An Experiential Travel Guide to Sri Lanka: 19 Ideas to Get You Started
Recently, Sri Lanka suffered a series of tragic bomb attacks. As news stories rolled in throughout the day, so did a flood of memories from our travels there — meeting people on trains, sharing sunrise with pilgrims and travelers alike at the top of Adam’s Peak, wandering through the tea gardens, learning to pop spices and cook Sri Lankan food in clay pots, admiring sleeping Buddha sculptures in caves, and much more. So while it may seem like strange timing to write about travel in Sri Lanka now, we felt it was time to finish a draft article and remind people of the beauty and joy of the country. And, to encourage you to keep Sri Lanka on your travel wish list to help support the country as it recovers.
Sri Lanka. Ceylon. The little tear-shaped island just south of India. Our visit there wasn't my first.
I lived there for 18 months when my father worked at the U.S. Embassy. My memories of Sri Lanka from my six to seven year-old self consisted of brightly colored saffron robes worn by Buddhist monks, baby orphan elephants bathing in the river, giant sleeping gilded Buddhas, and a vibrant green as far as I could see across the rolling hills of tea plantations in the north.
Something I appreciate now as an adult, yet didn’t fully understand as a child except to note differences in people’s clothing, was the diversity of ethnicities, cultures and religions in Sri Lanka. This includes a majority Sinhalese population who are predominately Buddhist, a Tamil community composed of both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils who are mostly Hindu, and also Christians and Muslims.
Add to this a long and complicated history dating back 8,000+ years — including power struggles between kingdoms, colonialism, and forced migration — and you have the blend that makes Sri Lanka the fascinating and complex place that it is, the same blend which helped divide it and drive it into a devastating 26-year civil war (1983-2009).
My family left before the civil war began. As the war unfolded, we watched as Sri Lankan friends emigrated to avoid the conflict. And just as peace and stability returned over the last decade, we watched as many of them returned home. Dan and I came close to visiting Sri Lanka in 2008 when we were in southern India. It was a time just before the end of the civil war. At the counsel of Sri Lankan friends, we decided to wait. When the war finally ended in May 2009, we looked for an opportunity to visit.
One finally presented itself years later. Spurred by an opening in a Vipassana meditation course at a center in Sri Lanka, we booked a last-minute flight to Colombo. As I sat my meditation course, Dan made his way south to a beach for his own self-made retreat. After the meditation course finished, we embarked on a two week journey around the island together.
To assemble an itinerary we collected recommendations from friends who had lived or visited there recently, piecing together a rough route focused on train journeys, tea gardens and treks. We left things flexible, often booking accommodation the day before or the day of, to allow shifts and adjustments as we wished.
In the end, it turned out to be an even better two-week trip than we'd imagined, flush with a diversity of experiences and destinations which belied the relatively short amount of time we had. Despite the ground we'd covered and all that we'd experienced, we never felt rushed.
Trains, tea gardens and treks. Here are the best experiences from our Sri Lanka two-week itinerary.
How to use this experiential travel guide to Sri Lanka: Are you considering a Sri Lanka vacation, but not sure which places to visit or where to begin in planning your trip? What are some of the most enjoyable and representative experiences, the ones that make you feel as though you’ve connected with this island country? And when is the best time to visit Sri Lanka? And how can you best avoid the crowds? We’ll answer all those questions and more in this Sri Lanka Experiential Travel Guide. The aim: you have all the inspiration and practical travel information to create your own Sri Lanka itinerary and trip.
The following experiences are in chronological order from our trip. If you have around two weeks, you can conservatively accomplish something similar and fit in trains, treks, tea plantations and more. With three to four weeks you can add in more beach time, a meditation course, a visit to the eastern side of the island, or a few more hill towns along the way. We include suggestions of train journeys, enjoyable treks and notable hotels in Sri Lanka to help round out your itinerary.
19 Things to Do and Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
1. Take the train in Sri Lanka - again and again and again
Traveling by train in Sri Lanka, no matter which class carriage, is the best way to get around the country for views, hanging with locals, and budget minding. It’s more than just a transportation option to get you from point A to B; it's an experience. We traveled in every class, from third class to 1st class A/C (air-conditioned), and highly recommend trying it all if you can.
Sri Lankan trains don’t go everywhere, but they reach close to most places in Sri Lanka that you’d want to visit. Additionally, many train routes take you through gorgeous scenery and landscapes — tea gardens, forests, villages, coasts — often where there are no roads.
The fresh air and meditative slow movement and sound of the train is so much more enjoyable than diesel-filled roads and the jerky movements of bus transport. We traveled by train from: Colombo – Kandy – Hatton – Haputale – Ella – Colombo.
No matter which train journey you choose, you won’t be disappointed. Although the train route to Ella gets most of the press and hype, we actually felt that the segment from Hatton to Haputale was the most spectacular.
Given the popularity of train travel with locals and travelers it can be challenging to secure tickets for reserved seats. Read below for advice on buying tickets and traveling by train in Sri Lanka without a reservation.
2. Admire the murals and gilded Buddha statues at Dambulla Cave Temple
We can develop "temple fatigue" quickly. As such, and based on our research, we arrived at Dambulla Cave Temple with managed expectations. But as it was only a couple hours north (72km) of Kandy and en route to Sigiriya Rock Fortress, we opted to stop off and check it out.
We’re so glad we did.
These Buddhist cave temples, also a UNESCO site, date back to around 1st century BC. The complex includes five caves open to the public, each a bit different from the next in terms of its size, and its style and range of paintings and Buddha statues. Of course, the paintings and statues have been renovated and brushed up over time. However, it’s still impressive to take in Buddhist religious art spanning 22 centuries and to witness the living history of how local people still use these caves today for religious purposes.
This is a popular site for both Sri Lankans and travelers, so if you find that one cave is crowded, just move to the next one until the crowds dissipate and move on. It’s worth the additional effort to be able to enjoy each of the caves with some quiet and stillness.
How to visit the Dambulla Cave Temple: Buses leave Kandy bus station (just next to the train station) for Dambulla throughout the day. The journey is about 90 minutes each way. Ask the bus attendant or driver to drop you off at the Cave Temple entrance so that you don’t have to double-back from Dambulla town a few kilometers away. We opted to spend an extra dollar or two to catch an air-conditioned bus from Kandy bus station. It’s not the easiest to find so just ask one of the men at the information desk. They'll point you in the right direction. If you have a backpack or luggage with you, ask to leave your bags at the Police/Security checkpoint on the way up to the temple. There aren't many food options around the entrance to temple, so consider bringing some snacks or taking a tuk-tuk into Dambulla town for lunch.
When we visited there was no entrance fee. We'd read previously to expect an entrance fee, so we’re not sure if we just got lucky the day we visited.
3. Climb to the top of Sigiriya (Lion Rock) Citadel before the crowds arrive
The story goes that in the 5th century King Kasyapa needed to build a new, secure capital after usurping the throne. He brutally murdered his father and scared off his brother, the rightful heir to the throne.
After this Game of Thrones-style move, he headed just north of Dambulla and built his palace atop a massive 180-meter high rock – Sigiriya, or Lion Rock – giving him a vantage point from which to see any armies coming from miles away. His palace served him well and protected him during his reign. After he died, it was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
Most travelers visit Sigiriya, another UNESCO site and one of the most visited places in Sri Lanka, as a day trip from Kandy. Our advice is to spend the night in one of the family-run guest houses close to the site and take a tuk-tuk early in the morning so you arrive at 7AM when the ticket office and gates open.
This will allow you to walk through the gardens, enjoy the frescoes — including the famous Sigiriya Maidens — in the caves along the rock face (cool, but you can’t touch!), climb to the top of the rock, walk around the palace ruins, enjoy the views from up high, and head back down. And to do all this before the hordes of tourists on bus tours from Kandy arrive. On our way down from the top of the rock, we saw hundreds of visitors lining up.
Another benefit to this approach is that you’ll be able to explore Sigiriya in the early morning coolness before the day warms up and views become hazy.
A note on entrance fees and an alternative to Sigiriya: The entrance fee for foreigners to visit Sigiriya is a rather hefty $30/person. We made the decision to visit anyway, but if you are on a strict travel budget consider skipping Sigiriya and climbing nearby Pidurangala Rock for a view of Sigiriya and the surrounding landscapes.
Where to stay to visit Sigirya early in the day: We stayed at Gagadiya Rest just a few kilometers from the entrance to Sigiriya. This is a small family-run guesthouse with just two rooms – very clean and new. They were in the process of building a second floor and additional rooms when we stayed, so they probably have more rooms now.
We received a free tuk-tuk ride from the guesthouse in the early morning out to Sigiriya and then ate breakfast there when we returned, before heading back to Kandy that day. It’s also possible to get a great home-cooked dinner there, but ask about the price as it tends to be a bit higher than in other accommodation, perhaps because there’s not much around and you are a captive audience. You can also search for other hotels and guesthouses in Sigiriya.
4. Eat your weight in Sri Lankan rice and curry
The basic Sri Lankan meal, whether at a hole-in-the-wall or high-end restaurant, is rice and curry. Often, you’ll get a big plate or bowl of rice and then a selection of several different curries to go with it. In many simple cafeteria-style places the curries will be laid out buffet-style and you’ll point the server to which ones you want. It’s best to eat during local meal hours so that the food is freshly cooked and not sitting out for hours in the heat.
Vegetarians should rejoice at Sri Lankan food. There are usually several types of daal (lentils), sabjis (mixed vegetables), beet root, eggplant and other vegetarian curry options on offer. For meat eaters, you’ll find different types of chicken, meat or fish curry options with various levels of heat and spice. In more formal restaurants you’ll have the option to choose how many curries — and which ones — you want served with your pile of rice.
Don’t forget to seek out or ask for the different types of sambols (salads), chutneys or hot sauces available. Some of our favorites included pennywort salad (gotukola sambol), spicy coconut chutney (pol sambola), and spicy onion sambol (lunu miris). When you do, you’ll often get a nod of approval and smile from your waiter as well. For more information on Sri Lankan food, check out this article from our friend Mark.
5. Pay a visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy
Inside the former royal palace complex in Kandy, Sri Dalada Maligawa (aka, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) is what is believed to be the relic of the tooth of Gautama Buddha, rescued from his funeral pyre in 543 BC. Almost 800 years later, the story continues with the tooth having been smuggled to Sri Lanka from India in the early 4th century.
In addition to its religious value, the relic of the tooth introduces another Game of Thrones-like twist: it is believed that whoever holds the relic also rules the country. So it became a prized possession and political tool of monarchs over the centuries. Its final resting place is now in Kandy where it is said to be secure inside the palace's main shrine.
Although it's not possible for visitors today to see the actual tooth relic, it is still worth visiting the palace and temple if you are in Kandy. The procession of pilgrims, devotees and rituals surrounding this sacred relic offer a bit of active devotion, of living history. You'll notice lotus blossoms and frangipani offerings heaped throughout the different temples, tucked into sacred nooks. The palace and temples grounds — with their elaborate wood carvings, gilded statues and paintings, and manicured gardens — serve up a bit of visual overload.
Note:If you happen to visit Kandy during July or August ask about the dates for that year's Esala Perahera (Festival of the Tooth), a two week interlude when the town fills with decorated elephants, dancers, ceremonies, and more.
6. Buy some creative, colorful and eco-friendly souvenirs in Kandy
We weren’t looking for souvenirs or to buy anything when we stumbled upon EarthBound Creations (28 Yatinuwara Veediya, Kandy) as we wandered the streets of Kandy. However, the colorfully creative use of recycled materials (recycled newsprint, plastics, etc.) changed that. In addition to the environmentally sensitive use of recycled materials, this social enterprise also works with women who were affected by or displaced by the tsunami in 2004.
This means when you buy cool souvenirs and gifts here — we bought a basket and an old bi-plane made, both made of recycled cardboard and newsprint — it helps provide income and training to this disadvantaged group of women. Inventory there is cool, visually appealing, reasonably priced and feel-good.
7. Wake up at 2AM to climb Adam’s Peak (Sri Padaya) and enjoy sunrise at the top
This mountain is considered sacred by several religions, including all the prominent ones practiced in Sri Lanka. Sri Pada (“Sacred Footprint”), a rock formation near the peak, is considered to be the footprint of Buddha for Buddhists, of Adam for Christians and Muslims, and of Shiva for Hindus.
During your walk up, you’ll find plenty of local pilgrims of different religions and travelers along the way. You'll find even more gathered in large numbers at the top near the temples waiting for the sun to rise.
The idea is to hike up Adam's Peak in the dark so you can enjoy sunrise at the top, followed by views from the mountain in the early morning light on the way down. We set our alarms for the ungodly hour of 2AM, bundled up in multiple layers of clothing against the morning chill, got a tuk-tuk ride to the base of the mountain, and set off for the peak (2,243 m / 7,359 ft).
Although we enjoyed the anticipation of sunrise next to the Hindu and Buddhist temples at the peak while we watched them perform different ceremonies and prayers, we found the crowds and all of the cameras and selfie-sticks a bit much after a while. We headed down before the sun was fully up and left the crowds behind us.
This was such a good decision.
We had views of the nearby mountains and hills almost all to ourselves in a perfect early-morning light which lasts only a few minutes at best. It’s magical.
How long does it take to climb Adam’s Peak? It’s not a technically difficult climb, but it’s a pretty challenging walk up with long stretches of steep steps (estimated between 5,000 and 6,000 stairs). We were advised that it took about 3-3.5 hours to get to the top, but we found ourselves in in the final stretch after around 2.5 hours with another hour to wait before sunrise. So we escaped the cold at a conveniently-placed tea house before the final set of stairs and enjoyed cups of steaming milk tea.
It takes around 1-2 hours to return down. The steep descent can be tough on the knees, muscles and other joints. Bring a knee and/or ankle brace if you have any issues. Even better, bring a walking stick or two.
Best time of year to climb Adam’s Peak: Pilgrimage season at Adam’s Peak runs from December to May, coinciding with the best weather in the region. At other times of year you might encounter rain or get fogged-in views at the top. If you can manage it with your schedule, try to avoid the weekends as we heard the crowds swell even more with local pilgrims.
How to get to Adam’s Peak: Take the train to Hatton station and then a local bus (usually waits outside the train station) or rickshaw (about 1,000-1,500 rupees) to Delhousie.
Where to stay to climb Adam’s Peak:We recommend staying in Delhousie, the village built up near the entrance to the Adam’s Peak trail. We'd hoped to stay at Hugging Clouds, but by the time we got around to booking it was sold out so we stayed about 3-5 km away. Although our accommodation offered a free tuk-tuk transfer at 2:30AM, being that far away from the entrance was still a bit of an annoyance. And on our way back we had to search for and negotiate another tuk-tuk. You can search for other hotels and guesthouses near Adam’s Peak.
8. Rickshaw ride the hill country and tea plantations
Sometimes it’s worth the splurge of a few dollars to take your own rickshaw rather than the public bus. It's definitely a wise idea when you’re in the middle of hill country surrounded by tea plantations and you wish to take it all in a bit more slowly and to take photos along the way.
The two routes we recommend for taking your own rickshaw:from Delhousie to Hatton (or the opposite direction) and from Haputale to Dambethenna Tea Estate (also the starting point for the hike to Lipton’s Seat). Don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop for photo opportunities and just to enjoy the views. We found that our drivers snapped photos of the tea plantations and views with their mobile phones, just like us.
9. Take a break from Sri Lankan rice with some roti (flat bread)
Although the standard Sri Lankan fare of rice and curry is tasty, you may find yourself reaching a point of rice fatigue. That’s where roti (fried flat bread) or kottu roti (diced roti which is mixed with vegetables like a fried rice) come to the rescue.
If you still have a hankering for curries, consider switching out the rice for a stack of freshly made roti to go with your daal (lentils) and other curries. One of our favorite places for this was Malabar Restaurant and Bakers in Hatton. It was so good we ate here two days in a row as we transited through town on the way to and from Adam’s Peak.
Another alternative to rice and curry is kotti roti, which essentially looks like fried rice made with vegetables and different meats, but where diced roti replaces the rice. You always know when this is being made as you can hear the kottu roti master clanging away with his knives to cut the roti super fine. The flavor is hearty and the sound satisfying. And the whole experience offers a welcome break from the rice and curry routine.
10. Find a room with a view in a hill station
Although Nuwara Eliya and Ella might be the more popular and sophisticated hill stations in Sri Lanka’s tea country, we decided to try less-visited Haputale for a couple of days based on the recommendation of friends who lived in Sri Lanka for several years. Most of the guest houses and inns in this area are in the countryside outside of town, but we got lucky with this room and view in town.
To be honest, there’s not a lot going on in the town of Haputale and not many tourist services. But, it’s a good base if you want to visit nearby tea plantations, go on some hikes in the area (e.g., Lipton’s Seat), witness local life, and just chill with a nice view for a few days.
Where to stay in Haputale: We stayed at ABC Guest House, but not all rooms have balconies and this view. Get in touch to confirm that you’ll be put in one of the upstairs rooms with a balcony. Otherwise, consider staying somewhere else in the area…and ask about a view.
11. Hike up to Lipton’s Seat and have a cup of tea
Mr. Lipton of Lipton Tea really did exist. He’s not just a marketing persona. He is credited with transforming Sri Lanka into a one of the world’s biggest tea producers after a disease wiped out much of the country's coffee bushes in the late 19th century.
Today, you can hike up through the tea plantations to the place on a hill where he used to supposedly look out over his various tea plantations to take stock and ensure everything was in order. A little make-shift hut has been set up there so you can have a cup of tea as you enjoy the views of the tea gardens below. How appropriate.
The walk takes a couple of hours along winding plantation roads and through the different segments of Dambethenna Tea Estate tea gardens to arrive at Lipton’s Seat. Depending upon the time of day and season you might also catch the tea pickers at work at they methodically make their way through the narrow rows of tea bushes and pick only their top, green leaves.
How to hike to Lipton’s Seat: We took a tuk-tuk from Haputale to Dambethenna Tea Estate and walked the winding road from there. We stuck to the main road rather than trying to find short-cuts in the tea bushes. If you decide you don’t want to walk, there are plenty of rickshaws at the ready to take you all the up. If you have extra time, stop off at Dambethenna Tea Estate for tea tasting and a factory tour.
Local buses leave regularly throughout the day back to Haputale.
12. Enjoy sunset atop Little Adam’s Peak near Ella
In full disclosure, we hadn’t actually planned to be on the top of Little Adam’s Peak at sunset. We decided to take the “scenic route” suggested by our guesthouse owner in Ella and as is typical for us, we got a little turned around along the way. So there we were at the golden hour hiking the last leg of what is affectionately known as Little Adam’s Peak. Turns out, in the end, that our timing was just about perfect.
Where to stay in Ella: We opted to splurge a bit and stay at Ella Grand View on the edge of town. Rooms are new and nicely decorated, and each has its own balcony. The owner is very friendly and serves a hearty breakfast. The fastest way to get there is by walking the railroad tracks from the Ella train station. Search here for other hotels and guesthouses in Ella.
13. Take a cooking course in Ella and learn the secrets of Sri Lankan food
Because Sri Lanka is so close to India one might assume that the cuisines are the same. While there are some surface similarities between the two countries' collection of cuisines, Sri Lankan food is unique and employs different spice combinations in its masalas, lots of coconut milk, ample amounts of fresh curry and pandan leaves, spicy sides called sambols, and cinnamon.
To understand the basics of Sri Lankan food and how we could replicate some dishes at home, we took a cooking class with Lanka in Ella. Over the course of several hours we learned how to cook five different curries (carrot, beet, green bean, eggplant, and chicken), plus a sambol and salad. It was excellent.
Not only did we learn the fundamentals, but Lanka was open to answering the slew of questions we had, including those related to Sri Lankan food, what life was like during the civil war, the tourism growth spurt (or overtourism) in Ella, and just about anything else.
We highly recommended this experience. It's also a great value at around 2000 rupees ($12). There are other cooking courses in town, but be sure to ask how many dishes you’ll actually make since some of the other options only offer 2-3 curries for a similar price.
14. Hike Ella Rock in the morning sunshine
Although we didn’t get up before dawn to climb up to Ella Rock for sunrise as many advised (yes, we do enjoy our sleep), we made it up there for mid-morning. This still allowed us to enjoy some of the morning light, coolish weather, views of Little Adam’s Peak and the hill country, before the haze settled in with the afternoon heat.
Although Ella Rock proper gets all the limelight, we enjoyed the other overlook, one about five minutes away featuring a small Buddhist temple in a cave. There are almost no people there and it’s a good place to breathe deeply and take in the beauty around you.
How to hike to Ella Rock: The hike takes about 2-3 hours from Ella. It begins by walking the railroad tracks for several kilometers. The trail then cuts in on the left side near a couple of makeshift restaurants just past Kithaella train station. Don’t worry about walking on the railroad tracks; you will hear the train coming from a long way away. Here's an overview map of the route and a full guide.
Do you need a guide to hike Ella Rock?In doing our research for this hike there were all sorts of stories of people getting lost and needing to pick up a local guide to get to Ella Rock. Maybe we just got lucky with our timing, but we found that even though the trail wasn’t explicitly marked with signs, the path was clear enough to follow, especially given the other hikers along the way.
15. Get your Sri Lankan street food fix at Galle Face Green in Colombo
For the combination of street food, ocean views, and a great place to watch the sunset, head to Galle Face Green in late afternoon. Although much of the street food here can be a bit on the fried side, there are some tasty crab and shrimp bites that you can find at select food stalls along the walkway.
For a meal with an actual seat, take your pick of one of the restaurant stalls whose menus are full of deviled and grilled seafood or chicken. It you order a beer, it's likely they'll serve the can in a bag so as to avoid their running afoul of liquor license authorities.
Where to stay in Colombo: It might sound odd to stay in a capsule hotel in Sri Lanka, but the Star Anise Boutique Capsule Hotel was recommended to us by another traveler. Its novelty factor, the fact that it offers double bed capsules, and the price and convenient location to the train station made it an easy sell for us. If you are someone who likes a lot of space and privacy, this would not be the place for you. But, for a quick overnight stay in Colombo this worked out great for us. You can search for other hotels in Colombo here.
16. Find the Hopper master in the Colombo Old Fort area
Hoppers is a typical Sri Lankan dish featuring a bowl-shaped pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk, often with the option of a fried egg inside, which is served with a simple curry. Almost as fun as eating hoppers is watching the masters at work on the street with their hopper pans churning out perfectly formed hoppers by the hundreds.
If you’re in Colombo look for this guy on York street in the Old Fort area. Hoppers with a smile!
17. Stock up on spices at the market to take home
After our Sri Lankan cooking class in Ella we were armed with a list of Sri Lankan spices, sauces and other foodstuffs we wanted to bring back home. If you are similar to us and opt for food souvenirs rather than typical souvenir tchotchkes, make a stop at the fresh market behind the Colombo bus station to stock up on all your Sri Lankan spice needs.
Not only is it fun to enter a market with a shopping list (of course, we bought more than we expected), but the quality and price of spices in Sri Lanka is hard to beat. The fragrance from the cinnamon sticks and cinnamon bark is something magical. Interaction with local vendors and asking questions about different spice qualities and options is fun, too.
18. Disconnect and decompress in a small Sri Lankan beach village
We didn’t do a lot of beach hopping to be able to give you a definitive “best beaches in Sri Lanka” list. The reason? Once Dan found this beach and family-run guesthouse near Tangalle in the south, he decided not to leave for ten days.
So while I was at my Vipassana meditation course, Dan created his own retreat on the beach. For him, mornings were about meditation, reading and a leisurely breakfast with the guest house family.
Days were about more reading on the beach, exploration of nearby towns and villages, and impromptu Sri Lankan cuisine lessons at local restaurants. And late afternoons featured more beach time and sunset with a beer under a palm swooping into a strip of sand carved by the day's waves. Sunsets, like snowflakes, no two were the same.
The long, empty beach and wide horizons combined with being disconnected and the laid back pace and limited movement were exactly what he needed to relax, read, and recharge.
Note: If the Godellawela beach area accommodation happens to be full or the beach is experiencing construction or development, consider also the Goyambokka beach area just to the east. Likewise, consider Silent Point and Paradise Beach just to the west.
How to get there:To get there from Colombo, take the train to Matara. From Matara take a taxi or a local bus. For Godellawela, ask the driver to drop you off on the side of the road at Muthu Resort and Restaurant. For Goyambokka, ask the driver to drop you off at the road between Grand Residence and Cafe Goyambokka.
19. Take a Vipassana 10-day silent meditation course
If you really want to disconnect from the world to reconnect with and dig deep within yourself, there’s no better way to accomplish that than by taking a Vipassana silent meditation course for ten days. Now, this is not a luxury, laid-back meditation retreat with optional massages on the side. Instead, it’s more like meditation boot camp with the morning bell at 4AM, around 10 hours of meditation each day and almost nothing for dinner.
But doing a Vipassana course is SO worth any temporary feeling of discomfort or lack of luxury, and will likely be one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of your life. I won’t go into all the details as to why, and the mental and physical benefits. Dan already did an incredible job doing that in his Vipassana course article. I should note, however, that each Vipassana experience is different and unique.
Finding a Vipassana Meditation Course in Sri Lanka: I searched around on the Dhamma website for Vipassana centers in warm climates — so as to escape winter in Berlin — which had availability when I had a break in my schedule. Finding an available Vipassana course in Sri Lanka motivated this trip, and its timing, to Sri Lanka.
I chose Dhamma Sobha Vipassana Meditation Centre, a couple of hours by public bus outside of Colombo. I had a good experience there, but I would have preferred a bit more green space to walk and wander during the free time between meditation sessions. If I were to return to Sri Lanka for a Vipassana course I would instead go to Dhamma Kuta Vipassana Centre near Kandy as it is reported to have really lovely grounds and gardens with mountain views.
Map of our Sri Lanka Itinerary
Our two week journey together in Sri Lanka took us from: Colombo – Kandy – Dambulla – Sigiriya – Kandy – Hatton – Adam's Peak – Hatton – Haputale – Lipton's Seat – Ella – Colombo. Dan's segment took him from Colombo by train to Galle and onto the southern beaches between Godellawela and Goyambokka.
Essential Sri Lanka Travel Information:
Best time to visit Sri Lanka
The country has multiple monsoon seasons so “best time to visit Sri Lanka” depends much on where you want to go. For the southern, central and western parts of the country (i.e., where we were) December – May is considered the best time. In the eastern part of the country, April or May to September is considered best. Weather is changing everywhere and monsoons seem to come and go at different times each year.
How to Get a Sri Lanka Visa
Most nationalities need a visa to Sri Lanka. One can be obtained online easily and quickly. Just fill out the e-visa to Sri Lanka application and pay $30 needed for a 30-day visa. Our applications were approved within 24-hours. Although we carried a copy of our visa approval, the immigration officer did not ask for it.
Flights to Sri Lanka
Flying from Europe we had quite a few connection options to Colombo, Sri Lanka (CMB). Many of the European flights do land very late at night or early morning so we booked a hotel near the airport for that first night. We often use Skyscanner to check availability and price of flights as its database includes all low-cost airlines. Once you find your best route or price then you can book directly through the airline with no extra fees.
How to Book Train Tickets in Sri Lanka
Many reserved seats on popular train routes sell out early. Don’t be deterred, though. You can always get on the train you want with a 2nd or 3rd class ticket purchased the same day, without a seat assignment.
To get a feel for the train routes and how you might want to plan your own train journey through the country check out this train route map on the official Sri Lanka Railways website. You can also find schedules and prices for trains there as well.
Traveling by train without a reservation: Many of the local trains don’t have reserved seating so you just need to show up 30-60 minutes before the train to buy a 2nd or 3rd-class ticket (usually very cheap). Then, it’s a matter of waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, and positioning yourself close to the doors so you can be one of the first to enter and snag a seat. Even if you don’t end up with a seat, don’t worry. One is likely to come available at another station.
Buying train reservations:If you want a bit of comfort on the train with an actual assigned seat then you’ll need to do a bit of advance planning to figure out your route and dates of travel. We went straight to the main train station (Colombo Fort Railway Station) when we arrived in Colombo and bought as many reserved seats as we could for the train routes we knew we wanted to take. Despite this being 10 to 14 days in advance of the actual travel dates, some routes were already booked full.
We have heard, but have not tried ourselves, that it's possible to work with local travel agents to buy reserved train tickets in advance. Seat 61, the website of all things train travel, has advice on how to do that here.
Finding and Booking Hotels in Sri Lanka
Although we traveled during the high season we were able to make most of our hotel bookings in Sri Lanka just a couple of days before — or even the day of — our arrival without any problem. We mostly stayed at small, family-run guesthouses and used Booking.com to find and book accommodation.
English is spoken at varying levels in smaller guesthouses so we found booking accommodation through Booking.com was easier, immediate and more secure than trying to call and make a reservation over the phone or by email. [Note: If you are new to Booking.com, use this link to get $30 off your next booking of $50 or more.]
Buying a SIM card in Sri Lanka
When you arrive at Bandaranaike International Airport airport in Sri Lanka you’ll find several mobile phone operators offering different “tourist plans” SIM card for mobile calling and internet. We ended up choosing Mobitel SIM cards with several gigabytes of mobile data and a chunk of SMS and calling minutes for around $10. It was easy to set up and we had pretty good coverage throughout Sri Lanka during our trip.