What I Wish I’d Known Before Traveling Sri Lanka

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.

A Whistle Stop Tour of Sri Lanka

For me, Sri Lanka has felt like one long train journey but if there is any country where this is a good thing then it is Sri Lanka. And not just because a 9 hour train journey can cost you as little as £3. The trains rattle along past valleys cushioned with tea plantations, giant white Buddha statues appearing here and there and gazing serenely at the passengers who lean out of the windows and doors for a better look at the view. 

This is the first part of my trip where I have been travelling alone and I feel already I have had a taste of the highs and lows of solo travel – though I’m sure there will be more to come. I arrived in Colombo fairly late, eager to get to my hostel, but the universe had other plans. My first mission was to get money out as I’d opted to get money from ATMS when first arriving in a country rather than carrying bits of cash from all the different places I’ll be visiting. I followed the instructions on the screen and pressed ‘accept amount’. Denied. I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. Attempt 2: Denied. I tried a different machine but got the same result. I scrabbled about for wifi so I could check my acccount and tried to call my bank only to be put on hold. Tears were prickling my eyes, this was the last thing I needed after being so nervous about being on my own, but I was determined not to let them fall. I reminded myself that I was carrrying dollars I could exchange or pay with instead to at least get me to the hostel and when a taxi driver approached me and we agreed on a price I decided it was best to get to the hostel and sort it out there.

In the end my card worked the next day and I could start really enjoying my trip, well, that was the plan anyway. Everywhere tells you to get out of Colombo ASAP and originally I planned to leave for Kandy straight away, but the card fiasco made me cautious and I had booked another night in Colombo. This is probably my only regret of the trip as I could have used this time to make another stop on my way back to Colombo at the end, thereby breaking up a long train journey. You live and learn and I definitely learnt that day.

After securing my tickets to Kandy (really easy and really cheap) I decided to walk around and see the few sites that Colombo had to offer, such as the Fort and the Clock Tower. To begin with a friendly Sri Lankan man tagged along with me, offering to show me the sites. I was nervous of him but he seemed harmless and kept saying he didn’t want money, telling me about his daughter who collects stamps and how all he asked was that I send her some from England. I couldn’t find a way to shake him off until he got in a tuk tuk and asked me to join him and, my hackles immediately going up, I refused, walking on. I have no idea where he was leading me but I’m not convinced it was actually anywhere I wanted to go, as stopping to look at my map it didn’t look like I was even heading in the right direction. So I doubled back and wandered around, probably looking like a crazy person as I turned one way and then back the other until I had blisters on my feet. Eventually I gave in and grabbed a tuk tuk who took me to a couple of Hindu temples I wanted to see (at least I think they were – they might have been random ones) but they were closed for their Poya celebrations, a public holiday linked to the full moon and a time when Buddha urged his disciples to deepen their spiritual practice. Feeling dejected I headed back to my hostel.
In the evening I made up my mind that I was going to actually make it somewhere I planned to go. I searched up a good place for dinner in my Lonely Planet guide, wrote down fool-proof instructions and set off. I reached the end of the road. Left? Or right? The one thing I had forgotten to write down. No matter, I had written the name of the first street I should pass instead so I tried left but the first road was called something different. I tried right instead. The name still wasn’t what I expected. I decided to keep going but 20 minutes later I still wasn’t recognising anything from my directions. 

The one good thing was that I unexpectedly ran into some Poya celebrations. People dressed as peacocks and monkeys were dancing down the street, fire dancers loomed over the crowds on their stilts and behind them followed a small temple on wheels. All this was cool to see, but it wasn’t food.

I doubled back and then carried on and came to the street I had been looking for just one road on from the wrong one. I sighed and trudged on. And on. And on. The walk was supposed to take 20-30 minutes but I had been walking about 40 minutes and still not recognised anything. I was fed up, tired and starving. I was too nervous, both of germs and of drawing people’s attention as a single white woman, to get any streetfood or try the local places I passed along the way. I settled for a cafe I’d spotted earlier, not too far from my hostel and sat eating reheated pasta feeling like a failure. I was supposed to throw myself into a new culture, find my way around the country and I couldn’t even find a decent place to eat dinner. 

Tomorrow was a new day though and at least I knew how to get myself to the station. The train to Kandy offered some beautiful views, though passing the make-shift shacks of the poverty stricken when I was sat in second class with a digital camera on my lap was unsettling. Still, the dense forests that gave way to open fields lifted my mood. The Elephant Shed hostel where I was staying was only a 5-10 minute walk from the station but I still managed to get a bit turned around. A couple of kind locals called the hostel for directions for me and pointed me the right way. 

I did have a moment of doubt though as I walked down a side street that seemed to be getting more deserted as I turned the corner, but suddenly there it was, this tall wonky building with a brightly coloured sign on the door. Inside was just as quirky, the walls covered in messages from other travellers and the treacherous stairs being little more than ladders. Determined not to make the same mistakes as Colombo and make the most of my short time here, I immediately started packing my day bag and writing EXENSIVE directions down to find The Temple of the Tooth Relic. While I was doing this I got chatting to a girl who was doing the same thing so we decided to go together.

 I quickly discovered that getting lost with someone else was much more fun (also having internet on your phone is ideal for someone as directionally challenged as me). Not that we properly got lost but The Temple of the Tooth is not exactly sign posted and once you enter the complex it is still a while before you come to the actual room with the tooth relic in. In fact we kind of stumbled upon the rather low-key room holding the tooth in a golden casket (there are only certain occasions when you can actually see the tooth) and guarded by a golden Buddah statue and rows of elephant tusks. Around the room are paintings with stories about the tooth but otherwise there is no information about what you are seeing, simply because it is a functioning temple. Many locals were there on the day, being so close to Poya, and there was a peaceful air to the whole experience.

I planned to do Sigiriya, also known as the Lion Rock, and possibly some cave temples the next day and when I suggested my new friend, Kristel, join me she was only too happy to go together. In fact the hostel guy rounded up a few other solo travellers interested in going and suddenly there were six of us.

Having other people to chat to, between gasping for breath as we climbed the one million steps (ok I exaggerate but it felt like it) to the top of Sigiriya, made all the difference to the experience. It was especially a relief when, on the way back, our driver offered to drop us at a spice garden for a tour and free massage. We were left in the hands of a gawky man with stained teeth who repeated things often and wanted us to smell every spice at least three times. He was clearly high on something and we were tired from our long day and impatient to get back on the road. When he saw he was losing our attention he lead us to a school room type area where we sat on benches and tried a spice tea, which was surprisingly nice. We heard all about the spices and their many miracles cures AGAIN and I couldn’t help but ask the guide if he used the remedies himself as he wasn’t exactly a walking advert for them. 

Next, without much warning, a few more guys appeared and gestured for me and one of the other girls to move to the front bench. With no preamble they starting spreading a thick home made cream onto our faces before massaging it in and then wiping away the excess. The massage was all right but the whole experience was weird. I’m sure they meant well but we just wanted to get away and it was reassuring to have a group of us all thinking the same thing rather than having to suffere through the strange experience alone. The girl next to me suggested it might be time to get back to the mini bus and we were ushered through the gift shop on our way.

Kandy had shown me everything I wanted to see (and a few things I didn’t in the spice garden) so I got on another train away from the dirty city and into hill country and Ella. The train ride from Kandy to Ella is famously impressive and it didn’t disappoint. In fact several tourists left their drivers just to experience the train and got picked up again by them at the other end. I can’t blame them when the views were so good and the tickets so cheap. 

I travelled with Brad, one of the guys from our Sigiriya trip and when we arrived in Ella we both agreed we liked it much better than Kandy. Ella has more of a travellers vibe and that night at Chill Bar, which seems to be THE place to go out in Ella, I sipped a passioinfuit mojito from a jar as we met all these different people passing through. Their were two Israeli girls who shared stories about their time in the Israeli army, the group of fiends who used to work on private yachts together and were celebrating a birthday and the family who had lived all over the world, running hotels. This is what travel is supposed to be about right? Meeting interesting characters along the way, the ones who turn your trip into a story. Finally I felt like I was beginning to get what people mean when they say the best part of travel is meeting people.

The next day Brad, Florian (a guy Brad had met earlier in his trip) and I hiked Ella rock. Like with Sigiriya I was reminded how desperately unfit I am as I panted and sweated my way up behind the boys. At the top the slightly misty view rewarded our efforts and later we rewarded ourselves with another drink at Chill bar. As the afternoon stretched into evening we were joined by old friends we had each met along the way, including Kristel, who had just arrived a day after us, and our little table for three suddenly became a table for nine. 

The great thing about meeting people while travelling is that you instantly have something in common. We shared stories, swapped tips on where to go and what to see and amazed each other with the unique experiences we’d had along the way. Sitting on the train heading back to Colombo, ready for my flight to India the next day, I couldn’t be more exited to see what the rest of my trip has in store. This first week on my own has taught me to expect the low times and the moments where everything goes wrong but to also have faith that things will right themselves in the end. 

I’ve enjoyed my experience of Sri Lanka, as limited as it has been, but feel it is easy to see what you want to see and be done with it. The sites are interesting and worth visiting but for me, it will always be the people that made this leg of my trip so great.

For more please watch my video here.

My Epic South East Asia Trip

Ever since my 7 week gap year trip around Australia and New Zealand I have been dying to  go on a bigger, longer, even more awesome trip. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of my gap year trip but when I kept running into people who were travelling for three months minimum I started to feel like mine was a little more like an extended holiday. I shouldn’t have put myself down so much because I’ve come to realise it doesn’t matter the length of the trip but the experiences you have along the way. I crammed a lot into Australia and New Zealand and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. That being said, I’ve still always wanted to go on a longer trip for the simple reason that I can fit in even more great experiences!

One day I drop into an STA travel shop and tell them my budget and my ideas, now a couple of months on I have an epic itinerary planned! STA have been so helpful with putting together something really cool and also kind of complicated; I’d definitely recommend using them. Asian culture is so different from anything I have ever experienced before so it’s been a long time dream to visit Thailand and we built the trip from there. In the end I booked a 5 month trip around South East Asia!

My big trip starts ten days after my last MA assignment and I can’t wait. Here it is:

10th Oct – I’ll fly to Dubai to catch up with my friend Taylor. I’ll be spending four days here with Taylor showing me the best local places, doing some shopping (well maybe window shopping – I have got to save some money for the rest of my trip) and visiting swanky bars.

14th Oct – After this short stop over I’ll be heading to Sri Lanka for a week. I don’t know what I’ll be getting up to in Sri Lanka yet but I’m excited to start planning!da7bcabad41cdf7778311fbaf44d70f8

21st Oct – Next up is India. I’ll be on the Uncover India tour which will take me from Dehli
to Goa. Along the way I’ll be checking out the Taj Mahal, learning henna painting, bathing in Pushkar lake and visiting many temples.

6th Nov – Once I’ve lazed around on the beach in Goa for a few days I’ll be flying to Singapore where I’ll make my own way to Kuala Lumpa. I’m looking forward to this bit; a little taste of freedom to travel where I want, when I want and some independance to figure out how I’m actually going to do that!

16th Nov – I’ll be flying to Manila to explore the Philippines next. This is another leg of the journey I’m doing solo and also where I’ll be celebrating my birthday! I’m hoping here I’ll be able to do some diving as I island hop around Philippines’ 7,000+ islands! Swimming with whale sharks, visiting the chocolate mountains and the hanging tombs are also on my list of things to do.

28th Nov – From there I head over to Borneo for almost three weeks. I’ll fly into Kota Kinabalu and have five days to explore there, perhaps hiking Mount Kinabalu and visiting Turtle Island. Then it’s on to Kuching and my first volunteering experience: Orangutang conservation. I’m sure it will involve some hard work at times but will also be a lot of fun and gives me a chance to explore the rainforest and even stay in a traditional longhouse.

16th Dec – Finally it will be time to head over to the long-awaited Thailand. For this section of the trip I’ll be meeting up with my travel buddy Joey. You’ll hear more about a previous trip we’ve been on together in the next post but in the meantime check out his blog https://themichaeljoseph.com. We’ll spend a day or two in Bangkok before heading up to Chaing Mai where we will do one week of elephant conservation. Elephants are my favourite animal and one I’m currently writing my novel about so I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip. Being up close and personal to an elephant will be a dream come true! We finish just in time for Christmas and hopefully for a couple of other friends to come and join us; Ed and his girlfriend Becky. From there the four of us will head South to explore Thailand’s islands and celebrate the New Year.

IMG_23289 Jan – After I’ve said goodbye to my friends I’ll be joining the Stray Asia bus. This is a flexible hop-on hop-off service that will take me through Laos, Cambodia and end my trip in Vietnam. I chose to travel this way because I did a similar pass with the Oz Experience and New Zealand Experience, both of which were great. It’s a fun way to meet new people and do a wide range of activities with the ease of having a tour guide to help book them for you. They also offer unique experiences like remote homestays I might not otherwise be able to do if I were organising it on my own. This will be the most flexible part of my trip and I’ll be able move on when I like or stick around for a few extra days somewhere if I feel like it- as long as I’m back in Bangkok to catch my flight home on the 1st March that is!

So that’s it! This is my epic jam-packed trip and everything I’ll be doing along the way – or at least what I have planned so far. This will be the longest I’ve ever been away from home and the first time I’ll be travelling completely on my own. I am equal parts terrified and excited. Bring on October. Bring on South East Asia!