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Why I Love Sri Lanka

28 February 2024

By Anna Richards

Anna Richards thought Sri Lanka would be a pleasant fly-and-flop, but quickly discovered there was so much more to this small island.

I first went to Sri Lanka for steak and cocktails.

I’d spent the last three months backpacking India, eating vegetarian food and staying largely teetotal, and I was ready for some uncultured hedonism. Sunbathing with a mojito in hand. Perhaps a cup of tea with a view. Sri Lanka, I’d heard, was India ‘light’.

What a gross missell. Within hours, Sri Lanka’s energy had me captivated. My arrival coincided with the cricket match between Colombo’s two most prestigious schools, and teenage boys in drag whooped and showered the crowd in flowers from gaudily-painted carnival floats. Later that day, cross-legged by the open door of the train which runs between Colombo and Galle, I watched an elephant grazing in someone’s garden. There would be no time for steak and sunbathing, I decided. 

Multiple trips ensued over the following years, a combination of luxury, through my job at a travel company, and backpacking, the way I’d begun. Both ways tried and tested, here’s what I recommend.

Catch the slow train from Colombo to Galle as I did. If you’re lucky enough to coincide with a cricket tour, Galle is the place to watch a match, but you’ll see local kids setting up wickets on street corners at any time. You can walk most of the ramparts of the 16th century fort — go with a guide if you want to learn about the history. The very best thing to do in Galle, though, is eat. Kottu, a kind of stir fry made with thin slices of roti (flatbread) rather than noodles. Egg hopper for breakfast – savoury pancake bowls with a fried egg in the middle, served with a selection of curries. String hoppers, also eaten at breakfast, cold noodle nests served with multiple curries.

My favourite beaches were in Tangalle, some 70 km along the coast from Galle. Even if I’d moved away from my original fly-and-flop plan, it was hard not to be drawn in by palm-lined shores which coddled sand the colour of a Rich Tea biscuit.

From Tangalle, it takes 5–6 hours to reach Gal Oya National Park. Perversely, I rate this for hiking and food rather than wildlife (although there are elephants and exotic birds in abundance). A sunrise hike, very scrambly in places, takes you to Monkey Mountain, a viewpoint from which it feels as though you have the whole island at your feet. Cooking classes take place al fresco, with a member of the Vedda tribe, an ancient Sri Lankan tribe from the area. You won’t recognise the ingredients you’re using and you’ll never be able to recreate it at home, but it’s the kind of meal that tickles memories of unfamiliar spices in your nostrils and taste buds for years to come.

From Gal Oya, head to the hills. Ella, with its Nine Arches Bridge and numerous waterfalls, is so green and alive you feel as though you’re photosynthesising. Tea plantations spill down to meet the little railway track, and the departure point of arguably the most scenic train journey in the world.

Six hours of rattling, winding, and views so distracting you’ll let your tea go cold, and you arrive in Kandy. It’s a controversial opinion, but the tea-covered hill I’ll die on — don't linger in Kandy. Sure, its name sounds like a delectable snack, but a night is sufficient. Bar an overcrowded, underwhelming temple, there’s little worthy of your time. Instead, head to Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle to climb Sigiriya Rock, visit the Dambulla Caves with their 2,000-year-old paintings, and the ancient Buddhist site of Polonnaruwa.

“Sri Lanka is kaleidoscopic, impossibly varied, and so much more than a beach destination. That’s why I love it.”

If you’re time-rich (three plus weeks in Sri Lanka), head to Jaffna from here. At the island’s northern tip, Tamil Jaffna has seen the hardest parts of the island’s recent history. Pristine, empty beaches hide little wooden crosses among the dunes. Hindu temples well over a thousand years old and colonial-era forts are scarred with bullet holes from this millennium. Nothing can dampen the colour of this town though, and their culinary speciality, Jaffna crab curry, bursts with flavour.

If time isn’t on your side, there’s no finer safari experience than through Leopard Trails at Wilpattu National Park. Accommodation is tented, meals (with limitless drinks) consumed around a campfire, and the exceptionally well-trained guides can identify each of the park’s leopards using their never-changing spots.

Sri Lanka is kaleidoscopic, impossibly varied, and so much more than a beach destination. That’s why I love it.

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