Roadtrip tour of Sri Lanka with my family
Born in the 1990s, I am a typical Pisces who seeks romance and loves travel and design. Also, I’m the founder of a home decoration business, and a lucky girl whose work is where her hobby lays. I’m an organized person, and like to be prepared in advance. So this trip with my mom and my sister is no exception, I did a lot of planning before we left for the trip.
It is quite usual for me to come across nice surprises on my trips since I travel a lot for business, such as refined hotels, unique fabric handicrafts, and interesting people. I often share my stories with people, if they want to listen.
A lot of people have told me that they really envy my lifestyle. Actually, what they really wanted to say is that they dare not to change their status quo. Live the way you want because you only get to live once.
How we toured the island
Sri Lanka is a relatively small island so we chose to charter a car. Drivers tend to be quite flexible with changes to an itinerary as long as you communicate in advance, in average it only takes about 2 to 3 hours between two cities.
You can easily find locals hanging on the outside of a bus or train like this in Sri Lanka.
Our driver can speak English, and he likes rock and roll music. He got us good booze almost every night, and parked his car next to our villa and cranked up the music to dance with us.
Locals need to go to designated places to buy alcohol. They looked like pawn shops with iron bars like those we see in old-school TV shows. The driver told us that the reason they did so was to prevent people from robbing or stealing alcohol. A driver’s license is required to purchase alcohol, and there is no alcohol in regular grocery stores. See photo below.
Tips: Sri Lanka has advanced train and road systems, so don’t worry if you don’t have a chartered car. Tuk-tuk is a local thing, like taxis. All tuk-tuks in Colombo now come with meters, but you are likely to get ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers near attraction sites. So you’d better have Google Map ready so you know you are getting a fair deal.
Where to stay in Sri Lanka
We mostly booked single villas throughout the trip. Most of these houses were located on mountains or in forests, possibly because of the landforms and local economic status. We had access to one or two staff for each villa, they lived right next to the villa. The average price was around USD$150 per night. I’d like to introduce some of the unique villas.
* Nisala Villa, Kandy
Kandy is indeed a bustling city with a gentle heart. You would see a granny in sari sitting quietly beside Kandy Lake, or a kid picking up the things you dropped and making you a funny face, or a young couple doing their school assignments shyly under an old tree.
The house we stayed at was designed and built by an architect for his son. The son immigrated to Australia, so the house became vacant. We could immediately tell that the house was well designed the moment we walked in.
We didn’t want go outside at night so we asked for some menus of nearby restaurants from the owner, and ordered food from a Halal restaurant. The grilled half chicken was too delicious!
* Cozy villa in Nuwara Eliya with a stunning view
The villa we settled in that night was up in the mountain and hard to find, and the temperature was low, but as we walked out from our balcony and looked out at the national nature reserve, we felt that all our effort was worth it, we were amazed by the crystal clear lake as we gazed upon the sunset in the distance. Abbot, a staff at the house, told us that the villa and the land only costed roughly USD$15,000, I really felt the urge to buy a place for my future retirement in Sri Lanka.
Our driver Alex was probably also amazed by the scenery outside the villa.
Pictures taken here do not need any filter and they are already serene and beautiful, just like the scene in Twilight, when Edward was jumping with Bella on his back among mountains after he confessed to her that he was a vampire.
Coincidentally, it was the birthday of a guy who traveled with us. We had a little talk with the driver and Abbot, and then we decided to throw him a Sri Lankan birthday party. So, the driver took me and my sister to the local market where we bought food, alcohol and cake, while Abbot took care of cooking (he is indeed a good cook and says that he loves cooking. We suggested that he should open up a Sri Lankan restaurant).
At night, Alex put on some Sri Lankan disco music in his car and we showed him some dance moves of our own. Alex said that he rarely ran into guests like us who liked to dance and drink at night, so in most cases he would have a few drinks and listen to music in his car by himself. He said the car was his night club and he would sleep in it if there was no room for him.
We got up at 6 in the morning the next day and enjoyed the sunrise on the balcony.
* Owl and the Pussycat Hotel & Restaurant
Tips: We booked a double room and a third person was not allowed according to the hotel rules. So if we wanted to upgrade to a triple room, an extra USD $200 would be needed, which was not worth it. So we talked to the hotel staff to see if we could just add a small bed in it, and we’d only need to pay an extra USD $70 (even if the hotel staff told us that the room was too small to fit in an extra bed, we could just pay the extra money without throwing in another bed, because the beds in it were already big enough for three people).
The hotel sits right next to the Indian Ocean. Let the ocean breeze caress your hair, and enjoy sunbath while listening to the waves.
You may also book a yoga class at the reception. Have yoga by the sea in the next morning to relax your body and mind, then have a breakfast on the beach.
The room had some unique decorations, and the colors of the small blanket and cabinet were bright and cute. You get to take very nice photos everywhere. So girls, don’t miss this opportunity to take pretty photos.
What to eat in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankans are good at making and using spices just like Indians. The taste is a little bit strong but I personally like it. The sweets are so sweet, and their roti is my favorite.
Tips: Try local restaurants when you can. If you chartered a car, I don’t suggest you go to any restaurant recommended by your driver because the driver gets a commission fee or a free meal in those restaurants so the quality of the food may not be good. In our case, the restaurants we went to in the first couple of days were just so so but very pricey.
If you want to find restaurants on your own, you get cheap prices and good taste but you should be prepared for relatively poor hygiene. For example, some restaurants use small square papers cut out from either newspapers or children’s exercise books as napkins. Most locals use bare hands to eat, but you know that, just do what Romans do when in Rome. The rice in Sri Lanka is dry and not sticky at all, so you have to mix it with sauce to put in your mouth.
I really want give some advice to people who love fruits just like my mom and sister: remember to buy as many fruits as you can if you see people selling fresh fruits when you are in Kandy or Nuwara Eliya, because they offer the best quality and the most varieties like guava, durian, jackfruit, papaya, and passion fruit. We didn’t come across good fruit vendors again in the other cities that we went afterwards.
We bought papayas when we saw some of them as big as human head in Negombo. Our driver reminded us that it was the dry season and fruits didn’t have enough juice so they might not taste sweet, and the reason why they looked so big was probably because farmers used excessive amount of fertilizer. The papayas we had in Kandy proved our driver’s advice.
Ten things you cannot miss in Sri Lanka
1. Watch sunset at the top of Sigiriya Lion Rock
You have to climb to the top of Sigiriya in spite of its steepness. We saw an acrophobic girl sitting on the stairs halfway up, who didn’t dare to either go up or go down.
Tips: Ignore those locals who passionately introduce attraction sites to you and want to show you the way because they will ask you for money at the end.
We met a bunch of local girls in blue sari on the way, and monkeys were everywhere.
Unfortunately we didn’t take any sunset picture because of the thick clouds. The light between this couple’s heads is like a segment of a rainbow.
There are some ruins of ancient cities on the top of Sigiriya, here you can take fairytale-like photos.
The entire world seems to be covered with a blue veil when you look at it at the top of Sigiriya after sunset.
2. Look at passersby on the shore of Kandy Lake
If you asked me which city is my favorite in this country, Kandy would come on top.
Kandy is perhaps the second largest city, and Kandy Lake is its center. Surrounded by mountains, there are villages of colorful houses scattered around on the hillside. Birds fly over the lake in herds. The roads, markets, bustling pedestrians and cars around the lake become noise-free and calm as the breeze coming from the lake passes by.
The traffic lights are flickering on the roads leading to mountains afar. People of Kandy who go on a long journey will always come back home. The peaceful lake is the source of their very life.
A restaurant close to Kandy Lake offers a panoramic view of the entire lake. Don’t miss the shops and street views here, because they all make great photos.
Our driver took us to Dalada Maligawa after Kandy Lake. Objectively, I don’t recommend it as a tourist, not because I’m non-religious, but I feel like the temple was only built to attract tourists and there were no locals worshiping here. The top of the main building looks like an opening mouth of a beast, like the entrance of an attraction you would see in Disneyland.
Tips: Shoes need to be removed before entering the temple, and girls should not wear skirts that are higher than kneecaps.
3. See how Ceylon tea is made
There are tea plantations along the way from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. Our driver took us to one of the biggest plantations where there was a guide who explained how they produced the black tea in English. According to the guide, the techniques and equipment were all century old, and even the baking process still used the oldest procedures, which is by burning certain trees cut down from the mountain (I didn’t quite get the names of the tree species), and that’s the only way to bake tea leaves to make them smell good.
Then we passed by this pink post office, the British town (the main road of the town stretches from the foothill to the top, and it seems like a path to heaven, maybe it should be renamed Town of Heaven). Sri Lanka, used to be called Ceylon, was a British colony and most of the residents of the town were British, and hence it is called the British town.
4. Ride horses at Gregory Lake
There is a horseback riding stable next to Gregory Lake and Victoria Park. The scenery is beautiful, lush green and rippling water. I didn’t ride horse along the lake because it was raining and I was wearing a dress. What a pity.
5. Ride a train with locals through tea plantations
Tips: Try your best to book Class 1 or Class 2 if you could book the seats in advance, because Class 3 seats are really narrow and worn-out, and you could almost feel the age of the iron-clad train. You can still go to Class 3 to take vintage photos if you book seats in Class 1 or Class 2. But you can only stay in Class 3 if you book Class 3.
The train station was full of foreign tourists before the train even arrived. Some tourists were hanging on the outside like locals.
Girls, don’t try to hang yourselves like that when a train’s moving, it can be quite dangerous. If you want, you can wait for the train to stop at a station and let your friends take photos of you hanging on it.
Tips: The small train of tea plantations starts from Nuwara Eliya to Ella (Ella is a small town less than one square kilometer but it is a resort that attracts tons of European tourists). If you miss the train in Nuwara Eliya, you may take the small sea train in Galle that takes you to Colombo.
In comparison with the tea plantation train, you don’t get to see valleys and plantations outside the window of the sea train. The train isn’t as crowded as the tea plantation train probably because it’s relatively less known, but it is a good option too.
The final stop is Colombo Train Station. The place was packed, but there were barely any foreign tourists. So we would draw the attention of locals whenever we took photos there. The locals were very friendly, and they would smile when they found themselves in front of our camera.
6. Have a close contact with wild animals in Yala National Park
Tourism in Sri Lanka is not as developed as some other countries in Asia, like Thailand; the ecosystem here is more original, people and nature coexist more harmoniously. In many countries, the most common animal you can find on the street are pet dogs and they are often leashed by their owners and afraid of strangers. But animals here are not afraid of humans. We are nothing but some other creatures living here in their eyes. Not only will you find dogs lying in the middle of a street enjoying sunlight, gazing at people passing by, but also monkeys, cows, sheep and elephants crossing the street without any worry.
An elephant was taking its baby to the other side of the road. How cute is that? Animals have soul, too.
Instead of seeing sparrows, we have peacocks flying in the park. I’m not making this up. At dusk, we saw peacocks perching on branches, either resting or calling their companions to come home by making sounds that resembled cats.
A giant lizard climbed onto the stairs unhurriedly when we were eating. It went across the table and climbed to the roof.
The staff at the house we stayed at booked an SUV to take us to Yala National Park. You better get going earlier; otherwise, you’ll end up standing in line at the entrance. It took roughly 3 hours to tour the park by car, and the driver stopped at the seashore to let us get off to take a break. We saw crocodiles, wild boars, eagles, elephants, flamingos and some other animals we couldn’t name.
7. Enjoy the sea breeze at Galle Fort
Galle Fort is the perfect place for girls like my sister and me who love taking photos when traveling. There are countless good spots for photography.
Tips: Don’t be shy about talking to local people. They usually speak some English and it’s very interesting to converse with them. Normally they are very welcoming and willing to talk to you. By interacting with the locals, not only had we understood local customs better, we also gained good opportunities to take unique photos.
Sitting on the ancient wall, as the sun is setting in the distance, you have sea water rippling in front of you, with gentle breeze caressing your face.
Our driver Alex said that he got married to his wife without their parents’ approval. Later his wife got pregnant, by accident. It’d cost 6,000 rupees to get an abortion, but they didn’t have the money, so he had to take his wife back home, that’s how their daughter was born. He said that he felt so lucky that they didn’t choose abortion at that time, because otherwise he wouldn’t have his daughter, the most precious and beautiful baby in the world.
Alex’s daughter was a shy girl who liked to smile. We spent a day with his daughter since Alex’s home was in Galle. I gave her a couple of headpieces I designed, she was so happy, she put them on her head the entire day.
8. Enjoy the tropical weather, have a dinner on Mirissa Beach at sunset
You can’t miss the beach if you come to an island. The beaches in this country are not completely developed, I didn’t notice any other options than surfing and diving. So the beaches look original and not too commercialized , and there is nothing except boundless blue water and surging white waves. You can also find stilt fishing here, which is something quite unique to Sri Lanka.
Mirissa Beach is relatively busier, and there are many restaurants along the beach. Almost all of them will set up bonfire at dinner time, and put out beach chairs that face the ocean so you can have a candle dinner listening to the waves, or order a cup of whiskey lying on one of these beach chairs.
Tips: If you are a surfer, check out the small shops along the beach where you can rent a surfboard.
9. Go to a church and feel the religious vibe
The Aryans from northern India migrated to Ceylon in the 5th century BC, and founded the Sinhala dynasty. Ashoka, the emperor of Maurya Empire in India, sent his son to promote Buddhism on the island, and the religion became the state religion. Around the 2nd century BC, Tamils who lived in southern India and believed in Hinduism also migrated to Ceylon, and hence there were continuous conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamils, and the civil war only ended recently. In addition, a lot of Arabic merchants who believed in Islam also stayed due to the special geographic importance known as the “crossroad in the Orient”. Today, the country is dominated by Buddhism, and many other religions live together harmoniously.
Interestingly. I happened to run into a bunch of barefoot kids doing relay run when I got out of the church. So I joined them in spite of my much older age.
The red Mosque wasn’t in our itinerary that day, but our driver took us to have a look at it since we happened to pass by it. Surprisingly, when we entered the alley we realized that the mosque with red, white, and black intermingled together matched perfectly with the dress my sister wore that day.
10. Feel the Sri Lankan way of life in local markets
There are lots of markets here, some of the famous ones are Pettah Market and Negombo Fish Market in Colombo. You’ll notice that interesting markets are everywhere if you are not a sightseeing tourist only interested in landmarks. The markets we went were either roadside markets selling vegetables in bulk, or small ones in the towns we stayed in where locals shopped for home cooking. None of them are famous but they are essential for the local community.
Falling in love with a place because of its people
We came across a lot of cute smiley faces along the way throughout the trip in Sri Lanka. Kind-hearted people always treat the world with kindness and that’s why they are not easily offended, and turn people down. They are always passionate, friendly and curious about the things around them.
You fall in love with a place because of the lovely people you cross path with.
Last but not the least, when you visit this lovely country, remember to look up to the sky at night; it was here where I witnessed so many stars.
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