Judy Poliva is the Product Development Manager at Friendly Planet Travel. She traveled to Sri Lanka to plan our new Best of Sri Lanka Tour. She took some time to write about her favorite parts of the adventure, and here’s what she had to say:
In February, I traveled to Sri Lanka to plan a brand new Friendly Planet adventure. It’s important for me to experience first-hand the sites, hotels, food and transportation, so that I know exactly how the trip will feel for our travelers (and it’s my favorite part of the job too!). Not only was I not disappointed, I completely fell in love with the country. From the bustling modern capital city of Colombo, to the tea highlands and game safari, there was so much to savor.
As I prepared for my trip, it occurred to me that despite having visited and planned tours for many destinations, I really didn’t know very much about this small island nation south of India. I discovered that it’s a wild and ancient destination known for its lush rainforest, tea-growing highlands, diverse wildlife and world-class Buddhist ruins—with a history dating back to 3,000 years ago. And while it’s an up-and-coming travel destination that has made the “must see” lists of various well-regarded travel publications like Travel & Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler, it hasn’t yet breached the beaten tourist path, which is great news for world travelers who revel in the newly discovered places that offer authentic cultural experiences. Here I compiled some of my favorite experiences from my trip to give you a better idea of what Sri Lanka has to offer.
You’ll first notice the incredibly vibrant colors when you wake up in the morning, and they’ll stay with you every second of every day. There are infinite hues of green; from the lush jungle vegetation thriving in the warm and humid climate of the lowlands and middle elevations, to the deeply saturated green of the tea plants in the highlands, to the ubiquitous rice paddies, cashew and rubber trees and coconut palm that populate the country.
Then there are the sparkling lakes that perfectly compliment the dominant green landscape. Construction of these reservoirs dates all the way back to the fourth century BC, the purpose of which was codified by the ancient Sri Lankan monarch, Parakrama Bahu the Great, who said: “Let not even a drop of rain water go to the sea without benefiting man.” The tanks, irrigation channels, sluices and embankments built by by-gone Buddhist civilizations create a living landscape today, collecting water to meet not only the irrigation needs of present day Sri Lanka, but the navigation, recreation, and bathing needs as well. In fact, it’s surmised there is no denser concentration of ancient irrigation systems anywhere on earth: not even in Greece or Rome!
Speaking of concentration density, did you know that Yala National Park in southeast Sri Lanka has the highest concentration of leopard on the planet? If leopard spotting is your goal (no pun intended), then Yala is your best bet for finding and viewing the elusive cat. You’ll also have the opportunity to see wild Asian elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, and yes, even peacocks—talk about colors! Ironically, the park used to be a hunting ground for the elite under British rule, but now it’s a protected area accessible to safari-goers hunting only for Instagram-worthy photo-ops.
And of course, no trip to Sri Lanka is complete without about a million and one encounters with monkeys. Obviously you will see monkeys in the wild jungles, but you’ll also see monkeys at your hotel, monkeys in the city, monkeys on the road, and monkeys at many tourist sites. (But please don’t feed them.) Also, resist the urge for a monkey selfie. It’s absolutely best for you and the long-term well-being of Sri Lanka’s monkeys if you snap your shots from a healthy distance.
Sri Lankan food is colorful, aromatic, and bursting with unfathomable flavor. The country is most well-known for its rice and curry dishes. These curries vary in flavor and heat (remember, you can always ask for mild spiciness if you are sensitive), made from seasonal vegetables, chicken or beef, and even dried fish. Curries are usually accompanied by sambals, the Sri Lankan version of the Indian pickle.
The hopper came from humble beginnings and is now very trendy. It’s a puffy, crepe-like pastry made of coconut milk batter cooked in a round bottom pan with an egg in the middle and is a breakfast delicacy. And don’t forget to try lamprais, rice prepared in broth with sour aubergine (eggplant) or chicken curry, wrapped in a plantain leaf and gently baked. Fruit is fresh and abundant. There are more varieties of bananas, different sizes and flavors, than I have ever seen. One my best experiences was drinking fresh coconut water from the shell, then scooping out the flesh for a tasty snack.
Then there are the spices, the prime culprit responsible for the color, smell and flavor of all Sri Lankan cuisine. The use of these spices is indispensable to cooking, and you’ll see them stacked in wicker baskets in kaleidoscopic colors in the markets and adorning the tables of many a kitchen. Cinnamon, saffron, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, cloves—the unique character of each spice is the perfect metaphor for all the unique experience you’ll encounter in Sri Lanka.
Fortresses & temples
There are several renowned ancient fortresses and temples in Sri Lanka, but two of my favorite were Sigiriya, and the Temple of the Tooth.
Sigiriya is a fortress built on a 200 meter majestic rock tower that holds court over the surrounding valley. Walking through the beautiful gardens, then climbing through the enormous carved lion’s paws that guard the entrance to the royal staircase, then finally making it to the pinnacle of the fortress and staring out over the ruins to the celadon valley below, you really start to feel like King Kasyapa, the ruler who built Sigiriya.
Back down on the ground, in Kandy, you can visit the Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist temple. This very accurately named temple holds a tooth relic of the Buddha, and according to local political lore, whoever holds this tooth holds governance over the country. Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings, so maybe the legend is true. You be the judge! This meticulously detailed temple with a pristine, whitewashed exterior shelters an interior that is anything but. Inside you can lose yourself in intricately patterned walls of gold and vermilion, gilded Buddha statues, saffron robed monks and sky blue murals.
You’ve probably heard of Ceylon Tea. You can buy it in most supermarkets here in America. But did you know the tea takes its moniker from the former name of Sri Lanka under British colonial rule, Ceylon? And these days, tea is one of the primary exports of this small country, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to steep yourself in tea culture and bring fragrant, tasty tea back as souvenirs.
I visited the highlands of Nuwara Eliya, taking a scenic train journey from Kandy. Watching the saturated green hills rolling by from the train window, seeing the woman tea-pickers expertly removing the leaf tips from the bushes and tossing them into their woven sacks, then learning the process of how tea is produced at the plantation, was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my trip.
Then I got to drink a cup. So fresh, delicious and straight from the source.
Of course, the sites, wildlife and food are terrific, but the allure that drives me onto a plane to fly halfway around the world is always the people I’ll meet when I arrive at my destination. Sri Lankans are warm, friendly and hospitable. Smiling faces greet you everywhere. Many locals wear traditional dress, saris for women and sarongs for men. Children, dressed in school uniforms which are often white (how do they keep them clean?) tumble into the streets when classes let out. Street stalls with colorfully dressed vendors line the main roads of towns and villages, selling fruit and snacks, pots and pans, tools and parts, everything a household could need. I was fortunate enough to be in country on a full moon, or Poya Day which is a monthly public holiday, when entire families make a pilgrimage to a Buddhist temple and visit local parks, shrines and attractions. It’s the best time to indulge in one of my favorite travel pastimes, people watching.
Gems & traditional crafts
Sri Lanka, since biblical times, has been world famous for its gemstones, and in particular, brilliant blue sapphires. I visited a museum and lapidary to learn about the process of mining, cutting and polishing the stones, then turning them into gorgeous jewelry.
Sri Lanka has several other traditional crafts, including masks. Culturally, these masks have depicted gods or animals and have been used in ancient rituals. Nowadays, the masks are used more for dramatic adaptations and dances; however, the same artisan families that produced the masks centuries ago still do so today. In a similar vein, there are local artisans who create batiks, or handmade, colorfully dyed cloth panels, as well as wood carvings and lace products.
Though these days the crafts exist more for the tourists and visitors than the locals, they do have their roots in the history and culture of Sri Lanka, and they offer the opportunity to indulge in another of my favorite travel pastimes, shopping.
There are many other aspects of Sri Lanka that make it a wonderful, emerging destination for eager world travelers. During my visit, I discovered a truly magical destination, and I absolutely intend to return soon for a second visit. If you’re ready to experience Sri Lanka for yourself, check out our newest tour!