Stunning Sri Lanka

While living in Hong Kong from 2010-2012, I traveled to many different countries around Southeast Asia and wrote about a few of them in my then-blog, Ashley’s HK Experience. As a new travel piece to this blog, I’m reposting my piece on a trip to Sri Lanka that my friend Jamie and I took in January 2012. 

Thank Buddha (and, believe me, I saw a lot of them this past week-in parks, downtown, in the middle of farmland, etc.) the sun was out when I arrived back in Hong Kong today. After a week in Sri Lanka with its sunny and 27˚C weather every day, I wasn’t sure the smog and chilly January air would have enticed me back to HK. But it wasn’t just the gorgeous weather or the fact that I could actually see the sun that made my seven-day journey through this serene island country a fantastic getaway.

As many of us transients know and live (or is it love?), Hong Kong is the place to party.  With constant happy hours and free ladies’ nights, most of us can’t resist the urge to sip a chocolate martini or guzzle a Pure Blonde most days of the week. But, if you want a break from the liver damage, don’t choose Boracay for your next beach vacation; instead choose the chill Sri Lanka with its beaches, stunning drives through the mountains and cultural sites to drink in.

Upon first glance, Sri Lankan towns resemble many other Southeast Asian cities (Phuket, Cebu, Boracay) with its open store fronts, fruit stands and tuk tuks. But the further you drive out, the more spectacular the scenery will be and the more in awe you’ll be of what you discover.

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Though the wakeup call was at 5:30am, the Yala Wildlife Sanctuary on the south side of the island couldn’t be missed. With over 14,000 hectares of restricted area, visitors are taken on a jeep ride throughout the park in order to spot wild animals such as leopards, elephants, iguanas, peacocks and various other birds in their natural habitats.

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With gorgeous views of the ocean and close ups of animals you’ll never again get the chance to photograph, Yala was a must-do. Other animal adventures through Sri Lanka include whale watching from Mirissa Bay, visiting elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (be sure to catch a ride on one while you’re there), the many beaches and marine life surrounding Sri Lanka and the various wild animals roaming the streets including plenty of dogs, goats, cows, geckos and monkeys.

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My recommendations for a successful trip to Sri Lanka:

  1. Stay at the Tangalla Bay Beach Resort

(Trust me, the website doesn’t do it any justice.) Tangalla Bay offers the most beautiful views I have ever seen. Each room offers a private balcony overlooking the beach and the ocean. The infinity pool practically extends into the sea. And while you’ll meet extremely nice and gracious people throughout the whole of Sri Lanka, Tangalla Bay’s staff are truly welcoming.

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  1. Bring Dramamine (or other motion sickness medicine)

While I would love to recommend the whale watching excursion in Mirissa, I, for one, did not see one whale…because all I saw were the two nails I forced myself to stare at for 4 straight hours in an attempt to not continue to hurl. If, though, I had brought my Dramamine, I might have caught a glimpse of more than a picture of dolphins and blue whales. Not only would the medicine have curbed my nausea for this boat trip, but for probably the entire vacation since we were often riding in the car along winding, mountainous roads.

  1. Get a driver

I never thought I’d say this in my life because my day job includes 8 year olds and a salary fit for the king’s jester. Because my travel buddy and I had so many destinations we wanted to see (from Colombo to Pinnawala to Kandy to Yala to Tangalle to Galle back to Colombo) in a week’s time, we decided to use a Hong Kong travel agent who planned our entire trip alongside a Sri Lankan travel agency. The driver didn’t need a map, spoke English, offered tidbits on the sites we’d pass and stopped for a breath of fresh air alongside streaming waterfalls.

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I couldn’t have asked for an easier way to travel from place to place or for a nicer guide to show us the way. *Tidbit: there are buses that go from city to city, but they are usually crowded and slow. Trains also traverse the country and for those of you who have longer to stay in each city, it has come highly recommended.

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  1. Go on a river cruise in Balapitiya

On our way back to the airport from Galle, we stopped in a town named Balapitiya which housed various companies offering river boat rides. What a picturesque capstone to an already scenic vacation! The boat flowed along the river, traveling through mangrove trees and coasting along the river’s 64 islands. One island housed a Buddhist temple, big enough for only four monks to live. Another was home to one family who showed us how cinnamon was made (it comes from trees…who knew??). We trailed water monitors, sailed behind marine birds and walked through a fish farm in the middle of the water.

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  1. Be a beach bum

Because Sri Lanka is a small island, the whole of it is covered with coasts boasting turquoise water and fine sandy beaches. You won’t find raucous parties, but you will find chaise lounges, umbrellas, hot surfer dudes and plenty of restaurants, massage joints and market-style shops. Last year, I went to Boracay and loved baking in the sun with a beer in one hand, sunscreen in the other. And while Boracay is home to exquisite scenery (which, I must say, the view in Boracay does trump that of many of the beaches we travelled along in Sri Lanka), the vibe is much different and certainly more chilled.

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A few tips before you hop on the next plane to Colombo:

Be prepared…
*to tip. People are unabashed about asking for your money; it’s not what us Hong Kongers are used to, so always carry a few extra 100 rupees in your billfold just in case.
*for spicy food. Much like Indian food, you’ll find curries and spicy concoctions. The fruit, though, is to die for.
*to be in the car a lot. If you want to see the various parts of Sri Lanka, get ready for some winding roads up mountainous terrain.
*for tourist traps. From gems to silk, wood carving, and arts and crafts, Sri Lanka boasts many trades. Especially if you’re going with a tour company (the same happened when I was in Saigon), they’ll take you to their local trade shops so that you can help boost their economy.

On the whole, I would absolutely recommend Sri Lanka as a relaxation, travel destination.  Soak in some rays, photograph the animals, and for once, put down the drink and pick up the camera. Get ready to be impressed.

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