Our fourth visit to Sri Lanka was an action packed 10 day getaway, hatched as a “thank you” present to Becky’s aunts and cousin who have been taking care of us this past year in Vietnam. Sri Lanka ETAs (electronic travel authorization) were super easy to get (even for Vietnamese citizens), so we mapped out a few highlights of Sri Lanka, hired a private van and driver, and made guesthouse bookings.
Unfortunately, ticket prices (for foreigners only) for almost all of Sri Lanka’s main sights have skyrocketed as the island has become firmly entrenched upon any Indian Ocean itinerary. We were shocked and dismayed to realize that sights like Sigiriya Ancient Rock Fortress have priced themselves beyond consideration. Locals pay a mere Rs 60 while foreigners pay a whopping 30 USD, or Rs 4,800! What a rip off. Especially when we compare it to visiting a UNESCO World Heritage sight like the Taj Mahal ($20) in nearby India, there is no way that Sri Lanka can demand $30 to climb up to the top of a rock. The greed and shortsightedness of Sri Lanka’s extortionate pricing scheme really put a damper on our plans for a return visit, so we decided to custom our tour to include as few of the pricier sights as possible, while still giving Becky’s family a taste of Sri Lanka.
Highlights of our tour were:
1. Elephant Safari at Kaudulla National Park – seeing over 100 wild Asian elephants gathered by a lake in the late afternoon was magical
2. Dambulla Cave Temple – still impressive even after the second visit. The Buddha statues and paintings here are mesmerizing
3. Polonnaruwa ancient city – phenomenal and worthy of a full day visit. We opted for Polonnaruwa instead of Anuradhapura due to the sheer variety of ancient sites to see, as we remembered that Anuradhapura consists mainly of stupas
4. Colombo’s religious buildings. The Buddhist temples of Kelaniya, Gangaramaya and Seema Malaka should not be missed. We especially liked Jami Ul-Afar Mosque, which stands out as one of the most unique looking mosques in the world. And last but not least, the Hindu Temple of Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil is notable because of its detailed stone carvings. Colombo is truly a melting pot of religious tolerance and faiths…we loved all of its religious icons.
5. Relaxing and enjoying seafood at the lovely beach of Passikuda
Our 10 day itinerary
Fly in and sleep at Negombo (Crescent Beach House). Next morning, drive towards Kandy while visiting Lankatilaka Temple enroute. Arrive to Kandy and check out Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue. Walk around Kandy Lake before taking in a dance/fire show at the Kandy Lake Club. Overnight at “The Peppermint”. Wake up super early to catch the 5:30 – 7 am morning alms ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth. After breakfast, leave Kandy for Aluviharaya, Nalanda Gedige, and Dambulla Cave Temple before heading towards Polonnaruwa (Seraya Holiday Resort). Next day, leisurely check out the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Spend the next 3 days at The Calm Resort and Spa at Passikudah Beach. Then backtrack to visit Medirigiriya Vatadage on our way to Kaudulla National Park, where it is Elephant Safari time! After spending the afternoon surrounded by elephants, crash in Habarana at Disna Homestay. The next day, check out Sri Lanka’s tallest Buddha at Aukana, before hiking up the steps of the ancient capital city of Yapahuwa. Continue driving towards Colombo, stopping to check out the impressive Kelaniya Temple. Check into our comfortable apartment (WEG 09 Residency opposite the Majestic City Mall) and link up with a dear Sri Lankan friend. Last day saw us visiting a few of Colombo’s sights – the candy cane colored Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, Gangaramaya & Seema Malaka Buddhist Temples, Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil Hindu Temple, and shopping for souvenirs at Odel. Relax at our apartment for the last few hours before our driver picks us up for the return trip to the airport for our flight back home. Whirlwind tour complete.
Accommodations – made with Booking.com and Agoda
Negombo, Crescent Beach House – An uber-budget option near the airport. Rooms were a bit grimy and dingy. Staff was friendly though.
Kandy, The Peppermint – Fantastic home-stay with a welcoming Sri Lankan family (who were expats living in Italy for years). They will bend over backward to ensure you enjoy your stay. Good home cooked meals here thanks to the lovely Mrs Pringi
Polonnaruwa, Seraya Holiday Resort – Two thumbs up for the swimming pool, the perfect way to relax after sightseeing in the heat. Friendly, helpful staff. Great buffet meals here priced just right ($5 dinners and Rs 400 breakfasts). Recommend an upgrade for the AC rooms…the fan rooms were barely comfortable
Passikudah, The Calm Resort & Spa – Fabulous resort on the beautiful beach. We were upgraded to a pool/sea view deluxe room even though we had scored a crazy cheap special with Agoda.com, which made our stay here an incredible value. Rooms are gorgeous…very spacious with attention to detail. Breakfast buffet is full on with loads of variety. For dinner, we opted to go à la carte which was a much better value than the dinner buffet. The seafood meals here are excellent..great place to splurge on crab, shrimp, squid, and fish. Swimming pool here is divine. Two huge thumbs up for The Calm!
Habarana, Disna Homestay – Great option for checking out the nearby Kaudulla or Minneriya National Park for the daily afternoon elephant safari. Only one room here had AC (which is recommended). Rooms were spotlessly clean. Host family is super helpful and friendly. Dinner ($5) can be prepared upon request and is good value
Colombo, WEG 09 Residency – Convenient location near the train station and opposite Majestic City Mall’s KFC. 3rd floor apartment offering beach and city views. AC, WiFi, kitchen, satellite TV, two bedrooms and a sofa bed, laundry facilities. This apartment was an excellent choice for pricey Colombo. The only drawback was we didn’t realize there is a Bollywood Club on the 6th floor, pumping loud music from 10 pm to 6 am. Bring earplugs if you are a light sleeper!
Sri Lanka Private Driver (www.srilankaprivatedriver.com). We wrote Shiyan Fazool about creating a custom itinerary and got an amazing quote. Cannot recommend this company high enough. Great, clean, comfortable van to transport us around. Driver was excellent, spoke perfect English and was super helpful and kind. Our family fell in love with him. Price was super affordable. Best way to see Sri Lanka hands down…stop where you want to stop and do what you want to do, with zero hassle to do mandatory shopping stops.