Lots of people rave about Sri Lanka. But as my approach is to be an honest travel blogger, I want to give a more balanced view. So, here goes! Sri Lanka was a mixed bag for me. It has a lot of potential and some really good bits. In this Sri Lanka travel guide, I will detail our itinerary, our budget, give my view on the different places we visited, what there is to do in each place, how much the attractions cost and whether I think the attractions are worth your time and money.
Sri Lanka Travel – The Good:
- It is a beautiful and quirky country.
- Ella is touristy, but despite this I found staying on the hillside absolutely magical. I’d wake up early just to watch the sunrise.
- I loved meeting the elephants in Eco Park and visiting Oya Reservoir in Dambulla.
- Our stay in Hikkaduwa was relaxed and the beach was glorious, I spent hours drinking beer and watching the fierce waves batter the shoreline.
- I loved tuk tuk journeys through the countryside.
- Sri Lankan’s were often friendly and helpful. Sri Lankans often made me reflect on how unfriendly we can be to tourists and other people in the UK!
But Does Sri Lanka Live Up To The Hype?
With a heavy heart I’d say not always. Many many people love Sri Lanka, but I had a few issues with it at times:
- I think there is some amazing stuff to see in Sri Lanka, but the tourist attractions were often poorly maintained, sometimes pricey and lacked information. The Dambulla Cave Temple for example.
- Some parts of Sri Lanka could be very messy with lots of litter around. We climbed up Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s most sacred site and there was litter everywhere (despite loads of bins and signs around telling people not to litter!).
- The level of scamming/ripping off of tourists that takes place is of a level I’ve not experienced before. I don’t mind as a tourist paying more, but we were charged random non existent ‘taxes’, tuk tuk drivers changed the price mid journey, people would keep our change and at one point we were stuck on an island in the middle of a lake being charged 5 times as much as we agreed beforehand. In Sri Lanka we experienced 35 attempted scams/rip offs (yes we started counting!). Saying that, it’s certainly not everyone in Sri Lanka but is more than anywhere else I’ve visited. The irony is that those that didn’t try to rip us off often ended up with extra money or future business from us due to their good service. I’m happy to offer more money for a service, I understand Sri Lanka is not a wealthy country (much like many other countries I’ve visited), but I want it not to be through deceptive means.
Maybe I was spoiled by South East Asia, where I had been previously. Most tourist attractions in that region were beautifully maintained, reasonably priced, there has been a real effort to clean up litter around tourist attractions/sacred sites I visited and we weren’t scammed or ripped off once in 4 months there.
See It For Yourself
Despite all of the above, I do think you should visit Sri Lanka and see it for yourself. As I said, many people love it. I met some amazing people there and there were lots of bits I really loved.
The Recent Terrorist Attacks
Tourism in Sri Lanka has been badly hit by the recent terrorist attacks where over 250 people were killed.
Sri Lanka remains in a state of emergency. A night time curfew is also in place for the whole island after outbreaks of violence in May. We visited Sri Lanka a month before the attacks, when it was extremely popular with tourists.
Foreign Office Advice
The FCO is now no longer advising against all but essential travel to the country. This is good news for Sri Lanka.
The Impact On Tourism
The terrorist attacks, and the impact these have had on tourism makes me deeply sad. Many, many Sri Lankans rely on tourism as their livelihood. I know a few people visiting Sri Lanka, so tourists are still going there and enjoying themselves.
I am a little critical of avoiding places because of terrorist attacks as I lived in London when it was hit by many terrorist attacks, but then London and the UK has different National Security provisions then Sri Lanka. It’s down to you and what you feel comfortable with.
In the one month we were in Sri Lanka, we spent £1,216/$1,543 total for the two of us. These costs included activities (seeing the elephants in Dambulla and scuba diving in Hikkaduwa) and visas which were £26 GBP / $33USD each. Thus Sri Lanka cost us about £43GBP / $54 per day. To note, we missed out Sigiriya Lions Rock and Horton Plains as they were out of our budget.
How Long Did We Stay In Sri Lanka?
We spent 1 month in Sri Lanka.
Our Sri Lanka Itinerary (Not Including Travel Days):
Kandy: 3 days
Dambulla: 4 days
Kandy: 1 day
Nuwara Eliya: 4 days
Ella: 4 full days
Galle: 2 days
Hikkaduwa: 8 days
Stop 1: Kandy
Kandy is a key city in Sri Lanka. It’s situated in the mountains, surrounded by the Knuckles Mountain Range (I know great name!) and the Hanthana Mountain Range. It has an artificial lake home to weird and wonderful creatures (monitor lizards, pelicans, bats and monkeys). In Kandy, there’s a temple where Buddha’s tooth is supposed to be (called the Temple Of The Tooth Relic). This temple is an extremely holy and important place for Buddhists.
A Culture Shock And Getting From Colombo Airport To Kandy
At Colombo airport I met my mum. We were completely shattered and delirious but delighted to see each other after 6 months. We hopped on the bus from the airport to Colombo, found our way through the chaos of the streets of Colombo to the train station, woke the sleeping ticket inspector to buy a ticket and then headed to Kandy via a scenic train route. On the train we chatted endlessly, drank chai and watched the beautiful scenery go by.
During my first few hours in Sri Lanka, I experienced a mini culture shock, Kuala Lumpur (where I’d been previously) was positively calm compared to Sri Lanka. Everyone wanted to talk to us. People were hanging out of train doors as the trains were moving. There were tuk tuks everywhere.
Find out how to get from Colombo Airport to Kandy:
Things To Do In Kandy
1. Stroll Around Kandy Lake And Visit The Big Buddha On The Hill
On your first day in Kandy, it’s nice to stroll around the lake and spot weird animals. You will be asked if you want a tuk tuk about a thousand times. Look out for the ‘bat tree’ on the lake. It’s a tree full of nesting bats! Kandy is busy and full of traffic, with the road sadly going around most of the lake, but it’s not a bad place. I recommend strolling up to the big Buddha on the hill and watching the sunset. You have to pay a small fee for the big Buddha but it’s worth it.
2. Explore Kandy Botanical Gardens
You can make your way to the botanical gardens via tuk tuk.
The Kandy Botanical Gardens are pretty big and glorious.
They are home to shed loads of monkeys and flying foxes, which despite being bats fly around during the day. They looked like dragons soaring through the skies!
Price: Entrance cost LKR 1,500 each ($8.50 USD)
Was it worth it? Yes!
Even Kandy Public Buses Are An Experience
Instead of tuk tuk-ing it back to Kandy (the Botancial Gardens are slightly out of Kandy), we jumped on the public bus. It soon filled up completely and I had a guy basically sitting on my lap. After an hour of moving virtually nowhere, we decided to get off and take a more agile tuk tuk.
It was easier said than done, the locals just wouldn’t (or couldn’t) move to let us off. My mum and I basically had to hold our breath and we popped out the other side one by one. I almost thought my mum would have to throw me a rescue rope as the space she made getting out of the bus began to close around me.
3. Visit The Kandy Sacred Temple Of The Tooth
During our time in Kandy, we visited the famous and sacred temple of the Tooth Relic. As suggested in the name there is a shrine which apparently has Buddha’s tooth.
You don’t get to see the tooth unfortunately, but the temple is pretty and is interesting to wander around and respectfully watch the worshippers/monks. Don’t expect much from the temple museums here, they are very higgaldy-piggaldy with little information.
Price: Entrance to the temple is LKR 1,500 per person ($8.50USD)
Was it worth it? The temple is nice, but don’t expect too much from the museums.
4. Get Chased By Monkeys In Kandy Sanctuary National Park
The Kandy Sanctuary National Park was pretty hard to find. In the National Park there is a troop of crazy monkeys. A monkey stole my mum’s toilet roll. Another two tried to bite James but I threatened them both with a stick (I am a hero).
In Kandy Sanctuary National Park there were some weird caves, a non-existent viewpoint and we couldn’t find our way out of the park.
Despite the attack of the monkeys and getting lost, the sanctuary was pleasant to wander around though.
Price: Entrance cost LKR 662.50 each (Around $3.75 USD)
Was it worth it? Yes, for the amusing monkeys at least. Make sure you pick up a stick to chase them away!
Accommodation In Kandy
I loved our Kandy accommodation. We stayed at Cottage 99. The decor is tasteful, the hosts were very friendly, the beds comfy, the fans are magically silent and it’s very clean.
Stop 2: Dambulla & Sigiriya
Here’s a guide on everything you need to know about travel in the Dambulla area:
Dambulla Off The Beaten Track Guide (More Than Dambulla Cave Temple)
This Dambulla travel guide highlights my top things to do such as a safari in Eco Park, giving Pleasure Island (hehe) a visit and climbing Pidurangala as a budget friendly alternative to Sigiriya rock.
Find out how to get from Kandy to Dambulla and back again:
Things To Do In The Dambulla / Sigiriya Area
1. Visit Oya Reservoir, Dambulla At Sunset
Oya Reservoir is one of those places barely any tourists know about, but it’s really pretty! It was right by our accommodation and we trundled down that way.
We headed there just before sunset. The light was getting dim and the whole place was atmospheric. Locals were washing in the reservoir. Buddhist chants were being played out across the reservoir, reverberating around us. There is a brand new big Buddha perched on the hill that you can visit and take in the views over the whole reservoir. It was magical and is really worth a visit at sunset.
2. Go To Pleasure Island, Oya Reservoir
In the daytime, we headed back to Oya Reservoir to see if we could catch a boat over to Pleasure Island. We had no idea what to expect, but were quoted a reasonable price so decided to check it out.
A Boat On Our Own
The guy in charge insisted we went on a boat on our own, despite us saying 5 times that we’d be fine to go with the locals. There was room for 20 in the boat. We even signalled that the locals get in our boat. It was weird and a sign of things to come!
A Beautiful Island Totally Off The Beaten Track
Pleasure Island itself was beautiful. There was a family of friendly Sri Lankan’s there who offered us vodka, hugged James lots, played the drums and sang Pink Floyd’s “another brick in the wall” for us. Hammocks hung around the place, there was a mini beach for swimming and a tree house.
The guy in charge told us about his daughter studying in Germany, and then followed us around taking photos of us without asking. After months in Asia though we were used to this…
Mind The Scam Though
The guy then said the whole thing cost 5 times what was agreed on shore before we left. His reasoning was we took a private boat and were foreign. It was pretty shitty, as he knew we had no other way of getting back otherwise. Yes, the island was lovely but we had agreed a price beforehand and we didn’t have the money on us for this new price.
Are We Going To Have To Swim Back?
Plus, it was the principle and this was just another example in an already growing list of Sri Lankan scams/rip offs we’d experienced. I wondered if we were going to have to swim back to shore out of principle but luckily James argued our point.
There were less smiles from the staff afterwards, but they thankfully took us back to the land! We were sent to see his wife, who gave us similar bullshit to her husband and we agreed to pay slightly more than we originally had, but not for the private boat we never wanted.
What We Ended Up Paying
We ended up paying LKR 330 each ($1.90 USD) which was a bit more than the LKR 150 we were originally quoted (we assumed each way), but less than the LKR 4,500 ($25 USD) total they tried charging. Of course, we’d have happily paid more for the experience but not when we were told a massively inflated price while stuck on the island!
Price: Who blooming well knows.
Was it worth it? Yes, but make sure you are REALLY clear on the price before getting in the boat. Literally get them to write it down.
3. Go To The Dambulla Cave Temples
The Dambulla Cave Temples is a World Heritage Site. They are the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in the whole of Sri Lanka. With a heavy heart, I’d say the Dambulla Cave Temples were underwhelming, they were beautiful but sadly lacking maintenance and information on their history. Hoards of tourists started arriving at 9am, so get there early!
The Shoe Squad
We paid for the entrance and then had to pay some guy to look after our shoes as we had to take them off before entering the temple complex. It was peanuts, but compared to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, Sri Lanka sure likes to charge for everything! Even the Dambulla Cave Temples squat toilets cost LKR 100 per visit here and I have no idea what they spent that money on because it wasn’t on cleaning!
Price: LKR 1500 ($8.50 USD)
Was it worth it? Yay and nay, the Dambulla Cave Temples were pretty but poorly maintained with no information.
4. Don’t Miss The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple is also part of the Dambulla Cave Temple complex. We almost missed it as there are no signs to it. It’s a bright new temple where a door is a huge mouth with stairs leading out.
Price: We weren’t charged and I think it was included in the Dambulla Cave Temples cost…maybe?
5. Laugh At The Museum of Buddhism
Inside the Golden Temple is the Museum of Buddhism. I feel like I understand even less about Buddhism after going to the Museum of Buddhism. The museum was full of dusty broken artifacts, unhelpful maps and a few Buddhas. There was a cool model set of a religious parade with elephants that lit up, but there was no information.
Price: LKR 100 (£0.56)
Was it worth it? For a laugh maybe. Don’t expect any proper information but that’s fair enough for the price!
6. Learn Some Stuff At The Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Tombs
he tombs were very well preserved Iron Age tombs and had the pots in which people were cremated. In fact I can say the tombs were the best maintained and had the most information of any tourist attraction I visited during my month in Sri Lanka. A lot of school kids were there and they found us hilarious – a brave boy who received a lot of jeering from his friends came to speak to us and practiced his English.
The Challenge Of Getting To The Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Tombs
We went to where it said on google maps, but it was instead the Centre for Sustainable Development. In the Centre for Sustainable Development they said it was miles away. It was actually located as ‘Megalithic Cemetery Ibbankatuwa’ on google maps, not the ‘Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Tombs’ which we had gone to. In the Centre for Sustainable Development, the guy in charge insisted the receptionist drive us to the correct location. We gratefully jumped in the receptionist’s tuk tuk and he took us to the tombs. Can you imagine that ever happening in the UK?!
Price: Around LKR 350 ($2 USD)
Was it worth it? Yes, but could do with a little more information, but there was more information than any other tourist attraction I visited in Sri Lanka!
7. Say Hi To The Elephants At Eco Park
During our time in Dambulla we went to Eco Park to see the elephants. There are various nature parks in the area where you can see the elephants, where you go really depends on where the elephants are. They wander around!
A Bit Worried
I was a little apprehensive as I’d read reviews that Eco Park was pretty busy and there could sometimes be 50 odd jeeps around one or two elephants. Luckily for us this wasn’t the case, there were a few jeeps but nothing too overwhelming.
Sunset With Elephants
The best moment was watching the sun go down, the sky explode with pinks and purples with a load of elephants in our view. And I got to do it with two of my most favourite people. We arranged it through our accommodation.
Price: It cost LKR 6,300 each ($36 USD).
Was it worth it? Totally!
8. Climb Pidurangala Rock, The Cheap Alternative To Sigiriya Lions Rock
Whilst in Dambulla we climbed Pidurangala Rock, the cheap alternative to Sigiriya Lions Rock (which costs $30 each to go up). Sigiriya was out of our budget.
A few people moaned about the climb up Pidurangala, but we didn’t find it particularly challenging. The views from Pidurangala of Sigiriya and the surrounding were incredible. We sat up there for a long time taking everything in.
We got our favourite tuk tuk driver in Dambulla (we loved him!) to take us there, wait for us and bring us back.
Price: The tuk tuk cost LKR 2,500 ($14 USD) for the 3 of us and then entrance was LKR 500 each ( $2.85 USD).
Was it worth it? Yes, the views were breathtaking!
Train From Kandy To Nuwara Eliya
After Dambulla, it was a flying visit back to Kandy and then the scenic and famously beautiful train journey to Nuwara Eliya. You actually take the train to Nanu Oya and then you have to get a taxi to Nuwara Eliya, which cost us LKR 1,300 ($7.35) for 4 people.
There were so many conflicting and confusing blogs about how to do this famously beautiful train journey. So I wrote a honest blog on how to get the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya:
Stop 3: Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is often described as ‘little England’ but I personally couldn’t see it. The area around the Grand Hotel was nice and I guess a bit like ‘little England’. There is an old fashioned post office.
But the rest is just a standard slightly run down Sri Lankan town. The path through the race course in Nuwara Eliya was full of rubbish and grazing animals.
Things To Do In Nuwara Eliya
1. Walk Around The Lake – Or Not
We tried to walk around the lake, but there was a charge to get into Gregory Park (a park alongside the lake). The other side of the lake was open to walk on, so we walked along the path with the locals one day; then the next day a ‘security guard’ tried to charge us for walking on the path. Never in the 40 countries I’ve been too has someone tried to charge me for walking along a public footpath. Seriously Sri Lanka?
2. Have An Afternoon Tea At The Grand Hotel
Yes, you can have a very British style afternoon tea in Sri Lanka in the very elegant and fancy Grand Hotel! The Grand Hotel also had some amazing hedge topiary, the best I’ve seen in my life (and you can see it for free if you walk around the grounds).
Price: LKR 1,500 each ($8.50)
Was it worth it? Yes.
3. Stroll Around Victoria Park
We went to Victoria Park, which we paid to get in and although it’s nice in bits, there was a load of rubbish in the river and around the park and a bad smell. Disappointing.
Price: LKR 300 ($1.70)
Was it worth it? If they cleaned it up a bit…
4. Be Amazed At Bomburella Waterfall Near Nuwara Eliya
The nearby Bomburella waterfall is totally worth visiting.
A journey by tuk tuk takes about 45 mins.
It’s not that well known so your tuk tuk driver might try and take you to the wrong location, show them the location for Bomburella on google maps.
The waterfall is a little trek away but it was absolutely gorgeous.
There are two sections to it, so make sure you carry on to the end.
One Of My Favourite Waterfalls
It was one of my favourite waterfalls I’ve seen on our trip across Nepal, South East Asia and Sri Lanka. Despite my disappointment with Sri Lanka sometimes, it really does have some jewels. Bomburella waterfall was certainly one of them.
A number of women sell very reasonably priced and welcome tea along the path to the waterfall. Sadly I can’t imagine they get much custom as the place was very quiet. We had some tea, ate some corn on the cob and watched the monkeys trundling past whilst sitting in a hillside shack with a view.
Price: A tuk tuk there costs LKR 1,000 each way ($5.70 USD) and entrance is LKR 50 each (£0.28).
Was it worth it? Yes! Totally, its absolutely beautiful.
5. Learn About Tea At Pedro Tea Estate, Nuwara Eliya
From Bomburella, our tuk tuks collected us and we headed to a tea plantation called Pedro Tea Estate. A guided tour with a cup of tea included at the end, costs LKR 250 each and is well worth it.
The tour is brief (30 mins) but informative and you get to drink your tasty tea with a lovely view over the hillside plantation.
What was interesting about the tea plantation was the equipment they used to process the tea leaves. A lot of it was from the 1800s and it all still worked! Think of how quickly technology breaks or gets out of date these days.
Fun fact: Tea sent to the UK is much stronger to that produced for Sri Lanka, as we have our tea with milk.
Tea Pickers: A Tough Life
Although this tea plantation said it was an ethical plantation, all work on the plantations looks backbreaking. Tea pickers in Sri Lanka earn just 600 rupees ($3.40) a day if they reach the desired quota of picking 18kg of tea leaves a day. I’m not a massive tea drinker back at home (shocking for a British person!) but I used to be. I know I rarely thought about who made my tea.
It makes me think should these people not be paid more? Yes, these products offer jobs, but such poorly paid horrible ones where people can barely survive. Why are Western countries so often seemingly okay with paying people so little for such backbreaking work? Is it not worth us paying just that little more for something to ensure these people are able to live better lives?
Price: LKR 250 ($1.41 USD).
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
6. Pay Loads To Go To Horton Plains
In the Nuwara Eliya area is Horton Plains, but this costs SLR 10,550 ($70 USD) for two people to visit, can get really busy and we couldn’t find any more budget options, so sadly we gave it a miss!
7. Die…I Mean Climb Up…Adam’s Peak
Adam’s Peak has 5500 stairs up to the top and is not for the faint hearted. It’s a site of pilgrimage for religious people across Sri Lanka and of multiple different religions.
Many people choose to go for sunrise, but it can get extremely busy, especially at weekends and around the end of the pilgrammage season and seems a very early start from Nuwara Eliya. People often don’t make it to the top because of the queues if they try and go for sunrise.
People Being Carried UP The Mountain
We left Nuwara Eliya at 6am, to get to the start at 8am. At the start colourful shops line the walk way, selling sweets, teddies, religious products and more. The shops continue for a while. Locals also doing the climb say hello. Older people were being stretchered UP the mountain. A few people coming down looked a bit worse for wear, hobbling and limping. This should have given us an idea of what was to come…
So. Many. Steps.
I’ve never climbed so many steps in my whole life. It absolutely killed, the ascent can take around 3-5 hours but we are speedy and we were all up in 2 hours 20 mins.
Three of us have hiked at altitude in the Himalayas, but we all agreed it was a bloody hard climb. There was no view at the top, the best view was actually slightly earlier down.
Near the top, there was litter all over the place. This was disappointing considering it is an extremely sacred site.
A Lady Being Carried Down The Mountain
Near the top, a local lady was really struggling to get down. She had a lot of people helping her. We saw her on our way up and on our way down. She had barely moved and whilst her friends and family were carrying her in a sheet they were making little progress.
I’d say for Adam’s Peak you need to be physically fit, and/or a very devoted religious person.
Price: Our taxi driver from the first day offered to take us to Adam’s Peak for LKR 12,000 for the 4 of us ($68 USD). We asked around regarding prices and it seemed to be the going rate so we went for him. There is no entrance fee for Adam’s Peak surprisingly!
Was it worth it? I am not sure to be fair. It was interesting to see people on a pilgrimage and to do such a physical challenge, but the views weren’t worth it and there was so much litter around.
Stop 4: Ella
Umbrella, Ella, Ella ay! Sorry it had to be done, and was many times when we were staying here. Ella is nestled in a gorge and is so so so green!
Ella has morphed into a pretty touristy town, with a few drunk people wandering around with drinks at night (or in the day) as tuk tuks and buses avoid them. The touristy aspect didn’t bother me too much though, as it’s very pretty.
Ella has lots of nice cafes and restaurants, you can easily grab some bargain samosas and rotis or a reasonably priced rice and curry if your budget is tight. Win!
How to get from Nuwara Eliya to Ella:
How To Get From Nuwara Eliya To Ella (Cheapest & Easiest Way)
Things To Do In Ella
1. Climb Up Mini Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock
My mind was blown by the absolutely stunning views up both Mini Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock. I totally and wholeheartedly recommend both of these walks!
Finding Your Way Up Ella Rock
When finding Ella Rock we walked along the railway tracks until we saw a sign to Ella Rock. We then followed various Maps.ME paths (some no longer exist but you can normally find another one soon enough) until we got into the forest and started going uphill. It got a bit busier here but we knew we were on the right track at least!
A good tip for Ella Rock is to carry on walking after you find the main viewpoint. Follow the path on Maps.ME to the cave. No one goes here so you can walk through cool silvery forest and get an amazing viewpoint all to yourself!
2. See The Famous Ella 9 Arch Bridge
Of course, you have to visit the famous Ella 9 Arch Bridge.
I’d always seen photos of the bridge when it was empty. I have no idea when they took those photos! Expectation = empty bridge. Reality = it was pretty busy when we visited, with people doing pretty ridiculous poses for what I assume to be instagram photos. Social media has made people weird!
To get there we found a cool path through the forest that wasn’t too busy. It was signposted as “Fastest Way to 9 Arches Bridge” as you walk towards the bridge following the road on Google Maps.
3. Be Baffled By The Ella Mist And Wildlife Spot
Whilst in Ella, every evening the ‘Ella Mist’ would descend. The whole place would become very atmospheric. At times the mist would mean I could only see a metre or so in front of me. If you are staying slightly out of town, at night you can also spot fireflies in the bushes and glow worms on the ground. Keep an eye out!
Our Accommodation In Ella
In Ella I woke up for sunrise, where the mist would clear and the whole of Ella, Ella Rock and Mini Adam’s Peak looked stunning. We stayed at Opal Cottage on the mountain side with the most beautiful views of Mini Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock. The family running this tiny guesthouse were very friendly and did their best to stuff us to bursting point with breakfast and were always offering to tuk tuk us into town.
Stop 5: Galle
From Ella, you can head to Galle. Galle is in the South of Sri Lanka along the coast.
Using public transport from Ella to Galle is tricky, but please don’t waste your money on a expensive taxi. There is 3 ways to get to Galle from Ella:
Things To Do In Galle
1. Galle Old Town
Galle old town/fort was built by the Portugese and is nice to visit for the day. I specify the old town as the rest of Galle is very run down!
It was nice, but I expected a UNESCO world heritage site to be in better condition. There was litter around the walls that could easily be picked up or better prevented if people just didn’t chuck their crap everywhere. Everyone needs a mother like mine, if I ever littered as a child I’d get a death stare in which I’d want the world to swallow me up and would be made to pick it up!
Restaurants in Galle Old Town are a bit more pricey than other parts of Sri Lanka, but the streets and shops are quaint and are nice to wander around.
2. Don’t Visit Galle Beach
Galle beach could be beautiful, it really could. But there are lots of derelict buildings, there is plastic all over the beach and areas of the sand are even covered in oil. We later found out that the oil may be from tankers that are stationed offshore. These tankers flush their tanks out at sea instead of in a controlled environment.
My frustration at Sri Lanka peaked at Galle beach. I really get the country does not have much wealth, but there were so many tourists there when we visited. Where was the money going? I visited the country before the terrorist attacks affected the tourist industry and the level of tourism was pretty high. Most of the people visiting, were more wealthy holiday makers rather than backpackers.
Many of the asking prices for attractions were higher than other parts of Asia and similar to that of ‘western countries’. This money didn’t appear to be going to improve the lives of poorer Sri Lankans (I’d love to be proved wrong on this though!), keeping the tourist attractions in good condition or looking after Sri Lanka’s precious and beautiful nature. It was beyond me that what could be a beautiful beach right next to a popular tourist attraction was in such bad condition. The derelict buildings perhaps were more difficult to deal with, but the plastic?
I don’t say this to bitch about a country, I’d never want to do that. I say this to be a bit more honest and provide a balanced view on what to expect when visiting a country, along with highlighting the negative ways we are treating our planet. Indonesia is one of my favourite countries ever, but I flagged up plastic pollution, bleached coral and deforestation there.
Stop 6: Hikkaduwa
Hikkaduwa is a small touristy town on the coast, and the beach and town was a welcome change from Galle. It’s surprisingly popular with Russian tourists. The beach more in town is chilled, clean and the sea is swimmable. Hikkaduwa is good for chilling on the beach, swimming, snorkling, surfing and scuba diving. We spent a peaceful week relaxing in Hikkaduwa.
How to get from Galle to Hikkaduwa:
Things To Do In Hikkaduwa
1. See The Turtles Of Hikkaduwa
Just around the corner to the left of the small main swimming beach, a number of turtles have been largely domesticated by people feeding them sea weed (which isn’t great). You can snorkel in this area but there isn’t much to see!
Down by International Dive School, there is a place to snorkel. The waves are a bit rough and the reef and rocks are pretty close, but we splashed around spotting all sorts of fish bumbling around. This spot was recommended by the dive school. You can hire snorkel gear from many shops nearby.
3. Walk Along or Surf At Long Beach In Hikkaduwa: Don’t Swim
There is a longer beach in Hikkaduwa which is very beautiful. You can walk for hours along it and watch the waves crash dramatically. I wouldn’t recommend swimming there, although a few swimmers braved the strong waves and were dangerously tossed around by the sea before swiftly getting out. Apparently someone had drowned at Hikkaduwa not too long ago. To the right of the long beach is a very calm swimming beach, don’t risk your life, swim in there!
The surfers were often out at sunset. You can try your hand at surfing whilst in Hikkaduwa, or just find a bar along the long beach during happy hour and say goodbye to another day as the sun dips below the horizon.
4. Scuba Dive In Hikkaduwa
Sri Lanka is not renowned for diving, but the diving was surprisingly decent in Hikkaduwa, not as good as some we’ve done in South East Asia, but decent. We dived with the International Dive School in Hikkaduwa who were good and have decent tripadvisor reviews.
I experienced my first swell dive (where the waves move you around) and saw an absolutely massive eel. Apparently the eels around Hikkaduwa had been feeding on the fish from the extremely destructive dynamite fishing which had been taking place in the area so had grown to epic sizes. We also spotted some baby sharks in the shallows when we returned in the boat.
Price: 12500 SLR (about £58) for 2 dives per person.
Was It Worth It? Yes, although its not the best diving we’ve ever done, it was enjoyable!
5. Whale Watching From Hikkaduwa (Or Mirissa)
You can do whale watching from Hikkaduwa, although it’s better to do it from Mirissa as then you can avoid the long drive from Hikkaduwa to Mirissa, on top of the 2 hour boat ride each way offshore. But, before you do whale watching, there are some things you should know.
I have heard VERY mixed reviews about whale watching in Sri Lanka. With a few people voicing that they wished they hadn’t done it due to the way the boats harass the whales and do not have proper education programmes to tell tourists about the whales.
Apparently tour companies find the whales using drones (fine), then 20+ boats descend on the whale, jostling for position with no regard of the whale or their passengers. When the whale dives, the boats wait for it to surface again and repeat the process. The companies often don’t give any information about the whales and the crew doesn’t even know the different types of whales, according to some reviewers.
I didn’t do whale watching whilst in Sri Lanka but I can’t say this is something I’d like to do but read reviews of different companies and see if it’s right for you.
When it comes to wildlife tourism, I recommend following these 5 steps to being a more responsible wildlife tourist.
6. Don’t Do A River Safari In Hikkaduwa
We wanted to do a river boat trip, and were quoted a reasonable price. It seemed like a good idea, as we would visit a number of attractions as well and go on a ‘river safari’.
No Animals On A River Safari
On this river safari there wasn’t an animal in sight apart from a few blue jellyfish and a green snake. We all almost got heatstroke from the midday sun as the boat didn’t have the roof up.
We saw a temple but had to take our shoes off in the blistering sun which mean dashing up hot stairs and from one bit of shade to another.
Is This Trip Ever Going To End?!
It was meant to be a half day trip, but we went to a mask making workshop, a turtle sanctuary and a gazillion other places. At 3pm we were wondering when on earth we’d be returned back to Hikkaduwa! We’d all missed lunch and we were all hot and hangry.
“You Are Fat”
The most ridiculous bit of our tour by far was the medicinal gardens tour. Some sensible uses of medicinal plants were explained by our rather arrogant guide, who was apparently a ‘doctor’. He then pointed at a larger woman in our group and said something along the lines of “you are fat, this pineapple will help you lose weight”. It was damn cruel. James’ varicose veins and thinning of hair were also a target.
I Can Cure A Person Who Is Paralysed
The guy claimed a plant could cure someone who had been paralysed for years in just a few weeks. My blood boiled but my mum stepped in, calling out his bullshit. I was rapidly googling his claims, and very few of them had any scientific backing. In fact, many of them had been disproved through randomised control trials and other rigorous scientific testing.
The trouble is to those in desperate situations, like those who have a paralysed child or have cancer, they might feel they have no other option and end up throwing money at and putting all their hopes in charlatans like this. Those with limited education are particularly vulnerable.
Non Western Medicine Can Be Good
I’m in no way saying herbal medicine can’t be good, much modern medicine is derived from plants and I love learning about the power of plants for medicinal uses. But I also want proper scientific backing to any claims. Non-western communities have loads to offer to medical science. Indigenous communities in the Amazon have known about an effective treatment for malaria for hundreds of years.
But this guy was spouting lies, over the top claims and insulting members of the group. He tried claiming he was right about everything by proving that a paste made from a plant could be used for hair removal. Great, doesn’t mean it can also cure paralysis mate (sorry, rant over!).
Price: 1800 SLR (about £8.40)
Was It Worth It: Do not do a river safari, many of the companies in Hikkaduwa seem to be offering the same thing. Stick to splashing in the sea!
7. The Tsunami Museums
Hikkaduwa was severely hit by the 2004 tsunami. In Sri Lanka an estimated 38,940 losing their lives. I spent a lot of the time watching the violent waves on Hikkaduwa beach, and thinking about how terrified those people must have been when it hit. The wave was 29.5 ft high, which would crash over most buildings in Hikkaduwa. Tsunami destroyed buildings are still visible to be seen. There is a big Buddha along the coast from Hikkaduwa which memorialises those lost and is the same height as the wave.
Why We Didn’t Visit A Tsunami Musuem
My mum and her husband went to one of the museums. They said it was just photos of swollen dead bodies with no information. I hope the rest aren’t purely like this. Those that died deserve to be properly remembered through proper information, accounts from survivors, through focusing on the rebuilding effort and healing process. Hikkaduwa has rebuilt itself.
Sri Lanka: Final Thoughts
From Hikkaduwa, we made our way back to Colombo:
Sri Lanka was a mixed experience for me. I found the environmental damage difficult, the lack of maintenance (and transparency of where the money is going) in regards to the tourist attractions frustrating and some of the lets say “sales methods” of some (not all) local people annoying.
But saying all this, Sri Lanka has some amazing things to offer (as you can probably see from some of my photos) and it is worth a visit so you can make up your own mind on the country. In the end, everyone experiences countries differently.
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Great blog Lara – your longest yet.
Great photos, very very informative. I’m really looking forward to visiting Sri Lanka. The food and warm seas will be great, the high touristy prices I’m apprehensive about.
Great tip to get agreed prices written down, to avoid the popular scam of changing the price half way through a trip!.
Thanks Lara. I’ll read this again prior to my imminent arrival.
PS. Bet your mum was delighted to find out that her weight was the difference between a tuk tuk getting up a hill, or not!
Yep, I tried to make it more comprehensive and there’s more to be aware of in Sri Lanka than most parts of South East Asia. On the high touristy prices, you can literally just avoid the places I’ve flagged up as expensive and find alternatives. We always managed to find a cheaper option, which was often better than the actual expensive tourist attraction because it was quieter. I think you will enjoy Sri Lanka 🙂
And yes you also just have to be a bit assertive and ask for your change back and only give them what you’ve agreed beforehand.
My mum wasn’t best pleased haha!