Monday, 10 June 2013

A slightly cynical Sri Lanka travel guide

Goyambokka Beach, Tangalla, Sri Lanka
Lonely Planet named it the top country to visit in 2013, Rick Stein told us to "go there because the curries are so good, the beaches are so unspoiled and the countryside will charm you" and, much to my chagrin, Lorraine Pascale would be visiting at exactly the same time as me. If only I had known while I was there, sigh.

But Sri Lanka, despite being 'back on the map' following decades of civil war, is a country that continues to divide travellers' opinions. In February I spoke to Simon Calder, The Independent's travel editor, who claimed he "couldn't see anything much transformed". Meanwhile, former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss warned that the country is "sliding into tyranny", such is the power and ubiquitous presence of its controversial president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

And then earlier this month, a venomous tarantula with a leg span of eight inches - approximately the length of your face - was discovered on the island nation.

So, blessed with a two-week window of annual leave, I decided to bloody well grow up and travel there myself. Though not by myself - the whole camp hysteria on spotting a big spider thing had to be shared with a fellow traveller. So who to choose? After drawing up a shortlist of literally more than one, I decided my girlfriend would probably be the best option. Pack your suitcase (actually, mind taking a rucksack instead? It's more practical) love, we're going to a tropical island. Yes we are. Via a five-hour stopover in Doha.

An island roughly the size of Scotland, Sri Lanka has much to pack in over two weeks, so we decided to concentrate on exploring the southern and more developed half of the island. Clichéd? Perhaps. But with people (and they're relatively few in number with the war ending only four years ago) raving about the southern coast and the Hill Country, the north and east could wait. I scoured the internet for hours to devise the best itinerary, and I have unwavering confidence that it is thus:

  • Arrive in Colombo (travellers now have the option of flying to the predictably-named Mattara Rajapaksa International Airport in the south) and spend two nights in the capital.
  • Catch the train to Kandy and spend two nights in and around the second city and cultural capital.
  • Travel across the Hill Country for a day before a two-night stay close to Yala National Park.
  • Holiday time! Ride in a tuk-tuk to Tangalla for a four-night beach-side stint.
  • Travel a little further around the coast to Galle, the old Dutch/Portuguese colonial town, for two nights.
  • Catch the train to Colombo and onwards to Negombo for one night before flying home.

So this is what we did…

Manning Market, Colombo, Sri Lanka


The Sri Lankan capital is a sort of Delhi or Mumbai Lite: similar in terms of architecture - from imposing run-down colonial buildings to colourful, filth-ridden markets - but calmer, less infuriating and minus the depressingly-common poverty synonymous with the Indian megacities.

Lacking must-see sights, Colombo is easily explored on foot - which allows the culture-shocked to discover peculiar street-side gems. My favourite was a poster sporting the London 2012 logo calling for 'Hope for the World' next to portraits of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Kim Jong-un and Ban Ki-moon. The first is facing international criticism for his army's illegal final pursuit of the Tamil Tigers, the second is sparking a fresh global nuclear crisis and the third was reluctant to pull his finger out during Sri Lanka's Civil War. Hope indeed.

What must-sees there are include the Old Dutch Hospital and the chaotic streets of Pettah - the latter is home to the sick-smelling banana paradise of Manning Market and shops selling everything from chick peas to Gangnam Style t-shirts (and impersonators, though you can't buy these, try as you might).

Stay: Lake Lodge - a fantastic tucked-away city-centre guesthouse with the tastiest Sri Lankan breakfast I've had the pleasure of putting in my mouth.
See: The Old Dutch Hospital - a renovated, er, hospital that's home to high-end bars, restaurants and shops. Expect to see people like you struggling to adjust to the heat, people like your parents in tie-dye, and office workers from the World Trade Center opposite. Its best food can be found at the Ministry of Crab.
Discover: Ditch your mainstream guidebook for Juliet Coombe's excellent Colombo City Guide.

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka


The train to Kandy, a destination where the temperature is a little cooler and the upcountry Sinhalese look down on their lowly neighbours, is relatively swift but shockingly bumpy. Sit in the Observation Car for the best views, preferably on the right-hand side - if you're stuck on the left you'll hopefully grow to love the 72 km-long grass verge three feet from your face. If you need a break from the monotony, walk to the carriage's open doorway and stick your head out: an excellent cure for motion sickness.

Despite its serene setting, Kandy is surprisingly manic - but then it is home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which apparently houses one of the Buddha's teeth. Time your visit here carefully - we arrived in the middle of the evening ceremony; an impressive spectacle but one marred by flash bulbs, telephoto lenses and, at a pilgrimage site that demands humility, too much undignified tourist enthusiasm.

I'll admit to preferring Kandy's surroundings to the city itself. Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage attracts throngs of visitors but for a less packed, less money-grabbing and more fulfilling elephant experience - if such a phrase exists - head to the Millennium Elephant Foundation, championed by one Mr Brian Blessed. You'll get to bathe with the animals, massage them with coconut husks and sit on their bristly backs as they take you for a ride in the foundation's beautiful grounds, with barely another visitor in sight.

Also easily accessible from Kandy is the imposing Sigiriya, Sri Lanka's very own Ayres Rock and home to the world's most terrifying staircase. En route, stop for lunch at Dambulla's cave temple complex, where statues of the Buddha camp in the rocks next to modest Hindu temples, making this possibly the world's only cave where two religions exist harmoniously. And yes, by that I do mean a part of me hopes for a cave populated by battling Rastafarians and Catholics. If you can avert for your gaze from the ready-to-pounce monkeys, there are also some spectacular views to enjoy.

Stay: Queen's Hotel - a grand old colonial hotel that doesn't attract the positive reviews it deserves.
See: Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic - just avoid the evening rituals, and remember to take off your shoes (consider bringing a clothes peg).
Discover: Hire a car and a driver cum tour guide, one you have chemistry with, and make the most of their local knowledge.

Tea pickers in Sri Lanka

The Hill Country

An ambitious day-long journey from Kandy to Tissamaharama (conveniently abbreviated to Tissa) on the edge of Yala National Park was made bearable by regular stop-offs in the beautiful Hill Country. First stop Nuwara Eliya, an unmistakably anglicised town both in terms of temperature (this is the coolest place in Sri Lanka) and appearance (its houses have bay windows, there's a racecourse and a golf course, and with hills in the background it bears more than a passing resemblance to Cheltenham). Slightly more charming though is Ella, a little further south-west and positioned atop Ella Gap, which affords fantastic views down the valley and across the countryside below. This is pretty much everyone's favourite hill station, apparently, and you can travel all the way here from Colombo on the train. Which is nice.

Central to the Hill Country's appeal is Sri Lanka's most celebrated export: tea. There are acres and acres of plantations here, many of which are ripe for exploration. Beware some of the more mercenary tea pickers - yes, all of the above, who delight at having their photo taken before demanding a wildly extortionate fee. Refuse and they'll get physical, and by that I mean feared tea leaf tickle torture techniques. If by some miracle you survive that, they'll curse you and your family. Either way, you're fucked. I haven't been able to enjoy a cup since.

Many of the tea factories welcome visitors for free (though naturally most exit through the gift shop, as it were), where it's perfectly OK to shamelessly indulge in the minutiae of tea production. Get there before the coach parties of obese tea geeks, most of whom will do just that for an infuriatingly long amount of time and without any respect for your personal space.

Stay: We lunched rather than stayed at the Grand Ella Motel, which has the most fantastic views through Ella Gap.
See: Tea. Whether it's growing, drying or brewing - see it, smell it, taste it, roll around naked in it. If you want. Behind a tree somewhere and away from the pickers and the dogs.
Discover: Befriend a pilgrim to make the most of Adam's Peak, which is where the Buddha apparently left a footprint en route to paradise: a step, literally, that inspired the ubiquitous Leave Only Footprints signs on Britain's footpaths.

Waterhole and buffaloes, Yala National Park

Yala National Park

Yala is utterly spectacular - its landscape reminiscent of the African savannah with doses of tropical coastal paradise thrown in for good measure. With plains, jungle, lakes, beaches and rocky outcrops resembling elephants, and food in abundance, it's a wonderful place to live if you happen to be animal. Humans, fortunately, are not allowed to take up residence here. And thank god for that, because leopards, elephants and monkeys are far more interesting and won't be interested in prising the rupees from your wallet. Don't worry about not seeing them - go on an early-morning safari here and you will. I promise on your mum's life.

Stay: Accommodation in Yala is no longer permitted - the closest you'll get is Chaaya Wild Yala, where log cabins surround the central complex of two bars (one of which has an observation deck), a restaurant and an excellent pool. Because it borders the park and isn't fenced, wild animals come and go as they please, so expect to be escorted to your room after dark. Stay here and you're guaranteed to have a close wildlife encounter - the more arrack you drink, the closer it will be.
See: Leopards, elephants, wild boar, buffalo, elks, kingfishers and pelicans in their tens. Snakes too, if you're unlucky.
Discover: Chaaya encourages residents to learn everything there is to know about Yala's wildlife through animal tracking, photography tutorials, wildlife slideshows and film screenings.

Goyambokka Beach, Tangalla, Sri Lanka


Travel west in a tuk-tuk along the main coast road and after a couple of hours you'll arrive in Tangalla - a non-descript town whose appearance belies its beachy appeal. Continue on the road for another kilometre or two and you'll soon see what all the fuss is about: picture-perfect expanses of golden sand with surprisingly few whaley European beach bums. The water is clear, the sand is pristine and the palm trees are bloody lovely, thanks for asking.

Goyambokka is arguably Tangalla's highlight. Its main beach features a small collection of three beach shacks avec sun loungers, while a little further south-west around the bay is a smaller, smack-you-in-the-face-gorgeous little cove. There'll likely be no-one here, save for the odd fisherman (and by 'odd' I mean bringing a whole new meaning to 'bait and tackle'), a stray puppy and a couple of hammocks rocking in the breeze.

Stay: Goyambokka Guesthouse - there are four reasonably modest rooms to choose from at this tsunami-surviving colonial-style guesthouse. Room 1 is by far the largest, boasting two verandas and an outdoor shower. Newton, the live-in manager, will ensure you're exceedingly well fed on your choice of seafood. Opt for the tuna and prepare your palate for a fishy gingery explosion. That sounds disgusting, but it's really rather delicious - and superb value for money.
See: Blue Whales, if you're lucky, on a boat ride from Mirissa. Explanations from the crew are few and far between - don't expect any sea life commentary or clues as to how long you'll be at sea. Prepare yourself for six to seven hours and for Christ's sake, have a light breakfast. Water is provided, but you probably won't be told that.
Discover: Ask a local about turtle watching at Rekawa Beach. There's something disconcerting and undignified about a group of holidaymakers surrounding a turtle attempting to lay its eggs in privacy under the cover of darkness, but with limited numbers and no camera flashes it can be quite a spectacle.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka


With its collection of Dutch and Portuguese colonial buildings, Galle is a Sri Lankan town defined by an atmosphere of calm and civility. There are no gaudy signs, meat shops or traffic horns here - just a collection of cobbled streets fronted by villas, boutiques and art galleries. Galle's ramparts, which surround its fortified section, can be circumnavigated in an hour or two, accounting for a stop at the pretty lighthouse and an overpriced Lavazza coffee. There are a couple of museums, the Dutch Reformed Church and an international cricket stadium to gawp at, too.

Stay: Rick Stein's favourite, The Sun House's food may no longer live up to its internationally-celebrated standards, but this small luxury hotel is not to be missed. All guests have a tree planted on their behalf thanks to the Sri Lankan Coast Conservation project.
See: Crepe-ology on 53 Leyn Baan Street, if you fancy a proper pancake, boss.
Discover: Sri Serendipity Publishing House - the people behind Around the Fort in 80 Lives, Sri Lanka's Other Half: A Guide to the Central, Eastern and Northern Provinces and The Suicide Club. And the Colombo guidebook I was banging on about earlier.

Sri Lanka sunset, Negombo


Sri Lanka's answer to Weston-super-Mare (minus the huge tides and burned-down pier), Negombo is a town of run-down beach resorts and a big ol' expanse of unremarkable sand. The sea is slightly greyer, the hotels are generally decaying and lacking in taste, and low-flying aircraft rather than grebes and boobies own the skies. Indeed, Negombo's main asset is its proximity to Bandaranaike International Airport, which is precisely why we stayed there.

Its one saving grace, the beach, is ruined by the number of hawkers persistently and aggressively peddling their wares - particularly at sunset, when most holidaymakers want a bit of peace and quiet and time to reflect on the lovely holiday they've just had. "OK sir, no problem, you have look after. No buy, just look. Very many nice things. No buy, but very good price sir. OK?" If the hawkers aren't having much luck, they'll walk up to the hotel garden and shout at the guests on sun loungers. That's right, Negombo is a bit of a shithole.

Stay: Because the road between Colombo and Negombo gets shockingly busy, it's far better to base yourself in Negombo if you're flying out the following morning. A safe bet is the Paradise Beach Hotel - its staff are fantastic, the food is tasty, but it's more Playa del Inglés than paradise.
See: An Indian Ocean sunset followed by a swift retreat to the hotel.
Discover: Unnoticed details in the background of your holiday photos as you reflect on your trip outside of Negombo.

See more of my Sri Lanka images on Flickr, or find out more about travelling there for yourself with Indigo East, which promises a 'reinvented' take on holidays to the country when it launches in 2014.


  1. Hi Charlie. So all in all.... thumbs up or thumbs down?

  2. Hi Ralph - absolutely thumbs up! Just watch out for the tea pickers, and bypass Negombo.

  3. Charlie really SL is amazing & Must Visit!
    Did you visit the rain-forest & Unawattuna Beach in Galle?s Amazing places, food & people..U can try Mama's cafe for authentic SL food! & not to forget to check out those lovely jewelry stores !!

    Happy Traveling..

  4. He Devjani - we went past Unawatuna en route to Galle but unfortunately didn't have time to stop there. It looked fantastic and definitely somewhere to visit next time. Thanks for the tips :)

  5. He Charlie,

    So are you done with SL? Gone back? Never mind next time, try Una! The sea-food is amazing & trust me one of the best sea to swim..& not to forget surfing !!
    Till then, stay well. keep posting your latest travel updates :)

  6. I'll be back for sure, and Unawatuna is on the list :)

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  8. On my way back for the 7th time. Seriously cannot get enough of my wild, beautiful, fun, chilled, peaceful second home. You've made me "homesick" for it. I've just now booked tickets for June. :)