Sri Lanka | A backpacker's guide | Part 2 | What do you while in Sri Lanka? Have no fear, there are hidden gems all over the island!

Sri Lanka: A Backpacker’s Guide Part 2 – Hidden Gems Amongst Chaos

Sri Lanka is just popping up on the backpacker’s radar because the country has just recently settled from a 30 year civil war. Despite all of the chaos and noise, Sri Lanka is known for its beautiful changing landscapes all nicely contained in one tear drop shaped island.

What do you while in Sri Lanka? Have no fear, there are hidden gems all over the island!

Check out Part 1 of A Backpacker’s Guide to Sri Lanka for tips on the basics like getting around and what to eat!

1st stop: Colombo

Bloggers tend to write Colombo off as a chaotic noisy city that you need no more than a day to see. But we had an insider show us around, our friend Sanjay who we were there visiting.

Cargo truck sri lanka
Hand painted cargo truck ship things in and out of Pettah

Pettah is a crazy shopping area for industrial companies and materials to clothing, shoes, and household goods. If you want to get a real sense of traffic chaos, check it out. But warning, you gotta be confident with your walking among the streets skills because there are no sidewalks!

Galle Face Beach
Seafood patties?

Galle Face Beach is a nice place to stroll both during the day and at night. Watch the waves rolling in while enjoying some street food.

Viharamahadevi Park is like the Central Park of Colombo. Grab your loved one and find and empty bench or old tree to cuddle in. There are actually cuddling couples everywhere in the park, like everywhere. A gardener of the park showed us around (demanding money afterwards of course), having us smell the cinnamon trees and letting us swing from ancient vines.

Sanjay took us for dinner on the beach at Barracuda Seafood & Grill. Reasonably priced for a beachfront restaurant, you’ll save some cash because it is BYOB (bring your own booze). It’s easy to relax with your feet in the sand, but keep your head straight when you’re leaving after a drink or two because it is right in front of the train tracks and it’s always cross at your own risk in Asia.

And for our last night in Sri Lanka, we were taken to eat at the Cricket Club Cafe. It’s a super cool place if you’re willing to break your backpacker budget for a night. As good as the Sri Lankan curries are, it’s nice to have some good western food for a change. But a tip, bring your own water bottle because a small bottle is a whopping 215 LKR (almost $2 CAD) so water for the three of us cost as much as a main dish. We only learned of the painful price tag when the bill came, ouch!

2nd stop: The South – Hikkaduwa & Galle

Hikkaduwa beach
Hikkaduwa beach is a private beach during low season, better for us!

We took the train from Colombo south to Hikkaduwa beach and spent the day at the empty beach because of the off season. We ended up stay with a Couch Surfer, Csaba, near Rathgama lake.

Galle fort
Very tall walls for full fort protection (Matti for scale).

During our two night stay near Hikkaduwa we took the bus and spent a day exploring Galle Fort. What? A free attraction? Yes! Believe it! We walked the whole area of the old British Fort, imagining what it would be like during its prime. It was very Pirates of the Caribbean like, with some really picturesque spots.

Galle fort
Exploring Galle Fort

3rd stop: The Highlands – Adam’s Peak (Nuwara Eliya), Kandy & Sigiriya

Take the train from Colombo to Kandy and judge for yourself if it is the most beautiful train ride in the world. You’ll ride through rolling hills covered with tea plantations for miles.

Train Sri Lanka
Amazing views from the train even on cloudy days.

We took the train to Hatton, then two buses through Nuwara Eliya to Nallanthanniya and stayed at an empty guest house of a couch surfer. Hiking Adam’s Peak during the off season is an experience in itself. We made the two hour-something trek up nearly a billion stairs through the rain and fog without a soul in sight.

Adams Peak
Admiring grand Buddhist stupas.

Maybe it was a blessing we went during the rainy season, because we could see 7 waterfalls at the same time on the cliff side. Yes, SEVEN.

Adam's Peak
Chasing waterfalls.

Though we had a completely obscured view from the top, it can take 12 hours to climb to the top during the Buddhist festivals, because there are so many people. Psst, here is another thing you can do for free!

Adam's Peak
No view, but marking our accomplishment none the less.

Acting as a bit of a tourist hub in the middle of the country, Kandy is charming and chaotic in its own way. If you’re ambitious like Matti, you can go for a morning jog around the lake. But don’t even bother after 8am, the sidewalks will be packed with people.

While there we spent a day in the Botanical Gardens amongst trees that are thousands of years old and rows of carefully planted palm trees.

Kandy Botanical Gardens
Gazing into the paradise.

The protected area of the park is 140-some acres of lands. So yes, plan enough time and bring a water bottle for your trip. Foreigner entrance fee is 1500 LKR ($13 CAD) per person.

Botanical Gardens Kandy
Lounging on an ancient fig tree.

Sigariya Rock (Sri Lanka’s most famous attraction)

From Kandy we made a day trip to the famous Sigiriya Rock by bus. The rock formation turned king’s palace is sometimes called the 8th wonder of the world for a good reason. Our expectations were exceeded after reading bloggers saying average to mediocre things about the sight. But we spent a good 4 hours admiring the spectacular 360 degree view from the top and all the ancient ruins below.

Sigiriya view
A view as far as the eye can see.

Why backpackers may skip Sigiriya is the exuberant foreigner price tag of 4260 LKR (~$37 CAD). So this was way beyond our budget, but we have no regrets. We don’t know when the next time we will be in Sri Lanka might be, so when in Rome… I mean Sri Lanka.

Sigiriya is the unofficial 8th wonder of the world.
Sigiriya Views
Views from the top.

We suffered a bit of a moral dilemma about going to see some elephants. Pinnawala elephant orphanage is the one that all the tourists check out, but we read very mixed reviews and rebated on going. Instead we stayed with a couch surfer named Ravi just east of Kandy in a town called Mawanella. We had a great time, mostly hanging out with his mother who prepared us tea and breakfast on her wood stove. Staying at his home in the jungle was an experience in itself, and it just so happens that Ravi works at a small elephant orphanage near by. So he invited us to come by while he was working. He hooked us up and we fed, washed, and went for a short ride on one of his giant friends.

Washing Elephants in Sri Lanka
Helped Mr. elephant with his bath.

Ravi left his well paying, respected government job as a security officer to find more fulfilling work. The orphanage helps rescue elephants that have been taken to do hard labor for people. So we are left to believe that tourism is a better life for these elephants than put to work everyday lifting and carrying heavy logs or bricks. When it comes to animals so emotional and smart like elephants, we all just want to do what’s best.

Elephants Sri Lanka
… and our turn to be washed.

We spent a solid two weeks in Sri Lanka, taking it slow, fighting off food poisoning. I’ve read of people going to the north, south, east and west in only two weeks, but if you’re so ambitious, you be spending most of your days in transit. Our advice is take it slow, be flexible, and this is the only way that you’ll soak in the culture and get off the beaten path. Our next trip will definitely include Jaffa in the north and the east beaches for world class surfing! What was your favourite part about Sri Lanka? Leave a comment and let us know!

28 thoughts on “Sri Lanka: A Backpacker’s Guide Part 2 – Hidden Gems Amongst Chaos

  1. Ironic that you didnt go to the elephant orphanage because of mixed reviews but went and had a ride on some elephants at another place. Anyone with a bit of common sense should know how wrong it is to treat elephants like that. Tourists should know this most of all. Shame of you

  2. Great find! I am flying out in two days and was searching for information how to get to Sigiriya… and up comes your blog.
    I decided too against the driver and the pre-defined itinerary – as it remindsme too much of a normal working day with meetings back to back.
    I need exactly what you described: flexibility and rather less but more intense.
    Thanks for the great write-up, enjoyed reading it!

  3. This was so awesome thank you! My sisters and I have 9 full days in Sri Lanka in June and are planning to go straight to Sigiriya for 2 nights, then bus to Kandy for a night, then 2 nights at Nuwara Eliya /Ella then a day at the National Park and finish with 3 nights on the beach Unawatuna. Do you think this is too much to cram in? Also did you get any private drivers? Last question- we are coeliacs, did you have any food issues?Thanks so much!!

    1. I would skip staying in Nuwara Eliya but definitely do the scenic train ride at least. Everything else is perfect. This is the link to a family owned company in Unawatuna, the driver is really reliable and they have accommodation in Unawatuna too, just across the road from the beach. They can organise anything you want, including airport transfers and day trips.

  4. Hey Matti and Sara…nice read.. so enjoyed trust me and so full of information.. I am from Kolkata, India, yes pretty much from this part of the globe…but really enjoyed reading as it is giving me lot of courage since I am planning my trip next month only…to Sri Lanka…alone… I hope that’s perfect…isn’t it? Keep writing and enriching the readers more and more…:)

  5. Hello all
    This is great- thanks so much for sharing- its making me even more excited about a holiday/exploring in Sri Lanka. We are hoping to go in September for 2 weeks- has anyone been there at this time and do you think the rain will hamper our exploring and sightseeing … is it really bad rain wise in Sept?/
    Thanks libby 🙂

    1. Hey Libby! Glad we could help!
      We were there in June and this was apparently rainy season. So you should have good weather in September 🙂

    2. Ironic that you didnt go to the elephant orphanage because of mixed reviews but went and had a ride on some elephants at another place. Anyone with a bit of common sense should know how wrong it is to treat elephants like that. Tourists should know this most of all. Shame of you

  6. Hello Sara, your blog is very great. I’m going with my boyfriend in Sri Lanka this summer. Could you share Ravi’s contact please?

    Thanks a lot!

  7. Sara! This is just what I needed for our honeymoon! As far as transportation from Colombo to Kandy, did you bus it? And the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, was it easy to purchase tickets? We are debating on doing the whole hire a driver vs just winging it on our own. We were planning to do (CMB-Kandy-Sigiriya/Dambulla as a day trip-train to Nuwara Eliya/Ella-Udawallawe NP-CMB). We have a total of 9 days. Any transportation information from point a to point b would be super helpful.

    1. Hey Wendy, honeymoon exciting!

      Transportation in Sri Lanka was probably the hardest part (and hardest part to explain to others) since there aren’t always set schedules and stations.

      Train will be your main method of transportation for the long haul trips (bus would take forever!). It was easy to buy tickets at the main train stations. I’d suggest going for 1st class, 3rd class can be kind of rough and crowded, but if you really want to live like a local, it’s an experience. You could hire a driver, but that’d be WAY more expensive (and less fun in my opinion). Trains/ buses are extremely in expensive.

      Our part of the trip looked something like this:
      Columbo – Nuwara Eliya (actually to Hatton) – Nallathanniya (Adam’s Peak) (train then bus)
      Nuwara Eliya (Hatton) – Kandy (train)
      Kandy – Sigiriya (bus)
      Kandy – Columbo (train)

      I hope this helps and make sure not to miss our post on getting to Sigiriya!

  8. This just came up while I was searching about Sri Lanka and ahh it was exactly what I was looking for! I was struggling to decide what I was going to do but because I don’t like the beach that much I am definitely going to spend most of my time in the middle of Sri Lanka and enjoy the mountains and tea.

  9. Hi Sara,

    Thank you for your nice post.

    Could you please share which is the elephant orphanage which you visit? Do you think it’s better to go there instead of Pinnawala?

    1. That’s a really good question.

      I apologize that I don’t have a good answer. We stayed with Ravi (our couch surfing host) somewhere near mawanella and he wrote down directions from his place to the elephants crudely on a napkin. So i’m sorry, i never really got the name of the place. But it’s real small, only two elephants and it seems like they are still working on it.

      In conclusion, my advice is to do your research before paying way to much to exploit some elephants. At the same time, don’t take everything you learn as fact, it is easy to exploit tourists.

      1. Hi, we are travelling to Sri Lanka in a week and I just read your great and very helpful article and was wondering if you still knew the name of Ravi on Couchsurfing? Would be amazing to stay with him!

  10. This is great! I’m planning to go in a few days but only have 8 days total. I agree that the right thing to do is to take it slow so I think I’ll have to choose between Kandy and Galle. Since you’ve been to both east and south of Colombo- which would you recommend?

    1. Hmm, that’s a tough one. It really depends on what you want/like to do. The south of Sri Lanka is beautiful beaches while Kandy in the center is mountains and tea plantations.

      Personally I think the Highland is something that you can’t miss if you’re visiting Sri Lanka. Plus the train ride in is apparently the most beautiful in the world!

      Happy Travels

  11. Glad you enjoyed it! We shot for a budget of $60 CAD a day between us and were usually on budget. We found transportation and accommodation to be remarkably inexpensive, but still walked whenever we could (instead of taking this) and Couch Surfed or stayed with our friend.

  12. what a great article! very different from most ‘you need $50/day to like Sri Lanka’ posts 😉
    what would you say was your daily budget, considering you couch surfed a bit?

      1. hello there Sara! it was a wonderful piece of info for budget travelers. I am a 50 plus solo woman on my way to Sri Lanka on in a couple of weeks and I would love to be able to contact Ravi who is working at thte Elephant Orphanage. I would love to stop by and to interview him for my volunteer site (IN PROGRESS)
        gracias from Buenos Aires!!

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