This trip to Sri Lanka was totally impromptu, we wanted to go to Sikkim but the airfares were so unaffordable that we had to turn our attention elsewhere. We had covered the Cultural Triangle around the Central parts of the country before, so decided to explore the Western Coast and the Hills this time.
Planning a trip within such short notice comes with its own share of challenges. Thankfully, we are familiar with Sri Lanka and the distance, language, visa norms etc are not much of a hassle. A couple of brainstorming sessions, a lot of emails and phone calls later, we had a vague idea about what we wanted to do in those six days in Sri Lanka.
It turned out that we did not fare that bad!
The Planning For Sri Lanka
The first thing that we did, once we decided on the place where we wanted to go, was to book the air tickets. Airfares are pretty dynamic in nature and we had experiences in the past that a single day’s delays in booking set us back by a couple of thousand of rupees.
Colombo is the main airport in Sri Lanka for overseas travellers. We had an option to fly to Colombo via Mumbai or Chennai, and Chennai seemed to be more economical. Another interesting thing that we notice was that two separate roundtrips (Pune-Chennai-Pune and Chennai-Colombo-Chennai) turned out to be cheaper than a Pune-Colombo-Pune roundtrip. Make sure to look into the variables while you book your flight tickets.
Airfares: If you plan early, a return ticket to Colombo from Chennai may be managed under INR 8000. Your distance from Chennai will be an additional expense.
The next challenge was to squeeze our aspirations in a tight schedule of six days and it was a blocker before we could decide on our hotel bookings and transport. Usually, we plan in a way that we spend a minimum of two days in a place. However, the tight schedule had us make some adjustments, like skipping a few places and spend just one day at each place.
Our final route turned out as: Colombo > Galle > Mirissa > Ella > Horton Plains > Nuwara Eliya > Kandy > Colombo.
Our trip took us to the West Coast and then to the Hill Country through some pretty amazing landscapes. However, we had to skip some places like Bentota beach and Yala National Park for lack of time. When you make your plans around this area, make sure you have enough days to cover these two places.
We are not big fans hotels, they keep us at an arm’s length from the people we are visiting and are very impersonal. We usually prefer guesthouses, homestays or hostels with good location and generally favourable reviews on Trip Advisor. We always book in advance.
In Sri Lanka, we relied heavily on location and safety and hit jackpots in Galle and Ella. The stays at other places were equally decent. Will talk more about the stays later in this post.
Glimpses of Sri Lanka – the teaser video
A tourist visa to Sri Lanka can be applied for in two ways: By getting an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) online, or by applying for a visa on arrival at the port of entry (Colombo). The process is simple and there is no general preference of one over the other. The cost per application came at USD 20 per person. Needless to say, you must be having a valid passport and should carry it with you during the travel. Do carry a pen for filling forms as well.
The currency of Sri Lanka is Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR). At the time of our travel, One LKR was equal to 0.42 INR. You do not need to get the currency in advance. Just inform you bank a week before the travel that you will be making transactions from Sri Lanka and withdraw the money from any ATM there. The ATM transaction charges hover around INR 150 per transaction and Credit Card Transactions have an overhead of 3.5%, so keep a tab on how many times you make these transactions.
Sri Lanka is still developing its public transport system. Though the highways have seen astonishing progress from the time we were there, public transport can still be a challenge for the uninitiated, especially in a hot and humid weather. The buses and trains are often crowded and usually non-Air Conditioned. Endpoint connectivity may also vary from place to place.
We decided to go lazy and hired a cab with a driver for the 6 days that we were there. Total costs came to about LKR 39,000 (6 days, 800 km, LKR 45 per additional km), plus around LKR 1300 for driver’s accommodation if the stay could not provide one. We hired from Lankan Cabs through phone and made an advance payment via PayPal.
Our driver was a soft-spoken and suave gentleman who went by the name Loxley. He left no stone unturned in making our work and the journey comfortable.
So, if you are willing to spend some extra bucks, it is strongly recommended that you hire an Airport Pickup/ Drop car for the duration of your journey. It makes things very easy, especially if there is no time to be lost.
Finally, one of the most important points – weather. For its size, Sri Lanka packs a lot of surprises when it comes to the skies, they even have two monsoons instead of the usual one that the rest of us get!
The Northeast monsoon hits the Northern and Eastern provinces between December and March, affecting the cities in the Cultural Triangle. The Southwest monsoon affects the Southern and Western provinces between June and October. If you are on a trip to the West coast, including Colombo, and the Hill Country during this period, this monsoon is to be watched out for. Weather can be rough doing the monsoons and long spells of heavy rains may disrupt your schedule.
Apart from the monsoons, the weather in Sri Lanka is usually hot and humid, with the hilly areas being a pleasant exception. Keeping an umbrella, an extra pair of socks and a dry jacket is recommended.
Exploring the heritage Galle Fort
Galle Fort is an exotic piece of history, is infinitely seductive with its Dutch era mansions from another century, stylish cafes and boutique shops; and is and best explored on foot. We had a fun time exploring its streets, eating in pricey but unpassable places, and indulge in shopping. One of the high points of the visit was a walk on the ramparts of the fort along the sea and soak in the beauty of the place. For those with some romance in their hearts, it can be an ever-lasting memory.
Reach: Galle can be reached from Colombo either by train or road. Public transport can be crowded at peak hours. A taxi from Colombo may cost about 6000 LKR.
Stay: When in Galle, stay inside the fort to get the right feel of the town. There are many cute boutique hotels around. We stayed in Pedlar 62 at 62, Pedlar Street, a beautiful little place with very charming hosts. Highly recommended!
Do: When you are done with your explorations and shopping, grab a book and sit on the balcony of your hotel and just relax. Remain hydrated and keep sipping on the Lion Beer all the time.
Eat: The Fort Printers restaurant was the most beautiful place where we have been in a long time, and though pricey, it is very much recommended. Other great places were Poonie’s Kitchen and Pedlar Inn Café. You just cannot go wrong with food in Galle.
Shop: Galle is a shopping paradise. Do check out clothes, curios, tea, postcards, paper made from elephant dung and artwork while you are there. The poster shop Stick No Bills is worth a visit!
Chasing Whales In Mirissa
Mirissa is a Goa-isqe little town on the west coast, about 60 Km from Galle. Our prime reason to visit this place was fish and beer, and whale watching. While the first desire was more than fulfilled, the second one was a different story.
Schools of Whales and Dolphins can be found off the western coast of Sri Lanka and many operators organise ‘Whale watching’ trips. We pre-booked our trip which was to start at Mirissa and started early morning from Galle to catch the trip.
Mid-sized motor boats take the tourists deep in the sea, looking for the magnificent mammals and the round trip is of 5-6 hours. While the trip is exciting, if you are prone to seasickness, you will most probably be sick. The boats are crowded, the weather hot, and after a point, the trip is difficult to enjoy. We could not spot any whales, however, there were good sightings of dolphins. Personally speaking, I would not recommend taking a whale watching trip unless you are a die-hard aquatic life fan.
Reach: Mirissa can be reached from Colombo or Galle through a very scenic road.
Stay: There are many hotels in Mirissa. We stayed at Maison D’hotes Sanda Beach which was a nice family run guest house about 2 km from the beach.
Do: Enjoy the beach, seafood and drinks. Go whale watching if you read what I wrote above and still want to go for it.
Eat: The beach is lined up with shacks, you can choose from among the crowded ones.
Chilling Out In Ella
Mirissa to Ella was the longest drive of our trip. We started in the morning, crossed Matara and then went towards the Jungles. The roads are mostly good with some rough patches and you pass a couple of national parks on your way.
Our prime motive for going to Ella was to see the iconic Nine Arch Bridge, but we managed to catch some great views of the mountain side and trekked up the Ravana Caves as well. The evening was spent chilling out at ‘Chill’, the most popular hangout in the town.
Reach: Ella can easily be reached from Nuwara Eliya. The train route between Nuwara Eliya and Ella is one of the most scenic in the world.
Stay: There is no dearth of hotels and guest houses in Ella. We stayed at Ella Ridge View, a little difficult to reach, but with a beautiful room and fantastic view of the Ella Rock. Recommended!
Do: Climb up Ravana Caves and Adam’s Peak, take a walk at the tea gardens, look at the train coming on the Nine Arch bridge, chill out with some King’s beer.
A Walk To The World’s End At The Horton Plains
The Horton Plains are the only national park in Sri Lanka (and very rare elsewhere am sure) where you can walk instead of being herded around in a Jeep. The plains are unique for the diverse flora and fauna which is endemic to this region. The terrain changes dramatically and while you have open grasslands at one point, at the next you are looking into thick forests where even light cannot go. The landscape is amazing and there are two points – Little World’s End and World’s End which open to stunning views. Total distance to be covered on foot is about 11 km, elevation does not change much, and it showed 97 stories climbed in our fitness app.
The Horton Plains are a UNESCO World Heritage and deserve a visit.
Reach: The Horton Plains are 32km from Nuwara Eliya and can be reached by a hired car or Tuktuk. We had travelled from Ella which is about 1.5 hours away.
Tickets: Expect to pay up to LKR 4000 per person for foreign tourists.
Stay: None. You are expected to stay at any of the nearby towns like Nuwara Eliya.
Do: Walk, Climb, go to the World’s Ends and to the Baker Falls. Take photographs. Give your lungs good exercise.
Eat: Not much. There is a small café where everything is very pricey.
Experiencing Little England in Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is called Little England not for nothing. This pretty town in the tea estate hill country was the heart of British Ceylon, primarily due to its landscape and climate, and retains much of the colonial flavour to this day. What was once wilderness at the height of 2000m above sea level has now been converted to sprawling tea estates and this beautiful nostalgia of a town at the centre of it all.
This time of the year, between the Sri Lankan New Year and Buddha Purnima, sees large crowds of local tourists in Nuwara Eliya. We were also a little tired from all the traveling and hiking and decided to take it slow, spent most of our time taking a stroll in the streets or sipping tea in the local cafes. Some places like the Post Office, Residence of the Police Chief and other colonials buildings were a delight to watch. The Grand Hotel, one of the oldest five star hotels in Sri Lanka and a fine specimen of the colonial architecture was especially impressive. So it was mostly Eat, Relax, Sleep for us in Nuwara Eliya.
Reach: Nuwara Eliya is reachable from Colombo or Kandy by road and railway. Road conditions are very good.
Stay: Choose from any of the tea estates for a stay or you can select one of the hotels near the lake.
Do: Walking is the best way to see the life in Nuwara Eliya up close. A visit to the Gregory lake is a must. You can also visit a temple dedicated to Sita and experience a tea estate.
Eat: You will be spoilt for options, just be adventurous. The Grand Hotel was amazing!
Celebrating Buddha Purnima in Kandy
We were back to the cultural capital of Sri Lanka and what better day to arrive here than Buddh Poornima! The aura of festivity was everywhere, with Kandy decorated like a bride and sashaying in all its glory. After a customary round of the city, we settled for our favourite Kandyan dance program at the Kandyan Cultural Centre. Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of Tooth Relic was extremely crowded, but we made it inside anyway and had a good darshan. The experience was priceless!
Reach: Kandy is reachable from Colombo by rail or road and is the nucleus of launching expeditions to the Cultural Triangle and Hill Country.
Stay: Hotels, guesthouses and hostels are abundant. We stayed at Blink Bonnie Inn, the hotel we had stayed during our first trip to Sri Lanka in 2011, and were given the same room! It was good to catch up with our graceful host!
Do: Visit Dalada Maligawa, palace, museum, lake and the botanical gardens. Watch the Kandyan Dance show. You can also indulge in shopping for gems, batik and tea.
Quick sightseeing in Colombo
There were just a few hours in hand before we had to take off for home, just enough to get a feel of Colombo. So we spent our time going around the city, looking at its skyline, houses of the famous cricketers, markets and the financial district. Of the landmarks that we could see, the Independence Square, Bandaranaike Memorial, Galle seafront, and the quirky Gangaramaya temple were remarkable. It is worthwhile spending a day at Colombo and exploring its seafront, casinos and nightlife. We found the city to be very clean, orderly and overall pleasant, with an occasional resemblance to Chennai.
If we look back, the trip went quite well. We had done some decent planning, the weather did not play spoilsport except in Ella, and Sri Lanka did not disappoint. Some things could have been done better, like keeping two additional days for the trip or not spending too much time whale watching in Mirissa but overall we came back happy with the experience.
Expenses were modest and could have been lower if we had opted for less expensive eating habits but what is a trip when you don’t eat and drink to moksha? I am not very optimistic about cutting costs on this front in future as well.
Our total expenses were less than 1 Lakh INR. From what we saw, if one goes on a budget trip to Sri Lanka, a trip for two for a week can be managed for as little as INR 30,000 for a week.
Hope this post helps. You can also look at the previous trips that we made to the Cultural Triangle of this beautiful island country to get a more comprehensive idea. Do get back to us for any questions.