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A Week in Sri Lanka

For decades Sri Lanka was torn apart by a horrible civil war that made it a no-go zone for most travelers.

And then in 2004 a vicious tsunami hit.

So why would anyone want to visit?

Because the war is over and most of the tsunami damage has been swept away, though not forgotten. Because Sri Lankans are welcoming us. Because this is a land blessed with a magnificently rich history and culture. Because… sheer, inescapable beauty.

Sri Lankan sunset

Because…

Sri Lanka for me was a surprise.

Where I expected only beaches, I found wetlands and soaring mountains and an interior so green and lush you could be in Ireland. Anticipating more uniformity in culture, I found a jumble of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity and the richness that comes from diversity. Assuming a saddened society would be smarting from years of tragedy, I found joy and hope and an intense hospitality.

My first impressions of Sri Lanka

There is nothing unfamiliar about stepping off the plane onto this teardrop-shaped island. The air is hot and wet, the diesel fumes pungent, the traffic maniacal and the crush of people oppressive. I could say the same about many Asian countries.

But then I’m hit by color – every color, everywhere. No pastels, only the bravest, sharpest of primaries.

Sri Lanka colors

Even the ads on trucks in Sri Lanka burst with color

Despite a recent history of hardship, faces break out into smiles of delight at my presence, reminding me of my post-Vietnam War forays into a newly emerging Thailand.

When I retired from my job at the UN last month I decided to give myself a gift: three weeks in an ayurvedic retreat (traditional Indian medicine) to deal with a few niggling health problems. Before burying myself under pills and potions I first wanted to see at least a small corner of the country.

A week is no time to understand a nation so I’ll desist, sharing instead my itinerary to show you just how much you can see in even a short time.

Sri Lanka in a week

I didn’t go to the cultural triangle. I didn’t go to the North or East coasts, both of which are well worth seeing. I visited a tiny sliver of Sri Lanka’s worthwhile sights but like anyone who loves chocolate cake can tell you, a tiny sliver is better than none at all.

I followed one of the more common circuits, from Colombo sweeping East into the hill country, then South to see wildlife and back up North along the coast to Galle before finally arriving at my retreat, just south of Colombo. A bit of an irregular circle, if you like.

I traveled the way I usually hate to travel – fast. I hired a car and driver once I realized that using public transport wouldn’t even get me halfway.

But I saw enough. Certainly enough to make me want to return.

Here’s how it all unfolded.

Days 1 and 2 – Colombo

I land in Colombo in the middle of a major poya, a full moon holiday during which most shops are closed and people go home to their families. Having heard the tales of crowds and traffic, this might not be a bad way to experience Colombo for the first time – empty.

I’m delighted to catch up with an old friend – and sleep off some of that jet lag.

I speed around the city in a tuk-tuk along quiet streets, enjoying architecture, everyday scenes and vague thoughts of what might have been.

Colombo Sri Lanka poya

A typical Colombo street on a poya day: shuttered

Beach Colombo Sri Lanka

A holiday is a good occasion to stroll along Colombo’s beachfront

Colombo Sri Lanka sunrise

My first morning in Colombo: the skies are in my favor

Day 3 – Colombo  Kandy – Nuwara Eliya

I ride from Colombo to Kandy (the first of my two train rides) in the vastly overrated observation carriage, an unkempt first-class wagon with a dirty panoramic window at one end. Warning if you have motion sickness: I am facing backwards the entire trip and the train rocks menacingly throughout. Shaken, not stirred.

At each stop men hop on for a minute or two selling food and drinks, but the train’s dance prevents me from even thinking about eating.

Along the tracks life unfolds: students using the rail lines as a shortcut to school; young men and women with bags and briefcases stepping gingerly across each railway tie, cautious not to get a sari caught or a shoe scuffed; dozens of dogs, clearly at home in the bustle of the railway.

Train in Colombo Sri Lanka

The famous observation car to Kandy – a disappointment

Highrises give way to grey corrugated roofs jammed so closely together the houses are almost invisible. Once in the countryside emerald rice paddies unfurl through the murky window, giving way to fairytale vegetation. We climb along ridges, surrounded by flashes of flowers so brilliant I can’t help but give them outsanding names – vermillion rather than red, fuchsia, tangerine, amethyst. I’d take a picture but… the windows don’t open.

My destination, Kandy, is a striking town bordered by a small lake and is worth far more than the few hours I can give it. I’m met there by my driver Gamage – he insists on a single name – and his smile and easy manner win me over immediately.

I manage to visit the Temple of the Relic of the Tooth, the country’s most sacred Buddhist relic, and walk around the streets in sunshine broiling enough to begin melting my open umbrella. I ask Gamage to take me to his favorite lunch spot and he does, feeding me a curry so hot I cry when I sniff it.

A few random observations: the weather changes every five minutes; the paving stones at the temple (which you negotiate in your bare feet) are fire hot – I think I’m walking over burning coals; shops selling particular goods are grouped together; the diversity of Sri Lanka is emerging, with shrines to every religion sitting nearly side by side.

Kandy Sri Lanka

The lovely city of Kandy, seen from above

Tooth relic Kandy Sri Lanka

This is why most people visit Kandy: the Temple of the Tooth Relic (shot through a glass case)

Curry Kandy Sri Lanka

This was one of MY highlights in Kandy

From Kandy we drive towards Nuwara Eliya and I get my first real taste of Sri Lankan roads.

The guidebooks dispassionately describe bus travel as “interesting”. What they don’t explain is the passing on blind curves and hills, the races against one another, and collision course driving if it means gaining an inch. Here, size matters and lesser vehicles simply pull to the side (or into the ditch) to avoid larger ones. Hence the importance of an excellent driver.

Whatever the danger, this is a spectacular trip, winding through Sri Lanka’s – possibly the world’s – best tea plantations.

Tea plucking Sri Lanka

Plucking tea leaves in the highlands

Arriving in Nuwara Eliya I can see how it might have been a lovely British hill town once, its suburbs set on the edge of Lake Gregory, along whose shores visitors rode horseback, ate picnics and generally frolicked. They still do these things but now have to step through plastic bottles and paper wrappers and around the roaming dogs.

The town’s popularity has encouraged ugly concrete buildings, stripping away some of the English charm people say it was once known for. To my eyes it is unnecessarily unkempt but to my driver it is the nicest spot in Sri Lanka. So please, take my comments with a grain of salt. I may well have missed the best part in my drive-through. Or perhaps I’m just grumpy today.

On the plus side, if you’re melting in the Sri Lankan heat, Nuwara Eliya is the one place you’ll need a blanket at night.

Day 4 – Nuwara Eliya – Ella

I take my second train ride; Gamage sets off with my suitcase to meet me at Ella station a few hours away.

A derelict Third Class wagon chugs up to the platform and we are motioned to embark. It appears the First Class train from Colombo is not coming. It is “broken”. My kingly substitute transport must date back to British rule and the Plantation Raj. At least.

The engine roars and clanks, belching thick dark smoke as it fires up. The whistle blows, straight from a Humphrey Bogart movie. And off we go into the wilderness, rasping and rattling to the echoes of metal on metal.

This little ride of just under five hours turns out to be an engineering marvel. The rickety carriages chug at an average of 15km per hour through several dozen tunnels, braving a narrow mountain crest and creeping along steep hillfaces.

The tunnels are so narrow you’d never get out in an emergency: there’s no room for a human to slide between the wagon and the tunnel wall, not even a slim one standing sideways. And certainly not me. But they’re short.

All repair work is done by hand and workers are conveniently stationed every few kilometers with a red or green flag. It’s an important job because there’s only a single track.

If one of these guys gets it wrong, it’s a head-on collision.

Train Sri Lanka

Signal man along the track in Sri Lankan hill country

The hill country stationmasters pride themselves on their railway stations. Each one is landscaped with lovingly tended flowers, platforms swept clean, and somehow efficient.

While there are plenty of travelers, this is a local train. Sri Lankans hop on and off with their produce, headed for market or bringing shopping home. The seats fit two, yet I manage to be jammed between a rotund woman (a rarity in these parts), a peanut vendor, and two small children. We smile at one another gracefully.

The windows are open, I hang out with my iPhone, and the air is cool. Life is good.

Hill country train station Sri Lanka

A typical, well-kept hill country train station – and that’s my train on the left

After many hills and plenty of fog, we reach Ella.

This little town, without so much as an asphalted road, is somehow magical. It has clearly developed with tourism in mind, with a jumble of eateries catering to the hungry Westerners trumbling off the train here. There’s something Far Western about it, a spirit of the frontier that provides a sense of accomplishment for merely getting here.

Ella also provides what may well be the best meal of my entire trip, and friends who have visited concur this is a little gastronomic gem.

Ella Sri Lanka

Right off the main road in Ella

Cashews Sri Lanka

One of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Involves cashews, chilli, curry leaves and caramelized onions. I shall try to duplicate this when I get home.

The kicker, though, isn’t the town at all.

It is the hill behind it.

We drive up a treacherously winding road plied by buses and trucks but with room only for one vehicle at a time. Honk loudly, and pray the other person gets out of the way.

Heart in throat we make it to the top, to a simple hotel facing… this:

Ella Gap Sri Lanka

That’s Ella Gap, straight ahead, and Little Adam’s Peak

That glorious sunshine will give way in a few minutes to cloud and fog so thick I won’t see the bushes outside. After a quick bout of thunder and lightning the sun will return, a weather pattern locals consider normal. I can’t tear myself away from this vista.

In the morning I’m awakened by the smell of the forest and the sound of a thousand birds – and a train whistle.

And the ubiquitous tea. I am seriously aching for espresso.

Day 5 – Ella – Yala

Ella is our highest point and we now head downhill, where the plains rush flatly towards the ocean and the roads become busier. An amusing side trip takes us to a ‘nearly’ abandoned airport built by the previous political dynasty just outside the ex-President’s hometown. This airport boasts a single flight a day. I’m not even quite sure why.

As we get closer to the sea, the wetlands emerge.

Lagoon Sri Lanka

This lagoon of unspeakable beauty captured my heart on the way to Yala

I have high hopes for Yala National Park and I’m excited: it has snow leopards and I’ve never seen one.

Still haven’t.

In fact I don’t see much of anything at Yala. A mongoose, some barking deer, plenty of wild cattle, and a lonely elephant in the distance, indistinguishable from the trees around him. Or her.

Yala is unpleasantly bumpy, and more than once it takes all my strength not to be ejected from the safari jeep. The park is one long road, with offshoots explored by crowds of jeeps when news of a spotting comes through. I’m quite sure the animals have wisened up and are sitting a distance away, giggling at us, because – even if I don’t see them today – I know this park teems with wildlife.

I settle for the savage scenery, the lagoons and wild, wonderful beach along which I can visualize animals, cantering.

Yala beach Sri Lanka

The wilderness isn’t just about trees and brush

Next time I’ll try one of the smaller, less frequented parks and remember my dislike of the mechanized gallop at which we feel compelled to pursue our prey… I understand how tourism helps fund conservation efforts so yes, I’ll keep visiting parks.

This overly crowded one just isn’t for me.

Day 6 – Yala – Galle

This drive unveils yet another set of sceneries: the postcard coastline, with its perfect clichés of fine white sand, tall coconut palms and fronds swaying in the breeze. From the moment I reach the coast until I leave it, the sound of the surf is my most constant companion.

Stilt fishermen Sri Lanka

Stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka. This part of the southern coast was devastated by the tsunami and many fishermen lost their boats and livelihoods. Some have resorted to getting their pictures taken by tourists for cash in order to survive.

Some of the village names might be familiar… Hambantota, home of the former government’s Rajapaksa dynasty and of white elephant projects, like that airport and an even bigger but equally controversial Chinese-built deep-water port… Mirissa, where tourists congregate to watch blue whales… Weligama for surfing… Hikkaduwa and its tsunami museum…

I arrive in Galle Fort determined to dislike it, the hellish heat annihilating even the strongest explorer fiber in me. I ride a tuk-tuk for one reason only: the gentle breeze skimming in through the opening. Walking here at high noon in the middle of summer would be slow suicide.

In this heat even the shutters droop and most cafés are bleak or empty.

If not for the heat I feel I might just be in Europe: whitewashed houses, tiny boutiques (the few that dare open), bicycles leaning lazily into the shadows, and enough Dutch colonial architecture to dull you into questioning your present time and place. The town is stuffed with houses of worship of every denomination – Christian, but also Buddhist and Hindu temples and a Mosque, as though God had thrown everyone together into this small space and said, “Make it work.” And it seems to.

Galle Fort during my week in Sri Lanka

A hot, steamy day in Galle Fort

Galle (as in gallstones) is a city at the crossroads, a bit like Stone Town in Zanzibar, welcoming – often against its will – a flurry of conquerors and traders. This might well have been the spot King Solomon got his spices but the fort itself was built by the Portuguese in the late 1500s. It was later destroyed and rebuilt by the Dutch, who occupied it until the British arrived to take over Ceylon.

Galle is both the New Town and Galle Fort, the older part. It was Sri Lanka’s largest port for centuries. Now it is a haven for artists and home to gem cutters and brokers of all stripes.

Galle Fort Sri Lanka

Galle Fort, built sturdily by the Dutch – it escaped the 2004 tsunami

Ensconced within Galle Fort, a World Heritage Site, a compact grid of tiny streets is lined with houses and businesses, giving it a feel of realism: this is a place that is lived in as well as visited.

The magistrate’s court, for example, is the venue for weddings – and post-wedding shots.

wedding Sri Lanka

This charming couple rehearsed walking towards one another for the matrimonial video – at least a dozen times as the videographer cued them. We all watched and smiled for them.

Not surprisingly Galle Fort has plenty of small museums charting its history but I am particularly taken by the Historial Mansion, a jumble of rooms more packed with antiques and collectibles than a Victorian living room. A few of the halls are actual shops but others overflow with old objects once used in town and now displayed for admirers like me.

In my whirlwind tour of a small corner of Sri Lanka, this is one of my favorite places. Despite the scorching heat.

Antiques Galle Fort

As a journalist these would have been my tools of the trade back then…

Historial Mansion Galle Fort Sri Lanka

This gentleman at the Historical Mansion is one of the main reasons I found this museum so appealing

Day 7 – Galle – on the way back to Colombo        

The beauty of this coast is marred only by its memories: this is the scene of the 2004 tsunami, a word some of us had rarely heard before this killer wave swept tens of thousands in Sri Lankas to their death (the death toll was far higher in India). That memory is somehow tangible, projecting an aura of sadness upon those, like myself, who are merely passing through.

It’s not hard to understand the devastation. The beach is often narrow, the road impossibly close to the sea, and buildings right at the edge.

I stop and pay my respects at one of the several tsunami memorials I’ve seen in the country.

Tsunami memorial Sri Lanka

The memorial has an obelisk surrounded by huge mortar shells – and this is its backdrop, not quite reality but equally harsh

Sri Lanka may have moved beyond this disaster but no one forgets. The sun, the fun and the beauty have come at a high cost, but Sri Lankans want to put it all behind them. To the untrained eye, they seem to have moved on.

Today, they want to rebuild and start anew, leaving the years of violence and pain behind. And welcoming visitors from abroad is part of that healing.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

So yes, seven days. A week in Sri Lanka. I would recommend more. But you can see a lot in seven days.

My journey is over and now I face the apprehension of three weeks of complete unknown: an ayurvedic retreat. If nothing else, it will be utterly surprising.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • I felt safe throughout my trip, with my driver and without. I would have no hesitation in recommending this trip for women traveling on their own.
  • Other than the occasional merchant there is nothing to buy on the trains. Bring food and water and toilet paper (for emergencies). Trains often stop long enough in stations for a bathroom run. Ask the stationmaster: his office is usually right in the center of the station, facing the track. He’ll tell you how long the train stops.
  • The cost of a car and driver isn’t extortionate. I paid just under €350/US$390 (at this writing) for the two train tickets, three hotel nights, breakfast and a car and driver. I added about €60/US$67 for the safari jeep and park entrance. And gave the driver a 10% tip, about US$40.

 

 

{ 49 comments… add one }
  • Sunita June 16, 2015, 2:14 pm

    Hi! Great post about Sri Lanka 🙂 Can I please know how did you book the car and driver?

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 16, 2015, 2:20 pm

      Yes, I literally walked into the Colombo train station and there was a sign that said Tourist Information. Turns out it was a tour agency. Some people have had less good fortune than I had with this agency but I was definitely happy. If you check the Tripadvisor forums there are plenty of travelers who have good drivers to recommend. Mine unfortunately doesn’t work independently, only for the agency, and I’m not 100% convinced I can recommend them without reservation.

      • Sunita June 16, 2015, 8:01 pm

        Thank you Leyla. Enjoy the rest of your trip! 🙂

      • Dilanka July 11, 2015, 10:02 pm

        hi.thanks for visiting my homeland and writing about your trip.
        actually the costs for transportation depends on the agencies and sometimes if you order or arrange a taxi yourself, it would be cheaper.(but sometimes some stupid people charge more than the tourists price.so it would be better if you contact or get a help from a TRUSTED srilankan and there are so many good and kind people like to help you, not for money, but for hospitality and humanity.
        thanks again 🙂

  • Amei Binns June 16, 2015, 4:00 pm

    Leyla,
    This is excellent travel writing. I loved reading it and have put Sri Lanka on my list again.
    Many thanks
    Amei

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 16, 2015, 5:22 pm

      Thank you Amei – I suspect you won’t regret it!

  • Penelope Haccius June 16, 2015, 4:50 pm

    What a great essay – and such fabulous photos. I remember a very posh Brit I knew as a student telling me that Nuraya Eliya tea was THE best in the universe, dahling, and was to be pronounced New Reelya. The Portuguese and Dutch have certainly left us some gems! There is stuff in Cape Town and Melaka for example, that your description of Galle made me think of.

    After reading this, I have to visit Sri Lanka! Hopefully during a season when the temp is slightly less than boiling … Thanks for another excellent piece!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 16, 2015, 5:20 pm

      Thank you – and not boiling hot would be better, yes! But even fried to a crisp it’s a fascinating place.

      • Molly June 16, 2015, 8:02 pm

        Leyla, have left you some comments on fb re: patience, tho you are probably well into your retreat by now. I was one of the ones who recommended Sri Lanka and had been going to go myself on a round the world venture, but I opted for Kula Lumper for my stop over instead. Interesting travel blog and indeed like being there. Be well and hang in there…

        • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 17, 2015, 1:27 pm

          And I’m so glad you did recommend Sri Lanka! It’s been a whirlwind of discovery, all good, at every level.

    • Pandu July 29, 2015, 11:44 am

      December and January (November to some extent) months are relatively cooler. Lots of Sri Lankans domiciled in other parts of the world visit their families and roots during December. Best wishes on your plans to visit our country.

  • regina June 16, 2015, 5:19 pm

    I am still friends with my driver from 9 years ago! His name is Anura Gunaratna and not only is he a great driver, he also speaks good English, is knowledgeable, respectful, polite, really invested in making your trip totally enjoyable and fun. Contact via facebook

    • Gwyneth November 17, 2016, 4:03 am

      Hi Regina, I am a single woman (aged 69 but fit!) and will be spending a week in Sri Lanka from 30th November – 8th December this year. I have been wondering about hiring a driver so I can get to the places I want to go fairly easily. Can you give me the contact details of your driver? Many thanks

  • marian jiskra June 16, 2015, 6:46 pm

    Ayobowan Leyla !,I fully agree with your observations and feelings about SriLanka with I visited in February -for 17days- and believe me: it WAS also VERY hot then…I can still feel the burning paving stones in Anuradhapura temples…
    I would like to know about your ayurveda experience in SL: I have been twice in an ayurvedic clinic, in Kerala up Kochi ,and would like to have your feedback circa your 3 weeks stay in the clinic south Colombo..
    I know about some “clinics/resorts” around Bentota and heard that they are VERY expensive and that the treatment provided are very questionable.
    I am more interested in ayurvedic treatments offerd by professionals then the “Resort lifestyle by the sea”.
    Would very much appreciate if you could provide this info.
    Thank you and fully enjoy your stay in “a land like no other”: the motto for SL!
    Cordialy,
    Marian

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 17, 2015, 1:30 pm

      Hi Marian, I’ll provide this info in two weeks, when I’m finished my treatment. I’ll write a post about the treatment, its results and the center. It’s still too early – although results so far are good I’m leaving myself the entire period before I make a proper judgment. This post will appear in my newsletter of 30 June 🙂

      • Marian June 24, 2015, 6:56 pm

        Ayubowan Leyla and thank you for your reply: it will be my pleasure to read your next newsletter upon my return from my incoming trip (National Parks in California)…a “dream come true”… . Enjoy and take care.
        Marian

  • Sutapa Basu June 16, 2015, 7:01 pm

    Leyla, what evocative pictures you paint! Even though I live much closer than you in India, Sri Lanka I have not visited but want to very much. It has been on my to-do list for some time but after your description I am really eager to make it sooner.

    Your descriptions are very reminiscent of the hill stations of South India–the tea and coffee plantations of Coorg, the highlands and back waters of Kerala, the beaches of Goa. How come you haven’t been to India? Or is it not recommended for solo-woman travel?
    But thanks for this fantastic view!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 17, 2015, 1:28 pm

      The only reason I haven’t been to India is that I’ve never really known where to start – it’s so huge! If I ever decide to do another ayurvedic treatment I’ll try Kerala so I can compare, AND get to know India a little, which I would love to do.

  • Halina Goldstein June 16, 2015, 9:05 pm

    I never thought of going to Sri Lanka. Now it feels like a must. But then, with your amazing writing and presence, you could probably convince me of going anywhere! Thank you, as always!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 17, 2015, 1:26 pm

      Hah – thank you Halina, kind beyond words!

  • Fran June 16, 2015, 11:03 pm

    I’ve kept up with u on Facebook but enjoyed revisiting ur journey with this article. Tks for sharing.

  • Grainne Friel June 17, 2015, 4:22 am

    Thank you Leyla. I am planning to visit Sri Lanka later this year. Your ininery and vivid descriptions have been very helpful.

  • Luci June 17, 2015, 4:36 pm

    Hi Leyla
    I’m from Sri Lanka but live in Europe now. It’s a good place but you need to be mindful of the “intense hospitality”…..can be overwhelming!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 19, 2015, 1:28 pm

      I’m sure it can but I haven’t met the intense variety – only the naturally warm welcome I’ve been greeted with! 🙂

  • Samantha Spencer June 21, 2015, 5:07 pm

    I am going to Sri Lanka for my honeymoon in October so hopefully it will be a little cooler. We are going to all these places plus the cultural triangle and I can not wait. I am glad you recommend it and feel much safer with our decision.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 22, 2015, 5:36 am

      I rode the trains on my own and spent several days alone with my driver – I didn’t feel unsafe once. The scariest part is the road, but with a good driver who is careful you’ll be able to relax! Congratulations, and enjoy!

  • Izy Berry - The Wrong Way Home June 24, 2015, 7:44 am

    Thanks for the amazing article. It’s real travel guide for Sri Lanka. You’ve seen so much for just 7 days. Good luck with your next trips.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak June 24, 2015, 8:22 am

      Thanks Izzy – although I did travel in a privileged way. I had hoped to do it on public transport but would have reached the halfway mark… as it was I did manage to take two trains! Glad you found it useful 🙂

      I love the name of your blog – The Wrong Way Home – and your piece on finding yourself (http://www.thewrongwayhome.com/did-travel-help-me-find-myself/) really resonated. I’m all for that deeper travel that intersects with the human in us.

  • Anita July 2, 2015, 9:40 am

    Well, Leyla, you managed quite a bit in one short week! I adore Sri Lankan food, and found plenty to keep my taste buds entertained for six weeks…and I loved Galle Fort, against expectations, especially in the light of early mornings. Ready to return!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak July 5, 2015, 10:48 pm

      I am too! This time, North and East!

  • Shelley July 3, 2015, 7:49 pm

    Thanks for sharing your fascinating experience in Sri Lanka. If you have only experienced a slice, there must be a lot to see for such a small country. I haven’t visited it yet, but have been interested since we had a sponsored child who lived there, and then my brother was in Colombo during the tsunami. Thankfully he and my sister-in-law survived, because they were scuba-diving a mile off-shore at the time. Ironically, safer than if they were on land.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak July 5, 2015, 10:47 pm

      What a harrowing story about your brother! I can’t imagine how he and his wife must have felt when they emerged and looked around… I’ll be curious about your own first impressions – they might be very different from mine!

  • Donna Janke July 4, 2015, 8:34 pm

    I really enjoyed this look into Sri Lanka, a country I know very little about. You covered a lot of ground in a week and paint an intriguing picture of this varied country.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak July 5, 2015, 10:46 pm

      It WAS intriguing – mostly because I had no expectations and everything was a surprise, but also because I was surprised by the scenery, especially mountains and wetlands.

  • Mark July 5, 2015, 5:58 pm

    With most travel programs and travel magazines focusing on the beaches ( its an island after all ) most tourists are not aware of the historic sites and hill country in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is home to eight world heritage sites, with 6 of them falling to the heritage category. And the hill country have some amazing views including magnificent waterfalls. Definitely a lot more than few beautiful beaches.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak July 5, 2015, 10:45 pm

      Actually the beaches were my least favourite part of Sri Lanka – but then I probably didn’t go to the right place to see the ‘beautiful’ ones. The hill country on the other hand was absolutely stunning, and I didn’t begin to see everything I should have.

  • Asiri July 27, 2015, 7:16 pm

    Dear Leyla,

    Thanks for the wonderful write-up, and Sri Lanka needs whatever the press it can get, however it can get. As a tourism professional though I was shocked to see some glaring factual errors and this is just pointing those out just for the benefit of all the wonderful people who would be enlightened on Sri Lanka through your wonderful expirience.

    1. As for trains, one should ideally stick to one of the two privately operated carriages (expo rail or rajadhani express), cos it come with full service, AC, clean and modern toilets, free WiFi and a host of other facilities and the observation was the best a couple of decades ago and no more.

    2. Those narrow tunnels can accommodate multiple dozens of people in perfect safety when a train goes through them as when Brits did the road up, they paid specific attention to ensure that particular aspect, so though it seems incredibly narrow and dark, if one is on foot in the tunnel when a train comes, one can easily step aside to safety.

    3. Yala must be done with an experienced driver, and it is the Leopard (Panthera pardus) and the Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) subspecies at that, not the Snow Leopard one may see there. If you time it right this is the best place in the word to see one in the wild, anywhere in the world and in my over 20 visits there I have only gone once not seeing a leopard, that again the very first time when I was totally inexperienced in guiding.

    4. As for the war (ended 6 years ago in 2009 and Sri Lanka has been safe as can be, even during the 30 years when it was on only 2 tourists were killed and that again only when they went in to a zone they were asked not to go in to, as against so many other tourism hotspots around the world), we have move so far beyond it. Thus obviously the tsunami that was in 2004, is a very real memory but we sure have recovered from the devastation many many years back.

    Hopefully many more of your readers would be compelled to visit Sri Lanka for Sri Lanka sure is ready to welcome the world

    Cheers !!!!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak July 27, 2015, 8:12 pm

      Thank you, Asiri, for your comments but I’m afraid that on some points I must disagree.

      1. Perhaps the more modern trains have advantages but I loved my experience on the Third Class train and highly recommend that kind of travel if you want to come in contact with local people rather than hotel and shop staff. In fact I did take the more modern train from Colombo to Kandy, the one with the “observation carriage”, and I disliked it. I far preferred my rickety journey to Ella…

      2. You may be right about the tunnels – I can only speak from my own personal experience. When I did look out the window – and granted I only did a few times while going through, the walls were nearly against the window and I can guarantee there would be no room for anyone. Perhaps that was an anomaly and the rest of the tunnels are wider, but the ones I saw were not.

      3. I realize the Snow Leopard is most common in Yala, which is why I went so far out of my way to visit. Perhaps my driver was not experienced, but none of the others were that day, because everyone stuck together. I may well have gone at the wrong time, sadly for me, because I would have dearly loved to see one of those beautiful animals. That was no one’s fault, it was bad luck, but also there was a certain “group mentality” in which I felt we were sometimes more in a car rally than out to spot wildlife. I accept though that the area is small and popular and it’s not suprising to have so many cars following the same route. I suspect the leopards are smarter than we are and are watching us ride by with great amusement. If I return to Sri Lanka, perhaps I will try Yala again.

      4. It might have been relatively safe during the war, but many tourists did stay away. As for the tsunami, I have to say I was a little perplexed about the lack of preparedness for any future event, at least in my hotel, where there was no evacuation plan at all and the reception desk seemed surprised I asked. I also saw a hotel nearby being built right by the water – I thought that was no longer allowed?

      But these are details and you are certainly right to bring them up. I loved my time in Sri Lanka and do plan to return. It is a wonderful country with extraordinary culture and scenery and delightful and welcoming people and I can only hope that development takes place in a sustainable manner so that future visitors can enjoy it as much as I did. This is absolutely the right time to visit, especially for independent travelers who want to take the time to discover your delightful country in depth.

  • Lyn July 28, 2015, 2:17 pm

    What an excellent account. I did enjoy reading your detailed observation. I am Sri Lankan born, and did spend a lot of time travelling around that great Island. I have been away 43 years, and so do imagine the vast changes in that time. Still, a great place. Thank you for your writing.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak July 28, 2015, 4:31 pm

      Thanks Enelle – you come from a beautiful country and I’ll always cherish the memories of my visit.

  • Green Global Trek February 17, 2016, 12:39 am

    We too just left Sri Lanka after spending three weeks there for the second time. Even three weeks was not long enough for this jewel of a place with its complex history and beauty. In case you are interested to “compare notes” and see our blogs from Oct 2014 which are in the archives. We moved slowly both times: Our first trip we went South and this time we went East. Both were magnificent and fascinating. We still have never been to Kandy, but that just leaves more exploring to do for when we return a third time!
    So enjoyed reading your post! We were probably there at the same time.

  • Asanka Miah December 10, 2016, 8:14 am

    Hi Leyla!
    Thanks for sharing your some of the incredible images of my country. I loved your all pictures. You narrated everything soo beautifully that I got mesmerized with your way of writing seriously.
    Keep on writing and exploring new horizons.

  • sportsmed January 9, 2017, 11:59 am

    Hi,
    These images are fantastic!
    Very interesting. I love reading about and experiencing cultural melting pots like this.
    Sri Lanka great place for vacation . Thank you for your writing.

  • Amar February 7, 2017, 12:30 am

    You did well to do so much in a week. I never did get a snap of fisherman on stilts. Where exactly was your shot taken?

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak February 7, 2017, 8:44 pm

      Somewhere between Hambantota and Tangalle I think… I was coming from Yala – sorry I can’t be more specific! Also, it’s a bit of a tourist thing now. You have to pay to take a picture of a single fishermen. Some tourists were doing the ‘whole’ event – standing on the stilts themselves and pretending to fish, and I took a photograph at a distance. This is one fisherman – he’s surrounded by others. Still, this lone fisherman is the way things USED to be, and, I’m told, you can still find the occasional fisherman who fishes on stilts for a living as opposed to as a tourist attraction (which is one of the few ways they have of earning a decent living, given the horrendous toll of the tsunami on this coastline).

  • TripSriLanka.co February 19, 2017, 9:23 am

    Hi, a great post on the best things of Sri Lanka. I am sure everyone loves that cashews curry, it is yummy…, Galle fortification is one of the Dutch landmark in Sri Lanka, it is good that it still exists even after the Tsunami in 2004, and I am sure you could have get a different feeling when you are in Galle fort, compare to other places of the country because of the Dutch style buildings and environment. In between, have you checked out the East coast and Norther coast beaches? There are more fun things to do…….

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak February 19, 2017, 9:32 am

      Sadly I didn’t have enough time to see it all… next time I’ll visit the other half of the island!

  • Jenna Moore March 27, 2017, 5:32 pm

    Hey Leyla,

    Thanks for such an informative post!

    I had a little search for the Ayurveda post but couldn’t find it. Is it possible to share which centre you went to and how your experience was?

    Thanks,
    Jenna

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