31 January 2022
Pearl of the Indian Ocean
Just 30 kilometres southeast of India lies Sri Lanka, the teardrop shaped island of the Laccadive Sea and the aptly named Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Measuring just 65,610 km², this tiny isle ranks as one of the smallest countries in the world… But, what it lacks in size, Sri Lanka more than makes up for in personality! This is a country of unparalleled biodiversity, an insanely layered history and an unbeatably laid back atmosphere. It’s got all the character of India, minus the intensity.
This rugged and beautiful country - home to a whopping 22 million souls - is so lovely that ancient Persians and Arabs named it Sarandīb: the origin of the word serendipity. It doesn’t take long on the island to see where it got that name from. This is the home of soft sands, choice waves and over 2,500 hours of sun a year; it’s where wildlife - both on land and sea - thrives, with a safari to rival Africa’s, and it’s where you lucky Explorers could be off to next!
What makes Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka?
1. Surf's up!
Sri Lanka’s reputation for surfing is what first sparked my interest in the country. I was backpacking around South East Asia and it seemed like, no matter where I went - from India to Indonesia - every other traveller I met was stoked on those Sri Lankan waves! And not without good reason…
With nearly 1,600 kilometres of palm-fringed coastline, sun-soaked Sri Lanka’s warm currents make for an incredible surf destination. This is an island made up of two halves, split by monsoon patterns that mean when one coast is choppy, the other is calm. It’s a perfect warm water retreat year-round, with offshore winds whipping Indian Ocean groundswells into some seriously fun waves!
If you’re in the southwest of Sri Lanka, make sure to check out Hikkaduwa. Originally a fishing village, this beach town now sits at the core of Sri Lankan surf culture as one of the country’s most developed surf towns. With breaks and waves that can reach up to 10ft, its no wonder why Hikkaduwa has been drawing in sun-seekers and snorkelers since the 60s. Whether you’re a seasoned surf-dude or a complete novice, Hikkaduwa has something for everyone. Beginners can take comfort in the shallow, sand-bottomed waves that are sure to make that first time standing on a board less daunting. Meanwhile, pros can take advantage of the beach’s A-frame sections and even harbourside waves.
In the east, the crescent-shaped Arugam Bay is home to the famed point break considered by many as the best place in Sri Lanka to cruise the waves. This tiny village is home to just a few hundred souls, whose homes and local businesses are dotted along a lone coastal road. It’s the epitome of a laidback surf town and the perfect spot for the more relaxed surfer.
Fun fact: Cinnamon is said to have originated from Sri Lanka, and today, the island is still a leading exporter of the world’s cinnamon.
2. The Sri Lankan safari
One of the most desired safari destinations in the world, Sri Lanka has an abundance of national parks (a whopping 26, plus 2 marine parks!), unique wildlife that includes elephants and leopards, and a sustainable approach to conservation. This tiny teardrop island boasts some of the highest rates of biological endemism in the world, with 16% of its fauna and 23% of its flora being entirely unique to the area. For such a small island, Sri Lanka really packs a punch where wildlife is concerned! This is a place where you can find a whopping 5 out of 7 of the world’s turtle species, insane marine life, and it even has its own Big Five to rival that of the African Safari…
The Big Five
Asian Elephants: From May to September every year, 400 Asian elephants descend on the lake of Minneriya National Park to feed, socialise and play in the water. This is the largest terrestrial mammal in Asia, and this phenomenon is thought to be the largest gathering of their species in the world. Their frolicking on the receding banks of the reservoir make for an astonishing sight that is, quite literally, unrivalled.
Asian Leopards: Sri Lanka is the best place in the world to see the Asian leopard - the top predator and biggest cat on the island, as well as the third biggest in Asia. Yala National Park, located in the southeast of the island, has the highest density of leopards globally and offers a 3-day safari for the best chance to see one.
Blue Whale & Sperm Whale: Sri Lanka is one of the few places where Explorers can combine whale watching with land safari in the same day! Observe elephants at the watering hole, or admire the magnificent sperm whale, who has the biggest teeth of any whale species in the world, in the seas surrounding the west coast off the town of Kalpitya. You can even spot the majestic blue whale - the biggest animal to have ever graced the planet - off the coast of Mrissa between December and March, and off Trincomalee between March and July.
Sloth Bear: This bedraggled-looking bear is one of the lesser-known treasures of Sri Lanka, but it’s actually the largest known bear in tropical altitudes and an increasingly rare sight. There are less than a thousand of these nocturnal beauties left in the wild, so Explorers who spot one should consider themselves lucky!
With 26 national parks and 2 marine parks, Sri Lanka has an insane amount to offer nature lovers. This lilliputian isle is home to over 450 species of birds, over 180 species of colourful corals that make a wonderfully vibrant home for nearly 1,400 species of fish, and a collection of reptiles like you’ve never seen before. So whether you’re staying up all night to watch baby turtles make their first steps on a treacherous journey towards the sea, or enjoying the antics of the purple-faced langur monkeys, exploring this island is sure to feel magical.
Good to know: Adam’s Peak - known in Buddhism as Sri Pada (sacred footprint) - is a holy mountain in Sri Lanka that is believed to have been left by the Buddha when he was going to paradise.
3. Scenic railway routes
Nothing beats a Sri Lankan train ride… This island may be small, but it’s home to some of the most thrilling - and most beautiful - railway journeys. These colourful steam trains, once the transporters of tea and exotic spices, will transport you to other worlds as they cut through Sri Lankan landscapes evocative of fantasy lands. You could find yourself hurtling across the Nine Arches as a fellow Explorer dozes on your shoulder, letting the wind caress your face through an open window as you rattle through jade-green tea plantations, or weaving in and out of thick tropical rainforests as you tuck into a deliciously aromatic packed lunch of rice and curry… You could even experience it all in the same journey! Taking a trip on these colourful locomotives is not just a matter of convenience; this is the scenic route through all of Sri Lanka.
Fun Fact: The flag of Sri Lanka is considered one of the world's oldest, dating back to 162 BC. It is also thought to be the only flag in the world to recognise different religious beliefs, with the bo leaves representing Buddhism, orange for Hinduism, and green for Islam.
4. A storied history
Dating back 34,000 years, it’s no surprise that Sri Lanka’s long history is so immensely rich and varied. This is a country steeped in millennia of Buddhist heritage, whose tale is told in endless ancient temples. Buddhism has been at the core of Sri Lankan culture for centuries and its influence can be seen everywhere - from the ancient sites of the great Sinhalese Kings who brought the religion to the island, to contemporary monasteries where Buddhist monks gather to meditate or pray.
For such a small island, Sri Lanka has an abundance of incredible places of worship. The most famous is the Temple of the Tooth, but the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi - a sacred fig tree in Anuradhapur - and the Ruwanwelisaya stupa are places you absolutely must see. The majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhist - and extremely friendly - so if you’re interested in learning more about the rich history of Buddhism on the island, just ask!
Sri Lanka’s colonial history is just as intriguing as its religious history. For centuries, this was a country divided into ancient kingdoms and ruled by foreign kings. The island’s abundance of precious gems, from rubies to sapphires, attracted the attention of European conquerors who would all leave an indelible mark on Sri Lanka’s culture, cuisine and construction. In 1505, the Portuguese founded a fort in Colombo and established trading links. ‘The people of Ceylon are no soldiers’, it was said, and the Sri Lankan people’s plan to get rid of the Portuguese only served to confirm this. Rather than fight, the Sri Lankan king offered the Dutch a monopoly of trade in return for their help in reclaiming Ceylon lands. The Dutch never delivered on this promise. Instead, they simply took over Portuguese territories for themselves, leaving behind the amazing fort at Galle, colonial mansions of Colombo and the Dutch Fort at Trincomalee before being vanquished by the Brits in 1815.
British rule saw the introduction of tea production in Sri Lanka, as well as the establishment of a “Little England” that can still be seen today. The British-built town of Nuwara Eliya, located in the tea country hills of central Sri Lanka, was a home away from home for the British elite. Stepping into this sleepy community, with its colonial-era buildings and bungalows, Tudor-style hotels, and well-manicured hedges and gardens, feels like being transported into Tudor England.
Fun Fact: Nuwara Eliya is a British-built town that used to be the favourite holiday retreat for the British elite, thanks to its temperate, cool climate which is reminiscent of England.
5. The island of rice and curry
Sri Lanka has many nicknames: Teardrop of India; Pearl of the Indian Ocean, but a more accurate description of this incredible nation might the Island of Rice and Curry. Sri Lanka is known for its distinctive cuisine that makes liberal use of local fruit such as coconut and jackfruit, seafood, and an arsenal of exotic spices. Sri Lankan cooking packs an incredible punch, so we really recommend that you adventurous Explorers make the most of it and try as much street food as you can.
Savour every mouthful of this country’s delicious curries - especially the fish curries, a delicacy on the island! Vegetarians will love Sri Lankan cuisine, which expertly crafts beautiful meals with lentils, beans and intriguing fruits. Keep an eye out for Kottu - street food of Tamil origin that’s made up of chopped roti and egg, meats, vegetables and salna (a spicy Sri Lankan sauce).
Good to know: Sri Lanka was once named Ceylon - after which the popular tea strain is now named. It’s one of the world’s largest exporters of tea and tea leaves, so make sure to sample the local strains!
6. The most incredible landscapes
For an island nation about half the size of London, Sri Lanka boasts an incredible diversity of landscapes: lagoons, mysterious forests, mountains, fertile wetlands, lagoons, winding rivers and cascading waterfalls… You name it, Sri Lanka’s got it! No wonder she’s so lovingly named the Pearl of the Indian Ocean; what’s more precious than a country that’s home to the most magnificent views imaginable?
Sri Lanka is home to some of the most pristine coastlines in Asia. Unspoiled sandy beaches, palm trees and turquoise waters are the trademarks of this beautiful island - and there’s something for everyone.
Mirissa Beach: One of the most popular beach destinations in southern Sri Lanka. Soft sand and calm blue waters teeming with marine life - from shoals of colourful fish to giant turtles - make this a wonderful place for sunseekers to relax. Explore local beachside restaurants, sip from fresh coconuts as you laze in a hammock, or watch the waves lap on the shore as you soak up the atmosphere of this laidback beach town.
Unawatuna: Home to some of the island’s most beautiful beaches, Unawatuna has a funky vibe that’s a magnet for backpackers looking to dance the night away. The narrow streets of Unawatuna are lined with countless restaurants, shops and cafes that serve revellers at all hours of the day and night - it makes for a buzzing atmosphere, so if it’s fun you’re seeking, head to Unawatuna!
Bentota: Bentota is a beach for the adrenaline junkies of the world! Whether you’re a waterskier, a surfer or a snorkeller, this is the place to be if you’re looking for a thrill. If you are new to the world of water sports, there are courses offered by various water sports centre’s to guide you through your stint with the waves.
But beaches aren’t all Sri Lanka has to offer. This island will blow you away with its biodiversity. You can wake up in one place and within a few short hours, be transported to a part of the country that feels a world away. Stunning coastlines give way to lagoons lined with mangroves; mountains soar above flatlands or dry plains, and thick subtropical jungles teem with wildlife. From one end to the other, this is an island of incredible contrasts and absolutely stunning vistas.
Good to know
The best time to visit Sri Lanka depends on where you’re planning to go: between December and April is best for the southwestern region, while May to September is ideal for the northeastern region.
The cheapest way to get around Sri Lanka is by coach, but the most scenic is by railway.
Get Sri Lankan rupees inside Sri Lanka - since it’s not a major currency, you’ll often get better exchange rates from local currency outlets.
You cannot bring Indian or Pakistani rupee into the country - get them exchanged for USD before arriving in Sri Lanka.
Head waggling is common, and it can mean yes, no, or maybe! Sri Lankan body language is significantly different from that of the West, but Sri Lankans are extremely generous so just take your time to understand and be respectful.
Locals don’t use cutlery - they eat with their right hand.
Do not drink the tap water in Sri Lanka! You can brush your teeth with it, but that’s about it. We care about the environment, so consider buying a water purifier, or a reusable water bottle to fill up at restaurants!
Prepare to haggle! It’s an art and a necessity in Sri Lanka, so don’t be shy! The general rule of thumb is to half any price that is initially given to you.
Make sure to get a visa before you travel, as only nationals from 3 countries can get in without one: Seychelles, Singapore and The Maldives.
All the magic, none of the crowds
Sri Lanka is an incredible destination. It’s got all of the magic of any other Asia destination, without the tourist crowds. We’re surprised this absolute gem of an island hasn’t been discovered by the masses yet (but we’re definitely not complaining… The longer we can keep this one to ourselves, the better!) If you’re looking to escape the crowds, enjoy the surf, and see some insane wildlife, Sri Lanka will NOT disappoint!