When I thought about popular travel destinations in South Asia the main country that comes to mind would be India. We’ve all heard about others’ majestic experiences backpacking through India for the first time and getting lost with all the new sights, smells and sounds. But located just a short flight south is the beautiful country of Sri Lanka.
I’ll be honest, I knew next to nothing about the culture, people, geography and its history. So many times I’ve traveled to places with accurate and reasonable expectations of what I would experience and see. That is why Sri Lanka was such a pleasant destination for me because I was heading down to a place that was unknown to me.
Like with most of those who travel, there is the challenge of having limited time. My travel buddy and I were on a tight schedule and could only allocate about 12 days for Sri Lanka. We decided to focus more on the interior parts of the country known for the lush mountains and tea fields.
We, like all other tourists who visit Sri Lanka, began our journey from the capital city of Colombo. From there we had to figure out how to use their public transportation system since we were traveling on a budget.
The two most common ways to travel in Sri Lanka are by public bus and train. Both options have their pros and cons.
The public buses are easily accessible and go to every city and town. Another positive is the price. The most one will be paying for a single trip, without transfers, is about 200 LKR (1.30 USD).
The public buses are like nothing I’ve ever seen during my travels. They look exactly like your classic old yellow school buses but painted in worn down bright colors. You can’t miss them! Most have a television screen in the front of the bus that plays random, but interesting, Sri Lankan music videos which can help kill time on your route.
The negatives with the public buses are that rides are bumpy and uncomfortable. The bus seats are spaced tightly to fit as many people as possible, so be prepared to get cozy with the locals. However, you do not have to worry about space for your large travel bags, because the ticket attendant will put them in the storage trunk in the back of the bus for you.
Our first big stop was the small town of Sigiriya. Tourists come here solely for Lion Rock, the ancient palace fortress. It is probably Sri Lanka’s most iconic and popular tourist destination.
We arrived at Dambulla around 1 pm and since the park grounds closed around 5 pm that day, we headed straight to the park after dumping our bags off at our guest hotel (Sigiriya Amenity Home Stay). Even before entering the park grounds, I could see the enormous orange rock cutting through the bright blue Sri Lankan sky.
As I walked right up to the base of Sigiriya and looked up, I could feel my quads tremble as I was assessing all the stairs in the mid afternoon heat. Immediately after having these thoughts, waves of Sri Lankan school children started passing us and started their ascent with big smiles and excitement on their faces. So I quickly followed suit, because I don’t like losing to kids…
In all honesty, the hike up was easier and shorter than I expected which was very welcomed after our long commute from Colombo by the bus earlier that morning. When I got to top, it was very nice to see locals and tourists all enjoying and exploring the ancient ruins of the palace fortress.
The views of the surrounding mountains and forests were nice. However, the main highlight for me was simply walking straight towards Sigiriya on the pathway and marveling at the beautiful combination of nature and human architecture.
After spending the night in Dambulla, we headed to our next destination which was the city of Kandy.
Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s largest cities and is mainly known for The Temple of the Tooth Relic. What I found most charming about Kandy was its blend of genuine local city life and tourism. Yes, there were aggressive tuk-tuk drivers who wanted to drive us to all the touristy sites like spice gardens and tea factories, but one can simply walk through the small streets and observe the simple day to day life of the locals without being bothered as well.
I was very interested in visiting a spice garden because I had never been to one. I had hoped to see huge fields of different trees, but I was sadly disappointed with my experience at Old Village Spice and Herbal Garden.
Instead of acres of land with different spice trees, the layout seemed more like my neighbor’s vegetable garden with a few small trees. It only showcased individual plants with an explanation of key ingredients that were used in their herbal ointments and lotions.
Our guide completed the tour of the garden in under 5 minutes then sat us down and handed us some literature. It was a price list of all their products that they sold and which ones to use for certain ailments and conditions. We quickly declined and left.
The one good thing that came out of our little day trip is that we got dropped off downtown during a small parade that celebrated the event of a full moon. This was not the Esala Perahera, the ten-day celebration with musicians, singers, acrobats, and elephants that honor the Sacred Tooth Relic and Hindu gods. However, it was still wonderful to catch a little glimpse of how the Esala Perahera would be like.
On our last night, we went to The Temple of Tooth. Being forgetful that this was a Buddhist temple, we forgot to wear pants. Since we did not want to go back to our hotel, we negotiated with a street merchant to rent his sarongs instead of buying them.
Unfortunately, all he had were women sarongs with flower prints… But beggars can be choosers, so we took them. The temple itself is an important site to Buddhists because it is believed to house the left canine tooth of Buddha. The tooth is kept in a golden case and is shown for public viewing every evening, but the tooth is never revealed.
With all the history and ancient architecture and relics that the temple has to offer, my favorite part was hands down, the prayer candle room with glass walls. Walking inside this miniature greenhouse in the evening with the candles lit sent a wave of peace and tranquility that can resonate with anyone.
As we left the temple and dropped off our rented sarongs, we made our way back our hotel and prepared for our first train ride in Sri Lanka to a small town called Hatton.