For such a small little island, there is an enormous amount to do and see there. There is no way to see it all, but we wanted to surf, go on a safari, and see some sacred sites. We were only able to spend 6 days in Sri Lanka. We had to cut out a lot, but what we did see was incredible.
I know this post may seem out of sequence. I wrote it a long time ago but never posted it. The other day I had some friends asking about Sri Lanka, so I decided now would be a good time to put it into the blogosphere. I did recheck all of my facts and prices to be sure they are all up to date.
I do realize that some people might be wary of traveling there after the bombing. However, that reasoning means that people would have to stop traveling to Bali, New Zealand, America, Spain, the UK, France…shall I go on?
Sri Lankans need tourism, don’t be afraid to go there. It’s a beautiful place, with wonderful people, and so much to explore.
This is how we spent 6 days in Sri Lanka.
Yala > 2 Days
It’s just past sunrise. Mark, my mom and I are sitting in a jeep, surrounded by tall green grass and sweeping views. We are watching a leopard devour his freshly killed antelope just 30 feet away. His fangs sink into his lunch, yet he doesn’t take his topaz eyes off me.
I know at any moment, he could leap up and run at us, which is terrify and exhilarating at the same time. We have no protection; we could be dessert. Our trusty driver and guide Nuwan told us, “Don’t worry, just be still, he’s eating and can’t be bothered to attack us unless we give him a reason.” Feeling a wee bit better, I exhaled.
We sat for about five minutes just watching the beast watch us until he got up. I held my breath. He sauntered away with a fat belly to sleep it off. Apparently, a food coma doesn’t just happen to humans.
We are not in Africa. We’re in Yala National Park on the south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka.
We came for the day to see leopards, the wonderfully elusive cat that I never saw on the three African safaris I’ve been on. I wasn’t that hopeful. But within the first 20 minutes of driving the long windy path, Nuwan spotted tracks. Five minutes later, there he was, under a tree, gnawing away.
After the lethargic leopard ambled off, we moved on to see what else we could see to top that experience.
Elephants, Boar, and Buffalo, Oh My
On our short cut to the river, we hit a roadblock: a giant male elephant with no intention of going anywhere. We sat, he stood, he ate, and looked at us as if to say, “I know you’re not going to make me move while I’m eating.”
And he was right.
After we oohed and aahed a bit, it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere. We reversed it, keeping an eye on the massive grey brute. When a male elephant feels threatened, he may charge. We backed away slowly to show him who’s the boss…him.
We took the long road to the river. We spotted elephants, antelopes, wild boars, and a water buffalo with his symbiotic bird sitting on his head. Then we went back to the leopard spotting site and found a smaller female dragging the kill deeper into the jungle. We sat there until she was so camouflaged it was hard to make her out.
Had this safari been in Africa, it would have cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. But in Yala, it was beyond affordable.
When to go:
The best time to visit is from June to September. It is the dry season, and the animals are more visible.
If you want to visit the park independently, it will cost $15 per person to enter the park. You must hire a jeep and guide, which costs $35 for a half-day tour/$65 for a full day. That isn’t per person, that is for the whole vehicle, up to 6 people. There is an $8 service charge for the jeep. It is definitely the most affordable way to go. However, the guides at the park may not speak that much English, which can make or break the experience, especially when you have questions about what you’re looking at.
If you stay in a nearby hotel, you can book the safari and a guide through them. It will be more expensive, but you will have an English speaking guide. Or you can go to a local tour company like Get Your Guide.
I recommend a full day to spend as much time as possible in the park.
Honestly, I could spend 6 days in Sri Lanka just going from safari to safari. There are almost a dozen reserves to get your wildlife fix in.
Where to stay:
The close-by Kumbuk River Eco-lodge has an ultra-modern, two-story, stilted treehouse to stay in for a truly exotic experience. The air-conditioned bedroom has floor to ceiling glass walls so you can watch all the wildlife along the rushing river below. The upper deck is open to the elements and a perfect place for dinner. The room goes for $180. There are three other bungalow types to choose from, starting at $120 a night.
At Cinnamon Wild, you can stay in a beach or a jungle chalet. Both have a/c and start around $130. The hotel will sort out guides for Yala and anything else your little heart desires. They can set up all-inclusive packages for Yala.
I would def book any safari in advance, especially if you want a guide.
Surfing in Arugam Bay > 2 days
We wanted to learn how to surf, and the obvious choice in Sri Lanka is Arugam Bay. Abay, as the locals call it, is known as a surfing mecca and is the perfect place for beginners as well as pros. The town is on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, a 3.5-hour drive from Yala. It’s a charming little surf community that still has a local feel.
There are a bunch of hotels and a few bars and restaurants, but it’s the surf vibe that draws the crowds.
I could have easily stayed more than a couple of days there, but with only 6 days in Sri Lanka we wanted to keep moving.
We walked around and found No Worries Surf Shop and stopped in for a chat to meet the instructors. We were with my 70-year-old mom, so we wanted to make sure she felt comfortable with the guides.
For $17, we each had our own teacher. We threw the boards on top of the jeep and set off to the beginner’s beach. First, they taught us the basics on land. Then we all went into the ocean, only about 100 feet off the shore, and the real fun began.
The water was clear and warm and only four feet deep, so we couldn’t fall that far, right?
The instructors were patient, funny, and spoke perfect English; we knew exactly what to do. But doing it was another story. We all managed to get up and ride the waves, including my mom, who was a total champion for any age!
Fly Like an Eagle, Crash Like a Test Dummy
As the lesson progressed, the waves got larger and faster. Mom popped up and was riding the wave into shore like a champ when a five-foot wave (she’s barely 5 feet tall) knocked her right off and hurled her into the air.
She flew like a bird for what seemed like 10 seconds. The whole terrifying moment felt like it was unfolding in slow motion. There was a collective gasp from everyone in the water. Then she crashed. Hard.
We all started swimming toward her, unsure if she would be conscious. Moments later, she surfaced disheveled and with a Trump-style combover, but she gave us a thumbs-up. The small crowd of surfers that had gathered for the show started hooting and hollering. We all let out a sigh of relief and applause for mom’s performance!
Her crash looked as bad as it felt. If we hadn’t felt the freedom and loved those brief moments of riding the wave, we might have stopped. But we persevered and eventually rode more and more of the waves in. The adrenaline kept us going, but after hours of hard work, we ended the lesson with some very sore ribs.
It was worth every ache and pain. If we weren’t leaving the next day, we would have done it all over again.
After the lesson, we laid on the beach, exhausted and recovering. We sipped yellow coconuts carved into the shape of mice, I was in pure heaven. The DJ was playing chilled-out tunes, and the surfers were showing off. My instructor rode a wave in while doing a headstand. I wonder how much water he got up his nose.
Just then, two female goat herders in their traditional purple garb walked by, giggling away. In front of them were at least 30 goats running, playing, chasing, baa-ing.
That moment was authentic Sri Lanka. And precisely what makes it so magical.
When to go:
The high season is from April-October. The best surfing months are July-Sept. If you have more than 6 days in Sri Lanka, I’d add an extra couple of days.
If you want to surf but the timing isn’t right, there are plenty of other surf spots on the island.
Where to stay:
When we were there, we stayed at the Spice Trail. It was still being built, and we didn’t have a pleasant experience.
We went to the Hideaway Resort and checked out the facilities. It has great food, strong coffee, a chill ambiance, and friendly service. It’s $110 for a room with A/C in the high season, $70 if you don’t need aircon.
Since we’ve been there, a lot of cute hotels have popped up. I would def check your options before booking.
If Sri Lanka isn’t on your radar, hopefully, this blog can persuade you otherwise. If not read Top Things to do in Paros, Greece, or 27 Of The Most Interesting Facts About Malaysia, or The Most Unusual Things to do in Phuket, or maybe Life as an Expat: What You Need to Know
Sacred Sites > 2 Days
Directly in the center of the island is a lackluster town called Dambulla. It is known for its UNESCO world heritage site, the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, dating back to the 1st century BC.
Originally the caves were used as a shelter. When King Valagamba was driven from Anuradhapura in the north, he took refuge there until he regained the throne and converted the caves into a place of worship. Subsequent Kings added to it over the years. By the 11th century, it became the significant religious site it is today.
The series of five caves are built directly into the base of the 492 foot high Dambulla rock. As we entered, we were struck by the painfully shiny and enormous golden Buddha statue. Other than the size and its otherworldly sheen, that Buddha itself wasn’t too exciting.
But behind it was hundreds of life-size monk statues. All wearing papaya colored robes, waiting in line to give their offerings to the massive Buddha. The line wrapped through the surrounding trees and snaked its way as far as the eyes can see.
As we continued up, we were escorted by a mischievous troop of monkeys, hoping we would feed them. At any given moment, they sneak in to snatch anything not tied down, so beware.
After a slow fifteen-minute walk to the top, we were rewarded by panoramas of another nearby UNESCO site. Sigiriya Rock is a fortress and palace built on top of a massive 656-foot, free-standing rock. We chose not to visit Sigiriya. We thought the 1200 step climb to the top might be too much in the heat.
The Sacred Caves
In the first cave, the air is stagnant. It’s small and tight, and not for the claustrophobic. A 49-foot reclining Buddha carved directly into the rock, dominates the space. His head resting on a round pillow painted with a pale red and turquoise floral motif.
There is a thick row of bright pink and white flowers lining the length of his body, given as offerings by the visitors to the site. The soles of his feet were painted red with shiny gilded toes and round white sunbursts. Every inch of the cave is covered with murals or more statues divine entities.
The next cave, the Temple of the Great Kings, or Maharaja Viharaya, is the largest and most impressive. It has more than 50 perfectly preserved statues. There is enough gold leaf left on the central Buddha to give it a subtle glow.
The floor to the ceiling frescos have such rich detail that it’s hard to believe they weren’t painted yesterday. In the middle of the cave is a cistern that collects water. It continually drips from an unknown source, making devotees declare it a miracle.
The last three caves are just as intricate. There are frescos and gilded statues of Kings and Buddhas in every position imaginable. The ceilings are elaborately painted with birds, flowers, elephants, all scenes from Sri Lankan daily life.
It only takes about an hour to walk through the caves. If you want a guide, they are easy to find through your hotel, any tour company, or at the entrance if it’s not too busy.
I would make a day of it. Start early and climb the great fortress of Sigiriya Rock and then drive the thirty minutes to Dambulla. If you hire a guide, they will be able to take you to both places.
If you have more than 6 days in Sri Lanka, there are sacred sites and cities all over the island.
How to get around:
There are plenty of options for getting around the island.
If you are comfortable driving in new countries where most of the road rules don’t apply, then renting a car is one option. We found the roads easy and well maintained.
Many travelers employ a driver, which can be surprisingly reasonable. You can hire them to get you from point A to B or act as a guide for all the tourist sites you want to visit.
If you decide to use a driver/guide to show you around the country, many of the hotels will give them a free room, and most of the tours will also be free for them. If you don’t want to drive yourself or take the local transport, then having a driver is worth it. Before you agree to their services, make sure they are reasonably fluent in English, and you have a specific itinerary with costs, including gas.
We are soooo doing this on our next trip. At Tuk-Tuk Rental, you get a lesson on how to drive, and then they hand over the keys. You are free to drive anywhere but the highways.
There are multiple airports on the island, but many of the short domestic flights are cost-prohibitive.
The train is a fantastic and inexpensive way to travel the island, albeit slow. It gives you insight into local life as well as incomparable views.
Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is the currency.
230V, Type D, M, G. I suggest getting a universal travel adapter, you’ll never have to think about having the right plug again.
Sinhala and Tamil are the two official languages. However, Sri Lanka was a British colony between 1815 and 1948, so English is also spoken.
Best time to visit Sri Lanka:
Do yourself a favor and spend more than 6 days in Sri Lanka. You’ll be happy you did.
That’s a tricky one because it depends on what you want to do. It’s always warm, but there is a dry and monsoon season.
The best time for Abay and Yala is from April to October. We went in June, and it was perfect.
If you want to visit the west and south coasts as well as hill country, December to March is the best time.
Ideally, you’ll have a month to travel the whole island. If not, you’ll have to choose your activities first and then your dates, or vice versa.
Not Enough Days
6 days in Sri Lanka simply isn’t enough. I know we will go back.
Next time we plan to rent a tuk-tuk and take a month. From colonial cities like Galle to whale watching in Mirissa to tea plantations and sacred towns, Sri Lanka packs a punch. There are 8 UNESCO sites and almost as much wildlife as in Africa. Not to mention all the surfing.
That little gem of an island is an adventurer’s paradise as well as a cultural wonderland. For more info, read this Bucket List of Places to Visit in Sri Lanka.