Sri Lanka is often compared to its larger neighbor, India.Photo/Getty Images
Last few years, Sri Lanka It has endured leadership changes, civil strife and an economic crisis that has nearly driven it into bankruptcy. Now that the dust has settled, there are only bright lights ahead, writes Mark Duffy.
For an island nation half the size of our North Island, Sri Lanka does have a huge presence. With a population of 22 million, the island nation is often compared to its larger neighbor, India. Visitors will be pleasantly surprised at how relaxing it actually is, and how much there is to see and do, especially given its relatively limited size. Ancient cities, wildlife parks, palm fringed beaches, picturesque mountain country…it really has it all.
Despite the obvious appeal of this teardrop-shaped paradise, there are no direct flights from New Zealand to Sri Lanka. SriLankan Airlines offers the fastest option with daily flights to Colombo (home to Australia’s largest Sri Lankan community) via Melbourne and a codeshare arrangement with one world partner Qantas from Auckland. SriLankan Airlines also has 3 direct flights per week between Sydney and Colombo. Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are other ports served by the national airline of Sri Lanka.
Most international flights enter Sri Lanka through Bandaranaike Airport, located 30 kilometers north of the capital. The hotel opened in 1967. The seaside resort town of Negombo is a popular place to stay when you arrive.
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Bandaranaike’s predecessor, Ratmalana, resumed business jet operations and charter international services in March 2022. Hopefully it will eventually appeal to budget airlines.
Hambantota’s Mattala Rajapaksa Airport, another Sri Lankan international port of entry, was a vanity project for ousted Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose family hails from the compact south coast city. But few airlines actually use it, except for infrequent charter flights from ex-Soviet bloc destinations during the peak holiday season.
Finally, New Zealand passport holders must have a valid visitor visa to enter Sri Lanka. A thirty-day tourist ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) can be applied for online ($81) or at the port of entry ($98).
That’s one of the great things about visiting Sri Lanka – anytime is a good time to go. When the west coast monsoons, the clear skies on the east coast are warm and vice versa. High season is usually November to April in the west and south of the country. That’s when the weather and seas calm down, making this period perfect for lazy beach vacations.
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But even outside of these months, you’ll be pretty much unaffected by the rain. I visited Sri Lanka in June, when surfers make the annual pilgrimage to Arugam Bay on the southeast coast. This is my seventh visit to the country, but the first time this month, I expect my days to be plagued by constant rain. it’s not true. I experienced one daytime shower in nine days.
What I did notice was the economic damage done to ordinary citizens by decades of civil war, overbearing foreign lending, and questionable political decisions. Hotels are now usually quoted in US dollars and restaurant meals are twice as expensive as they were when I last visited in 2015.
One of the upsides of all these crippling foreign loans is that road standards are slowly improving. This is particularly evident on the south-west coast, where the E01 highway (toll) now connects Hambantota’s Matala Airport with Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport, potentially reducing commute times. Another partially completed expressway will eventually link Colombo with Dambulla and Kandy. The speed limit for each car is 100 km/h. Expect an average speed of around 30 km/h elsewhere.
Affordable trains, buses and tuk-tuks connect every town and village in the country. I don’t recommend renting a car unless you also include a driver as the signage is poor and sometimes trucks and buses require right of way and driving can be confusing. Expect the driver and vehicle to cost approximately $100 ($163) per day.
By far the easiest way to see Sri Lanka is on a tour. Intrepid Travel currently offers 12 itineraries to suit different budgets and interests. Families, hikers, cyclists, paddlers, foodies, culture buffs and general sightseers are all catered for. See intrepidtravel.com/nz
what to see and do
Unless you like heavy traffic and strong aromas, or if you absolutely can’t miss a visit to the National Museum, bypass the capital, Colombo, and go elsewhere for more interesting sights. Kandy, the second largest city in Sri Lanka, is more attractive because it is located on a hill at an altitude of 500m and has a pleasant climate. The peak here is the monsoon month of August, when the Esala Perahera festival takes over the streets around the Temple of the Relic, the city’s main attraction. Dancers, musicians and tusks all take center stage in this visual feast. Smaller iterations take place around the same time in Dondra, Kataragama, Bellanwela and Unawatuna, which coincide with the arrival of the full moon.
Dambulla has the best preserved cave temple complex in the country, with five display caves (of 80 recorded) displaying statues and murals dedicated to the Buddha. Anuradhapura flourished as an ancient capital for over 1300 years and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Asia. After Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the center of the Sinhalese Empire, and its thousand-year-old ruins are well preserved. Sigiriya, the fortified pleasure palace of a wayward king, is built on a rocky pinnacle and reached by climbing 1,200 steps. All of them are included in the World Heritage List. Also on the list is Galle Fort, a vibrant city surrounded by defensive walls complete with forts and towers.
Along Galle’s coastline you’ll find some of Sri Lanka’s best beaches, from the resort towns of Bentota and Hikkaduwa to the quieter beaches between Kogala and Tangalle. On the east coast, Uppuveli and Arugam Bay attract beachgoers and surfers from May to September.
Away from the coast, the Central Highlands offer a respite from the heat at sea level. Ella is the closest backpacker town with views of the Ella Gap and lowlands. Picturesque tea plantations dot the hills around Haputale, Hatton and Nuwara Eliya.
Twenty-six national parks provide sanctuary for native wildlife. The largest is Wilpattu, where sloth bears haunt. Yala National Park has the highest known concentration of leopards in the world. Minneriya is the main elephant viewing country. Twitchers will definitely want to visit the rainforest of Sinharaja. Blue whale watching boat trips depart from the idyllic beach town of Mirissa between November and April.
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Active travelers should head to Kitulgala for whitewater rafting and white water rafting on the Kelani River. Hikers will want to climb Sri Lanka’s tallest peak, Adam’s Peak, at dawn, or cross the Horton Plains to World’s End, where steep cliff faces plunge into forested foothills and plains.
What are you waiting for?
For more attractions and activities, visit Sri Lanka Travel Network