Where Is Sri Lanka?
Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a small, tear-drop shape country south of India. There’s a reason Lonely Planet has named Sri Lanka the number one country to travel to in 2019. Sri Lanka is well known for its tea plantation and cinnamon exports. It also has an immensely diverse ecosystem with beaches, deserts, and mountains. It’s a beautiful country that has everything you could want to do or see.
Sri Lanka for Nature Lovers
There are outdoor activities such as hiking, rafting, surfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving. And if you’re a wildlife lover, Sri Lanka is an absolute must. Some of the many animals you’ll see are leopards, elephants, blue whales, different species of monkeys, turtles, and sharks. There are 22 declared national parks to explore in Sri Lanka. Yala National Park and Minneriya National Park are two of the most well-known ones. Go to Yala National Park to see leopards and to Minneriya National Park for elephants. At Minneriya, the best time to visit is in the afternoon. Herds of up to fifty elephants can be seen around the park. Imagine these large, majestic creatures roaming around at dusk!
When you’re ready to relax, find a yoga studio in Ella or try a Savasana retreat in Kandy. There are dozens of yoga retreats and surf camps in beach towns like Weligama and Arugam Bay. Foodies should take a cooking class to learn to make traditional Sri Lankan food. Even if you’re not a foodie, I guarantee that you’ll have fun. You’ll learn to grind the fresh coconut meat out of the coconut—it’s not as easy as it looks! There’s nothing more satisfying than making everything from scratch with local, organic ingredients. You’ll also get to savor the delicious, fragrant curries and fresh handmade roti afterward.
The quintessential Sri Lankan experience includes visiting a tea plantation. You’ll learn how tea is made—from the moment the tea leaves are picked until the tea is ready to drink. We had our own private tour and a tea tasting afterward. You’ll have a newfound appreciation for tea and for all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.
If you love history, head to Galle, Colombo, and Kandy to check out the forts, temples, and architecture there. Museums and temples are fine once in a blue moon, but they aren’t what I’m after when I travel. The three things that make me fall in love with a country are its food, nature, and people. If you’re like me and love delicious, fresh, flavorful food, spending time in nature, and being surrounded by kind, and warm people, I can’t recommend Sri Lanka enough. Do you believe in falling in love at first sight with a country? I do because it happened to me when I visited there.
Arriving in Sri Lanka
After a late-night flight from Bahrain and a short layover in Dubai, I arrived to Sri Lanka at 4:30 AM. At the airport, an elderly man saw my sleep-deprived face, gave me a toothy grin, and asked if I needed help. He was waiting for a family member to arrive and asked if it was my first time in Sri Lanka. I told him, yes, and somehow, his smile grew bigger. His brown skin, eager eyes, tan jacket over a plaid shirt reminded me of my grandpa. It was a good sign. I bought a SIM card, withdrew cash at the ATM, and stepped out into the hot, humid, morning air.
First Impressions of Sri Lanka
My driver waited for me outside of the airport. I’d been too excited to sleep on the flight, and the movement of the car rocked me to sleep. A few hours later, I woke up in complete awe of the lush, green paradise flashing by outside my window. Palm trees, mountains, grassy sloping hills, flowers of every color, and chickens strutted around in front yards.
As I took in the landscape, I couldn’t contain my happiness. It all came spilling out in the form of tears streaming down my cheeks. I swear, I could actually feel the positive energy radiating from my surroundings.
Sri Lanka is the Most Vegan-Friendly Country In Southeast Asia
Sri Lanka turned out to be all the things I love rolled into one. First of all, thanks to a largely Buddhist population, Sri Lankan food is almost always vegetarian. And because Buddhism requires that its followers abstain from harming any living creature, this means food is usually vegan, too. While being vegan in some countries is easy, it can be really, really hard in others. In Sri Lanka, I had zero issues, and I was able to try everything I wanted.
There’s nothing like the euphoric feeling of being in a new country and then trying its signature food. It’s such a surreal moment. I vividly remember my first croissant in Paris. Sipping mulled spice wine under the sparkling lights of the Eiffel Tower. There is also the Pad Thai on my first solo trip in Thailand. The Turkish coffee in tiny cups Istanbul. The Moroccan mint tea with real mint leaves in Marrakech. I imprint on each country through its food and drinks.
My first ultra surreal moment in Sri Lanka happened my first afternoon in Sigiriya. I had coconut roti, five different types of curries (all vegan thanks to coconut milk), and fresh coconut water. There is an abundance of coconuts in Sri Lanka which means they are used in many dishes.
Coconut is a staple in Sri Lankan cuisine. I took a cooking class in Ella and saw how fresh coconut is incorporated into different recipes. First, you grind the coconut flesh from the coconut. Then, you use it to make fresh coconut milk, coconut sambal, and coconut chutney. Coconuts are about .30 cents (USD). In contrast, a single coconut in the U.S. costs about $5.00.
I love how in Sri Lanka, like in Mexico, meals are always hearty, homemade, spicy, and flavorful—especially for breakfast. The dough for roti is made in a similar way to masa for tortillas. And both roti and tortillas are a staple at every meal. My Abuelita says a meal isn’t complete without tortillas. AndI bet Sri Lankan abuelitas say the same about roti.
Nature and Greenery
If the food isn’t reason enough to book a flight to Colombo, there are tons of nature activities, too. Sri Lanka is one big, outdoorsy playground for nature lovers. Although Sri Lanka is a small country, it is so full of life and every landscape imaginable. Sri Lanka has jungles, mountains, beaches, and plains. The palm trees and beaches on the coast, tea plantation-rich highlands and plains in the center of the country, and mountains in the north and in central parts of Sri Lanka.
You can be in a vastly different landscape in a few short hours. I found that transportation between places was easy, quick, and cheap due to the short distance from any given point to another. It was picturesque as well. The train ride through the tea plantations in central Sri Lanka is said to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, and after seeing it for myself, I agree! It was one of the highlights for me, and if it’s not on your bucket list yet, it should be.
I grew up in a small town in Washington State surrounded by mountains and trees. Those mountains and Evergreens are the backdrops to my favorite memories—running around barefoot on my parents’ lush, green front yard, making mud pies, jumping in piles of leaves in the fall, and hikes with my sisters. When I left for Bahrain, I fell in love with the palm trees and hazy sunsets—the desert landscape is a thing of beauty—but I didn’t realize just how much I’d missed all the green until my first visit back home. Although I’ll always love the outdoors and the Pacific Northwest, I’m not ready to settle down in Washington. For now, I’m happy to find little pieces of home—like the mountains and trees in Ella—whenever I travel.
Sri Lankan Hospitality
And finally, I love Sri Lanka because I met the kindest, most hospitable people who went out of their way to talk to me and help me. On my first day in Sigiriya, I checked into my hostel and Dil welcomed me with a cup of Ceylon tea (Ceylon tea in Sri Lanka!!)
Sri Lankan Rescue Dogs
There was a really sweet dog at the hostel, and I found out that she had been hit by a car and rescued by a German traveler. The dog had required extensive surgery on her legs, post-op care, and lots of medication in order to heal. The German traveler left, and Dil took care of the dog. “She used to be so skinny, and now she is a fat and happy girl,” Dil told me proudly. It seems to me that at every hostel I went to in Sri Lanka, I heard similar stories of stray dogs being rescued by hostel owners, and in my opinion, people who love animals really are the best kind of people.
Hiking Lion Rock and Pidurangala Rock in Sigiriya
As we chatted over tea, I mentioned I was planning on going for a sunset hike that evening and a sunrise hike the next morning to Lion Rock and Pidurangala Rock, two popular hiking spots near the hostel. He solemnly shook his head and warned me that I shouldn’t walk there at dawn or dusk because it was dangerous and that just the night before, an elderly man had been trampled to death by wild elephants while riding his bicycle through the area (the same area I was planning to walk through to get to the hiking spots).
He offered to accompany me during daylight hours and insisted that if I wanted to go alone, he would hire a tuk-tuk to take me. It was nice of him to take the time to chat with me, and that he was willing to go out of his way to make sure I was safe. Everywhere I went, it seemed that people wanted to help me find my way or were happy to step in and translate when I needed it.
What Is Solo Travel Like?
I’ve probably said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again: Solo traveling has been life-changing for me. While I often wonder what an introvert like me is doing at a hostel with a bunch of strangers, I won’t do solo travel any other way. It’s made me more independent, and I’ve met incredible people while traveling that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. On my first day in Sri Lanka, I met one of my favorite traveling partners I’ve ever had. Brave, adventurous, and driven, (and almost ten years younger than me), Violette had traveled through four countries by herself for three months by the time we meet.
While her trip was coming to end, mine was barely starting. Because she was drawn to Sri Lanka for the same three reasons I was—the food, nature, and the people—I found that we were on the same page most of the time. It was nice to travel with someone that I had so much in common with. From sunrise hikes in Ella to swimming with turtles and snorkeling in the ocean at Pigeon Island without a life jacket for the first time (in the choppiest waves I’ve ever swam in in my whole entire life, might I add), to my first of many homestays, to cooking classes, scooter rides at 5AM, and sharing vegetarian meals (vegan for me), we made the most of our time in Sri Lanka. She was one of the greatest people I met during my entire Southeast Asia trip.
Homestay in Nilaveli
One of the many places we visited together was Nilaveli, a small beach town on the east coast. The family at Suman Beach Rooms, our homestay in Nilaveli, was especially kind and welcoming and treated us like family. After the day’s activities, I slathered myself in mosquito spray every night and fall asleep exhausted, imagining all the delicious things I would eat for breakfast the next morning. It seemed that each breakfast was better than the one before. I fell in love with one dish in particular, a coconut sambal, and I asked our homestay host if she could teach me how to make it. She spoke enough English to tell me the directions, patiently repeating the steps and showing me each ingredient, one a time, until I was satisfied that I’d written everything properly in a notepad in my phone to make it on my own later.
The Sri Lankan family who owned our homestay were so kind and thoughtful. It was evident that they put their heart and soul into making the most delicious homemade breakfast we had in Sri Lanka. They also invited us to visit their food stall in the local market for a free parcel of Sri Lankan treats. They were so proud of their business and they wanted to share a bit of the local food with us. Everything—the round, fried, savory donuts, and the small, fried chickpea and lentil balls called Masala Vadai—was soo good, and it was beyond nice of them to share with us.
As I ate my food, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that the people who have less to give are often the ones who give the most. Once again, it was humbling to be so far from home and to have someone go out of their way to share what little they had to make me feel welcome in their home, and by extension in their country.
Sri Lanka is hands-down my favorite country I’ve ever been to. I would love to go back again to visit new places and to revisit my favorite ones. In the meantime, I need to put my cooking lessons to good use because I haven’t been able to find curry as good as the one in I had in Sri Lanka.