Backpacking Around Sri Lanka – The ULTIMATE guide.
March 22, 2020
In an absolute first for me, I booked flights to Sri Lanka. Just the flights. Nothing else. I ended up backpacking around Sri Lanka – the little teardrop-shaped country that’s right next to mine – for nearly a month and was astounded by the similarities and the differences I could find between the two.
During my first few nights in Sri Lanka, I remember feeling really happy about being in the country then. I felt, and still feel, it’s on the verge of a massive tourism influx and it’s on the brink of becoming a hot destination for travellers of all ages. It’s the kind of place that has something for EVERYONE. Whether your plan is to go backpacking around Sri Lanka or spend some time soaking in luxury or take the rugged route and going hiking, Sri Lanka’s got it all. And it looks like people around the world are starting to truly see this now.
This was before the blasts happened (April 2019), and I was there when they did.
I wasn’t in Colombo, though, so I wasn’t affected directly, but I saw what it did to the country. It was heartbreaking, to say the least, to see hate of this kind rip apart homes and families. It did affect tourism because I saw travellers being flown back by their home countries, and I heard many plans being cancelled. Still, there was an equal number of people staying back (like me) and quite a few people who didn’t change their plans to visit. Sri Lanka is building itself back, and a little bit of help from tourists won’t be all that far out.
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Sri Lanka has something for everybody. If you’re seeking culture, you’ve got the cultural triangle around Sigiriya in the north. If you’re a water baby, you can ride some sick waves on the beaches, or go snorkelling or diving. Whale watching too. If you’re seeking a relaxing vacation, the south boasts of some of THE most stunning beaches you’ve ever seen, and there’s no dearth of yoga and Ayurveda in the country. It’s a great place to sit back and enjoy that R&R. There’s something for mountain lovers too. Head to hill country, go hiking and soak in the beauty of the lush tea plantations. Of course, if you’re backpacking around Sri Lanka, and have 3 weeks or more like I did, you’ll get to do ALL of it! If you have fewer days, go on and make your perfect cocktail!
In the 25-odd days I spent there, I did a little bit of everything. I’m an all-round kinda girl. I like variety, and I love having everything (who doesn’t, haha). Sri Lanka didn’t fail to surprise, enthral, and capture me. This post is going to be a general overview of an itinerary for backpacking around Sri Lanka. You can pick and choose your route based on what your interests are and where you would like to go, but what you’ll find in this post is the route I took, and which most backpackers take. You will also find posts linking to each destination, with full details on what you can do there, where to stay, the best time to visit, you know, the works! Keep this one as a handy reference 🙂
Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka
In the month-ish that I spent backpacking around Sri Lanka, I encountered all sorts of weather. It really is about where you want to spend your time.
West and South – December to mid-April
That’s when the weather is excellent, the sun is shining, but it’s not too hot, everything is open and functioning, and you’ll meet tons of people backpacking around Sri Lanka.
I was there in early May, which is shoulder season. The waters get choppy, and it rains quite a bit, although I did get a couple of days of bright sunshine, so I wouldn’t complain too much. I still got to do everything I wanted and was lucky enough to avoid the nasty weather everywhere. It’s still somewhat unpredictable. The good part is accommodation and transport become much cheaper than during peak season!
East Coast – April / May to September
Season had just about begun in Trinco and Arugam Bay when I was there. Cafes and shops had just started raising shutters. The good part? Operational services, but fewer crowds. Worked for me!
Backpacking around Sri Lanka
I flew to Colombo and stayed the night at a hostel in Negombo, which is way closer to the airport than Colombo – YoYo Hostel. It is run by the sweetest family ever, and Gee, the manager, is super helpful. Negombo is an ideal place to crash for a night before you take off to your next destination.
Sigiriya – 3 days
Sigiriya is famous for the Sigiriya Rock, which used to be an ancient fortress. Another popular rock which a lot of travellers choose to hike is the Pidurangala Rock. This one is just a few feet shorter than the Sigiriya Rock, offers a gorgeous view (especially at sunrise!) AND you can see the Sigiriya rock too! It also costs 500 LKR ($3) to climb as opposed to $30 for Sigiriya.
Sigiriya is also a springboard to explore the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka – Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. The first two are ancient cities and former capitals, while Dambulla is home to the Rock Cave Temple. I visited Polonnaruwa as a day trip from Sigiriya and found it to be very, very fascinating. It’s like taking a walk through history. But I think one of my favourites from the entire Sri Lanka trip was the Dambulla Rock Cave Temple. It BLEW MY MIND. The temple is built along the side of a cliff, houses Buddha statues and showcases some BEAUTIFUL paintings from his life. You cannot miss this one.
I decided to head further north from Sigiriya. I made my way to Trincomalee, a popular port town, also famous for stunning beaches and a bunch of water-based activities you can do. Now, Trincomalee is LONG. There are three places you can stay at. The first – Trinco City, which is probably where you will arrive if you’ve chosen to travel via public transport. The second – Uppaveli, the more popular destination where you’ll find lots of travellers backpacking around Sri Lanka and home to a larger number of bars and restaurants. And the third – Nilaveli, the less pursued beach far up north which is also a springboard for snorkelling.
Trinco City is where all the history and culture is at – the Koneswaram temple, Fredrick Fort, Gokanna Raja Maha Viharaya (the Buddha temple). Dutch Bay is a pristine beach on this side of town.
Uppaveli is where you’ll find most of the tourist crowd. Plenty of hotels, lots of cafes, some bars right by Uppaveli Beach. It’s definitely the place to be if you’re looking for a ‘life’.
Nilaveli beach is at the far north of Trinco. Beautiful blue waters, swinging trees and pristine sands make it one of the most stunning beaches in Sri Lanka.
I stayed at Trinco City for a night, because I felt it was a good idea to explore the city and get the hang of its culture and history. I moved to Uppaveli for a couple of nights after that, and it was a fantastic base to go beach bumming and snorkelling.
Trincomalee is a beautiful spot for snorkelling. Most of the tourists flock to Pigeon Island because that’s where you’ll see a lot of corals, and maybe even possibly spot a shark. The locals (and I) refuse to visit, though, and would discourage you from going there because it’s turned into a coral graveyard, thanks to excessive, irresponsible tourism. If you want to go snorkelling in Trinco and are serious about protecting the environment, hit me up and I’ll tell you where to go 🙂
So I went from Trinco to Kandy, visited the Temple of the Tooth, stayed a night, and moved straight on to Nuwara Eliya. I took the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, which is a very scenic journey, riding through tea plantations and giving you ridiculously beautiful views.
Nuwara Eliya is famous for tea plantations, and some of the best tea you’ll have in Sri Lanka is grown here. You can visit a tea factory and see how the leaves are readied and packaged for sale. Don’t forget to try the golden tips and silver tips tea! They’re both delightfully fragrant and lovely on the palate.
Hill country is also famous for hikes, and there are a few you can do here in Nuwara Eliya.
Lovers Leap hike took us through tea plantations. So, so beautiful! Once we reached the top and got to the falls, we were treated to spectacular views of the city.
My favourite part of Nuwara Eliya was visiting Horton’s Plains National Park. That place is a precious sight to behold. Mist plays lightly over the plains, filtering soft shafts of the early morning sun and giving colour to the landscape. The hike through the plains is quite easy. It’s all mostly downhill and goes through vastly varying terrains and landscapes. Hiking to World’s End was a ton of fun, and this is another thing I would LOVE to do again.
I wanted to spend 2 days in Nuwara Eliya but ended up spending 3 because that’s when the blasts took place. An emergency was declared in the country, with a country-wide curfew and lots of police checking, plus high alert in public areas. Staying flexible with plans allows for unpredictable situations like this. Nuwara Eliya is not a bad place to be stuck in at all, though. There’s so much to do!
Ah, Ella! You’ll find a curious cocktail of both, untouched beauty, as well as absolute commercialisation here. Tourists throng to Ella. I sort of feel like a lot of travellers backpacking around Sri Lanka skip Nuwara Eliya and come straight here, so I was a tad overwhelmed the crowd. The city centre caters to tourists. Everything is overpriced, right from tiny souvenirs to clothes, to even the currency rate. I’m from India, so when I see a pair of dhoti pants costing what it does in Ella, I’m just like NOPE.
Ella totally makes up for this, though, because it’s a fantastic base to go hiking, and good hiking also means GREAT VIEWS! Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock are the two peaks frequented by travellers, and with good reason. Both scenic, spectacular hikes, best done during sunrise, always serving up the best views in the soft morning light. Start early in the morning to make it in time, though!
I also took a day trip to Diyaluma falls, which is about 45 mins away from Ella. It’s the second-highest waterfall in Sri Lanka, and GET THIS, you can jump off the top into one of the infinity pools below. Cool, right?
So the thing with Sri Lanka is the weather is varied along its different coasts all year round. When I went, it was shoulder season in both, so I’d consider myself lucky because I managed to get a good part of both coasts. I hit Arugam Bay from Ella, where season starts in May, and I happened to make it JUST in time. Arugam Bay is where EVERYONE goes for surfing! It has some spectacular beaches where the waves are absolutely PERFECT for beginners as well as pro surfers. I took a surfing lesson at Peanut Farm for the first time ever. While I was a little apprehensive, I really did enjoy it and was SO surprised that I was actually able to stand by the end of it!
Arugam Bay is also the doorway to some of Sri Lanka’s national parks. You could take a day trip to Yala, or explore Kumana, which is closer. Don’t be surprised if you see an elephant or two wandering along the roads, though! Keep your eyes peeled for other animals too 😀
Arugam Bay isn’t exactly on the standard route people take while backpacking around Sri Lanka. Still, it’s a destination worth a visit. So find your tribe and hire a taxi!
Let’s just say after my tryst with surfing in Arugam Bay, I really wanted to hit the waves again, and I’d heard and read so much about Weligama and Mirissa that I HAD to head there! Sure enough, the beach is dotted with surfers along the entire length, starting early, around 7, and hanging around all day. Hiriketiya is a little alcove about an hour away. It USED to be a very local, very lesser-known beach, where only surfers would go. Still, it’s no longer a secret, if the crowd there indicated anything. Great waves, though, in good weather conditions.
Mirissa is a short way from Weligama. The beach is frequented by tourists, but it’s more to chill than to surf. Some of Mirissa’s famous sights are close to the beach, Coconut Tree Hill and Parrot Rock being two. Mirissa is also an ideal spot to try and spot whales during season!
It’s all beaches here on! The south coast is where everyone comes to relax and unwind. This is almost ALWAYS the last stop for those of us backpacking around Sri Lanka because it’s so NICE to hit the beaches after weeks of wandering around. Some of the popular beaches here are Unawatuna beach, Jungle beach, and Dalawella Beach, where you can go surfing, swimming, or go looking for that highly Instagrammable beach swing!
We also had the option of visiting a spice plantation but gave that a miss. I tend to find these things a tourist trap so consciously avoid them, but that’s just me.
I visited Galle on a day trip from Unawatuna. It’s probably half an hour or so by Tuktuk, and you don’t need more than half a day to explore the fort area. It’s gorgeous, though, with expansive views of the ocean, a highly Instagrammable lighthouse, cobbled streets, lovely cafes… Spend some time ambling down the lanes of Galle Fort. Visit the quaint little shops, where you can find souvenirs, clothing, gemstones, and tea. Sit at one of the cafes and sample the local food. Walk along the ramparts of Galle Fort and take a trip back in time. Immerse yourself in the magical vistas of the ocean. The architecture is beautiful and reminds you of a different time.
I was to return to Colombo at this point and spend two nights there before catching my flight back home, but given the tense situation in the city at the time, I decided to go to Hikkaduwa instead.
Since this was the last stop on my trip. A fellow traveller and I pitched in and stayed at a 4-star property, and MAN, did that feel good after weeks of backpacking around Sri Lanka and roughing it out! A big plus was that the hotel opened out to Turtle Beach as we even saw a sea turtle sweeping up!
Snorkelling is a major draw in Hikkaduwa; the corals are said to be incredible, but the weather was quite bad when I was there, so I got a lot of milky water and maybe a few fish. Ah well.
What to Eat in Sri Lanka
There is something for EVERYONE here! Whatever your taste, eating preference, budget, you will find it here. Rice and curry, kottu, and hoppers are some of the local and more popular dishes available practically everywhere, with both meat and vegetarian options available.
Where to Stay in Sri Lanka
I have linked accommodation options in all of my city-specific posts, split into budget, mid-range and luxury. I booked everything through Booking.com.
Things to Keep in Mind
Download PickMe. It’s the Uber equivalent in Sri Lanka
As a woman travelling by herself in Sri Lanka, you’re going to get approached a LOT, because apparently, it means you’re ‘available’. I don’t get it. I was tired of rebuffing advances and had to make up a fake boyfriend/husband quite early into my journey to stop the advances because apparently, another man’s claim on me is still worth more than me wanting to do something by myself. It’s sad.
Since the idea was to go backpacking around Sri Lanka, I only booked one night in Negombo in advance. The rest of my trip was decided spur of the moment. You’ll always find a route, a place to stay, and people to go with. Staying in hostels is a fantastic idea because you never know who you’ll meet! Try to keep your schedule flexible and try not to worry too much about it. Things will fall in place!
I only ever withdrew cash from Bank of Ceylon ATMs because they do not charge a fee on withdrawals. Nearly every other ATM, I tried charges a transaction fee, but not BOC. And since it’s one of the leading banks in the country, you’ll find an ATM just about anywhere.
Nearly everyone understands English. You’ll find Tamil speakers in the north and in hill country, but the rest of the country speaks Sinhalese. English is pretty common, though.
If you’re an Indian passport holder (like me) or belong to a SAARC country, be sure to keep your passport on you while visiting places like Polonnaruwa and the Tooth Temple in Kandy. You’re entitled to a discount on entrance. Yay!!!
If you’ve got more time, you might consider visiting Jaffna, the northernmost tip of the country. It’s the heart of the Tamil movement, and while there might be some similarities with India, it’s also starkly different. So I’ve heard. I couldn’t visit it on this trip, but it’s a destination I definitely want to visit to understand more about this country that I fell in love with.
Alright! I hope this helps! It’s a great starting point to beginning your Sri Lanka adventures, and if you need more info on any of the destinations I’ve spoken about, feel free to check out the individual posts! If you’re backpacking around Sri Lanka, trust me, this is ALL you’re going to need.