Towering rain trees sag over shaded, winding roads littered with small shacks. Smoke wafts from fire over which fresh corn is boiled in cast iron cauldrons and thick roti dough sears to crisp perfection. In the trees, small rilawa (toque macaque) monkeys fight and glare down in search of a snack to grab. Tall, slender coconut palms seem permanently bent against the incessant wind, which serves to make the 30 degree temperatures here feel much cooler. Those coconuts are the lifeblood of the land, where they are used in nearly every cooking preparation, fermented for a celebratory drink, and used to make rope and building materials. Mountains tower above the rainforest canopy and statues of Buddha, some recently erected and some over 22 centuries old, loom on the hilltops, in cave temples, and encased in glass amidst psychedelic lights on city streets. And that’s just what I was able to see.
The ancient 65,610 square kilometre Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, has far too much diversity to cover in a single long weekend. Sri Lanka boasts vast tea plantations in the rainy hills in Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains; luxurious beaches along the west coast in towns like Bentota, and in southern cities like Galle, along with wild, natural surfer’s paradises on the east coast on beaches like Arugam Bay; as well as an area in the central part of the country known as “the cultural triangle”.
After much deliberation, my husband and I decided to forgo the beaches (Oman has some of the most beautiful in the world, after all), steer clear of the tea country, simply because the drive down there was so long, settling on a more focused trip to the nature reserves, hiking trails, and historic sights of “the triangle” in Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Kandy.
We started our drive from Negombo (a small beach town which is actually closer to the Colombo International Airport than the capital city itself) to Dambulla early in the morning. We jerked through a bit of traffic on the narrow alleyways leading out of the town, emerging onto a small highway. We watched tuk tuks jockey for space on the road, fields being burned and cleared for the new harvest, and, about an hour into our journey, the thick trees met above us to form a canopy under which the roadside vendors began to appear. We pulled over, again and again, for steaming cobs of starchy corn cooked in salt water, then for sweet, milky tea, then again for fresh, thick rounds of roti served with spicy sambol for dipping. There were other shops, too, stacked high with earthen pots of fresh buffalo curd topped with a hearty drizzle of honey.
After our frequent stops, we finally arrived at the Dambulla cave temple, which dates back to the first century BC. At the top of the hill, we took in the breathtaking views, and turned our shoes over to the “shoe caretaker,” who charged 25 rupees to watch the footwear. We wandered through the five rooms, which contained lovely, well-preserved Sri Lankan art in the form of murals and sculptures. Though, I found the views of the lush countryside as awe-inspiring as the site itself. We continued up the road, stopping for our first of many lunches of curry and rice, a leisurely affair involving a large plate of steamed white rice accompanied by four or more coconut-based curries, mostly made of vegetables and fruits, from banana flower to pumpkin and jackfruit. We ended our journey at our home-base for the trip, the Aliya Resort.
After ascending the minimalist stairs, we were hit with an expansive view over the infinity pool of the jungle, fields and rising above it all, the iconic Sigiriya Lion’s Rock. We snapped a few photos and checked in to our luxury tent, built under a wooden cabana with a large deck area and well appointed bathroom, surrounded all around by trees. How incredible it was to wake up to the sounds of exotic birds and monkeys fighting.
We enjoyed poolside refreshments and watched the sun set over Lion’s Rock, before retiring to the open air lounge where local musicians played guitar, accompanied by the sound of the ocean-like wind.
Over the next few days, we hiked Lion’s Rock, exploring the ruins set atop the lava plug, the one-time fortress of a mad king. We went on an elephant safari in the Minneriya National Park. We explored the remains of Sri Lanka’s 3rd AD capital city, Polonnaruwa, scoring a quick tour through a hidden back corridor in the image house of Jetavanaramaya, a monastery built around 1100 AD, through which monks used to walk and chant with burning incense. We explored a spice and ayurvedic herb garden in Matale on the way to Kandy, the second largest city in Sri Lanka, where we strolled past the Temple of the Tooth (which contains one of Buddha’s teeth) and around the lake, built in 1807 by the last Sinhalese king. We shopped for wood carvings, watched traditional dance, and ate, ate, ate. We spend our last few hours in the capital, Colombo, feasting on modern Sri Lankan fare, and quietly walking through the picturesque, colonial courtyard of Independence arcade, built in 1882 as an insane asylum, renovated in 2012 as a trendy dining and shopping complex. We left the country with rich experiences, and we had so much left to see which I find is the best way to explore the world, never without a reason to return. —[email protected]
Your Long Weekend Guide to Central Sri Lanka
Food and Drink
RICE AND CURRY, This is the land of rice and curry, a meal eaten once or twice a day, every day, by locals. A large plate of white rice is served with a selection of small dishes of coconut curry. The lighter coloured curries are a bit less spicy, thanks to fresh coconut milk, while the red ones tend to be fiery. Cool it down with scoops of plain rice or a bread like roti or hoppers. The bounty of fresh vegetables and fruits make it so that you will be hard pressed to have the same curry twice, even if you eat rice and curry every day in Sri Lanka, which I highly recommend you do. Watch out for divine, chewy, savoury banana flower curry; meaty jackfruit curry; and amazingly creamy, slightly sweet, pumpkin curry. There are usually meat and fish curries on offer as well.
KOTTU is the most popular fast food in the country, made of chopped pieces of thin Godhamba roti stir-fried to-order with vegetables, spices, meat, and seafood.
ROTI AND SAMBOL found at village restaurants and roadside stands, the roti in Sri Lanka is much denser than its Indian counterpart. The hearty bread is sometimes made with coconut or maize and is usually served with a fiery sambol.
HOPPERS crispy bowls made of a pancake-like batter, you’ll find these breakfast staples in savoury-form, topped with egg, sweet, or made with coconut cream.
TROPICAL FRUIT The fresh produce markets are vibrant with unusual fruits and vegetables. Taste as many as you can, from tart, super sour cherries to sweet, red-skinned bananas, sweet and bitter limes, to fresh olives and countless others.
TEA AND COFFEE Sri Lanka is famous for its Ceylon tea and massive coffee exports. Loose local tea or local coffee is worth seeking out, especially in Kandy, which is closer to the Tea Country. Oddly, Nescafe and big-brand tea bags are used most places.
The exchange rate is OMR1 to 380 Sri Lankan Rupees, but don’t let that fool you, Sri Lanka is a place where you can spend the same amount of money in a weekend that you would in an entire month, depending on your style of travel. Buses and trains are cheap, while drivers charge a premium. Street food costs close to nothing, while meals at the fancier hotels are closer to what you would expect to pay here in Muscat.
When it comes to shopping and transportation, negotiate hard. It is not uncommon for vendors to drop their prices by 30-50%. But entrance to the major sites, parks, and tours are non-negotiable and can add up fast, so be aware and plan for it. The great thing about Sri Lanka is that you have options, so you can create your own adventure based on your personal priorities and budget. Most places accept USD or Sri Lankan Rupees. It can be hard to find an ATM, so better to bring cash.
In the cities there are tuk tuks and taxis galore (always negotiate before getting in), but for a longer haul, you might want to consider arranging a driver or booking a one-way taxi.
There are benefits to both options. With a one-way taxi, if you don’t get along with your driver, you aren’t stuck with him. Just be sure to settle on a fixed price before starting the journey. If you do like him, more often than not, he will be up for sticking around.
The car and driver option is a mixed bag. If you pre-arrange it properly so that your quote includes petrol, tolls, driver accommodations, and meals, it can save you the headache of negotiating each time, and if the driver is good, they can act as very helpful guides. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Some drivers are rather insistent on following their own itineraries and take customers where they want to go (some get kickbacks from shops where they take visitors). Or you might just not gel, as was the case for us. When that happens, you are out of luck. This is your guy for the duration, but at least you know exactly what you are paying for him.
Train travel is slow and somewhat unreliable, but if you have time, it can be a great experience. There is a Kandy-Colombo route, as well as a route through tea country. Tickets should be purchased ahead of time at the station or through an agent (visitsrilankatours.co.uk) if you want to be assured a seat.
Tours and Sites
Be aware that to enter temples in Sri Lanka, ruined or otherwise, you must remove your shoes and cover from shoulders to below your knees. At every site there will be people milling around offering to give you a guided tour, if you choose to employ one of them, just be sure to agree to the price ahead of time. As for the entrance fees for national sights, it is relatively expensive, complicated, and a bit maddening, but these are the general costs at our time of visit:
Dambulla Cave Temple
There are two options, when entering, from the main lot, which is a longer walk, or parking at the rear entrance, which allows you to start climbing the stairs to the temple directly. Visit usually takes around 1 hour. The site is currently free to enter due to a government dispute, but used to be around $10 per person.
Entrance ticket provides single entry, all-day access to the ruins and the museum. Keep your ticket with you as they will ask for it along your hiking route. 90 minute hike/ $30 per person
Sigiriya Village Tour includes a bullock cart ride into a typical village, lunch and cooking demonstration in a home, and a catamaran lake safari. 2 hours/ $24 per person
Minneriya National Park
Visit around 3pm when the animals are more active, park closes at 5:30pm. Cost is about $20 per person, plus jeep fee, plus Jeep rental, all-in, about $150 for two people in a private safari Jeep.
Ruins of Polonnaruwa.
Entrance ticket provides multiple entry, all-day access to the ruins and the museum. Rent a bike to explore the entire complex, or you can drive from site to site for a faster tour. Open 7:30am-6pm/ $25 per person
Kandy Cultural Show and Dance.
Nightly hour-long show begins at 5pm and ends with fire walking. $3 per person
Kandy Sri Dalada Maligawa (temple of tooth) $10 per person
Kandy Botanical Garden $15 per person
Kandy Batik Workshops and Gem Factories Free.
Sri Lanka is filled with inexpensive guest houses, most of which are very highly rated by guests (just check out tripadvisor.com), so if that is your travel style, you will be spoilt for choice with average prices around OMR15-25 per night. There are also budget hotels, which are very basic, but also affordable. When it comes to luxury hotels, there are ultra-premium, which go for staggering (locally) rates of over OMR200 per night, while fabulous luxury hotels are on offer for around OMR60 per night. Just be sure to read reviews and check a location map before deciding which property is best for you. Adventurous types can also simply walk-in to hotels and guest houses on arrival and negotiate room rates for as little as OMR5 per night.
Choose your own adventure: Sri Lanka
Day 1: Negombo/ Colombo to Sigiriya
Dambulla Cave Temples (open 7am-7pm)
Gem Factory (free, but may be encouraged to buy something or tip)
Roadside food stalls
Swim and relax at Aliya
Roadside roti with sambol and tea
Roadside fresh boiled corn
Curry and rice at Shenadi restaurant, +947 7785 5690 in Sigiriya
Roti snacks from bakeries (super spicy)
Fresh coconut and tropical fruit juices
Dambulla Cave Temples
The fruit stands
The roadside shops
Roti with sambol
Buffalo curd with honey
Private terraces around luxury tents
Live nightly music in the open-air lounge
Aliya Resort (theme-resorts.com/aliyaresort) is a fantastic, high-end property with unique tent bungalows set in the forest behind the modern dining and recreation facilities of the main building. A great value for money, go for the bed and breakfast option, as the ala carte prices add up, and the morning spread is a generous affair.
Day 2: Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa
Activities: (Pick 3)
Hike Sigiriya Lion Rock (7am-5:30pm, go early or late to avoid mid-day heat.)
Village Tour and Lake Safari in Sigiriya (pre-arrange the two hour tour, start around 11am)
Bike Polonnaruwa Ruins (Open: 7:30am-6pm)
Minneriya National Park elephant safari (closes at 5:30pm, start the safari around 3pm) *The elephants move between national parks, so ask the drivers where to go
Hoppers for breakfast at the hotel
At the family-run Priyamali Gedara restaurant (+947 1721 6480) in Polonnaruwa taste home made curries, sweets, and rotis. The food is excellent (note that the spice is toned-down for foreigners) and the restaurant overlooks a nature reserve.
Street snacks of kottu and stuffed roti.
Polonnaruwa Ruins or Elephant Safari
Priyamali Gedara’s rice and curries meal
Aliya Resort (night two)
Day 3: Sigiriya to Kandy
Have a morning swim and breakfast at Aliya before checking out and driving to Kandy
Stops Along the Way
Spice Garden in Matale
Woodcraft markets on outskirts of Kandy. We stopped at Oak Ray Woodcarvings (+948 1238 6561, oakraywoodcarvings.com) where they gave a short tour and explained the wood types.
Walk Kandy Lake and the produce market
See a cultural dance performance and shop for handicrafts at Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre (show starts at 5pm)
Visit Temple of the Tooth (Open 5:30am-8pm)
Kottu at Eat Street near George de Silva Park (+947 7780 5959/ Hours: 5pm-11pm)
Sri Lankan street food made from soy at the aptly named Soya Centre in the YMCA Building (+948 1220 2016/ Hours: 8:30am-6:15pm)
Local tea and snacks at the cafe above the Mlesna Tea Centre in the city centre (mlesnateas.com/ Hours: 9am-6:30pm)
Amaya Hills (amayahills.com) a well-priced luxury property on a hillside overlooking Kandy.
Day 4: Kandy to Colombo
Have a morning swim and a quick breakfast at Amaya Hills and do some last minute shopping in Kandy before driving to Colombo
Henerathgoda Botanic Gardens, home to the first Asian rubber tree plantations (25km from Colombo in Gampaha/ Hours: 8:30am-5:30pm/ entrance: $8 per person)
Colombo day tour (colombocitytours.com)
Pettah central market (Open: 7am-4pm)
Check out the live local talent perform at Qbaa (qbaa.lk) or at the more low key Asylum lounge (asylum.lk) in Independence Arcade
Snacks, sweets, tea, and rice and curry in the historic Fort neighbourhood at Pagoda Tea Room, which opened in 1884. (+941 1232 5252/ Open 7am-5:30pm).
Modern Sri Lankan at Kaema Sutra (kaemasutra.com) in Independence Arcade. The crab kottu, overflowing with tender, fresh caught crab meat, is amazing, as is the big-as-your-head coconut hoppers.
Jet Airways: A Trip Within a Trip
Jet Airways offers Muscat travellers the opportunity to enjoy two trips in one, either with some much needed rest and relaxation before and after your adventure travel in Sri Lanka (which is exactly what we needed), or a day-trip to Mumbai for dining, sightseeing, or for a quick visit with family or friends. Here’s your double-delight travel plan:
City Tour (Muscat to Colombo) - Mumbai layover 4:25am-6:05pm
A day in Mumbai is a striking contrast to the slower pace of life in Sri Lanka, and it is a fun way to kick-off your vacation. Arrive and check-in at Niranta Hotel where you can freshen up in your room’s luxurious, extremely clean marble bathroom. Leave your bags behind and head outside to find a taxi.
Take advantage of the light traffic this early in the morning, and do some sunrise sightseeing. First stop: Haji Ali Dargah, in Worli. Walk past the street hawkers down the long path to the quiet island on which the mosque sits, surrounded by the lapping waves of the Indian Ocean, and also visit the famous Mahalaxmi temple nearby. Next up, head down to the colonial era Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (taj.tajhotels.com) and have breakfast overlooking the Gateway of India. Then walk up Causeway Bay Street to experience the energetic hustle and bustle of vendors selling everything from accessories to shoes to saris. Pop into the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (csmvs.in), formerly Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, at the end of Causeway Bay street. Take a detour to Ballard Estate, in Fort and have lunch at one of Mumbai’s famed Parsi cafes, Britannia & Co. Restaurant (bytplus.com), for a meal of chicken berry pulao, sali boti (meat cooked in tomato gravy and served with potato straws), and caramel custard. Hail a taxi by early afternoon and get back to the airport via the Bandra-Worli Sealink. Rest or change your clothes at the Niranta, then check-out and head to your gate. It’s time to continue your adventures in Sri Lanka.
Rest & relax (Colombo to Muscat) - Mumbai layover 8:20am-10:10pm
Before getting right back into the grind of daily life back home, use this layover to rest and recuperate from your high-energy, adventurous journey through Sri Lanka.
Arrive and head straight for the Niranta Transfer Hotel you’ll pass through security before entering the terminal, so when it’s time for your flight, you can literally just walk onboard. Check in and order breakfast, which will be served in Niranta’s private dining area at the requested time. Arrange for an afternoon spa treatment as well.
While your breakfast is being prepared, head back into the terminal to Vaango! and order a filter coffee, that fabulous Indian specialty of coffee brewed in boiled milk, for a creamy, caffeinated wake-me-up. Take over to the terminal’s indoor garden, where you can sit under a canopy of trees and enjoy your beverage. Then go downstairs to Niranta for breakfast, followed by a hot shower and a nap on the ultra-comfortable bed.
Have lunch at Amreli, where you can enjoy a number of different thalis and casual foods that are incredibly inexpensive, and even more incredibly fresh and tasty. There are a ton of other dining options if you aren’t in the mood for South Asian, from several sit-down bistros, to fast food chains like Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Subway.
Go shopping at the high-end boutiques like United Colors of Benetton or in Duty Free. Then take in the contemporary artwork on display around the terminal as part of the Jaya He GVK New Museum. Relax with a massage before heading downstairs to freshen-up and pack for your short flight home.
Book your ticket from Muscat to Colombo
Call: +968 2478 7248, +968 2478 7246
Book your luxury transit hotel
Call: +9122 6729 6729