There's a reason Sri Lanka is called "The Pearl of the Indian Ocean" -- it's an absolute gem. And it's a traveller's paradise as there's tons to do and see, all on one relatively small space. If you're cool with local buses and trains, Sri Lanka is cheap to get around, too. What's not so cheap, sadly, are the entrances to the major sites (all average around $30, whether it's hiking in a National Park or visiting an ancient city and visiting temples averages around $10), and accomodation is not as cheap as you'll find in other parts of Southeast Asia. On one hand, that's good -- Sri Lanka is not going to become Thailand any time soon and be overloaded with drunk young kids looking to party to excess. On the other hand, some of the price points (especially the entries) feel a bit off, like they should all be $10 - $15 cheaper than they are. The other big drag in Sri Lanka is a lack of air conditioning everywhere; in Vietnam or Laos a $20 room gets you something pretty nice with a/c, but in Sri Lanka that's a guesthouse room with a fan.
But still, as the numerous European families I saw vacationing I'm can attest to, getting to Sri Lanka is the expensive part -- the prices are still a lot cheaper than visiting much of Europe or the U.S. or even South America might be in the summer time.
I didn't have time to visit any of Sri Lanka's famous beaches; I'd hoped to visit Trincomalee and Jaffna but didn't really have time since there were places I wanted to see in the south. Oh well, guess I'll just have to go back!
Where I went
I landed in Colombo and stayed for one night, then left late the next afternoon on a train for Kandy. After I got to my hostel, I took a tuk tuk to Barefoot Café and Gallery, a famous shop featuring amazing Sri Lankan textiles for sale, and a café with delicious Sri Lankan and Western fare. It was Sunday afternoon and a jazz band was playing in the courtyard -- fabulous. I checked out Viharamahadevi Park and Gangaramaya Temple, bought my train ticket to Kandy at Colombo Fort Station, and walked around Pettah and Galle Face Green before heading back to my hostel, where I grabbed dinner at nearby Jack Thai (better than any of the Thai food I had in Thailand!). The next day I visited the National Museum, had lunch at a café near Independence Avenue, then walked up Independence Avenue before catching a tuk tuk back to the hostel and then to the train station.
Train to Kandy (1st class Observation Saloon), 1000 rupees
I spent three nights in Kandy, used one day to explore and the other day for my day trip to Sigiriya and Dambulla. I visited the Tooth Relic Temple, had lunch at Empire Café, visited Kandy Central Market and walked around the lake. The next day, I visited Sirigiya and Dambulla, which I outlined in another post.
Train to Nuwara Eliya (2nd class reserved seat), 600 rupees
I loved this old colonial town high up in the mountains; the only thing that was hard was that was legitimately chilly and since I didn't plan on visiting Sri Lanka when I left in March, let alone chilly hill towns, I was unprepared for the climate. But that's OK. I did a day trip to Horton Plains to hike the 9km loop that takes you out to Little World's End, World's End and past Baker's Falls and visited Queen Victoria Park, plus had dinner at the Grand Hotel's Indian restaurant one night and at the Hill Club the next.
Train to Ella, 1000 rupees
Personally I thought this town might be a little overrated -- after all, it was just squarming with tourists and most of what was in the town seemed to cater to them. But whatever, the hike I did was nice and if I had been less tired/more motivated, there's a more intense hike that's meant to be great, too.
Buses to Uda Walawe, 120 rupees (total)
I made it to Uda Walawe just in time to join two guys at the guesthouse on their safari! We entered the park as a group which meant we paid 2,800 rupees per person instead of 3,000 and divided the 3,500 rupee cost for the jeep and driver. And we saw loads of amazing elephants! One of the highlights of Sri Lanka, if not the entire trip. I spent one night in Uda Walawe and headed to Galle the next day (which took seven hours, so it was good I had an entire day to make the journey).
Buses to Galle, 200 rupees
I spent two nights here, and had a full day to explore Galle. I wandered around the old fort walls, seeing the old clock and soaking in the views, plus a really delicious lunch at Mama's Galle Fort. She teaches cooking classes and if I'd had more time, it would have been a great thing to do. I had a 3:30 pm train back to Colombo on my last day, which took us up right along the coast, and then had some time to kill in Colombo before heading to the airport at 10 pm for my 1:15 am flight. I took two Danish girls I'd met back to Jack Thai for dinner! Yummerz.
Where I stayed
Colombo: BED Hostel
Fairly new hostel in Colombo which was relatively clean and quiet when I was there. It's not the most centrally located place, however, and if I was going back I might look for another place to stay. The room was also super hot and stuffy, with no curtains on the windows letting the sun shine in the room all day. However, I had a travel miracle and got the room all to myself for the night! ($10/night)
Kandy: Kandy City Hostel
Kandy City Hostel is not really located in Kandy, it's located up a hill a good 45 - 55 minute walk to the action in Kandy. This meant I spent a bit on tuk tuks to get up and down the hill, especially at night coming home from dinner. But, it was a clean and comfortable place to stay, made most comfortable by the biggest travel miracle of all -- I had the room to myself not just for one night, or two nights, but for three magical nights! ($15/night)
Nuwara Eliya: Single Tree Guesthouse
This was a pretty nice place run by an Indian family, which meant it also seemed to be running on borderline chaos the entire time. I was put in the second building -- the front double doors had giant window panes, and because the wood was so thin and cheap, one of the windows had shattered, which meant cold air blowing into the building all day and night long. Like I said, this is not a warm place, and it made for two cold nights' sleep. But, fun to see Nuwara Eliya. ($25/night)
Ella: Ella Holiday Homes
Obviously my time in Ella did not get off to a great start, mostly because Ella Holiday Homes couldn't honor my booking.com reservation. (I had made the reservation 4 days before arriving, so it was more than a little annoying that the woman running the place hadn't sorted out an idea of where I'd stay before I showed up for my booking.) I got put up at a neighbor's house for a night, then in the actual guesthouse, which was OK. But, I didn't get off on the greatest foot with this place, so I'll just leave my opinions on it there. Except that the shower in the building was so weak, it was impossible to actually shower, making it the one time in Asia I was unable to shower on the entire trip. Sigh. Anyway, it was $15 a night and I was given a $5 discount for the booking mishap. ($15/night)
Uda Walawe: Singleton Family Guesthouse
This was a clean, comfortable and very basic (but good) place to stay in Uda Walawe. Nicest owner ever, who helped arrange all the safari stuff for us, and his wife cooked up an incredible spread of delicious food for the guests: two Dutch guys, a really lovely French family who were travelling around Sri Lanka with their 3- and 5-year old children, and moi. ($10/night)
Galle: Pedlar's Inn Hostel
Right in the heart of Galle, this is a cute little hostel. The only problem is that while it advertises its rooms as a 4-bed dorm and a 3-bed dorm, both rooms are actually connected 'railroad-style', so that if you're in the 3-bed dorm, you have to walk through the 4-bed dorm, and when you're in the 4-bed dorm, you can walk through the 3-bed dorm out to the balcony. In my mind, this makes it actually a 7-bed dorm that happens to have some division to it, but whatever. It was two nights. ($15/night)