We had left exploring any of India’s neighbouring countries until after our daughter was born. I guess the desire to go to far-off exotic destinations as Namibia, Peru, Brazil, New Zealand, Argentina was alluring without a child. Sri Lanka was our first trip to explore South Asia beyond the Indian mainland.
This is a classic itinerary that covers the highlights of Sri Lanka. It gives you a mix of top attractions, UNESCO heritage sites like Sigiriya, culture, food, nature and beach, and is suited for family travel. We stuck to the developed areas and did not venture in the north or east side, ravaged by 40 years of war.
Colombo (1 night) – Sigiriya (3 nights) – Yala National Park (2 nights) – Tangalle (2 nights) – Galle (2 nights) – Colombo (1night)
The cities in Sri Lanka, especially on the western and southern side, are well connected by road. The south-west coast is also well connected by trains, but not many inland places like Yala national park or Tangalle that we were visiting. We decided on doing a road trip, but not self-driven. It is not-too-expensive to hire a car and driver to take you around in this compact country, although self-drive is feasible as well. As with most of our family trips, a combination of cultural immersion, getting close to nature via wildlife safaris, downtime on a beach, exploring a colonial town worked best.
This beautiful, clean country pleasantly surprised me in many ways. Although India is also a tea-growing country, it was in Sri Lanka, that I tasted many different teas and started a lifelong love affair with oolong. It is also the country where I saw the most spectacular sunsets lighting up the sky – be it at the sleepy village of Tangalle or driving down to Yala national park or walking the ramparts at the old Dutch Fort of Galle. The one thing that I was underwhelmed by was the food in Sri Lanka, but that’s just me, I prefer the Kerala coastal food to the Sri Lankan version.
Travelling across this land, I noted the similarities with my home country, except for the shorter distances and a cleaner country. Sri Lankans have similar abilities like South Asians to overcome challenges, natural disasters, war and move on with their lives.
Day 1: Colombo
Flights from Delhi were such that we had to stay a night at Colombo before moving on. We decided to spend the night at the Taj Getaway hotel near the Colombo airport.
Day 2 – 4: Cultural Triangle – Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla
The cultural triangle lies in the mid-centre of the country. It is a dry flat land and has remains of ancient ruined cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa that remind one of the golden times of Sinhalese civilisation.
We travelled the distance of approximately 166 km from Colombo to Sigiriya, the next morning, by road. Sigiriya or Lion Rock – declared a World Heritage Site in 1982 – is perhaps Sri Lanka’s most memorable attraction. This rock citadel sits atop a huge rock outcrop and was the shortest-lived of all medieval capitals of Sri Lanka. There are about 1200 steps made, you can attempt to climb the near-vertical walls and treat yourself to stunning vistas of the forests around it. There are some frescoes painted in a cave, to be enjoyed en route, as well as a pair of gigantic lion’s paws carved in the rock.
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Our stay to explore the cultural triangle for the next 3 days was at Jetwings Vil Uyana, a luxury eco-resort, that balanced the sightseeing days with lazy evenings spent sipping cocktails, having lovely food and being close to nature.
We decided to give Anuradhapura a miss – the sheer size of what was once medieval Asia’s great metropolis and the distance from Sigiriya made it a long day-trip with the 3-year-old child. The next 2 days were spent exploring Polonnaruwa – the island’s second capital after Anuradhapura, compact and absorbing – and the cave temples of Dambulla.
We also did a short safari at the Kaudulla national park – highly recommended to see the herds of elephants.
Day 5-6: Yala National Park
Day 5 turned out to be the longest time on the road on the trip. All parenting skills to keep the 3-year-old engaged and happy were used in the 10-hour car ride, and by the time we checked into our hotel at Yala national park, the adults and the kid were all tired and cranky!
We cut through the length of the country by travelling from Sigiriya first to Kandy – a hill station that reminded me of many others in north India, over-developed and crowded – and then to the hilly environs of Nuwara Eliya. In hindsight, spending a night in a tea-estate at Nuwara Eliya and breaking the journey might have worked better.
You might also want to take the slow train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, making for a quintessential Sri Lankan experience. We did not stay the night here but the sight of rolling mist amongst the green hills and the afternoon spent trying various teas at a tea factory are etched in my mind as memorable.
Yala is the most famous national park in Sri Lanka. Here you can see animals like wild elephants, deer, crocodiles, wild pigs, monkeys, and lots of birds. If you are lucky, you can even see the shy leopard.
We did 2 safaris at Yala national park, an afternoon one and an early morning experience. Alas, no leopards spotted but the jungle is beautiful and has other wildlife in abundance. Our hotel, Cinnamon Wild (also called Chayya Wild) was the perfect base to explore Yala, close to the park with its own pond of crocs!
Day 7-8: Tangalle
The distance of about 107 km between Yala and Tangalle was covered easily; it takes you through some scenic areas. Tourism has not developed as much in Tangalle as the southwest coast. If you are looking for a vacation on unspoilt beaches and are not on a budget, Tangalle doesn’t disappoint. It is wild and untouched and not crowded at all.
We spent 2 relaxed days lazying around at Amanwella – a luxury resort – sipping sundowners and watching spectacular sunsets each evening, having fresh seafood caught by the locals at their rustic restaurant on the beach and spending time together as a family.
Day 9-10: Galle
The drive to Galle, following the coastline for much of the way, is even more scenic. This Unesco World Heritage Site founded by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century is a must-do on any itinerary to Sri Lanka. Walking the ramparts of the old Fort and exploring the car-free streets of this old trading port, with all its stylish cafes, boutiques, restaurants cannot be missed.
We stayed at the Fort, and I recommend you do the same. It is like doing time travel. Ambling around the atmospheric old streets and coming across Dutch-period villas and buildings with original red-tiled roofs, is a delightful way to spend a day.
Our base here was the charming Galle Fort Hotel, an ornate Dutch mansion converted into an upscale boutique hotel.
Day 11: Colombo
Colombo is the sprawling capital of Sri Lanka. It has a long history as a port on ancient east-west trade routes, and has become a worthy destination in its own right and makes an excellent start – or finish – to your Sri Lankan adventures.
Honestly, we were vacationed out by the time we reached Colombo. I did want to visit something associated with Geoffrey Bawa – the father of Sri Lankan architecture. The trim colonial bungalow that houses Gallery Cafe used to be the office of Bawa. We spent a great evening at this cafe, and I recommend a meal here for sure. I have heard good things about the imposing Colombo National Museum, dedicated to Sri Lankan history.
To sum up, Sri Lanka is a compact beautiful country and makes for a varied interesting family holiday. You can experience ancient sites such as Polonnaruwa, national parks like Yala and Kaudulla, sandy beaches all over the country, tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya, and colonial fortresses like Galle – all in just 11 days.
If you’ve been to Sri Lanka, what was the highlight of your trip?
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