Stay-at-Home Traveler: Destination Rankings, Vol. II – Sri Lanka

It’s time to get back to the countdown. Last time, I briefly highlighted five places (ranked 10 through 6) I’ve not been to that I’d like to visit when it’s “normal” again. Rather than doing the remaining Top 5 all here and now, I am going to include just one destination per post. More details and more time to enjoy each place before moving onto the next one.

Women picking tea leaves
Tea harvesting
Image by jürgen Scheffler from Pixabay

#5 – Sri Lanka

Known mostly for tea, the Easter bombings from 2019, and the liberation group known as the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka got its independence from Britain in 1948 as Ceylon, but didn’t receive its modern name until 1972. It has had other names, including one that inspired the word “serendipity.” That alone would be a reason to explore this island nation, in my opinion.

This could have been tied with Albania, but I bumped it up because it is a more recent interest of mine. While it’s getting more attention, it is really not on many people’s itineraries. Much more manageable than the Indian subcontinent, there is enough here to keep anyone busy for weeks on end, so let’s dive into some of it.

Lush green tea plantation with rows of terraced tea plants
Hectares of a tea plantation
Photo by Jaromír Kavan on Unsplash

No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without at least acknowledging the pilgrimage site of Adam’s Peak. Considered holy by multiple religions, this mountain draws thousands of visitors who make the roughly three-hour trek up to the top. There are somewhere around 6,000 steps, which are of mixed stability, but the hike isn’t considered to be too strenuous. An added plus is that it’s not too far from Colombo, the capital where you are likely to enter the country. You’ll still probably want to stay overnight somewhere nearby, definitely if you want to see the sunrise.

Let’s go with another natural feature, Sigiriya. More popularly known as the Lion Rock and locally dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” this UNESCO World Heritage site has frescoes painted on the rock, eighth century graffiti, architectural marvels, and a botanical garden with an innovative hydraulic system to name a few. At times a monastery and royal palace, it has been a tourist attraction for over a millennium.

View of Sigiriya rock and surrounding countryside, with mountains in the back
Majestic and magical Sigiriya
Photo by Sander Don on Unsplash

Chances are when you think of a safari, Sri Lanka doesn’t come to mind. However, the island nation has several natural environments where you can see elephants, sloths, leopards, monkeys, crocodiles, and various birds among other animals.

Leopard looking at the camera, Yala National Park
A leopard at Yala National Park
Photo by Geoff Brooks on Unsplash

There are 22 national parks in the country, so making a choice can be overwhelming. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most notable parks and what to expect from each:

  • Yala: best for families; most popular; has elephants, leopards (highest density in the world), sloths, flying snakes; second largest park in country, but overcrowded with jeeps; closed during monsoon season
  • Wilpattu: best for seeing leopards; has barking deer, sloths, elephants, birds; largest and oldest park; natural setting with pools of water; close to Anuradhapura ancient capital sites
  • Udawalawe: best for seeing elephants; has several birds, deer, some reptiles; good value
  • Minneriya: best for seeing monkeys and elephants; has birds, deer, reptiles, and butterflies
  • Kumana: best for seeing birds (largest bird safari in Sri Lanka); also has golden jackal, wild boar, crocodiles, elephants, and leopards
Elephants appearing to smile, with trunks locked around each other in a heart shape
These happy elephants know that Sri Lanka is amazing
Photo by Archie Fantom on Unsplash

Next we’ll explore the tea-growing center of Nuwara Eliya. Known as “Little England,” this hill station is in the midst of verdant valleys and misty mountains, with waterfalls and Lake Gregory to keep the temperatures down while the rest of the country swelters. It retains its upper-crust elite veneer, but its surrounding hills offer the perfect climate for Sri Lanka’s well-known tea crops. Aside from the several tea plantations that can be visited (such as popular Pedro), the area offers trekking opportunities, recreation, and historical attractions tied to its British colonial past. The main goal here is pure leisure…best enjoyed with a fresh cup of tea, of course!

Buddha statue and ruins at Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya
Photo by Tharaka Jayasuriya on Unsplash

Have you had enough eye candy, yet? It’s time for another treat: Sri Lanka’s second largest city, Kandy. Not too far from the tea hills, this cultural capital’s biggest draw is an old tooth. This isn’t just any old hunk of enamel, it’s an actual tooth from Buddha. The Sri Dalada Maligawa, the “Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic” is the most important Buddhist site in the country.

One of the best train rides in your life might just be the Kandy to Ella train. It’s known for its uber-scenic views, including a nine-arch bridge, and an iconic experience of days gone past. The village of Ella is a backpacker outpost but given its proximity to the natural attractions, train ride, and chill cultural vibes, it seems worth a stop.

Blue train on arched bridge through lush green terraced land
Stunning Nine Arch Bridge and the iconic blue train
Photo by gemmmm 🖤 on Unsplash

Let’s not forget the national capital, Colombo. The national museum, temples, colonial architecture, and colorful street scenes are aplenty. For an immersive and exhilarating ride, hop on a local tuk-tuk and see the city like a local. Try some of the street food or one of the many quality restaurants.

Before we leave, I have to give a plug to Sri Lanka’s beaches. It is a quintessential experience. After all, it is an island! Some argue that Arugam Bay is the best of the bunch. Horseshoe-shaped Hiriketiya beach is becoming a hotspot as people try to discover more secluded place. Mirissa is a quaint little beach town where you can see stilt fisherman. For an off-the-beaten track spot of sand, try Tangalle, Pigeon Island or any number of more secluded beaches. I’m no surfer, but this is a good place to try it out.

Fishermen on stilts fishing on the shore of Mirissa Beach
Traditional stilt fishermen at Mirissa Beach
Photo by Daniel Klein on Unsplash

Sri Lanka may not be on everyone’s radar, but it probably should be. Then again, that’s part of why it is special. Can’t wait to check it out!

Elephant sleeping standing up with its head against a thin tree at Udawalawe National Park
You might fall asleep against a tree too after seeing all the stuff Sri Lanka has to offer
Photo by Egle Sidaraviciute on Unsplash

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