Backpacking Sri Lanka - Asia's best kept secret

Tripoto
18th Feb 2018
Photo of by Nishit Ganatra

At the onset of 2018, I had pledged 2 things to myself for the year: Good health & lots of travel.

While I have surprised myself that I am still committed to follow both my pledges in full, I have been going to a gym to take care of the former. For the latter, I would want to dig a bit deeper before I start writing about my trip to Lanka.

My love for travel goes long back to a time when I was a kid. Like most kids, I too was always fascinated by train travel. Among the many things that a middle class Indian kid dreams of becoming, I, for a long time, fancied becoming a train driver. I still think of joining the railways sometimes. However, as I grew up, I started having an inclination towards travelling more seriously. That I had to shift my base for further studies, ensured a lot of default travel. Gradually, I realized that I enjoyed travelling.

One of the reasons I took up my first job in Sales was because it ensured a lot of travel. It ensured I get to experience new places, new people: both joys so surreal that I wouldn't want to miss a job that pays to do it.[ Although, the fact that other streams like Finance required you to slog your backside off in order to secure good results & therefore a good job was a reason equally responsible for my choice of Sales]. I will be ever grateful to my first job which made me travel like crazy. I used to then manage 4 states as a Sales Manager: Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh & Jammu & Kashmir. I would travel 26 days in a month for more than a year & explored the inner beauty of this region. To add to it, I was responsible for the rural channel, which made me travel not to the cities but to the smallest of villages of these states. That's where the culture & charm lie. To have been able to have cans of beer sitting out in the open by the side of a canal in a small village on the outskirts of Patiala in Punjab on a breezy summer evening or to have been able to spend an entire day looking at the clouds in Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh are joys etched in my memory forever. Climbing up the corporate ladder ensured I subsequently got posted to the cities & the silent rustic travel now got replaced by chaotic urban commute. Before I realized, my love for travel & many more things along with it, got lost in the quest of a successful career. Travel now was limited to flights & cabs and holidays (from the beggarly leaves one gets) would now be spent in just recovery (from the damage caused by the job) than exploration.

Coming back to the second pledge. I promised a lot of travel to myself. Travel that would make me explore places and give a sense of liberation. That I had quit my job while making the promise, made it all the more easier in the first place. With the uncertainty of what direction to give to my career being the pivot, I planned a trip. The idea was to take some time off, explore a new place, meet tons of people, and while at it, introspect on what I wanted in life.

This was the background behind this trip. Due to budgetary constraints, I wasn't thinking anywhere outside India before the missus, like a prophet, simply dropped the golden words, 'Why don't you go to Sri Lanka?' Lackadaisically, I searched for ticket prices and BINGO. The tickets were pretty cheap. I immediately booked the tickets and applied for the e-VISA. Little did I realise then that this was going to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Day 1 : Arrival in Colombo

I flew out of Bangalore in the evening & landed in Colombo @ 7:30 pm. I quickly collected my bagpack and headed towards the ATM to withdraw local currency. Yes I had not exchanged currency and withdrawing from the ATM is cheaper than exchanging. Post this I headed straight to the 'DIALOG' kiosk to buy a local SIM Card. Got the local SIM Card pretty cheap which came with 100 minutes of free calling (local or ISD), 100 SMS, 8 GB Data. This was sufficient for my 8 day trip and cost me just 1200 LKR (INR 600)

Heading out of the airport, I proceeded to enquire if I could catch a bus to Colombo (the airport being 35 KMs from the city). I bumped into a backpackers' contingent who had reserved a 10-seater mini bus and were happy to accommodate me in their bus in exchange of sharing the money. The per head share was 350 LKR which, for an AC bus, was pretty cheap. The bus dropped us near the Fort Railway Station (this was a central landmark in the heart of the city). From there I just took a tuk-tuk to my hostel.

Colombo city hostel was the only booking I had done in advance and it turned out to be a very good decision. They had both AC and non AC dorms and cost less than 1000 bucks (INR) for a night. Perry who was the hostel manager was always eager to answer any of my queries and help me with my itinerary for the trip.

Day 2 : Dambulla

Accomodation: Dambulla City Hostel

Arriving From: Colombo by bus, Distance Colombo – Dambulla : 160 KMs, Duration : 4 hours

Food Options: Bentota Bake House or Mango Mango

Places to Visit: Dambulla Cave Temple, Sigiriya/Pidurangale, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva, Pink Quartz Mountain

For anybody wanting to experience the ancient ruins and cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, Dambulla is the ideal base. The cultural triangle consists of 3 places: Anuradhapura, Sigiriya & Polonnaruva. These are places where a lot of ancient history and civilization existed in Sri Lanka. All these places are do-able from Dambulla. I didn't have enough time to do all 3 so I decided to do Sigiriya along with Dambulla local.

Dambulla has the Buddha Cave Temple which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a 20 minute climb on foot. The temple also gives bird's eye view of the entire Dambulla town as well as the adjacent Sigiriya Peak. Post doing the temple, I had booked for a tuk-tuk to take me to Sigiriya which I wanted to climb before sunset. Tuk-Tuk is the most convenient form of transport in Sri Lanka and most small (less than 2 hour) commutes should be done in a tuk tuk to enjoy the natural beauty. The tuk-tuk ride to Sigiriya took 40 mins from the hostel. There were 2 hills side by side: Sigiriya & Pidurangale. Sigiriya is again a UNESCO world heritage site and means Lion's Rock. My hostel manager, Maria as well as my tuk tuk driver suggested that I climb Pidurangale as it has better views and is less crowded than Sigiriya. I followed cues. It took me 1 hour to climb Pidurangale and I was at the top just before the sunset. Being atop the Pidurangale hill meant I had the complete view of Sigiriya as well as the beautiful landscape all around me. I must mention and thank Yvonne from Germany who helped me climb the treacherous last leg and also helped me while descending. Our itineraries did overlap a bit and we bumped into each other the next day while on the way to Kandy as well.

Picked some booze while on my way back and the night was spent at the hostel over cans of beers, discussing world issues and further fine tuning my itinerary with fellow travelers from France, Germany & the USA.

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Dambulla Cave Temple
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Interiors of the Cave Temple
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View of Sigirya from Pidurangale
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Sunset atop Pidurangale

Day 3 : Kandy

Accomodation: Kandy City Hostel

Arriving From: Dambulla by bus, Distance: Dambulla - Kandy: 80 KMs, Duration: 2.5 hours

Food Options: Balaji Dosai House, Midland Deli Restaurant

Places to Visit: Temple of the Tooth, The Kandy City Lake, Arthur’s Seat (go at sunrise/sunset to get the view of the city), Paradeniya Botanical Gardens, Common Wealth War Cemetary, Ranweli Spice Gardens etc.

Kandy marks the beginning of the Sri Lankan hill country and serves the base for the hill stations of Nuwara Eliya and Ella. The view from Arthur's seat of the overlooking Kandy city lake is spectacular. Also a must do is the Paradeniya Botanical Gardens for its greenery. I skipped the Spice Gardens and the Temple of the Tooth (a UNESCO world heritage site) but did go for the Common Wealth War Cemetary. I had rented a 2 wheeler while at Kandy and it just fit my trip well. There is none other better place than being at the Kandy City Hostel rooftop at night. The rooftop parties go on till the wee hours of morning.

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Kandy City View from Arthur's Seat
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Royal Botanical Garden, Kandy
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Kandy Railway Station
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The legendary Kandy City Hostel Rooftop

Day 4 : Nuwara Eliya

Accomodation: Tong Fu Hostel

Arriving From: Kandy by Tuk Tuk, Distance: Kandy – Nuwara Eliya: 75 KMs, Duration: 4 hours

Food Options: Calamander (by the Gregory lake), Remarko Restaurant (City Center)

Places to Visit: Gregory Lake, Tea Factory, Horton Plains and World’s End, Baker Falls, Hakgala Botanical Gardens

After I missed the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, I decided to take a tuk tuk for the 3 hour journey since I got a good tuktuk driver who promised to stop at all spots worth taking photographs. We passed through many waterfalls and tea plantations on the way. Had a tea factory tour @ the Damro Tea Factory enroute Nuwara Eliya. Also bought some tea for home. The hostel at Eliya was situated just by the scenic Gregory Lake. The majestic lake and hill setting made Nuwara Eliya look like a British country town. Strolled by the city center, the majestic Golf Course in the evening before returning to the lake side again. Decided not to do the Horton Plains as the commute and entry would cost more and also because that would mean spending one more day at Eliya which I didn't have the luxury of. Instead proceeded to Ella.

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Enroute Nuwara Eliya
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Tea Plantations enroute Eliya
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Gregory Lake
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Lunch by the lakeside @ Calamander
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And some more Plantations

Train Ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella

This is the highlight of my Sri Lanka trip. Any visit to Sri Lankan hill country is incomplete without this must-do train journey. Rated as one of the best train journeys of the world, this 64 km (4 hour) journey takes you through the beautiful mountains/tea-plantations/forests/villages of the hill country. The views from the train are simply breath-taking and if you can manage a window seat (which I did), the joy doubles.

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Manual Signboard at the railway station
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The majestic train ride
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Breath taking view from the window seat
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Lankan Farming at its best
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Picturesue Lanka from the train
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Entering the woods
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Intersection of memories
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Through the lovely forest
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Enter the tunnel

Day 5 : Ella

Accomodation: My Hostel, Ella

Arriving From: Nuwara Eliya by Train, Distance: Nuwara Eliya - Ella: 64 KMs, Duration: 4 hours

Food Options: Café Chill Bar & Restaurant, Downtown Roti Hut

Places to Visit: Ravana Falls, Nine Arches Bridge, Little Adam’s Peak, Ella Rock

The best way to describe Ella is 'Sri Lankan hill country minus the crowd'. Ella is the backpacker's paradise. A very small town located in the hills, Ella offers you opportunities of doing 2 hill treks: The Little Adam's Peak and the Ella Rock. Apart from these, there is the picturesque Nine Arches Bridge and the Ravana Waterfalls. There also is a Ravana Cave Temple at this place. The city center has 2-3 pubs which are open throughout the night and they have bonfire parties every night. Ella offers you the privacy and silence that one needs to enjoy the beautiful Sri Lankan hill country.

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Nine Arches Bridge, Ella
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Ravana Falls, Ella

Days 6,7,8 : Mirissa, Weligama, Unawatuna, Galle (The Sri Lankan South Coast)

Accomodation: JJ’s Hostel, Mirissa

Arriving From: Ella by bus (to Matara and then Tuktuk), Distance: Ella - Matara: 180 KMs, Duration: 6 hours.

Food Options: Mirissa : Zephyr, Kama | Weligama : Meewitha Cool Spot Restaurant | Unawatuna : Jina’s Vegan Restaurant | Galle : Indian Roti Hut

Places to Visit: Secret Beach Mirissa, Mirissa Beach, Weligama Harbour Bay, Weligama Beach, Koggalla Lake, Unawatuna Beach, Galle Fort & Market.

Activities: Scuba Diving & Surfing (Any of the above beaches), Snorkelling & Whale Watching (Mirissa Beach)

Once the culture trip and the mountains were over, I headed to explore the most treasured Sri Lankan beaches. I had kept my base in Mirissa and hired a scooty for 2 days to explore the adjoining beaches of Weligama, Unawatuna and Galle. Mirissa to Galle is a 34 KM stretch of road all along the coast which deserves to be driven along and the beaches of Weligama and Unawatuna along with other beaches. Galle can be done with half a day's trip and nothing more. Each of these beaches need a good time and I decided to give each of them a day each. Although there are more famous ones like Bentota, Hikkaduwa etc. I had no time to do them and have left them for the next time.

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Kogalla Lake
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Confluence @ Mirissa
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Weligama Beach
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Evening @ Mirissa beach
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Mirissa Beach, the other side
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Sunset @ Secret Beach, Mirissa
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Weligama Beach Shacks
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Sunset @ Zephyr, Mirissa Beach
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Surfer's Paradise, Weligama
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Weligama Harbour
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Weligama Harbour Bay

Reached Colombo the night before. Took an AC bus from Matara which took 3 hours along the expressway. Spent the night dabbling my hand at the Roulette table at Bally's Casino (my intent to go to the casino was Free Indian Food, which I had started to miss by then). The next morning I headed to the airport post my breakfast at the amazing roof-top of the Colombo City Hostel.

Thus ended my short sweet trip to Sri Lanka. I must say that the Sri Lankans are a very warm bunch of people. The entire country was beautiful and surprisingly very very clean. Wherever I went, whenever people would come to know I am from India, they would give a lot of love. Some would instantly start talking about cricket (they are cricket crazy like us and Virat Kohli is their favourite everywhere), some would speak broken hindi which they would have acquired from their stint in Gulf and in one case a tuktuk driver refused to take money when he came to know I am from India.

As I said, little did I know while booking tickets to this small island nation that it would turn out to be one of my best decisions. This trip has rekindled in me the spirit of travelling and exploring. Here's to more such trips in times to come: Onwards & Upwards.