Sri Lanka: Beaches, markets, ancient ruins, tea and trains…

Why Sri Lanka?

We had heard so many good things about Sri Lanka! It has been a bucket-list country for us since we started travelling full time. Last year we had made journeys up into the hill country in Taiwan and Vietnam and were fascinated by the opportunity to make that trip by train in Sri Lanka; that, plus the fact that the Kandy to Ella train is renowned as one of ‘the most scenic train rides in the world’, and the knowledge that Sri Lanka has miles of coast (we were tempted by the opportunity to try surfing on the Southern Beaches!) seemed like plenty of reason to visit!

We spent a month in Sri Lanka and enjoyed the ease of travelling from place to place, the friendly locals we met, and the relaxing pace of life. We would definitely recommend Sri Lanka to families as an easy place to travel. Here is the route we took in making a loop through inland, central, and the South of Sri Lanka, with highlights from each place we visited….

Our itinerary in Sri Lanka…

  • Negombo > [bus > Kurunegala; bus to Dambulla]
  • Dambulla > [bus > Kandy]
  • Kandy > [train > Nanu Oya]
  • Nuwara Eliya > [train to Ella]
  • Ella > [tuktuk to Wellawaya; bus to Pannegamuwa Junction]
  • Tissamahara > [bus to Tangalle]
  • Tangalle > [tuk tuk to Hirikitiya; bus to Mirissa].
  • Mirissa > [tuk tuk to Weligama]
  • Weligama > [bus to Galle]
  • Galle > [bus to Colombo; bus to Negombo].

Starting off in Negombo

Negombo was our first stop, and the highlight here was tied between heading out for a first outing to the shop to find a much-needed coffee at sunrise (see our post from Kuala Lumpur to find out how close we were to missing our flight to Sri Lanka in the first place!) and the amazing Negombo Fish Market on the waterfront.

As soon as we walked out of our hotel that first morning we were in love with Sri Lanka. It wasn’t long after sunrise but we could already smell that tropical welcome of outdoor kitchen fires burning while roosters are crowing. We found milk at a tiny little shop only a few hundred metres down the road, and were waved over by the neighbour who we found was having his brother climb his backyard coconut trees to harvest fresh drinking coconuts for the market. He gave the boys a coconut each, shook their hands with an enthusiastic, “Welcome to Sri Lanka!” and we wandered slowly back down the small pedestrian roads to our hotel feeling like the luckiest family in the world to have woken up in this tropical paradise.

A coconut in less than one hour awake in Sri Lanka!

The fish markets are an exciting assault on the senses. The smell of drying fish is immediate; as are the calls of vendors selling their stock and the sounds of the chopping and gutting all kinds of seafood that we’ve never even seen before!

A beachside view looking back into the Negombo Fish Markets.

We had barely entered the marketplace and the boys were talking to the vendors at each stall; in awe of their catch and the speed of their work. We walked around the entire market (more than once) until Harry found the men working with the dried fish on the beach…

And ended up sitting down with them and having a go banging the fish together to remove any sand and dried scales before they get piled up to be taken off for sale!

It’s easy to get around Negombo by tuk-tuk, and although we did find it had semi-footpaths in the touristy area, there isn’t a lot of space in the downtown area for walking in amongst the traffic.

Definitely check out some of the different cafes in Negombo…

We found a buffalo-curd mango lassi at one!

Dambulla and the ‘cultural triangle’

Dambulla is an inland city of Sri Lanka, and we used it as a great base to explore the Cave Temples, and to climb both Sigiriya and Pidurangala rocks.

Dambulla Cave Temples

We took the bus from Negombo for $1 per adult, changed at the bus station in Kurunegala, and caught one more bus to Dambulla. The total travel time was about five hours, but the drive was smooth and we broke it up with a lunch stop halfway.

While the cave temples are right in Dambulla town, it takes about half an hour by tuk tuk to reach either of Sigiriya or Pidurangala. We would recommend visiting both in the morning, and if you are only in Dambulla for a short time, then definitely the climb up Pidurangala is worth it.

I have written an entire blog post about visiting the Dambulla area and climbing both rocks with children. Click on the link below to check out the finer details and plan for each rock. It was a great experience!

Sigiriya, Pidurangala and Dambulla: Climbing three big rocks with kids.

Click on the photo for a link to the blog!

A week inland in Hill Country

Sri Lanka’s hill country is iconic and picturesque, and no wonder – seeing the tea plantations from the wide open windows of the old hill trains is an uplifting kind of feeling! The hills themselves are beautiful, and such a contrast to the windswept coastal stretches of beach along the south.

We knew that for us a huge drawcard of Sri Lanka was the South Coast and beaches, but we were curious about the hill country and loved the thought of the vastly contrasting landscapes of what looked to be on the map a seemingly small island nation.

Gavin and Harry on board in Second Class Reserved seats for the trip from Nanu Oya to Ella.

Getting up into the hill country we took a local bus from Dambulla train station, to Kandy. The bus cost less than $1 USD per person, and took about two hours. It was very straightforward!

Our inland Sri Lanka itinerary:

  • Dambulla > bus > Kandy [2 nights]
  • Kandy > train > Nuwara Eliya [2 nights]
  • Nuwara Eliya > train > Ella [2 nights]
Watching the world go by through four year old eyes…

The details [and realities…]

When I thought about writing a post on taking trains in Sri Lanka’s tea country, I already started imagining how to justify that we had pre-booked second class tickets, and to let people know you can absolutely buy tickets for these ‘most scenic railway rides in the world’ on the day. You can! 

Waiting patiently at Kandy Train Station

But arriving at Kandy station an hour before our train was scheduled to depart, I was glad for having pre-bought ours. It was chaos. Not the locals – they were fine. But the tourists! It was embarrassing. 

Young backpackers were climbing in train windows, shouting at each other to open the doors, pass in their backpacks, and bag all the seats they could! 

My heart started racing a bit, imagining myself going in to battle with one of these young backpackers if I found them on one of our booked seats! But despite the rush of adrenaline, and the race to get on board, we were spared that battle as they were (after all that) confidently ushered out the of Second Class carriages by the conductor, and pointed towards the now full third class section for which they had purchased their ‘Unreserved Seat’ tickets for. 

Pre-booking tickets…

For Sri Lanka, this was our ‘splurge’. It wasn’t cheap booking them online, but after seeing the behaviour of backpackers in Kandy, I have to say I have no regrets that we did!

The pre-printed train tickets delivered to our hotel (the non-reserved tickets are much smaller, and have no details printed on).

I used the website Visit Sri Lanka Tours to book tickets online. It was straightforward and the tickets for the first leg of our journey (Kandy to Nanu Oya) were already waiting for us at our hotel in Negombo on arrival (the company had delivered the paper tickets in an envelope). For the remaining tickets (Nanu Oya to Ella), we went straight to the train station in Kandy on arriving by bus, and lined up at the small kiosk saying ‘online tickets’. They printed out the tickets immediately, and we held onto those for an easy arrival and transaction at Nanu Oya station several days later.

Vendors selling pineapple and samosas on the way to Nanu Oya.

Trains aside; in the Hill Country we loved…

Kandy Royal Botanical Gardens

The highlight of Kandy for us was the Botanical Gardens. Our driver dropped us off for a couple of hours and it was a great opportunity to just wander (and exercise the boys!) and soak it all in. Its an enormous park space, with trails that wind all through the different wooded and planted areas. You could easily loose half a day there, pack some snacks or a picnic and find a spot to sit.

One of the incredible Double Palm Avenues in the Kandy Botanical Gardens.

Visiting a Tea Factory in Kandy

Kandy for us was the start of our adventures in Sri Lanka’s hill country, and we arrived by bus from Dambulla. We ended up booking a hotel up on the hill above Kandy, with an incredible view down over the city! We arranged a half day tour with a tuk-tuk, and set off the next day to visit a tea factory, the Kandy Royal Botanical Gardens, and a special request for the most delicious lunch our driver could think of!

We had an interesting morning all round at the tea factory; us, for the delicious scents of fresh tea and taste testing… and the boys for all the amazing century-old machines used to seperate, sort, and dry the tea into different grades!

Eight different grades of tea to taste!

[In hindsight, I think the better tea factories to visit would be in Nuwara Eliya, where you can also wander through the tea plantations and explore. The one in Kandy was very interesting, and included an awesome tour that clearly explained it all… but we really wanted to see the tea fields and wander the plantations].


High Tea at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya

We sort of stumbled across the Grand Hotel; largely because we were staying right behind it! We walked past without realising the history or extent of the Hotel and beautiful grounds surrounding, and ended up just in time for High Tea on our first afternoon!

The first High Tea we ordered…

Ok, so High Tea on day one had us thinking that a beer and some chips at lunchtime might also be a grand idea on day two as well, so we went back! (The kids enjoyed watching the man playing the beautiful grand piano; it was an educational choice, I swear!).

Totally all part of world schooling… for sure!

Nuwara Eliya Victoria Park

This is the highest town of the three main hill stations (Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella) so its cooler up here. But the sun came out beautifully on our full day in Nuwara Eliya and we made the most of the cheap visit to the Victoria Park gardens in the centre of town, and let the kids run free at the Victoria Park playground.

The Main Street of Nuwara Eliya.

We even found candy floss which Oscar spotted came wrapped in recycled paper instead of plastic… The small indoor markets here are worth a little stroll through, but the homemade candy floss in paper was pretty much a compulsory buy!


Taking the train from Nanu Oya to Ella

This was a great travel day with our two little backpackers! The hill country unfolds as you climb further up the tracks with breathtaking tea plantations and hill villages. An easy travel day all round! 

The train for this most famed leg of the journey up in the hills actually goes from the train station ‘Nanu Oya’ to Ella – which is about 5km from Nuwara Eliya and easy to do by tuk tuk.

Waiting for our train at the Nanu Oya train station (near Nuwara Eliya).

It takes about four hours from Nanu Oya to Ella, and is an interesting ride with stops at numerous small stations along the way.


Climbing Little Adam’s Peak in Ella

This is a pleasant short walk to the top of Little Adam’s Peak, and takes less than an hour. We heard everyone talking about the ‘hike’ up Little Adam’s Peak and were expecting a mountain! In reality, from the the main road it probably takes 40 minutes with kids, and although it involves quite a lot of steps it is a pleasant walk with a well marked and well-trodden trail.

Near the summit of Little Adams Peak.

[Not to be confused with Adam’s Peak which is where the hill in Ella gets its name from, but is a much longer and harder hike and NOT in Ella!].

The beginning of the walk to Little Adam’s Peak.

We got a tuk tuk tour for half a day from our guesthouse in Ella, that included the Nine Arch Bridge, Little Adam’s Peak, the waterfall, and a stop for lunch on the way home. It was a good way to get around, and made for an achievable outing with the kids. You could also walk from the Nine Arch Bridge to Little Adam’s Peak, as the distance is not geographically far; just steep coming back up!

The views from the top looking out over Ella Rock are incredible, and it makes for an interesting walk to begin through the trails that wind away from the adjoining tea plantation. At the top of the first peak there is a small shrine and Buddha statue, and from there a further two peaks to walk along the summit ridge to.

The view from Little Adams Peak back over to Ella Rock, and the road we took a few times during our stay in Ella!

The famous Nine Arch Train Bridge in Ella

I wasn’t actually sure whether to write about this at all, as for us the train bridge was one of the most disappointing sights of Sri Lanka. First of all; WOW. A stunning work of engineering dating back nearly 100 years; but equally WOW… the tourists. There are so many of them! Sri Lanka is definitely in its peak for tourism, and Ella seems to be the country’s main hotspot, so just be aware you won’t be the only ones!

Tourists on the Nine Arch Bridge in Ella.

We didn’t stay too long at the train bridge, but grabbed a coconut to drink and walked further along the tracks and into the tea fields. It was a humbling experience to wander the trails that wind through tea plantations, after talking with our host family about the life of tea workers. We learnt that after new government laws their minimum wage has now risen, but they are still only paid 800LKR ($6 NZD) per day, and must pick a minimum of 20kg to earn that. It looks like bloody hard work! 

Meeting one of the ladies picking tea in the fields near Ella.

[Paradoxical perhaps, but we suddenly felt thankful for the rising tourism and the chance for workers like this to earn a few tips on the side showing their work and posing for photos!].


Tangalle

It was a great feeling to be back at the beach!

Sunset on Tangalle Beach.

Tangalle is stunning, with a golden hour of sun setting and the sound of crashing waves making for a magical evening! Unfortunately when we were there it was a few days after a storm and the waves were enormous. There was nowhere in Tangalle for us to be able to swim (adults), and definitely not for the kids.

The view from our room in Tangalle, plus fresh roti from that little purple cart in the right side of the photo – don’t miss trying fresh roti!

We made the most of some down time, enjoyed the sunsets, and took a tuk tuk one day to Hiriketiya to try the beach and waves there… It was a very busy tourist beach, with a whole stretch of options of beachfront cafes, bars, and surf schools. Perfect for a day out at the beach!

Having a go boogie boarding in Hiriketiya.

Mirissa

We left Tangalle without any accommodation booked and decided to try the bus to Mirissa just under two hours away, with the criteria for accommodation including a beachfront swimming pool… Mission accomplished! Mirissa is a beautiful coastline, with everything that is so iconic about the tropical Sri Lankan coast.

Sunset atop Coconut Hill, Mirissa.

We found a small hotel just around the bay from the main beach in Mirissa, meaning it was the perfect distance to walk to find dinner; AND we had to pass through Coconut Hill to get there!

Talking with a local fisherman on the beach just outside our hotel in Mirissa.

Weligama

We reckon we saved the best til last! Weligama turned out to be perfect for us.
We found a beach just along from the main strip and only 30 metres from our hotel (Blue Star Beach Hotel), which had the right size waves for Harry to try surfing… And he was hooked!

Harry standing up on his first lesson!

We had been making our way along the southern coast without accommodation booked, and so extended our one-night stay at the Blue Star Beach Hotel to three nights and spent each day surfing, swimming in the pool, and eating amazing food at the restaurant on site!

The awesome flat beach in Weligama; perfect for the kids to swim and surf.

Galle

Galle is a beautiful coastal port town on the South Western point of Sri Lanka. Wandering the old fort at sunset was one of those moments where right then, there is nowhere in the world we would rather be; the views are second to none, and the atmosphere of locals and tourists out enjoying the evening is uplifting. Plus, the history of the lighthouse and fort walls underfoot is fascinating, and suited to all ages and levels of curiosity.

Enjoying sunset at the lighthouse and fort in Galle.

Lighthouses aside, if you are in Galle and keen for an authentic lunch or dinner experience; write down the name ‘Priyani Hotel’… We asked our tuk tuk driver to take us to a local restaurant for lunch, and when he said ‘Hotel’ Piryani, thoughts of another attempt at Western cuisine conjured up the same stock-standard image in my mind; but our visions were far from it! He dropped us at the restaurant for lunch, where our meals cost us less that $5 USD for four of us (and yes, went twice in less than 24 hours in Galle!). More than the food, the adventure and satisfaction of finding somewhere truly local makes it worth it just for the experience: the sound of kottu being chopped on the roti hot plate; the challenge of ordering without menus; the curiosity of other customers peeping over to wonder how you might handle the second challenge of eating without utensils (they did actually give us spoons but you can imagine us enjoying it with our hands anyway!); and the mesmerising scent of curry and hoppers cooking and being made at such speed!

That, plus the way the hosts face lit up on seeing us return six hours later for dinner… Try it in Galle!

Ready for making roti and kottu on the hot plate at Priyani Hotel restaurant. So good!

One thing that challenged us…

One of the things we were really interested in on choosing to come to Sri Lanka, was the wildlife. There are safaris guaranteeing to spot leopards and elephants in the wild, as well as a whole multitude of other wild animals. It sounded surreal!  But the other side to that is the reality. Tourism here is so developed over the last few years that there are literally HUNDREDS of jeeps lining up in the National Parks to see them! 😱 Our host at our guesthouse in Ella said he went with a family the week before and there were 100 JEEPS lined up at the entrance at 06:00am, waiting to go on safari. 

We knew already that is not what we travel for, and that is certainly not the values we try to pass on about caring for our animal world and environment. 

We had already booked our accommodation in Tissamahara with the intention of doing a safari, but arrived there knowing we wouldn’t. We pulled up in the tuk tuk feeling a whole mixture of emotions, not far from the most famous of Sri Lanka’s National Parks, but albeit happily with the amazing welcome we were given by the friendly staff at Peacock Reach Hotel; the most awesome swimming pool; and the challenge of how to we could possibly now entertain ourselves for the next day full day by the pool, instead of on safari…

Challenge accepted!

Where we stayed

Sri Lanka has a great selection of accommodation, from budget to high-end. We found some neat places to stay, and stuck within our budget for all of them. I would recommend choosing a place with a swimming pool along the southern coast, because although you are on or close to the beach, not all the beaches are suitable for swimming. Tuk tuks are available everywhere, so even when location is not central, its easy to get around. Each place we stayed included breakfast in the room price.

Our room at Samiru Guesthouse in Ella.
  • Negombo: Optimum Residencies [great proximity to airport and not in main tourist area; awesome swimming pool; very friendly staff; restaurant onsite; recommend for first stop in Sri Lanka].
  • Dambulla: Shan Inn [great value for money; basic but very friendly and clean; good base for Dambulla].
  • Kandy: Kandy View Garden Hotel [amazing views; family run hotel; great breakfast and dinner, spacious rooms; a five minute tuk tuk from shops and town though not really walkable].
  • Nuwara Eliya: UYou Ceylon Guesthouse [great location behind Grand Hotel; cheap rooms; basic and clean; nice breakfast; laundry service; a bit cool/damp at night due to altitude; recommended].
  • Ella: Samiru Guest Inn [friendly small 3-room guesthouse; 350m to main street and train station; great breakfast; owner has tuk tuk and also gave us private un-official cooking lesson in their home!].
  • Tissamahara: Peacock Reach Hotel [amazing pool! Very friendly staff; spacious room; great common spaces; resort-style hotel with restaurant on site; highly recommend].
  • Tangalle: Blue Horizon Beach Hotel [basic hotel, very small rooms but awesome views from balcony; great location for Tangalle though not near swimmable beach].
  • Mirissa: Edelweiss Resort [basic ground floor room; swimming pool; walking distance to Coconut Hill and Mirissa Main Beach; beachfront location].
  • Weligama: Blue Star Beach Hotel [very relaxed atmosphere; staff were amazing; swimming pool; Lebanese restaurant onsite; 30 metres to perfect surf beach for beginners; highly recommend staying here].
  • Galle: Elliot Nature Resort [handy location 1.5km to bus station and Galle Fort; swimming pool; basic but clean, comfortable room; lovely staff; good value for money].
We enjoyed our stay at Uyou Ceylon Guesthouse in Nuwara Eliya!

Getting around by bus

I’m not sure if it’s became some kind of unofficial goal; to get around Sri Lanka by bus… but we didn’t take a taxi the entire month of our stay! We found it really easy to travel by local bus, train, and tuk tuk.

The boys ready to board the next bus at the Kurunegala interchange.

The local buses are a great way to travel and give a small tourist-free glimpse of local life. We ended up taking 10 legs of our loop around Sri Lanka by bus!

Our bags stored up the front of the bus on the engine box.

I confess I had expected and prepared for the absolute worst upon taking our first bus ride from Negombo to Dambulla. The decision to take the bus for $1 or the taxi for $85 was fairly easy, though our choice was still cautious… [picture me stashing a vomit bag for easy access in preparation of such worst case scenarios… thank you Taiwan for such lessons]. But it was a smooth day! The bus was easy to navigate, with a simple interchange at Kurunegala, and as breezey as it was easy. 

Grabbing a cold drink for a rest stop at Colombo Central Bus Station.

Tickets are bought on board from the conductor. Each bus has a driver and one conductor, who walks around with a small ticket machine and a handful of cash to give change. Ticket prices range from $0.50-$1.50 USD per adult, and each ride comes complete with free open-window-style air conditioning and Sri Lankan reggae vibes… It is a great way to travel Sri Lanka!


Don’t leave Sri Lanka without trying…

We have really enjoyed trying so many local dishes, including cooking one night with our host family in Ella. The boys have both had their fair share of dahl curry and we have all becomes fans of egg ‘hoppers’ for breakfast! 

If you are coming to Sri Lanka, definitely don’t leave without trying:

✔️ Dahl curry [lots of! And each small guesthouse made a non-spicy ‘baby dahl’ version for the kids] 
✔️ ‘Hoppers’ [ultra-thin rice-flour pancakes, most commonly made with a fried egg for breakfast]
✔️ Roti [sweet and savoury; there are roti carts and small stands making roti all around Sri Lanka!]
✔️ Lassi drink [we all love this! And the yoghurt is a good pro-biotic while travelling].
✔️ Kottu (stir fried roti dish; literally chopped up roti, fried with vegetables and egg… AMAZING!].

Egg hoppers for breakfast at our guesthouse in Dambulla.

Other stuff –

  • SIM cards: It’s easy to buy a SIM card at the airport on arrival in Colombo. There are three shops selling them as soon as you walk out into the Arrivals Hall. We choose ‘Airtel’ and found it cheap to buy as a tourist (with various options for data) and they installed it right away. We might have underestimated data we would use, and ended up buying a few more 100 rupee top up cards at small convenience stores along the way. The Airtel app is easy to use and for each top up you can choose a package data bundle. The other main communication provider we saw advertised more than Airtel was ‘Dialog’.
  • ATMs: These are easy to find in the main towns and we simply gabbed a tuk tuk and asked the driver to take us to the nearest ATM when we needed more cash. Only one of our hotels in Sri Lanka accepted payment by credit card; the others were cash only.
  • Supermarkets: There is a Cargills ‘Food City’ supermarket in each main town, and some of the bigger cities have an expat style supermarket called “Arpico Supercentre” which is a large supermarket with furniture and appliance store. We easily found everything we wanted.

Headed for the beach in Weligama from Blue Star Beach Hotel.
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