Made up of a predominantly Buddhist population, Sri Lanka sits in the Indian Ocean and despite being a tropical gem in every sense of the word is often overlooked as a destination. Too far from the most-trodden South-east Asia tourist trail to make it an easy inclusion, Sri Lanka is also distant enough from India to ensure it doesn’t tend to feature on any itinerary of travellers headed there either. And interestingly, Sri Lanka is sometimes seen as nothing more than an easy alternative to India for those who can’t quite face the challenges of this country. Although this tear-shaped island can’t rival India for size and diversity it is incredibly rich in culture and history and packs in enough to keep all kinds of travellers happy for some considerable time.
The country is home to no less than eight World Heritage Sites filled with the crumbling ruins of ancient kingdoms and jungle-surrounded temples to keep the culturally curious happy. For the wildlife enthusiast there are more than twenty national parks to explore populated by elephants, leopards and other wild cats, crocodiles, monkeys, jackals, wild boar, buffalo and so much more.
Adventure seekers and outdoor lovers can fill their boots with such things as diving, surfing, white-water rafting, kite-surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, hiking, whale and dolphin watching and even hot-air ballooning. And then of course there are the beaches which tend towards the tropical paradise kind while Sri Lanka’s interior is made up of such things as sweeping tea plantations and plunging waterfalls amid lush jungle. Sprinkled in among the more popular attractions are a few treasures which you almost certainly won’t expect. Here is a choice of 10 of the best things to do in Sri Lanka…
1) The Ancient Ruins of Anuradhapura
UNESCO World Heritage-listed Anuradhapura which dates from the fourth century BC (and possibly even earlier) was once a thriving city and continued to be so for well over 1000 years; a figure which makes it one of the most ancient continuously inhabited cities found anywhere on the planet.
Still used as a place of worship today, this vast sprawl of ancient kingdom ruins covers an area of around 40 km² if you include the surrounding monasteries and is a must visit for culture vultures. Archaeologically and architecturally Anuradhapura is fascinating and is made up of shrines, temples, stone carvings, giant stupas, relief work, statues and pools which range from the evocatively crumbling to the incredibly well-preserved.
2) Snorkelling with Sharks – Shark Point Reef, Pigeon Island National Park
Located on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast can be found Pigeon Island National Park – one of the country’s protected marine parks. With an abundance of coral reef – some of the country’s best – and heaps of vibrantly coloured fish the location is a favoured spot for snorkel fans but its number one draw for underwater wildlife lovers is its black-tip reef sharks. Measuring up to 5 feet/1.5 metres long, this non-aggressive species is so common here the location has even been named after them – Shark Point Reef.
However, it isn’t just the almost guaranteed sighting of these majestic creatures which draw folk here but the fact that everyone gets to play – even the most inexperienced and nervous snorkeler. The sharks inhabit waters in places less than 1 metre deep so you don’t even have to take your feet off the bottom. Snorkel conditions are best from March until October and other possible sightings while you are here include turtles of three different species – hawksbill, green and Olive Ridley.
3) Sigiriya – Ancient Rock Paintings & a Royal Fortress with a View
Once a royal rock fortress and later a monastery until the 14th century, Sigirya dates from the 5th century and is today one of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Although actually the name of the 200 metre high stand-alone rock column atop of which are located the ancient ruins of King Kashyapa’s palace, Sigiriya has come to be the title by which the whole site is known. In its heyday the royal seat located in the Matale District was also surrounded by gardens and reservoirs, the ruins of which are all still there to be explored.
The climb to the top via principally wooden stairways and walkways is a bit of a challenge for vertigo sufferers (and thrilling for everyone else) but stunning views serve as something of a distraction the higher you climb. Along the way are ‘galleries’ of ancient rock frescoes which also date from the 5th century.
4) Helga’s Folly, Kandy – A Hotel of the Utterly Unique Kind
Perched on a hill overlooking Kandy and filled to the rafters with incredible colour schemes and combinations, Helga’s Folly is something of a wonderful marriage between a better class of junk-yard and a quirky kitsch art gallery. Opulent bygone times are reflected through its faded luxury and every nook and cranny seems crammed with curiosities which don’t just catch the eye but tempt you to take a closer look. Drapes, decorations, lamps and lights are hung everywhere while walls and every available surface holds things which fall into categories both eccentric and fabulous.
Take your pick of couch-filled parlours both sumptuous and Bohemian and lie your head down at the end of the day in bedrooms which evoke grandeur and romance. Additionally you will be treated to the warmth and welcome of the staff – something raved about time and again by those who have stayed here before you. And talking of former guests….this list includes famous names such as Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. Daily visitors here also include troupes of monkeys intent on mischief and thievery.
The ‘Helga’ of Helga’s Folly is one Mrs Helga de Silva Blow Perera who has converted her jungle-surrounded mansion home into a travellers’ rest with a difference.
This amazing place might be outside the normal backpacker’s budget for a bed for the night but rather than thinking of it as a pricier accommodation option consider it as more of a travelling experience. You probably wouldn’t think twice about laying out money such as this for an over-night tour of the unusual kind and wonderful Helga’s Folly is highly likely to gift you travelling memories which will linger for some time.
5) National Parks & Elephant Encounters
Sri Lanka has tons of national parks and a huge variety of animal and bird life. However, ask people what their number one wildlife spot would be and you will get the answer ‘elephants’ almost every time. Although elephants can be found in many of the parks and reserves one of the best for this is the southern Sri Lanka situated Udawalawe National Park.
Within Udawalawe’s 30,000 hectares of grassland can be found one of the country’s highest concentrations of elephants, going about their daily life in large herds. Some of the reason there are so many elephants here is in part due to the area’s orphaned elephant rehabilitation initiative. Initially cared for at the Elephant Transit Home on Udawalawe’s outskirts, the elephants are released into the wild (although protected and monitored) bounds of the park itself once they have gained at least 4 years of age.
Besides the amazing spectacle of elephants bathing, chilling or generally ambling about, other possible wildlife spots include macaques, buffalo, deer, fox, wild boar, medium-sized wildcats such as fishing cats and jungle cats and a vast abundance of bird species.
Also good for elephants are Minneriya National Park in the centre of the country and Yala National Park in the south. A good time to visit the former is when the elephants gather in their greatest numbers around August and September. Yala National Park is also known as home to the planet’s densest population of leopards.
Most sizeable national parks offer a range of tours and jeep safaris for getting up close and personal with the wildlife.
6) Sea Tigers Submarine Yard – A Secret Military Boatyard in the Jungle
In 2009 the Sri Lankan military finally defeated the Tamil Tigers and so brought to a close a civil war which had raged on and off for 26 years and effectively taken some of the country’s eastern and all of the northern territory off the map for visitors.
During the final days of the war, as the Tigers retreated into the northern jungles under the military advance, troops would occasionally come across camps which had become deserted as the ´guerrillas´ fled. Somewhat more unusual and unexpected however was the discovery of an abandoned secret submarine-building facility, located near Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Mullaitivu district.
The abandoned makeshift facility, which was once under the control of the Sea Tigers – the Tamil Tigers naval section – came complete with a handful of home-made submersibles in various stages of development. Decidedly unconventional in design and covering the crude, the ingenious and the how-on-earth-would-that-have-worked variety, the submarines and the site itself have today become something of a tourist attraction, often included on tours of the area.
7) Adam’s Peak – Join the Pilgrims for Sunrise
Standing at 2,243 metres high Adam’s Peak is tall enough to be impressive but it isn’t the island’s highest mountain. It is however the most climbed and sacred due to the presence of a ‘footprint’ which draws a steady stream of pilgrims from a variety of faiths. For Buddhists the depression known as Sri Pada (Holy Feet) below the highest peak is Buddha’s footprint; those of the Hindu faith claim it is Shiva’s; Muslims tell us it is Adam’s while Christians claim it as the footprint of Thomas the apostle.
The slog up the 7 km long stairway is typically made during the night hours to arrive at the peak in time to watch the sun come up. Sunrise is of course a magical time but views are awesome no matter when you arrive at the top. Your climb is unlikely to be solitary but many who visit here cite that camaraderie as being a memorable part of the experience overall, whether any ardent religious faith is held or not.
8) Exploring the Tea Plantations
As the planet’s fourth largest producer of tea and as an industry which pours more than a billion US dollars into the economy, tea plantations are ten a penny in Sri Lanka. The principal tea growing areas are all found in the central highlands and south-east corner of the country and most can be visited either privately or by organised tour.
Draping vast miles of hillside in green swathes and punctuated by basket-toting tea-pickers or plant tenders in vividly-coloured dress, the tea plantations are a sight to see and an essential part of the country’s culture and history whether you are a tea fan or not.
Visiting tea plantations can be an experience which ranges from being a total tourist trap to the charmingly authentic and there are even those which encourage you to get involved with the picking.
One which falls into the less contrived category is the lovely Handunugoda Tea Estate where plantation tours include checking out the tea growing terraces, a peek around the factory where antique machines are still being used and tea and cake on the terrace of a colonial-style home.
Tea tasting is of course normally all part of any plantation experience with the ultimate aim of getting you to buy some tea.
9) Tropical Beaches
Tropical islands and idyllic beaches tend to go hand-in-hand and Sri Lanka is no exception. It is all here – postcard perfect turquoise seas, coconut palms and white sands forming either sweeping crescent bays or pocket-sized coves.
Much of the island’s beautiful southern-half beaches along with their corresponding coastal towns, villages and settlements were all but wiped off the face of the Earth in the tragic 2004 tsunami. The years since have seen incredible recovery and most today are barely recognisable as the places which feature in the emotion-stirring photographs of the disaster’s aftermath.
Quite which beach can lay claim to being the best will depend on what you are looking for. The most developed beaches which offer all kinds of activities sit along the south and south-west coast such as Welligama but dotted in between can often be found some lesser-visited gems. If something a little more removed from the well-trodden tourist trail holds greater appeal for you head to one of the beaches of the east coast and northern island. These areas were off the tourist map for many years due to the civil war and are often still undeveloped, sleepy and all but deserted aside from the fishermen although of course it is unlikely to stay that way forever. Uppuveli is one such as this.
A lazy day (or ten) at a tropical beach might in itself be all you need, but if gazing at the azure ocean with a coconut cocktail in your hand grows stale you can opt for things such as a spot of whale-watching, surfing, kayaking, diving amid shipwrecks, snorkelling over coral gardens, stand-up paddle surfing or just exploring the waters on a boat trip.
10) Polonnaruwa – An Ancient Kingdom
Jungle-surrounded and alive with monkeys, these evocatively crumbling ruins are what is left of an ancient royal capital dating from the 11th century. Polonnaruwa thrived for around 300 years after which it was abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, where it lie hidden and almost forgotten for several hundred years.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, Polonnaruwa is an extensive sprawl of palaces, temples, halls, relic houses and stupas decorated throughout with Buddha statues, carved stone friezes and well-preserved ornate detailing.
The site’s major highlight is the collection of four impressively large Buddha statues of the Gal Vihera which have been carved straight out of the rock. The largest is a reclining Buddha which measures more than 14 metres from head to toe, making it one of South-East Asia’s biggest sculptures.
Because the ground is flat, cycles are a popular way to get around the site and between the groupings of buildings and it isn’t uncommon to have some of the more out of the way sites all to yourself.