Tipped as the top travel destination for 2019 by Lonely Planet, Sri Lanka has it all for the outdoorsy traveller. From turtle sanctuaries and stunning white sanded beaches in the south, to the world famous tea plantations sprawled across the countries mountainous centre.
If you are into animal watching, then you can spend your days bouncing around in an open topped jeep on safari, trying to spot wild elephants, crocodiles and leopards in the lusciously green national parks. Mountain trekkers can head to a number of well know ranges, and can hike up some of the nations favourite peaks such as the steep and sacred Adams Peak at sunrise. Head to the bustling and rugged city of Jaffna to soak up the culture of every day Sri Lankan life. There are ancient temples, historical sights and plenty of religious ceremonies to attend.
Whatever you choose to do in this diverse country, you really won't be disappointed because the standards are high and the quality of your experience is valued and welcomed by the locals. Tourism is integral to the country's economy and in recent years they have seen a significant boom. So for the first time backpacker, you have the peace of mind that the route is well trodden and the Sri Lankan people will treat you like family.
Here are 5 reasons why we think Sri Lanka should be on the top of your to-visit list for the first time backpacker....
The Friendly People
Not all people you meet on your travels will greet you with open arms, but the Sri Lankan’s are some of them. After travelling in 16 countries over 10 months, we decided that the Sri Lankan's are some of the warmest and most welcoming folk that we've ever met. Men would buy us coffee in the street, hosts would spend hours making us the most delicious home-cooked food from scratch, people are always on hand to help you get on the right buses, locals will share their food (and seat) with you on the train, and sometimes people will even walk down the street with you just to have a chat! You can’t get much friendlier than that.
Obviously there will always be the odd few rotten apples that are trying to get something for nothing, but on the whole we found the Sri Lankan's very trustworthy and helpful. Impressively, nearly everyone speaks English due the empire, so if you are ever in need of help then just ask the person next to you and I'm sure they will do their best. The hospitality in hostels and guest houses is next level, and hosts will really go out of their way to make your experience the best that it can possibly be. We really don't have a bad thing to say about anyone we met!
2. It's Just So Cheap!
Sri Lanka is very well priced to travel around and on some days we would spend around £12 per day between us, that's with eating in the 'hotels' which are actually restaurants where the locals eat. It's possible to find accommodation for around £6 for a double room per night on booking.com, and if you are happy to eat like the locals then a couple of kottu's (a Sri Lankan street food of chopped roti bread, vegetables and meat gravy fried on a hot plate) would set you back between £1.50 to £3.00 for 2 portions. That's a whole lot of bang for your buck! A beer at an off-licence will be around 300 rupees (£1.50) which isn’t so bad.
Travelling by bus is very cheap indeed, ranging from about 50p to £4 per journey (the £4 journeys would be if you were travelling for 5 hours across the country), and the train can be even cheaper but slower and far more crowded. A train ticket to Colombo from Kandy is around 100 rupees for 2nd or 3rd class, or you can travel in 1st for only 500 rupees (£2.50)! A rickshaw in the capital is around 50 rupees per kilometre, which isn’t too shabby.
Visits to the national parks can however be pricy (they have to make their money somewhere right?) so if you are trying to keep your costs down then just choose to visit only one or two of them on your trip. For example, a visit to the Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari set us back £50 per person, and a trek in the knuckles mountain range with a guide and driver was £50 between us. Compared with the costs of food, travel and accommodation, these prices seem extremely high, but if you acknowledge that you are paying for one or two people’s time and consider it a once in a lifetime experience then the costs aren't so bad after all. I mean, you get to see elephants in the wild! If you are happier eating in tourist restaurants for peace of mind of hygiene then there are many to choose from, and prices will be more like £3 to £6 for a main meal. We ate at the local restaurants 3 times a day and never got sick, so if you want to taste real Sri Lankan food and pay cheap prices then find the nearest 'hotel’.
3. Easy To Get Around
Transport in Sri Lanka is great for the backpacker. You can pretty much get anywhere by bus, or if you want to travel at a slower pace then taking a train is a good option. If you don’t want any hassle with transport and money is no option then just take a cab or tuk tuk. Remember to negotiate hard because most likely the first price will be far too high.
The buses are the best way to get around though, and they’re are hilarious! Travelling on one is such an experience, and in some ways they are the funniest part of the trip. These are the local buses where the driver blasts out Sri Lankan bhangra for 4 hours straight, everyone is stuck to the sweaty leather seats, there is a line of people standing all the way down the isle clinging on for dear life, whilst the driver over-takes at full speed like a maniac. So obviously the speedy dangerous driving is not a plus side of travelling by bus, but you will be guaranteed to get there quickly. We would recommend sitting towards the back for safety, and not looking out the front (for obvious reasons). Ignorance is bliss they say. The bus assistant will be the one taking ticket money, and will tell you where to put your oversized bags. The benches on the buses are made for small bottoms, so you will most likely be squashed up against the person next to you. But for a couple of pounds per journey, who really cares?! The buses are clearly marked in English where they are headed for, and there is always an assistant on board to ask if you are unsure. Sri Lanka is the perfect sized country, because you can pretty much travel across the whole of it within a day.
Sri Lanka is a unique country with so much to offer. Depending on what you’re into, every traveller can have a completely different experience. If you like tropical beach breaks, sun bathing, surfing, turtle conservations and whale watching, then head to one of the many beaches that sprawl the lengthy coastline. Along with beachy vibes brings chill out bars with like-minded travellers, parties and fun times.
Looking for more of a nature-inspired trip? Well this is the place for you. Never have we seen so many exotic animals in one country before… elephants, eagles, monkeys, crocodiles, mongoose, leopards, giant squirrels and wild boars. The list is literally insane. Each national park has a different focus, some are the home to the leopard whilst others of the elephant, so choose which one you visit thoughtfully. It’s worth noting that entry to these national parks is in the form of a jeep safari, so don’t think you will be able to trek in there to enjoy the nature!
The middle of the country is more mountainous and hilly, so for nature lovers and those into trekking you can head to the likes of the Knuckles Range, Sigiriya, Horton Plains, Adam’s Peak, Ella, Haputale and Lipton’s Seat. There are plenty of walks to do without paying for entry to the National Parks, and luckily there are lots of local buses to get you away from the main towns and cities to start your route from. The tea plantations are spectacular, and are free to roam around for the enthusiastic walker.
If history, culture and religion is your thing then this a country rich in all of these areas. With Portugese and Dutch attempted invasions, British actual invasion, and civil war between the Tamils and Sinhalese lasting several decades, it’s hard to hide the very recent wounds of history, particularly in hard-hit areas like Jaffna where bullet holes are visible in the crumbing buildings. The majority of the Sri Lankan people are of Buddhist religion, with a small proportion of Hindu’s, Christian’s and Muslims. There are many incredible temples and places of worship to visit along with religious sights such as the ancient Mihintale and Polonnaruwa ruins. One of our favourite moments was experiencing a Hindu ceremony at the decorative Nallur Kovil temple where men took their shirts off with the sound of live percussion instruments playing.
5. The Food
If you’re a foodie like us then you will probably be salivating right now at the thought of eating delicious Sri Lankan food. Imagine coconut milk curry with an explosion of spices, beautifully balanced with chunks of sweet butternut squash, and spicy beetroot curry with home-made coconut rotis… it’s just too delicious! The coconut milk is freshly made and my god does it taste like it. Rice and curry is the staple, but really when you order it you end up with about 6 components including daal and fresh vegetables too. No one goes hungry in Sri Lanka!
The kottu is incredible, it’s a street food of fried roti bread, vegetables and sometimes egg covered in meat gravy. It’s one of the cheapest dishes you can get and it’s probably the tastiest because it’s so god damn naughty. One of the funnest things is choosing between the surplus of fried street snacks, the Sri Lankan’s do love a deep fried snack! Nearly anywhere, you can pick up vegetable rotis (that look like a vegetable samosa), dosa (fermented pancake), egg hoppers (crunchy pancake in the shape of a bowl), string hoppers (well-seasoned stringy noodles you eat for breakfast with your fingers), jackfruit balls… the list is endless. And then there’s all the sweet stuff too… coconut pancakes, buffalo curd with plant nectar (like honey), and all the fresh fruits. It’s worth going to Sri Lanka just for the food alone, we were so excited to be eating it every day that sometimes we just worked our schedule around the food!
We Dig It!
I feel like I could go on and on about all the great things that Sri Lanka has to offer, but really it would be better for you to just go and experience it for yourself. For the first-time backpacker, this really is a fantastic country to visit because as far as travelling goes; it is relatively easy, the people are lovely, it’s got so much to offer and it’s cheap. I would say that 2 weeks is probably the minimum amount of time to spend there, we went for 4 weeks and in that time we only went to 2 beaches! So if you do want to visit then I would strongly suggest not trying to cram everything in and rushing around to much. It’s a relaxed country to be in, and it’s all the small moments that make this place so special; like sharing a dinner of home-cooked food, or watching the sunrise up on Pidurangala Rock.
For the first-time backpacker, you really won’t regret a trip to the incredible Sri Lanka….
(so you can find it again!)