Updated on 11 July 2018: Added a new Sri Lanka itinerary map.
Sri Lanka is an island country located off the coast of South India. It is one of the most underrated countries in the world due to the generalization people make about Sri Lanka that they are the same as India. From the outside, it may look similar but from the inside, nothing could be further from the truth. I had the opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka for 2 weeks in April 2016 and in this article, you will learn everything you need to know about this awesome country and how you can spend 2 weeks on the island with our suggested itinerary. Let's begin, shall we?
Why go to Sri Lanka?
This question often came up when I told people that I was traveling in Sri Lanka so here is a simple answer to sum up my experience:
Sri Lanka is like a lite version of India. If you are intimidated by India, Sri Lanka is the place to be.
The best part about the country is the hospitality. The locals are one of the friendliest people you will ever meet. How friendly? Well, I was walking around the central market in Kandy and everyone was greeting me all the time, inviting me into their stores and giving me free fruits.
Apart from the fact that the people are unbelievably friendly, Sri Lanka has a lot of other things to offer as well such as going on an elephant safari, whale-watching, hiking, temple hopping and all the awesome food you can try.
How to Get Here
How to Get Around
Sri Lanka is very well-connected by trains and buses. Some areas are a little harder to reach either due to its mountainous terrain or military checkpoints but nothing is impossible. Trains are a good way to slow-travel through the countryside while buses are fast but can be hectic at times.
I had the opportunity to take both modes of transportation and I like them both. The scenery from the trains were outstanding especially the route from Kandy to Ella (a must do) where the train goes through tea plantations hugging along the side of cliffs all the way.
Buses are fast, cheap and often times reliable but it can get a little hectic as they pick more and more people along the way. Many times, I had to squeeze myself and my backpack together to make rooms for other passengers. It is part of the experience of traveling in Sri Lanka and that fascinates me.
When to go
Since Sri Lanka is an island with a variety of terrain, the weather is all over the place no matter which season you are here during. October - March is considered to be a high season and if you are like me and want to avoid high season at all cost, April is a good time to be because the high season ended a month before and you will not only get discounted accommodation prices due to low season, but you will also get the attractions to yourself as well.
When I was in Tangalle, I was able to have the guesthouse and a deserted beach to myself because no one was there.
Temperature varies a bit from place to place. In the hill country, the temperature could go as low as 20°C whereas all the other places will maintain its temperature at 30+°C.
Colombo: Evergreen Hostel - 15 USD/night
Habarana: Backpacker.lk Hostel Habarana - 20 USD/night
Kandy: Elephant Shed Hostel - 7 USD/night
Ella: Grand Peak Ella - 20 USD/night (The owner is super nice and he speaks perfect english. You can ask him anything and he will find the best way for you.)
Tangalle: Youjia UHome Guesthouse - 20 USD/night (Good location by the beach in a quiet part of town)
Mirissa: Hangover Hostels - 11 USD/night
WiFi at hostels and guesthouses were way to unreliable for me to work so I would suggest you get a SIM card where you can internet access easily from anywhere in the country. I got a 2GB one from Mobitel and the 4G coverage is good in big cities but in small cities, it often diverted back to 3G or EDGE. Not the fastest but quite manageable.
This place is quite cheap compare to all the other countries in the world. If you are planning a trip here, you can expect to pay around 25 - 45 USD per day per person and that should include accommodation and 3 meals.
Keep in mind that this is just a suggested daily budget based on my style of traveling, which is leaning more toward the budget side of things. If you want to stick to this budget, expect to sleep in dorms, eat out only a few times, and be comfortable using the cheapest and most convenient way of transportation, which often times involves walking.
If you are looking for a travel insurance to go along with your trip to Sri Lanka, I would recommend WorldNomads.com, which is what I use to look for a travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure. They have a simple and flexible search system that allowed me to find the right insurance for the right amount of time at an affordable price in seconds. If you need a travel insurance, give WorldNomads.com a try.
The Perfect 2 Weeks Itinerary
Colombo (2 nights)
To tell you the truth, Colombo is not a place you should stay more than a day when you are in Sri Lanka. It is a big city with some notable temples and museum but the highlight of Sri Lanka can not be seen from the city.
But since most of you will have to fly into Colombo anyway, I would suggest you to at least give the city a go. If you have a day here, do go to the National Museum to learn the history of Sri Lanka.
A great temple that I would recommend you visiting is the Kelaniya buddhist temple located only 15 minutes away from the city. The temple dated back to 5th Century BC and you can find some nice sculptures and paintings that will give you a sense of how rich the Sri Lankan history is.
There are other temples that are worth visiting like the Gangaramaya Temple but these can all be done in one day. Giving you one day in the city also allow time for you to plan your next step like getting a train ticket at the train station or finding the bus route to take. If you are traveling by train, it is recommended that you get the train ticket from the train station one day prior to your departure.
Habarana (3 nights)
After a day in the city, it's time to head into the country side and witness the true beauty of Sri Lanka. Habarana is a small town in central Sri Lanka and it is the perfect place to use as a base to explore all the cultural sights around the area. There are other places people use as a base to explore central Sri Lanka like Kandy, Anuradhapura, or Dambulla but I prefer Habarana because the town is quiet and small, relatively unknown to tourists and it is more green here. It is also located less than an hour away from the famous Sigiriya rock and the ruin of Polonnaruwa, and that is what you will be doing for the next 2 days.
On your first day, hire a driver or a tuk tuk to take you to Sigiriya in the early morning to beat the crowd and hike the rock to the top.
Sigiriya is a 200m high ancient rock that was used as a fortress in 477 CE and in hiking the rock, you will be able to see the beautiful landscape of Sri Lanka from the top.
Sigiriya is more than just a rock in the middle of no where. You can easily spend half a day there just exploring all the ruins at the foot of the rock.
If you have another day in Habarana, I would recommend you to hop on a B294 bus from Habaraba and go to Polonnaruwa and spend a day exploring the site. Polonnaruwa is the royal ancient city of the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa and you can find massive structures of the kingdom's remnants like a 170m height ancient stupa and a huge standing headless Buddha, scattered all over the place.
The site is quite big and if you want to see all the good ruins I would suggest you rent a bike and ride around.
Mapped above are some sights worth seeing in the area.
Kandy (2 nights)
Kandy is the second biggest city located in the hill country of Sri Lanka, home to the famous Temple of the Tooth, a sacred buddhist temple that houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. I think Kandy and the temple were overrated but that said, the city itself has quite a lot to offer if you are interested in the Kandyan culture. Kandy also serves as a good starting point for one of the most scenic train ride in Sri Lanka which we will discuss in a few paragraphs.
I did not go into the Temple of the Tooth because it does not appeal to me but even so, I had to appreciate the architecture of the the complex. It is very well done.
If you are interested in the history of buddhism, I would suggest you to visit the Buddhism museum in Kandy. This is the only museums I found that dedicated each room to different types of buddhism practices from other countries around the world. They have dedicated rooms for Thai buddhism, Tibetan buddhism, Afghanistan buddhism and many more. It is fascinating to learn the mutual connection between each country, all through this one religion.
Another thing to do in Kandy is to see the Kandyan traditional dance. Every evening, you can attend one of these shows and the show lasts around an hour. I am not usually a fan of traditional dance show but this one captivated me the whole time. The dance is really intense and energetic with fast-paced drum beat that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The movement also involves FIRE dancing!
If you like a good place to go people-watching, check out Kandy central market. Walk into the market and you will see why Sri Lankan are one of the nicest people in the world.
Ella (3 nights)
Wake up early in the morning, get a train ticket to Ella and prepare to witness the most beautiful scenery in al Sri Lanka. This is a must. Why? Because the train route from Kandy to Ella is so beautiful people considered it to be an attraction in its own right.
The train ride is about 6 hours and the route will take you through urban areas, along cliff sides, and through the tea plantations that birth one of the best tea in the world, the ceylon tea.
While you are on the train, don't bother sitting in your seat. Find an unoccupied door, hung your legs off, sit and enjoy the ride.
Once you are in Ella, go on a hike to the Little Adam's peak and watch the sunset. The hike is super easy and it will take you no more than 2 hours round trip. At the end of the trail, you will be surrounded by the rolling hills of Ella.
The next day, spend the whole day hiking the Ella's rock which will take you through some of the most stunning walks you can experience in Ella. One minute you are walking on a railway track, the other you are hiking through tea plantations.
Having a guide for this particular trail is recommended as the way was not clearly marked. The hike will take around 4 - 6 hrs round trip. It is relatively easy to hike except the last part where the trail will get steeper as you approach the summit.
There is not much I can say about the summit rather than it is beautiful. Just look at the photo above!
Udawalawe National Park (day trip)
A Sri Lankan trip will not be completed without going on an Elephant Safari tour. Why? Well, Sri Lanka has the highest number of wild elephants in Asia, and it would be a shame if you did not see any elephant when you are here.
After Ella, rent a car or take a public bus to Udawalawe national park and go on a 3 hours safari trip through the park. You are guarantee to see at least 10+ elephants and a bunch of other animals like the peacocks and wild buffalos all hanging out near a watering hole.
Tangalle (2 nights)
After 2 days of hiking in Ella and a relaxed morning in the Udawalawe national park, it is time for you to loosen up and chill at the beach. Tangalle is a quiet fisherman town located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Here you can find many beach front accommodations for as cheap as 20 USD per room. The beach in Tangalle is mostly empty due to its strong tides but what people may not know is that there are some places you can swim as well. There was even a natural pool near my guesthouse which eliminates the problem with the tides entirely.
Mirissa (2 nights)
And last but not least, Mirissa, the final stop of your epic trip in Sri Lanka. There are several cool things you can do in Mirissa from whale-watching to tracking down the stilt fisherman and getting a photo of this dying tradition.
There are many whale-watching tour operators in Mirissa but one that stood out the most was the Raja & the Whale. It is a bit more expensive than the others but the way they marketed themselves is certainly very noble.
For example, they will give you a free ride if you don't see a whale that day, or they don't chase the whales like most cruises do. They will be on the side instead so the whales don't feel threatened by our presence. Free breakfast, snacks and drinks throughout the 6 hours trip. The guides were well-informed of how the whales behave and they would tell us when was the best time to get that perfect picture. I really enjoyed my time with them and I highly recommend you to support their cause.
It took me ages to find these stilt fishermen and it broke my heart to discover that most of them will only do it if you pay them. That said, my friend was able to find a group of them a little bit north of Mirissa so if you take your time, you might be able to find a genuine stilt fisherman somewhere around Mirissa. The tuk tuk driver usually know where to find them so ask them if you have trouble finding one yourself.
There were also some nice spots on the beach near Mirissa like this rock or a giant swing roped to a coconut tree for you to jump in the ocean in style.
And that is all for Mirissa and the 2 weeks itinerary in Sri Lanka. If you are wondering how you can get back to Colombo from Mirissa, don't worry. You can get a direct airport bus from Welligama, a city just north of Mirissa and you will be at the airport in time for your flight that same day. The trip should be around 6 hours through the new highway that connected Mirissa to the capital city.
Have you been to Sri Lanka yet? What do you think about the itinerary? Let me know in the comments below.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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