saw a family with two small children and was a little salty thinking, “How the HELL am I so beat up climbing up here and the parents and kids look so damn fresh!?”. Be wary of locals who are nice and show you the “correct” path. They are guides in disguise who won’t leave you and then demand payment at the end. Yeah, thanks but no thanks to that. The views at the top are A M A Z I N G! The tourist density isn’t high, but the peak is small and fills up fast so be aware of that. Locals tell you tales of attempts to get that unique selfie spot ending up in death. While I saw no one plunge to their deaths, I did see tourists taking huge risks for selfies. It’s not worth it and the money it costs the local district to recover injured tourists is prohibitive. Worth the climb and it burns off guilt for all of the eating you’ll do if you sleep at Paraiso Home Stay.
Udawalawe National Park – 1 night
From Ella, there are a lot of busses that will take you wherever. Locals frequently use them so the price is extremely reasonable. Decided to go to Udawalawe National Park because it was easier and cheaper to go to the beach after. It’s the smaller of the Sri Lankan National Parks and is actually more of an elephant sanctuary. If you’re expecting to see other big game, not going to happen. BUT, you will have less tourists and less costs. Luckily, Green View Safari Resort had a bungalow free. They only have two so book ahead! The room is minimum, but it’s close to the Park and the couple who run it are so sweet! Dinner is a homemade intimate affair. Just hope you don’t have a giant Dutch couple also staying there who eat like it’s their job! They almost ate up the entire buffet themselves! Greedy bastards! At least they made up for it and shared their Safari jeep. It’s the same price no matter if you are solo or a group so more people equals cheaper price for everyone. There is an entrance fee to pay on top of the jeep rental. Originally decided on the all day tour, but the ginormous Dutch couple convinced us the 4 hour tour would be enough.
They were right. It is almost spiritual seeing elephants in their natural habitat in family groups. It’s a bucket list moment, but after 4 hours… Yes, there are other animals, peacocks, crocodiles, and wild birds, but 4 hours was just the right amount of time for me. If you’ve never done a Safari, I would definitely recommend it.
Tangalle Beach – 3 nights
Sri Lanka is an island, so it goes without saying there are hundreds of beaches you can visit. Trying to find available accommodation at one of the beaches is another story altogether. The first night, found a place DIRECTLY on the beach in their deluxe beach view cabana. As I’m only recommending places I would stay again I won’t say their name. But deluxe in my book means hot water, not to them. Apparently other rooms had hot water, but not deluxe which was strange as deluxe was the most expensive option! Yeah, fail.
Waking up early in the morning to that sunrise though…
The forecast for the last few days in Sri Lanka was rain. I’m not an all-inclusive resort type of guy, but a special on Booking.com, reviews and expected weather convinced me on Under The Mango Tree (UTMT). My only regret about staying here is that it has now set a standard I’m not sure that can be surpassed. It is expensive, especially when you upgrade to a deluxe room with it’s own private pool. You only live once! From check in, to check out the service was impeccable. I can personally recommend the massage and private workouts that are included in the price. Breakfast and dinner are also included and ranked as some of the best food I ate on my entire trip. Tea time with cake was a special touch.
A movie in their small cinema while it rained sipping on a Ginger beer almost made me fall in love with UTMT. One drawback, as no place is perfect, the owners are Austrian. That means 85% of the guests will be Austrian/German. Don’t expect to make any new friends or interact much with the other guests. I was OK with that, but did strike me as strange that in a country of lovely friendly people, having to curb my interaction with the guests.
The staff however are super friendly and will chat with you as long as their schedule permits. Honestly, this place might have altered how I travel forever. Roughing it the entire trip then ending in a luxury resort to recover for 2 nights might just be my new thing.