Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon back in the days of British rule, is an island nation just emerging from years of internal civil strife, yet is finding success fast as a global tourist destination, largely thanks to its wealth of wild, undisturbed beaches, legendary cultural sights, and prices that are very friendly to your average budget traveler. With regards to its history, civilized habitation stretches many millennia into the past, with monuments and ruins being carbon dated back as old as 3,500 years, history and culture buffs will be in their element from the moment they step foot in this country.
Unlike mainland India, where Hinduism and Islam rule the roost, Buddhists pre-dominate in the religious life of Sri Lanka, as the island was originally populated by the Sinhalese, who practiced the religion from the 3rd century B.C. and onwards. Despite Buddhism having the upper hand here from a religious standpoint, there are minorities of Muslims, Hindus, and Christians that can be found among this island’s 20 million inhabitants.
And then finally, there are the beaches. Not having seen rampant overdevelopment like other tropical seaside destinations across Asia due to security concerns over the past generations, Sri Lanka’s beaches are refreshingly genuine, under-crowded, and occupied by people that have not been tainted by the jading influence of mass tourism. Those seeking a relaxing beach holiday, but have been put off by the rise of aggrandizing touts that continually disturb your attempts at soaking up the sun in peace. Here, beyond the polite interjection of vendors trying to make an honest living, you should have a much better vacation by the sea here.
No matter where you go in Sri Lanka, prepare to be surprised and wowed by a nation that has been kept off the international travel circuit for far too long, whether you plan to enjoy its many unheralded cultural sights, high tea in the *ahem* highlands, or its slow pace of life along its plentiful beaches.
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee
Languages: Sinhala, Tamil, English
What To Do
After getting settled after your flight to Colombo, make tracks for the most eminent physical sight in all of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya Rock. Located near Matale, this imposing geological feature was chosen by a Sri Lankan king back in the 6th century for his new capital (which makes sense, given the obvious defensive advantages), and on top of this monstrosity, he built his palace, complete with frescoes. The city never really took off, being abandoned shortly after his death. From then on, the place was used by Buddhist monk until the 14th century, after which it was forgotten about entirely, until its re-discovery 500 years later.
Those who enjoy a simulating cup of caffeine, but spurn coffee for its more refined cousin will have a field day touring the tea plantations in the Ella area, where one can hike among the fragrant bushes that will end up in your tea saucer on your way to several local waterfalls. There are day trips to the tea factory that processes all the picked leaves offered by tour groups in town, allowing you to see how these plants go from being on a bush to being part of a relaxing afternoon tradition for many people across the world.
From Ella, it is a relatively short trip to Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak. Claimed as a sacred mountain by all the region’s major religions, this mountain is where Adam descended from heaven after being cast out of Eden (Islam, Christianity), where the footprint of the Buddha himself (Buddhism) can be found, or where the footprint of Shiva (Hinduism) can be found, depending on who you ask. What is important is that this peak gives spectacular views in all directions, as it’s the highest point of land in the immediate area, and as such, it also serves as the hydrological apex for no less than four of the countries’ most important rivers.
Yala National Park, recovering nicely after taking a direct hit in the Southeast Asian Tsunami of 2004, is a wildlife wonderland for those passionate about our wild friends. Birders will be pleased with the diversity of winged species here, while those looking for leopards will have a high chance of seeing their target, as this park contains the greatest concentration of the animal anywhere in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan elephants are also plentiful, so no matter what you may happen to see, your binoculars will be well used on this trip, so keep them handy at all times!
Heading over to the popular tourist town of Kandy, be sure to make seeing Sri Dalada Maligawa your top sightseeing priority before leaving, as it’s considered to be one of the most significant Buddhist temples in the entire country. Known more commonly as the Temple of the Tooth, this UNESCO World Heritage Site contains a significant relic, the tooth of the Buddha, which makes sense given the temple’s nickname. It was believed whoever controlled possession of the tooth would be favoured by the gods in governance of the country; semi-coherently, the Kandy kingdom was the last one in Sri Lanka that held the tooth before being conquered by the Portuguese.
After all that touring around such a humid country, you’ll be pining for shady palms, a turquoise sea and fruity drink before long. As alluded to in the introduction, Sri Lanka possesses a vast collection of peaceful beaches along its lengthy coast, making for excellent holiday escapes in places like Negombo, Unawatuna and Dickwella. The shore breaks here are reported to be very merciful, with a lack of hard coral to punish mistakes, making these resorts an ideal place to learn how to surf without risking injury.
What To Eat
Those looking to get a uniquely Sri Lankan street meal should seek out Kottu Roti to satisfy their hunger. This dish consists of chopped up roti (a flatbread common through South Asia), vegetables and your choice of meat. Be sure to be vigilant about hygiene and your meal’s preparation, as some sloppy practices have led to food poisoning in the past.
Another made in Sri Lanka dish you should try is String Hoppers, which are noodles served with red onions and various spices. This dish is often eaten for breakfast in this country, so those looking to partake should remember to set their alarms to avoid missing this noteworthy meal!
Finally, Kiribath is a food that is enjoyed by many locals across Sri Lanka, as it is well loved for its sweet yet salty flavour, as it is also a common breakfast treat. Made with rice, coconut milk, and accented with just a touch of salt, it is partaken of by many Sri Lankans to mark the arrival of the New Year … those traveling at this time might be fortunate enough to be invited by a local to try some!