Two Weeks in Sri Lanka: Land of spice, rice, and lice?

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Local market in Kandy

I had never dreamed of going to Sri Lanka. It wasn’t high on my bucket list. Several people told me how great it is and I wanted a cheap holiday three years ago when I was still trying to pay off my house. I used airline miles for the flight and quickly realized the cheapest way to go was to book a tour. A big bus tour. I’d never done a big bus tour before, but this was my best option financially, and limited to 16 people. My friend recommended Geckos Adventures after her trip to India. It turned out to be a great recommendation!

Any time you take a tour with Geckos Adventures, you will need travel insurance. The windy, rainy conditions in Sri Lanka made me glad I had it, especially when we climbed Lion’s Rock. I used World Nomads travel insurance for the first time on this trip, and I was very glad I had it, even though I didn’t have to use it.

World Nomads

My Geckos info said a taxi to my hotel, 35km away, would be about 7 USD. I was quoted 25 USD by all the taxi companies at the airport! Geckos wanted 95 USD to organize a transfer, so I still got the better deal. My driver found the hotel in Marawila, north of Negombo, without a problem and I arrived by 1:30PM. It was a simple beach hotel with a beautiful beach that I could see from my window.

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Beach at our first hotel

I met the other group members that night, a mix of 20somethings, 30somethings, and myage-somethings. Seemed like a fun group. Maybe this group tour thing wouldn’t be so painful after all. There were lots of solo travelers like me.

Day 2: 6:30 departure. A reminder of why I don’t like tours. We drove to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Not sure what the deal is on this place as there wasn’t much of an explanation, but they had a lot of elephants born there, so definitely not orphans. It was fun to watch the elephants, but it was not fun to see them chained on a very short chain. Supposedly males and females were separated, but there sure were a lot of babies…

We also saw lots of adult elephants on their way down to the river for a drink and a bath, not chained at all, looking healthy, and treated well by the staff who seemed genuinely affectionate and loving towards them.

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It’s bath time at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
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Elephants loving each other at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

We left the elephant orphanage and headed to lunch at a roadside stand. Rice, veggie curry, spicy green beans. It was delicious. Then we went to Mihintale, the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. We climbed to the two tallest points and were rewarded with stunning views, wind, and rain. I don’t really remember much about the temples we visited, like the dates they were built, maybe because it was a tour. I can’t even tell you what it costs or if it did cost to enter. We weren’t given the tickets. This is another reason I don’t like group tours.

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Mihintale, the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka
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Elephant carvings at Mihintale, the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

We stayed at Heritage Hotel in Anuradhapura which had big rooms, a good breakfast, nice pool, and free wifi in the lobby.

Day 3: After breakfast we went to Anuradhapura, an ancient city where we saw several temples and the 2500 year old bodhi tree, the oldest recorded bodhi tree in the world. Lots of Sri Lankans were here to pray. We had another great roadside lunch today. Cheap, spicy, ricey, vegetarian, and good! About 300 to 400 LKR each.

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Polonnaruwara, ancient city where we saw several temples and toured by bicycle
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Ancient carvings at Polonnaruwara, ancient city in Sri Lanka

Next, we went to Sigiriya, also known as Lion’s Rock. This is what I was most excited about during my entire two weeks in Sri Lanka. Even though it was windy and raining, I was excited to get to the top. The gardens leading to the rock and the palace at the top are all very well excavated and carefully preserved. The climb up had a lot of stairs, but it doesn’t take long if you’re in pretty good shape, even in the wind and rain. Some people don’t believe there was a palace up there, but I do after seeing it. Something big and important was definitely on top of that rock for a long time.

Afterwards we drove to our next hotel in Polonnaruwa. On the way, we saw wild elephants alongside the road and our awesome guide, Sujee, bought us a bottle of the local coconut liquor called Arrack. It was like a mild coconut flavored whiskey, and I think it could definitely kick my ass…

This tour thing was turning out to be all right.

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Lion’s Rock in the distance. Impressive from far away. In Sri Lankan it’s called Sigiriya
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Lion’s Rock, Sigiriya, is a climb, but worth it

Day 4: After breakfast this morning, we drove a short distance on the bus to Polonnaruwa, a Medieval city. We toured the city on a bicycle. It is spread out and the temples and structures that have been excavated are impressive. I wish I could remember more about it. I think being on a tour made me very lazy. We weren’t given any info about the site upon entry, but I do know this was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982.

After visiting Polonnaruwa, we went back to the hotel where the people who were not going on the elephant safari (40 USD) had the afternoon free. I went on the safari to Minneriya National Park, famous for wild elephants. There were seven of us in two jeeps, and the other jeep kept getting stuck and we had to pull them out. This took a lot of time. I think the drivers felt a bit bad about this, so as we were leaving the park, we saw a big group of elephants, and went to see them and stayed for the sunset. It was amazing to see so many elephants in the wild. Great experience and definitely worth 40 USD.

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Mom and baby we saw on safari

 

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Whaddaya lookin’ at? I’m just hanging around.

We were late returning to the hotel and we had a dinner date. The entire group was going to a local family’s home for dinner. This is part of Geckos’ responsible tourism. This family needed additional income to help support their oldest daughter, who is disabled. Our guide, Sujee, knew them and arranged this stop on the tour group circuit. The father drives a tuk tuk during the day and at night, the whole family cooks. We had the most amazing pumpkin curry and mango curry. There were lots of dishes to choose from, but these two I could eat every day. I really enjoyed this experience and it was the best food we had on the entire trip.

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Kitchen where we had our best meal ever in Sri Lanka

Day 5: Raining again. Our first stop was the Dambulla Cave Temples which are really impressive. So was the “cheesy tourist” factor on the Buddha museum at the bottom of the hill. Seeing the outside of the museum was enough. We headed up the many stairs to the three Cave Temples. The most impressive part was the ceiling and the many Buddhas inside.

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Just one of many impressive rooms in Three Cave Temples

 

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The ceilings in Three Cave Temples are extraordinary

Our next stop was the Matale Spice Garden which sells ayurvedic remedies and has a spa. We took a tour of the gardens, which I thought was really interesting. I think I might have been alone in the “interesting camp” though.

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Vanilla beans grow here at the Matale Spice Garden

We stayed at Devon Hotel, close to the lake in Kandy, where monkeys threw perfectly good mangos at us! We attended a cultural show that had firewalkers. These touristy shows are not my thing, but this one was pretty good. After the show, we went to Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Supposedly it houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha. Yes, well, okay.

I expected an old, dusty temple, but this temple seemed new and had lots of glitz and glam. The tooth itself is protected under seven golden caskets that are hidden behind a small door that is only open for offerings at 6:40 every night. Seemed like a random time, but maybe it has some significance. The temple was so crowded I couldn’t see anything. There were so many people there it was impossible to really get good pictures or even learn anything about the temple.

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Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy
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Inside the Temple of the Sacred Tooth – one of the less crowded rooms

Day 6: Our first stop today was a gem shop that designs, makes, and sells jewelry. This wasn’t on the agenda. Their prices were so ridiculous. But it was a short visit and then we were off to a botanical garden, one of four near Kandy I think. Some of us walked with Sujee, by accident, and he showed us some great stuff like fruit bats and tiny bees. It was 1100 LKR for foreigners to enter.

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Botanical garden near Kandy

We drove back to Kandy and I walked around the local market with some other lone travelers from our group. This market sold mostly fruits and vegetables. It was great because people were friendly, but don’t speak a lot of English and don’t deal with a lot of tourists. They let us take all the pictures we wanted and no one asked us for money or even really tried to sell us anything. We got to taste lots of things, too.

There was one guy who really wanted us to visit his shop that sold the same ayurvedic stuff we saw when we toured the spice garden earlier this week, so we went and his prices were much cheaper. I ended up getting nutmeg, cocoa, and vanilla bean pods. But when I got back to Kuwait and actually tried to use this stuff for baking, only the cocoa was useable. The nutmeg and vanilla pods were already spoiled. Insert sad face here.

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Local market in Kandy where you can buy just about anything you need or want

 

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This man in the local market in Kandy is very proud of his beautiful display
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Tailor in the market in Kandy – He was so happy to have his picture taken

Day 7: The next morning, after lounging at the pool, we left around noon to go to our next destination, Nuwara Eliya and tea country. We toured Glenlock Tea Factory. I don’t think anyone from our group was super interested in this, except me, so I kept my enthusiasm to myself and questions to a minimum. I didn’t want to be the group nerd! Sri Lanka is famous for Ceylon tea! I wanted to know about it! Our hotel, Leisure Hotel, for the evening was beautiful and had great views of tea country as well.

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View from the Greylock Tea Plantation
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These lovely ladies learned quickly that if they let people take their picture, they can earn easy money

Day 8: The next day I was excited to walk 8km in Hortons Plain Nature Reserve. I had some serious rice belly and was hoping this walk would help remedy the situation. We finished the hike in 2.5 hours, including a visit to Baker’s Waterfall. The highlights were Mini World’s End and World’s End, both of which are viewpoints with huge drop offs and stunning views. We arrived early so the mist and fog hadn’t arrived yet. This walk did me a world of good! I felt so much better. Afterwards, we went to a roadside place that Sujee knew about and had some of the most delicious food of the whole trip. Samosas with hard boiled eggs in them! Thankfully, no rice!

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Hortons Plain Nature Reserve waterfall

Back on the bus we had a bit of a drive to our hotel in Belihuloya. We stayed at a rest house on a very loud, but beautiful river. The hotel is called Belihuloya Heritage Rest House, run by Ceylon Hotels Corporation, the same corporation that owns Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, which was where I stayed at the end of my trip. My room looked beautiful and had a beautiful view of the river and a little balcony with chairs, but the door to the balcony was locked and there was no key in the room. I really liked the room, but the bathroom was absolutely disgusting. I didn’t even want to take a shower in there. So disappointing. For what I paid for the tour, basic cleanliness should be a given where we stay.

I kept noticing a weird smell, but only after I unpacked. The room smelled fine when I first arrived. Where was this mystery smell coming from? My shoes! It was a powerful smell! It was like a cross between cat piss and mold. What the hell had I stepped in? No one else seemed to have this problem with their shoes. How do I know? I asked!

Day 9: This morning we went for a walk through the rice paddies. Sujee had been talking about the rice paddies during our trip, but he called them ‘faddy fields’. I knew what he meant, but I didn’t realize other people on the tour didn’t understand him. While we were taking pictures in the “faddy fields,” I heard some people in the group talking and I cracked up when I realized the whole time he was telling us about the faddy fields, they didn’t make the connection.

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Rice paddies in Sri Lanka

 

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Rice paddies or “faddy fields” in Sri Lanka

The rice paddies were really beautiful, and while I had seen a lot of them in Asia, I had never walked through one. The best part of the walk through the rice paddies was when Sujee stopped to talk to us about the women who work in the fields. They work long days away from their families and they sing a song about how they miss their family while they work. Sujee sang the entire song for us. It was so beautiful even though I didn’t understand a word. Sujee was such an awesome guide.

We took a local bus 2km back to the hotel. I think it was for the experience. A walk would’ve been great. My rice belly had returned! I rinsed my feet in that nasty shower and we got on the bus to go to Ella. We took the bus to the train station and most of us took the train to Ella. I think, again, that this was for the experience. The train ride took 1.5 hours. But one couple just stayed on our bus (I don’t know why) and it took them only 30 minutes to get to Ella. The joke was on us, but the train ride was a cool experience.

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Train station on the way to Ella

Ella is a small, backpacker town with several cafes and restaurants, but not much else. I liked this little town. Our hotel was Country Comfort Inn and it was awesome. Very English on the outside, nice big rooms, nice black marble “porn star” bathroom.

We walked around town, which took about 15 minutes. We went to a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet to have some drinks, but no rice! Good decision. Excellent drinks. We liked this place so much that we went back for dinner and had an excellent thin crust pizza. The restaurant had the coolest lights and a great atmosphere. That pizza really hit the spot, mostly because it wasn’t rice!

Day 10: The next day we left early for the long drive to the southwest, to the beach! We stayed in Ahangama, arriving at 1:30, to discover there is nothing in this town to see or do. I did have a good view of the stick fishermen on the beach next to us as we sunbathed. Sujee warned us in advance that if we wanted a picture of them and went over there, we had to pay them 200 rupees. Luckily, I had an excellent zoom lens. We spent some time on the beach, had this cheap, tasty, and spicy chopped roti – with no rice! – from a street stand since the hotel food was a) expensive and b) not good. Almost everyone in the group had way too much Sex on the Beach since they had a great drink special on. I felt it the next day too.

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Pole fishermen on the coast of southern Sri Lanka

Day 11: I spent the morning on the beach yesterday and today, only to realize I’d been bitten by sand lice! Yikes and yuck! But after a few hours on the beach yesterday morning, and a lazy afternoon by the pool today, I finally looked like I’d been on holiday! But sand lice? I’d never heard of such a thing!

Had another spicy roti for dinner. I never wanted to see rice again after our first six days here. We all felt a bit trapped in this hotel because the town had nothing to do and wasn’t great for walking around. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this town or the beach here. Between sand lice and creepy locals sitting under trees watching the pretty Aussie girls I was with (they had no interest in watching my non-20something backside), we were all ready to move on.

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I have no idea how to caption this photo

Day 12: The next day we headed to Galle. Just for the morning, which was disappointing. I could have spent much longer here. Galle was greatly affected by the tsunami, but seems to have fully recovered. It is a beautiful heritage town. We spent the morning in the touristy area inside the walls of the fort. Inside are beautiful homes, shops, cafes, restaurants, although quite expensive for Sri Lanka.

We had a couple of hours to walk around and take photos. The best part of Galle was I got a real latte. An American sized latte with real coffee! Not an easy find in Sri Lanka. Lots of cafes in Galle served real coffee, but I got my latte at Dairy King, owned by a lovely family. The father has obviously been to the west, understood American size coffee, and spoke excellent English.

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Church interior in Galle, Sri Lanka

 

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Lighthouse in Galle, Sri Lanka, at the edge of the walls surrounding the city

When we left Galle, it was time to return to Colomobo. We arrived at the Concord Grand Hotel, which was pretty nice and had a great pool. One of the Aussie’s I’d been hanging out with was leaving for the airport that night, so she and I and another non-20something left the hotel and went exploring. We used the local bus, which was crowded, musical, and awesome!

It was surprisingly easy to find the Cinnamon Gardens area of Colombo, but we got totally ripped off on the bus, which was mostly our fault. The guy who was taking the money told us it was 18 rupees, but we thought he said 80. Each. Sounded reasonable enough to us stupid tourists. So, he just went with it and took our money, but one of us needed change. I noticed that from 100 rupees, he gave 50 in change and walked away. So that got us thinking, but not too hard. This was a lot of math and we were on holiday.

Our return to the hotel many hours later actually only cost 13 rupees each.

First impression of Colombo? It was clean and walkable, although I’m sure there are areas we didn’t see that are pretty rough. The Cinnamon Gardens area is an upscale shopping area, so of course, it is clean and well kept.

After a bit of shopping and dinner at Paradise Road Cafe, highly recommend, Danielle headed to the airport and Nicole and I walked to Odel, which is a big department store in Colombo. They run a charity which provides for the street dogs. We waited for the bus back to the Concord Grand Hotel and a tuk tuk driver tried telling us buses weren’t running anymore since it was after 8PM, but our bus was right behind him. We rode back for 13 rupees, but missed our stop, so we got a tuk tuk back to the hotel and found the only tuk tuk driver who actually knew where our hotel was. He didn’t try to rip us off. So, we tipped him.

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Paradise Road – The Gallery Cafe in Colombo has great food, atmosphere, and most importantly, coffee!

Day 13: The next morning Nicole and I had a spicy breakfast, skipped the rice, and laid by the pool for a while. After a quick shower, we got a tuk tuk to the Galle Face Hotel so I could check in. It is a beautiful hotel, elegant without being pretentious. After I checked in, Nicole and I walked to the fort area a couple of kilometers away. There is very little left of the fort walls, but the fort area has some great shops, restaurants, cafes, and hotels. The Grand Oriental Hotel has a great view of the port from the tiny bar area on the roof. By tiny, I mean two tables outside.

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View of Colombo from The Oriental Hotel balcony

We had dinner at a Thai restaurant for 600 rupees and it was fantastic, and coffee at Heladin Tea Club. We walked back to my hotel along the Galle Face Green and did some people watching. Nicole headed back to her hotel before it got too dark and I went to the hotel bar by the pool for a few drinks. Three Cuba Libres later, I was an especially happy camper.

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Lobby of Galle Face Hotel in Colombo
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Galle Face Hotel view by the pool in Colombo

 

Day 14: I didn’t do much the next day. I walked the streets for a while with nothing more than a giant latte from McDonald’s to show for it, and went back to the hotel to relax by the pool. I went to the fort area for a late lunch and then I just relaxed at the hotel pool and bar the rest of the day, which was exactly what I had planned to do when I booked this hotel. What a great end to a great holiday. Given my aversion to group tours, no one was more surprised than I was at how much I enjoyed Sri Lanka.

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Local building in Colombo that is totally underutilized

 

Mary Lyons

I have had incredible travel opportunities since moving overseas eleven years ago. I created this blog to share my experiences, what I’ve learned, and my mistakes and frustrations, in hopes of entertaining readers and helping people to create and plan their own travel opportunities.

8 thoughts on “Two Weeks in Sri Lanka: Land of spice, rice, and lice?”

  1. Those photos are beautiful, especially the last one. I’m not into Buddhism but it would be interesting to visit the architecture and learn some of the history of it.

    1. I am also not Buddhist, but I find countries that are majority Buddhist to be really interesting to visit. Our focus in Sri Lanka was actually not really Buddhist culture or religion, but just the culture of the country itself, which I really enjoyed.

    1. Yes, you should definitely go! Geckos Adventures organizes a great tour and keeps the groups small. I had such a good time with the other people on the tour, and half of them were traveling solo like me.

I would love to know your thoughts!

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