By Andrea Beattie
Sri Lanka lies like a jewel in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of India, sparkling with the promise of pristine sandy beaches, lush central rainforests, arid landscapes and abundant national parks. You can surf, hike, bike, raft, dive, snorkel, sail, trek or chill – and consume some of the tastiest food and finest tea in the world.
It’s a culturally diverse nation of 21 million people, with a documented history spanning 3000 years and has eight World Heritage sites. While Sri Lanka is still recovering from the crippling economic effects and population loss sustained in a 26-year civil war, its people are resilient and tourists are returning in droves; revenue from tourism has surged eightfold to $US2.98 billion (about $A3.8 billion) since the conflict ended eight years ago.
The main tourist centres are on the west coast from Negombo to Mirissa at the southern tip, and through the central tea plantation high country. There are also virtually untouched areas to explore in northern regions and on the east coast.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
At present, the 12.5-hour journey from Australia to Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International airport in the capital Colombo must include a stopover. But from October 29, SriLankan Airlines will begin daily, 11-hour direct flights between Melbourne and Colombo. If you still want to make a stopover, major airlines including Emirates, Qantas, Thai and Cathay also fly to Colombo.
HOW CAN I GET AROUND?
Use a combination of city tuk tuks, buses, trains and private cars. Tourist buses operate between major centres, and tickets are cheap. Express, long-haul buses are an option, but only if you’re OK with hurtling through villages at breakneck speeds.
Trains are popular, super cheap (a second-class ticket for the 150km journey from Colombo Fort to Mirissa costs about $2) and tickets can be pre-purchased for all classes. In summer, economy class can be stifling despite the open-air “airconditioning”. But views along the coastal routes and through the tea country around Ella and Kandy are spectacular. You can even sit in the doorways, dangling your legs outside the carriage.
Tuk tuks are great to see city sights (confirm the price beforehand and expect a detour to the driver’s friend’s gem factory) and privately driven cars are convenient for long distances. Hiring a car or scooter to drive yourself is discouraged – the roads can be chaotic and narrow, and are full of blind corners, potholes and stray dogs.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
Sri Lanka is a year-round destination. High season is December to March when the picture-perfect west coast beaches are at their warmest (rarely below 30C) and the cooler hill country about 2000m above sea level is dry.
Wildlife spotting in the southern national parks is best from May to September when animals congregate around waterholes and the surf’s up at Weligama in the southwest from November to March. You can see the largest creature in the world, the blue whale, on tours from Mirissa in November to May and the famous coastal Sri Lankan stilt fishermen are perched all year at Dalawella, near Mirissa. Humidity can be as high as 90 per cent, so allow extra time to acclimatise before you head out.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
Sri Lanka boasts homestays, backpacker inns and treehouses, large hotels and grand resorts. High season prices range from $20 a night for hostels in Colombo to $200 for a two-storey private treehouse in Yala National Park (little beasties that eat your food at night are complimentary) and $450 a night for a five-star beach hotel. Homestays, about $70 a night, are a great way to get a taste of the culture and meet the locals.
Don’t miss the cool mountain region of Nuwara Eliya, established by the English in the 1840s. The prestigious Hill Club, founded in 1876 as a private gentlemen’s club, is worth a visit at about $180 a night – as long as you don’t have an irrational fear of taxidermy, formal dress codes or serving staff wearing white gloves.
WHAT’S THE CURRENCY?
One Aussie dollar is worth about 120 Sri Lankan rupees, so a 500ml domestic beer is about $3 and a 300ml bottle of water can be less than 50c. Fruit is cheap and plentiful at fresh markets and there are local stores in tourist areas. Most accommodation places, restaurants and private drivers accept US dollars.
SHOULD I TIP?
Most locals don’t, but tipping about 10 per cent of your bill for good service in restaurants, on a tour or a private driver is welcomed.
DO I NEED A VISA?
Yes. Apply online for an Electronic Travel Authority before your arrival at eta.gov.lk. It costs $US35 for a 30-day tourist visa.
ANY DON’T-MISS EXPERIENCES?
Love pachyderms? Visit the Elephant Freedom Project, a sanctuary for elephants rescued from the cruel riding and logging industries. Based in Kegalle, you pay to volunteer from one day to up to three weeks. Staying with a Sri Lankan family, each day you muck out the elephants’ living quarters, feed them and help their mahouts bathe them in the nearby Kuda Oya River. Costs start at $87 for an eight-hour visit. It’s $175 for two full days, including meals and bunk-style accommodation. It really is a magical experience. Book in advance as the project restricts visitors. Visit the nearby Elephant Dung Paper Factory for souvenirs.
From the amazing World’s End in Horton Plains National Park, to the cardio workout of climbing the sacred 2243m tall Adam’s Peak in Sabaragamuwa and treks around Kandy and Ella, there are options galore. Do climb the Citadel of Sigiriya, aka Lion Rock – there are 1227 steps, but the 360-degree views are worth the effort and the $US30 entry fee. Start all walks early – Sri Lanka gets hot before lunch.
WHAT’S THE FOOD LIKE?
Delicious! Think piping hot curries with rice, vegetarian delicacies and an abundance of fresh seafood.
Dinner at a beach restaurant where the surf literally laps at your toes can cost $40 per person, but a basic meal at a local vegetarian restaurant can be as little as $5. Don’t miss Sri Lanka’s famous hoppers made from rice flour, coconut milk and spices.
CAN I VISIT A TEA PLANTATION?
No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without one. Tea plantations are mostly centred around Ella and Nuwara Eliya. One of the biggest is Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre – you can’t miss the Hollywood-style MACKWOODS sign. They have a fabulous tea room and gift store, but to tour a working plantation, head to the Pedro Tea Factory. Operational since 1885, here you’ll have a more authentic experience. Taste some of the finest brews in the world on their sunny tea shop balcony then wander through its tea plantations.
Entry is 200Rs (about $1.66) and it opens daily 8am-11am and 2pm-4pm.
Original article appeared in the Escape section of the Herald Sun