No matter how many guide books you read, there are always some recommendations or travel tips that you miss (or get missed). That’s generally not a bad thing, except when you’ve fried off the soles of your feet at a Sri Lankan temple. Why didn’t anyone warn me to bring socks! In this post, I’ll take you through some of the quirky, funny, painful, intriguing things we discovered about travel in Sri Lanka, and offer up tips that you may not find in a guide book.
Pack socks for visits to temples and cultural sites
When entering temples and cultural sites, it is respectful to remove shoes. If you’re like us, from a northern country, where tender tootsies are wrapped in socks and slippers for most of the year, your feet will scream in pain from the searing heat. The grounds of the ancient temple ruins at Polonnaruwa are particularly hot. Mike missed out on the walk around the giant, dome-shaped shrine (in the photo above) because his feet couldn’t take it. It might look goofy wearing socks, but it does the trick.
Get acquainted with the king coconut
Have I mentioned that it’s hot in Sri Lanka? We were there in April, the hottest month of the year. While we always consumed plenty of water, the king coconut was my saviour (check out my before/after expressions in the photos). The water in this orange-coloured coconut is rich in vitamins and minerals. It’s a delicious re-charging drink when the heat has zapped your energy.
Have a sweater handy for 1st class train travel
From boiling hot to meat-locker cold—it’s not a good thing. While I liked the peaceful compartment and the comfy reclining seats on our 1st class travel to and from Jaffna, I was frozen—the air conditioning was cranked to maximum. Before you throw your luggage on the rack, grab a sweater.
Don’t be afraid of 3rd class train travel
While 2nd class may be the ideal way to go, 3rd class train compartments are perfectly acceptable, particularly for shorter trips. They are also dirt cheap. Our 1.25 hour trip from Ella to Haputale was 30 Rs. each ($0.17 US). For just a bit more money, you can reserve in a 3rd class carriage for a guaranteed seat.
Consider a train ride sampler
Many visitors plan their entire trips around the very popular, 7-8 hour train ride from Kandy to Ella. I’ve never been good with too much time in cars, buses, trains; I get restless no matter how nice the scenery. We opted to take two short rides: from Ella to Haputale and from Haputale to Nuwara Eliya. If you don’t have the time or the inclination for the entire stretch, these rides are the perfect samplers. According to many sources, they’re also the prettiest sections. And, you’ll still get the opportunity to take that “hanging out the door” Instagram photo.
Don’t stress about finding drivers
Before leaving for Sri Lanka, my Canadian “book early to avoid disappointment” mindset had me worrying about finding drivers for a few segments of our trip. It turned out to be easy-peasy. All our guesthouses had contacts and secured good drivers for us with less than a day’s notice (they can do it even faster but we always inquired on our arrival). We only used drivers for day trips—pre-booking may be wise for consecutive, multi-day requirements.
Don’t forget a headlamp or torch
And then, all went black. While we were visiting, the state run power company was imposing daily power cuts as it could not meet demand during the long, hot drought period. Although a phone light works in a pinch, a strong headlamp is much better for avoiding obstacles on pitch-black, post-dinner walks back to your guesthouse (lesson learned after a bruised knee).
Read beyond “the best hosts ever”
It’s easy to be swayed by the “best host ever” claims on Booking.com and other sites. I took Maggie’s (monkeystale.ca) excellent advice to check out other important factors like location, availability of hot water and cleanliness. Basically, all homestays and guesthouses in Sri Lanka are amazing friendly and welcoming, it’s the other stuff that differentiates them.
Bring your appetite
Food in Sri Lanka is delicious. From your basic curry and rice, to fresh seafood, to stuffed dosas, everyday was an eating adventure. In our experience, portions were generally huge. Some dishes, like kotthu—chopped rotti fried with veggies and/or egg, meat and cheese—are super filling. We eventually learned to order more sparingly but you certainly can’t tell from the photos.
Try sunset instead of sunrise
Sunrise, or at least early morning, is recommended for busy sites in Sri Lanka to avoid the crowds and fiercest heat. This is good advice, but isn’t always appealing to someone like me who enjoys easing into the day. We had great late afternoon/sunset experiences at the wildly popular Sigiriya and Dambulla. It doesn’t work at all times of the year, when afternoon clouds can obstruct views, but we had no such issues in late March/April.
Check your calendar for full moon
If you happen to be in Sri Lanka on a full moon day, head over to the nearest Buddhist temple to experience Poya—special days of prayer and devotion. Poya days are celebrated 12-13 times per year and are public holidays. We first learned about Poya from Peta and Ben’s engaging posts (greenglobaltrek.com) and knew we wanted to experience this. Poya celebrations happen at all local temples, large and small, and visitors are welcome—just remember to dress modestly and take off your shoes.
Take time to appreciate the signs
Sri Lanka is filled with colourful, large, and often humorous signs for restaurants, hotels, attractions and other services. One of our favourites is at the entrance to Sigiriya Rock and pictorially relays all the hazards and do’s/don’ts at this site. We must have stood there for 15 minutes trying to interpret all the symbols…I’m still not sure about the handcuffs. Any ideas?
Next post I’ll get back to places we visited: Sigiriya, Dambulla, Jaffna and more.