Destinations

Away from it all on the beaches of Tangalle

Away from it all on the beaches of Tangalle

When you read about the beaches of Sri Lanka, Tangalle might not always be at the top of the list. However, that only means that everyone else that read the same articles aren’t also going to be there when you arrive, doesn’t it? I’m notoriously bad at actually ending up at the beaches of the beach destinations I go to. There’s something about the mountains that always seems to catch my attention, and all of a sudden the vacation is over and I get back to the office without a trace of a tan, not counting the burned up nose and lips that high altitude will bless you with.

When we planned the Sri Lanka vacation, we knew that we would have to schedule a few beach days in there at the end, and so we arrived without a plan for where to go along the coast, that’s sprinkled with beach destinations. The obvious ones seemed to be Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa and Mirissa, but we were in peak season and simply decided to play a game of Booking.com roulette and let availability at a top-rated yet affordable property decide for us. And I’m so glad we did!

Bus on the road

Getting to Tangalle from Udawalawe

Close encounter with elephants at Udawalawe National Park

We’d spent the night before in Udawalawe, waking up before dawn for a safari, and returned for a very late breakfast just before noon. Then we were ready to work our way toward the coast, which turned out to be very easy. The nice manager of our hotel helped us stop a bus on the main road, and we made the short half-hour hop to Embilipitiya, the nearest larger town which also serves as a transport hub. We didn’t see a bus for Tangalle, but a friendly attendant at the station pointed us toward another connection to Galle that would pass through there.

As our accommodation was a short hike out of the center of town we stayed on the bus past the station in Tangalle and were lucky enough to be dropped very close to where we were headed. I’m sure a taxi could’ve done the job much faster and less sweaty, but I find the busrides in Sri Lanka genuinely enjoyable, not to mention a lot cheaper.

Our homestay in Tangalle

When we started looking for accommodation on the coast I was a bit disappointed, as all of the recommended places from the guidebooks were already fully booked and prices for average-looking bungalows were insane compared to what we had paid in other parts of the country, and, frankly, what they probably should’ve cost. But since we didn’t have a preferred location, other than near a beach, we could search for anything. And what we did find was Dinuri Villa, a newly built addition to a family home, that offered two or possibly three homestay rooms. If you’ve never had the chance to stay at a place that has a 9.7 average from 35 reviews on Booking.com, this may be it, because it’s also one of the cheapest places we could find.

The family that runs it was so friendly and attentive, and really happy to explain the local customs or answer any questions that we had. One question I asked almost every day in Sri Lanka was the dinner time regular “what vegetable is this?”, because there was no end to the new flavors. And Dinuri Villa was no exception, because the dinners there really were something else. We would get so many different bowls of curries and vegetables, and they were all so good that we had way too much and didn’t save room for, you guessed it, the desserts. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I failed to take a picture of any of this, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Same with the breakfasts, all delicious and SO much.

One of my favorite things was that we got to have dinner together with the other guest that was there at the time, a Japanese woman traveling alone, and those encounters always add something to the trip. I cannot recommend this place enough, and as they were adding a few more rooms to the homestay when we were there, I believe more people will get the chance in the future. All in all, we paid just over 18 000 LKR (at the time around 115 USD) for three nights in an airconditioned double room with private bath, three massive dinners and breakfasts for two people, a load of laundry and a lot of snacks in between meals. Not bad!

Check if it’s available when you’re going

Beach in Tangalle

The beaches of Tangalle

On the east side of town, there’s a long stretch of beach that’s lined with hotels and restaurants without seeming overly exploited. There’s a good mix of fishermen and tourists, and no massive package hotels but small ones with a few rooms each. Along part of the beach, breakwaters made of large rocks have been put up for a better swimming experience. We stayed on the west side, which also has a really nice beach, but it’s completely different.

There are a couple of local restaurants along the Pallikkaduwa beach, but for the most part it’s completely deserted. No one will bother you, and if you turn a corner, you’ll have it all to yourself. The waves are quite strong, as is the case all along the coast, but swimming is not a problem if you take it easy and don’t go too far out. There are many locals coming down here to swim, so just do what they do.

Monkey jumping in Tangalle

What else is there to do?

To be honest, we didn’t do much at all during our two days in Tangalle. Most of the guesthouses on the east side of town seemed to offer tours, such as whale watching in Mirissa and a safari day trip to Udawalawe, but we had already been to so many of those things, and needed to just kick back for a bit at the end of the trip. Instead, we just stayed on the beach, reading books, and taking long walks through town and out along the beach on the other side. It’s so nice to just have that time to pay attention to the surroundings, and stop to watch a pack of monkeys jump from tree to tree for half an hour.

I haven’t been to any other beach destination in Sri Lanka, but I would still recommend this one if you want a taste of local life along the coast and don’t need cocktail bars and surf shops.

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Check out our itinerary for two weeks

Pinnable image of Tangalle beach
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Close encounter with elephants at Udawalawe National Park

Close encounter with elephants at Udawalawe National Park

We had no plan as we left our homestay in Ella, but when we got down to the road a man approached us to offer a shared taxi to drop us at the door of our next accommodation. As the alternative had looked like three public buses, connecting at various major crossroads, we didn’t think twice about it. It took a couple of hours, which I’m guessing is a lot faster than the buses, giving us the afternoon free.

What to do on a day out in Ella

Udawalawe elephant orphanage

We had seen a sign on the road pointing toward an elephant orphanage, so off we went to get there by the next feeding time. There was one at noon and one at 3 pm, but probably one in the morning as well. Between feeding times visitors aren’t allowed, and even when they are, they will look at the elephants from a distance so that they don’t get disturbed.

Baby elephants

We watched the orphaned baby elephants eat and play, and also got to see an injured elephant with a prosthetic leg! The orphans are raised in the orphanage right next to Udawalawe National Park and released into the park once they’re old enough to take care of themselves.

Udawalawe safari truck

Safari: the main attraction

We spent the night in Udawalawe to be able to go on a very early safari. We got up before 5 am the following morning and were picked up by a driver who worked for our homestay. It was a pickup truck with covered seats in the back, and we didn’t share with anyone else. I think you probably can arrange a shared tour through a tour agency to save money, but most people we saw were alone in their truck.

We drove to the park in darkness and entered at 6 am when they opened and the sun started to rise. The first elephant we met was still half asleep, standing in the middle of the road!

Elephant on the road

We drove around the park for several hours, and the park is big enough that we were alone most of the time. The drivers talked to each other whenever they met another truck to exchange information on where to find animals.

We saw a lot of elephants up close, water buffalos, jackals, monkeys and lots of pretty birds that I don’t know the names of. We returned to the guest house after four hours, tired and happy and ready for a late breakfast before checkout!

Where we stayed

I would highly recommend our accommodation in Udawalawe, Mansala Safari Resort. It sounds fancy, but it’s really a homestay run by some lovely people. The room looked new and was very clean, and a steal at $20. This did not include meals, but they were happy to serve a delicious dinner and a huge local breakfast with eg hoppers and all you could wish for. We also arranged the safari with them on our arrival, which was very convenient.

Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Here’s our two week itinerary!

Elephants in Udawalawe national park
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What to do on a day out in Ella

What to do on a day out in Ella

We spent a few days in Ella, and while we found the town itself a bit overrun by tourists, the countryside around it was just lovely. The views from just about anywhere are nothing short of spectacular, and you’ll meet friendly people anywhere you go. Here are some suggestions for what to do around Ella in one or several days.

The scenic but busy train ride from Kandy to Ella

Climbing Little Adam’s Peak

We set out after breakfast to climb the smallest peak, also known as Little Adam’s Peak, not to be confused with the actual Adam’s Peak located elsewhere on the island. It’s a very easy hike, the start of which is located on the Passara road going out from Ella. We were staying a bit out of town in that direction, but if you’re not, you may want to take a tuktuk.

You’re unlikely to be alone one the walk, so just follow all the other people and a few signs pointing toward the summit. The walk passes through tea plantations, and we saw a lot of trash that had been left behind by tourists, and some tourists that were walking up really close to the workers taking pictures of them. That seemed terribly disrespectful, please don’t be that person.

View from Little Adams Peak in Ella

The views over Ella Rock from the top were really great, and we also got some good views from the way up. We would’ve liked to climb the big one, but as it had been raining a lot in the days before we were worried the trail might be too slippery. I’m sure your accommodation or a tour operator in Ella can tell you about the conditions.

Lunch with a view

When we got back down to Passara road we wanted to get lunch, and sat down at the excellent Adam’s breeze restaurant, on a large porch overlooking a valley. The food was cheap, good and filling. I would especially recommend the koththu roti.

Being a vegetarian in Sri Lanka

Tea factory visit

We went to the tea factory closest to Ella Town, Newburgh Green Tea Factory, which offered a factory tour and a tasting for 500 rupies. The tour was a bit of a whirlwind through the factory, by a guide who seemed to be doing the same thing hundreds of times in a day and didn’t seem very passionate about it, to say the least. And for the tasting, we were pretty much served a cup of tea in the factory gift shop and that was that.

I can’t say this came as a complete surprise to us, and if you really want a quick idea of what a the factories might look like on the inside, this is a good option. I did however read some better reviews about other places around Ella, so maybe if you’re really into tea you could try one of those out. My favorite thing about the tea plantations is the view over the bushes from a hill overlooking them, which you can get anywhere around Ella. Just go for a walk!

Colorful hindu temple

Walking to Demodara Nine Arch Bridge

The Nine Arches Bridge is reached from another turn-off from Passara Road, a little bit longer out of town but not far from the way up Little Adam’s Peak, by a very pretty roadside temple that lets you take pictures for a donation.

Follow the road downhill until it ends in a path, and continue going down toward the bridge. The path gets very slippery when it’s wet, but there are trees to hold on to so just take it easy. There are some cafés up the hill that claim to have the best view of the bridge, we didn’t check it out but I’m sure there’s some truth to it.

There aren’t so many trains passing, so it’s safe to walk across the bridge to the other side. We also continued through the tunnel and along the tracks on the other side, all the way around to Ella station in a half hour or so. It’s easy to walk along the tracks, most of the time on the side, just make sure you listen for trains! Do note that it’s not allowed to walk on the tracks, although many people do it.

Demodara Nine Arch Bridge

Where to stay in Ella

Before we arrived, we really struggled to understand in which area we would like to stay. Most accommodation is spread out around the town, so we decided to stay along the Passara road toward the start of the hike to Little Adam’s Peak and other attractions. I’m happy we did, as that saved us time in the morning, and we were still close enough to the center of town to walk there for dinner and shopping. There are plenty of homestays, and I’d recommend to book in advance in the busy season as most places seemed full.

We stayed at Mama Cottage, a homestay with a few guest rooms run by Mama, who is quite the character. She doesn’t speak a lot of English, but she still talks a lot, and she does serve great tea and breakfast in the morning. Rooms were $30 for a double with breakfast.

From Ella, we went on to Udawalawe National Park for a safari

Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Here’s our two week itinerary!

View over Ella
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The scenic but busy train ride from Kandy to Ella

The scenic but busy train ride from Kandy to Ella

We knew that we were traveling at a busy time, just after Christmas, which seems to be the peak season for tourism in Sri Lanka. Many visitors book the train from Kandy to Ella ahead of time, when sales start several months in advance. We didn’t. A little bit because we didn’t want to be limited by a certain time we had to be somewhere, but mostly because we didn’t get around to planning until just before we left home.

Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

Buying the tickets at Ella station, easier said than done

What we did know was that we wanted to take the train to Ella. We travel by train as often as we can, and this journey in particular had come recommended by many. So upon our arrival in Kandy we went to the train station to try and find tickets, and were told that they were sold out for the next two weeks.

However, unreserved second and third class tickets cannot sell out, so in the morning on the day of our departure we lined up with many other people outside the ticket office at Ella station before it opened and got ourselves some unreserved second class tickets. The train was scheduled to leave at 8.45 AM and the ticket office opened at 8.00. At 7.40 the line outside was already quite long, so make sure you get there on time to buy your ticket.

Crowded train

 

Now, I suppose there are upsides to having your own seat, especially as the journey to Ella takes six hours. We were really lucky, as we first of all got on the train which not all tourists did, and second were standing next to a local family that got off after less than two hours, so we got their seats for the rest of the journey. Many others had to stand up the whole time.

Reserve a seat if you want to take pictures

If you’re going to take this train, you should really try to get a reserved seat. Only then can you look out the window and take good pictures, and standing for six hours with vendors and others constantly pushing through is mostly painful. Some travelers were lucky and got the spot by the door, but if you wait to get on there’s the risk of not getting on the train at all.

I did really enjoy the ride. The views were spectacular, and the slow pace was nice. Train rides are usually a good chance to spend some time with locals, and this one was no exception.

View from the train between Kandy and Ella

However, to me it wasn’t THAT amazing. I can’t really see how some people put this train ride as the highlight of their Sri Lanka trip. Maybe if I’d scored a seat in the observation car I would’ve understood better.

What to do on a day out in Ella

Train ride from Kandy to Ella
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Dambulla and Sigiriya on your own

Dambulla and Sigiriya on your own

In Kandy there are many offers of transportation or tours to visit the UNESCO World Heritages Dambulla cave temples (also known as the Golden Temple) and Sigiriya Rock. We didn’t want to rush it, so we decided to spend a night in Sigiriya.

Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

First stop: Dambulla

We had breakfast and checked out of our hotel in Kandy, then went to Goods Shed bus station next to the train station. It’s a bit messy, but we just asked someone who pointed us in the right direction, and soon enough we were on a bus leaving for Dambulla. We were some of the first to get on the bus but it filled really fast, so I’m guessing the buses leave at least every half hour. The temples are just before the bus enters Dambulla town, and you will know you’re there when you see a gigantic golden Buddha on your left.

Buddha statues in Dambulla cave temple

You pay for your ticket at the bottom, where you can also leave your luggage in the ticket office, then climb up the steps to the temples at the top of the hill. Once you’re up, there are five caves, each of them elaborately decorated. I had been recommended to start with the one furthest from the entrance and work my way back, and I’m glad we did, because they get more impressive as you get closer to the beginning.

Buddha statues at Dambulla

Spending the night in Sigiriya

After we had seen the temples, we went out to the road and caught another bus onward to Sigiriya. We had booked accommodation at a homestay called Nirwana, a neat little place with a restaurant and two rooms in the back away from the road and a porch with a friendly dog. In the evening, they served up a delicious curry, and the restaurant filled up with people. You’re advised not to go out on your own in the dark, as there have been incidents with wild elephants passing through. I’m not sure if this is a real threat, but would rather be safe than sorry!

Elephant warning sign

Visiting Sigiriya Rock

In the morning, after having been served an early breakfast on the porch, we went to Sigiriya Rock as they opened. Our homestay was really close to the entrance so we walked, but we seemed to be the only ones doing that. We bought our tickets at the separate ticket office for foreigners inside the museum, where there also are bathrooms to use while you wait, and as we were leaving the national anthem started to play and everyone around froze for a minute while it played.

There are some other things to see in the park apart from the rock itself, but we decided to head straight for the climb as we were fearing busloads of people were going to arrive at any minute. I think that was a good call, lines were already building up on the stairs up.

Balcony on Sigiriya Rock

While I didn’t really enjoy climbing a crowded staircase nailed to the outside of a rock very high above the ground, the views were spectacular, and I really enjoyed walking around the palace ruins at the top of the rock. There were also some construction workers up there, and I can only assume that they have to do the same climb to get to work everyday.

When we got down we strolled around the rest of the site, and although nothing is quite as impressive as the rock, there was another large rock that was shaped like a snake. After a few hours we were quite tired, and walked back to the homestay to pick up our bags and have a drink in the restaurant, then caught a passing bus back toward Kandy. I’m really glad we did it like this instead of going on a daytrip with a tour bus!

Local bus in Sri Lanka

Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Here’s our itinerary!

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Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

We landed at the Bandaranaike International Airport outside of Colombo and were picked up by a driver from the accommodation we had booked in Kandy. We arrived in the afternoon and didn’t want to spend a night in Colombo before traveling to Kandy, so this was a much more convenient way which probably saved us a day.

The driving time to Kandy was around three hours, so we arrived in the dark and went to sleep immediately. In the morning, we opened the curtains to an amazing view over Kandy and the hills on the other side. We were ready for vacation!

What we did in Kandy

The main attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth Relic, a temple where Buddha’s tooth is said to be stored. We visited on a public holiday along with the rest of the country it seemed, and the lines were long and the temple crowded. Locals brought lotus flowers and all kinds of offerings. The temple grounds are quite large with various buildings, and we found some refuge from the crowds in the galleries out back. I did enjoy seeing the thick cloud of smoke coming from the room where everyone lit their incense, but from a distance.

The entrance is the same for tourists and locals, but there was a separate automatic ticket machine for tourists at the side of the temple, not at the main entrance. There was also a separate storage for tourists’ shoes. Ask the guards to make sure you don’t wait in the wrong line!

Shade at Kandy lake

Another attraction is the Kandy Lake, or Kiri Muhuda, just outside the temple in the middle of town. It has a promenade around it with trees for shade, which makes for an excellent afternoon stroll.

There is so much to just look at in the Kandy, monkeys everywhere and lively shopping streets. The traffic is a bit much sometimes, but it’s still easy to walk and there are sidewalks almost everywhere in the center.

Where we stayed

We booked our stay in advance with Blinkbonnie Inn, a place up the hill offering good value for money and also a competitively priced airport pickup service. We chose one of their nicer rooms with a private balcony, because you don’t get a view like that everyday. Still, all guests could enjoy the view from the terrace by the restaurant.

The walk down the hill to the lake takes about ten or fifteen minutes, and it’s also possible to walk back up but many opt for a tuktuk. There are many other hotels around, but we had dinner at our hotel, which was excellent. Just make sure you close all windows up there, because monkeys are everywhere in Kandy.

Decorated tuktuk

If you’re taking the train to Ella

We later came back to Kandy for one night to take the train to Ella in the morning, and stayed at Kandy City Rooms and Hostel very close to the train station in order to save time. Traffic outside is a bit on the heavy side, but the room was very clean and had a luxurious feel to it even though it was a cheapie. The walk to the train station from there was about five minutes, very straight-forward.

The scenic but busy train ride from Kandy to Ella

Pinnable picture from Kandy
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Two weeks in Sri Lanka: our itinerary

Two weeks in Sri Lanka: our itinerary

This is our itinerary for two weeks in Sri Lanka. It’s pretty much what people see in Sri Lanka in two weeks, but I especially enjoyed going to a small town and staying the night instead of coming in on a tour. This is an overview of our itinerary, follow the links to the individual posts to find out more!

Where we stayed

Kandy (2 nights)
Sigiriya (1 night)
Kandy (1 night)
Ella (3 nights)
Udawalawa (1 night)
Tangalle (3 nights)
Galle (1 night)
Colombo (2 nights)

Kandy

View over Kandy

We arrived at Colombo airport in the late afternoon, so to save time, we had arranged an airport pickup with our hotel in Kandy. The journey took around three hours because of heavy holiday traffic, our driver said that it normally goes faster. We spent two nights in Kandy, giving us enough time to see the main sights in town, such as the Temple of the Tooth Relic.

Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

Dambulla, Sigiriya

We left Kandy in the morning, walked to the bus station and found a bus for Dambulla, two hours away. We just stopped there for a few hours to see the Dambulla cave temples, then took another bus for half an hour to Sigiriya where we spent the night. In the morning we went to see Sigiriya Rock, then at noon took another bus back to Kandy for one more night.

Dambulla and Sigiriya on your own

Sigiriya Rock from a distance

Kandy again

This time we were just in Kandy for one afternoon, before taking the train to Ella the following day. We went back to a favorite restaurant and took a relaxing walk around town, preparing for a long six hours on the train.

The scenic but busy train ride from Kandy to Ella

Ella entrance sign

Ella

We spent three nights in Ella, which was a good time for exploring some of the area on food without any stress. We didn’t like Ella town itself very much, as tourism had completely taken over the town, but the countryside around it was lovely.

What to do on a day out in Ella

View from Little Adams Peak in Ella

Udawalawe

We had no plan as we left our homestay in Ella, but when we got down to the road a man approached us to offer a shared taxi to Udawalawe which would drop us at the door of our next homestay. As the alternative had looked like three public buses, connecting at various major crossroads, we didn’t think twice about it. It took a couple of hours, which I’m guessing is a lot faster than the buses, giving us time to visit the Udawalawe elephant orphanage and book a safari for the following morning. We spent one night here, which is plenty, and left at noon after the safari.

Close encounter with elephants at Udawalawe National Park

Elephant on the road

Tangalle

We didn’t know where to go on the coast, but it was peak season and lots of accommodation was already booked up or having doubled their prices. As we wanted an easy bus ride down from Udawalawa we choose Tangalle, a small town with some tourist hotels on one side, and homestays on the other. We were very happy with this, as we ended up staying with a lovely family and eating some of the best food we had in these two weeks.

Away from it all on the beaches of Tangalle

Boats at Tangalle beach

Galle

We spent one day in Galle, the old portuguese town, which was quite different than the other towns we had been in.Galle Fort was a little bit overcrowded with tourists, but very pretty. We climbed the city wall and got a good view into the cricket stadium.

A day and a night in colonial Galle

Street in Galle

Colombo

We wanted to spend a few days in Colombo at the end of the trip, and this time we splurged on a nice hotel with a pool overlooking the ocean. We walked a lot, visited some temples, and quite liked the city.

Is Colombo worth your time?

Market district of Colombo

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