South African's guide to Sri Lanka: Things to do (besides talking about cricket)

2017-07-02 17:30 - Anje Rautenbach
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When I first told friends and family that I’ll be visiting Sri Lanka the most common response was, “Why? Are you going to watch a cricket match?”

“There’s more to Sri Lanka than cricket you know,” I answered back even though I knew that I had absolutely no idea what the “more” actually entailed.

The weeks leading up to my departure time flew by and all I had planned when I stepped onto the plane in Johannesburg was a vague idea of which areas I’ll possibly visit, the inability to pronounce the names of most of the towns and  a booking for my first night’s accommodation.  Later, just as I was about to leave Abu Dhabi airport for Colombo, I checked my booking and realised that I got the date of my first night all wrong on the booking and vague became vaguer. 

I picked up a sim card upon arrival, sorted out accommodation for the first night, got in a taxi and headed straight for Negombo. 

In the taxi the driver asked, “Where are you from?” 

When I said South Africa his face lit up, he smiled from ear to ear and got all jittery while he said, “Ahh, AB de Villiers good! Dale Steyn! Amla!”

He put his thumb in the air, talked about how Sri Lanka won Zimbabwe by 200-and-something runs and with another smile and thumbs up he said, “AB de Villiers!”

I thought, there’s more to South Africa than cricket you know, but at the same time I caught myself smiling from ear to ear and feeling strangely proud because of this connection we shared (despite my lack of cricket knowledge) and the instant welcome to Sri Lanka. 

The cricket conversations happened daily and I left Sri Lanka with a better understanding of cricket and I also found out what the “more” entailed of “there’s more to Sri Lanka than cricket”.

The teardrop island south of India was definitely more than what I bargained for.

SEE: Sri Lanka: An affordable Asian surprise

Things to do in Sri Lanka (besides talking about cricket)

1)    Opt for a homestay

If you’re budget-conscious when travelling then homestays might just be right for you, but even if you don’t mind splurging on accommodation, a homestay is still worth trying.

A homestay is a perfect opportunity to learn more about Sri Lanka’s culture, lifestyle, traditions, religions and language; it usually involves a few rooms in the house that the family opened up to visitors or rooms next to the house with separate entrances. The majority of homestays includes breakfast – which is usually homemade and different every morning – and guests can decide whether or not they want to have dinner at the homestay as well, dinners are usually a variety of curries enough to feed an army.  Homestay owners often go the extra mile, they’ll knock on your door with afternoon tea and biscuits and after staying for a few nights you won’t feel like a guest anymore, but you’ll feel part of the family.


2)      Go to a tea plantation

The first tea plant was brought to Sri Lanka by the British in 1824… you can take an Englishman away from a cup of tea but you can’t take a cup of tea away from an Englishman. But before tea was king in Sri Lanka, coffee flourished like royalty and the country quickly became the world’s largest producer of coffee. Unfortunately this title was short-lived when a plant disease, coffee-rust, wiped all plantations in about a decade and it all boiled down to cup of Ceylon in Ceylon, (as Sri Lanka was known at the time). And to this day, when you hear water boiling, there’s a 99.9% chance that a cup of tea will follow.

Visiting a tea plantation is an eye-opener into the industry and into the crop-to-cup process and while workers in the green fields might look like the perfect photo opportunity it also makes you appreciate and think differently whenever you plonk a tea bag into a cup. The tea pluckers of Sri Lanka are all females with a skill of plucking two-leaves-and-a-bud; without their delicate hands, strong backs and perseverance to endure long working hours, one of the country’s most lucrative exports wouldn’t be exported at all. Entrance and tours to some tea factories is R17 and you get to taste a cup of tea, while other tea factories charge no fee and you can buy a pot of tea and a piece of cake afterwards. All factories also have a variety of teas for sale.


3)      Take on a hiking trail

From the air Sri Lanka looks like one big beautiful blob of green; towns are surrounded by mountains and covered by forests and it is no wonder that there are so many hiking trails – the one as popular as the other one – to choose from.  The scenery is picture-perfect and a postcard snapshot of waterfalls, sweeping tea fields, forests, misty valleys, green mountains and small villages. Hikes range from short self-guided uphill walks like Little Adam’s Peak to walking along the train tracks from Pattipola (highest station in Sri Lanka at 1 898m) to Haputale, to longer trips that involves trekking, camping and sitting around a camp fire. If you want to put a few days aside for hiking it is best to base yourself in the town of Ella.

4)      Travel back in time and visit the ruins

Tongue twister alert! Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Pidurangala are only a few places where you can experience ancient sites, royal cities and visit historical places of spiritual heritage in Sri Lanka.  The cultural triangle consists of the country’s three historic capitals – Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and within the borders of the triangle UNESCO sites, like the rock fortress of Sigiriya, are just waiting to be explored. You can easily base yourself in one town and explore the surrounding areas; keep in mind that entrance to historic sites can get quite pricey if you choose to visit all the main stops and, if you’re not a history buff, don’t try to visit too many spots in a day to avoid ruin-and-temple-fatigue.


5)      Frolic on  a beach

Whether you want to laze in the sun, dash through a few waves on a surfboard, snorkel, do yoga on the sand or go whale-watching in the deep blue ocean, Sri Lanka is a beach bum hotspot with anything from slightly crowded beaches to completely deserted strips of sand. Unuwatuna beach is perfect for a dip while Arugam Bay on the east coast is popular for its surf, in the south Mirissa is often describe as an intimate beach where palms trees are curving towards the ocean and it is also perfect for spotting the humpback and blue whales. For something completely different, try staying in Tangalle’s quiet side, away from town, where you can possibly go turtle-spotting on the beach around midnight with your homestay owner, a torch, and a few too many crabs running around your feet.


6)      Test your spice-tolerance: eat curry

When people tell you that Sri Lankan food is spicy it is best to believe them, locals have a heavy hand when adding the chili but it is oh-so-worth-it! There is a strong culinary heritage in Sri Lanka with influences from the Middle East, Europe and other parts of Southern Asia as well. Don’t leave the country without having string hoppers for breakfast, kottu rotti for lunch and a home-cooked curry for dinner, and eat with your (right) hand, it really enhances the flavour of the food (and the flavour of your fingers). And of course, enjoy all the tropical fruits and street food – or commonly known as short eats - like vegetable samoosas or deep-fried lentil doughnuts.

SEE: Quick Guide: Refreshing Sri Lanka 

7)      Experience diversity in Galle

Galle fort is a Portuguese-built and Dutch-fortified 16th century fort and holds a lot of cultural diversity within its walls, from an old nether-dutch reformed church, to a mosque and a Buddhist temple. Galle is best explored on foot when you stroll on the fort walls and in the streets past a bygone yet present era of old colonial houses and classic cars with a cinnamon iced coffee stop to just watch Sri Lankans go about their day. And if you’re in luck, you might just be in earshot of a cricket match at the test grounds of Galle International Stadium which was wrecked by the 2004 tsunami and was once used as a racecourse, many moons ago, by the British.


8)      Appreciate the wildlife

There are 22 National Parks in Sri Lanka and visitors flock to these protected areas to see elephants, leopards (the highest density of leopards in the world can be found at Yala National Park), the spotted dear, sloth bears, buffalo, wild cats, wild boars and many more.  Visitors can enjoy Jeep safaris, luxury camping trips and should remember that some of Sri Lanka’s parks are closed a few months every year due to monsoon season.

If you don’t want to visit a National Park, or if it is not in your budget, don’t fear, chances are good that you won’t miss out on the smaller animals of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a bird-watching paradise of kingfishers and wild parakeets, easily spotted while just taking a stroll, and you will definitely see a leguan, colourful chameleons, a variety of monkeys, squirrels and maybe even a snake or a National Park elephant standing in the park, but next to the road.


9)      Get on a train

Taking public transport is pure joy in Sri Lanka and while it might not be the most comfortable, it is definitely well-connected and you can have peace of mind that there is always a way from A to B (especially by public bus).

A train ride in Sri Lanka should not be missed. There is something romantic about jumping on a train, sharing a bench with a stranger, buying garlic fried peanuts or spicy treats from a vendor on the platform, peeking out of the window and watching as the train curve to the front and just being wide-eyed in awe of all the natural beauty from waterfalls to tea plantations. Skip the bus or private transport and get on the train for either the section from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya or from Nuwara Eliya to Ella (or both) for sweeping views of tea plantations.

10)   Smile

Sri Lankans are friendly, helpful, sincere and considerate; they go about their day with a permanent smile on their face (or so it seems) and have often asked, “Why are the Western people so serious? They don’t smile, they don’t greet…”

Be friendly. Just smile!

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