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What to See in Sri Lanka and How to Tour the Island

We took two weeks off from the European winter, me and Clas my husband, and traveled down to tropical Sri Lanka just north of the equator. We didn’t know much about this lush, green island in the Indian Ocean, neither did we have any knowledge on what to see in Sri Lanka or how to tour the jungle island.

Hardly anyone of the people we know has ever visited Sri Lanka so we were the first. But now we know a lot about the island and I can guide you to Sri Lanka.

Ahangama stilt fishers, Sri Lanka

What to see in Sri Lanka: South Coast stilt fishermen

Sri Lanka is one of those off the path tourist destinations, after all the troubles there have been in the past years. First there was a decades long civil war and then the 2004 tsunami that hit the country hard and took the lives of 50 000 Sri Lankans.

Today Sri Lanka is building up its economy and charter flights and hotel chains are slowly returning to west and south coast resorts. Day trips are made inland to historic sites and safaris arranged to national parks.

Building up Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo in development

We were going to see this new, fresh destination, more than just the coastal tourist strip. So we toured two weeks around Sri Lanka, driving more than 1600 km in all. We did it by car, but we didn’t drive ourselves.

Sri Lanka is one of those countries where many travelers choose to take a car and a driver for their stay – and relax on the back seat without any major concerns about the chaotic traffic. Yes, the traffic is chaotic and at the same time well organized. It’s  just that they behave so differently than we do in Europe.

In the traffic, Sri Lanka

Men talking in traffic

So what is there actually to see in Sri Lanka? Now I know it, I have been there and found it out for you.

Reporting from Sri Lanka

Reporting from the island of Sri Lanka, Asia

What to See in Sri Lanka

Beaches and Coconut Trees

Fist of all, there are the sandy, pristine beaches backed by coconut trees. They exist all around the island, and most travelers come for that. As the air and water are  warm throughout the year, Sri Lanka is a very good beach destination

There are wonderful beaches lining the coast all the way in the west and south. The beaches look like this:

South Coast beach, Sri Lanka

Typical South Coast beach, Sri Lanka

Ahangama Beach from Insight Resort, Sri Lanka

Ahangama Beach on the South Coast

We saw a lot of beaches and finally found out that the best beaches exist in the east.

The rural east has white, wide and undiscovered beaches, a lot of them. You can almost have a beach on your own which in these days is real luxury!

Maalu Maalu beach, Passekudah, Sri Lanka

Passekudah Bay: Maalu Maalu Resort beach 

Maalu Maalu Resort beach

View of Passekudah bay, East Coast of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Jungles

Then there are the jungles. The inner part of Sri Lanka is mostly jungle, thick green jungle with lots of wildlife like monkeys, birds and elephants. There are so many different birds! You can hear their sounds best in early morning when it’s still misty before the heat takes in.

Monkey, Sri Lanka

Wild monkey, Sri Lanka

Colorful bird, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka birdlife

Jungle lakes invite you to have a swim. They are green and turquoise lakes mixed with grey water on all sides. No, even if you’d love to swim it’s not safe. Use hotel pools instead. This hotel pool was one of my dream places, it really gave me a feeling of being in a jungle lake:

Sigiriya Rock from Aliya Resort pool

Hotel pool like jungle lake: Aliya Resort, Sigiriya

More to See in Sri Lanka: Ruins of Old Capitals

In a tropical climate the jungle grows and grows so after all the centuries the Sri Lankan jungle hides in it many ruined kingdoms.

I have to admit didn’t know how great history Sri Lanka has. Sri Lanka is a country with thousands of years of history. Its ancient kingdoms and capitals were all located in the Central Highlands. The first kingdom was Anuradhapura, the second Polonnaruwa and the third Kandy.

Polonnaruwa ruins, Sri Lanka

A ruined kingdom stone wall in Polonnaruwa

All these ancient kingdoms rose and fell and were covered by thick jungle – until they one after one were discovered. That was in the 19th century. Today the area where all these kingdoms used to exist has the name  the Golden Triangle. And more ruins hide on the top of Sigiriya Rock.

Ruins at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

King’s courthouse ruins, the Golden Triangle of Sri Lanka

On the top of Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Rock, Central Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Temples

And then there are all the temples. Sri Lanka is a country with four main religions. There are the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, all of which have their own temples scattered around the countryside.

Buddhist statues often shine with gold, Hindu temples have magic pastel shades and mosques and Christian churches, too, have a lot more color than we are used to.

Hindu temple, Sri Lanka

Hindu temple interiors in Central Sri Lanka

Hindu temple, Sri Lanka

The exterior of another Hindu temple

Statue, Sri Lanka

Golden Buddhist temple statue

Buddha statues in Colombo, Sri Lanka

A common sight: Buddha statues in a temple

What to Eat in Sri Lanka: Rice and Curry

So what did we eat in Sri Lanka then? Local dishes, every day, Sri Lankan food it’s so good! It’s based on rice and curry: fruits, beans, vegetables, chicken, fish are all flavored by curry that they mix themselves.

To prepare your own curry you just take curry leaves, chilli and turmeric powder and mix them with cloves, cardamon, fenugreek, mustard and cinnamon, the way you prefer:

Sri Lankan curry ingredients

Curry ingredients

We noticed that the menu is basically the same in first class restaurants and simple village eateries, and in both places Sri Lankan food always tasted good. First it tastes very spicy but after a few days we learned what the spiciest things were and took less of them.

I lived two weeks on Sri Lankan food, every day, lunch and dinner. I always preferred local meals but Clas sometimes needed more international tastes and above all more meat.

Sri Lankan village lunch

Sri Lankan village lunch served on lotus leaf

Sri Lankan lunch, Colombo

Fine dining in Colombo

What to Explore in Sri Lanka: Wildlife and National Parks

But let’s get back to nature. As Sri Lanka is in the tropics it has plenty of exotic wildlife. Elephants, monkeys, wild buffaloes, leopards, lizards and snakes, sloth bears and birds come in all colors.

Peacocks don’t appear in zoos, they are wild animals here and you can see (and hear) them all around the country. There are so many peacocks that an airport had to close down after peacocks had caused so much problems to air traffic.

Wild peacock

Sri Lanka peacock

However the best places to meet local wildlife are the national parks that there are more than 20 of in the country. These national parks all together make a vast protected jungle. There are both dry zone and wetland areas where Sri Lanka’s growing population and noisy traffic don’t disturb local wildlife as it does elsewhere.

Buffalos in water, Yala National Park

Buffaloes in water

Elephants in Yala National Park

 Elephants feeding with grass

Elephant road sign

Watch up for elephants in traffic!

Sri Lanka’s Villages

You have to watch for elephants. And you have to watch for people and house animals as you drive though villages.

Sri Lanka is a small island but has 20 million people. The biggest city Colombo only has a population of 600 000. That means that villages follow one another on all roadsides. As people here live in the countryside, in villages.

That makes driving very very slow, village traffic consists of people in all ages and all possible means of transport. There are cows, dogs, buffaloes and even lizards on the road.

Our medium speed was 30-40 km/hour in areas with a lot of villages and 40-50 km/hour in quieter mountain areas.

Cow in the village, Sri Lanka

Cow on the road, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka traffic

Machine on the road

Tuk tuks are a very common mode of transport, maybe not in Colombo but in all countryside. There are 1,2 million tuk tuks in all, imported from India. They all are the same model but in different colors.

Tuk tuks and village life,

Old man and tuk tuks in traffic, Kalpityia Peninsula

Meet Sri Lankan People

As we toured the country we met so many people that we talked to. Our experience was that Sri Lanka is full of nice, smiling people. And almost all of them speak English so go ahead and have a talk with them, and you will learn a lot about the country. To get to know a country you have to know its people, at least a little bit. This is easy in Sri Lanka where the locals are so nice.

Mother and child

Mother and child, Sigiriya

Tea plucker, Sri Lanka

Tea plucker, Nuwara Eliya

Fruit seller, Sri Lanka

Fruit seller, South Coast


How to Travel in Sri Lanka

This is in brief what we saw on our two week trip around the tropical island. So where did we go then?

You can see our Sri Lanka travel itinerary on the map. We first headed north from Colombo where the main airport is, then east to the island’s center and on to the east coast, down the east coast. After that we turned back west to Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya and south to Kandy and across mountains to Nuwara Eliya. Then all the way down to Tissamaharama and Yala National Park in the south and back to Colombo along the coast.


Our Sri Lanka travel itinerary on the map

And how did we do it? By car, with a driver. Our Sri Lanka round trip was arranged by the local travel agent Connaissance de Ceylan based in Colombo.

First, of course, there were the flights. As we bought flights it turned out too hard to find direct flights from Scandinavia so we took a connection over Dubai. Dubai has fast and well priced connections to Colombo, many flights a day.

Flight Dubai to Colombo

On the plane to Sri Lanka

Connaissance de Ceylan were real experts of their country. They planned our itinerary, arranged us a car and a driver and the hotels on the way.

It was not a small task, it was ten different hotels and you need to know the appropriate driving times between them. Driving times in Sri Lanka traffic are not exactly what Google Maps tells you. Connaissance de Ceylan also arranged which sights to visit and where we stopped for lunch. That of course was super easy – for us!

Connaissance de Ceylan car and driver

Our car and Mac, the driver

Normally when we travel I’m doing all the planning job myself but this time was different. It is a good idea to have a local expert arranging everything, not least when we were to see most of Sri Lanka in only two weeks. The program was heavy but it gave us a lot.

Driving in Sri Lanka

Touring Sri Lanka by car

Here is a link to the Connaissance de Ceylan website where they show example trips to give you ideas and help you define what you want, but most trips they arrange are partly tailor made like ours.

We used a large range of hotels, from homestay and beach villa to luxury resorts which was good too. The main thing with accommodation is that it’s clean and air conditioned and you get a shower after a day in traffic in a hot country.

Our Sri Lanka road trip was made in cooperation with the Sri Lankan travel agent Connaissance de Ceylan and Theme Resorts & Spas hotel chain, but like always all opinions shared in this blog post are our own.

More on Our Sri Lanka Road Trip

Our separate posts are going to show you different parts of Sri Lanka. Reading them you can follow our two week trip around the tropical island.

My post Sri Lanka West Coast from Colombo to Kalpitiya will show you the beginning of our Sri Lanka road trip, starting from Colombo:

Buddha statues, Colombo

Buddha statues in Colombo

The second post will be about Central Sri Lanka where we explored Sri Lanka’s ancient cities and other sights of the Cultural Triangle.

Polonnaruwa stupa, Sri Lanka

A dagoba, Sri Lanka’s ancient cities

After the lost cities we went on to the east coast and met some smiling locals:

Passekudah Bay, Sri Lanka's East Coast

Passekudah Bay, Sri Lanka’s east coast

Then we came back to the central highlands and Kandy. For Kandy check out the post Historic Kandy: Temples, Lake and Rainforest Hills.

Historic Kandy, Sri Lanka

Historic Kandy, Sri Lanka

From Kandy our trip went on to the tea country and Nuwara Eliya: Kandy to Nuwara Eliya: Sri Lanka’s Tea Country

 Kandy to Nuwara Eliya: Sri Lanka's Tea Country

Kandy to Nuwara Eliya: Sri Lanka’s Tea Country

And last but not least, Sri Lanka’s South Coast, from Yala to Galle. 

Yala National Park birdlife

Yala National Park birdlife

See you, with a smile!

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  1. I really enjoy this site cause its worth with the usefull info..thank dear

  2. Hi
    was this trip in 2018?
    I a trying to get an idea how current this information is.
    Looks amazing.

  3. Hi Liisa,

    How did you get the driver? Was this prearranged?

    Maybe if you could share the driver Mac’s phone number, I can check with him.

    I am travelling to Srilanka from 20th April to the 27th

    Thank you

    Best regards

    • Hi Daljit, the trip was prearranged with the travel agent Connaissance de Ceylan. You can find a link to their website in my Sri Lanka posts.

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