Surfing. Wildlife. Culture. You’ll go for the beaches but stay for the ruins, nature and affordable everything. Here are the must-know details for an expedition around the island nation.
By Liliia Sokotun deCos
When booking our trip to Sri Lanka, we wondered if a full month in the small island nation would be too long. I was after cheap surfing and sunbathing – little did I know how many amazing experiences awaited our family …
Ruins of ancient cities, unique Hindu temples, legacies of Portuguese and English colonization, bountiful beaches, wild sea turtles to feed, safaris through national parks, one of the most scenic train rides in the world, lush tea plantations, hiking, diving, and of course, surfing. If there was ever a reason for a run-on sentence it would be to describe traveling in Sri Lanka!
It is also a great destination for families with young children to explore – it is safe, easy to get around, inexpensive and has plenty of things to do! It always surprises us with what ease our kids take to traveling: Long hours in buses, hiking through the jungle, never-ending interaction with locals, sightseeing when it’s 95°F+ – nothing phases them.
Our girls, aged 1 and 3 years, enjoyed long beach days in Trincomalee, exploring the Polonnaruwa ruins by motorbike, elephants in Udawalawe and making friends for hours on train rides.
In the end, we regretted booking only one month in Sri Lanka. We had just begun to really explore the island when our time was up and we had to fly home. But not before we achieved our dream surf-wildlife-culture safari. It’s no wonder Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka its no. 1 country to travel to in 2019.
Oh, and the surfing? Sri Lanka is truly a beginner’s paradise – warm water, not-too-strong waves, and affordable rentals and lessons. After a few failed attempts to get up in Portugal and Chile, I had wanted to try somewhere with easier conditions in hopes I could become a real surfer. However, even in Sri Lanka’s perfect setting, surfing ended up not being my thing. But now I know – and no more excuses!
The ROAM Report: Sri Lanka
- Travelers: Liliia (28) and Jose (34), and our little ones age 3 and 1
- Date: September 2018
- Itinerary: Negombo (2 nights), Trincomalee (7 nights), Polonnaruwa (1 night), Kandy (1 night), Ella (3 nights), Udawalawa (1 night), Weligama (5 nights), Delawella beach (2 nights), Hikkaduwa (4 nights), Negombo (2 nights).
- Budget: $2,000 in total – accommodation $15-$20 a night, food $15-$20 a day, transport – $5 a day, and the rest for activities like safaris, surfing, and sightseeing
The Good Stuff
You won’t get bored in Sri Lanka. The country has something to offer everyone from those on a one-week package trip to the most demanding and experienced traveler. Here’s a run through of the best of the best:
Sri Lanka is known for its picturesque beaches. Here are our three favorites:
Trincomalee We stayed at this spot on the northeast coast for a whole week. It was a really chill and relaxed place with a bit of a hippy vibe. Beautiful calm beach with pristine clear water, it is perfect for families with children. Nearby activities include diving, snorkeling, boat trips to proximate small islands, and great seafood dining. If we knew beforehand that the waves were so strong in the southwestern part of Sri Lanka, we would have stayed in Trincomalee longer. It was pure paradise – white sand beaches, turquoise water and very few tourists due to its remote location.
Nilaveli Only nine miles from Trincomalee, we visited Nilaveli on a day trip by rented motorbike. Luckily, riding a family of four on one motorbike is socially normal in Sri Lanka because we have only one driver in the family 😉 And, it was the end of the high season so the beach was almost deserted and provided the advertised experience of enjoying this type of remote beach beauty all alone.
Delawella This is the iconic beach of Sri Lanka that you see on every poster. It is beautiful indeed. We had big fun on its palm tree swing. However, I cannot even imagine the number of people that must be there in high season.
Beach Tips We visited several more beaches but they didn’t impress us as much as these three. I think the reason might be the rainy season in the southwest part of the island where strong seasonal tides destroy the beach. There, the beach was only 3 feet wide and steep. However, many photos of these spots we showed a completely different beach. Maybe it’s climate change, or maybe it’s seasonal, but I recommend doing some research about the specific time of year you are going before reserving hotels on any specific beach, and do not trust the photos on the booking sites (see more tips below).
Safari There are 16 national parks in Sri Lanka and each of them has something unique to offer. It was rather hard to decide which ones to visit. Eventually, after thorough research, we picked Udawalawe National Park. This park is smaller than its more famous neighbor Yala National Park, however, it has the same amount of wild elephants; thus the chance to see them close-up is even higher. Also Udawalawe National Park sees fewer visitors per year. This is an enormous plus because the best way to ruin your safari experience is sharing the park with too many people.
We loved the safari despite its organizational nuisance (more about this later). We saw many wild elephants, few of them very up-close, countless water buffalos, some wild dogs, barking deer, various birds, and even a rare pangolin (related to the South American armadillo). Our kids loved the safari as well. Seeing wild elephants so close rocked their world – well, it rocked ours too…
Kandy-Ella Train The train journey from the highland towns of Kandy to Ella is rightly considered to be one of the most scenic rides in the world. Its duration is about 7 hours long. The train takes you through striking landscapes of lush green tea plantations, jungles, old charming bridges, waterfalls, cute little villages with locals smiling, and waving to the passing trains.
Even though the train ride itself with two little kids wasn’t the easiest for us parents, we loved it and would do it again in a heartbeat. And our kids enjoyed every minute of it – for them, it was nothing but fun! (See tips below.)
Polonnaruwa Ruins The ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa have been a World Heritage site since 1982. The area was a thriving commercial and financial center some 800 years ago. The ruins of past glory are well preserved and if you let your imagination roam, it won’t be hard to see what an amazing place it used to be.
We spent the whole afternoon riding a motorbike from one site to another in the large complex. The grandeur of some ruins truly takes your breath away. And even though my husband and I have been to many ancient ruins in our life, this site didn’t disappoint us. We also heard great things about the ancient sites in Anuradhapura but did not have time to visit on this trip.
The Rock of Sigiriya Sigiriya (or “Lion Rock”) is most likely the most visited and iconic tourist destination of all Sri Lanka. An ancient palace and fortress are situated on a massive rock plateau that is 200 meters higher than the surrounding jungles. The views of the surrounding areas are stunning and it is totally worth venturing inland and leaving the beautiful beaches behind for a couple of days to see this impressive sight.
You should know that the best views are not from Sigiriya though. There is another short hike to the Pidurangala Rock nearby from where you can enjoy stunning views of the jungle and Sigiriya itself. There are a lot fewer people on Pidurangala Rock since not many people know about it as it is not advertised as much as Sigiriya. It took us about an hour to hike to the top. It is moderately easy, even with two kids.
Ella Hikes & Sights We stayed in the famous highland town of Ella for a few days as we liked it there a lot! So much to do in the cool mountain air – and a break from hot and humid made it all the more enjoyable. We hiked to Little Adam’s peak (2.8 mi) through picturesque green tea plantations. The hike is very easy, even our 3-year-old managed to walk almost the whole way.
Another short stroll brought us to the oft-photographed and immensely picturesque Nine Arch Bridge built in a simply stunning location. A view to remember! If you are eager to hike more, there are plenty of other treks of different length and difficulty.
We also went on a tour to the Uva Halpewatte tea factory. It was a big dream of mine for many years and I was super excited! We loved the tour! We learned about the whole tea making process and at the end, we had a lovely tea tasting in the factory’s roof café overlooking the plantation.
Diving and Snorkeling There are some good diving locations in Sri Lanka and, depending on the season, you can dive either the northeast or the southwest. Trincomalee is the best-known spot for diving in the northeast of the island and Hikkaduwa in the south-west. Unfortunately, we missed the dive in Trincomalee and when we arrived in Hikkaduwa, it was still off-season… Well, it left us something to do next time.
Surfing Sri Lanka is well known in the surfing world as a good destination for beginners. Warm water, decent waves, countless surf schools, and cheap prices on equipment make it a surfing paradise. Arugam Bay is the most famous location for surfing; however it’s also known to be an endless frat party for Australians so, needless to say, it didn’t fit our family vacation plans.
I took a few surf lessons in Welligama in the south, but quickly realized that to master surfing, I need to practice every day for months! It was fun though and I am happy I tried it.
Something for Every Budget Sri Lanka can be a very affordable destination as well as a luxury one. There are plenty of exquisite hotels with beautiful views, infinity pools, and high-end restaurants. At the same time, there is no lack of medium-range hotels, guest houses, and even homestays. In offseason, you can get a nice, spacious, clean room with a private balcony for as little as $15-$20.
It is easy to organize a car with a private driver that will take you around the island. It is quite affordable too. To go 170 miles or about 6 hours – about as far as you can go without hitting the water again – will cost you around $100. Or you can take a local bus which will cost $5 for the same 170 miles. The roads are decent and buses are frequent and decent quality. If taking buses, don’t be scared if one is full of people standing, simply don’t get on, there is almost always another within 10 minutes. We thought we were lucky to always get a bus so quickly but then realized there are millions of buses a day so it’s just quick and easy to bus around. Also, there are very few routes/roads in Sri Lanka. This makes it very easy to get on any bus heading your way without speaking the language. Simply say the city you’re going when the ticket guy comes and be amazed that the 2-hour journey can cost less than one dollar.
All in all, it is up to you how much money you want to spend. We loved having different options. Even though we usually travel on a budget, it is nice to be in a place where you can splurge from time to time.
The Not So Good
High Season Crowds Sri Lanka became a very popular vacation destination in the past few years. I totally see why – good infrastructure, plenty of sights, a variety of experiences and budget prices. Yes, Sri Lanka has it all – and that’s the big problem.
We arrived during shoulder season at the beginning of September when the hotels are half empty and the beaches are almost deserted. But at the end of September, when high season is about to kick in we saw crowds pouring onto the island and it was getting tight to even walk on the streets. I can not even imagine what the crowds would be like during peak season.
Spicy Food Even though we flew to Sri Lanka from India where we developed a taste for spicy food, the local cuisine was still too spicy at times. If you forget to ask your waiter to take it easy with the spiciness, there is a chance your kids won’t be eating that meal. On the bright side, there are plenty of Western restaurants where you can order a kid-safe Italian pasta or a juicy American Burger 😉
Still Developing Sri Lanka is clean for a developing country, but there is still trash on the beach, in the gutter, and on the road. It is also quite challenging to get around with a stroller if you are traveling with little kids; I would recommend bringing a baby carrier instead.
Safari Woes It was really upsetting to see mostly half-empty jeeps driving in the park. Even though there are only 6-8 seats in a large open jeep, most of them hosted only 1-3 people. This is, sadly, completely the fault of tour operators. You can organize a safari tour through any hotel or guesthouse. However, it’s best to book at the place you’re staying or they are likely to take offense (read from many reviews online).
You can fit 6-8 people comfortably (everyone has a window seat) in a safari jeep and the price of the entrance ticket depends on how full the jeep is. If there are 6 people in the car, the entrance ticket per-person is half as much as if the car only has two people. In this way, the government encourages people to form groups to decrease the number of cars and pollution in the park. However, the tour organizers do everything possible not to let people form groups of 6-8 by simply saying that there are no people with whom they could share a jeep ride.
In the end, 70 percent of jeeps have only 1-3 people in them because you, as a tourist, pay the higher price for just 2 people in the car however on paper the guide puts 6 people on your ticket since all the drivers work together. On paper, they simply combine tourists from different jeeps so it looks like there are fewer jeeps than there are in reality. We found out about this problem accidentally by calling different tour companies while trying to work out a deal for ourselves at the hotel where we stayed. I get that charging tourists $20 extra isn’t the end of the world, but allowing so many half-empty cars to drive around a national park is a real problem.
We recommend telling your hotel or tour organizer you will only go if the jeep is near full. Then, of course, they will magically find someone to share your jeep right away.
Tourists = Money Unfortunately fast developing tourism has had a negative impact on the locals involved with tourists. Of course, not all Sri Lankans are like this. However, those who live and work in the most touristic places like Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, Kandy, and Ella won’t miss a chance to rip off tourists.
Examples include finding a taxi that your hotel desk tells you should be X rupees and then not finding a single taxi willing to charge you less than 3X; or getting a tour guide you know you’re paying way too much for.
The normal response to this – from both locals and tourists – is that “Everything is still very cheap, so why worry?” While I understand this logic, I don’t enjoy the uneasy feeling that comes when you talk to a nice local at a beach restaurant, you both go to up to the bar, and the server says your beer is 3x the price of his – in front of you both. This very open double standard on pricing was hard for us to get used to as long-term travelers.
Too Much Attention If you are a foreigner – or even worse, a foreigner with kids – watch out! You will get endless requests for selfies and small talk. We love interacting with locals when we travel and we have visited dozens of places where we received a ton of attention as tourists, but Sri Lanka was non stop. At first, it was fun, however, after one month in Sri Lanka, we wanted to disappear into the background. Also, be sure to teach your kids not to take anything from strangers as the locals, good at heart, will give them anything they have, from a half-eaten cookie to gum, candy or whatever they’ve got to share.
Good to Know
When to Go? Sri Lanka is tropical and no matter what time of year it will be hot and humid. If this ever gets too much for you the mountains in the center of the island are a great place to cool off any time of year.
The peculiarity of the island is that it has opposite weather patterns in different parts of the country. When it is rainy and low season in the southwest, it is high season in the northeast and vice versa. Make sure you know which part of the island is in high or low season when planning your trip.
If you’re heading to the west and south coasts as well as the hill country, December to March is the best time to visit Sri Lanka. If you plan on seeing the east coast, you’ll get the best weather from April/May to September.
We visited Sri Lanka in September and it was pleasing weather on the east coast, in Trincomalee. It was also great weather inland; we had no issues visiting the ruins of Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, and Kandy. We hiked in Ella and went on a safari tour in Udawalawa National Park. Even if it rained a couple of times a day, it was only for 30 minutes or so and the sun always came out after to dry you out.
In September in the southwest, though, it rained more, there were fewer sunny days and the waves were considerably bigger. It is not a problem if you are coming to surf but if you are traveling with children I would recommend choosing the side of the island that is in high or shoulder season. During our September stay there, we had to switch locations a few times because the waves were fierce and we couldn’t swim with our little ones.
Book as You Go Unless visiting in high season, I would recommend against booking everything in advance. What we found out by exploring various beaches and other tourist locations is that most of the time pictures don’t look anything like what is on the pamphlet or online.
Small Sights Better Because we had very high expectations, the most famous tourist sights and destinations were somewhat disappointing. That said, we were amazed by the lesser-known locations.
Bike It! Don’t be afraid to rent a motorbike and explore the island! If you are looking for a perfect beach, it is better to see it first and then find a hotel.
Book Safaris Locally If you book your safari in advance online, prepare to pay three times more than what you would pay on the spot.
Go 2nd Class Train The 1st class coach in the Kandy-Ella train is actually the worst. Aircon means you can’t open the windows and thus you’ll miss all the beauty and charm of the ride itself. Book second class tickets instead. Comfortable seats with wide-open windows and wind in your face – just like the good old days.
Buy Train Tickets Upon Arrival You can’t book train tickets online as a foreigner. However, you can book tickets 30 days in advance, in person, from anywhere in Sri Lanka. Once you arrive in Sri Lanka, head straight to a railway station and book your tickets for the day(s) you need. If the train is fully booked there will still be many tickets in 2nd and 3rd class that you can only buy on the day of travel. A seat won’t be guaranteed but you’ll be able to get there.
Whales Come in High Season, Too For whale watching, you need to come during the high season. In Mirissa in the southwest, the peak season is from November to April with the best chances of seeing whales during December and January. In Trincomalee in the northeast, the season is from May to September, however, we visited in September and the whales were already gone 🙁
Liliia Sokotun deCos – February 2019
Originally from Ukraine and now based in Spain, Liliia has traveled literally across the world with her husband Jose and their two young daughters. Follow their intrepid walkabouts at bring_baby_abroad and see Liliia’s amazing photos on Instagram at bring_baby_abroad or on ROAM where she won Best Family Photo of 2019.
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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