Sri Lanka has been on our must travel list for quite some time. We've had friends from all over the world who visited for 30 days and fell in love with the country. We initially thought we'd have to skip Sri Lanka, but after changing plans and heading back to India, we knew the teardrop shaped island would be our next adventure. After a little bit of research, we realized that Sri Lanka is one of those islands that has it all. There are tropical white sand beaches, rolling green tea plantations, mountaintop temples, forests, and national park safari destinations.
At this point, knee-deep in planning our route, we quickly realized that local trains and buses would limit which boxes we'd be able to tick off. Although Sri Lanka has a great bus/train system, we knew we would be limited to traveling on a set schedule (often competing with our online teaching), we wouldn't be able to pull over and take photos whenever we wanted, and we certainly wouldn't travel off the beaten track. Suddenly we remembered some Instagram friends who had rented a tuk tuk in Sri Lanka. Daniel immediately contacted Tuk Tuk Rental and the rest is history. Tuk Tuk Rental has been an absolute pleasure to work with. They not only planned our route based off of what we wanted to see, but they also obtained a local tuk tuk license for Daniel, helped us find homestays to sleep at along the way, and continue to check in on us every few days. For anyone not following, we have taken over their Instagram stories for the whole month we're traveling.
Below is our route for the first leg of our trip. We spent three days in Colombo test-driving the tuk tuk, finding a SIM card, eating as much fresh fruit as humanly possible, and making sure we were ready to go. To us, Colombo was a big city with some nice restaurants and beaches, but we were anxious to escape the city and head out in our tuk tuk.
Monday morning, at 6:00 AM, we left Colombo in an attempt to beat traffic. Daniel grew up on a farm driving manual vehicles such as tractors and cars. However, even this experience couldn't prepare him for driving a tuk tuk. I think we both underestimated the skills required to drive a tuk tuk. I mean, it basically looks like a giant tricycled motorbike, right? The clutch is in one hand, along with the gear shifter, the gas is in another, and the brake is at his foot. Toro (our trusty red tuk tuk) was a bit sensitive and struggled sometimes to find a gear. Despite these challenges, we headed out without any problems and quickly found ourselves on small country roads lined with palm trees. We couldn't believe our eyes! I was in the backseat, breeze in my face, in absolute bliss. This was only day one.
After about six hours (that felt like two), we arrived at a UNESCO World Heritage Site named Sigiriya. Sigiriya is a rock that rises dramatically above the flat plains. The walls of the rock are nearly vertical and it's truly a site to see!
where to stay
Nelu Villa Sigiriya: We stayed at a fairly new guest house located in the middle of a rice field with a view of Sigiriya Lion Rock. Our room was light and airy with many windows that open up to the rice field. Natural light is the number one quality we look for in hotels, homestays, or guest houses during our travels. The restaurant upstairs had gorgeous wood tables and a couple of hammocks to relax in. In the early morning, there was a nice breeze that made drinking our morning coffee extra enjoyable. The food here was great as well! Also, we walked ten minutes down a residential road and found ourselves at a lake. Many locals were swimming in the lake, riding their bicycles, and waving at us. All around, Nelu Villa is a perfect place to relax and enjoy Sigiriya!
what to do
Sigiriya Lion Rock: Early in the morning, we hopped in Toro and headed out to climb this 200 meter tall rock often called the eighth wonder of the world. The rock is flat on the top and houses ruins of an ancient civilization. In the late fifth century, the new king selected the top of this rock as the location for his capital and palace. How humans ever carried building materials up the side of vertical walls and built a whole palace is absolutely mind-blowing to us!
Daniel and I climbed a series of staircases attached to a sheer wall as we sweat every ounce of liquid out of our body. We passed hand-painted frescoes and a pair of carved lion's paws before reaching the summit. There isn't much left at the top besides some rumbled stones. But the views (and the breeze) were incredible.
This hike wasn't cheap, as it cost us $30 USD per person. If you aren't set on seeing the ruins, you can climb Pidurangala Rock for a fraction of the cost. You'll have nice views of Sigiriya Lion Rock. However, the ruins at the top were beautiful -- so we still recommend paying the $60 to see this wonder. Climb in the early morning before the crowds and sun are too intense!
Other items on our list in Sigiriya were Polannaruwa Ancient City, Dambulla Cave Temples, and Namal Uyana Rose Quartz Mountain. However, with limited time and a few other items we had to take care of, we unfortunately weren't able to make it to any of these.
After spending two nights in Sigiriya, Toro carried us three hours northeast to the beach town of Trincomalee. This historic city is located on a natural harbor. There's a long list of things to see here, so we had to pick and choose which ones we were most interested in seeing. We spent the next five nights exploring the area.
where to stay
Amaranthe Bay Resort & Spa: Amaranthe Bay was much more than just a hotel we stayed at. It was an experience. This luxurious hotel overlooks the river and is located a five minute walk away from the beach. The staff at Amaranthe Bay spoiled us rotten -- from welcome drinks, to a cooking demo, to lending us kayaks, to serving us a freshly cooked three course dinner. Our room was one of the most beautiful we've seen with hardwood floors, high ceilings, lots of light, the most comfortable bed, and an in-suite jacuzzi.
Chef Navindra and Chef Kadirgamar Sanjeev are integral parts of Amaranthe Bay. All of their meals are cooked with fresh organic ingredients that are native to Sri Lanka. They're committed to serving their guests the local cuisine, but also love to mix in some international flare. For dinner our first night, we were treated to homemade bread, roasted vegetables, a whole fish, and a brownie dessert. The next day, we were given a cooking demonstration out on the lawn (check out our video here). Other guests from the hotel joined in as we learned about the various spices used and the cooking process. The chefs made crab curry, eggplant curry, and sauteed lady fingers (okra). Yum! Also, we can't forget the breakfast. Daniel and I were served platters of every tropical fruit imaginable, homemade bread, buffalo curd, nuts, dates, and raisins. At this point, we were full! Then, the waiter handed us a menu and asked us what we wanted to order. By the end of breakfast, we could've had someone roll us out of the outdoor dining area. We definitely didn't go hungry here!
During our time at the hotel, we kayaked along the river at sunset. Although the water was very shallow, we thoroughly enjoyed being out on the water. We kayaked across the river to palm tree paradise -- trees are far as the eye could see. The next day, we went on a snorkeling excursion to Pigeon Island. You can read about our experience below. Amaranthe Bay also offers their guests bicycles to use, a spa, and day trips to many locations in Sri Lanka. For anyone heading to Trinco, we loved our stay at this property and recommend it -- whether you're interested in relaxing or adventuring (or both).
what to do
Pigeon Island National Park: This small island has some of the best coral reefs that still remain in Sri Lanka. Daniel and I, along with a French couple, boarded a small boat and headed out to Pigeon Island from Amaranthe Bay. After forty-five minutes, we arrived at the island. There were quite a few other boats there already, so we were thankful that we left as early as we did. We put on our masks, snorkels, and fins and headed out with our guide. During our snorkel, we saw reef sharks (6-8 feet long), sea turtles, incredible coral, eels, and hundreds of kinds of tropical fish. Every few seconds, we'd be trying to get each other's attention underwater as we saw something new. This was possibly the best snorkeling we've done. We spent $40 USD per person for this half-day excursion. This total included the boat fee and the National Park fee.
However, as a traveler, please don't step on the coral! We saw so many people putting their fins down on the coral without thinking twice about it. We want this site to stay preserved so that others can enjoy in the future just as we did. We must all work together to be responsible travelers.
Fort Frederick: This fort was built by the Portuguese after they destroyed a world famous Hindu temple. We will confess that we're not quite sure we saw Fort Frederick (or if there is even any fort left to see). We set out one evening to wander the town in our tuk tuk without any real destination in mind. We saw a few old fort walls but were more mesmerized by the spotted deer we saw around the fort.
Nilaveli Beach: One morning, we took Toro out on a trip to the northern roads of Trinco. There are many small fishing villages with rivers running through to the ocean. We stumbled upon Nilaveli Beach and had the best day. We were among only a few other people on the white sand beach enjoying the sunshine. The water was like warm bath water and crystal clear. Even Daniel, who doesn't love the ocean, was swimming and riding the waves. Don't forget the sunscreen (trust us)!
Sri Pathrakali Amman Kovil: This colorful temple is located right in the middle of Trincomalee town. The detail on this temple is incredible. The temple itself was closed when we visited, but walking around the outside was jaw-dropping enough. We'll let the picture speak for itself.
Our next stop was the best safari in Sri Lanka: Wasgamua National Park. Stay tuned for a blog post coming real soon!