In many ways, Sri Lanka is like a more digestible version of India. It has the history (2,500 years of it), the beautiful colonial architecture, the temples, the hazardous tuk-tuk drivers and the sometimes equally hazardous street food. Like India, there’s that sense that you might just see something weird and wonderful.
On our visit, it was wild elephants strolling past red British postboxes. But it’s also easier to navigate than the rest of the Subcontinent: youcan experience all the culture, plus brilliant beaches and nature, during just one week-long visit. The only catch is that other people are figuring this out too. Sights such as the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Unawatuna Beach and the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala are becoming increasingly well trodden.
So we’ve found some alternatives for those on a two-week visit. Staying in Colombo, Galle and Kandy on our trip, the adventures we list here are all accessible from these three cities. So get out and try Sri Lanka before absolutely everyone else does.
Colombo by cliff train
Most locals know that the best way to see Sri Lanka’s striking hill country is aboard the old Podi Menike train. This 140-year-old, 290km journey takes 10 hours, but it’s worth it to see some of the country’s most beautiful scenery. The train clings to cliffs as it passes tea plantations, the great Mahaweli River and the old colonial hill town of Nuwara Eliya, on the way to the summit at Pattipola, 1,898m above sea level. After that, it descends past waterfalls on the way to its terminus at Badulla, one of the country’s oldest towns. They don’t make train rides like this any more. Tickets from Dhs6. www.railway.gov.lk (+94 11 243 2908).
Go on a wild jungle trek near Galle
Sri Lanka is a magnet for wildlife, housing 70 percent of the world’s frog population, 435 bird species and more than 90 species of snake (including cobras), plus crowd pleasers such as the odd elephant and leopard. The nature experts at Rainforest Rescue International run wild trips to lesser-known forest reserves, such as Kanneliya and Sinharaja. Outings differ depending on what nature is doing – ours involved using leaves
to make soap in the rain, eating the insanely bitter juice from a snail (apparently it’s a good form of natural disinfectant) and learning how to remove leeches without getting their heads stuck on your skin. Tours from Dhs71. www.rainforestrescueinternational.org (+94 77 453 5746).
Save the turtles on the south coast
To stop the illegal collection of eggs laid by five species of endangered turtles, the Bundala National Park – a few hours east of Galle, round the south coast – has set up overnight turtle watches on Rekawa Beach,
with luxury camping and meals included. The scheme was created not only to protect the creatures, but also to offer an alternative income for the people involved in the illegal trade. Aside from turtles, the park also hosts elephants, crocodiles and 197 bird species. Trips cost around Dhs947 for two days and one night. www.srilankaecotourism.com (+94 11 583 0833).
Surf at your own private beach
As an alternative to the famous surfing spots of Hikkaduwa (north of Galle) and Arugam Bay (on the east coast), you can spend about Dhs300 to rent a whole beach for the day and surf its waves exclusively. You don’t even have to bring a surfboard – the Amanwella boutique hotel offers equipment and tuition at either its own dreamy private beach or an equally secluded one in the vicinity (non-guests welcome). If you’re waiting for the swell, visit the nearby Mulkirigala Rock Temple. Few tourists know that a huge Buddha statue is sitting there in the forest, and the caves around it hide ancient wall paintings. Find Mulkirigala Rock Temple near Beliatta Road. Surf lessons on a private beach from Dhs346 per person. Phone ahead to book. www.amanresorts.com (+94 47 224 1333).
Cook your own curry near Galle
A clever way to enjoy Sri Lankan cuisine is to cook it yourself. Kahanda Kanda Hotel, near Galle (see ‘Where to stay’, below), offers lessons with fresh, locally sourced ingredients chosen by head chef Ruwan. You’ll learn to cook dishes such as traditional milky fish curry, spicy chicken curry and vegetable curry with fresh ginger, curry powder and coconut (plus some secret ingredients). After the lesson, devour your creations at the hilltop restaurant overlooking the jungle. Lessons run daily and cost Dhs43 per person for a two-hour session. www.kahandakanda.com.
Before you go
• Pack malaria tablets if you’re planning on going to the far north of the island, around Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee.
• There are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka. In the south-west, it’s between May and August, and in the north-east, October and January. Plan ahead and visit in September, so you can see both areas.
• The main language is Sinhala, spoken by approximately 16 million people. Learning a little of the language will go down well: try ‘ayubowan’ (‘hello’), which is pronounced ‘aaayuboooowan!’
What to eat
‘Lampreis’ or ‘lampries’ is takeaway, Sri Lanka-style. Usually a meat curry with rice and spices, steamed in a banana leaf, you simply take away the leaf and feast.
Where to stay
• Those with money to burn should consider Kahanda Kanda. This collection of nine eco-villas is set within a tea plantation 30 minutes from Galle. The resort exudes a colonial era, jungle-luxe style – think period paintings, four-poster beds, open-air showers and porches with comfy wicker chairs looking out onto the trees. From your room, you can spot butterflies, monkeys and the occasional chameleon mincing along your front lawn. Villas from Dhs1,374 per night. www.kahandakanda.com (+94 91 494 3700).
• Though it’s a stone’s throw from Kandy’s bustling town centre, Nature Walk Holiday Resort manages to ooze calm. The rooms are nothing special, but have balconies so you can watch the sun rise over the Udawatta Kele Sanctuary and Knuckles Mountain Range. The kitchen serves a mean Kandian chicken curry on a banana leaf. From Dhs76 per double roomper night. www.naturewalkhr.net (+94 77 771 7482).
Need to know
Dubai to Sri Lanka
Flight time: Approximately four and a half hours.
Time difference: One and a half hours ahead of the UAE.
Dhs1 = 34 Sri Lankan rupees.