Flung into the Indian Ocean off the South-East coast of India, Sri Lanka is a truly fascinating place. After all, there aren’t many island nations that pack in Buddhist ruins, tea plantations, sandy beaches and a plethora of wildlife – to name a few. Heading to this South Asian gem for the first time? Here are eight things you’ve got to do in Sri Lanka:
1. An elephant Safari
Fan of elephants? Then you’re going to the right place. Sri Lanka has quite the choice of elephant orphanages and elephant safaris; however, if you don’t want to see them being poked with bull hooks I’d avoid the so called "orphanages" and go for Udawalawe National Park. It’s far more enjoyable seeing animals in the wild, and you’re 99% guaranteed to see an elephant. You’ve got a choice of national parks but Udawalawe tends to be a better option for spotting elephants. It is possible to stay near the park, safari jeep rental is easy (driver included, guide is additional), and you pay for park entry on arrival at the gate.
2. The Ella to Kandy train
At some point you'll need to get from A to B and there are a few options for travel; bus, car, tuk-tuk or train. Even if you've hired a private car, try and catch at least one train through the hill country. The wonderfully windy routes keep you entertained and mesmerised with their unbelievably beautiful scenery. The journey from Ella to Kandy (or the reverse) is basically an attraction in itself. Buy tickets the day before you travel just in case they sell out and bag yourself a window seat if possible.
3. Tea estate tour
A visit to the hill country isn’t completely without a tea estate visit. They provide an eye opening insight into one of Sri Lanka’s most important industries and exports, and you're left with a heightened appreciation of the amount of work that goes into a single cup. The hill country delight of Nuwara Eliya is a great place to explore different tea estates and try one of the lightest, most fragrant Ceylon teas in the country. If you’re keen, they’ll even let you pick your own tea.
4. Indulge in Kottus, Currys and Hoppers
You may be thinking Sri Lankan cuisine is just curry – and you’d be right to a certain extent – but the mix of flavours within the curry-scene here is unreal. Cashew-nut curry, devilled fish curry, pineapple curry, beetroot curry, baby jackfruit curry… the list goes on. Outside of curry-verse there’s plenty more, including some of the Sri Lankan classics like kottu (basically shredded pieces of roti with an assortment of veg and meat), ‘egg hoppers’ (a bowl-shaped pancake with a fried egg in the middle) and ‘String Hoppers’ (rice flour squeezed into thin noodles and then steamed). Just make sure you go with an empty stomach and prep yourself with a week of chilli treatment.
5. Play a match on cow dung tennis courts
Now I know this is a bit of a curve-ball and a complete novelty, but who doesn't love cow dung and tennis?! The Hill Club, a former gentleman's club in the Sri Lankan highlands (that didn’t allow membership to women or locals until 1967) boasts the finest cow dung tennis courts in the land. Quite the claim and almost worth visiting for the spectacle, but you first need to be staying at the Hill Club in order to use the courts!
6. Walk to the end of the World
A rocky 2.5 mile walk through the Horton Plains National Park brings you to the World’s End, a view point with brilliant southerly vistas towards the coast. The best time to go is between 6am and 10am (otherwise all you’ll see is cloud) which means an early rise if you’re travelling from Nuwara Eliya. Totally worth it for the sunrise over the Horton Plains, and if you’re lucky you’ll spot deer and other wildlife. Park entry fees are paid on arrival and you can pay more for guided walks.
7. Releasing sea turtles
A great place to do this is in Bentota on the West Coast. You can visit turtle hatcheries any time during the day but you have to wait until sunset to release the hatchlings. It may feel unnatural releasing baby turtles into the sea; however, the whole practice aims to ensure that they make it safely into the ocean under the watchful eye of humans, thus increasing their 1/1000 odds of survival. It also gives you the opportunity to swot up on turtle trivia and more importantly it provides a bit of income for the local communities that run these turtle hatcheries. You pay for entry to the hatcheries, which includes a tour, and then you pay a bit more to release the baby turtles.
8. Visit Sigiriya
The centre of a short-lived ancient civilisation, this is Sri Lanka’s most iconic sight and one that deserves World Wonder status. The rocky outcrop of Sigiriya juts out of the plains spectacularly, but the view of the rock is only half as good as the view from the top. A collection of precariously placed staircases takes you to ruins at the top, where the vistas are truly tantalising. Although the entry fee to Sigiriya is pricey compared to other sights in Sri Lanka, it’s definitely worth it.