The small country packs a powerful punch with the variety it offers, writes Boshika Gupta
One of the most precious gifts that Sri Lanka offers its visitors is one scenic view after another, unlike anything they’ve ever seen. On car rides, inside a train filled with old school charm, on tuk-tuk rides around the city, after treks and even on the streets.
We chose to explore Sri Lanka through three cities in late June, hoping it’ll surprise us and leave us dazzled in many, many ways. A friend and I, after much deliberation and debate, settled on Colombo, Kandy, and Galle, working on a fast-paced itinerary and squeezing together everything we possibly could do in a limited amount of time.
Colombo – Sri Lanka’s busy capital is bittersweet
The journey to the apartment from the airport was gorgeous, overtaken by long stretches of empty roads and floating clouds. Once we entered the city, things got a little chaotic but the Uber driver went out of his way to chat, inquire about the India-Pakistan match and find the address for what felt like an awfully long time.
The city is slightly mad, with dingy bars and strange characters. We encountered a few ourselves. Once, at The Lion Pub in Mount Lavinia and the second time, outside a popular restaurant called Upali’s near Cinnamon Gardens. As unaccompanied women travelers, we were at ease with what we were doing but were really taken aback by a stalker or two.
Colombo, however, had its gems such as gorgeous glimpses of the sea, authentic memorable Sri Lankan cuisine at Upali’s(do try Hoppers, a popular snack found everywhere in the country) and a rooftop bar with great city views called ON14 – Ozo in Bambalapitiya.
The highlight of our Colombo tales was deciding to switch tables at ON14 and coming across a friendly, charming Swedish man called Chris. He offered priceless nuggets on surviving the crazy city and tackling creeps. The conversation was unforgettable and we ended up spending hours laughing away at his stories ranging from his old adventures in Bangkok to his life and cruel early wake-up calls in Colombo until the staff informed us that it was closing time.
A great experience and a genuine, kind stranger have the ability to cancel out the bad parts and that’s what happened with us in Colombo. We learned to shrug at the strange ones and embrace the beauty in all its glory.
TIP: Do your research before visiting bars, restaurants and popular tourist spots. Learn to haggle and ensure that you know the distance covered before settling on your tuk-tuk fare. Some of them may ask for a lot more than you expect and ignore the meter. Get a cheap SIM card at the airport so that you’re covered on the local internet connection front.
Kandy – A sweet little surprise away from the hustle and bustle of the city
It’s a pretty, small hill station with twinkling lights at night and plenty of stars for the dreamy traveler. While it’s a sleepy town and most things are shut after 9 pm, we stayed with extremely helpful hosts who treated us to a scrumptious local breakfast and gave us a much-needed taste of true Sri Lankan hospitality.
Perhaps the most-visited spot in the place is the Temple of the Tooth for its historical and religious significance. It is situated in the royal palace of the former Kingdom of Kandy and it has the relic of the tooth of the Buddha.
We braved through serpentine queues as curious tourists lined up to get a peek at the relic. It’s a beautiful temple situated near a lake that looks remarkable in the evenings. Our time near the relic was very short, however, as no one is allowed to linger for more than a couple of seconds, making it impossible to look properly.
Ignoring our exhausted selves, we decided to hire a taxi to the famed Sigiriya rock fortress and see what the fuss was all about. A three-hour car ride and several naps later, we reached the spot, bleary-eyed and excited.
It’s a sight to behold especially once you climb to the top. Ruins of a forgotten civilization, greenery, a pretty landscape, frescoes and even a pair of colossal lion’s paws carved into the bedrock are all a part of the Sigiriya experience.
Do note that the climb is slightly scary and dramatic with a series of tall stairs all the way to the top. Don’t look down, take breaks but go on until you reach the end – it’s really worth it and you’ll know that its rock-star status is not for nothing.
While in Kandy, do visit the Slightly Chilled bar in Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha. It’s an incredibly cool spot managed by an expat and his wife. Expect great service, lake views, free Wi-Fi, plenty of food and alcohol options including local wine and unbelievably friendly hosts.
TIP: Carry plenty of water on the Sigiriya trek and make sure you eat enough before you head out. It’s a moderately difficult climb but the heat is unforgiving until you reach the top. Ensure you aren’t been taken for a ride especially if you’re hiring a taxi and ask around for a good bargain. The entry fee will make most guests’ eyes water but make sure you carry your passport because Indians are eligible for a slightly reduced fee.
Galle – This tiny Dutch town is peppered with surprises
This was our last stop before we were scheduled to head back to Colombo for our flights back home. Best explored on foot, this is a delightful little getaway with colorful houses, Dutch-colonial buildings, the beach, endless souvenir shops, cute cafes and a hipster vibe that’s hard to compete with. Galle is its own world and that’s something you really can’t help falling in love with.
We decided to get out of our comfort zone and take the only train we could find from Kandy to Galle. After waking up at 3:30 am and rushing to the train station, we were extremely pleased with ourselves after getting on the train and realizing how little we had to shell out for this ticket. The ride was filled with a constant buzz, office goers and more magnificent views after Colombo station. Stay awake after sunrise and get a window seat. Sri Lanka’s train rides are famous for a reason.
After reaching Galle around 11: 30 am, we spent some more time negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers before finally heading towards our accommodation. A minor accident delayed our trip. Interestingly, the tuk-tuk driver and the man with a swanky car involved in the crash had a rather polite argument as they finally reached an agreement they were both comfortable with.
After dumping our bags and grabbing plenty of food, we marveled at Galle’s easy-going nature and the swarms of tourists walking around its streets on a hot day. It’s friendly with scores of accessible options for tourists, making it an easier place to navigate around and explore.
What we found unusual and slightly unsettling was how deserted the entire area near Galle Fort was after 10 pm. We could hardly find anyone on the streets and no bar in that locality was open after 11 pm, forcing us to head back to our apartment and call it a night.
Food options are plenty during the day and you’ll find several appealing places scattered around you at every corner. Trust your instinct and walk in for a pleasant surprise. Get everything done before 9:30 pm to avoid disappointment.
TIP: Do include a couple of days for Galle in your plans and walk around the town as much as you can for local sights and sounds. Get quirky memorabilia, souvenirs from here and opt for an early dinner at a dreamy local café. The nights are slow and the sun is your best friend in this precious, hippie town.