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Sri Lanka: Insider’s Guide

by | June 24, 2019

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Sri Lanka: Miguel Cunat of Sri Lanka in Style.

Trusted Travel Expert
Miguel Cunat

Miguel, who has been living with his family in Sri Lanka since 2003, founded his boutique travel company to provide visitors with insightful, engaging experiences in this logistically tricky but enchanting country. He plans tailor-made itineraries for travelers from around the world, designing each one based on the company philosophy of “traveling in style.” For Miguel that means getting off the beaten path without sacrificing comfort or charm, and meeting the colorful local characters who provide a real sense of place (authors, architects, even the Leopard Man). His goal is for his travelers to return from their trip “feeling rested, relaxed and pampered, if that’s what you seek, but also fulfilled and inspired.” Having watched Sri Lanka undergo so many changes in the past two decades, Miguel is deeply committed to conservation and is certified in Sustainable Tourism by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council; this brings to bear in every recommendation he makes, from the hotels he chooses to the strategies he employs for keeping his travelers far from the tour-bus crowd.

Travel arrangements start at $500 per day for two travelers.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Why House in Galle. Set inland from the beach in Thalpe and run by a delightful manager who will spoil you rotten, Why House offers much better value than any of the hotels on the beach itself. From the picture-perfect images of the tropical seaside south of Galle, one could easily be forgiven for thinking the beaches are entirely swimmable—they’re not. The oceanfront is a massive coral reef, so counterintuitively, it makes more sense to stay inland and take a short tuk-tuk ride to Wijaya Beach or Unawatuna Beach for a swim. Moreover, at Why House the only sounds you will hear in the morning are the birds singing. If you stay in one of the hotels on the beach, keep in mind that a busy main road runs behind all the sea-facing properties; you may hear the occasional horn.

Restaurants the locals love
The Royal Bar & Hotel in Kandy is a small, colonial-era property situated near the Temple of the Tooth, on the other side of the road from the Queens Hotel. Its atmospheric bar serves the most delicious rice and curry, as well as other simple dishes, and the hotel has a wonderful collection of old photography depicting Kandy’s history.

Must-have dish
Murunga (drumsticks), the green beanlike fruit of the horseradish tree. Simply delicious in a curry! It’s best served in local homes and restaurants that specialize in authentic Sri Lankan cuisine. You should order in advance; any good boutique hotel could whip this dish up on request.

Meal worth the splurge
Ministry of Crab in Colombo. The Sri Lankan lagoon crab has always been a southern Sri Lanka delicacy systematically exported to Singapore, Malaysia, and other parts of Asia. A few years back, celebrity cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara and fellow foodie Dharshan Munidase decided to open the Ministry of Crab, a lively restaurant situated within the old Dutch Hospital, a seventeenth-century Dutch building recently restored in the heart of Colombo. Try the chilly-garlic crab and the butter soy prawns—the last item on the prawn menu and possibly the best prawns ever.

What to See and Do

Adams peak also known as Sri pada in Sri Lanka over the Maskeliya reservoir and tea plantations

Adams peak, also known as Sri pada, in Sri Lanka over the Maskeliya reservoir and tea plantations. Photo: Shutterstock

Don’t miss
In the Tea Country, the typical tourist trail usually takes you from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya and then directly south. South of the beaten track there are three beautiful valleys with manicured tea plantations and rivers flowing east to west. Two of the valleys, Agarapatana and Maskeliya, have no decent accommodation, but the third, Bogawantalawa Valley, is the home of Ceylon Tea Trails, a Relais & Chateaux property and a real hidden gem. Instead of routing through Nuwara Eliya, go through Bogo if you can, and spend a few nights at Tea Trails. While there you might like to climb Sri Pada, otherwise known as Adams Peak; the starting point for the climb is over the valley across the lake from Maskeliya town.

The sacred Temple of the Tooth, the most important Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka, is another must-see. Then there’s Udawattakele, the pleasure gardens of a 14th-century king and now a protected forest reserve where Buddhist hermitages share the jungle with wild orchids and boars and a rich variety of other flora and fauna. But to make the most efficient use of your time and to get the most out of your visit to Kandy, you’ll need to plan ahead. With the right guide showing you around, you’ll hear all the wonderful stories that make Kandy—and Sri Lanka—such a fascinating place, from the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the ancient Kandyans to the history of Buddha’s tooth to tales of the early planters of coffee and tea in Sri Lanka.

Visit a cinnamon plantation. Ceylon Cinnamon was found growing wild on the hills of southern Sri Lanka when the Portuguese arrived at the turn of the 16th century, and it remains a major export of the country. A local cinnamon planter will show you how the cinnamon is painstakingly peeled and the oil extracted; you’ll also hear about the uses and healing properties of cinnamon and its grading.

A basket of tea leaves in tea country, Sri Lanka

A basket of tea leaves in tea country, Sri Lanka.

Don’t bother
The Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawella. With the increase in human population density, changes in land use, and the recent war in Sri Lanka, elephant habitat has been considerably reduced in the past decades. As a result there are various organizations that work for the protection and welfare of elephants. The most established of them, the Elephant Orphanage, has been not just an orphanage but a nursery and captive breeding ground for elephants since 1972. Unfortunately, it has also become a very popular tourist attraction, and on any given day busloads of visitors flock around the orphanage and cram together to see baby elephants being fed at certain times.

Most underrated place
Most guidebooks will tell you to avoid Kandy or minimize your time there. One book goes as far as saying Kandy is a “fearful dump with appalling traffic.” Not so. Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second biggest city and the island’s last royal capital, is well worth at least a two-night stay, with one full day to explore. Don’t miss the Royal Botanical Gardens, one of the most impressive gardens you’ll see anywhere. The collection of rare trees and flowers is even better appreciated with a botanist as your guide (which Miguel can arrange).

Best for thrill-seekers
Canyoning on the Kelani River. The river, which runs west from the central highlands to Colombo, has a densely forested section called Kitulgala that’s ideal for rafting and canyoning. The Laxapana Falls, one of Sri Lanka’s highest and most spectacular waterfalls, is also found on the river, and there are a few truly amazing hidden gorges to rappel, jump, and slide down. (Film buffs might recognize Kitulgala as the location of the 1957 film Bridge Over the River Kwai).

Bragging rights
Depending on which aspect of Sri Lanka you’re particularly keen to delve into, Miguel can arrange get-togethers with all sorts of engaging local experts or connoisseurs in Galle or Colombo. For example, you might share a meal with Malik Fernando, owner and CEO of Dilmah, Sri Lanka’s premier brand and largest exporter of tea. Or camp at the borders of Yala National Park and dine in style with Noel Rodrigo, a prominent wildlife expert otherwise known as the Leopard Man. Or stroll the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, near Kandy and stop for lunch with botanist Bandara Palipana. You can also choose to meet prominent local architects, writers, photographers—whatever tickles your fancy.

sigiriya rock Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Rock Fortress is Sri Lanka’s most impressive archeological site and the biggest visitor attraction in the Cultural Triangle. Photo: Pixabay

Instagram moment
Sigiriya Rock Fortress is Sri Lanka’s most impressive archeological site and the biggest visitor attraction in the Cultural Triangle. Approximately 100 meters north of Sigiriya stands Pidurangala Rock, a massive rock similar to Sigiriya in size and height. One can climb to the top of Pidurangala to contemplate Sigiriya from a distance. At sunset it’s absolutely magical, and there’s no one around. Hardly anyone climbs Pidurangala because the climb is a little tricky toward the latter part—it involves lifting yourself up over a couple of rocks. It’s not suitable for everyone, but most fit people can do it—and it’s well worth the effort.

Perfect souvenirs
The Barefoot shops in Colombo and Galle are part boutique and part bookshop, where you’ll find the finest and most stylish handloom fabrics in town, as well as an excellent selection of books by local and international authors. Barefoot’s alfresco café also serves the best black pork curry in town. You’ll find any number of souvenirs there, but I always recommend the beautiful sarongs. The sarong is an incredibly comfortable garment and beats the track suit in style any day—and your kids will eventually get over seeing Dad wearing a “skirt” around the house.

How to spend a Sunday
Go for an early morning stroll around Galle Fort before the heat sets in. One of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, the fort was first built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century before being extensively fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century. It’s a quiet maze of little streets and alleyways. Around lunchtime, take a tuk-tuk to Why Beach, a small café in Thalpe, south of Galle, that gives access to a semi-private beach and rock pool. The owner is Italian and takes pride in serving the freshest pasta. You’ll need a reservation. In the afternoon, take another short tuk-tuk ride inland to Yatigala Temple, a quiet and little visited temple that looks out over paddy fields and hamlets. Head back to Galle for a treatment at the Aman Spa at Amangalla, and dine at the Galle Fort Hotel or the Aman itself.

If you’re in the Tea Country, go for a reasonably long walk along the tea trails, and make sure you drop by a village where the plantation workers live. The villages are very colorful and the people are incredibly hospitable. Take your time. Sit down and enjoy the company, daily life, and scenery.

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Best Times to Go

The last two weeks of January and the first two weeks of March. February is a very good month, but, alas, a busy one, with plenty of people coming to Sri Lanka on half-term or over the Chinese New Year from Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Dubai, and other parts of Asia. The weather in January is delightful—springlike temperatures and blue skies. As the weeks roll by, temperatures begin to rise, peaking in April.

Worst Times to Go

The worst time to go is anyone’s guess, because it’s simply impossible to predict the weather. There are usually two or three weeks a year—anytime between May and December—when torrential rains fall, occasionally flooding roads and provoking landslides.

Late December, February, and the first two weeks of August are the busiest periods. But Sri Lanka is not a mass-tourism destination, so as long as you book early—to make sure you’re in the right hotels and are assured a good guide—and plan your days with a view to avoiding certain hot spots at critical times, you’ll be fine. If you’re booking last-minute, think twice: You may have to settle for second best.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Sri Lanka looks small on a map, but it can take hours to get from place to place, and there are definite no-nos. For instance, don’t try to travel from Kandy to Yala National Park in one day, or from the Cultural Triangle to the beaches of Tangalle, or from Jaffna to Colombo. On the map (and on Google Maps), distances and approximate travel times are misleading. Sri Lanka offers great diversity and looks like you can tick all the boxes in one week—you can’t. If you want to speed things up a little, try flying on certain segments. Two local operators offer scheduled flights around the country: Cinnamon Air and Daya Aviation.

Scam Alert

Sri Lanka has fabulous sapphires and many other precious stones, but like most places, you have to be very careful that you don’t overpay or wind up with a fake. Be mindful of guides who insist you visit a gem shop somewhere along the way (which often happens with the cheaper tours but is strictly forbidden on Miguel’s trips). Always purchase gems from a reputable dealer licensed by the National Gem and Jewellery Authority and ensure you receive a certificate and a money-back guarantee. (Miguel can provide a list of recommended and licensed shops.) The National Gem and Jewellery Authority in Colombo will also appraise gems free of charge in various locations around the country and help determine the value.

Must-Have Apps

YAMU is a locally produced Colombo City guide with up-to-date news and special offers from local restaurants.

Most people have WhatsApp, including guides and chauffeur-guides. Should you wish to, Miguel can create a WhatsApp group for your trip to facilitate coordination and deliver timely and relevant messages to your smartphone.

A Sinhala-English Dictionary. A few words in Sinhala go a long way.

Uber is an efficient way to get a ride in Colombo.

Airport Intel

Colombo International Airport is fairly small and extremely easy to navigate. There is only one main terminal. A good way to avoid the queues both on arrival and departure is to purchase an Airport Aviation assistance package called the Silk Route.

U.S. citizens need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. You can get one on arrival, but you’ll save yourself a lot of time waiting in line if you apply online in advance.

Tipping Tip

At hotels the easiest way to avoid the stresses of tipping every waiter, porter, and bellboy is not to tip anyone on the spot but instead to ask for the “tip box” when checking out. You need not feel awkward when the bellboy brings the luggage, simply say thank you and mention you will leave a tip in the tip box at the end of your stay. Always smile. A good tip is $10 to $20 per room per day.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Something to cover your arms when visiting temples. (You need to cover your knees as well, but you easily can buy a cheap sarong for that in Sri Lanka.) Don’t bring T-shirts with images of Buddha, and if you have a Buddha tattoo, never show it.


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