My good friend Kim spent part of the first part of this summer backpacking through Thailand and India. Sri Lanka was on her list and she was in need of a travel partner, so I said “Why not?” and hopped on board, even though the timing and distance were a bit out of sync with my own travel plans. Prior to this trip, I knew nothing about Sri Lanka, and truthfully have never been drawn to India (no, they are not the same) either. As it tends to go for most travelers I think, I would return to Sri Lanka in a heart beat. A week was hardly enough for such a beautiful country with such diverse vistas, flora, fauna, and gorgeous culture. It’s been almost two weeks since my return, so you’ll find my haphazard recollection below.
The off season is March-Sept, and July is the rainy season down south, where we spent the majority of our time. We were really grateful to avoid the tourist crowds, and, as it was the tail of the rainy season, we also never saw a drop of rain during the day time. Ideal conditions! We found that pretty much everyone knows at least a few words in English, even if those few words are how much the fare is.
We landed in Colombo, the capital, and immediately hopped on a bus down to the historical fortress town of Galle. From there, we took a tuk tuk across to Unawatuna, then to Midigama, then Mirissa (each ride being within 15-30 minutes). These were our “beachy” destinations, in the Southern Province. From there, we hopped on a public bus up to Ella, so that we could experience the famous train ride between Ella and Kandy. These were in the Central Province, so they were cooler and a much higher elevation. From Kandy, we high tailed it back to Colombo to catch our flights out.
Our first hiccup was in Midigama; this is a very small surfing town. The location was recommended to Kim by a friend who had been there during the on-season, so we didn’t expect to struggle to find lodging! Turns out everything kinda shuts down during the off season, so her tried-and-true method of researching lodging before arriving (but not booking!), then negotiating upon arrival, did not pan out quite as well as it had previously . Luckily, we were saved by a local named Renuk, who runs the Colonial Surfing Life guest house. He saw us trekking and invited us to stay at his place. He was the most enthusiastic and positive person I’ve met. Upon our arrival he was running here, there, all over the house, getting everything set up for us. He set up his wifi (I suppose they keep it off during the low season), got us bikes, drove us to dinner, to the grocery store and the pier, as well as to our next destination. He and his wife were super helpful, and his daughter was adorable. His place was rustic, but I know I will look back on Midigama with the most fondness.
We really wanted to see the local stick fishermen at work, and it seemed we may not be able to! However, the evening we arrived at Renuk’s place, we decided to take a walk down the main road to see what we could see. We saw a man and child turning off the main road towards the ocean. Thinking we could reach the beach, we followed and ended up meeting a family of fishermen! Their homes faced the ocean, and they had set up their fishing sticks right there in front. The two daughters came out to say hello to us, and gave us the scoop. We had missed their afternoon catch (usually about 3-4pm), but were told to return the next day at 8. The next morning, we returned and ended upspending two hours with them, first watching the men fish, then simply talking with the family and playing with the three kids. The women cracked open a coconut for us (fresh breakfast!) and set up some chairs there on the path in front of the house. I admit I was nervous to hang out, but they were really just excited to have foreign visitors. I hesitated to pull out my phone and snap some pics, but Kim took a few. One of the three photos below features one of the daughters, her two older children, and the baby (still learning to walk!) in the back. The bike belonged to Grandpa (whom we ended up meeting again on the road as he attempted to fix it.) At first, Midigama seemed like a bust, but here was where we met the nicest and most enthusiastic people, who simply wanted to chat for the sake of chatting.
The only other hiccup of the trip was Colombo. I took the reigns on this one, and admit perhaps could have done a bit better on choosing a place to stay. We ended up at Colombo Guest, near the bus station, since we only had a night and half day here. We were hoping to visit the markets in the morning before flying out, but the location was rather unpleasant since it was very central and downtown. I was a bit surprised that we got catcalled in Colombo after all of the great people we met in the smaller towns. We ended up at the beach and getting some mehndi done rather than shopping, and I have to say the best Kottu (a local dish of chopped roti and veggies, egg, or meat) that we had on the trip was from the little place below the hostel. We would seriously return there just for the Kottu, y’all.
Half of the adventure on this trip was the transportation. I am so grateful to Kim, because if she hadn’t been intent on doing so, I would never have taken public transportation in Sri Lanka. I’m glad I did though; first of all, it was ridiculously cheap – a dollar to get from Mirissa to Matara? Two dollars from the city center to the airport, or from Matara to Ella? DONE! The busses run constantly during the day, and it’s a good opportunity to get up close and personal with the locals (we sat next to the cutest baby between Kandy and Colombo!😭). It was also very empowering for me to take public transportation. We were always the only foreigners present, but we were always taken care of and treated with respect. The experience was also so much more authentic. The only downside to the buses is they can be cramped and they do take FOREVER. Besides the driver, there is a “manager” type guy who comes by to collect the fare. He also keeps an eye out if you are traveling with backpacks stored below, he will come down and open up the storage door for you. You just have to be fast cause they always seem to be rushing to make their next stop!
There are many transportation options… trains and buses are great, but if you really want to ride a tuk tuk, you can use a new app (recently launched) called Pick Me in Colombo. We learned about this app literally at the last minute, but it seems useful because it uploads your destination into the driver’s map (a la uber), making it easier for them to get you where you want to go. Tuk tuks that say “Taxi” on them will have a meter, and the meter is your friend. Rates are LKR base rate plus 5o LKR/km. The meter will be big and visible above the driver’s head (yup, there’s a story there.) In general though we found the tuk tuks to be tuk crooks, asking for what turned out (we realized!) to be a minimum of at least double what the metered fare would be. On the other hand, we did score some tuk tuk deals between Galle, Unawatuna, and Midigama, because the drivers were heading that way anyway. If there’s no meter, negotiate. I hesitated with the negotiating because I am aware of who I am and where I come from, but as Kim explained to me, we also need to fight a bit not to be completely ripped off, paying up to 5x the local price. As a tourist, we can be easily scammed, so should learn to be more pedantic about our plans and our money.
Finally, we took the scenic mountain train between Ella and Kandy. I’m not sure if it is advised to start at one town or the other, but we got on the first train (6:40am) from Ella.
For 6 hours we passed rolling hills covered in tea. Occasionally we would see women in colorful clothing with baskets strapped to their heads, picking the leaves. We rode over bridges and alongside breath taking valley views. Similar to the buses, we were the only foreigners in second class. We ended up in a car that was full of one extended family. They went down the aisle, passing out food that they had packed for each other; they stopped to offer us some each time they came by. At first we were a bit confused, but they just smiled and motioned for us to take the fruit and sandwiches. For me, this was another full on authentic experience that I wouldn’t have had in first class (every seat filled by a white tourist!) or in a private van or taxi.
For next time:
- Hit up one of the national parks; Sri Lanka is home to many exotic species (go on a safari perhaps?), especially elephants and leopards!
- Speaking of Elephants, in Minneriya National Park is the largest elephant gathering in the world! It happens every year in late summer, apparently till November. Side note for any elephant attractions… Be careful about what you consume… don’t ride!
- Surf or Kite
- I would also love to see a religious festival. We missed the Kandy Esala Perahera procession by just a few weeks. Kandy claims to have one of the Buddha’s teeth and they are pretty pumped about it.