When we arrived in Sri Lanka it was late at night and we couldn’t see much of our surroundings. We were greeted at the airport by a mass of locals offering their taxi service, when really we knew they were just trying to con us out of our money. This was really quite overwhelming and scary but we were rescued by our pre-booked driver who ushered us through.
Waking up on our first morning, I knew I was going to love the country. There is just so much greenery, nature, wildlife and jungle that I felt like I was in my version of heaven. I immediately felt welcomed and loved by the people of Sri Lanka. Everyone was so kind, gentle and helpful. It didn’t take long to realise it would be a place that I could stay a while.
We flew into Colombo and headed to Negombo for an overnight stop. On our first morning we travelled by car to the area of Kegalle and volunteered for the Elephant Freedom Project. From here, we drove to Sigiriya and climbed the Sigiriya Rock Fortress as well as Pidurangala Rock Temple, before exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.
Next we temple hopped our way through Kandy, with a visit to a spice garden, the city, the botanical gardens, Kandy Tooth Temple and an evening Kandy culture dance show. From Kandy we were driven to Nuwara Eliya to explore some of the most stunning tea plantations and waterfalls in the world.
It was then time for the long awaited moment of the trip where we rode the infamous blue train to Ella. Ella did not disappoint, especially sunrise over Nine Arch Bridge and a hike too Little Adam’s Peak. Here, we even had our first tuk-tuk experience up to Lipton’s Seat to explore more tea plantations. We couldn’t get enough of them!
From Ella we headed south to Yala, stopping at waterfalls and temples along the way and ending the day with a sunset safari. Our last few days were spent exploring Mirissa and Galle including Parrot Rock, Peacock Wall, Palm Tree Hill and of course a swing on a palm tree at Dalawella beach.
Beginners Guide to Sri Lanka: Must-Visit Destinations
There are so many wonderful places to visit in Sri Lanka that it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a couple of favourite destinations. Personally, my top 3 favourites were Nine Arch Bridge, Nuwara Eliya and Yala National Park.
We trekked to Nine Arch Bridge for sunrise in darkness with street dogs following along with the adventure. When we arrived it was just us, alone, surrounded by the jungle. It was one of those moments where time stood still.
I felt so incredibly lucky to be sharing that moment with my boyfriend Farley. We even sat in the centre of the bridge and caught the first train passing through. When I showed my mum and dad the photos they were not happy!
Nuwara Eliya, on the other hand, is one of the most picturesque places I’ve visited. So much nature, greenery, tea plantation after tea plantation and some of the most beautiful waterfalls. It’s a place that you can’t put into words.
Yala National Park is another beautiful part of Sri Lanka filled with an array of wildlife. I’ve never been on a safari before and Yala gave me a taste of something that I know I want to do more of. We saw wild elephants and wild cheetahs and that was a moment I will never forget.
Bucket List Experience: Elephant Freedom Project
There were so many wonderful moments from our trip to Sri Lanka that stood out for me. Hanging out of a train, sunrise over Nine Arch Bridge, wild cheetahs, climbing Sigiriya rock, wandering through tea plantations and swinging on palm trees, I could go on.
The one single bucket list experience that I will always remember was volunteering at the Elephant Freedom Project. The project is run by a family who have set up a small shelter who’s sole focus is on rescuing elephants that have previously been enslaved and neglected by industries such as wood logging.
They are in no way a mass tourist attraction and they happen to be the only business in Sri Lanka where there is no elephant riding – never. We helped clean the elephants home (I couldn’t believe the size of her poo), we accompanied her on a walk, we fed her her favourite food and then we bathed her in the nearby river.
Being able to treat elephants with the care, kindness and respect that they deserve was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
Meeting the Wonderful People of Sri Lanka
The people of Sri Lanka are beautiful, kind natured and so welcoming. Tourism is HUGE for them, it is what they live for. I met a lot of locals and was able to listen to their stories which was a lovely experience.
I spent an afternoon at a local school with children aged 6 to 18. They were fascinated by me and asked so many questions about where I was from, what my job is and if I knew the Queen. Hearing about their lives and their goals was a real culture shock and it hit me as to how lucky I have been.
I was also introduced to several ladies who taught me how to cook traditional Sri Lankan curry. Again, after speaking with them, it was so interesting to realise that the culture is very much seen as women stay at home with the children, cleaning and cooking, whilst the men go out to work and earn the money.
Our driver spent two weeks with us taking us on an epic lifetime adventure, but all the while he was away from his wife and newborn child. To me that seems crazy, but to most, if not all of Sri Lanka that is the way of living.
Two weeks is a long time to spend with someone so I really got to know him well and his life story is inspiring. On our final night, he invited us into his home to meet his family and I felt so grateful. We have remained good friends and I am actually going back to see him in January 2021!
The Incredibly Tasty Food of Sri Lanka
The food in Sri Lanka was unbelievable. I miss it. I especially loved the authentic street food and I would totally recommend anyone who is travelling there to stop along the side of the road and purchase a snack from the food stands.
Our driver would stop all the time and I was so thankful at the food he introduced to us and made us try. You have to try hoppers, the Sri Lankan answer to pancakes. We stopped along the road and were taught by locals how to eat with our hands!
Being so used to cutlery, this was a first but it felt good! You must also try a traditional homemade Sri Lankan curry whilst you’re there. Nothing quite beats that. And of course, you can’t resist stopping for a coconut!
Beginners Guide to Sri Lanka: A Few Key Tips
Tip number 1 for my beginners guide to Sri Lanka: If you want to ride the famous train, tickets for reserved carriages actually go on sale one month before the date you want to travel so pre-booking is key. Tickets are like hot cakes, they sell out fast.
We didn’t realise this and panicked as we didn’t fancy being squashed into a carriage and didn’t want to risk not being able to get on. Our driver actually pulled out all the stops and surprised us with reserved tickets on the day. The best kind of tickets too, third class reserved. The ticket you need if you want that all important shot hanging out of the train.
Tip number 2: Make the most of the local cuisine. I’m making myself hungry writing about this and thinking back to the food I devoured. Try the street food experience, it is a lot of fun and also choose to try food that you may never think to try!
Tip number 3: Wake up early and go to bed early. Go to Sri Lanka to experience the early morning sunrises, the nature and the wildlife. You will have moments that will last in your mind forever.
Thanks for reading my beginners guide to Sri Lanka. You can read more about me below or you can check out my website or Instagram to follow my travel journeys around the world.
About Me: Stephanie Johnson
Hi I’m Steph. I’m 25 years old and I grew up in Surrey in South East England. I’ve always preferred the countryside to city life and my love for the ocean drew me to attend Bournemouth University where I studied Events Management for four years and during this time met my partner in crime, Farley (the man behind the camera lens).
Once I’d finished my studies, we both moved back to Surrey and for two years we “saved” and kept saying no to the idea of travelling – it was never the right time. A close friend turned around to us and said “you’re never going to go”, an hour later I’d booked our visas and one way ticket to Australia.
I needed that push to realise there would never be a right time and we needed to just to jump straight in. Life is too short. We handed in our notices, sold everything we owned, packed up our lives into a backpack and off we went. It was the best decision I’ve ever made and as a result Life’s Too Short to Say No was born.