A backpacker’s guide to Sri Lanka: a one-month itinerary

The crowds head for its Cultural Triangle but Sri Lankas sights also include quieter national parks, hiking trails and beaches. Explore it with our guide on what to see and where to stay

Why go?

Few countries in Asia can offer such variety in a relatively small area, or are as easily navigable by bus and train- or even in your own tuk-tuk. Away from the main sights it’s easy to escape the crowds: instead of Mirissa, whale watch in quieter Kalpitiya- a laid-back destination for kitesurfing- and opt for Wilpattu national park over Yala national park for similar wildlife trips. In the hills, take the develop to Haputale, rather than Ella, for less-trodden roads to scenic mountain viewpoints.

Sri Lanka map .

One-month itinerary

In Colombo , saunter Galle Face Green, visit the National Museum or weave through the Pettah Market district with a host from Colombo City Walks. Stay at hip Bunkyard Hostels( see below ). From here, head north to Kalpitiya ( 41/2 hours by bus ), an arid north-western peninsula with a chilled vibe, easy cycling through fishing hamlets and whale- and dolphin-watching journeys that are light on mobs. Move onto Wilpattu national park ( 11/2 hours by road ), a vast reserve that is home to leopards, sloth bears and elephants.

Pettah
Pettah Market, Colombo. Photograph: Alamy

In the centre of the country, the Cultural Triangle brims with( expensive) world heritage sites, and guests, but there are ways to find less-busy spots. Hike up Pidurangala for positions back over Sigiriya’s boulder fortress at a fraction of the cost, and instead of Dambulla’s cave temples, visit Ritigala , an ancient wood monastery dating to the first century BC. Visitors flock to Minneriya national park to see the elephants, yet nearby Kaudulla is just as good and cheaper to visit.

En route to the Hill Country, stop in Kandy to visit the sacred Temple of the Tooth. The mounds offer superb walking roads, tea estates and hidden waterfalls, and a railway line that cuts through the most dramatically scenic regions( check in to the Clock Inn- see below ). Most backpackers head for Ella , the Hill Country’s de facto low-budget hangout, with its hostels( try the Hangover Hostel- see below ), cafes, homestays and easy walks. However, also on the mainline railway is Haputale , a town with panoramic views onto the southern plains, strolls( a favourite is to Lipton’s Seat viewpoint) and tea plantations( Dambatenne is my pick ). While hostels haven’t quite reached Haputale, “theres plenty” of affordable guesthouses.

Temple
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy. Photograph: Getty Image
From the hills, run east by bus to Arugam Bay ( about 3 hours) for the island’s best surf or to visit lesser-known sites such as Kumana national park and the ancient coastal temple site of Muhudu Maha Viharaya, associated with the
Ramayana tale. Move on to the south coast next, perhaps stopping for a night in Wellawaya to see the seven 10 th-century Buddhist rock reliefs at Buduruwagala( the tallest in Sri Lanka ), before hit Hiriketiya ( 4 to five hours by bus ), a deep horseshoe-shaped surf bay with beach shacks and guesthouses. Dots Bay Houseon the bay has three rooms and an open-sided dorm with beds from PS13. The bay stretches to the quieter Dickwella Beach, a wide, sandy swathe. Mulkirigala rock temple- a mini cross between Sigiriya and Dambulla cave temples- is accessible from here.

Continue west to Galle ( 11/2 hours by road ), for atmospheric walks in its 17 th-century colonial-era fort, good souvenir shopping and guided bicycle journeys inland, through villages and paddy fields. Before heading home, build your style inland to Sinharaja , either via Mederapitiya( near Deniyaya; about 3 hours) or Kudawa( 2 to 3 hours from Galle ), for hikes in pristine rainforest home to 95% of Sri Lanka’s endemic bird species and more than 60% of the island’s endemic vegetation, and to cool off in waterfall pools.

Getting around

Tuk-tuks
Tuk-tuks in Galle. Photograph: Getty Images

Buses are often overcrowded but inexpensive, and they go everywhere. Expect to pay about 30 p for an hour of travelling. Trains are a bargain, too, and more scenic, especially in the hills( the six-hour tea country stretch between Kandy and Ella is a must-do ), though the cheapest carriages get jam-packed. It’s also possible to self-drive a tuk-tuk with tuktukrental.com, a social enterprise sourcing vehicles from local drivers. It helps obtain licences, while rates include full insurance, a driving lesson and a useful kit of spares.

Accommodation

Although guesthouses are still the go-to option for inexpensive accommodation here, an increasing number of well-equipped hostels- offering wallet-friendly tours, bicycles and on-the-ball staff- are emerging in backpacking destinations such as Colombo, Dambulla, Ella, Mirissa, Weligama and Arugam Bay. Dorm beds in a hostel average PS8( rising to PS16 ), while the cheapest guesthouse doubles go for about PS12. Most hostels have doubleds, too, and are generally more backpacker-orientated than guesthouses. Homestays are popular in most remote areas: Abode Tours offers homestays in Mannar( west coast) and the Knuckles- a biodiverse mountain range that is superb for hiking and home to some of the island’s most remote villages. East N’ West On Board connects you with families in sedate Batticaloa, on the island’s east coast.

Verse Collective, Dickwella

Room

Digital nomads are drawn to this sea-facing cafe-hostel near Dickwella on the south coast for its bijou rooms that are open to the outdoors. As well as dormitories it also has doubleds and a co-working space. The cafes and bars along surf-orientated Hiriketiya Beach are a 10 -minute stroll away.
* Dorms from PS19, en suite doublings from PS45,
on Facebook

Clock Inn, Kandy
This hostel is just 600 metres from the Tooth Temple and Kandy’s railway station, and close to the fruit market for inexpensive healthy snacks. It has bright, air-conditioned dormitories, double and single rooms and a few tiny capsule pods, plus communal areas.
* Dormitory beds from PS9. 20, doubles from PS38, capsule pods from PS8. 50, clockinn.lk

Hangover Hostel, Ella

Hangover

This hostel chain has a handful of properties in key locations across the island. Its Ella hostel is close to the railway station and dorms( including one for women) have air-con, springtime mattresses, international sockets and keycard lockers big enough for bulky backpacks.
* Dormitory beds from PS11. 50,
hangoverhostels.com

Lal’s Homestay, Sigiriya
Less than 30 -minutes’ stroll from Sigiriya and Pidurangala, Lal’s has doubles and two family room arranged around a quiet garden. The helpful hosts offer bicycles for get around and serve delicious home-cooked food.
* Rooms from PS 7, +94 77 704 5386, homestay.com

Bunkyard Hostels, Colombo

Dorm

This hip hostel defined by its quirky sustainable decoration has a fine location close to the National Museum. Expect dormitories and rooms with thick mattresses, filling breakfasts, in-the-know management and shared daily shuttles to Kandy( 10 am, PS9. 50, 4+ hours) and Arugam Bay( 10.30 pm, PS14, +9 hours ).
* Dorms from PS7, doubles from PS42,
bunkyardhostels.com

Overrated

Game drives in Yala national park. Although leopard sightings are common, the uncontrolled number of jeeps entering the park has resulted in it becoming overcrowded. See leopards and sloth bears at less-visited Wilpattu, on the north-east coast or, for elephants, Udawalawe, Minneriya and Kaudulla.

Underrated

A
A bus in Haputale on its way to Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. Photograph: Alamy

Haputale, Bandarawela and Badulla. View-blessed Ella is teeming with backpackers yet other hill-country towns are just as scenic and offer similar stroll roads and standpoints, and are accessible via the main railway line.

Need to know

Avoid taking photos with your back to a Buddha statue or image, and when you visit a temple or shrine make sure knees and shoulders are covered. In Hindu kovils, humen may be asked to remove their T-shirt/ shirt. Bikinis and beach attire are fine when on the sand but Sri Lanka is a conservative country so dress modestly when out and about, and especially when using local transport. Every full moon day is an alcohol-free public holiday.

For inspiration

Book Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. This book tells the sobering tale of two families, one Sinhala, one Tamil, on oppose sides of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, and also weaves in detailed descriptions of the island.

Instagram @lostinceylon. Be inspired by imagery of hills, mountains, waterfalls, beaches, surfing spots, yoga haunts and quirky accommodation sought out by close friends in search of adventure and fun across Sri Lanka.

Blog thesrilankatravelblog.com. Red Dot Tours is an independent travel company based in Colombo and run by Sri Lankans. Its blog has unbiased, interesting posts by locals, from culture to what’s on, where to stay and personal recommendations of lesser-known dining spots.

If you ate or drink one thing

Ideal as a quick, filling snack or a small meal, rotis – stuffed flatbread parcels- are a Sri Lankan staple that can be picked up for next to nothing in many places. Look for triangles piled up in the windows of glass-fronted kades. Some rotis are rolled up and filled with meat and fish, too. For traditional( coconut roti) as well as non-traditional flavors, such as chocolate and banana, visit No 1 Dewmini Roti Shop in Mirissa.

Daily budget

Providing you stick to local food joints, as little as PS15-PS20 a day. Visits to key attractions such as Sigiriya, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa( PS23) and national parks( PS12pp entry, plus around PS17-PS24 per jeep) are significant budget-blowers.

Moving on

From Sri Lanka, fly north to India- flights to Goa, Mumbai, Kerala and Chennai with Sri Lankan Airline are fairly inexpensive, and the network stretchings to Delhi, too. Indian-owned low-budget carrier Spicejet covers more ground. You can also head east: Air Asia flies from Colombo to Kuala Lumpur- a major hub for onward flights across south-east Asia.

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