Originally planned for a fortnight, my visit to Sri Lanka lasted 23 days! During this time, I took the trail given in the map below. This is a result of trying to pack in most of the places accessible to backpackers in a single itinerary while giving each destination as much breathing space as I could afford, given the limited time. I was firm on covering the offbeat places while keeping only the most significant touristy places in the itinerary.I may have made it a bit hectic, but it simply didn’t feel right to leave out any of the wonderful sights the country had to offer. And the memories I amassed in return? Priceless!
Check out my 23-day itinerary below.
Day 1 – Arrived Bandaranaike International Airport (Yay!) at 11 am. I bought a pre-paid tourist SIM pack (for 1200 LKR) at the Mobitel counter located at the Arrivals Lounge inside the airport. From the airport, I took a tuk-tuk to Negombo train station (it happens to be the closest one from the airport and took around 100 LKR). Bought a ticket (95 LKR) and boarded the train for Puttalam station. From Puttalam, took a bus for Kalpitiya (route #35) and got down at Kandakulia Junction. From here, a short tuk-tuk ride took me to Kalpitiya town, the first destination in my itinerary. The journey took a little more than five hours.
Note: I added Kalpitiya to my itinerary so that I could have a go at snorkeling and recreational scuba diving along with a whale-watching trip. Just in case you land in Sri Lanka after April, you must try these activities on the Eastern peninsula (Trincomalee and Arugam Bay) as the southwest monsoon makes it impossible to pursue water activities in Kalpitiya between May and November.
Day 2 – A much awaited scuba diving lesson just made my day! A good six hours of adrenaline rush left me craving for more. It was rather exhausting though, and evening found me fast asleep in my cozy little cot.
Day 3 – Another day began with an early breakfast. I ambled down to the beach to catch the boat for my tryst with the world’s largest mammal (read whale). Close encounters with a few sperm whales and hundreds of dolphins opened a whole new perspective in this island country. Returning from this awe-inspiring experience in the afternoon, I tucked in some pittu and stir-fried vegetables while booking a train ticket for my future ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella using my new Mobitel SIM card (dial 365 from Mobitel, enter your passport number, destination and number of tickets and get ticket confirmation via sms; click here for details). Prior booking in this busy route eliminates any apprehension of missing one of the most picturesque train journeys in Sri Lanka. Though trains can be slower than buses, they are cheaper and much more comfortable.
(Note: Express train tickets can be booked online, but routes are very limited. Nowadays, this UK based website is offering online booking of train tickets. You need to have a paypal account to book tickets though.)
Soon I bid adieu to this unspoilt beach town and headed for Habarana, the next destination in my itinerary. I took a tuk-tuk till Kandakulia Junction to catch a bus for Puttalam. Another bus from Puttalam (#4/86) brought me to Habarana town (took almost five hours from Kalpitiya) late in the evening. Habarana is a nondescript township catering to budget travellers who wish to visit the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Dambulla and the ruins of Ritigala, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.
Day 4 – Early in the morning, I hired a cab for the day to visit Anuradhapura, the first capital of ancient Sri Lanka. En route, I decided to cover Ritigala ruins (about 40 min. from Habarana), hence the early start in a taxi. I must say it was worth the trip and highly recommend Ritigala trek to travellers visiting this part of Sri Lanka. Carry insect repellent (dab generously before starting your trek) and salt for protection against leeches. From there, it took another 2 hours to reach Anuradhapura. Steeped in rich Buddhist culture, the ruined city of Anuradhapura transported me to a civilization that truly revered art. After spending half a day roaming the streets of a bygone era, I took the taxi back to Habarana. Charged me 4500 LKR for the entire day (about 12 hours).
Day 5 – After a sumptuous breakfast of pol roti and egg curry, I decided to take a tuk-tuk for the day to visit Sigiriya Lion rock and Pollonurawa. This decision was chiefly made to save travel time so that I could spend more time exploring the sites. It costed me 2000 LKR for the whole trip. And boy, was it worth every rupee! These ancient sites were truly spectacular. The tuk-tuk dropped me back to my lodging in Habarana.
Day 6 – I checked out early and headed for Dambulla by bus. It took me about 30 minutes to reach this ancient town soaked in history. The day was spent roaming the sacred cave monastery, with its five sanctuaries, a UNESCO World heritage site. Early evening, I boarded a bus to commence a 3-hour journey to Trincomalee, a historic port city in East Sri Lanka, to spend the night.
Day 7 – A delicious local breakfast set the mood for an eventful day. My
check list included visits to the famous Dutch fort, hot spring wells, medieval Koneswaram temple and other religious sites. I hired a tuk-tuk. Needless to say, Trincomalee transported me to a time of greatness. The evening found me watching the sunset from Pigeon Island National Park. Surreal!
Day 8 – In the morning I checked out from the guest house and boarded a bus for Dambulla. On reaching Dambulla after 3 hours, I changed buses to get to Kandy. Took me another 3.5 hours to reach my destination. It was an arduous bus journey, so after an early dinner I caught up with some reading within the confines of my lodging.
Note: If you are visiting Sri Lanka post April, it would be a good idea to spend another day in Trincomalee and enjoy a bit of water-sports or whale-watching. You could cut short your Kalpitiya stay as it would no longer be the fun side after April.
Day 9 – The world traveller in me decided to cover most of Kandy in a day, starting from Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, followed by the Royal Palace, Wales Park, Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa), Kandy lake and the National Museum. A big dollop of culture filled up my senses and made my day.
Day 10 – Nuwara eliya, Sri Lanka’s mesmerizing hill country, was my next pit stop. The intercity bus from Kandy took me through winding paths and brought me to the land of tumbling waterfalls and tea estates in 3.5 hours. I breathed in a lungful of fresh country air and headed for the quintessential tea factory (Pedro tea estate) in a tuk-tuk. On my return from this field trip, I covered the picturesque Victoria park, Gregory lake, Seetha Amman (Ramayana trail) before calling it a day.
Day 11 – Started the day with an exhilarating early morning trek to Horton Plains and World’s End. Breakfast at World’s End was simply out of the world! In the afternoon, I took a tuk-tuk to Nanu Oya railway station (30 min. ride) to board the train for Ella, using my reserved ticket booked on Day 3. Many a traveller had mentioned about this must-do train ride. Trust me, every bit of it was absolutely true! I officially joined the “Nuwara eliya-Ella train brigade” after this memorable journey (ha ha!).
Day 12 – Morning greeted me with a breathtaking view of Ella gap from my guesthouse. Tranquility at its best! Breakfast was followed by a trek to Little Adam’s Peak. After about two hours of climbing (the final 20 minutes up a steep staircase), a
spectacular view of Central Sri Lanka took my breath away! I could spot the popular Rawana Falls in the midst of lush green hills and plateaus. I returned back to town and after a stroll in the main market area, proceeded for lunch. After a sumptuous lunch, I headed for Rawana Falls, not too far from the town (about 20 min. tuk-tuk ride). To put it mildly, I wasn’t disappointed. Evening was spent relaxing in a cozy restaurant near town, listening to the pleasant sounds of the night.
Day 13 – Raising a half-hearted goodbye to the majestic hill town, I was off to Monoragala by bus at about 9 am. From Monoragala, I boarded another bus for Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka’s most popular surfing destination. The journey took almost six hours and by the time I reached Arugam Bay (a short tuk-tuk ride for 150 LKR from Putuveli or Pottuvil where the bus ride ended), I was ready to eat anything that was remotely edible. After polishing off a good portion of lip-smacking rice, fish curry, hoppers and pol sambol, I headed for the beach. Surf season was yet to begin, so the place was almost deserted. I just stood by the sea for a while, enjoying the quiet sunset.
Note: If you are a surfer, you must visit Arugam Bay between May and November to grab a smashing surfing opportunity.
Day 14 – Haputale, the next stop in my itinerary was beckoning and I hopped into a tuk-tuk to get to Pottuvil from where I boarded the bus for Wellawaye. Once I reached there, I had to take another bus for Haputale, home to the historical Lipton’s Seat – a highly perched vantage point of the Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton. It was a tiring 7-hour journey from Arugam Bay. A lazy evening followed by an early dinner got me in ship-shape the next day.
Day 15 – Early in the morning (about 6.30 am), I found myself in a tuk-tuk headed for Lipton’s Seat. I took the tuk-tuk all the way to the top (about 7 km) to save time. The view that unfolded caught me by surprise as I was not expecting it to surpass the panoramic view from World’s End. I savoured the moment for a while and trekked down the hill through lush tea plantations, enjoying the vistas around. It took me about an hour and a half to reach the point where the tuk-tuk waited for me. I headed for Diyaluma Falls Inn, an eatery set up against the backdrop of Diyaluma waterfall, for breakfast. The view demanded a lazy breakfast, but I had another stunning waterfall to catch up with, so headed back to my lodging. I freshened up, packed a few munchies and took a bus to Bambarakanda falls, the tallest waterfall in Sri Lanka. The bus dropped me at Kalupahana junction, about 5 km from the waterfall. I hired a three wheeler (800 LKR) for a return trip to the falls along with a one hour wait. The hour flew by in the lap of the wonderful Bambarakanda and I returned to Kalupahana to catch the bus back to Haputale, tired and happy.
Day 16 – Kataragama was my next destination of choice. I checked out of my eighth accommodation in the island country and proceeded for Wellawaye service road bus stop by tuk-tuk to catch the bus for Kataragama, the most significant religious pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka. It took about 3.5 hours to reach the the sacred city. I headed for the temple (Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya) to pay homage to its 2000 year old holy past. Standing inside the temple complex simply gave me the goosebumps!
Day 17 – After gorging some hoppers and green curry, I was off to Yala National Park, home
to thousands of leopards, in a safari jeep to get a taste of Sri Lankan wilderness. An eventful half a day was spent spotting a herd of deer, some wild elephants, boars and plenty of colorful birds. The big cat, however, remained elusive even though other groups had seen one earlier in the morning. At the end of the tour, I returned to Kataragama, a tad disappointed. Time to move on to the next destination, Mirissa, a tranquil beach paradise in the southern tip of Sri Lanka. It took about three hours to reach Mirissa by bus (route #32).
Day 18 – Mirissa was in full swing, welcoming the peak season. Despite the crowd, there was a certain laid-back atmosphere everywhere I went. This place somehow managed to soothe a tired mind and open it enough to absorb something rejuvenating. I got high just on coconut water! it was a shame I had to leave later in the day as I badly wanted to cover a little more of this beautiful country before bidding adieu. As planned, I packed up and boarded a bus (route #32 again!) for Galle. About 45 minutes later I reached the old fort city.
Note: You can enjoy scuba diving and whale-watching in Mirissa too instead of Kalpitiya, if you happen to reach Mirissa between December and March.
Day 19 – Galle, a very popular tourist destination, had a certain old world charm about it as it helplessly accepted the changes happening with the passage of time. The old fort, built in the 1600s, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was no surprise that the place was teeming with tourists. A visit to all the significant monuments made me realize how European this city was, as though stuck in some old-time colonial era! It felt good to take a stroll on the streets, either side of which stood quaint houses with potted plants and ornamental shrubbery. I decided to park myself in Galle for another night.
Day 20 – Sinharaja rain forest, another World Heritage site, beckoned me for a visit not so far away from Galle. I answered the call and took an early morning bus to Deniyaya (took a little over two hours), the nearest bus station to the forest reserve. From Deniyaya, it was a short tuk-tuk ride till the forest entrance (Deodawa). The entry ticket with guide (compulsory) costed 1644 LKR. It was a true Eden inside, complete with waterfalls and amazing flora and fauna. Incidentally, the reserve is a bird-watchers’ paradise! Beware of leeches though. Carry some salt to loosen any leech that decides to get cozy with you. I started back for Galle by bus from Deniyaya early in the evening.
Day 21 – A Sri Lankan sojourn is almost incomplete without Bentota. Think of an
unspoiled beach vacation and add spectacular to it. What you get on the other side of the equation is Bentota! I set out to get a taste of this vacation spot before heading for Colombo. The bus ride took about two hours. Though accommodations in Bentota are slightly on the higher side, airbnb is a good solution to this problem if booked in advance. I did just that and it brought down my costs to a great extent. After locating my lodging, I seized the day by hiring a tuk-tuk to visit Lunuganga Estate, the architectural marvel by Geoffrey Bawa. The prolific Sri Lankan architect put his heart and soul to showcase Sri Lanka in a sprawling 25-acre estate overlooking a huge lake. This unique estate is highly recommended if you choose to visit these parts.
Day 22 – Being short of time, I decided to stick to the beach rather than taking a touristy city tour. After lunch, I headed for my final destination in Sri Lanka, Colombo, by bus. Even though one can’t get enough of this lovely island country, a visitor has to leave sooner or later. But not without some fun in the capital city! After checking into my last lodging in the country, I set out for the main town to check up on the shopping and nightlife scenes. The numerous travel brochures came alive in front of my eyes all of a sudden. Colombo is a happening city! Stay for a night, if you can.
Day 23 – Morning found me sitting with the most relaxed breakfast I ever had during the entire trip. Since my flight back home was scheduled for the evening, I took a short city tour of Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, National Museum and Dutch Museum before taking a stroll on the beach. Soon it was time to checkout and head for the airport. I took my final bus ride in this country to get to the airport (#187). Nawatha hamu wemu!
Note: You can book budget accommodation across Sri Lanka using this link. I found this quite useful during my trip.