Why Galle Should Be The Last Stop On A Sri Lanka Tour

Why Galle Should Be The Last Stop On A Sri Lanka Tour

Galle is the last stop of my trip to Sri Lanka. In the three weeks I spend there, I realize that this small country has a lot to offer. Historical cities and holy temples; lush nature and wild animals; beautiful landscapes, beaches and sea and, most importantly so, a welcoming and friendly people are all things that make me fall in love with Sri Lanka.

Come to think of it, many of my friends and colleagues have told me, before my departure, that they fell in love with Sri Lanka. After having traveled across the country, I can understand why: I have had a great time throughout my trip, and I would gladly stay longer. But I have just received a last minute invitation to visit the Maldives and in the space of two days I have to pack my bags and move on. Such is the life of a travel blogger.

Galle feels like the cherry on a delicious cake – much like that I eat to celebrate the birthday of my friend, Diana, who’s traveling with me. And we do so at a special location, one that not even in my wildest dreams I would have ever hoped for.

Galle, Sri Lanka

The beautiful lighthouse that is the symbol of Galle

A Beautiful Colonial Town

Galle has always been an important town in the history of Ceylon. Right by the sea, in a strategic position, for a long period of time it is a famous commercial port for the exchange of spices and precious stones. Such important geographic location doesn’t go unnoticed, and from the 16th century the Portuguese first, then the Dutch and eventually the British control it, leaving their mark on the landscape.

Galle Fort is the visible mark left by the Dutch colonizers. Even the name, Galle, is thought to be due to the effort of the first invaders (the Portuguese) who, having arrived there at the end of the 16th century, heard the singing of a rooster and immediately made a connection with the Portuguese name of the animal, “galo.” Singhalese people, however, claim the origins of name of the city which, according to them, derives from the word “gala” – which means “rock.”

Galle, Sri Lanka

A group of kids seek refuge from the heat in Galle

The best way to discover Galle and fully immerse oneself in its colonial atmosphere is by walking though the narrow alleys of the Old Town. It is packed with beautiful, crumbling buildings whose internal gardens are an explosion of colorful bouganvillea and jasmine flowers. Nowadays, many of these buildings have been refurbished and host beautiful boutiques, restaurants, small hotels and art galleries.

It’s an enticing city, completely different from the other ones I visit in Sri Lanka. It’s quite a nice change, actually. Up until now I have been impressed by Sri Lanka’s natural beauty, but the cities have somewhat disappointed me. The Old Town of Galle, on the other hand, is impressive, and well deserves to be enlisted among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I conclude my wanderings with a walk along the walls that dominate the Indian Ocean, and stumble upon the Clock Tower and the Lighthouse which overlook the beach – where I spot a bunch of kids having fun jumping from the rocks. Finally, I seem to find the perfect spot to admire an incredible sunset. Come to think of it, this is the one and only sunset I get to see in Sri Lanka, since it’s been raining almost every day since I have arrived.

Galle, Sri Lanka

Finally, a gorgeous sunset in Galle

Villa Sepalika: A little Piece Of Heaven In Galle

Flipping through my Lonely Planet while on the bus, I come across a short section that mentions the existance of gorgeous villas for rent near Galle. I am intrigued, and decide to read more.

According to the author, in recent years a number of luxury villas have been built around Galle, and these are available for rent, inclusive of a butler and a chef. They are the kind of places where one may spend two or three days, hanging between a beautifully furnished room, a gorgeous living room, a lush garden and a lovely pool. In other words the perfect place to conclude a glorious but tiring journey.

I mention this to Diana and Matteo, her friend who has meantime joined our wanderings, and we all agree that we may want to celebrate Diana’s birthday in style and moments later we manage to find a whole villa to ourselves.

Villa Sepalika

The gorgeous living room at Villa Sepalika

This is quite a change for us, considering that most of the time we think of ourselves as backpackers (though I am a rather unsuccessful backpacker). But the beauty of traveling in a country like Sri Lanka is that we don’t need to break the bank in order to treat ourselves to a special place.

That’s how we end up spending two incredible days at Villa Sepalika, a gorgeous villa at the outskirts of Galle, completely built following the colonial style.

The minute we enter the marvelous garden, we realize that we are in for a real treat. It is simply lush. The pool is larger than what it appears like in the pictures. The garden so big that we could easily play football in it, if we had a full team.

Villa Sepalika

A cozy sofa to relax with friends

I drop my backpack to take a look at the 3 bedrooms. Each of them is carefully furnished, and furbished in a different color. Each has its own huge bathroom. I pick the purple room. Then I start wandering through the rest of the villa. The kitchen is cozy and so perfectly equipped that, were it not for the fact that there are a butler and a chef, I would dare to cook my own meals.

The dining room table is huge; there’s a whole library (have I ever mentioned that I am a book worm?) and a beautiful living room with the coziest of couches.

Villa Sepalika

Even I feel tempted to cook in such a nice kitchen

But we are in Sri Lanka: it’s so warm here that we spend the evening in the huge patio, enjoying the hammock, moving from one couch to the other, drinking our cocktails and eating the delicious guacamole Matteo prepares, then moving to the table to celebrate Diana’s birthday with a mouthwatering dinner.

It’s only the morning after, in the full light, that I get the full picture of how lucky I got this time. I spend the rest of the morning relaxing between the pool, the garden and the patio, reading a book, listening to music and enjoying the company of my friends.

Villa Sepalika

Enjoying the fabulous pool at Villa Sepalika

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to conclude my trip to Sri Lanka.

Have you ever been to Galle? Did you know that you can enjoy a wonderful villa at a real steal there?

For a complete guide about Sri Lanka, check my post 9 Fantastic Places To Visit In Sri Lanka.

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Villa Sepalika during my time in Galle. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. 

Sri Lanka Off The Beaten Path

Sri Lanka Off The Beaten Path

Kuduruketha. A gorgeous, hidden resort near Wellawaya, in Sri Lanka: not many people who visit Sri Lanka make the effort to go all the way there. Yet they should. To be fair, Diana and I had not intended to go either. But then a twist of events took us there, and it turned out to be one of our favorite places in the country.

The irony of being travel bloggers is that, the more time we spend traveling, the less time we have to plan our travels – be it making accommodation reservations; reading about the places we mean to visit; learning a bit about the culture of the country before actually finding ourselves there.

Sri Lanka off the beaten path

Sri Lanka countryside is simply gorgeous

When not having a plan is the best plan

Sri Lanka is a bit like that. Before going there, Diana and I draft a rough itinerary and make a list of the places we would like to see. Yet, we allow ourselves enough room to change plans, just in case something interesting comes up, or in case the weather conditions make it impossible to follow the plans.

The name Wellawaya comes up once we decide to skip Yala National Park. We have read that most sectors of the park are closed during the time we intend to visit, so it makes no sense to invest money on a safari if we don’t get to explore the park properly (by which we don’t mean we want the guarantee we’ll be seeing animals). Besides, we have just visited Gal Oya National Park and have had a wonderful experience that would been hard to match.

Sri Lanka

Having a chat with my new friends

We have already spent more than a week in the Hill Country, and we are tired of the chaos of Kandy and of the dampness of Nuwara Eliya. We want to make our way south, but need to break the trip. We feel the need to be surrounded by nature, so we look for a good alternative to Yala National Park.

Flipping through the pages of our guidebooks, we see that Wellawaya is a small place at the very end of the Hill Country, and Kaduruketha nothing more than a few scattered houses in what is described as an idillyc tropical setting.

We are hardly the kind of travelers that make an effort to get off the beaten path, but this is an easy detour. We decide to go.

A less visited side of Sri Lanka

A 45 minutes bus ride from Ella (once a remote village in the Hill Country, nowadays one of Sri Lanka tourist hot spots), Wellawaya is the closest real village to Kuduruketha. As we get off the bus at the intersection, we start walking the 2 km towards out hotel, Jetwing Kaduruketha, and quickly understand we could have not picked a better place to visit.

The setting is gorgeous: a windy road cuts across the greenest of landscapes. We cross paths with a few local women and children, who as many in the country walk around carrying an open umbrella, to protect themselves from both the rain and the fierce sun. They greet us with sincere smiles, yet unaccustomed to tourists. Dogs sleep in the middle of the street, their sleep hardly interrupted by a tuc tuc or by the odd motorbike.

Sri Lanka

Rural Sri Lanka is by far my favorite

We would be happy just taking long walks or easy bike rides, and relaxing by the pool or on the deck of our cottage with a book, but it turns out that there is much more to do in Kuduruketha than we had expected.

The area is packed with wildlife. Along with monkeys, there are various species of frogs, owls, flying squirrels and peacocks. It is peacock mating season when we visit, and they sure make it clear that they own the territory, flagging their gorgeous tails and singing their need for romance at night.

I actually have to fight a squirrel that keeps getting into our room to steal packets of sugar from our desk, much to the amusement of Diana who thinks I am yelling at her as she tries to walk back inside after her yoga session.

But there’s more!

Sri Lanka

Enjoying Elle Wala waterfalls in the company of a lovely dog

The area around Kaduruketha is packed with waterfalls and swimming holes. We opt to visit Elle Wala. It is a short tuc tuc ride north, though the thick forest. As the tuc tuc stops, two sweet dogs, who we later learn to be the “guardians” of the waterfall, show us the path through the jungle and take us all the way to Elle Wala.

We can hear the noise before we can actually spot it. The stream falls into what looks like a natural amphitheater. There’s a few giant rocks and lots of trees around, and a great swimming hole with freezing cold yet shallow water. It is a perfect setting: we can’t help wondering why such a beautiful place doesn’t get more visitors, but at the same time we are glad to have it all to ourselves.

off the beaten path Sri Lanka

The beauty of having a site all to myself!

Just as we have all to ourselves Buduruvagala, a Buddhist temple at around 7 km south of Wellawaya.

I am reluctant to visit, after having been crushed by the crowds during the poja at the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy and having wasted the equivalent of $10 USD to see virtually nothing. Besides, we have already spent a significant amount of money at various sacred places around Sri Lanka only to realize that the sites aren’t really that interesting to us, neither we feel they are worth the price.

But Diana insists, saying that Buduruvagala costs less than $2 USD anyways. So I decide I may as well give it a chance. And I am glad I do, if only to confirm my impression that the best attractions in Sri Lanka are the less visited ones, which have managed to keep a genuine atmosphere.

The temple consists of Buddha figures carved in the rock, dating back to the 10th century. The setting is idillic: completely surrounded by the forest, the only sound that of the gentle breeze the swept the trees.

Jetwing Kuduruketha: we all deserve to be pampered

The best place to access the tropical paradise of Kuduruketha is Jetwing. The property consists of 25 beautiful, cozy and comfortable bungalows set in a gorgeous park, all with splendid views of the countryside.

There’s a beautiful infinity pool that overlooks the rice fields, and a restaurant and bar that serve carefully prepared dishes and fabulous cocktails.

Sri Lanka off the beaten path

A pool with a view

In line with its effort to respect and protect the environment, there’s no air condinioning in the bungalows (and frankly, there’s no need for it as the temperatures are actually quite pleasant at night). There’s no TV in the rooms – this is a place to relax and disconnect from the world. And in order to help guests to do so, Jetwing Kuduruketha offers ayurvedic treatments, as well as yoga classes.

If I ever go back to Sri Lanka (and I intend to do so!) I will visit Kuduruketha again, and I will know where to stay.

For a complete guide about Sri Lanka, check my post 9 Fantastic Places To Visit In Sri Lanka.

Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Jetwing Kuduruketha during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

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Discover Sri Lanka off the beaten path - via @clautavani

A Journey Across The Hill Country, Sri Lanka

A Journey Across The Hill Country, Sri Lanka

I had been told Sri Lanka was gorgeous, but I only fully realized that once I arrived to the Hill Country, a place in between reality and fantasy. My journey across the country started with a visit to Sri Lanka ancient cities and most holy places. 

I thought the journey had reached its peak when I visited Gal Oya National Park. I didn’t think Sri Lanka had more surprises waiting for me. It felt like a small casket full of jewels, that would appear day after day.

Hill Country

The surroundings of Kandy are actually more interesting than the city itself

Kandy and its surroundings

The Hill Country marks the kind of landscape one would not expect to find in Sri Lanka, which to me is the quintessential tropical country. Its main access point, coming from the north, is Kandy – the cultural and spiritual capital of the country.

Most people stay in Kandy just long enough to visit the Sri Dalada Maligawache, also known as the Temple of the Tooth Relic, famous for storing the most important religious relic of Sri Lanka: Buddha’s tooth.

Diana and I spend three days in Kandy, but with hindsight, two would have been more than enough. Other than the famous temple – which is nothing special to anyone who has visited other Buddhist temples in Asia, such as Angkor Wat – and the artificial lake built around the beginning of the 20th century and that gives the city a magic aura, there’s not much else to see.

Hill Country

The backside of the tea factory was just as interesting as the tea inside!

With so much extra time to spend in Kandy, we decide to explore its surroundings. And since the Hill Country is famous for its tea plantations, we start our wanderings at Geragama Tea Factory, one of the oldest tea factories in Sri Lanka. There, we learn about the production process of tea, the plant that made Sri Lanka famous, and needless to say we sample a few varieties.

The following day we visit two temples which can be easily reached via public transportation. Though the locals are very friendly and kind, it is hard to communicate with them as they speak little to no English. So we take a good 30 minutes before we find a bus that takes us all the way to Embekka.

Hill Country

Lankatilaka was a great find, even on a rainy day

The moment we get off the bus, the sky turns pitch black. We barely make it to the temple of Embekka Devale and it starts pouring. It is monsoon season, after all. We stay inside for a good hour, hoping that it will stop raining, eventually. At least we can enjoy the lovely atmosphere of the temple (a nice change after the unreasonable crowds of the Temple of the Tooth Relic), and observe the locals who flock in and out to place their prayers.

As soon as the rain stops, we start walking towards Lankatilaka Vihara, a temple that stands on top of a beautiful hill, overlooking the incredibly lush landscape. Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe this temple: it is totally worth the effort of getting there, even under the rain which, if anything, adds to its charme.

Hill Country

Vegetable gardens right outside Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya, or Little England

We reach Nuwara Eliya by bus, from Kandy, on a cold and rainy day. And while we are not surprised it is raining (it is a tropical country, after all), we can’t believe we are actually shivering. Nuwara Eliya is known as Little England. I have lived in England for 8 years, and I can immediately see why it deserves that nickname.

Temperatures in Nuwara Eliya are at least 15 degrees lower than those of Kandy, and soon enough the humidity works its way all the way to my bones. Before we freeze, we hop on a tuc tuc that takes us to Oatlands by Jetwing, where we spend two nights.

It isn’t just the cold and wet weather that earned Nuwara Eliya its nickname. I suppose this actually comes from the fact that the city is literally surrounded by tea plantations, which were transplanted in the Hill Country around the second half of the 19th century, after an epidemic completely destroyed the coffee plantations.

Hill Country

I love the contrast between the green of the tea plantations and the blue of the sky

But there’s more: Nuwara Eliya is packed with buildings in Victorian style architecture. And our hotel is a perfect example of that. Just four rooms, inside a beautifully furnished cottage, complete with an on duty butler, Oatlands by Jetwing looks more like the beautiful dependance of a royal palace than a hotel.

There’s a gorgeous living room, where we can relax in front of the fireplace, sipping tea while overlooking the cloud forest that surrounds Nuwara Eliya. It feels like we have jumped back in time.

The morning after, before breakfast, we decide to take advantage of the naturist guide on site and walk all the way to the cloud forest, crossing the beautiful vegetable gardens that surround the city.

Hill Country Sri Lanka

The living room of Oatlands by Jetwing is so cozy!

After a scrumptious breakfast at the adjoint Jetwing St. Andrew’s, out butler warns us that there are high chances of rain in the afternoon. He explains that this is very typical: mornings are sunny and warm, and then at around 12:30 it starts raining.

We decide to make the most of the rest of the morning and hop on a tuc tuc that takes us to Pedro Estate, one of the most famous tea plantations in Sri Lanka. The landscape is breathtaking. I had seen the coffee plantations before, when I visited the Eje Cafetero in Colombia. I can’t believe how beautiful the tea plantations look: the green color of the plants, and the blue of the sky are only seldom interrupted by the colors of the women that are picking the leaves.

Hill Country

People watching at Victoria Park, Nuwara Eliya

As the tuc tuc drops us off at the gorgeous Victoria Park (once more a resemblance to England, and not just in the name), the rain starts falling – softly at first, then more persistent. People seem undisturbed by it: children continue playing; women continue walking, their colorful dresses in sharp contrast with the bright green color of the grass.

But we can’t take all that rain. So we decide to head to Bale Bazaar, where we can find clothes of the most famous sports’ brands at more than reasonable prices. Happy with our shopping, we head back to our hotel for a cup of tea (we are in Little England, after all!).

Hill Country

My favorite attraction in the Hill Country is a 60 rupee train ride from Nano Oya to Ella

Crossing the heart of the Hill Country

But the best has yet to come. We finally decide to leave Nuwara Eliya and hop on a train to Ella. We’ve been told that the train ride from Nanu Oya, the train station at around 10 km from Nuwara Eliya, to Ella, is the most spectacular in the country. We can’t wait to see it with hour own eyes, but the train is almost 2 hours late.

The minute the train pulls out of the station, we understand that the rumors were correct: the landscape is simply gorgeous. The trains pushes along incredibly slowly. It takes around 3 hours to reach Ella, which is a mere 60 km away. But the time goes by incredibly fast, so entertained we are by what we see.

We spend those 3 hours standing at the door, taking pictures of the women working in the tea plantations, surrounded by the fog. It is an incredible show, for which we have paid a mere 60 rupees (around 40 cents).

Once again, I am convinced that the best attractions in Sri Lanka are the cheapest ones.

Have you been to the Hill Country of Sri Lanka? What did you like the most about it?

For a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, read my post The Nicest Touristy And Not So Touristy Places To Visit In Sri Lanka. 

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Oatlands by Jetwing during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

 

Why Gal Oya Is The Responsible Tourism Hot Spot Of Sri Lanka

Why Gal Oya Is The Responsible Tourism Hot Spot Of Sri Lanka

Gal Oya National Park is the perfect place to see elephants responsibly in Sri Lanka

A while ago I wrote a post about responsible tourism and the use of animals in tourist attractions. I feel that, as a travel blogger, I have a duty to influence people to travel in a way that is more respectful of the cultures of the countries we are visiting, of their nature, and also of their animals.

Unfortunately, too many people still think there is no harm in riding an elephant; no harm in tipping a snake charmer; no harm in swimming with whale sharks – as long as they are out in the sea – and so on.

Sri Lanka

A chained elephant used for Buddhist celebrations at a temple near Kandy

The Use Of Animals In Tourist Attractions In Sri Lanka

When I decided to visit Sri Lanka, I knew I would find myself in situations where animals would be exploited.

My first taste of it was in Anuradaphura. I was biking around the massive archaeological site and came across a large group of people, all standing in circle to look at something. I approached, curious to see what had captured their attention. I was horrified to see that it was a dancing monkey – in chain, dressed, like it would never happen in nature.

I filmed the entire scene including when people tipped the owner. They were rather amused by the fact that I was filming. I guess they thought I was just another tourist finding this a fun scene.

I was just as horrified when, towards the end of my trip, I saw a group of tourists in Galle Fort handing down a few notes to a snake charmer. I suppose that snakes aren’t considered as animals having feelings, or suffering. I thought of saying something to those tourists, but I know that I would have come across as intrusive, and eventually the conversation would have heated up and we would have had an argument. I left it, thinking that I may as well get my message across via this blog.

On one occasion, though, I completely lost it. I was riding a jeep in Sigiriya, another of the holy sites of Sri Lanka, and an area notorious for the presence of free elephants. I was going to the Rock Fortress. But as the jeep pulled across a junction, I saw a clearly western couple riding a chained elephant, the owner walking along with them, poking the poor giant.

I stuck my head out of the car, and I yelled at the two, saying that they should be ashamed of themselves. I am quite sure they heard me – they turned around to see where the crazy screams were coming from. I am not so sure they got the message. I hope they did, and I hope they felt ashamed.

Gal Oya

Gal Oya National Park is one of the biggest, yet least visited parks in Sri Lanka

Am I missing the point?

Maybe it is just me… maybe I am the narrow minded one.

When I was in Koh Chang, Thailand, I met other travelers that had gone on elephant rides and when I told them how irresponsible that was, they said things such as “elephants here are much like pets” (except they are taken from their mothers when they are still very small, and tortured in order to be trained, which isn’t exactly how I treat my beloved cats).

Others use the “local economy” argument: the “poor locals” are just trying to make a living, never mind if someone is suffering for this. And forget about the fact that responsible tourism can also ensure a large revenue, one that is way more sustainable in the longer terms.

Besides, can anyone help me figure out what’s the fun in riding a chained and poached elephant – especially in a country where elephants can be seen in their natural environment, wandering around freely and happily? Which is exactly what I did at Gal Oya National Park, a gorgeous 26000 hectare protected area around Senanayake Samundra reservoir, where over 32 species of mammals live.

Mind you, I didn’t see hordes of elephants. In fact, I only saw one, from such a distance that I had to use binoculars and I hardly managed to capture the moment on camera. But it was such a sight – that huge male (so the guide explained) chewing on grass (or so it looked from a distance), surrounded by nature and other free animals.

Gal Oya

Taking in the beauty of Gal Oya National Park

The Boat Safari at Gal Oya National Park

I was on a boat safari organized by Gal Oya Lodge, the only accommodation available that provides access to Gal Oya National Park, and for which responsible tourism isn’t just a brand, but a way of life and a mission.

Together with 5 more persons and Arun, the guide, I had left before dawn, boarding a jeep headed to Gal Oya National Park. Our mission was to spot animals. I had been told that I may be able to see crocodiles, lots of species of birds, buffalos, spotted dears and elephants. That’s it – that’s what I wanted to see. I was there to see elephants.

The staff at Gal Oya Lodge had made it clear that there was no guarantee I would see any elephant at all. They could not predict their movements in such a vast area, and sure enough they wouldn’t go about chasing them just so that I could get a photo.

I was happy to hear that, actually. Yet I kept high hopes I’d be able to at least spot one.

The incredible animal life at Gal Oya National Park

The incredible animal life at Gal Oya National Park

So we boarded a small boat, to go around the lake in search of animals. There were only two boats on the lake that day, aside from a few fishermen boats. Indeed, Gal Oya National Park doesn’t nearly get as many tourists as the more known Yala National Park.

The boat moved slowly, so that the accustomed eyes of the guide could spot animals. And he sure did! There it was, in the distance! I silently screamed (we had been clearly instructed not to make noise, so as not to scare the animals), so happy I was when I finally managed to focus my eyesight and see it too.

The morning continued with more animal sightings and a fabulous pic-nic on the shores of the lake, from where we could enjoy the nature and the silence surrounding us.

Gal Oya

A storm is approaching the lagoon near Gal Oya Lodge

Gal Oya: A Place To Unwind

It is places like Gal Oya Lodge and Gal Oya National Park that make me hopeful that something can be done, and something is indeed being done, to protect the environment we live in and to make sure that both humans and animals can make the most of it.

The lodge is completely immersed in nature. A short and easy walk from the lodge takes to a beautiful lagoon. The scene is as rural as it gets: the odd motorbike or bike slowly pushing along the path; children playing in the water – some of them are actually bathing! – calling on passersby to join them; the odd cow chewing on the greenest grass; and a few simple houses scattered around.

Simple houses near Gal Oya Lodge

Simple houses near Gal Oya Lodge

The only noise to be heard is that of the wind, and of the animals that live freely in the area. It’s blissful at night. It had been a while since I could sleep so peacefully, and not having any phone reception or any internet access made me finally unwind from all the stress that owning an online business implies.

Bungalows are beautifully rustic: large, cozy rooms with incredibly comfortable beds, open air bathrooms, and in line with the policy of environmental respect and protection, no air conditioners. Furthermore, in an effort to reduce plastic waste, only purified water is provided, instead of bottled water.

There’s only an onsite restaurant, that serves delicious food prepared using local ingredients. The tilapa fish is caught in the nearby lake!

There is only one thing I regret about Gal Oya National Park and Gal Oya Lodge: not having stayed longer! Having spent 3 full weeks in the country, I can say it was by far my favorite place and I would love to visit again.

For a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, read my post The Nicest Touristy And Not So Touristy Places To Visit In Sri Lanka. 

Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Gal Oya Lodge during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

 

Sri Lanka: Ancient Cities, Holy Places and Wild Nature

Sri Lanka: Ancient Cities, Holy Places and Wild Nature

This is the story of a trip that starts in Negombo, once a fishing village and nowadays a small city, at around 40 km from Colombo. Traveling with my friend Diana, I crossed some of the ancient cities of the country until we finally reached Back of Beyond, an enchanted place completely immersed in the lush nature of Sri Lanka.

This is the story of a country that many consider an appendix of India, and that I came to realize has little to do with India. It is the story of a legendary country where the image of Buddha has always had an important role in the life of its people.

Last, but not least, this is the story of the first week of my trip across a country and a people which couldn’t be further from my life, both geographically and culturally.

“Like many,” some would say.

Yes, like many – but also much more than others.

Dambulla, Sri Lanka

The view from the Rock Temple in Dambulla reveals how lush Sri Lanka is

First Impressions

I only spend one night in Negombo – just enough time to rest after 24 hours of traveling. Aside from the fish market, which swipes me away with its pungent, penetrating smell, it doesn’t seem too interesting to me. I am still in limbo, adapting to a place that is so far from what I am used to. Like always, I tip toe my way to the country, and spend some time in its lobby, slowly savoring its exotic smell.

Sri Lanka is often called the teardrop of India but the difference between the two couldn’t be more striking. I don’t see the garbage and the poverty that shocked me when I arrived to Varanasi, less than a year ago.

Someone – I don’t remember who! – told me that traveling by public transportation in Sri Lanka is pure madness. Before getting here, I had contacted the tourism board which had offered me and Diana a private car with a driver – something which would have made the trip a lot easier and way more comfortable. But we decided to refuse the offer in the end. Part of the beauty of traveling is getting to know the local culture, and public transportation is the best way to fully get the local way of life and to observe the local people. Sure, it is slow and uncomfortable, but the time “wasted” on those slow, crazy buses is repaid by the incredible people I meet along the way.

Anuradhapura Sri Lanka

A Buddhist monk protects himself from the heat in Anuradhapura

Diana and I leave early in the morning, set to go to Anuradhapura. We have yet to understand the bus system. After a short ride to Kurunegala on a small AC bus, we wait in what appears a never ending line to get on a bus to Anuradhapura. I have traveled across Central America on the crazy chicken buses. I should be used to this – but trust me, between the heat, the manic driving of the conductor who God only knows how he got a driving licence, the terrible road conditions, the amount of people literally sitting on top of each other and the idea that I will be stuck there for something like 5 hours to drive a mere 130 km makes me regret refusing the offer of a private car with a driver.

It is just a momentary thing though: once I come to terms with the fact that it takes about 1 hour to drive 30 km, I start actually enjoying those bus rides. And in fact, public transportation in Sri Lanka is, though slow, very reliable and the entire country is well connected.

At a first glance, people in Sri Lanka are very friendly and the first impression of the country is extremely positive.  A group of women sees me struggling to get on the bus, with my backpack, and saves a seat for me, pointing to sit next to them. They are all wearing white skirts and shirts. I learn that this is the color they wear to go to the temple. They are keen to talk, sharing whichever little English they speak. They smile, they pose for a selfie. They ask to see photos of my country.

Pidurangala, Sri Lanka

Enjoying the view of Sigiryia from Pidurangala

A trip between the ancient cities and the holy places of Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, is famous for the ruins. It takes me and Diana about 5 hours to visit the site. We rent bikes which we are told are brand new, but on a second glance they are rusty and at least 10 years old. The atmosphere of the site is magic; but the site, in all honesty, is nothing special – or at least, I don’t think it is worth a $25 USD entrance fee. The city isn’t pretty either, though we enjoy the atmosphere.

Anurhadapura, Sri Lanka

Women offering prayers in Anuradhapura

After two nights in Anuradhapura, we are ready to move on. We decide to head to Dambulla, to visit the Royal Rock Temple, one of the religious icons of Sri Lanka. We drop our backpacks in a shop for 100 Sri Lankan Rupees and set to explore. We hike up a steep hill to get to a series of caves which are used as temples and where there are various Buddha statues.

I can sense the holiness of the place through the fervor of the prayers of the locals, but once again I regret paying the $10 USD fee to get inside. I don’t think the place is worth the price. I suppose it is too late now anyways.

After picking up our backpacks, we head to Sigiriya, who everyone says to be splendid. To be fair, the sight of it from a distance is truly astounding. The rock fortress sits proudly in the middle of luxurious vegetation. It used to be a royal palace and military fortress during Kassapa reign in the 5th century AC, though recent studies believe that it used to be a theravada and mahayana Buddhist monastery of the 3rd century. The view from the top is incredible.

Sigiryia, Sri Lanka

The incredible view from Sigiryia

But that’s about it – once again, the actual site isn’t worth the $30 USD entrance fee. The ridiculous fees for sites that are worth about a fifth of the required price leaves me wandering what, in proportion, should be the adequate fee for places like Petra and Machu Picchu.

For those who are unwilling to pay an extortionate fee just for a beautiful view, the good news is that the nearby Pidurangala, another rock fortress, only costs 500 Sri Lankan Rupees ($3 USD), it is significantly less touristy (Diana and I were the only ones on top for a good while) and the views from there are simply spectacular.

After battling with the heat and a sometime difficult path (tip! wear shoes and carry lots of water), we made it to the top to be rewarded with the most impressive view of Sigiriya and the lush nature around it. We didn’t stay along for sunset (we were exhausted after a day of exploration) but rumor has it that it is one of the best sunset views of the country.

Back of Beyond Sri Lanka

The lush garden at Back of Beyond

Back of Beyond, the marvel in the Sri Lankan jungle

What does a “hotel” (the inverted commas are appropriate in this case, because Back of Beyond is so much more than just a place to stay) have to do with a post on ancient cities or holy places in Sri Lanka? Nothing, apparently. Yet it deserves a special mention. Located at a stone’s throw from Sigiriya, and completely immersed in the jungle, Back of Beyond is the perfect place to unite a love of nature at its best, and an interest in culture and history which can be found nearby.

It may well be that green is my favorite color and that Sri Lanka is by far the greenest country I have ever seen, but Back of Beyond to me is love at first sight. There are just 7 rooms in the property, 3 of which are tree houses. Had anyone told me when I was a child that one day I’d sleep in a treehouse cabin, I would have told them that they were mad. I guess dreams come true, because that’s exactly what I did at Back of Beyond.

Back of Beyond Sri Lanka

My bed in the treehouse at Back of Beyond

The view from the tree house opened up to show the lush of the vegetation. We spend the late afternoon hours reading books, soaking in the light breeze, and listening to the sound of nature. We are warned not to leave any of our properties around, and to store any food we may have carried with us in safe boxes, unless we want to share it with the animals. With this in mind, we go to bed, hanging our dirty clothes on the rack before falling asleep.

When we wake up, we do realize what the staff meant: Diana’s cotton pants and top have literally been chewed, most likely by a squirrel. She shrugs it off, wondering how come the squirrel didn’t pick to chew on her older clothes. I guess my hiking pants were too filthy even for a starving squirrel.

After a scrumptious breakfast, we pack our backpacks to move to the boulder cottage. The style of the room is very similar to that of the tree house, but here the bathroom is completely built around a boulder. I shower in the company of a small frog, who stares at me, probably thinking I have invaded her place.

Back of Beyond Sri Lanka

Back of Beyond is completely immersed in nature

In fact, at Back of Beyond nature rules. All the rooms are built in full respect of nature. The management struggles to involve the local community in projects of re-forestation, and strives to educate the locals not to hunt and poach animals, and to respect the ones that live in the area – including the elephants of which unfortunately we only see a large footprint. But I guess it is ok, as long as I know they are respected and free. 

It is comforting to know that places like this exist, where tourism is used in a responsible manner to protect the environment and to promote the respect of animals. It is even more comforting to find out that more and more places like Back of Beyond exist in Sri Lanka.

For a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, read my post The Nicest Touristy And Not So Touristy Places To Visit In Sri Lanka. 

Have you visited any of the holy cities in Sri Lanka? Did you enjoy them?

Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Back of Beyond during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.