If you ask would-be travelers the top spot on their Asian hit lists, the chances of them blurting out “Sri Lanka” straight out of the gate are low. Some might say it doesn’t have the popularity or ease of Southeast Asian destinations like Thailand or Cambodia, while other adventure and challenge-seekers would choose to opt for the larger and wilder expanse of India or the mystique of Nepal. But rest assured – Sri Lanka is “happening,” and it would be to your benefit to make it happen as soon as possible.
Situated just on the bottom edge of India, this drop-shaped country can be a little intimidating at first, especially to solo travelers. Activity will occasionally grind to a halt when you walk onto a scene as a foreigner, and you may accumulate a trail of curious onlookers from time to time. Transportation (and road safety) between cities hasn’t yet reached the safety or comfort of that in much of SE Asia here, and let’s not even dream of getting onto the topic of public toilets!
Despite any challenges though, Sri Lanka has many of the things you lust over in other parts of
Asia: elephants, sparkling beaches, temple ruins, endless tea fields, jungle trekking, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and colonial forts and churches galore. Not to mention curry– so, so much curry. And for now, it also has another impressive feature: if you go to these places, particularly in the off season, you can spend hours on end without other foreign tourists. For many of us, this tends to be an unimaginable dream.
Sri Lanka in a nutshell…
Ancient Cities and Temples
Dotted around the island’s midsection are several ancient sites that are great for exploring by bicycle or even by tuk-tuk. Anuradhapura, one of Sri Lanka’s staple holy cities, is easily navigated in a day’s time, and, since hordes of the faithful still worship at the temple sites, offers a stunning slice of culture that has carried through until today. Polonnaruwa, the other of the most visited ancient cities, is less flocked with worshippers and instead offers more of a ruinous feel for any Indiana Jones wannabes. Along with these, Sigiraya stands as one of the must-see locations. The attraction here is an unbelievably massive rock plateau, the lead-up to which was once an ominous lion-shaped gate. Today, only the paws greet you before your neverending climb and the subsequent breathtaking view up top.
Yeah, you can ride elephants in Thailand and Laos and at Angkor Wat. Sure. But if you’re really looking for an elephant experience, Sri Lanka can do a bit better. It has easy-access elephant orphanages if you’re into the eco route. Or, for something more spectacular, one might come during the dry times of summer to witness the mass elephant migration called “The Gathering,” a coming together of as many as 200 elephants per day in the Minneriya area. If the timing is proper, you might also get the chance to witness the annual Perahara in Kandy, a ten-day procession with a hundred elephants covered in sparkling lights amid fire and sword twirlers unlike anything you are likely to see elsewhere in Asia.
A variety of monitors and lizards abound throughout Sri Lanka as well, as do lagur and macaque monkeys, though they generally haven’t grown as aggressive through tourist feeding as in places like Cambodia and Bali.
Sri Lanka has so much prime coastline with such diversity that there’s something for every ocean lover. Surfers swarm to Arugam Bay and photographers to Batticaloa for the famous perching fishermen. Everyone else, whether a sunbather or sunset/sunrise lover, has an endless stretch of sleepy beaches to choose from along any of the coasts. While the most accessible, such as Negombo Beach closest to the airport, may not offer the best swimming or surfing, almost all offer a chilled-out expanse of beach to enjoy the bursting South Asian sunset.
Like so many spots in Asia, Sri Lanka also has no shortage of color – whether the literal or figurative sort. A swirl of colonial history, along with Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim cultures, twists together to offer the full spectrum of colorful worship sites, architecture, performances, and food. The land bursts alive in vivid hues, from the lush green highland tea fields to the color-focused festivals such as Holi in the Spring. Some of the kovils and temples are so starkly colored, in fact, that it’s as though you’ve wandered into a holy comic book.
With all of this, Sri Lanka is still perhaps at that glorious point at which, while things are not entirely comfortable at all levels of travel, you have plenty of sites to marvel at without throngs of tourists. It is still very much a country where half a village of children might run to meet you on approach. Most places that still have this quality are not so easy to get to, nor to travel within. So go for the festivals and tea. Or for the sunsets. Or for all the things that you seek in Southeast Asia which are better here. But if you can, surely do go, and soon.