There is an island in the Indian Ocean that promises the perfect adventure: Sri Lanka! I’ve visited this relatively undiscovered country twice and love to come here to surf, but also because of the amazing nature and wild animals. In addition, there’s one cool adventure after another waiting for you: whether night safaris, jungle trekking, white water rafting, or beautiful train rides – a backpacking trip through Sri Lanka is never boring!
However, there are still frenzied buses that almost kill you, and monsoons that bring heavy rain throughout the year at various locations. Also, extreme moisture in Sri Lanka can make you feel pretty tired and cause damage to your camera!
Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is really cool and will inspire you for sure, just like me! Which adventures you can go on exactly, the things I love about the island and things I don’t, I’ll tell you in this Sri Lanka backpacking guide!
Adventure island Sri Lanka
Must visit places in Sri Lanka
The most important information about Sri Lanka
The small island state, which houses just around 20.3 million residents, you reach best by plane. With Sri Lankan Airlines you can even fly directly to the capital Colombo from Frankfurt several times a week. Compared to home, the public transport, such as taxis, trains, buses and domestic flights are as good as anywhere. Although Sri Lanka has two official languages, Sinhala and Tamil, the locals speak English pretty well.
The Sri Lankans are very open and colorful people, especially in terms of religion. Although about 70% of the population belongs to Buddhism, you will also find many Hindus, Muslims, and even Christians. What may perhaps be a little unusual at first over time conveys a really cool image; the sacred Hindu cows actually roam freely everywhere! Have you ever seen cows sunbathing on the beach? In Sri Lanka, this is part of the agenda!
The currency on the island is the Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) and it’s worth quite a bit more compared to other Asian currencies. Which, of course, again means that the price levels are also generally slightly higher than you’re perhaps used to in many neighboring countries of Sri Lanka. But even so, it’s still far below our western prices! Thus, Sri Lanka offers as a travel destination and a really good price to performance ratio.
Colombo: Your start to Sri Lanka
With roughly 650,000 inhabitants Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka. All international airlines fly in and out from Colombo, no matter if coming from Asia or Europe. Sri Lankan Arlines offers several direct flights from major airports such as Frankfurt daily, starting at a price as low as 225 Euros. Other major airlines like Emirates, Etihad, Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific also fly from Europe to Colombo, however including a stop over at their hubs. Just check Skyscanner for the best flight options for you and then head over to the airline’s website to book your flight directly with the airline.
Colombo accommodation: Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas
If you’re looking for a really cool and somewhat different accommodation, Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas is just right for you! This former architect villa offers 6 rooms in total, all being individually decorated. You also find some comfy sofa corners around the villa or you can simply relax in the garden or at one of the villa’s two small pools – the perfect place to leave the buzzing streets of Colombo behind! But what’s best about the Colombo Hotel by Ceilao Villas is the super friendly stuff, making you feel welcomed and at home instantly.
The 5 things I love about Sri Lanka!
1. The indescribable landscape
First of course I have to mention the really amazing, unique landscape. It is waiting to be discovered by us adventurers – you and me!
Sri Lanka is a truly diverse country that welcomes you on your journey not only with white sand beaches, palm trees and the Indian Ocean, but also climbing in the central highlands; up to 2,500 meter high mountains and the very special biodiversity rainforest.
Pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak
Perhaps you’ve heard of the butterfly mountain or the so-called Adam’s Peak? With its 2,243 meter high peak, it is not the highest mountain on the island, but certainly the most famous. Just below the summit there is a depression which is called in Sinhalese Sri Pada (Holy Feet). This depression is the reason why the mountain is considered a sacred place in all four major religions in the country.
The buddhists believe Sri Pada is the footprint of the Buddha and the Hindus see it as Shiva’s footprint, while Muslims worship the recess as the footprint of Adam and the Christians as the Apostle Thomas. It is now probably not much of a surprise to you that the mountain is a popular pilgrimage site. It’s usually scaled on a 7-kilometer long staircase at night, which of course is an absolutely unique experience that you will certainly never forget for your entire life!
After several hours, in which you have climbed along with hundreds of pilgrims one step after another, you finish in time for sunrise at the summit! An awesome view awaits you: every centimeter of the land among you is illuminated by the rising sun, and you can look for kilometers – amazing and for sure one of the must visit places in Sri Lanka!
The lion rock Sigiriya
You can get a bit of the mystic history of Sri Lanka at Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock. On the magma block of an eroded volcano, there’s a monolith which rises about 200 meters above the surrounding flat land. Once this stood on the fortress of King Kassapa. Today, however, it’s only the foundation walls you’re able to see, but there are some other things to discover around Sigiriya: for example, the murals of topless girl clouds and even graffiti poetry from the 7th century!
Tea plantations in the central highlands
But what would a trip through the central highlands of Sri Lanka be without a visit to the tea plantations, which lie like a thick, green carpet over the countryside? The tea pickers, who engage with their brightly colored saris and hand woven baskets between the bushes of their work, give the endless green of the vast tea fields some cool splashes of color.
Pretty cool: In some plantations you can even lend a hand and pick your own tea, which, by the way, is not as easy as it looks for travelers!
Another highlight in the mountains of Sri Lanka are the many waterfalls that tumble down from the dizzying heights of the steep slopes. With a height of 241 meters, the Bambarakanda, formed from the Kudu Oya River, is the highest waterfall in the island nation. Here, coincidentally, is also a cool adventure waiting for you: you can climb the waterfall! And to see the power of this elemental force up close ensures absolute goose bumps!
As if that were not enough variety, on the island there are vast amounts of rainforest! A particularly challenging adventure is a walk through the Sinharaja Forest, the last lowland rainforest of the country. Once you enter the jungle, it’s like you’re in another world: The daylight barely penetrates through the dense treetops and the sounds of the jungle sound loud and shrill above, below and beside you! You quickly get an impression of what untouched nature really looks like!
Additionally, of course, there are some cool jungle creatures like monkeys, snakes, exotic birds and insects, but also other kinds of plants for you – a whole other world!
What’s better than a lazy afternoon at a tropical beach where you can simply quite safely unwind after a sweltering jungle adventure? At last, when you feel the white, fine sand under your feet, you feel like you’re in paradise! You can also dip into the turquoise sea, which provides a necessary refreshment, and you’ll wonder why you’d ever book a return ticket home …
2. Exotic wildlife experience
It’s clear that when there are places with a jungle, you can discover a diverse and exotic wildlife! How close you can really get to these animals in Sri Lanka, is awesome!
Leopard in Yala National Park
In terms of wildlife the Yala National Park in the south of the island is certainly far ahead of many other destinations. The park, with its 35 leopards, has the world’s densest population of these rare big cats! However, you can also observe other animals in the wild, such as elephants, crocodiles and an incredible number of different species of monkeys. This park is one of the must visit places in Sri Lanka!
Elephant migration in Minneriya National Park
If you’re a fan of the grey pachyderms, then you won’t want to miss the elephant migration in Minneriya National Park! Here, every year, up to 400 elephants simultaneously gather in August and September to eat the juicy grass, which at that time grows in the dried up Minneriya fields. To see so many of these vast, yet gentle animals, in one place is an experience that you will not soon forget! Do not miss this amazing spectacle!
Whales, whales and more whales!
If you are not satisfied by the elephants in the jungle, no problem! In Sri Lanka you have the possibility to see a ton of different whales! For several years, the large marine mammals have frolicked every year from December to April off the southern tip of Sri Lanka. The Port of Mirissa is the starting point for many whale-watching tours that bring you close to these giants of the sea. Here you will meet not only sperm whales, killer whales, dolphins and sea turtles, but also have the unique opportunity to observe the largest mammal in the world: the blue whale!
It is definitely worthwhile here to compare prices and to ask for a money back guarantee, which some tours already offer in the case of an unsuccessful boat tour (which at peak times hardly occurs).
Balu, the sloth bear
Another animal highlight of the island is the Indian sloth bear, who was still quite widespread not long ago in India. You find him almost only in Sri Lanka. If you opt for the only bear style that lives on the island, then your best bet is the night tour. Incidentally, the way the sloth bear gets his name is by his strange way of eating; he sucks his food through a big gap in his front teeth in the mouth by pursing his lips and uses them as a kind of sucker – pretty wicked, right?
3. The train – an experience in itself!
I have already mentioned that you can often be unsafe by taking public transport to the island state. While I have frequently dreaded the buses (more on that later), I could not get enough of the trains! You go by really brilliant landscapes time and again, and, moreover, the ticket prices are really cheap.
Trains in Sri Lanka are divided, as almost everywhere in the world, into different classes. Some of these are equipped with air conditioning (priceless at these temperatures!), which makes the entire stay in the compartments of course a lot more pleasant. In addition, at every station there are dealers that offer you freshly prepared snacks for sale, from juicy pineapple pieces, to mango with cinnamon and rice with curry.
The most popular and most scenic routes are the connections between Ella and Kandy, and between Polonnaruwa and Colombo. However, the route between Ella and Kandy is clearly still the nicer of the two! Due to their popularity you should book your ticket for this route in advance. You can book either directly at the station or through private railway companies online.
4. Incredible adventures!
Sri Lanka has a lot to offer for its rather small size and can fully complete your adventure and satisfy your adrenaline addiction!
Night Safaris and multi-day safari hikes
A very special experience is the Night Safari! You’ll discover a completely different and unknown side of the jungle in the dark! Many of the popular bush camps or Glamping sites offer all sorts of day and night tours and the best thing about the camps is the journey in itself is already worth it!
Because really, what’s more exciting than sleeping in the middle of nature, especially in a country like Sri Lanka? You might just wonder what Glamping is. The word is derived from “glamorous camping” and simply means that while you are sleeping in a tent, you don’t necessarily have to give up a comfortable setting. In many Glamp tents there is next to a real bed often a washing area, and in some cases even a proper toilet. Real luxury when you go camping!
In addition, you can also participate in a multi-day safari trek through the country’s jungle! You have the chance here to experience a unique place: in the morning you’ll wake to the cries of monkeys and at night go to sleep to the buzzing of insects that might even crawl in your sleeping bag! On a jungle trek you not only get an incredible number of exotic animals to see, but also learn to know places that certainly very few travelers to Sri Lanka discover! For example, hidden waterfalls, ancient temple ruins or simply the thicket of the rainforest!
If that is not enough of a thrill, then you should try rock climbing! This adventure is especially worthwhile on the aforementioned Bambarakanda Falls. Here you can watch the falls come crashing down while you climb higher and higher even at the steep edge on one of the three routes. It’s a real challenge in this sweltering jungle climate! The feeling when you have finally made it to the top, of course, is absolutely outrageous!
Whitewater rafting, kayaking and diving
On an island, it’s not exactly surprising that almost any sport in and on the water are offered. You can go whitewater rafting in Sri Lanka on the raging rivers, such as the Kelani River. Whether you want to throw yourself in the water for only an hour or spend half a day on the water is entirely up to you and your hunger for adventure!
What you should definitely schedule during your trip to Sri Lanka is a kayak tour! You definitely get to see a unique part of the country from a completely different perspective, and at the same time it does something for your arms! The coolest one is a kayak tour on the Kalu Ganga River, which extends from the interior to the West Coast.
Speaking of water, I have to also mention the diving. Whether you’re at a complete professional diving level or it’s your very first dive, the small island in the Indian Ocean with its numerous dive sites certainly has the right course available for you! The most popular diving spots can be found in Bentota, Negombo, Trincomalee, and Hikkaduwa. You can venture into the depths of the sea yourself to discover hidden reefs and watch exotic fish species, or explore one of the shipwrecks that lie off the coast – with an average visibility of 15 to 20 meters and a water temperature of about 27 degrees, your dive becomes a brilliant experience for sure!
Surfing swell – all year round !
If you’ve ever stood on a surfboard and (even if only little bit) ridden on a wave, then you already know that it’s addictive! The feeling that grabs at you in every moment, when you jump on your board after paddling and then actually hold your balance can often feel like nothing else in the world!
In Sri Lanka there is a surf season that lasts almost all year! The reason for this is the special weather conditions and climate situation on the island (more on that later), that make (depending on the season) the best surfing conditions possible on either the south coast at Ahangama or on the east coast at Arungam Bay. Even if you’ve never ridden on a wave, the surf of the Indian Ocean here in Sri Lanka is ideally suited to make it easy to try out – I bet if you did it once, you’d want to do it again and again! Read through our review of one week at a surfcamp in Sri Lanka here.
5. Incredibly nice people!
Ultimately, it is always the people that make a trip a memorable one. And Sri Lankans are super friendly, helpful and open people! Mostly you’re not up here alone for very long and you’re always going by the locals with a nice “Hello!”. No wonder that the people on the island, which incidentally is just as big as Bayern, are always in a good mood – they are always surrounded by beautiful scenery, enjoy year round warm weather and have, above all, the most holidays around the world! And if that is not a reason to start each day with a smile, then I don’t know what is!
5 small downsides of Sri Lanka
I’ve already mentioned that I dread the buses in Sri Lanka and I don’t exaggerate! The drivers on the island are either the bravest people in the world, or they are simply convinced they’re transporting people while sitting in a Formula 1 car instead of a bus! No, in all honesty, the speed at which the buses move on the island is really outrageous, and it is a wonder that pedestrians still dare crossing the street.
My tip: Attempt to avoid highways as much as possible and always look out for the buses!
2. Weather – or rather, monsoons
In many countries there are rain and monsoons, which is not so bad, but in Sri Lanka the monsoons just seem to never stop. Between May and September there’s a monsoon on the southwest of the island, and the monsoon season in the northeast falls from October to January. But that is not enough, because there is also a so-called “inter-monsoon” that rages on the island between October and mid-November. Naturally, this sounds complicated and can be really hard during your trip, so you should look up the exact information before your trip. The 12-month surf season owes itself to the abundant monsoons of Sri Lanka!
3. The incredible moisture!
Another side effect of the climate, which is not as enjoyable as the endless surf season, is the high humidity that makes you not only incredibly tired and worn out, but can sometimes lead to fractured bones. Yes, you read it correctly! The moisture that deposits itself everywhere, ensures that tile floors are smooth as a mirror within a short time, and you can easily slip on them! If you don’t want to spend your trip nursing a sprained ankle, stay aware of the surfaces you’re walking on and especially pay attention to tiled floors.
The moisture also creeps into your clothes and your bedding, which is really uncomfortable at the beginning of your trip. Moreover, this high level of humidity can be particularly dangerous for your travel gadgets such as your camera or your laptop.
4. Elephants in chains
In Sri Lanka many elephants live in the wild, but unfortunately quite a lot of elephants live in captivity. Most baby elephants are already tamed from their flock (mostly from the elephant orphanage in Pinnawela) and used for private uses. After bringing good money to safaris every month, elephants are captured for “public purposes”. For example, they’re used for appearances in parades. That may all be normal there, but seeing an elephant living his existence in chains, is anything but “normal” to me. It must be remembered that an elephant, once kept in captivity, can never again live in whatever wild world they came from.
Perhaps this point surprises you. I realize that maybe I’m alone in my opinion, but the food in Sri Lanka and I are simply not friends. I’m just not a fan of curry and unfortunately that’s exactly what the national dish of Sri Lanka is. However, I must admit that the offerings are really very versatile, and the food in most cases is freshly prepared. There are also meals especially for vegetarians and vegans and there is, surprisingly, a wide range of different dishes. Unfortunately that doesn’t help a steak and burger fan too much!
If at any time you’ve had enough of the curries, I can still give you a burger tip: In The Original Rocket Burger in Galle you can get really good burgers and delicious homemade ice tea!
Sri Lanka Backpacking means adventure!
Of course, the must visit places in Sri Lanka by far outweigh the small shortcomings should and don’t stop you in any way from starting your Sri Lanka backpacking adventure! The really beautiful scenery, the unique flora and fauna, the nerve-racking activities, the nice folk of Sri Lanka, and especially the memorable train journeys, definitely make Sri Lanka worth a visit!
Posted on Off-The-Path