Sri Lanka Travel Guide
5 Days in Sri Lanka
Diving into a heady mix of chaotic traffic, Buddhist processions, wild peacocks, perfect beaches and intoxicating curries only allowed me to scratch the surface of a nation on the rise. Sri Lanka’s economy is the fastest growing in South Asia with digital and textile technology nudging the traditional tea industry out of the way. You get the sense that the country has shrugged off the burdens of colonialism and civil war, finally defining its own path in this century. Let me take you on my journey through this diverse, dynamic, beautiful island that is Sri Lanka.
Day 1: Tea Land
Careening through mountain bends, ripping past buses, cow-drawn carts and trucks overflowing with livestock and tea, we [my boyfriend and I] set out to the central highlands. The first thing to strike us is the eerie light which cascades through the lush, green valleys. Our rental car [we always use Hertz] shudders as its minuscule motorbike engine whines in the face of steep, terraced hills. Monkeys leer as we gawk at them through our windows. The remnants of colonialism are evident as we wind through some of the most famous tea plantations in the World. Mr Dilmah and his family peer down from a colossal billboard set at the edge of his estate while hundreds of women purposefully wander through the plants, cutting and picking as they go. The St. Andrew’s Hotel in Nuywara Eliya, perches itself on the hillside, its gardens and trusty walls telling of days gone by. Today, it is given life by Jetwing Hotels, an environmentally-focused group of luxury hotels which stands firm as a flagship for sustainable tourism in Sri Lanka. We settle down in Oatlands, the boutique colonial homestead which overlooks the main building. Before we can reflect on the incredible contrasts and landscapes we came through, jetlag gets the better of us.
Day 2: Lakes + Peacocks
A mission defines our journey. We set off in search of an island filled lake we saw from the plane [the life of a photographer...], rusty red shores defining a shattered mosaic of green. We judge the shapes from an iPhone photo, cross-referencing them with google maps until we find a dam reservoir deep in the mountains. It's the best piece of detective work we’ve done. With our drone in the air, we get to sense the scale of this landscape again, gazing through the trees and on the screen at a miniature, red ringed Halong Bay.
Winding our way south past the tourist mecca of Ella, we wind down off the cold mountain step onto the tropical plains. Jetwing Kaduruketha becomes our home for the night. Nestled in the jungle, wild peacocks frolic past the bedroom, competing for the attention of their female counterparts. Your only company here are the birds, monkeys, frogs and squirrels. Paradise found.
Day 3: Wind + Surf at Yala
Entering Jetwing Yala makes you feel like a Bond villain. The property's ultra spacious and minimalist feel lets the sea breeze tousle your hair, while the architectural lines draw you into its series of bridges and balconies. Families of wild pigs crowd around the pool, while monkeys swing past at eye level in the trees. You feel like a guest in the adjacent Yala National park [famous for its leopards, although closed for breeding in October], hosted by a series of different animals rather than the hotel staff. Small puppies trip over themselves as they try and greet guests, and, in our bizarre case, Sri Lankan fishing cats [google them, they're somewhat terrifying] might enter your room at when you least expect it! However, there is nothing that a pillow and fear cannot solve in the middle of the night. (To allay confusion- we didn’t suffocate the poor thing, just used the pillow for protection as we released it back into the wild! When in Sri Lanka...). On explanation to the staff, they laughed 'at least it wasn’t an elephant' before showing us CCTV footage of an enormous male elephant entering reception in the middle of the night. For the video, click here. Mother Nature sure is in sync around here, and we don't disapprove.
Day 4: Forts + Processions
Approaching the edge of Galle, the city gives you the sense of chaos. Traffic roars and the roadside is abuzz with markets. Delve further into the town, and you will come across the old Dutch Galle Fort, a historic area which gives an almost false, albeit beautiful, haven to tourists. From the ancient ramparts to the old, ordered streets of the centre, Galle Fort is home to the best food and shopping in town. One of our favourites, Lucky Fort restaurant doesn’t care about you; it only cares about food. It serves the best curries around for next to nothing. Very much vegan approved, too! [as is much of other Sri Lankan food, in fact]
We settled in at Jetwing Kurulubedda [my favourite], surrounded by bush in a luxe tropical villa in line with the tree canopy. A family of purple-faced Langur’s bashed around in the trees opposite, inviting us to share their home with them.
By pure luck, we came across a Buddhist night procession which trumpeted through the main street of Galle. For two whole hours the cacophony of dancers, drummers and decorated elephants [the only very dishearting part] brushed past us in an unbelievable display of Sri Lankan culture. The youth and exuberance of this procession showed a passionate side to a society which seemed otherwise reserved.
I later found out locals call it the Esala Perehera Festival, a cultural pageant celebrating unity, peace, and religious devotion.
Day 5: Beach + Airport
White and golden sands line the south coast Sri Lanka, glittering beautifully in the early hours. Monsoon season didn't allow for not many epic sunrise or sunset colours, but it also meant we had some of the most famous beaches to ourselves during the many fine spells. One of them was Dalawella beach, best known for its picturesque palm tree swing. The owner will demand a couple of dollars from you, but the thrill alone is worth the donation. Let alone the photo opportunities. On our final evening, we decided to release a turtle a hatchery adjacent to our hotel. Despite the claim for wildlife conservation and the apparent need to breed endangered species and save them from speedboat or pollution-related accidents, the experience does come with a slightly negative, tourist-trapped aftertaste.
You feel like a guest rather than a tourist in Sri Lanka. Even in the popular parts of the country, we never felt hassled or inconvenient. The diversity in landscape, food, wildlife curates a sense of wonder, while the people show warmth and hospitality.