Planning an island vacation: Guidebook to Sri Lanka

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Of sands, sails and beaches

Set amidst the deep blue waters of Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka, is a beautiful reminder of Paradise on the Earth. Colonized by different foreign powers, at different times- the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Britishers, today’s Sri Lanka bears no resemblance to its erstwhile western masters or culture. For travellers, enthusiastic about exploring this Asian pearl, weeks could be spent exploring the gorgeous country.

However, here’s my suggested 1 week itinerary (easily customizable to 10-12 days) that offers a perfect introduction to the island-nation’s rich history, diverse culture, spicy food and the present day social fabric, through paddy fields, tea-plantation villages, waterfalls, tunnels, and its people.

I hope you travel through an island of miracles. Get a tan, surf, make memories, pamper yourself and your loved ones, explore wildlife and find your space, just as I did…….

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Colombo- the garden city

Day 1: Fly to Colombo in the wee hours of morning. Rest up good, or spend the day walking the streets of the capital, exploring the laid-back city life. Generally, Colombo doesn’t really fare high  in an average traveller’s itinerary. However, I found, my time in Colombo to be one of my most fond memories from the trip. If like me, you like to explore a city slowly, soaking in the vibe of the city by riding in tuk-tuk (the  local version of Autos), taking train rides, spending time at the sea-face, feasting on sea-food and chai (just like the locals do), then I recommend at least spending 2-3 days here. If you are short on time and are looking at exploring other remote parts of the country, then a day is enough. Don’t forget to visit marquee sites like the Independence Memorial Hall, Gangaramaya Temple, the National Museum, stroll through the city’s innumerable gardens and watch a spectacular sunset at Galle Face in the evening!

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Sri Lanka, from my window seat

Day 2: Head to Fort Colombo station for a day’s train- ride to Ella through the verdant country-side, taking a look at how Sri Lanka’s rural folks, live away from the bustling cities. The train journey starts around at 8AM in the morning and you reach Ella only around 5-6 PM. But it is, one of the most wonderful train journeys, I have experienced, passing through a thick coat of clouds, as you approach Ella, Sri Lanka’s Hill country. This train journey, becomes one of the most critical things to do as, the railway system in Sri Lanka was initially built by the British in 1864, to tea and coffee from the Hill Country to Colombo for shipping internationally. The journey can seem long and tiring, so be armed with a fully charged phone pumping out soothing music, a good book to read and if you’re a people-watcher, sit back and relax. The treat has just begun!

Pro tip: Definitely book your  tickets online in advance!

Day 3: Once at Ella, one can spend a day or two trekking, chasing waterfalls (in rains), or just choosing to unwind at a nice hotel overlooking the rolling green hills. Or if you are short on time, as I was, head back to Fort Colombo with a one night stay at Ella. Before you jump on the station, definitely indulge your taste buds with some authentic Sri Lankan breakfast comprising of Kottu roti, Coconut Sambol, Dhal curry and a delectable spread of chutneys, with a hot cup of Ceylon tea.

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Ella is home to incredible waterfalls, such as Ravana Falls

Day 4: Once you have scratched the surface of this island country, take a train ride from Colombo or a day’s road trip to the lesser known beaches of Sri Lanka and be ready to be blown away by the surprises thrown at you. On Day 4, we decided to take a road trip to Galle and on the way, spend some time at Hikkaduwa beach. I had read that with its impressive coral reefs and abundance of tropical fish, Hikkaduwa is a paradise for Snorkelling and diving lovers. However, the ocean looked gloomy and rough that day. So we gave it a pass. But if you have time, with perfect weather conditions- I would strongly recommend that you try it out! In the afternoon, we spent time exploring the old town of Galle with visit to the acclaimed UNESCO Heritage site- Galle Fort, the clock tower, little cafes doting the town, Old Dutch & Portuguese churches and indulging our sweet tooth with some street ice-cream.

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Spend time people watching on Hikkaduwa beach

Day 5 & Day 6: Our last two days were spent in the twin town of Colombo- Negombo. If you are into sand, sails and the sea, Negombo is the perfect spot to end your vacation with! While it does not definitely qualify as a prettiest beach spot, in fact it has rather shabby beaches, our interest in Negomobo was kindled, thanks to its proximity to the international airport, from where we had to fly back. Having said that that it is definitely one of the best places to acquaint oneself with the Sri Lankan coastal life, with a lively fish market, a dash of old world colonial charm, hundreds of moments to be a mermaid (ahem—ladies, pay attention) and sprawling evening markets filled with sellers selling handicrafts, clothing, jewellery, etc.,

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At our beach bungalow in Negombo

Accommodation: While Sri Lanka is definitely a heaven for backpackers, it is also a more affordable luxury destination, as compared to some of the other more expensive beach countries- Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, etc., Pretty much to say, that there’s a lot for almost every budget and size of pocket. For our trip, we didn’t want to spend much, but we were also equally excited to swim in one of the lovely infinity pools overlooking the Indian Ocean. So we decided to opt in for a well-balanced accommodation plan in our itinerary, combining hostels with luxury hotels.

Colombo: Hostel @ Galle Face and Cinnamon Red

Ella: Rawana’s Den

Negombo: Lanka Huts

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Breakfast at Cinnamon Red

Cafes: Sri Lanka is a paradise for sea-food lovers. Meat lovers would be equally happy. However, for vegetarians, the eating scene can be a tad bit complicated. While in Colombo, there is no dearth of eating and drinking scenes, the rest of the country side can be a bit complex affair as there might not be any big chain of restaurants or hotels. However, in my experience and I am a vegetarian- a little bit of walk is always good.  So walk a lot, and you will find the scrumptious and amazing vegetarian palate in the most unassuming small looking hotel. Don’t forget Ceylon tea. On trains, usually there are pantry cars which offer appetizing rice curries. On stations, you’ll find small eateries and canteens serving samosas, rolls and sandwiches. Do feast on them!

Transport: Depending on your style of traveling, transport in Sri Lanka can just get easy and easier. There are umpteen number of colourful looking tuk-tuks and taxis available to scurry travellers. The train network is also one of the most efficient transport system to go from one place to another. The road transport can get congested and delayed, thanks to an ever growing metropolis and buildings on the roads of the cities and towns. My most recommended transport mode would be a combination of private cab, tuk-tuk and trains!

Visas: Sri Lankan visas are usually an easy affair, depending on the country you belong to. For Indians, electronic travel authorization is easily available online as well as on arrival. We applied for visa online and received it within a day. Therefore, to avoid any last minute, my recommendation is to opt in for the online visa. The visa fees vary in the $20- $ 30 range.

FYI: When in Lanka, do as the Lankans do:

  1. Relax, don’t run- Sri Lankans are usually laid-back in their approach to their day and overall in life. So, if you want to visit Sri Lanka, I would recommend slow travel and not to try packing all activities in one day, even if you are on a short holiday!
  2. Wear right- There is no dress code per se that the travellers or even locals. But when you think of Sri Lanka, think of Goa. Tropical weather, sandy beaches and a very hot day and cool night. So pack right and ensure a good mix of light clothes, colourful skirts, pyjamas, lose shirts/t-shirts and flip-flops. Carry water bottles and wear sunscreen!
  3. Experiment- This is a word to live by when it comes to transport, activities to do and even food (for the vegetarians). Don’t be shy to do things as the Lankans do!
  4. This one is particularly for Indians- Ravana holds a revered status in Sri Lanka. Unlike, the Indian version of Ramayana, the Ravan holds the brave victor status in the Lankan society. So, be very careful of bringing him up in cultural discussions 😉

Some pictures from my trip. Hope these help you make up your mind, plan a dream trip to the teardrop land in the azure oceans.

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Stroll in long parks in the lush Colombo

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At the entrance of the Gangaramaya temple

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Interesting installations, some centuries old at the temple

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Independence Memorial in Colombo for some meditation

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Feet on the Map in Colombo 😉

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Watch the sun go down at Galle Face

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Galle Face at night is bustling with people who come with their families to enjoy the sea food and snacks

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One can find incredible similarities between Mumbai’s Marine Drive and Colombo’s Galle Face 

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Galle Face is one of the most premium areas in Sri Lanka, with various embassies stationed here. So it is safe even for single women to spend some me-time here!

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When in Lanka, do ride a train

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Sri Lankan stations are extremely clean and tidy, with lot of plantations around

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The ride through Ella, goes literally through clouds 🙂

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Hill Country- Ella

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At Ella, go waterfall chasing

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Riding the blue toy train to Ella

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Meeting the locals

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The scrumptious Sri Lankan breakfast at Ella

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On the way back to Colombo

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Spending time old town Galle

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Visit the UNESCO Heritage- Galle Fort

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Clock Tower at Galle Fort

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Visiting the Old churches of Galle

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A man selling Sarongs at Negombo beach

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Yummy rice curries with Potato and Onion rings 

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Playing the mermaid 😉

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Sri Lanka, oh, how I miss you, beauty!

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10 thoughts on “Planning an island vacation: Guidebook to Sri Lanka

    • I visited in late November. Sri Lanka is situated close to the equator and therefore the temperatures remain usually constant throughout the year- the typical tropical climate- hot in day, cooler in the night. But it doesn’t get cold at all. Ella, however is situated in the mountains, so might get a bit cold.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh I love the idea of spending a day or two hiking at Ella, and have heard that certain train rides in Sri Lanka are beautiful! Totally love that this country is budget friendly and hope to visit !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Even though anka is smaller than india, I’m sure there are many things we can learn from this country.
    The beaches in Lanka are certainly better than India. The road “manners” is also something to emulate.
    Great post, deepika!

    Like

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