This is a trip report on a three-week road trip around Sri Lanka in February-March 2013. I’m sorry for the delay in posting this – especially for those who asked after it earlier who, I assume, have been there and back by now. Hope it proves useful to future travellers, though.
In case this has any bearing, I was travelling with my partner (we are in our early 20s) and, for the most part, a driver and car. This was our first trip to the sub-continent and, though it wasn’t without its challenges, we absolutely adored it.
Our planned itinerary can be found here: tripadvisor.com.au/ShowTopic-g293961-i8983-k…
But in summary:
2 nights in Colombo > 2 nights in Anuradhapura > 2 nights in Jaffna > 1 night in Trinco > 2 nights in Sigiriya > (Dambulla en-route): 1 night in Kandy > 1 night in Kitulgala > 1 night in Dalhousie, climbing Sri Pada > 2 nights in Haputale > 2 nights in Kataragama > 3 nights in Unawatuna (plus day trip to Galle)
HOWEVER we ended up making the following, er, adjustments on the road:
- We only had one night in Colombo (due to missing our connection from Singapore – this ended
up working rather well though)
- Our planned 1 night in Trinco became an extra night in Sigiriya instead (as rain was expected in Trinco and I feared that it would be too rushed)
- Our planned 1 night in Kitulgala became an extra night in Kandy (due to illness – but not travel-related illness)
Though disappointed to miss out at the time, I think these were the right decisions as not only was there obviously plenty to explore in both Kandy and Sigiriya – so much that I think our original plans would not have done either justice – but it was a relief to have a few extra days off the road.
I really liked Galle and found myself wishing we had given it more than an afternoon/evening. But at the same time, chilling on a beach – even if Una is not exactly the nicest beach I’ve seen – was a great, relaxing way to end the trip. If, like me, you’re a city person, or have an interest in colonial history, I’d recommend giving Galle more time.
TRAVELLING WITH A DRIVER
This was the first time either of us had travelled with a driver and overall it was a mixed experience. Our driver himself, whom we booked on the advice of our Sri Lankan friends, was excellent – friendly, patient, a safe driver. Feel free to message me if you'd like a referral.
It was a safe, comfortable and perhaps too easy way to travel. One of the only things we regret is that we didn’t speak up earlier when our driver took us to touristy buffet restaurants, usually not offering much local food, where we suspect he received a commission. These were pricier than we expected, and certainly far more expensive than the more authentic local alternatives, though still relatively cheap at roughly $10US per person. We regretted not being more assertive and insisting that we go to authentic places rather than the touristy ones!
When we did stop at ordinary, everyday places, the food was delicious and at amazing value. That we didn’t have more of this isn’t really the fault of our driver, as he probably thought he was doing us a favour (and certainly there were a couple of days where to my surprise I really craved Western food!). I only flag it so that if you’re a foodie / on a strict budget, and plan to travel with a driver, you can be clear with them about this from the beginning.
Apart from food, and cost, the other thing I didn’t like about travelling with a driver might just be that my preferred travelling style is to rely on local public transport and walking. Obviously it’s much easier to absorb the sights, sounds, smells and ‘feel’ of a place on foot.
But we had such an ambitious itinerary that we realised we needed a car to fit it all in. If you are in the same position, I’d definitely recommend walking as much as you can and even allowing for days at the start or end of your journey where you won’t require a car and driver (for us this was Unawatuna).
This website - www.srilankacampaign.org/EthicalTourism.htm - was really important to us and confirmed our decision to stay at 'grassroots' family-run places wherever possible. We decided to stay at basic to moderate guesthouses, often hosted by families and, as you’d expect, the quality varied greatly.
On a minor note, we found that at this level of accommodation the pillows weren’t great. If you have a sensitive neck/back and are planning to stay in low-budget range Sri Lankan guesthouses, I’d definitely recommend bringing your pillow along.
We were disappointed to find that the Cultural Triangle ticket is no longer offered, so we paid $25-30 at each of the three major components.
Certainly each of these sites proved worth the expense. One thing I’d add is that we didn’t put aside enough time for either Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. I greatly enjoyed Anuradhapura, but as it turned out our ‘4 hour’ safari at Wilpattu that morning ended up taking 5.5-6 plus driving time (not that I’m complaining!) so we only ended up with half a day to see Anuradhapura’s sites.
We definitely did not put aside enough time for Polonnaruwa, which is disappointing. We ended up with only 3.5 hours. Even though we weren’t ambitious enough to even try to see all of the sites, we still would have liked to have had more time to relax and take in each one at our own pace.
Definitely take a guide (or perhaps a really detailed guidebook!) if you’re interested in history and architecture.
And if you’re not particularly interested in history/ancient sites, and don’t know how much of the Cultural Triangle you would enjoy, I still don't think you should miss any of the three major sites at least - maybe just break them up in your itinerary with safaris, etc.
WHAT I WISH I KNEW BEFORE I WENT
FOOD: Sri Lankan cuisine is rich, varied and delicious – but staying mostly at no-frills guesthouses (with a few notable exceptions) who presented us with food rather than taking our orders, we ended up having literally identical dhal curries for most lunches and nearly all dinners for almost two weeks: rice, dhal curry, pappadam. It was delicious at first but after so many servings... not so much. To be fair, we assume this dish was served as an example of traditional yet non-spicy food for our non-Western tastes (and I certainly can’t handle spicy food so had to ask for the non-spicy/mild option), which we appreciated; it’s not so much dhal curry itself that we disliked, just the repetition.
Another thing is that if like us you are planning to eat at mostly low- to mid-range guesthouses or restaurants, it is very difficult to find red meat in Sri Lanka. Yes, I should have seen this one coming, but as an anaemic I found it a bit hard to deal with. Even when a steak was offered on the menu in touristy restaurants, when ordered I was often told it wasn’t available this day.
Also, eat at the local bakeries whenever you can! Delicious, great value food.
JAFFNA: When staying in downtown Jaffna, we were there on a Friday and found the pre-temple rush was so loud we couldn’t sleep past 5 - 5:30 am, so if you’re there on a Friday I’d recommend planning ahead for this.
ANIMALS: One thing that we found very confronting – though certainly not confined to Sri Lanka, far from it – were the instances of animal cruelty we witnessed throughout the trip.
PEOPLE: On a happier note, Sri Lanka is easily the most fascinating and colourful and fun country I’ve ever been to. The cliché that Sri Lankans are all really helpful and friendly (okay, maybe excepting the touts) is, in our experience, utterly true. From friends of friends we’d never met before allowing us to drop by their place in Colombo for a shower before our flight home, to a family warmly welcoming us to their birthday party, to pilgrims climbing Sri Pada patting us on the back in encouragement, we were often amazed by how welcome we were made to feel.
We found that, aside from the hiccups we mentioned above, Sri Lanka was remarkably easy to travel in, with an apparently wide-ranging (if not, perhaps, eminently comfortable) bus network around the country. As memorable as Sri Pada, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Nainativu island were, plus the multiple safaris and countless temples, one of the things I loved most about Sri Lanka was the sheer vibrancy of its street life. Looking forward to going again one day. If you’re interested in going, go soon.
More than happy to answer questions / fill out more detail if anyone would like. Will be doing some accommodation reviews this weekend as well.
Finally, thanks to all the destination experts and other travellers who helped us not only figure out our own itinerary but also shared all manner of insights and advice throughout this forum - it's a great resource and much appreciated!