There’s no shortage of articles in circulation from 2010 onwards detailing the visitor experience of travel to Sri Lanka as one filled with military checkpoints, empty buildings and a scarred landscape. This compact island in the Indian Ocean remained off-limits while civil war raged for 26 years from 1983 to 2009 and a devastating Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 halted what there was of momentary peace.
Today, just five years on, the picture couldn’t be more different.
Sri Lanka is rapidly making up for lost time in its regeneration and conservation efforts to bring back its serendipitous namesake – a small space containing huge variety in its pristine beach lowlands and tea hill highlands, ancient ruins and UNESCO World Heritage sites, wildlife in safari lands and whale watching shores, and an incredible cultural and culinary scene. It’s more than ready to begin stealing the limelight from its favoured neighbours, India and the Maldives.
War and Post War – The Tourism Protest & Travelling Present
The big question about heading to Sri Lanka often rests more on politics and safety than it does on cost or convenience. The 26 years of war saw a brutal battle between the Sinhalese military government and a rebel separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan – LTTE). While both committed brutal crimes in the name of nationalism, the world saw the military end the war ruthlessly as they took over the Tamil North in a bloody all-out massacre, that saw thousands of Tamil civilians end up in refugee camps.
Sri Lanka then became a country run by a government accused of war crimes; a destination documented in UN reports and war councils for its corruption and authoritarian stance. Angry protests still erupt against travellers ‘supporting it’ via tourism drives.
The reality is that war atrocities do not translate to the old man selling you rice, rotti and curry in his street-side eatery, or the family who own the convenience store. Nor do they extend to hotels workers and tuk-tuk drivers trying to make a living, or to the new generation of Sri Lankans wanting peace and living within a society trying to find ways to bridge the divide.
By boycotting Sri Lanka, you harm the people innocent to politics and trying to desperately shake off the bad image. The veil of war is off, and while people continue to protest against visiting because of the government’s past atrocities, the country’s recent election of the new President, Maithripala Sirisena, can only help pave the way more for change, development and a cleaner image.
I first considered travelling here two years ago when the Asia traveller circuit was slowly bringing Sri Lanka into the fold. Every now and again you would meet a person who had spent two or three weeks there, and its new, distant and mysterious credentials gave it even more of an appeal.
What was once an ancient trading port is now South Asia’s hidden gem. It’s like Southeast Asia without the heavily trodden path, and where tourism was once concentrated in the centre and south, the more intrepid can access all corners of the country, with the north and east having re-opened for visitors.
Big Choice in a Small Area
Colombo as the Pivotal Point
Sri Lanka’s Capital of Colombo is the pivotal point from which you will travel around the country. You can forgive the city for its limitations in attraction and grand sites; not only was Colombo the target of terrorist attacks by the LTTE during the war and still mending, but its historical spots and places of significant interest are neither in a compact space or abundantly charming.
Seen more as a commercial hub, this is not your typical bustling, dusty, Asian whirlwind of a city, but it does have a few charms to discover. While the Portuguese Fort from 1505 no longer stands, the Dutch – who were next to colonise – left behind some architectural sites including the ‘Dutch Hospital’ which is now a hip bar and restaurant area, and the Cargills colonial building from the early 1800s that is set to be a Raffles Hotel.
Galle Face Green is a great place to admire local life and indulge in some street food in the evenings, or luxuriously relax at The Galle Face Hotel – Sri Lanka’s oldest – built in 1864. The rest is for architecture admirers, with the Old Parliament building, the independence monument and the White House style New Parliament building as some of the highlights.
For extra insight into the real Colombo with the help of locals check out the Cinnamon Hotels local food tour that takes you to street food havens across the city, its photography tour of key historical sites, temples and modern-day architectural favourites, and the Trekurious walking tour which combines hidden historical quirks, untold stories and the ‘Dodgy Bar Tour’.
Coastal Loop – South West to the South East
One stretch of beach hopping is along the coast connecting Colombo to the historical treasure of Galle that sits on the South West corner of the country, with the more tranquil Bentota and the surfer’s paradise Hikkaduwa the favourite golden sand hangouts on the way.
Galle was undoubtedly one of my most favourite places and was like stepping back in time as you wander through the Fort area and amongst the Dutch colonial structure lined streets. It reminded me of a mix of quaint European towns and the artistic atmosphere of Pai in Northern Thailand, perfect for strolling and getting lost within its wall that ooze centuries of history. The Fort walls luckily protected the Old Town from damage during the tsunami, so it remains preserved. You’ll get your fix here admiring the Fort walls and peeking into churches, while spending the afternoon lounging in arty cafes and browsing boutique clothing and craft stores.
From here you can continue to indulge in the coastal south coast, stopping at the more popular traveller hub of Unawatuna, more serene Mirissa and luxury getaway of Weligama Bay, before heading all the way to the far South Eastern corner and embarking on safari adventure and leopard spotting in Yala National Park. Just like in Africa, you can combine beach getaways with wildlife exploration within a matter of hours and Yala’s dusty orange landscapes and bumpy tracks are just as comparable in intrigue and excitement.
The Central Tea Highlands and Clambering Peaks
I can’t wait to share how unforgettable the train ride is through the tea hills, where you’ll spend much of the seven or more hours leaning out of the windows and carriage doors with your camera glued to your hand as various hues of green roll by. So much so, it fast knocked the infamous Burmese rail journeys off the top of my list, and you never forget the lush landscape, the laundry hanging out to dry next to the rail tracks and the awe at passing the women, clad in bright colours as they pick the leaves in the tea terraces.
The tea hills are the perfect place to escape the tropical climates of the lowlands and many venture here to pilgrimage to the peaks including World’s End in Hatton’s Plains and the multi-stepped climb to Adam’s Peak, which I have firmly on my list for the next visit. Nature is quickly contrasted with tea factories visits, whose tucked away plantations produce millions of kilos of tea per year, and where you can easily spend a leisurely afternoon sipping on various grades of Sri Lankan’s best export.
But your journey here is likely to begin in the central city of Kandy, just as busy but more compact than Colombo and home to one of Sri Lanka’s most flocked to Buddhist sites – the Temple of the Tooth – and which gives a taster for the lush and green landscape to come. Here it extends far and wide and can best be seen from hilltop hotels offering panoramic views, so it is well worth investing in a little comfort to enjoy this kind of view.
Cultural Triangle, Ancient Cities North to Jaffna
Ancient Dynastic capitals and a modern archeology haven, the ancient sites, monuments and sacred relics of that make up the area known as the ‘Cultural Triangle’. This triangle on a map would mark the three points out at Kandy, and the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. In between you have the glorious Sigiriya rock, which stands mighty from a distance and is a real experience to climb, alongside the multiple cave temples and golden Buddha of Dambulla as the key heritage sites.
Cycling around the ancient cities is the best way to experience these vast grounds. I much preferred the sprawling and more architecturally magnificent Anuradhapura to the more compact Polonnaruwa, although there are a lot of similarities. Think of them as a mixture of Angkor Wat in vast ground size, mixed with the individual delicate ruins of Sukhothai in Northern Thailand.
Standing on top of the towering pillar of an extinct and eroded volcanic mass known as Sigiriya is not to be missed if you had to choose one or two of these key sites. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is said that this was once the site of a royal palace and later, a monastery. Sri Lanka has a lot of natural beauty, and this is certainly a climb that worth the effort and fear of invading hornets.
I got to Jaffna via a six-hour bus from Anuradhapura, which involved a brief checkpoint stop to check for the required permit for entry. I’ll be writing more on this later, but visiting the Tamil area of Northern Sri Lanka is pertinent in both understanding the country and seeing both sides of the conflict. Visitors will be welcomed with open arms, smiles and a delightful curiosity. A nation in rebuild, it’s important not to forget those on the other side of the country.
Rapid Development & Peace Efforts
The entire country is open for exploration. Infrastructure is rapidly growing, with local buses connecting you every corner via newly constructed highways connecting the coastlines, the stunning hours long train rides into the hill country, and the historical 250-mile Yarl Devi train line from Colombo to Jaffna open for service once again following complete shut down during the war. Military checkpoints no longer serve a need, except for the hassle-free entry into Jaffna.
Money is being invested in new hotels both from internal and international investors who are stepping up their presence, but the locals are not complaining – they welcome the tourism traffic and economic growth this will bring.
However, Sri Lanka is not without the drawbacks of growing tourist traffic, and it is wise to stay cautious and assertive. While I never felt unsafe, I was constantly under the gaze of local men, ripped off immensely by tuk-tuk drivers (although I fought on the grounds of principle), and was witness to pickpocketing and a bag snatching. Rapid growth paves the way for opportunism.
Tourism itself is driving conservation and efforts to drive traffic to local businesses. The Cinnamon Hotels group, who held the TBC Asia bloggers conference in association with the Professional Travel Bloggers Association and SriLankan Airlines (and who hosted me in the capital and along some of the coastal routes), are one of the first hotel chains to run city-based food and photography tours, and nature treks with local ecological experts in national parks and remote villages such as Hiriwaduna.
And for those still pondering the social conscience element of travel here, an ethical tourism campaign group (whose ‘Visiting Sri Lanka #thinkagain’ messaging I find a bit misleading) have put together a list of government affiliated businesses and accommodations, should you wish to make your own informed decisions.
Sri Lanka is safe, accessible and slowly brushing off the image of conflict and governmental corruption. Proud and ready to shout about its diverse offering to the outside world, it is fast becoming one of South Asia’s must-see destinations. Locals thank you for being there, eager to shake off the past and move on; as a visitor you will soon learn how different the country is on the ground to how it is portrayed in the political press.
Thinking of visiting Sri Lanka? The time is now. Come and see it for yourself and mix beaches, wildlife, hill country and ancient history, all in one trip. The question is, will your first visit be the last?