You would never know if you weren’t told; Sri Lanka just celebrated their one-decade anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. Sri Lanka’s managed a rapid shift from the most brutal era of their history: with the war claiming a quarter-century and over 100,000 lives, Sri Lanka is consistently moving forward with an aura of optimism, warmth, and unity that every visitor will feel.
“This is one of the few places on earth where freedom of every kind, including freedom of speech, is on the rise,” – U.S. ambassador, Atul Keshap
In addition to the Civil War, Sri Lanka also suffered the brunt of the 2004 tsunami, which claimed over 30,000 lives while brutalising the coast in the height of the war. Yet, Sri Lanka doesn’t give up, and it shows. Thanks to copious foreign investment primarily from neighbouring India and China, its coastlines are largely rebuilt and SLK continues to move onward. But, don’t visit Sri Lanka merely for its lush forests, endless tea plantations, and pristine beaches. Visit now to feel what fresh liberty and perseverance feels like.
Sri Lanka is a million-in-one destination. My surroundings were so incredibly diverse that I often forgot that I was, in fact, in the same country. In 14 days, I had an African safari, a mountainous Northern Californian forest retreat, a Maldivan honeymoon getaway, and cultural days comparable to any global metropolis.
Admittedly, I was somewhat nervous about going to this seemingly unknown island for two whole weeks, as it’s the longest I’ve ever been in one place. In addition, I did virtually no research before buying my tickets. However, on one of my last days, I didn’t even realise it was one of my last. The time flew by with all the stories told, curry eaten, pineapple juice consumed, and laughs had. Sri Lanka’s warmth is inescapable, whether it’s the countless smiles on any given street or the chatty, yet inquisitive locals asking every detail of your life (I’m pretty sure this is the only place where I’ve been asked, upon meeting, if I’m married). You also literally cannot escape its warmth; Sri Lanka bears a constant ferocious heat and humidity that can only be healed by its azure waters.
I started off this escapade in the capital of Colombo, which serves as a great jumping base. Filled with the persistent caterwauling of car horns, this is truly a city that does not sleep. As soon as I departed my hostel, I heard a loud “HEY!” I quickly turned back and a Kiwi girl by the name of Kate asked what I was up to, and I invited her to hang out with me for the day, as, it turns out, we were on the same flight together. Turns out, with the exception of the beaches, we actually had the same itinerary! I kept that in mind as we met up in a few days’ time.
Admittedly, I hardly slept on my flight, so I was exhausted, dehydrated, and not having this humidity and heat. Accompanied by breaks every half-hour, we explored the heart of Sri Lanka through its churches, city hall, romantic parks, and multiple concept stores. Colombo’s a city on the rise, with countless adverts of property investment, promising three-fold profits or more. I’m curious to revisit in 20 years time.
The next day kicked off with a 3-hour train to the pristine colonial seaside town of Galle. The sapphire waters contrasted sharply with the blinding whites of every building. Galle had a surprisingly chic feel to it, only to learn that Galle is the getaway for rich Colombo natives (Colombians? Colombites?). The narrow streets were littered with boutique shops, spas, and even low-calorie eats. I did groan at the last bit, but this was an exception, not the norm. The afternoon was spent lounging in various cafes, followed by a dip at the beach on the eastern part of town. In the water, I met my first locals: three male 20-somethings who were escaping Colombo for the weekend. This was all topped off with 10 minutes of rain while swimming in the Indian Ocean during the sunset. Feeling the rain sprinkle on my skin while swimming in the heat, along with the intense brushstrokes of a sunset made for quite a surreal moment. It was a standstill moment of bliss which will be eternally cherished.
Another day, another train. This time it was to my personal favourite spot of the trip, Mirissa. A beach town located just an hour east of Galle, I stupidly giggled like a juvenile schoolboy when I arrived on the beach. Crystal-clear waters, countless palm trees swaying, and luminous white sand combined to paint an exquisite scene only rivalled by a Windows desktop photo. After 15 minutes of guffawing, I laid my things down and did nothing for three days but boogie board, surf (for the first time!), read, tan, eat, and drink fresh juice. And it was perfect.
Mirissa was the first spot I saw Sri Lanka’s powerful agricultural and fishing industries at work. Coconuts were cut from one of the endless rows of palm trees; one could walk to where the pineapples were harvested. Want a fresh red snapper? The one you’ll eat will have just been caught an hour ago, if that. I’ve never visited the Maldives, but considering Sri Lanka’s close proximity, this is the best you can get to the Maldives, without sky-high resort prices.
For some true seclusion, I continued to head eastward toward Tangalle, another beach town. Unlike Mirissa, Tangalle is still quite unknown to tourists, and you can very easily have a chunk of beach to yourself. Down the road is Silent Beach, where on over a mile of coast, I counted eleven people. Tangalle is simplicity; Tangalle is minimalism and serenity embodied. There are no sights to see, no hotels, and Tangalle had the fewest tourists I had seen. All you can do in Tangalle is take it in. Take in the vast ocean creeping on your toes, take in the arching palm trees whether that’s through walking the coast, or getting on one of the few rope swings tied to a tree. In short, Tangalle is a genuine getaway from the world.
My five days on the coast passed by all too quickly, and before I knew it, I was en route to the inland. The next morning, I rose early to catch the ruby-coloured sunrise sweep the fields of Udawalawe National Park. Elephants graze the grass as their young play innocuously. These slow, majestic creatures are the focal point of this park; jeeps were perched just meters away so the tourists, myself included, could snap the unfiltered habitat. Water buffalo, toucans, crocodiles, and more are also included. I had considered cancelling this to spend another day in Tangalle, but I’m glad I didn’t.
Next is a 3-hour bus to Ella. A welcome relief from the unforgiving heat of the south, the mountains offer a moment to breathe in its temperate climate. A popular backpacker town, I saw more tourists here than anywhere. It’s not exactly a place to immerse oneself in the local culture, but it’s a Mecca for hikers and solo travellers alike. Sunrise hikes through Little Adam’s Peak, panoramic views on Ella Rock, and the Nine Arches are more than enough for a two-day retreat in this mountainous village. We also wanted to bathe in Ratana Falls, but were too exhausted to do so. However, the cultural immersion resumes with a day-tour of the Lipton Tea Factory.
The train from Ella to Kandy is a site itself. A 7-hour journey, you’ll pass through immense hills, tea plantations, waterfalls, etc. With the exception of those pristine beaches, the entire natural scope of Sri Lanka is captured on this journey. To be honest, I was a bit hill and plantation’d out, so I don’t feel as I appreciated this as much as others have.
Wrapping this journey in the cultural jewel that is Kandy is akin to wrapping the bow on a birthday gift. Kandy was the last major capital of the ancient kings’ era of Sri Lanka; this history still resides in the city. This was a stark contrast to Colombo, which was a city quick to change. My day-and-a-half here was filled with museums and Buddhist temples. From this, I participated in a Buddhist ritual, learned the original story of Buddha, and learned about the last 400 years of Sri Lankan history. A particular highlight were the absolutely striking ivory carvings of Buddha in the National Museum of Kandy. Despite the culture bursting at the seams, the highlight of Kandy were the Botanical Gardens, an absolutely gargantuan property of every type of plant imaginable. A few wild monkeys are thrown in there for good measure.
From here, I headed to the beach town of Negombo, the closest town to the airport for my flight the next morning.
The number one thing I got from Sri Lanka was optimism. Every local I talked to and every story I heard showed a valiant spirit residing in this small island. The spirit has faced the worst of the worst, yet it continues to push so the future can be brighter with each day. I’m reminded that freedom is ultimately a privilege, and not a right. Whether it was the finance professor I met on the train, one of many tuk-tuk drivers, the Galle Guys, or the homestay host, their answers were all the same. They recognise Sri Lanka’s setbacks, whatever they may be. But as freedom is so new, they aim to take this newfound freedom and make Sri Lanka a land for everyone. A land for the generations new and old. A land for those of any religion or class. A land that gets the international respect and recognition its worked tirelessly to attain. The consensus seems to be: Sri Lanka is ready for the spotlight, and I have to agree.