Why Sri Lanka Is Your Go To Holiday Place For 2016
The Debrief: The island with the friendliest people on earth is about to blow up big time. Here's why you need to go now
ICYMI, Sri Lanka is big news this year. Big news. From the new restaurant in London's Soho 'Hoppers' (more on this delicious food substance later) to Sri Lanka being number one on like, every 'place to go in 2016' January travel list, the island in the Indian Ocean is just about to blow up big time.
Travelling to Sri Lanka is nothing new, it's been a tourist destination for yonks but, with the civil war ending in 2009 and the damage and the heartache from the 2004 tsunami (Sri Lanka suffered 35,322 deaths compared to Thailand's 5,395) finally coming to some sort of catharsis, the country is fast becoming one of the most talked about travel destinations. In fact, do a straw poll of people you know, I bet at least one of them is planning to go this year.
So, how to do it? Read on for help.
Can I get cheap flights to Sri Lanka?
Yep. Emirates go there, so do Sri Lankan Air, both of which will be a nice suprise if you're more used to the no frills anti-luxury of budget European Airlines. If you're clever about it, you can get a return for just over £400 - usually with a stop in Doha or Dubai. Instead of trawling around the internet, do something bonkers and actually pick up a phone to ring Flight Centre who, are able to trawl all airlines for deals, sales and connecting flights that you might not otherwise consider. I struggled to find flights for under £650 but with a little help from speaking to someone on the phone, we got them down to £434.
When should I go to Sri Lanka?
It's a bit complicated. Their busiest time is December and January due to the weather being A-OK then. There are two monsoon seasons which you should probably avoid due to erm, rain being a heavy possibility then, and they fall between May and September and November and early December. Whenever you go, it's going to be humid. Take mossie spray if you're going coastal. Gallons of the stuff.
Where should I go in Sri Lanka?
The standard traveller route takes most visitees from Colombo and Negombo, up into the hill country to Kandy and down to Hikkaduwa on the South East coast and Galle. If you can, hop on over to the Yalla National Park and also, if you've got all the time, Jaffna in the newly-accessible North is equally brill.
Where should I stay?
Guest houses are great, guest houses are cheap and all main cities have them. In Colombo, check out The Black Cat, a newly opened, very nicely designed pad run by a super cool Sri Lankan/French couple in a swanky residential area. They have a cat. It's the best cat ever.
In Kandy, head to guesthouse Helga's Folly, it's just about the most bonkers place you'll stay. Owned and decorated by Helga, who was Isabella Blow's mother-in-law, it's housed celebs and all sorts over the years.
In Hikkaduwa, jump on over to AirBnb - it's possible to get nice guest rooms or entire apartments for same-or-cheaper prices than fancy hotels and hostels like this apartment. If you are on a budget and don't mind sharing, the Hikka Train Hostel has beds in bunk-bedded dorms from £3.42.
In Galle, things are slightly more expensive, it's a fancy city so expect to pay accordingly. Give the swanky colonial hotels a miss (except for drinks) because you can't afford them, nice as they are. The Galle Fort Guest House does OK rooms for about £18 a night but there's plenty of homestays on AirBnb for similar prices.
How do I get around?
Easy mate. Take the train where you can. It's super cheap (like 80p for an hour's journey), well ventilated with windows and fans and, although about as reliable as the N171 bus (ie. not very) it's your easiest way of getting down the South East Coast. Don't bother splashing out on a first class ticket, go second or third and meet all sorts of super friendly people. Once you're in a town, grab a tuk tuk, which, while occasionally hairy, is the easiest way to get around. Chat to waiters, barmen and your hostel managers to find out what you should be paying your tuk tuk driver pre-journey and agree firmly on a price before you set off so added extras don't show up at the end of the journey. There are taxis that do go long distances but again, it's worth checking with your hotel or guesthouse that you're not getting ripped off. There are plenty of busses too - air con and fancy seats come at low prices; expect to pay about £6.50 for an overnight bus from Colombo to Jaffna.
What should I do?
Everything. As much as you can. First and foremost, spend time chatting to people. Sri Lankans are just about the friendliest people in the whole wide world, which considering their country's been through hell and back in a handcart in recent memory is quite frankly, incredible. If you're the shy type and slow to approach people, don't worry, they'll come to you.
Do a mix of fancy and non-fancy. This city ranges from super-luxe colonial hotels, swanky restaurants and bar and fancy shops to the bonkers busy Pettah market area (which is deffos worth a punt if you're not dying from the heat). Visit the Gangaramaya Temple (skirts below the knee ladies) which continues to the lake down the road. The Colombo National Museum is in stunning building and is good for getting an overview of the country, ditto for the Dutch Museum which covers the period of time Sri Lanka was ruled by the Dutch (in case the name didn't give it away). In terms of shopping, check out Barefoot (there's several around the island but the main one in Colombo has a banging restaurant cafe bar thing too) and Paradise Road for some of the nicest homeware, souvenir-y things you'll find anywhere (downside: they're not super cheap, but still reasonable compared to the UK). If you want fancy bars, hit up the hotels but if you're looking for something a little more authentic and erm, real, head to the Castle Hotel, one of the city's notoriously fun dive bars.
The old town in Galle is made for tourists; air conditioned shops selling Sri Lankan crafts for double the price; not that that should put you off going. There's history galore from the old lighthouse to the Dutch architecture to the old fort walls (walk the walls if it's not too hot) and, when it comes to food you're spoilt. The Serendipity Arts Cafe does a banging breakfast while Mama's Galle Fort Roof Cafe is also reasonably priced and definitely worth heading to for dinner (check out their cooking lessons too if you're around for a while). Popping into one of the super duper fancy hotels (we're talking stepping straight into Indian Summers territory here) for a cocktail is recommended (you can just about afford a gin and tonic), the Galle Fort Hotel is probably the most famous and Amangalla is the fanciest but the brand new Fort Bazaar hotel is about as Soho House as you can find outside er, Soho House. Head to The Living Room for drinks too. Skip the National Maritime Museum but do look around the Dutch church and spot the skulls on the grave; why they're there, no-one quite knows...
In Hikkaduwa and around
Hikkaduwa is basically beach-fest. Learn to surf (and by learn I mean stand up one time before you fall off and lose your bikini top) at one of the many, many surf stands up and down the beach. Drink cocktails on the beach, get a massage at one of the zillions of spas up and down the main road - basically just relax a little. And, if some guy comes past selling king coconuts, buy one, him lopping the top off with a massive knife is faintly alarming but the drink itself? Shits all over that stuff you buy in a can here. Eat dinner at Refresh.
Around Hikkaduwa there's notable architect Geoffrey Bawa's house in Bentota (beware, you will come back and purchase several palm plants for every room of your house) and the Tsunami museums and memorials in Telwatta and Peraliya; the site of one of the incident's most deadly tragedies which occured when tourists and villagers alike tried to shelter behind and in a temporarily halted train. Nearly all of the 1,500 involved died. The museums are literally just peoples' houses, filled with a million pictures and handwritten signs - nevertheless the people there are keen to tell their stories to stop them being forgotten. The giant Buddha memorial statue is humbling too.
Kandy and the Hill Country
First things first: the Temple of the Tooth really is a temple all about a tooth - although it is Buddha's tooth. Probably. After Buddha died, he was cremated and his tooth was salvaged and became a relic.It's had a very tumultuous life (including when the Portuguese tried to kidnap it) but now it lives at the Temple Of The Tooth and, although you can't see the tooth, the venue is one of the holiest places for Buddhists in the world. Don't forget to check out the country's most famous (now dead and stuffed) elephant Raja while you're there - he could touch the ground in seven places at the same time - legs, trunk, tusks and erm, his willy. Hooray for Raja!
Also around Kandy there's a lovely lake that makes for a nice walk and a giant (and I mean giant) statue of Buddha that sits on the hill. Check out also the Giragama Tea Plantation for a tour round the place that makes your fancy, fancy teas, the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens and one of the several elephant foundations set up to help orphaned elephants scattered around the area.
What should I eat?
Hoppers! As we said, a fancy new no-booking restaurant in Soho has opened serving these rice flour and coconut milk pancakes, but in Sri Lanka they're two a penny. Get the ones with egg in for brekkie and sweet ones for treats later. See also pol sambola, which is basically spicy coconut rice. Speaking of which, rice and curries are the other main order of the day; heavy on the aubergine (brinjal) and daals. To drink, as well as the aforementioned king coconuts, get stuff into arrack; a coconut spirit that's just the bee's knees.
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