Sri Lanka is an island of contrasts and stunning beauty. Mountains, waterfalls and lakes; virgin rainforest and manicured tea estates; some of the best beaches on the planet; and the impressive remains of bygone civilisations. It is for the most part remarkably green and fertile and its people are welcoming.
Although the best thing about staying in Jungle Tide is to relax and enjoy the house, gardens and surrounding area, being located centrally means that if you are staying for a few days it is possible to visit many of the island’s most important visitor attractions in day trips.
Kandy: Kandy is a World Heritage City and a very important centre of Buddhism. The Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa) is the most prominent building in the city and open to the public. Each year, usually in August, the Esala Perahera is held – the world’s largest street procession – and the city becomes very busy for a couple of weeks; also alcohol sales are banned (though you can consume alcohol in private places such as Jungle Tide). Kandy is a great place for shopping of all kinds, from markets and street stalls through to classy clothes, antiques, jewellery or technology. Kandy Lake is perfect for a stroll around, and the Uduwatekelle wildlife sanctuary is a short walk from the city centre. The National Museum holds important collections of pre-European life in the island.
Around Kandy: Within about half an hour’s drive of Kandy you can reach many other places of interest. Sports fans may head to the international test cricket ground at Palukelle or, a little way beyond that, the world-class Victoria golf course. In the other direction are the amazing Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (great for a picnic) and, nearby, the Suriyakantha Cultural Centre and the delightful Three Temples Walk. The historic Kandy Garrison Cemetery is also a short drive from the city. On the road down from Jungle Tide you also pass the Ceylon Tea Museum which is well worth a visit. Hunas Falls is a spectacular waterfall less than an hour’s drive from Kandy.
Day trips: Provided you don’t mind an early start or a late return it is perfectly possible to visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the rock fortress of Sigiriya, and the Dambulla Cave Temples in day trips from Jungle Tide. Sigiriya and Dambulla can be done in the same day; Polonnaruwa needs a separate trip. Or you can head for the hills and visit Nuwara Eliya (“Little England”), Sri Lanka’s highest town, stopping at the dramatic Ramboda Falls on the way. Although self-directed trekking around Jungle Tide is excellent you can also opt for guided trekking in the Knuckles Range. See our “Deals and Offers” page.
We are always happy to suggest and advise visitors in planning a longer itinerary in Sri Lanka so do contact us if you would value this. Since the war ended in 2009 many beautiful and culturally important places are beginning to open up to tourism. As yet, since we can only visit once a year, we have not been able to check out many of these ourselves but we will be doing so over the next year or two. And we will also be developing tailor made tours for people who want clean and comfortable but can’t afford luxury – watch this space!
There are any number of more or less identical tourist packages which tend to visit one or more of the ancient cities, Sigiriya, Kandy, the Hill Country and the popular south and west coast beaches. But for those with a more adventurous spirit or more time available there are plenty of less crowded places to visit and things to do. The east coast beaches, for example, are at least as good as those in the west and south but almost empty. Batticaloa, badly knocked about in the war, is emerging as a great centre for diving as well as its lagoon and beaches. Arugam Bay further south is good for surfing, Off the southern tip of the island at certain times of the year you can see blue whales and other cephalopods. While Yala National Park in the south east is a major tourist venue (and rightly so) a number of other national parks such as Wasgamuwa and Wilpattu are every bit as good and far less touristy. There are also several important bird sanctuaries, mainly in the south.
In the far north the Jaffna Peninsula – former stronghold of the Tamil Tigers – is gradually being improved and opened up for visitors. Jaffna itself is an important cultural centre. The smaller Kalpitiya peninsula, between Jaffna and Colombo, is rapidly being developed with large beachfront hotels but parts of it remain, for the time being, remote-feeling and fascinating. The culture here is (for Sri Lanka) an unusual mix of Muslim and Catholic which gives the area a distinctive feel.
These are just a few ideas which might inspire you to veer away from the usual package destinations. To repeat, do contact us if you want to check out your ideas or get some suggestions.
Travel in Sri Lanka is a slow process. Traffic in the towns is mad, and the infrastructure – roads and railways – poorly maintained and not permitting of high speeds with one or two exceptions. But this rarely matters when you’re on holiday and if you believe that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive, Sri Lanka’s the place for you. Enjoy the scenery, talk to local people if you’re on public transport and don’t worry about the time.
That said, there are a few fast roads, notably the new toll motorways from the airport into Colombo and from Colombo down the coast to Galle. A motorway is due to be built up to Kandy.
Trains: Sri Lanka has a reasonably extensive rail network although it has been starved of investment and is therefore very slow. Rail travel is amazingly cheap and can be great fun. It can also be very crowded and not to be recommended if you have a large amount of luggage. First class is only available on a few selected trains and needs to be booked in advance – not easy if you’ve just arrived in the island. But some bookings can now be made in advance. If you book far enough ahead with us we can ask Martin to arrange your train tickets for your journey to or from Kandy.
Buses: Tourists will generally only use the long-distance buses which go from everywhere to everywhere else you could think of. They are even cheaper than the trains, and can be even more uncomfortable but certainly an experience for those who like public transport. Long-distance A/C b uses tend to be more reliable and comfortable than the local buses. Buses are not, in practice, timetabled but leave only when they are full. Given the numbers of people reliant on the buses, however, this doesn’t take long.
Three-wheelers: The ubiquitous three-wheelers or tuk-tuks are the main form of short-distance transport in and around the towns. Until very recently it was essential to bargain and agree a price before you set off, and in most cases it still is. But in Colombo, and to a growing extent in Kandy and some other places, three-wheelers are now metered, and much cheaper! If you’re not sure what to pay, ask around. But don’t rely too much on guide-book indications of price as these may be some years out of date – expect to pay more. For short journeys, even if you pay over the odds it’s not a great loss, and you accumulate the knowledge of what to pay in future.
Taxis: Taxis are often as cheap as tuk-tuks and similar comments apply. They are more comfortable and often air-conditioned, but most people find them a lot less fun. Essential, though, if you have a lot of luggage with you.
Hired vehicle with driver: This is significantly more expensive but has many advantages over other forms of travel. You’re in charge – or you should be (resist drivers who want to show you their chosen sights as this usually involves visiting their cousin’s batik shop and insisting that their uncle’s hotel is a much better bet than the one you’ve chosen to go to). There’s plenty of space and comfort and you can decide when to stop for a break on a long journey. Vehicles range from saloon cars to twelve-seater vans. You may pay an all-inclusive daily rate (unlimited mileage) or one which varies with the mileage you do. Fuel may or may not be included in the quoted price. Again, always agree the precise terms of your deal before setting off.
Self-drive: This is not generally a sensible option. Driving in Sri Lankan towns is not for the faint-hearted and the risk of collisions means the insurance element can put the cost of self-drive above the cost of hiring a vehicle and driver.
Health, safety and security
Health: We’re not competent to give expert advice but we can say that Sri Lanka is now free of malaria. There are, of course, mosquitoes and other biting insects and it is possible (but highly unlikely) to catch dengue fever as it is in most tropical locations. Since at present there is no vaccination or cure this is just something you have to take a very small risk on. Jungle Tide is virtually free of mosquitoes as we’re too high up for them, but we do have nets available for guests who still feel concerned.
Animals: As for other dangerous beasts, they exist for sure but your chances of being attacked by them are negligible. Anywhere you might come across a leopard or sloth bear, for example, you would be with a guide and tracker and probably in a jeep. There are poisonous snakes but they are not common and most tend to live in rice paddies and other places you are unlikely to be walking in. If you are roaming around in the countryside (including our lower gardens) at night be sure to have a strong torch with you and carry a stout stick as you might encounter wild boar. And don’t pick up interesting-looking creepy-crawlies as some of these have a pretty poisonous bite or sting (giant millipedes, for example).
The worst pests are the leeches which in wet weather can penetrate almost anything to get at your blood, and can move alarmingly fast for such worm-like, legless creatures. You’re OK on short grass such as our lawn, but try to avoid walking through longer vegetation if it is wet. If you are ‘got’ the best remedy is to rub salt on the offending creature which will immediately drop off. If you’re walking in wet conditions take a small plastic bag of salt with you. Cigarette lighters also work. Don’t pull them off as the locals do – their heads can break off and remain embedded under your skin and become infected. But while leeches are unpleasant they do not hurt or present any danger.
Safety on the streets and in public places: In common with most Hindu and Buddhist areas of Asia, the prevailing culture is one of non-violence. Street robbery is more or less unheard of, certainly as far as westerners are concerned. Nor is there any kind of late-night alcohol-fuelled culture of noise and anti-social behaviour, except in a few of the more westernised beach resorts. It is perfectly possible to feel safe walking alone late at night in the streets of Colombo, let alone quieter places like Kandy, and certainly more so than in an average English market town. Solo women are rarely the subject of unwanted male attention except in some of the beach resorts. In these places unmarried women are advised to wear a ‘wedding’ ring – this simple measure deters many male pests.
Theft: In Sri Lanka it’s far more likely that a monkey will ‘steal’ your mobile or camera than that a human being will. While it is always unwise to leave unattended valuables in a hotel room, the consequences in Sri Lanka are less likely to be dire.
Touts, scams and begging: This is different entirely. Parting tourists from their cash (non-violently) is more or less a national sport. The major tourist locations are full of people who will offer to show you things, often saying they don’t want paying – but don’t believe a word of it; they do! They are also full of people trying to sell you useless tat in a persistent and seriously annoying way. If you only learn one word of Sinhala make it “epa” which roughly translates as “I don’t want it” in a polite way. It usually works.
Then there are the scams. There are dozens of these and although we’re familiar with most of them we still occasionally fall victim to a recent innovation. By now we tend to feel more like congratulating the ‘offender’ on his imaginative abilities than to feel angry. Far too many to list here, but two common ones are people introducing themselves as teachers of poor children then asking for a donation to their school; and people claiming they work at the hotel you’re staying at (they don’t, they’ve just watched you leave there and followed you) as an opening gambit for whatever they want to con you out of. But don’t get obsessed. Sri Lankans are friendly and often do simply want to chat to you, possibly for status reasons and/or to improve their spoken English. If you automatically rebuff everyone who approaches you in the street for fear they’re after your money you’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities to engage with local people. And if you do find you’ve been ripped off, it’s rarely going to have cost you anything significant, so be cool.
You will encounter beggars in the cities and towns, though not to the extent you would find in many other developing countries. It is good karma to give beggars your loose change or small-denomination notes and worth hanging onto more or less useless bits of cash for this reason. Beggars in Sri Lanka are entirely non-aggressive and if you don’t have any suitable small change then at least try to look apologetic rather than offended.
Some hints to help you
Dressing modestly is important when visiting any religious places, and it is a courtesy to remove footwear when entering a building, including someone’s house if you are fortunate enough to be invited into a Sri Lankan home. Although extremely friendly and keen to help, Sri Lankans generally like to place some social distance between themselves and European (or North American and Australasian) visitors. You may feel you get on so well with your driver that you want to invite him to join you for dinner – but if you do, there is a good chance he will decline and feel embarrassed. Similarly, if you are fortunate enough to be invited to eat in a Sri Lankan home the family will often feed you first and then eat later. What appears to be a vast quantity of food is, remember, meant to feed them as well as you, so don’t feel obliged to stuff yourself!
Virtually everyone you’ll need to deal with speaks English but aside from the most educated people it will be a local variant which dispenses with many of the connecting and qualifying words we use. Although at first it will feel as though you’re being patronising it’s best to try to speak in the same way yourself. If you speak as though to another English person they may not understand and, as Sri Lankans pride themselves on education generally and the ability to speak English in particular, you will probably have succeeded only in making them feel a failure. For instance, instead of saying to a three-wheeler driver: “Could you take me to the post office please?” you would say “We go post office”. “Please” and “Thank you” are indicated by smiling, not by words. Tone of voice and facial expression are at least as important as words in communicating. Sri Lankans also rock their heads from side to side to indicate “Yes”, which can be disconcerting. Finally, in Sinhala the stress is almost always on the first syllable of a word. So where we would say “policeman” they would say “policeman” – if you can remember to do the same it will help communication.