Reporting back from Sri Lanka
In October, I was lucky enough to return to Sri Lanka on an Audley research trip. It had been a while since my last visit, and I was eager to seek out new experiences, and generally measure the pulse of travel in the country.
Sri Lanka is slowly but positively moving on from the sad events in April: the island remains the same with only small differences, such as an extra security check at the airport. And, now is a good time to go: it’s quieter than it’s been in recent years, the islanders will be happy to see you, and you’ll be helping the country get back on its feet.
All the experiences I mention in this blog can now be incorporated into your own tailor-made Sri Lankan trip, such as this journey taking in Kandy and Galle.
Another, welcome initiative: on arrival, you’ll soon be given a reusable bottle for drinking water if you don’t already have one, helping cut down on single-use plastic. And, though there’s more choice of hotels than ever, you’ll still find plenty of the great boutique properties that Sri Lanka does so well.
Here are my other, main findings:
More opportunities to try traditional, home-cooked food
Kandy morning market
Here’s the thing about Sri Lankan food: it’s delicious, but it can be hard to find the real deal. Sri Lankan residents have no culture of dining out at Sri Lankan restaurants, preferring to choose foreign cuisines such as Thai ― the logic being, why go out if you can find the best curry at home? This has meant that you can sometimes struggle to find authentic Sri Lankan meals, as even the best hotels tend to tone-down their offering to suit Western palates.
Until now. More and more hotels are bringing in local chefs who are offering something closer to home cooking, and I’ve come across a few tours which allow you to delve into the local food scene.
One of the best I tried was in Kandy, with guide Anjalee. She led me on a morning tour of a food market, which involved stopping off at various stalls and trying different local dishes. There was fruit I’d never heard of let alone tasted, followed by a cup of ‘workers tea’ with lots of milk. Then we ducked into a small women’s cooperative for some freshly fried snacks: I liked wadi best, which is salty but resembles a ring doughnut.
After wandering past a row of tailors’ shops, we then tucked into manioc chips, masala dhosa (chickpea pancakes with spiced potatoes) before finishing off with buffalo curd doused with treacle — which tastes far better than it sounds.
You can also take an evening food walk in Kandy for the chance to sample kottu. This is a dish that uses up leftovers: it often involves shredded roti, stir-fried vegetables, chilli and leftover cooked meat, all mixed with an egg. I can also recommend the egg hoppers: bowl-shaped rice-flour pancakes with an egg cracked in the bottom and usually eaten for breakfast.
More chances to meet people and explore Sri Lankan culture
Mask painting workshop, Galle Fort
We’ve sought out a few new experiences that let you meet and interact with ordinary Sri Lankan residents, giving you a chance to experience to know the country more intimately.
For example, there’s a brand-new 8 km (5 mile) cycling tour that’s based near Sigiriya Rock, taking you on quiet back roads and cycle paths. Alternatively, you can travel in a rickshaw.
The route involves stopping at local craftspeople’s houses, where you’ll get to watch them at their work. I visited a fisherman’s home (and sampled freshly caught fish), a broom maker, an ayurvedic oil maker, and a brick maker.
I also called in at a dance instructor, who gives you a lesson in traditional Kandyan dancing. Luckily, she was armed with buckets of patience as I tried to copy the highly stylised moves and gestures. Then, some of her adult students treated me to a much more adept performance.
The tour finishes with lunch at your guide’s house, during which his wife shows you how to make dhal: another opportunity for some a proper home-cooked, Sri Lankan cuisine.
What I like about this tour is that, with the possible exception of the dance class, it doesn’t feel especially ‘set up’ for visitors: these are people getting on with their daily jobs.
If you like cycling, there’s an excellent 30 km (19 mile) tour just outside Kandy. Luckily, it’s all downhill, as you wind your way down through tea country, taking in views of the mountains around Kandy. You visit a spice shop en route — the kind of place only locals go — for a glimpse at what goes into making curry powder, and then stop for freshly cooked roadside corn on the cob.
There are also a couple of plantation visits I’d recommend, both of which are completely off the tourist trail. One is a Tamil-run coconut plantation, which has a very good farm shop where you can buy coconut oil at locals’ rates. Another is a cinnamon plantation on the south coast. In both places, you can see how coconut oil and cinnamon bark is processed, starting with the raw materials.
Finally, there’s a mask-painting workshop run by a local artist in Galle Fort, which sees you paint a hand-sized wooden mask traditionally used in Sri Lankan puppetry. It makes for a great, meditative afternoon exercise and offers another dimension to this popular coastal hub.
Leopard Trails Camp is still the best place to stay in Wilpattu and Yala national parks
Leopard Trails Tented Safari Camp, Wilpattu National Park
They’re far superior to others I’ve stayed in, as their guides have been trained by an African safari camp team.
What I like is they talk you through the landscape and the ecosystem as you explore in your 4X4 safari vehicle, giving you a more holistic view of the place. ‘This is the sandy zone…and now we’re coming into the clay zone,’ commented my guide as we rumbled along.
He was full of informative facts and insights, and not just trained on spotting certain species (unlike many guides). If you’re serious about experiencing Sri Lankan wildlife ― not just leopards, but elephants, sloth bears, jackals and birdlife ― then Leopard Trails is the place to go.
Roads have improved
There’s been a lot of work on road networks since I was last there, meaning that you can now bypass a lot of Colombo and its heavy traffic. Soon, you’ll be able to get from the airport to the colonial town of Galle and the beaches of the south coast in only 90 minutes (as opposed to three hours), thanks to a new highway link. A Colombo to Kandy highway is also under construction.