Give me sunshine, pretty beaches and tasty food and you’ve got me hook, line and sinker. Undoubtably that was Sri Lanka. I’d never been anywhere further than Morocco and so the idea of a 12 hour flight from London really wasn’t filling my heart with joy, but the idea of getting out of the sub zero temperatures we were experiencing in the UK at the time, really did excite me. After a heavy Christmas period working in retail I was ready to be in an ocean so warm that you didn’t even wince getting in.
We flew into Colombo and hopped straight into an air conditioned van down south to Mirissa. We wanted to be somewhere chilled and nice before the jet lag set in so we were heading straight to the beach. We stayed at the Sea View villa on top of the hill and had two rooms between 5 of us, meaning Tom and I got our own room with a little balcony that looked out on to the sea. Sat at the first bar we came across on the beach to have some food and drinks. We watched the sun go down here listening to some good reggae and decided to stay for the rest of the evening. We could see a big search light from about half way along the beach, which was accompanied by thumping music, which didn’t get turned off until about 4am keeping most of us awake. We later discovered the search light showed where the main party was being held that evening and that we were staying at the far end of a busy party beach. The following day was my first real taste of a tropical ocean. It was immaculately clear, apart from the odd bit of floating plastic, but you could see huge shoals of tiny little sliver fish swimming around in the shallows. Watch out for the sea urchins though, there were so many on the rocks and they were quite well camouflaged.
The following day turned out to be the best day of my entire life. Dolphins are my favourite animals in the world but I’ve never been lucky enough to see a real one. Marissa is known for its whale watching expeditions and so of course we had to book one. They pick you up from the hotel in a tuk-tuk and take you around to the harbour really early in the morning. They provide you with a bit of breakfast and a life jacket and you’re off. We set off at about 7am as a mass of boats and off headed out to sea. I’d never been on a boat like that before and as karma for laughing at Tom getting sea sick in Dubrovnik, I started feeling sick almost instantly. We were on the boat for hours just heading out to sea and I was doing everything I could not to be ill in front of all these people, but it doesn’t seem to matter how long I stared at the horizon I couldn’t help it and ended up with my mum holding my hair while I was hanging over the side.
We were about 4 hours into the journey and were starting to get a little disheartened. We had only seen a few flying fish and a big green turtle but the boards advertising the trips showed that the day before they had seen a whale shark and numerous dolphins and whales. It was pretty clear when something was spotted as everyone rushed to the side/end of the boat. A mother and calf bottlenose treated us to a beautiful duet under the boat, riding the bow waves, twisting and turning and jumping. While the rest of the pod just swam alongside treating us to the odd jump. It was the most glorious feeling and totally made up for the early start and the puking. Eventually the pod went under and didn’t come back up for a while so we continued on. About half hour or so on we came across dolphins again only this time they were with a pod of short finned pilot whales. We slowed to a stop and both the dolphins and whales just rested around us breaking the surface for air for about 15 minuets and then headed under so we could not longer see them. I was relieved when the captain announced that we were heading back to shore. We had been out on the boat for hours and although I would’ve loved to have seen a few more animals I was grateful the the dolphins and whales had granted us the pleasure of meeting them. If you are near Mirrissa I urge you to go. It’s a long morning but my god is it worth it even if you one see one dolphin.
The next day we moved on from Mirissa to a town just down the coast called Unawatuna. Now granted both of these places were pretty touristy and that is usually something it would try to avoid, however it was also kind of nice. Arriving at Unawatuna we didn’t have any accommodation booked as we had read that there were loads of hotels along one road which you could just pop into and book there and then. Having not had any air con at the last place, it was vital to have it here. We has been facing -5 degrees celsius in the UK before leaving and so trying to sleep in 30degrees with jet lag was bit of a killer. We eventually ended up staying at The Blue Swan Inn/Swan Hostel/The freedom Villa (it has multiple names due to recent owner change) which is a beautiful place. A big colonial style house run by some really nice guys. Nice big rooms with about a 5 minute walk to the beach. It can be found on booking.com if you would like to book in advance or you can just pop in as see if they have any rooms. Unawatuna had a a lot of tourists, mostly young couples that seemed to be backpacking, however it did mean that the locals were really nice to everyone. The beach is a man made beach that has been dredged up from out at sea. It’s a really course sand with quite a steep drop to the end of the water. I was told the reason they’ve had to do this is because the beach was completely wiped out by the tsunami in 2004 and so they built some defences further out which in turn changed the way the sea deposits the sand and this lead to the beach slowly disappearing. Along the beach are lots of bars and restaurants but if you keep going you’ll come to a temple and leads round the corner and gives you a lovely view the beaches further along the coast line. We sat and watched the sunset on our first day here. It was a weird one as there was a lot of haze covering the sky, however it was made up for by a glorious little kingfisher using the rocks next to us as his fishing spot.
The next day we embarked on one of the best adventures I have ever had. I have always wanted to try scuba diving so I did some research before going and read about Submarine diving school, based on the beach in Unawatuna. I can't remember exactly how much we paid but I think it was roughly about £40 each but we got quite a lot for that money. We met the team at the diving school and started with a small bit of a theory lesson. We were taught about all the equipment and signals, taught how the read all the meters for the tanks and what to do in any situations under the water. After that we got suited and booted and went out into the shallow water just out in the bay and practiced breathing, signals, losing your mouth piece and clearing water from your mask. The guy that lead us through the lessons spoke really good english, and went at a nice pace for us to understand. Once we got our heads around that and they were happy, we jumped on a boat and drove about 100 meters out of the bay to the reef.
It seemed quite busy when we arrived as there were a lot of boats and snorkelers, but we didn’t see a single other person when we were under water. The water was super warm meaning we didn’t need wetsuits but visibility wasn’t great. The reef seemed to have struggled with bleaching so there wasn't much colour apart from the fish.
Out of the blue we were faced with a old boat wreck, I believe it was the wreck of the Goda Galla which sank in the early 00’s but I am unsure as they didn’t tell us it was just info I found myself. We circled the wreck and on the other side we were treated to sighting a little ray. Out of the gloom again we were faced with these huge stone cone shaped structures, I have no idea what they were possibly some of the defences against the tide.
Before long we popped to the surface only about 25 meters from were the boat was anchored even though I felt like I had been swimming for miles. Back at the diving school they had a list of all the species you may have seen nice and fun to be able to put names to all the fish you had just been sharing the water with. If you get the chance I strongly recommend going diving and if you are ever in Unawatuna, I cannot recommend Submarine Diving School enough. It is out of this world (literally) and it is the most exhilarating thing I have ever done.
GURUBEBLIA & UDAWALAWA
We asked the tuk tuk driver to take us to Coconut beach break in Gurubeblia, it was bout 15 minuets back down the coast towards Mirissa. We stayed with the nicest little family, a mother, father, daughter and son. There were two rooms with a double bed and a bathroom just off it. It was nice and simple and cheap. Gurubeblia was definitely more what I expected Sri Lanka to be. Down the dirt track there were about 7 guest houses/B’n’bs and restaurants, at the end of the track there was a bit of a village green with cows, cats and dogs roaming freely and then as the green ended the beach started.
It was a reef break and so the beach was slightly rocky but there was still plenty of sand to chill on. If you looked to your left there were about 8 stilt fishermen set up catching dinner and if you looked to your right there were loads of surfers, both local and tourists, enjoying a nice wave. The beach was lined with nice big palms that provided a bit of cover if you wanted and the way the reef was provided a nice warm lagoon with no rip tide to swim in.
While sitting on the beach we realised that we could see green turtles playing in the waves about 25/30 meters away from where we were, that really was a beautiful moment. On the locals suggestion we headed left out of the village to a little family run restaurant called Surf View restaurant. It served curries and dosas but they also served the best chocolate brownie and ice cream I have ever eaten. It is about a 75m walk, turning left out of the village or about 5 mins in a tuk tuk. Highly recommended and very popular.
Because Gurubeblia was a lot less touristy and busy than the other places we had been, it was perfect for bit of wildlife spotting. Just sitting outside our room we were treated to a couple of visits from a nosey little mongoose. A huge monitor lizard strolled on by one day, minding his own business with not a single care we were so close. Thats not to count the monkeys, birds, fireflies, fish and a few types of gecko.
We wanted to head to one of the national parks and were told that this was an ideal place to do it from. We hired an air-con mini bus that collected us from the guest house at 4am and drove us to Udawalawa National Park, stopping for breakfast on the way. Then when we were near the park we met Amila who was going to be our tour guide. We hopped in his pop top 4X4 and headed into the park to collect the tickets which worked out to be about £12 each. We were surrounded by easily 30 trucks of people doing the same but as soon as we pulled off from the gate it was like there was 4 of us and were barely crossed paths with any of them again.
We ventured off into the national park, we decided against a guide as our driver was more than adequate. He had a big book of all the animals that you could see while there and he did a pretty good job of spotting them and explaining what they were.
Then we came across a heard of elephants of all ages grazing in the bushes. It was beautiful. The whole family wandered around us and the few other trucks that were there heading in and out of the bushes either side of the track until eventually they all just wandered off happily. We then ventured off toward the watering hole to see what animals may be grazing near there. We got to see a load of buffalo wallowing in the mud, lots of fishing birds such as cranes and storks and then we played spot the crock. They were perfectly camouflaged in the mud but we managed to spot about 25 crocodiles near the waters edge.
Next we were greeted with one of the best sights. Not all asian elephant have tusks, it is quite an achievement for a bull to have some. We were told that there were about 5 tuskers in the park but they were never really seen as they like to keep themselves to themselves. Then in the distance about 50 meters away in the bush the other side of the water emerged the most magnificent beast. The biggest tusker in the park! He was huge, bordering on the size of an African bull. He was stunning and there he was in plain sight with no one else around but us. He wandered over, had a drink, ate some leaves and then wandered off back into the bushes as fast as he came he was gone. Our guide said we were really privileged to have seen a tusker, let alone the biggest tusker around. We edged on around the water and stopped at a small opening where we sat and watched come kingfishers. Kingfishers are one of my favourite birds but I had never seen them so it was a pretty special experience. After a while we continued on, stopping periodically to spot birds and other small animals. We had stopped as our guide had seen a mongoose dash into the hedge and we were hoping it would come back out. We were nattering away when our guide shushed us and pointed to the right of the truck. We all turned and realised we were face to face with the big tusker. No word of a lie, he was about 5 meters maximum away from me and we were staring each other down. For such a huge animal he crept up on us without a sound and didn’t seem remotely bothered that we were there, no wonder the mongoose didn’t come back, I can only imagine he knew what was coming. Tusker waddled around our truck to cross the road, munched on some of the bushes and then disappeared into the greenery again. We were amazed and so grateful for the chance to be so close. We left not long after as Amila was saying our hopes of seeing a leopard were decreasing because the rain was getting heavier. Our guide dropped us back to the mini bus and our driver. We thanked him and tipped him for such an amazing opportunity and headed on our way back to Gurubeblia.
We stayed for another day, making the most of the peace and serenity of Gurubeblia. One day we headed back to Wellagamma for a surf. Jordan and I hired some boards for about £2 for an hour. The waves in Wellagamma were bit chaotic though. There were all levels of surfers bobbing about in the waves, from beginners with guides to some pretty good people, but it made it a bit busy for my liking. It was a nice easy wave so if you fancy trying out or learning a little while you’re there I would suggest Welligamma.
Soon it was time to move on from Gurubeblia so we grabbed a couple of tuk tuks and headed to Hikkadawa a little further along the coast. Having done some research Hikkaduwa looked like an idillic white sand paradise. However it was pretty different from what we expected. The beach was alright but really not what the photos would suggest, we went for a walk along it to find somewhere to sit and have a drink. About half way up the beach we saw a big crowed of people stood in the shallows looking and playing with something in the water. As we got closer we realised there were two turtles in the shallows that were being fed by the people. They weren't in anyway enclosed, totally free to go but seemed happy to float about and be hand fed seaweed. I have since read that this isn’t great for the turtles. It means they keep retuning to this spot to get fed and end up missing out on vital nutrients from what should be a varied diet and not just sea weed.
Wandering back up the main road was a different experience from what we had seen else where. Some of the shops had signs in the windows saying that it was a tourist only shop and that no locals were allowed in which was something that we hadn’t experienced anywhere else. However it was here that we had my possibly my favourite authentic Sri Lankan food. We went to a restaurant called Get Fresh Restaurant which was kind of on a roof terrace. I had a Mango and Coconut curry and it was honestly the best curry I have ever tasted. I’m not really keen on spicy food, I never have been and so Sri Lanka really was a tough one for me when it came to the food. Especially when the rest of my family love a good bit of spice but this curry was just right.
The following morning we boarded an insanely busy, train from Hikkadua to Colombo and then onward from Colombo to Kandy. Having heard that the cross country trains in Sri Lanka provide some glorious views we knew we had to give it ago however we were packed in like sardines. All four of us were sat on the floor half in the carriage and half in the hallway next to the loo (yum) and we were stuck there for about three hours with people either side pushing passed every time we came to a stop. However it was very cheap. You can buy your tickets in advance from any of the stations for a fraction of the price of tickets here in the UK. I would advise going for 2nd or 1st class only as 3rd class gets even less comfortable but even a second class ticket only cost us the equivalent of about £4.50 for a 3hr train ride.
Coming into Kandy was a totally different experience from what we had faced throughout the rest of Sri Lanka. We were used to beaches and ocean but suddenly we were faced with city bordered with mountains and jungle. We stayed in the Satyodaya Educational Training centre, it's on the side of the hill and a bit of trek so not advised to those who may struggle with the climb. However, it was cheap, included breakfast and provided a brilliant view. Something that drew us to this hotel is that it does work for disadvantaged people in parts or Sri Lanka. They say their goal is to "create a just society where inter-ethnic, inter-linguistic, inter-religious and inter-cultural aspect are admired in the name of humanity." check out their mission here. You can book. to stay here through Booking.com or just pop in and speak to the people at the desk Our first evening we wandered down into the town and found the first place we could to eat. We ended up in The Pub, a little European styled place, usually we go for more local food and try and get as immersed in the local cuisine as possible however we were tired, hot and hungry and everywhere else was closed. So we went in the first place we could find. Sometimes when you’ve been in a different country for a while it’s nice to have a taste of something a bit more homely and so we all ended up having a classic battered fish and chips. I kid you not it was possibly the nicest fish and chips I have ever had. The pub was playing bit of 60s/70s music accompanied with the old music videos so over our tasty grub and a few pints we had a good singsong and left feeling great.
The following morning we wanted to do something a little cultured and so decided to visit a temple. Kandy is the home to the Temple of the sacred tooth relic which is a huge part of Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka and the temple is one of the most sacred places in the country. Like most temples across the world you are only allowed in if you are dressed appropriately meaning that chests, tops of arms and legs (just to below the knee) needs to be covered. When you arrive at the temple you can buy sarongs or scarfs to cover yourselves from the vendors outside, my advice would be to just take your own. You do have to pay for entree however it was only roughly £4.50 each. Once inside there are large grounds to walk around with nice gardens and sculptures to have a look at well as the main temple and the museum upstairs. When visiting Sri Lanka be aware that it is massively disrespectful to turn your back to a statue of Buddha, especially if it is to take a photo with it. It has been mentioned online that tourists have been approached by police and security guards and removed from temples and some have even had their camera confiscated and all photos deleted and sometimes they will just remove your memory card and keep it all. So just a reminder when you’re looking for the perfect insta pic do not turn your back on Buddah, however you may turn to the side and look at the camera.
After we visited the temple we wanted to visit the Udawatta Kele Sanctuary behind the temple and potentially see some animals. We had read that it was full of animals from wild pigs and monkeys to a huge array of birds. It was. The track up to the gates is all uphill and we accidentally timed this with midday and so the walk in the heat was quite difficult however once you reach the gate you are inside dense forest and so you are under cover and the temperature becomes much more bearable. Upon entry you go through a little gate and paid for your ticket (570LKR = roughly £2.43) to get in you are then faced with a big map of the reserve so that you can decide the route you would like to take. We made a point of going the highest view point which gives you a glorious view over the whole of Kandy. We watched as an entire family of monkeys played in the trees, the tiniest ones climbing to their mums and the teenagers chasing and play fighting each other. This interaction made the hot climb up the hill well worth it. It is a glorious place and the birds never stop singing so it is nice to wander in the shade and relax to the perfect chorus of bird song. However it is quite big and the staff are only really at the main gate so it is advised not to go alone.
The following morning after hearing lovely things we decided we were going to go for a stroll around the botanical gardens. It was much bigger than expected and had a huge amount of plants from across the globe. It also had a lot of open grass areas so you could sit and chill in the sun or shade if you wanted to. However the thing that really stole my heart about this place was the fruit bat colony that live in the banyan trees. I have only ever seen bats in passing during dusk or at a zoo so to see so many bats in the middle of the day was breathtaking. They are mostly hanging in the trees but a few are flying around and you can also hear them squeaking to each other. It is honestly not a sight to be missed if you are an animal person. There is also a few troupes of monkeys that live within the grounds of the botanical gardens who are really not bothered by humans. If you have any food or drinks with you I strongly advise you hide it (put it in your bag and zip it up) as they will chase you and growl at you until it is given to them, even just the crackling of a packet is enough to get their attention. This was the only place I had seen the monkeys being aggressive or approaching humans while we were there, most of the time they kept themselves to themselves. However the monkeys can carry rabies so I wouldn’t get too close.
As a whole Kandy was pretty cool. It’s a very busy city with lots to do which obviously means it has some of the best food places that we tried. Near the temple there was a restaurant called Balaji Dosai that was purely veggie but real tasty Sri Lankan food. It was quite spicy for me but my family loved it so much we went about 3 times. I found Kandy to be less touristy than the other places we had been at, I guess this is down the fact it is a major city and not a little beach town meaning that the tourist that were there were likely spread out throughout the city and less noticeable. The monkeys like to jump on the roof at night time keep you awake and as the city has a high number of muslims there is also a pre-sunrise call to prayer that echos across the city that can wake you up so I strongly advise some decent ear plugs (but thats a given for most travellers). Leaving Kandy was sad but also quite a relief, I loved the city but it was such an intense environment to be surrounded by after weeks at the beach. Not one to be missed though.
With only a couple days left in the country we had decided we wanted to head back to the beach again. We had heard Negombo was the perfect place as it was a nice big beach and not too far from the airport. We were ready to chill and make the most of our last few days. Negombo high street is full of little shops and restaurants selling everything making it the perfect place to find some gifts for people to take home. Along the sea front there is a nice long stretch of beach lined by hotels. The water wasn’t as clear here as everywhere else but it was equally as warm, however we did experience some serious rip tides here so be careful if you do enter the water. Lining the sea were big catamarans, some for fishing and some ready to take you out to sea.
We didn’t explore much of Negombo, it was the end of our holiday and funds were depleting, but we have heard great things. There is an old Dutch Fort which its beautiful to explore and very picturesque in the sun, as well as a big lagoon that you explore via a water safari and spot all manner of wild birds or go fishing with the locals. If you’re yet to see any big shrines or temples there is also Angurukaramulla Buddhist temple with a big 6 meter statue of Buddha outside. I have heard this temple is very pretty but can be bit costly to get into, we didn’t visit so I can’t tell you how much. We stayed in Oasis Beach Resort, right on the beach, it had a lovely big pool in the middle which wasn’t heated but was a nice respite from the heat as well as big balconies which overlooked the pool, sun terrace and beach.
On the last night we headed into a restaurant called Lords which honestly looked like the least Sri Lankan place on the main street. It is covered in blue and pink led lights inside and out and honestly looks more like a club than a restaurant. The place is filled with water features and goldfish ponds but when you walk through into the back bar you are greeted with a nice stage for live music and a bustling little bar. Reading the notice boards and menu outside lead us to discover that they work with a charity called The Hope Foundation, which supports and looks after the stray street dogs and cats that are everywhere in Sri Lanka. As an animal lover this swayed it for me as it was nice to know that a portion of the money we spent went towards helping the animals and it had been so hard seeing so many dogs in horrible conditions while we were there. This was just one of the good things this place does, you can read more on their website HERE. The menu in this restaurant was lovely and pretty reasonably priced for a fancy restaurant and what really made it for me was that they sold berry cider. I hate beer and so any drinks I had while in Sri Lanka were cocktails which were usually a lot more expensive and so a nice fruity cider after a two weeks in the sun really hit the spot (any brits will agree that a fruity cider in the sun is a summer necessity). So if you are visiting Negombo and fancy tasty food and drink, no matter if your vegan, veggie or a meat eater, they have it all ( MUST TRY - Jackfruit, Coconut & Arrack Curry). Don’t be put off by the flashy decor and lights. It is all worth it and the vibe was lovely.
Sri Lanka will forever have a spot in my heart now. I didn’t get to do everything I would like to, such as the visiting Ella and obviously crossing the nine arch bridge on the train or seeing a real life leopard or watching turtles hatch on the beach, but I got to see and do a lot of other amazing things. Things I have wanted to see and do for so long and creating memories that I’ll never forget.
The people are so welcoming and friendly, we didn’t have any trouble anywhere and felt so at home in all the places we stayed. Not once did I feel unsafe, on edge or even uncomfortable. The food is delicious and the country is beautiful and you can do it all on a budget. With 3 hour train rides costing the equivalent of about £4.50 and taking you to a totally different part of the island whilst delivering the most glorious views (who needs a seat anyway). Sri Lanka isn’t one to be missed if you’re heading that way or even for a general holiday. We met people traveling as families and people just traveling solo, people who are there for the surf and people who are there for the hiking, it really does cater for all.
Please don't let bad press and the actions of a few put you off exploring this glorious island, I promise you won't regret it. The locals we met need tourism to survive, it's their lively hood. They are good, honest and kind hearted people who don't deserve to lose out because of the horrible actions of some. That is not the spirit of Sri Lanka. I will definitely return one day, perhaps not in a rush as there are so many other beautiful parts of the world I would like to explore first, but definitely one day. Two glorious weeks of warm waters, tasty food and beautiful scenery. Sri Lanka, I hope you don’t change and I hope no one is put off getting to experience everything you have to offer.