A well-traveled friend told me years ago her best vacation yet had been in Sri Lanka. Beautiful, interesting, full of adventure, off the beaten path. It sounded, well, perfect. After visiting, I must say Sri Lanka certainly has risen to the top of our list of favorite trips as well. Here’s why…
From picture-perfect beaches on the Indian Ocean to watery rice fields and lush tea plantations, this small island country certainly packs a punch for eye candy.
Sri Lanka exports precious gems, rubber, cinnamon, and tea. Before 1870, the island was famous for its coffee until a leaf blight wiped out plantations. Tea bushes replaced the coffee crop, and Sir Thomas Lipton of Lipton Tea fame helped put Sri Lanka on the global tea map in the late 1800s.
Interestingly, different cultures prefer tea grown from different elevations. Middle Eastern countries order the bitter tea from the lowlands, while Asians prefer the tea harvested from middle elevations. And European and American taste buds are accustomed to the smaller leaves grown in the cooler plantations found up country.
Tea bushes are kept chest-high to easily hand-pick ‘two leaves and a bud’.
It’s refreshing to observe a non-Western culture so different from my own and to experience it without expectations.
Traditionally, men fished on stilts and fire dancers walked across hot coals. Today, Sri Lankans still practice arranged marriages and own elephants as tokens of wealth. And Sri Lanka has more public holidays than any other country in the world. Poya is a national holiday celebrated every full moon.
Countless Buddhist flags and temples quickly reveal that this is a vibrant Buddhist country. A few tips to keep in your back pocket: Modesty checkpoints approve visitors’ attire at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic where taking a selfie with a Buddha statue is a real no-no. Three French tourists learned this the hard way. And cover up those Buddha tattoos or you may be deported.
Although these rules seem strict by Western standards, Sri Lankans, like so many people of island nations, are actually quite laid back. And in their snarled traffic, they show immense patience.
Located 30 miles southeast of India, Sri Lanka is fairly isolated. Sinhala is one of the two national languages and is spoken nowhere else in the world. (Tamil is the other official language.) Travel visas are difficult for locals to obtain from foreign countries – even from India – so most Sri Lankans never leave the island.
And visiting their island as a tourist is no easy task due to its remote location. Connecting through Europe or Asia, it doesn’t matter which way you circumvent the globe from the US – it’s just far. But completely worth it.
The Food, THE FOOD!
I’m quite confident I’ve never eaten that many mind-blowing meals over two weeks. Cinnamon and cardamom in my hot cocoa. Pineapple sprinkled with salt and cayenne. My tastebuds vacillated between singing and being stunned into disbelief. Even the bananas tasted more banana-ish. Sri Lankan cuisine must be the world’s best-kept secret.
It’s like Indian food, yet not. Indians cook with ghee, while Sri Lankans use coconut milk resulting in more flavorful food. They use similar spices but in different ways.
And I will share with you (in a whisper): my favorite jeans ripped right down the back seam. Darn it, and yes, for real. But I didn’t want to miss a single thing, so, no regrets. Including eating rice and curry with my hands – messy but fun!
Because we’ve traveled a lot, it’s hard to see and do something surprisingly new, but we accomplished that in Sri Lanka. There wasn’t one standout activity, it was just the sum of all the parts that made this trip so memorable. Like this one…
TO DO IN KANDY AREA
Thotalagala · tea tasting · hike · Lipton’s Seat panoramic view by tuk-tuk
YALA NATIONAL PARK
home to leopards, elephants, sloth bears · Leopard Safari tent camp
beaches · boogie boarding · blue whale watching · stilt fishermen
ON THE ROAD
fruit stands · waterfalls · monkey & elephant crossings
· Sri Lanka achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948 and was called Ceylon until 1972.
· It’s one of the few countries where you can spy the world’s largest land mammal (elephant) and biggest creature on earth (blue whale) on the same day. Both endangered.
· Sri Lanka boasts 8 UNESCO heritage sites and 26 national parks.
· Strangely, there are two monsoon seasons. The location of the wet season flip-flops biannually.
· Cricket is the most popular sport.
· No special vaccinations required. No malaria, but they do have dengue fever so bring mosquito repellant.
· Visas are required for many nationalities but easy to obtain online.
· We connected through Singapore, although London and Dubai are alternatives.
· We felt remarkably safe traveling in Sri Lanka.
· Although English isn’t an official language, the Sri Lankans we encountered spoke enough English to communicate effectively.
· Allow a full day of travel between points – driving takes longer than expected. Budget two full days in each location to avoid feeling rushed.
· Hire a driver. Traffic is congested, rules of the road are unusual, and even our experienced driver was lost a few times. Plus, drivers have an inside scoop on good vistas and interesting places to stop along the way. Like tea tasting…
It might be hard to find a trip to match this one, but it will be fun to try!
More adventure travel | Morocco