Hope you have read the first two parts of this blog post series of mine named ‘Sri Lanka Diaries’. Even if you haven’t read them, that won’t be stopping you from reading this part-3 of this travel blog series. Actually, the first two parts focus mainly on the culinary aspect of the island country whereas this post will focus more on the travel part, how to plan the trip, etc with some culinary touches at places. So, let us start off with names of the places which we covered in Sri Lanka and what we missed out because of our tight schedule. We enjoyed our stay at Negombo; we also stayed at Dambulla, Kandy, Giritale and visited the ruins at Polonnaruwa, Minneria National Park, Pinnawala elephant orphanage, and many more must-visit spots. We did not include Sigiriya and Galle in our itinerary, but we actually missed out visiting Bentota sea beach even though it was there in our itinerary, let us check out more details now! Maybe that will help you to plan the trip better.
To start with, we had planned our trip with Sineli Lanka Tour Guide, who did a great job throughout our stay. They provided us with all the accommodations and travel facilities all throughout our stay in the island country. They also guided us through various iconic and historic spots spread across the country. And yes, they helped us dine at lovely authentic joints serving amazing local food, which I really appreciated! So, we booked the flight tickets all by ourselves and then left the rest to Sineli tour guide. So, when we landed at the Colombo Airport we were directly picked up by these guys and we were taken to the Oasis Beach Resort in Negombo. It is a transit town where tourists love to spend a couple of nights.
The airport is basically closest to this little town and definitely, it’s a place where you should spend a night or two. Just laze around, spend some time on the beach, have some great seafood and beer, inhale peace and exhale stress! By the way, if you are a tourist and you are here in Sri Lanka only for vacation then you may well skip visiting the capital city of Colombo. Definitely, skip it if you are on a tight schedule vacation. Colombo will get you stuck in city traffic, get you stressed and eat up a lot of your time, which is really not required or desired. But saying so, from a foodie point of view, I must admit Colombo has some amazing restaurants like Ministry of Crab which is worth a visit!
Anyway, coming back to Negombo it is a picturesque town that looks a lot like Kochi to me, a lot prettier than Kochi in fact! It is dotted with roadside eateries, pubs, souvenir shops, churches, etc. You will get some significant amount of Christian population here. Otherwise, Sri Lanka is mainly having a majority of Buddhist population besides Muslims and Hindus. Negombo somehow exudes warmth and has got a cozy vibe which helps you relax and unwind! Also, I loved the place where we stayed in Negombo – Oasis Beach Resort, at the Ettukala area. The resort is neat, no-frill and beautiful with all the amenities, a centrally located picturesque swimming pool and friendly staff. Oasis Resort has their private beach and a beautiful dreamy outdoor dining area just by the seaside. We dined at their restaurant as well which was pretty good. Also the day we reached Negombo, we had our lunch at Bijou Swiss Restaurant and spent the evening at leisure at the beach.
The eatery was extremely homely with a warm wooden décor and amazing continental food, these roadside eateries are mostly frequented by the Europeans and people from other parts of the world. Our stay at Negombo mostly revolved ‘round lazing around at the sea beach and trying out the local eateries. Also, we shopped for some souvenirs at local shops, there is one nice souvenir shop just diagonally opposite the Oasis Resort. For more details about Negombo and the food available there, you can read my post here.
After an overnight stay at Negombo, early morning (Day-2 of our trip) we started for Dambulla. It is around 4 hours drive from Negombo. All the road conditions in this part of the island country are fantastic, so you can basically sit back and relax. After the drive which wasn’t at all tiring, we reached the Dambulla caves entry point (148 kms from Colombo), there we purchased the entry tickets and from there we had to trek for around 1.5 kms to reach the cave temples. You can’t actually take your car all the way since it’s an uphill road and several stairs in between. The cars are parked before the entry gate. While you trek you can see loads of monkeys, some of them almost sitting there on your way but they don’t really bother you unless you interact with them too much or try offering them food!
The trek can obviously be a tad tiring for elderly people, so you can carry enough water with you and you may take some break while you go up to the caves. Before entering the caves you have to leave your shoes and walk barefooted all the way into the caves. Since it’s very sunny and hot in Sri Lanka, the stone floors of the temple get very hot and it’s difficult to walk on them barefoot (you can actually wear your socks).
So it’s always a good idea to wear thick woolen socks. We had spent around 45 minutes viewing all the 5 caves and believe me it’s worth that tiring trek. By the way, Dambulla Cave temple is a World Heritage Site. It’s the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. This temple complex dates back to the 1st century BC. It has five caves under a vast overhanging rock, carved with a drip line to keep the interiors dry.
There are more than 80 documented caves in the surrounding area. Though the major attractions are spread over these five caves, which contain statues and loads of paintings. These paintings and statues are of Lord Buddha and his life. There are a total of 153 Buddha statues, 3 statues of Sri Lankan kings and 4 statues of various deities like Vishnu and Ganesha. The murals cover an area of nearly two thousand square meters. Depictions on the walls of the caves include the enticement by the demon Mara and Buddha’s first sermon.
I was totally awestruck seeing the fresco which covers the cave ceilings. And I was wondering how the painter must have painstakingly painted these vivid tales on the cave ceilings, lying on his back in all probability. While visiting any Buddhist religious places in Sri Lanka, keep in mind to wear clothes which cover your shoulders and knees.
After viewing the caves and relaxing a bit outside the caves, we decided to go for authentic Sri Lankan rice and curry lunch at a little restaurant quite close to the caves. You can get the details about this sumptuous meal and more at this link here.
After the lunch, we headed towards Giritale which was another 2 hours drive from Dambulla, but again the road conditions were very good so it wasn’t very tiring. At Giritale, we checked in at the ‘Deer Park Hotel’ where we stayed overnight and had the dinner listening to live Srilankan music. All these hotel reservations and transportation, everything was taken care of by Sineli Lanka Tour Guide. And by the way, this Deer Park hotel was absolutely stunning, loaded with every facility and amenity you can probably think of.
It is nestled along the banks of the serene Giritale lake and gives you a touch of the secluded nature. You can relax at their lakeside lounge chairs and watch a magnificent view of the sunset against the Giritale Lake. This resort has got nearly 80 luxurious stand-alone Villas (yes, you read that right!) that defines the benchmark of luxury and indulgence amidst nature and greenery.
I was there at a Villa (picture above) with my family and there were all the amenities you can probably think of. And yes, being a foodie, I absolutely loved their breakfast buffet which included so many local delicacies besides options for classic English breakfast, loads of fruits, juices, live counters and more.
Actually, this breakfast marked the start of our Day-3 of this trip. After the breakfast at Deer Park Hotel, we spent the morning at leisure; you can easily spend a day or two at this amazing property. At around 11am we started off for the Polonnaruwa ruins (pictures below) which is around 30 minutes drive from this Deer Park Hotel at Giritale.
Now, Polonnaruwa ruins mainly marks the royal ancient city of kingdom of Polonnaruwa, and it was once the capital of Sri Lanka nearly thousand years ago. Today this ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and millions of tourists visit this place from different corners of the globe just to witness these ancient ruins and so many untold tales buried in there.
Our guide showed us the place which is actually huge and you need to drive through it in your car for its vast expanse. He also told us the history that he knew about this ancient city. He said that, Vijayabahu’s victory and shifting of Kingdoms to the more strategic Polonnaruwa are considered very significant, but the real Hero of Polonnaruwa (as written in the history books) was actually Parakrambahu.
His reign is considered as the Golden Age of Polonnaruwa. It is said that trade and agriculture had flourished under his patronage. Even today, this ancient city of Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned archaeological relic cities in Sri Lanka, standing a testimony to the discipline, power and greatness of the Kingdom’s first rulers. We were absolutely mesmerized seeing the jaw-dropping ruins and listening to those bits of history and significance of those architectures. This place also houses the ancient Buddha tooth relic temple. The place is actually called Hatadage. It is the ancient relic shrine in Polonnaruwa, and was used to keep the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha. Hatadage is extremely rustic as it is mainly build using block stones which still remain, also you can find the ancient Singhalese scripts written on the stone which are thousands of years old. You can now find remains of three decayed Buddha statues carved out of granite rock are located within a chamber of the shrine. While visiting the ruins here, do keep in mind the dress code of keeping your shoulders and knees covered.
After viewing the ruins, we rushed to a local joint for authentic Rice and curry buffet lunch, we were anyway hungry and were getting late for our next spot for the day; so we almost gorged on the rice and curry and headed straight for Minneriya National Park. The place was declared as a wildlife sanctuary in the 1930s to protect the catchment of Minneriya tank (built by King Mahasen in third century AD) and the wildlife of the surrounding area. This national park has loads of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fishes, bees and butterflies.
This park is home to around 450 elephants and it is pretty unique in its structure and I really loved what it had to offer. You can park your car near the Entry point, and board an authorized safari Jeep and drive through the forest. Of course, the Jeep has an open top and you can actually stand all the way while the Jeep is moving through the forest. I was standing all the way and occasionally dodging the low lying tree trunks which were coming my way 🙂 It was fun with a touch of adventure! After driving a long way through the forest you actually get into a muddy open grassland (your Jeeps can get stuck in the mud!!) where you will find elephants, loads and loads of elephants playing, roaming around and some heading towards the lake! Your Jeep will stop there and will let you soak into nature. This is the feeding ground for the elephants. It’s an amazing sight, memories that I’ll cherish for a lifetime!
We met a herd of around 40 elephants of all sizes, the smallest one being a baby of just a month old. Our guide told us that since this herd had such a small baby, all the female elephants were very alert and protective. While we clicked photos of the elephants and watched them eat and play, soon quite a crowd of Jeeps had gathered around them. This actually agitated the baby elephant’s mother and she started to trumpet loudly nodding her head from side to side! The drivers here respect the privacy of the animals and we all started to move out so as not to agitate the herd anymore. Our guide also informed us that on lucky days tourists meet up to 200 elephants in this park.
After the sunset, the safari Jeep will again head back through the forest to the point where you have parked your car. We then headed straight to Dambulla and checked into Gimanhala Hotel which was pretty nice, though I felt the rooms could have been a bit better aesthetically! We checked in quite late in the evening at Dambulla and so we had nothing much to do except relaxing and roaming around in the hotel 🙂 We had our dinner at Gimanhala only followed by overnight stay at the hotel. The next morning (Day 4 begins) we had the breakfast buffet at the hotel which was pretty good; there was a nice spread with a lovely mix of local Sri Lankan food as well as English breakfast items.
We had a fulfilling breakfast at the Gimanhala Hotel (picture above) and we started off for Kandy. Our car from Sineli Lanka Tour Guide was always with us, waiting at our hotel. Anyway, the drive to Kandy was again a pleasant one; it’s a 4 hours drive and a bit uphill, but it was pretty pleasant. There is also railway connectivity from Colombo to Kandy. And the seaport on the western coast runs via Kandy to the farthest point of Badulla. By the way, this Day 4 was basically 25th December and all the eateries, Hotels and restaurants were decked up and the lovely Christmas décor made the places look beautiful. You anyway feel great when there is a festive mood all around. And we decided to have some Christmas special lunch, so our friend from Sineli Lanka Tour Guide took us straight to Hotel Kandyan Arts Residency in Kandy, set in an amazing picturesque setting. It lies like a gem in the midst of a full view of the green hills of Hanthana. The Christmas special lunch buffet over there had a huge spread followed by a super impressive dessert counter which made me happy, and yes, the spread was priced pretty reasonably! I loved the Black Pork Curry (thin black pepper curry) with some Nasi Goreng Rice, roasted pork, local Sri Lankan curries and those Macaroons in the end.
After lunch on the way, we visited a Souvenir factory in Kandy and decided to shop for some souvenirs, mostly hand-crafted wooden pieces of art. Before moving further, let me tell you that Kandy was the last capital of the ancient kings’ era of Sri Lanka and it lies in the midst of hills in the Kandy plateau, which crosses an area of tropical tea plantations. I loved this beautiful and peaceful hilly city to every bit.
By the way, Kandy is of huge significance since it is home to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. It symbolizes a fourth-century tradition that used to be linked to the Sinhalese monarchy. As a matter of fact, the protector of the relic was always the ruler of the land. And so, the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Tooth were placed in close proximity to each other.
After visiting the Souvenir factory we had to halt at the Kandy View Point (picture above) for a marvelous view of the entire city. This jaw-dropping bird’s eye view of Kandy will make your day, for sure! We lazed around a bit and decided to check out the cultural show that portrays the Sri Lankan tradition and culture. And yes, this show is again a must-watch if you are in Kandy. It’s basically called the Kandyan Dance show and takes place at the Kandy Red Cross Hall which is pretty close to the Tooth Relic Temple. This cultural dance show takes place every day from 5pm to 6pm. And yes, this one-hour cultural show includes several dance forms like pooja dance, mask dance, cobra dance, Ravan dance, Ves dance followed by National Anthem. But the show-stopper is surely the Fire Dance and the Fire Walking where trained artists somewhat get into a trance and walk over burning coals, and more!
After the cultural show, we visited the 500 years old Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which is again a UNESCO World Heritage Site. First things first, when you visit this place remember to cover your shoulders and knees or else you won’t be allowed inside the temple. And of course, you have to leave your shoes well ahead of entering the temple. It is spread over a huge area and has its various rituals, ceremonies, and offerings.
There is a brick wall that runs along the temple and it somewhat looks like a well-guarded fortress with a mesmerizing white exterior. Parts of the temple were destroyed in the 1998 LTTE bomb blast and ever since then the security is more strict and vigilant. Inside the temple, you can find the entire story about the tooth and its journey to where it is today depicted through numerous detailed paintings on the walls. The same hall houses huge statues of Lord Buddha as well.
The tooth is kept in the upper floor and you can just get a glimpse of that spot. The actual chamber in which the tooth relic is kept is known as the Handun kunama. The tooth relic is actually encased in seven golden caskets which engraved with precious gemstones and the caskets have a shape of a stupa. We found that during the evening prayer, this place remains pretty crowded but still there is a decorum that is maintained and people wait for their turn patiently. You can just offer white colored lotus flower and nothing else during this time (which you can purchase from the main entrance of the temple).
After visiting the Tooth Relic Temple we checked into our hotel in Kandy (called Kanda Uda Hotel), and it was pretty late by then. The hotel was sort of a villa built somewhat on the slopes of the hills. It was actually nice, if not great! The place was absolutely surrounded by greenery and stunning scenic beauty. Anyway, soon after checking in, we relaxed a bit and went out for dinner.
Mr. Dash, the owner of Sineli Lanka Tour Guide was with us for last couple of days and he said he wanted us to taste the most popular local delicacy, Kottu before leaving the country. Being a foodie, I absolutely grabbed the opportunity and I went along with him and my better half to a local Kandy eatery serving Kottu!
The place was called Midland Deli and I really like their Kottu with the spicy gravy, it was very reasonably priced and the quantity was huge! While coming back to the hotel, we again visited the Kandy View Point where you get the bird’s eye view of Kandy. And now, it looked so mesmerizing and fascinating. The city at night looked equally beautiful and peaceful.
After an overnight stay at the Kanda Uda Hotel, next morning (Day 5 begins) we started off for Pinnawala after having the breakfast at the hotel, it was not really a ‘buffet breakfast’ but it was unlimited. The servers kept serving the food, juices and tea as many times we asked for. While we were leaving Kandy, I felt I should have stayed back here in this beautiful city at least for a couple more days! Hope I’ll come back to this lovely place at some point of time and spend some more time out here. Anyway, we were actually supposed to go to Bentota Sea Beach on Day-5 but we had to amend the plan for the simple reason that we had a very early morning flight back home on Day-6, and Bentota is really very far away from the Colombo Airport. So we discussed the plan with our Tour Guide and decided to visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and then head back to Negombo where we can spend the evening at leisure and fly back home on the next day morning.
So, we started off for Pinnawala and we reached the Elephant Orphanage before afternoon. Pinnawala has the largest herd of captive elephants in the world, there are more than 10 thousand elephants living in this captive breeding ground. This orphanage was established in 1975 to care and protect all those orphaned unwanted wild elephants found wandering around the forest. This orphanage feed and provide care and sanctuary to orphaned baby elephants, it also has veterinary facilities. The sight of so many elephants playing together is surely impressive and anyway, this entire initiative is truly commendable.
From Pinnawala we headed straight to Negombo and managed to check-in to the Oasis Beach Resort, at the Ettukala area in Negombo. It was like reliving the Day-1 of our trip, as if we have completed a full circle!! Even the boys at the hotel recognized us and were very happy to welcome us back; we were finishing the journey from the point where we had started. By the way, by the time we reached Negombo we were super hungry! So, we headed straight to a quaint eatery diagonally opposite our resort called Honky Tonky Two.
It is basically a family-run restaurant and prefers to keep things simple besides serving some amazing flavorful food. I gorged on some Sri Lankan Prawn curry and rice to satiate my hunger which tasted absolutely heavenly to say the least, maybe more because I was extremely hungry and it somehow saved my life! 🙂 After this late lunch, we just spent the evening in leisure at the Negombo sea beach watching the sunset, and started packing things properly for our early morning flight!
Our Day-6 started off very early in the morning, at around 4 am with a drop at the Colombo Airport. As we bid adieu, the country and this pretty little town of Negombo were all asleep! We took the flight back home, actually to Chennai and then again a flight back to Kolkata. We landed at Kolkata in the afternoon with loads of memories and some lovely little souvenirs from the island country!
Important Pointers for your Sri Lanka trip:
- There are close to 22 sea beaches in Sri Lanka. But if you have at least a couple of more days in hand, add Bentota Sea Beach, Mirissa (Whale watching), Galle Fort and Sigiriya to your itinerary.
- And definitely, savor the freshly prepared local food in Sri Lanka; do not go for packaged/processed food or food from any International fast food chains.
- If you go with Sineli Lanka Tour Guide, you need to shell out USD 290 per person (approx), they will take care of all your accommodations and transportations (with driver-cum-guide). You can book your flight tickets yourself.
- Getting Tourist Visa for Sri Lanka is pretty easy, you need to apply online providing your details and the Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) will be sent to your mail ID in around 10 minutes (SLA is 24 hours though). Visa costs are USD 20 per person for SAARC countries and USD 35 for all other countries. And absolutely free for children below the age of 12.
- Make sure to carry your passports with your all the time as entry fees at all tourist spots and temples are a lot less for SAARC countries.
P.S. Special thanks to Sineli Lanka Tour Guide for the warm hospitality and an amazing overall experience!