Sri Lanka is in many ways like a more digestible version of India. You’ve got the history (2,500 years of it), the beautiful colonial architecture, the temples, the hazardous tuk tuk drivers and the sometimes just-as-hazardous street food. Like India, there’s that sense that you might just see something weird and wonderful – on our visit, we saw wild elephants strolling past red British postboxes.
But it’s just easier – you can get all the culture, plus brilliant beaches and nature thrown in, all in one week-long visit. The only catch is that people are figuring it out. Sights such as The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Unawatuna Beach and the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala are becoming increasingly well trodden. So we’ve found a few alternative ways to get the most out of your visit. We stayed in Colombo, Galle and Kandy on a two-week visit, and the adventures we’ve listed here are accessible from these three cities.
Ride the train from Colombo to Badulla
Most locals know that the best way to see Sri Lanka’s striking hill country is aboard the old Podi Menike train. This 140-year-old train journey takes ten hours to cover 290km, but it’s worth it for some of the most beautiful scenery in the country – the train clings to cliffs as it passes tea plantations, the great Mahaweli River and the old colonial resort of Nuwara Eliya on the way to the summit at Pattipola, 6,226ft above sea level. After that it descends past waterfalls and deep valleys on the way to the terminus at Badulla, one of the country’s oldest towns. They don’t make train rides like this anymore. Tickets from LKR200 ($2) (+94 11 243 2908, www.railway.gov.lk).
Go on a wild jungle trek near Galle
Sri Lanka is a magnet for wildlife, with 70 per cent of the world’s frog population, 435 bird species, over 90 species of snakes including cobras plus crowd-pleasers like the odd elephant, leopard and masturbating monkey. The nature experts at Rainforest Rescue International run wild trips to lesser-known reserves, such as Kanneliya and Sinharaja. Tours differ depending on what nature is doing – ours involved using leaves to make soap in the rain, eating the insanely bitter juice from a snail (apparently it’s a good form of natural disinfectant), and learning how to remove leeches without getting their heads stuck on your skin. Tours from $25 (+94 77 453 5746, www.rainforestrescueinternational.org).
Save the turtles on the south coast
To stop the illegal collection of eggs laid by five species of endangered turtles, the Bundala National Park – a few hours east of Galle round the south coast – have set up overnight turtle watches on Rekawa Beach, with luxe camping and all meals included. The scheme was created not only to protect the creatures, but also to offer an alternative income to the people involved in the illegal trade. Aside from turtles, the national park also hosts elephants, crocodiles and 150 bird species. Trips cost $325 for two days and one night (+94 11 583 0833, www.srilankaecotourism.com).
Surf at your own private beach on the west coast
As an alternative to the famous surfing spots Hikkaduwa and Arugam Bay (north of Galle), you can pay $120 to rent a whole beach for the day and surf its waves exclusively. You don’t even have to bring a surfboard as the Amanwella boutique hotel offers equipment and tuition at either its own dreamy private beach or an equally secluded one in the vicinity (you don’t have to be a resident). If you’re waiting for the swell, visit the nearby Mulgirigala Rock Temple. Few tourists know that a massive reclining Buddha statue is just sitting there in the forest, and that the caves around it hide ancient wall paintings. Find Mulgirigala Rock Temple near Beliatta Road. Surf lessons on the private beach start from $120. Phone ahead to check the surf report and book (+94 47 224 1333, www.amanresorts.com).
Cook your own Sri Lankan curry near Galle
A clever way to enjoy Sri Lankan cuisine is to cook it yourself. Kahanda Kanda Hotel near Galle offers lessons with fresh, locally sourced ingredients chosen by head chef Ruwan. You’ll learn to cook dishes such as traditional milky fish curry, spicy chicken curry and vegetable curry with fresh ginger, curry powder and coconut (plus some secret ingredients). After the lesson, devour your creations at the hilltop restaurant overlooking the jungle. Lessons run daily in Angulugaha; $15 per person for a two-hour session (+94 11 494 3700, www.kahandakanda.com).