With both of us having a couple weeks vacation from teaching classes for the winter holidays, so we did what we usually do… packed our backpacks. Destination: the southern half of Sri Lanka.

Colombo

We arrived in the early morning via FlyDubai (not recommended) but got over the flight quickly as we had an entire day to enjoy in the sun. The most interesting thing about Ratmalana Airport in Colombo is that you have to walk through an entire department of washing machines to reach the exit… let us know if you cross over from window shopping to actually purchasing a washer there. Our apologies for not having photos of this fantastic and unique experience. We were running to get on with enjoying the warmth and the sunshine after the first half of a snowy cold winter. But before getting out the door, we grabbed our backpacks from the luggage belt and purchased a SIM card (which Arash is still carrying around). 

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We previously made an AirBnB reservation with early check-in in the town of Negombo but declined the airport transport for $15. So we walked out to a sunny morning and found a driver who took us for the equivalent of $6.50. As expected, the driver offered to give us a personal tour of the country for most of the trip, which we indirectly declined.


Negombo

It was a beautiful, scenic drive about 30 minutes north of the capital. We checked into a shared house with a private bedroom by dumping our belongings on the floor and walking across the street for breakfast and stretching our legs out on the beach.  

We arrived December 26th and found the remains of fireworks and parties all along the beach. Unlike most of Sri Lanka, Negombo has a high Catholic population and the entire town was decorated with Nativity settings and statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

We enjoyed this small, quiet town for two days and then boarded the bus toward Dambulla. The bus ride was as bus rides are in developing countries; tightly cramped in seats too small, beautiful views out the window, and fear for your life.

 

  • Best of Negombo: Quiet and peaceful beach                                                            
  • Worst of Negombo: Pollution, especially in the water                                                  
  • Bus ticket per person, Negombo/Kurunegala: 99 rupees (65 cents)  
  • Accommodation: AirBnB, shared home with private bedroom for $14/night

Kurunegala

We quickly stopped in Kurunegala on our way to Dambulla to switch buses. The bus station was loud, crowded and full of smells from buses, trucks, oil, fried food, spicy snacks, and sweat. We walked around a bus station in search of food, ate quickly and returned for our next bus.

 

Arash passed the time at the station by assisting the conductor in getting passengers on the bus.  I just sat inside the bus sweating. Eventually, the old bus left the station. The bus ride was mostly the same as the last. 

 

  • Best of Kurunegala: You get a break from the bus ride.                                          
  • Worst of Kurunegala: It’s just a bus stop from what we could tell.                            
  • Bus ticket per person, Kurunegala/Dambulla: 80 rupees, 52 cents 

Dambulla

We arrived in Dambulla in the late afternoon and wandered away from the bus station in search of a room for the night.  There was the very undesirable “helpful” tuktuk and motorcycle drivers insisting on helping us find a place. We declined their eager assistance and eventually climbed up to a small lodge that we managed to talk the price down to nearly free.  As usual, bags were thrown down, followed by a fast and very cold shower, and out we went in search of food.  There was an excellent little cafe on the main street with reasonable prices, amazing food, and even a guest house. Other than totally immerse ourselves in that, we made a trip to the well-known Sigiriya (See below).  We were also planning to go to Habarana, but changed our minds and decided to move on.

 

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There wasn’t much in Dambulla, not much at all.  We did later discover there were cave temples and a botanical garden, but it wasn’t worth spending another day in this town for.  Off we went to the bus station at the clock tower to board for Kandy.

  • Best of Dambulla: A great site to access other areas in The Cultural Triangle.  
  • Worst of Dambulla: There isn’t much there and limited accommodation options.
  • Bus ticket per person, Dambulla/Kandy: 100 rupees ($65)                                                
  • Accommodation: private room and bath for 1200 rupees ($7.80)

Sigiriya

While in Dambulla, we took a day trip to the infamous Sigiriya and Lion Rock. The bus ride from town was quite pleasant; the buses were not overly crowded and the view of the landscape change with the altitude was indescribably beautiful. The cost was outrageous to enjoy this gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage Site, so after all this… we just decided to walk around the beautiful rock and enjoy it from below. Who wants to climb up a huge rock when it’s already this hot anyway??!? The walk around was stunning. And then even more stunning… a security guard told us to make a turn down a smaller path to see a temple. We didn’t have much else to do so naturally, we turned onto that path around the back of Lion Rock. It was a huge highlight of this trip and I am forever grateful that we didn’t pay the tourist price for admission. I am sure that by far we had the better experience with this small, serene temple that leads to a hiking path, up/over/around/under rocks to a cliff. Words do no justice here, it must be experienced with the eyes and heart.

 

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Words do no justice here, it must be experienced with the eyes and heart.

After descending and meandering our way back to the road for the bus, we crossed a small new cafe and guesthouse where we enjoyed lunch with the local owner who gave some brief history and insight of the area and people. The location was between Lion Rock and Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple and I would highly recommend staying there if you are interested in exploring the area. From the main road, you may want to take a tuktuk or ask the owner if he provides transport.

  • Best of Sigiriya: Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple! You must see it.                        
  • Worst of Sigiriya: Outrageous business created at a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Bus ticket per person, Dambulla/Sigiriya: 100 rupees ($65)

Kandy

There was so much hype over Kandy. We’ve heard from everyone that this was backpacker heaven. We got off the bus in the city center after dark and in a drizzle, but the town was still bustling and unlike most of what we’d seen so far in Sri Lanka. In fact, there was a shopping mall!

Every guesthouse/hostel/hotel was full or way beyond our price range.  We wandered around, did our best to avoid the help of “friends” and after a couple hours, crossed an older woman who welcomed into her home full of backpackers and her family.  After the rock behind Lion Rock, the next best thing about Sri Lanka was the women, especially, “Auntie”. 

 

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There was a lot to do in Kandy, but it was catered to tourists. When outside of Auntie’s home, we had a difficult time seeing and feeling the life of the locals of Kandy. However, the tourism is understandable as there are many attractions in this eccentric city. While in Kandy, you can enjoy walks around the lake, the Temple of the Tooth, the Elephant Museum, the Royal Palace of Kandy, among other temples, sanctuaries, Buddha statues, meditation and retreats, hiking and local crafts. If you are planning to stay in Kandy and are traveling on a budget, expect to spend quite a bit more in this town than you will in other places in Sri Lanka. 

We planned to leave Kandy by train and head to Ella, but without getting our train tickets in advance, we missed our only opportunity. Luckily, we found four other travelers in the same situation and were able to share a hired car to take us to Ella.

  • Best of Kandy: For us, it was staying with Auntie.                                                  
  • Worst of Kandy: Many of the locals have acclimated to the high tourist population
  • Shared van cost per person, Kandy/Ella: 2000 rupees ($13)                                               
  • Accommodation: private room and bath for 1500 rupee ($9.76)

Ella

The drive from Kandy to Ella was breathtaking. We stopped along the way in Newara Eliya for lunch and to see the tea plantations.

When first arriving in Ella, we arranged a stay a ways out of town at a camping lodge that boasted flying tents. For some reason, we were thinking that climbing up a tree and sleeping in a tent suspended high in the mountains would be a fantastic idea. My image of it was much better than the reality. When rain settled in and I was hanging in the air, (more fearful than when riding the bus), we trudged back to the main house and slept in a tent on the porch with the campers from the flying tent next to ours. It turns out the main lodge was a haven for people tripping out in another dimension, so in the morning, our new neighbor friends and us shared a tuktuk to town and found another family guesthouse that was cozy, quiet and inviting.

This cute little town is friendly and full of cafes and coffee shops. Many of the travelers stopping in Ella seemed to really love nature and it’s clear why. We took the chance to go hiking and walk along the railroad tracks, get lost in tea plantations, drink wood apple juice and eat fresh fruits on the side of the roads.

 

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Arash was ill and bed-ridden for a few days while staying in Ella, but luckily, we were in good hands at our guest house. Our new Auntie had an herb garden behind the house and made local medicinal drinks to aid in recovery. Once Arash was well enough, we lugged our bags down to the bus station, excited to get to the beach.

Best of Ella: Hike to Ella Rock, but be careful of local “guides”. Also, the people were very kind and inviting.

  • Best of Ella: Hike to Ella Rock, but be careful of local “guides”.                          
  • Worst of Ella: There were no obvious drawbacks to staying in Ella.                        
  • Bus ticket per person, Ella/Tangalle:  200 rupees ($1.30)                                                     
  • Accommodation:
    • Tent in the porch 3000 rupees ($19.50)
    • private room and bath for 2800 Rupees ($18.20)

Stay connected for “Backpacking: Sri Lanka Part 2” next week to hear about our explorations when finally reaching the beach! We saved the best for last with our travels through Tangalle, Marisa, Welligama, Galle and back to Columbo.

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