(I totally plan to go back)
Colombo → Kandy → Haputale → Dambethenna → Bandarawela → Arugam Bay → Pottuvil → Kumana → Udualaware → Tangalle → Goyambokka (Tangalle) → Mulgirigala → Dickwella → Hiriketiya → Kudawella → Matara → Polhena → Madhia → Dambulla → Sigiriya → Trincomalee → Upuvelli → Anuradhapura → Negombo
Upon Arrival: Stealing the Airplane Blanket
I arrived in Sri Lanka highly deranged, and mistakenly swiped the airplane blanket which, to be fair, was the same color as my jacket. Upon realizing my mistake, I abandoned it in the airport bathroom stall. It seemed like the only logical thing to do.
Welcome to Colombo
Outside I was met with a hot and bustling city scene, dirty in a not-so-desirable way. A weird man immediately approached me and asked to show me around, putting me on high alert for harassment. Luckily, this was a false alarm and Sri Lanka turned out to be friendly and safe. One of the best places I’ve been, to date!
I spent a few days in Colombo, and particularly enjoyed wandering through a back alley where men were unloading truckloads of goods, boxes, and produce, looking at me weird because well I was wandering in a trucking alley. I ate a delicious hotel near the train station prior to my journey out. Restaurants are called “hotels” in Sri Lanka, which confused me very much for a very long time. I tried to visit some temple, too, but wound up entering a restricted area and then someone’s home, so I eventually gave up and turned back.
Kandy: The Second City
My second stop was the second city of Kandy (not Candy)! I think second city means second biggest, although I am not entirely sure. Despite the fact all the backpackers were “hating on” it, I actually quite liked Kandy. It has a massive lake at center and is less bustling than Colombo, and had some great dining in the city center. While in Kandy, my highlights included:
→ Running around the lake in the misty morning
→ Accidentally revealing my social security number at a local copy shop
→ Peering into the fence at the famed Temple of the Tooth to get a view. It was wildly overpriced and not in budget to enter, so I just glimpsed it from outside. I mean, really, it’s just a temple
→ Staying at a hostel with bed bugs, which I immediately left by sneaking out the front door while the staff was in the back because I didn’t feel like dealing with them. Then I walked nearly 1 hour straight down a mountain to a new hostel
→ Climbing up a mountain at 6am to see a giant buddha statue and city view below. it was so early the gate was closed and I didn’t have to pay (unexpectedly)! Also there was a scary stray dog, but what else is new
Verdant Train Ride
Next up, the “world’s most beautiful train ride.” I am always skeptical of world’s best superlatives, but in this case it actually might be true. It was also the world’s most crowded with white tourists train ride, but that is another matter.
The train makes its way very slowly through the breathtaking scenery – up mountains, through tea plantations, and among trees. The grass and tea leaves are green-green-green, highly verdant, to the point it looks unreal.
Of course, many young backpackers lean dangerously out the train as it chugs along to recreate the super-popular INSTAGRAM PHOTO! The local youths also lean out the doors, except they do so while inside of narrow, rocky cave passes. I do wonder if anyone ever dies. I did not in fact lean out the door, to be clear. Safety first!
I hopped off my train ahead of the masses – most people take it all the way to tourist hotspots Nuwara Eliya or Ella – in the small mountainous town of Haputale.
Tea & More Tea: Haputale
Haputale is in tea country, so naturally I visited some tea factories while I was there. I visited the Dambatenne Tea Factory (aka the Lipton Tea Factory) as well as the less-crowded Kellibedde, where I got a totally private tour. When you think of Lipton you think of fancy pants and modern stuff, but visiting the factory was shocking. They use extremely old, manual metal machinery, there are tea particulates everywhere – and I mean everywhere. dDusting the floor, the machinery, workers’ shirts and filling the air and visitors’ nostrils. Workers wear hair nets and walk around barefoot, their feet leaving little prints in the tea dust. It’s wild. You’re not really supposed to take photos, so I only took a few (only after another man did it first…).
You can see the disallowed photos here → Visiting 2 Sri Lankan Tea Factories
While in Haputale I also explored the downtown area and surrounds, which were not particularly large but I still enjoyed. I even hopped a few buses to some random towns off the tourist track. “What are you doing here?” a local boy asked me. “Sri Lanka is beautiful, but this town isn’t…
A Sketchy Few Days in Arugam Bay
I continued to the east side of the country via 4 buses to arrive at my first beach, Arugam Bay. The transit was easier than expected, as everyone speaks English well and actually tries to help you rather than swindle you. I hopped off feeling fine. This quickly changed.
I chose Arugam Bay because it was the off-season and I thought this meant less tourists hoard on the beaches. What it actually meant was sketchy AF locals, abject fear, and a strange man crouching behind a boat and palm tree watching me sunbathe. Good times. It’s apparently very different in high season; loads of surfers, bonfires and parties on the beach. The town is more “rustic” than some others, with brambles and a run-down dusty feel. Swimming was tough because it was quite rough while I was there.
I explored some amazing secluded beaches, but was bothered by a pervasive and somewhat extreme fear of being assaulted while doing so.
Goats & Temples in Pottuvil
The town next to Arugam Bay is called Potthuvil, which I walked a quick 4 miles to in flip flops obtaining a large foot blister to remain in budget, of course.
Houses are built into winding sandy roadways, with many goats roaming freely. People were drying grains of rice on massive tarps in the roads, which cars and motos casually drove over. The children seemed very excited to see me, beaming and smiling and yelling “hi” enthusiastically. Their parents seemed more confused as to exactly why some random foreign girl was wandering through small residential streets all alone. Fair enough.
The town was very local, devoid of tourists, and had some interesting beach-side religious structures. These included a stupa with numerous statues leading up to it, concrete monks all in a row, some of which had arms falling off, as well as a beach side Masjid (mosque). While admiring the beachside mosque and its resident goats, some guys came out and asked for selfies with me. Despite the recent selfie-grabbing incident on the Arugam Bay beach, I said “ok.”
I also stumbled upon an abandoned playground made of metal, dilapidated and sinking into the sand. It was surrounded by small abandoned spray painted buildings. Cool!
Broken Down Jeeps & Leopards
While in Arugam Bay I went to Kumana National Park. There are dozens of Safari parks and opportunities in Sri Lanka (Yala being most popular), but I chose to go to this one as there weren’t many people around and I knew I’d avoid the 50-jeep line horror stories I’d heard.
While in the park our jeep died. Twice. The first time another jeep pulled us with a massive chain to jump start the engine…or something. The jeep quite nearly flipped over with us in it.
The second time another jeep affixed the chain, and me and the other girl hopped out to avoid being crushed. The guide got very mad and yelled that we were in a “high danger zone” for wildlife. He tried to usher us back in the jeep. It didn’t work out, but in the end the jeep was jumpstarted and I was not attacked by wildlife.
All and all the safari was incredible! We saw wild Asian elephants! Water buffalo, some special deer, birds, and even the RARE LEOPARD. No other jeeps had seen the leopard for days ). He could have eaten me when I was outside the jeep…but he didn’t.
I got tired of transiting on the bus from Arugam Bay. It was so crowded I couldn’t move, literally packed completely with a hundred people in the aisles, and my face was certainly covered in dirt, so I popped off at a tourist hub Udualawe to rest in a $2 private room with a bathroom (this is a real price). Before procuring this accommodation, some would-be guesthouse owner aggressively approached me, then followed me, and repeatedly tried to sell me his room. He showed me stellar reviews from Booking.com in an attempt to persuade me. It didn’t work. I kept evading him to find my own spot and, so freaked from Aruguam Bay, I walked through the guest house area scoping things out until I saw one with other backpackers outside to ensure I wouldn’t have to spend another night in abject fear as the only person in a lodging.
I spent the afternoon walking around the small town, back and forth, back and forth, up the small streets (“You like to walk a lot,” one man commented). I ate some of the best kothu I’ve had, and went for early bed in the steamy room.
Introducing the Tangalle Obsession
I went to Tangalle next, a beach on the south-east ish coast and away from the most popular tourist spots. I am obsessed with Tangalle and love it very much. It’s not so popular among backpackers, there seemed to be more older tourists, and it was not very crowded when I was there. I spent a week, then kept thinking about it obsessively from the moment I left. I wound up going back.
Tangalle is beautiful with pristine beaches, affordable beachfront accommodation, and a 10 minute walk to downtown with local restaurants and markets. I spent my time on early morning beach runs at 6am. Swims in the safe-for-swimming bay and inlets. I walked long and far to see local fishing boats outside the bustling fish market at 7am, where the fisherman seemed confused as to my presence in the market. They excitedly showed off their day’s catch to me up close and personal. One of them had blood in his eye and thrust a dead fish head towards me, pointing to the quality while open the fish’s mouth. It is an image I cannot forget. After exploring the market, some fishermen invited me for breakfast at a street stall and some really sketchy “tea” from a large dented metal canister.
In brief, Tangalle is pristine beach after pristine beach after pristine beach. You can walk for miles with no one in sight and it is truly amazing. One morning after a long walk a local girl kept me company while I had a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast at her family’s beachfront restaurant. They told me tales of how their house had been damaged in the storm and how high the water had been. It was unreal. Also nearby to Tangalle is a beautiful rock monastery built into a rock on a mountaintop. There are many other beaches nearby, too. Nothing is much more than a quick 25-cent bus ride away.
Dickwella Beach & A Post-Apocalyptic Carnival
The kinda dirty, kinda bustling town of Dickwella is most popular for it’s pretty (ish) beach named…wait for it…Dickwella Beach. At Dickwella Beach swimming is actually possible, as it was much less rough than some other spots. I also enjoyed glimpsing the dirty-ish city and bustling bus station, as well as Dickwella’s post-apocolyptic carnival. It got even weirder at night, but I didn’t have my camera at that time. There is also an amazing (albeit fancy and yuppity) coworking spot beachside where I spent a few days working.
Wewurukannala Temple & The Disturbing Tunnel of Hell
Within walking distance of Dickwella is the Wewurukannala Temple, home to the largest Buddha in Sri Lanka which is incidentally also made entirely of golden mosaic tiles. It is possible to climb inside the Buddha, where each floor is covered ground-to-ceiling with beautiful paintings depicting Buddha’s many reincarnations. There was even a library inside the back of the Buddha’s head! Adjacent to the Buddha, a very disturbing cave with hundreds upon hundreds of graphic depictions of hell through statues, stone carvings, and paintings. As you walk deeper it gets darker, and the imagery is increasingly shocking and plentiful.
M&M (Matara & Madiha)
I spent a few hours in Matara city, as it’s not visited much by tourists and thus appealed to me as a “normal” place to go. It was a bit dirty and busy without much character, but I did get a replacement for my broken watch for $1.26 (including an unexpected disco light) as well as one of the cheapest plates of rice & curry I’ve had (let’s just ignore the fact I hate rice and curry; I hadn’t eaten all day and was desperate slash cheap). There was some leftover Dutch-colonial architecture in one spot downtown which was interesting. As well as a temple on an island accessible only by a very rickety bridge with rusty holes. I bought dirty nuts on the road, which I ate out of an even dirtier piece of recycled newspaper they so love to sell food in in Sri Lanka.
Wanting to see all the beaches but not get too too close to the tourist areas, I went westward to some beaches outside Matara. The best part was the view from my [freely upgraded] beachfront room. They were a tad more jungley, full of slightly-painful on the feet shells, and not among my favorite.
While here I tried to walk along the beach and wound up scaling some rocks, walking through an exclusive resort, and cutting my foot on a coconut. I also nearly contracted rabies from a spazzy dog I encountered on my morning jog.
Veggies and a Massive Rock Temple in Dambulla
Next up, a bus ride to Dambulla — a town near the infamous Sigiriya Rock. An early morning hot air balloon landed right next to my homestay which was cool! Then 2 scary dogs approached from either side of the road, and I was unable to pass either way for about 20 minutes as I stood waiting with elevated heart rate.
On my walk I turned up around 7am at the market — my favorite time and place! People were very friendly, and curious as to why I was there during the time when the vendors arrive with massive produce bags and unload them. There were so many sacks and trucks of veggies coming in it was wild!
I then continued to Dambulla’s golden buddha and cave temple in the early morning. It was just me and the monkeys as I began walking, and arrived before the gates were opened. I thought this meant I got in free. It did not mean I got in free.
THE Rock (Sigiryia)
Sri Lanka is home to an iconic and semi-famous rock named Sigiryia. The 200 meter high rock used to be home to a palace and ancient fortress. Today there are ruins of buildings, canals, and the rock’s iconic lions paws (it is also refered to as “lion’s rock.”) You can climb it for a mere $30USD (what?!?). It’s Uber-touristy and oh-so-popular, with many foreigners visiting.
It was an egregious price so I chose not to climb, and instead went up the smaller Pidurangala Rock nearby for only $2. It was a below expectations tourist experience, for sure. I was so disappointed at the sunrise view I forced myself to climb the mountain a SECOND time later in the day to see it in the afternoon. It was still a bit anticlimactic (lame)…but at least I got my exercise in.
I spent the rest of my time in Sigiriya relaxing at my amazing homestay and bicycling around to some nearby ruins and to look at the pretty, albeit crocodile-infested, canals.
Dusty, Deer-Strewn Trinco
After Sigiriya I took a local bus north-east back to the coast, to Trincomalee, also known as Trinco. It was a very different atmosphere up there, and the highlight was an amazing large temple on the coastline. The entire town was overrun with wild, horned, spotted deer, and there are a few Hindu temples scattered around. While wandering I spotted deer with crows on their backs. Deer eating trash. Deer competing with crows and stray dogs to eat trash. And mounds of trash.
The streets in Trinco are a bit sandy-dusty and gritty, but I loved the town! There is also the Trincomalee fish market downtown. I saw someone cutting fins off small sharks, which I believe to be illegal. I have a photo but it’s a bit…graphic. And of course, the local “wet market” (fruit & veggie / fresh produce market). There are some nicer beaches up north a few miles – Uppuveli & Nilaveli. I stayed near Uppuveli at an awesome hostel with a friendly owner who cooked us all a “family dinner.” Also enjoyed an early sunrise with another girl at the hostel who didn’t think I was nuts for waking up before 6am daily!
Ancient Anuradhapura & A Super-Sacred Fig Tree
My second-to-last stop in Sri Lanka was in Anuradhapura, a bustling city which includes ruins, a massive complex of temples and a very sacred fig tree, the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. After reading about it, I FIGured out, it was the most famous in the world! I will say I felt a little weird visiting it as a tourist, as when I went there were thousands of worshipers dressed all in white visiting. I kept my distance and scuttled out pretty quickly. I saw some of the other temples on bike, and choose one to go inside. Again, I was the only tourist for some reason which felt a bit odd even though they had tourist signs and fares posted.
A lot of tourists go to Polonnaruwa in this part of Sri Lanka, but I quite liked that Anuradhapura was less crowded and also part of a normal city with good food and normal city-stuff including some super-dilapidated cinemas. It did feel a bit sketch at night when I was out alone, but I mean, what can you expect.
A Few Other Sri Lanka Things
Other things I loved about Sri Lanka include…
→ The fact you can cross the entire country easily by local bus for a couple of dollars. Getting onto any bus, anywhere was easy enough and even if it was slow, hot and dirty, you could get around.
→ It felt very safe! Everyone was so nice and kind! People certainly wanted to chat, but it was in a friendly way as opposed to a harassment way.
People spoke English which made things easier. Although I generally prefer a challenge in terms of communication, when you’re scrambling around a massive bus station alone in 100+ degree heat and it’s highly unclear where to go, being able to easily communicate with people is kind of nice.