From crazy bus rides to iconic train journeys; delicious local food in sublime scenery and ancient treasures. Here are our top experiences in Sri Lanka.


Rice and curry. Never a disappointment and never the other way around.

This Sri Lankan institution accompanied many great experiences in Sri Lanka. It comforted us after fast-moving ceremonies, after even faster-moving buses and on slow moving trains. It sustained us after hours cycling around exotic ancient temples and supplemented impossibly beautiful landscapes.

But Sri Lanka is more than the numerous components on a rice and curry platter. This tropical gem perched just above the equator in the shadow of India is full of memorable experiences.

Here are ours.

OUR TOP EXPERIENCES IN SRI LANKA

POLONNARUWA / Relaxing in the shade of ancient stupas and regal palaces

BUSES / The drama of riding Sri Lanka’s fast and furious local buses

KANDY / Absorbing cultural curiosities at the Sacred Tooth ceremony in Kandy

MIRISSA / Eating fresh fish with feet sunk in the sand at Mirissa Beach

TRAINS / Spicy nuts and sweet tea on iconic train rides

RAMBODA FALLS / Following the tea – from plantation to factory

ROADSIDE FOOD / Eating vegetable curry & rice in a shed on the highway

1 / RELAXING IN THE SHADE OF ANCIENT STUPAS AND REGAL PALACES OF POLONNARUWA

Trees swayed to the gentle breeze of a warm Sri Lankan afternoon. Monkeys climbed over ancient stone ruins, their playful banter echoing through the remains of once powerful empires. Mangos were piled high on tables beside smiling locals, turning them in to lassies under the shade of towering stupas. Our palms were sweaty, our legs were tired – slowly getting caked with the dust from our bikes.

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, deep in the central plains of Sri Lanka, was the playground of kings and the capital of the country. It peaked in the 12th century but within 100 years power and wealth fled from Polonnaruwa and it was subsequently abandoned in 1310. Crumbling ruins on dusty tracks in central Sri Lanka are now all that remain from those heady times.

We cycled passed the huge white stupa of Kiri Vihara and on to Lankatilaka Viharaya, one of the most evocative ruins in Polonnaruwa built by King Parakramabahu. We purchased some mango and tucked into it beside the ancient king’s swimming pool. In front of us, towering above the welcome shade of the trees stood 17 metre carved bas-relief walls. A towering self-indulgent monument to a long forgotten king and our vista for a top experience in Sri Lanka.


Polonnaruwa Ancient Site & Museum / 7:30 – 18:00 | Price: $US 25 | Clothing: Knees and shoulders must be covered.

2 / THE DRAMA OF RIDING SRI LANKA’S FAST AND FURIOUS LOCAL BUSES

We were met by a broad tooth grin as the bus doors flung open. Waving us on with excited arms, the ticket inspector grabbed the correct fare from our upturned palms like a kid scavenging for the best bits of candy. Neon lights beckoned us down the aisle as rave music pumped from tiny speakers not built for the distress they were being put through.

A Sri Lankan bus ride is like no other.

Every seat was full, most overflowing. Parents, children, grandchildren and their pets occupied a small vinyl space designed for far fewer people. Still, there was plenty of room for us. Locals scooched over to allow us half a cheek space on the edge of their seat.

Flying down windy country roads, we swayed in sync with the dancing Buddha at the front of the bus. We deflected both the gaudy decorations swinging from the roof and the questions from our fellow passengers.

“Where are you from?”

“Do you like Sri Lanka?”

“Where are your wives?”

All in a day riding Sri Lanka’s fast and furious local buses. With inquisitive locals, dance music, neon lights and bouncing decorations, it was the best $1 club we’ve ever been to.

3 / ABSORBING CULTURAL CURIOSITIES AT THE SACRED TOOTH CEREMONY IN KANDY

The narrow entrance to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth was covered in gold leaf and flower motif. Through the entrance, a large wooden shrine sat in the centre of a massive hall. Etched in red, blue and gold it was menacingly defended by massive elephant tusks protruding from a golden fence. Two men stood guard – naked from the waist up – banging drums to a building rhythmic beat. The ceremony of the sacred tooth had begun.

The tooth is said to belong to Siddhārtha Gautama, Buddha himself. When he was cremated in India, one of his teeth was recovered and made its way to Sri Lanka where it was presented to the king. Over the centuries the tooth was handed down to each subsequent king who built temples to house it under protective custody.

Mingling families, dressed in their finest, prayed over a carpet of flowers as incense flickered through lantern light. We joined a queue and slowly proceeded up a grand staircase and around the temple before arriving at the tooth, safely hidden in an intricately carved gold case, surrounded by another 6 intricately carved gold cases. After a few seconds, a burly looking guard nudged us on.

Our experience viewing the tooth was complete.


Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic Ceremony / 5:30, 9:30, 18:30 | Location: off Dalada Vidiya, Kandy | Cost: Rs1,500 adult (children free)

4 / EATING FRESH FISH WITH FEET SUNK IN THE SAND AT MIRISSA BEACH

Mirissa beach slowly started to fade as the sun set over the golden sands. The bright blue ocean we’d been admiring all day, softened into a dark glistening grey. The night shift started to swing into action. Restaurants set up tables on patches of sand vacated by sunbathers, music rose and candles started to flicker over menus.

We headed to a small wooden table sunk in the sand to inspect today’s catch. Swordfish, dory, red snapper, sea bream, wahoo, grouper. Our selection was plonked on a nearby BBQ made out of an old boat. With toes crunched in sand, we watched the last of the surfers make their way inland as beers were delivered to our table. Before long, our fish arrived, simply grilled with a wedge of lemon.

The lively hubbub of the day paused while the sunset captivated everyone’s attention; only to reemerge again as chilled party mode. With sunset complete, we ate our grilled sea bream by the light of the BBQ and the hum of the music starting to build in the restaurants behind us.

5 / SPICY NUTS AND SWEET TEA ON ICONIC TRAIN RIDES

The dramatic Sri Lankan highlands had trundled past our train window for the last 3 hours. And just as our stomachs began to rumble in time with the train a local man pushed his antique cart up our aisle. It was packed with all sorts of goodness. Yoghurt lassi, fried samosas and fresh smelling cupcakes. But our attention was caught by the spicy nuts peeking out of a piece of paper fashioned into a cone and the sweet tea in a flask.

Sri Lanka’s railway network was conceived, designed and introduced by the British colonial government in 1864 to transport tea – also a British introduction – from the mountain highlands north to Colombo. Today this Sri Lankan institution pushes 200,000 smiling locals and slightly confused tourists around.

Not content with watching the scenery through smudgy windows, we took our spicy nuts and our deliciously sweet chai tea and sat on the floor in a doorway. We watched the world go by with our legs dangling out the door. Sweeping views of steep-sided valleys packed with lush verdant vegetation and manicured tea plantations rushed past us. Peering down the length of the train, with the wind in our hair and through our shirts, we saw excited faces, just like ours, staring back.


Kandy to Ella / Tickets for the Kandy to Ella train can be booked online in advance. There are two trains a day departing Kandy at 8:47 and 11:10; arriving at Nanu Oya at 12:40 and 14:57 and at Ella at 15:14 and 17:27.

6 / FOLLOWING THE TEA – FROM PLANTATION TO FACTORY AT RAMBODA FALLS

An average hotel in a stunning location. The uninviting breakfast room was laid out ready for busloads of breakfast goers. But beyond the crockery and paper napkins, the mist from the waterfall wafted over manicured tea plantations.

At Ramboda, deep in the Sri Lankan highlands, the high plateau suddenly surrenders to a precipitous drop. Vast volumes of the region’s rainfall twisted as it collapsed over the valley walls. The result is the impressive Ramboda Falls; a scenic waterfall set dramatically among the tea plantations.

We left the hotel by the back door and suddenly found ourselves in a sea of green. Bulbous tea bushes – perfectly shaped – shimmered in the early morning light. Pickers in light shirts and tightly curled turbans, loomed out of the spray and mist, picking the tea ready for its journey to the nearby Blue Fields Tea Factory.

We followed the tea to the factory where we found three hundred staff sorting, selecting, and drying leaves in an antiquated building, reminiscent of an imperial past. We learnt about black tea, green tea and white tea. About orange pekoe, broken orange pekoe, flowery orange pekoe and, flowery broken orange pekoe fanning extra special. Who knew tea could be so complicated?


Ramboda Falls / 1-hour taxi drive from Nanu Oya train station, or 2 hours 15 min from Kandy. Get to the falls from the Ramboda Falls Hotel.

7 / EATING VEGETABLE CURRY & RICE IN A SHED ON THE HIGHWAY

It had been a long drive from Colombo to Habarana. Scenes of palm trees framing rice fields appeared outside the car window. We went through small villages where local life was unfolding on the highway. Women carried children on their hips as they shopped at local markets. Men sat on milk crates smoking.

Our driver told us we were stopping for lunch and we were excited to explore one of these small villages a bit more, check out some local food and explore local Sri Lankan life.

Instead, we stopped at a large tin shed by the highway with plastic chairs arranged on a concrete floor. Basically, someone’s garage. Our driver ordered for us, but really there was only one choice for the recent arrivals to Sri Lanka – rice and curry veg.

While it wasn’t a cute Sri Lankan village, our first taste of this dish will forever remain in my memory as a classic Sri Lankan experience. Our rice and curry veg comprised 2 dollops of fragrant curry, dahl, sambal, curried pineapple and rice. The ubiquitous Sri Lankan dish delivered in a garage with the hum of the highway reverberating around us, was the perfect start to culinary Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka offers so much more than rice and curry, this read captures the essence of Sri Lankan cooking in 50 dishes.


Perera And Sons / They have a number of outlets in Sri Lanka, including the one we visited on the Dambulla road.

OUR SRI LANKA MOMENTS MAP

To see the list of places we found captivated us so much they made our top experiences in Sri Lanka, click on the icon to the left of the title on the map. To save this map, click on the star the right of the title – this will download to: YOUR PLACES -> MAPS in Google.

INSPIRED? HERE’S HOW TO PLAN YOUR OWN SRI LANKA EXPERIENCES

If these top experiences inspire you to see Sri Lanka for yourself, here’s our complete itinerary with all the information and costs for how we experienced Sri Lanka in 10 days.

TROPHY HUNTING IN NAMIBIA

You might also like to read a bit more about Sri Lanka where we had an iconic train journey, saw some interesting cultural traditions, and visited historically fascinating sites.

KANDY TO ELLA TRAIN – AN UNFORGETTABLE JOURNEY

CYCLING THE ANCIENT CITY OF POLONNARUWA

CULTURAL CURIOSITIES IN SRI LANKA

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below – we will always reply. But before you go any further why not follow us on FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM and TWITTER and sign up to our monthly NEWSLETTER.

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Crazy bus rides, iconic train journeys, delicious local food, sublime scenery and ancient treasures. Here are our top experiences in Sri Lanka.

Crazy bus rides, iconic train journeys, delicious local food, sublime scenery and ancient treasures. Here are our top experiences in Sri Lanka.

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