I’ve only spent one whirlwind week in Sri Lanka so by no means can I claim to be an exper but these are some of the tips I’ve picked up during my short stay and things I wish I had known before coming to Sri Lanka.
Do Sigiriya as a day trip from Kandy – Sigiriya and the Cave Temples are located in Dambulla, about a 2 1/2 hour drive out of Kandy but it’s not as tricky as you might think to get there. There’s lots of advice out there for getting buses or, if you can afford it/get a group together to split the cost then having a personal driver for the long route is worth it. We paid 1600 SLR per person in the end, around £8 for the whole day. Dambulla seems pretty rural and speaking to others along the way there isn’t much to do there other than these two main attractions. Unless you want to get up super early and see the sunrise from the top, basing yourself in Kandy and doing a day trip is entirely possible.
Budget travelling? Hike Pidurangala Mountain instead – This mountain is right next to Sigiriya and although you won’t get to see the ruins or the impressive lion paws that give Sigiriya its name as Lion Rock, you will get a great view of the site as a whole. The main plus is that while Sigiriya entrance fee will set you back just over 4000 SLR, its little cousin will only set you back 500 SLR. Although it’s over priced I was still glad I did Sigiriya as there is more to see whereas the other one is just a nice hike, that said, if you’re on a budget this is the perfect alternative as you’ll still get to see the Lion Rock and pay a fraction of the price.
Get a bus to Rawana Falls in Ella – After hiking Ella Rock we were going to attempt Little Adam’s Peak but it was too misty. We heard Rawana Falls were nice and so set off on aching legs down the winding road. Although it was a great way to see the countryside, an hour later we arrived at the falls only to be fairly disappointed. They are pretty but not worth an hours walk and I especially wouldn’t recommend trudging back up the hilly road! We got a bus back for 20 SLR and wished we had got one there as well.
Follow Nomadic Boys advice on climbing Ella Rock – I read all about the supposedly helpful locals who will point you in the “right” direction when you inevitably get lost looking for the turn off for the hike, only to lead you round in circles until another “helpful” local will take you to the right place for a small fee. Despite knowing about this tourist trap we were still suckered in and had to pay a “farmer” a few hundred rupees just to walk us five minutes down a path onto the right track. We came back the way the bloggers suggested so their advice is sound, just don’t be persuaded otherwise! Sri Lankan’s are friendly people always willing to help, which can make it tricky to spot things like this, but stick to your guns and continue up the track a little further and you’ll find the right place all by yourself.
Have tea at the top of Ella Rock – I wish I’d had my own cup but I snuck a sip of a friend’s and the sweet brew instantly revived me. An old man with a wrought iron kettle bubbling over a small fire will happily serve you up a cup and trust me you’ll need it after the steep rocky climb near the top..
Get out of Colombo – Ok so I didn’t have the greatest of experiences here but still, quite frankly, there are much prettier and more interesting places to visit. Don’t waste time like I did and just hop on the next train out of there!
Check when festivals and celebrations are on – I might have had a much better time in Colombo if I’d checked and really thought about what was going on there. On the one hand I might have been able to see more of the religious celebrations and on the other I might have been able to go to temples when they were open rather than looking forlornly up at beautiful exteriors with locked and chained doors.
Get a guesthouse in Ella and go to Chill Bar – Originally myself and a guy I was travelling with were going to stay in the Spice Hut Hostel, the only hostel in Ella but to be honest its pretty grim. When the main thing to do in Ella is hike you really want a decent bed for the night and there are good deals to be had so don’t feel like you’ll have to blow your budget to stay somewhere nice. In the evening everyone goes to Chill bar, the food is pretty decent, though mostly Western options, but relaxing with a few drinks and meeting other travellers is the best part about this bar, which is brimming with backpackers. Oh and the fact that it plays a remix of the Game of Thrones theme tune on loop just tops it off!
Try local food – It’s not as scary as you might think. Maybe this is already a natural part of travel for you but I know I was nervous after a few horror stories of food poisoning and bad stomachs. There are some real gems in store though as the dishes in sri Lanka are simple and tasty. Be sensible about where you eat but remember that no where (apart from maybe some very upmarket tourist places) will have the same standards or look the same as what you would expect back home. Try Dosa, especially a cheese one, which is much like a pancake and served with mild curry sauce and chillis for dipping into. Roti makes a great snack for long journeys. They come with different fillings depending where you buy from and in different shapes too but are essentially a kind of wrap/pancake with some kind of vegetable/meat/potato cooked in curry flavours. My favourite dish was Kotthu though, vegetable and meat or egg if you want chopped up with another kind of roti. It looks likenothing special but has great flavours and is surprisingly filling.
I wish I had known some of these things before I planned my trip to Sri Lanka so I hope they are useful to you. If you want some more specifics on things I did and places I ate and stayed at in Sri Lanka then check out my postcard and tag album for more ideas.