What to expect?
Is it a little India? Maybe…Those dark smiley faces drenched in sweat, hardly looking into your eye will feel familiar. The heat, the stench of sewage and crows even though it’s a lot cleaner than southern India. Less crowded which means that traffic clown business is not as crazy…
Local/traditional food will and must contain either grated coconut or coconut cream or coconut milk and definitely cooked with coconut oil in addition to curry and other spices. Which is “too heavy” for an indian stomach.
Sri Lanka a poor country which explains the hassle around every tourist attraction, but you will not find anything similar to the poor Mumbai slums. Robbery is not a major issue…
Tourists will find international food they can savour because the restaurant business is not exactly directed to locals…Lankans are raw, they keep a lot of their tradition in many aspects of their daily life. The same way that Nature is still raw, unexploited or at least not fully… Beaches in many areas are sewage free and the ocean still preserves its gorgeous pallet of turquoise, greens and blues.
Lankans are mostly Buddhists, few are Hindus in contrast to India. There is a decent number of mosques and churches specially in the areas where Portuguese and Dutch colonies used to reside. Christians will most likely have european christian names and keep to themselves, and muslims are ethnically distinct; a muslim old man in Galle explained that he came from a moroccan descent and how the sovereign at that time enabled Arab merchants to settle, allowed them to marry local women and build a life to do what they knew best; commerce…
My only concern as a solo female was to maintain a balance between the recommended safety precautions and not building a wall. It’s all commons sense; locals do not stay out late, by 8 you could sense it’s nearly midnight from the empty streets and closed shops. It’ll be more likely to face danger at that time…
The major health risk consists of exposure to mosquitoes that carry Dengue or Malaria. The only way to protect yourself is an efficient combination of mosquito repellents all day, all night. Dengue fever has no vaccine as it changes its form and can be deadly at rare occurrences. The cure is not complicated; rest for a few days and have paracetamol.
Sri Lanka is an Island that has 24 airports, yet only 2 are international and only 1 is actually functioning as such. If you’d be travelling from the south of India; there is a cheap operator called Spice Jet. Or sail…
What to do?
Everywhere on the Island has got something to offer, may not be tempting for more than a day or two but if you want to have a good plan you need to define your priorities; Culture(whether it’d religious, food, city life, village life…etc)? Nature and hikes? Wild life? Swimming and surfing? Whale watching? or is it all of them?? Because it’s all there.
Plan an adequate amount of time for your commutes; there are no long distances but most roads are 2 ways, 2 lanes with habitation. You also need to be careful about when to go; The weather is tropical and the monsoon can be a barrier as the rain sometimes causes minor floods as well as changes to the animal migration pattern…
Optimum trip duration would be a month, try not to plan less than 10 day if you want a little bit of everything, the south is very tempting and the tea country is a must.
Here’s the itinerary that I’ve used circling the southern half;
Day 1: Land in Bandaranaike International airport and spend the night in Negombo, a village that is good for nothing except for its proximity to the airport. In town, you can visit the fish market but watch out as touts are everywhere. A little further everything is overpriced around the beach, however I’ve enjoyed the beach park near sunset watching kids flying their kites. Alternatively you could spend sometime in Colombo and start your journey with the national museum and a fancy meal.
Days 2-3 Kandy: Famous for the temple of the tooth relic which is a pilgrim site and worth every penny. There is a nice walk around the lake next to the temple and a traditional dance show at 5 pm.
Days 4-6 Ella/Nuwara Eileya: Both are ideal for hikes, calm nature and tea plantations. Ella has a great tea factory and is less crowded but either would suffice. Don’t expect much from Ella at night though, it’s not even a town but you can have a cooking class.
Days 6-8 Tissamaharama/Kataragama: The starting point for Safaris at the Yala national park, the advantage of Tissa is its proximity to Bundala national park if you are a bird lover and Kirinda fishing village. Both towns have pilgrim sites as well.
Days 8-10 Mirissa: to watch the whales, as it’s the only location in the south offering this adventure. Enjoy a day on the beach, eat some sea food and relax and then you could easily reach the airport within 4 hours and fly back home.]
You could also go for a day trip in Galle and stroll around the dutch fort and the fish market. Spend another in Colombo, although 4 hours were more than enough to go to the national museum and the temple, including 1.5 hours to eat one single crab.
Where to stay?
My pick would be homestays for several reasons: 1- A family will protect its home and business, theft is not very likely, 2- it’s hot, there are mosquitoes and really after a long day, personal space can be appreciated. 3- it’s still cheap. 4- You can befriend the family, and have some insights on local life.
If you are planning on staying in hostels; make sure there are lockers…
Train/bus: Cheapest, slowest and least convenient but you get upclose and personal with Lankans, literally. Second class train tickets are less than 200 rupees for the famous routes like Kandy-Ella or Colombo-Galle. Buses will not exceed 300 rupees and are generally faster since trains run between 20-40 km/hr on average, maximum 60 but not all the time. Buses can go as fast as 80 km/hr
Trains offer the time and space to socialize. The ride was scenic towards Ella, and seeing the waves crashing beneath the train on the way to Colombo was something out of this world. Buses will grow on you specially that the ride is very rhythmic.
There is a collaborative spirit among Lankans, If you are lucky to find a seat you owe it to your co-citizen to keep their purse/bag on your lap.
Tuktuk: Cheaper than taxis and a bit faster as they can go easily around traffic. Beware that 3 wheelers are neither road safe nor comfortable specially in long rides. So travelling with a tuktuk for more than 20 kilometres is a bad idea. And always negotiate starting with half price, however in Colombo as them to turn the meter on…
Taxis: Safest, most comfortable and most expensive aswell. A bus from Ella to Wiraweela cost 385 SRL, from Wiraweela to Tissa you’d ride a tuktuk and pay 400 SRL so in total 785 SRL, you’d pay 7000 and 8000 SRL for a taxi.
Since Lankans are not much of restaurant goers, restaurants are widely spread where tourists go and it’s really easy to find those who serve western or chinese food. There are Pizza hut, dominoes, KFC or burger king in major towns. In small villages, it’ll be harder to find a restaurant, so you’ll eat at your home stay, hostel or hotel.
The unwritten Lankan cuisine rule is: “everything will, can and should be cooked with grated coconut, coconut milk or coconut cream and definitely coconut oil. Cause coconut is a way of life…”
Anything can make a good breakfast, you could have egg hoppers or hoppers with honey or any filling of your preference, hoppers are crepe-like bell shaped pastry also made with grated coconut and coconut milk.
Traditional breakfast consists of leftover rice and curry. Or a fresh baked roti with coconut Sambal and Dhal (lentils) curry. The roti contains coconuts and cooked with coconut oil, coconut sambal (a dry curry made of grated coconut, onions and red or green hot chilli peppers).
Locals usually stop by a bakery on their way to work or school and get one of these delicious pastries; fish sambal, samosa, vegetable roti, egg roti, hotdog bun, bread rolls…etc. Don’t forget to couple it with some milk tea.
Lunch or Dinner:
Rice and curry for lunch, dinner or breakfast, some would replace rice with roti. Curries may have a protein base (fish, chicken, mutton, beef, pork…etc), or simply vegetarian or fruitarian options like beetroot, coconut, dhal, pumpkin, and passion fruit.
Kothu is a street food that consists of shredded veggies, chilli, fried roti leftovers, some seafood or protein of your choice. All pan fried in coconut oil with an egg. It tastes sweet… Don’t expect your plate to be bone or shell free though.
Chopseuy; fried rice dish with shredded veggies and left over meat, not necessarily traditional as it’s also mild.
Deviled meat: A sweet and sour treat. It consists of chili, palm honey, veggies and a protein of your choice. Very saucy and normally served with rice…
Fresh seafood: Fish, shrimps or crabs, can all be fried or served dry. The spiciness level is not guaranteed so make your preferences clear. My favourite would always be crabs; those enormous giants are soft, sweet and tender. It takes at least an hour to devour an 800 gm monster.An hour of criminal pleasure…
Tip: If you are not into spicy food, then curries are not for you…
Street food is cheap, as in 10 SRL per piece, spicy and hard to name as well as sorts of cashews, nuts, exotic fruits and paan. For those who don’t know what paan is, you’ll find stuffed green leaves that people buy from small kiosks or street vendors. This contains either tobacco or sweets, it’s nice to try once at least…
I particularly love the Issu vadei and uludu wade as well as things with dhal (lentil) base captured below.
Curd with honey: Curd is basically a buffalo milk yoghurt but it’s a bit different in the making process which is called curdling. In terms of taste, there are evident solid masses, and a bit of a salty taste similar to cottage cheese.
Tip: I am not sure they call it paan in Sri Lanka, that was the name in India, you don’t need to spell it, just point at it.
I am not a fan of sugar but I always appreciate a good dessert. i’ve tried some cakes based on coconut and bananas, some were dry served with a breakfast and some were moist and spongy…
Try string hoppers, rolled and stuffed with caramelised coconut, it was too sweet for my liking but I am the kind of person who doesn’t need sugar for their tea or expresso.
Kalu dodol: found at speciality shops, it’s made of coconut of course, cashews, flower and something else called Kithul jaggery along with flour.
Urunda and varieties: Crispy balls made of coconuts or simply flour, honey among other ingredients that I cannot really recognise but I can assure you it’s world class.
Coconut water: Whether it’s fresh off the tree or mixed with lime and mint. A perfect way to quench your thirst and very nutritious, specially if you eat the coconut afterwards, normally between 50 -70 rupees.
Ginger beer: my favourite non alcoholic refreshing beverage, it’s basically carbonated fermented ginger with some additives. EGB is the best in my opinion.
Lion Beer: The one and only, “be strong, be a lion” or that’s what the tagline says. It’s not bad at all. The challenge is to get a cold one though…
Arrack: Other than Toddy (fermented coconut) that is best drank fresh, Lankans make a distilled version called arrack, goes well with a coke as it’s basically tasteless…
Cream Soda: For some reason I cannot fathom, Sri Lanka makes an excellent cream soda.
Tea: It’s not a rumour, Ceylon tea is the best,it comes in all grades and flavours but all with good quality. Don’t miss the Uva Halpte factory if you are near Ella. Try ginger tea.
Lankan coffee: If it weren’t for the English, the first drink would have been coffee or so they say. Some local brands are starting to bloom and gain popularity. Sri Lanka is one of the prime green coffee exporters yet they are still learning the art of making it.
1 USD = 153 SRL
Depending on what you would enjoy; you can go as low as 150 $ per week.
If you are a budget traveller you can live with something between 3000 – 6000 SRL/day on average. It’s enough for public transportation, few tuktuks in town, decent meals and maybe something luxurious every once in a while, activities like safari and whale watching as well as one beer per day.
Accommodation in home stays: 1800 SRL per night, half of it with AC to avoid mosquitoes and have a good night sleep, you can still have your own room at 1000 SRL per night.
Transportation: I was travelling from a place to the other every two nights in addition to the commutes within town limits (I did walk a lot though) for 400 SRL.
Meals: 600 SRL/day without crabs, with crabs it’d go up to 900/day. A single crab can cost up to 4000 SRL depending on how big and where you eat it. Yet if you are going to live on street food you can spend as little as 400 SRL per day. Prices differ from a place to the other. You are more likely to spend less in big towns… Add to that around 150 SRL for snacks as a safety net.
Drinks: If you are going to bars, sip a fresh coconut, ginger beer and bottled water, your average would be round 550 SRL, without beer it can go down to 200 SRL. Lion Beer would cost anywhere between 300 -500 SRL.
Activities: museums, temples, theatres, safaris…etc would average around 1500 per day, Safari costs around 6000 SRL/person for 6 hours with breakfast and drinks in a 6 person jeep. Whale watching is between 4000-6000 SRL including breakfast, water and snacks…
Shopping varies from a person to the other, so nothing to recommend here, not much of a shopper myself…
Please note that prices are subject to change, my calculation before travelling went to the drain as it was based on old information while all prices went up in August 2017, always buffer with a 25% extra and note the article’s date.
All photographs are shot by myself Racha Rachad, and I preserve all copyrights.