Updated August 14th, 2018.
An Introduction to Backpacking in Sri Lanka
It’s an island with a troubled recent history but if you’ve ever fancied a trip to Sri Lanka now couldn’t be a better time.
On arrival in Colombo the links to colonial Britain are still there with products such as English breakfast tea, ginger beer and even Marmite on sale! The school uniforms and the old railways network all scream of a bygone era as well.
Sri Lanka is really opening up as one of “THE” destinations to head for. The more you head inland you’ll get to see Sri Lanka’s deeper cultural past, though this is also possible to see if you stick to the coast and the beaches.
Check out our travel guides to the best places to visit in Sri Lanka below! Scroll further down and you’ll find some important travel info (visas, the best time to visit etc.) as well as an overview of each region and a clickable map!
Here are some ideas for your trip…
Hikkadura – Where the surfs always up!
Hikkadura is a great beach, and should really be top of the list for anyone looking for a backpacker vibe on Sri Lanka. The beach can really be divided into two sections, with the northern end having all the guesthouses and surfers. This is a great place to hang out with affordable prices for water-sports and accommodation alike, hiring a surfboard here is considerably cheaper than some other beaches apparently. At night time after a day topping up the tan, and surfing the waves plenty of restaurants serve good food that mainly appeals to more western tastes. A little further down the southern end of the beach it’s a lot quieter and you might even find somewhere more secluded to get away from those crowds, another getaway from here is a trip to Ambulangoda and the mask making factories they have there.
Chilling – At Bentota
Another nice beach spot is the decidedly more chilled out, but more expensive Bentota. The gateway town for Bentota is Aluthgama from where you can get buses or trains from Colombo or Galle. If you want to spend some time here you’ll likely have to pony up a little cash to stay at one of the resort hotels, there is one cheaper guesthouse available though called Mihin Villas. This is a place where you’re essentially part of a home-stay with some Slovenian families, young children included.
Escaping the city – At Mount Lavinia near Colombo
Mount Lavinia is a lovely first or last stop in Sri Lanka, a charming little beach strip towards to the bottom end of Colombo. (Read more about Colombo here.) This is also the place, so local legend has it, where a British governor charmed a local girl, and swept her off her feet. The story is a tragic one though to match any by Shakespeare, and though they loved each other very much it was a romance that could never be. When the British governor was re-posted the romance was ended, and Lavinia struck with grief swam out to sea never to be seen again, and it’s said that the British Governor died a bachelor. Now the governors former mansion has been converted into a rather swish hotel, and sits upon an outcrop named after the late Lavinia. This is a beach that will surely romance you if you come here as well, though of course hopefully the ending will be somewhat happier.
Hip hangouts – Unuwatuna
Unuwatuna was one of the Sri Lankan towns most badly affected by the boxing-day Tsunami, though these days the evidence of this is not so easy to find. The beach has quickly regained its cool vibe, and this is a great stretch of beach to hangout on. There are lots of restaurants and places to sleep here, so rather than booking in advance it perhaps better to arrive and find accommodation on the day. If you’re looking for some exercise other than swimming then walking to the Peace pagoda that remembers those who lost their life on that fateful day when the Tsunami came is well advised, and from the Peace pagoda you could try out the much more secluded and beautiful Jungle beach.
Taking time out for some culture:
Mask making – Ambulagoda
Traditional mask making is a craft that goes back centuries in Sri Lanka, it’s tied to both shamanistic ideologies and Sri Lankan royalty. A short bus journey up the coast from Hikkadura is the cultural centre of mask making in Sri Lanka, the town of Ambulagoda. The town has 2 main mask making factories where you can look around the workshops to see the masks being made, learn the history of mask making at a small museum, and finally perhaps buy a mask as a souvenir. Once in Ambulagoda you’ll need to find the intersection between Galle road and Main streets, this is where the mask factories are, and this is about 10-15 minutes walk from the main bus station. Amubulagoda is a nice day trip to make from Hikkadura, and all you’ll need to do is thumb down a bus heading north towards Ambulagoda.
Reliving a colonial past – Galle
Galle is perhaps Sri Lanka’s jewel in the crown, quite a statement to make considering the other places that rival it. The town has a really nice old town that’s easy to walk around, and contains a lot of character by virtue of its colonial architecture. Though you could beach out in a place like Unawatuna if you had to choose between there and Galle, you have to pick Galle every time. The dominant architecture here comes from the towns Dutch period, which is sandwiched between and earlier Portuguese and a later British period. The town is changing fast though and renovating its old town, with new restaurants, boutiques and boutique hotels popping up everywhere. Will Galle turn into a shop and lose some of its charm as a result? At the moment the balance between history and shopping is being maintained, but it’s perhaps a better idea to visit Galle sooner rather than later.
Experiencing the hill country – Ella
Ideally situated in the cool hills surrounded by cloud forests and tea plantations, the gorgeous hill-station of Ella is the perfect place to relax and take in a different side of Sri Lanka. You can go hiking in the nearby hills, take a walk up to Little Adam’s Peak or Ella’s Rock, trek to waterfalls and enjoy some delicious Sri Lankan home cooking, very often made fresh from the locally grown vegetables. The place is a haven for bird watcher’s and nature lovers due to the rich bio-diversity. From here, head to higher and cooler Nuwara Eliya or to the cultural city of Kandy.
Nature and wildlife:
Sri Lanka is an island that has one of the richest bio-diversities in the world. From bird-watching to spotting elephants in the national parks, or trying to find that leopard in the jungle, Sri Lanka will always keep you in your toes. Head to Uda Walawe for grasslands, elephants, spotted deer, water buffalo and boar, or Yala National Park for leapords, sloths and lesser flamingoes. For most of Sri Lanka’s national parks, you must hire a jeep and a guide to take you around, however if you’re looking to trek off independently at your own pace, Horton Plains with the spectacular World’s End is a good place to start!
How to travel?
- The train (highly recommended!) – There are good train links between the central “Fort” train station in Colombo and towns all along the west coast, north to Jaffna and inland to Kandy. The train is a wonderful way to travel and view out of the window will take your breath away!
- The bus – Lots of buses also run along the west coast road. There is no particular schedule for them, it’s more a case of flagging these down from the road or in larger towns going to the bus terminal. There are more expensive but air-conditioned mini-buses available as well.
Wording and photos by Simon Bond of Simon Bond Photography.
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