We spent a month in Sri Lanka, which is also called The Gem Island or The Pearl of the Indian Ocean, and fell in love with this amazing country. I previously wrote about why now is the perfect time to visit. Here are the specifics on my favorite memories.
One of the joys of traveling in Sri Lanka is taking the train. The rail network is extensive and tickets are cheap as chips. While the trains certainly aren’t fancy, the open-air coaches give you to the opportunity to soak up the lovely scenery.
Our first rail journey was from Colombo to Galle along the western coast. The ocean was a stone’s throw from our window nearly the whole way! We watched the sea change to brilliant shades of emerald, while a fresh, salty breeze streamed through the car. This ride took less than three hours and cost only $1 each.
The southern interior also offers brilliant journeys. Winding through the hills, the trains pass over bridges and through extensive tea plantations. The green landscapes are mesmerizing, especially when the afternoon clouds are perched on the hilltops.
Sir Thomas Lipton came to Sri Lanka in the 1800s and purchased vast tracts of land, with the goal of growing his own tea in order to cut out the middlemen and lower prices. Previously, only England’s elite could afford to drink tea. But thanks to the Lipton brand, tea became accessible to the masses.
Today, Sri Lanka is one of the world’s leading exporters of tea (still known as Ceylon tea). It’s certainly the national drink, and no visit to the island would be complete without a trip to tea country.
In the town of Haputale, we visited Lipton’s Seat: an iconic viewpoint which overlooks one of Lipton’s original tea plantations. The 7km walk back down was lovely, as we got to meander through the tea fields and watch the workers picking and pruning.
We also toured two factories: one for green tea and one for black tea. Did you know that both come from the same plant? Black tea is fermented, while green tea is not. It was fascinating to walk through the process, and it’s mind-blowing how many tea leaves are processed each day.
Udawalawe National Park
Next we made a beeline for Udawalawe National Park, which has the highest concentration of wild elephants in Sri Lanka. Visitors explore the park via jeep safari.
Elephants are the draw card, of course, but the park is also home to wild buffalo, crocodiles, monkeys, leopards and an astonishing array of bird life. The habitats are diverse and the park is really beautiful.
We started our safari at sunrise and saw elephants almost immediately. It is truly awe-inspiring to see these creatures in their natural habitat and at such close range! Our guide had previously worked for the conservation department, so he was full of great information about their physical traits and habits. Throughout the morning we saw upwards of 30 elephants.
The village of Udawalawe also hosts the Elephant Transit Home. Orphaned elephants are brought here for medical care and support through adulthood. The workers provide milk feedings for the elephants every three hours, every single day.
The babies aren’t captive; they are free to roam through adjacent national park. And the elephants are exposed to as little human interaction as possible, because the goal is for them to survive on their own in the wild at adolescence. This organization has had a lot of success so far.
The best part? Visitors are welcome to view the feedings three times a day. Fair warning: the parade of baby elephants running in for their milk is the cutest thing I have ever seen.
Adam’s Peak is a 2,243m high mountain which carries a great deal of religious significance. A sacred footprint at the summit is simultaneously claimed as the footprint of the Buddha, Shiva (by Hindus), and Adam (in the Christian and Islamic traditions). Climbing to the top of this peak is an extremely popular spiritual pilgrimage for people across the globe, from all walks of life.
Our time in Sri Lanka coincided with the start of the pilgrimage season, so we couldn’t miss it. While Adam’s Peak can be visited any time of day, it’s customary to climb at night and watch sunrise from the summit.
This is no ordinary hike, the path is all concrete steps illuminated with electric lights. There are plenty of refreshment stalls and resting places along the way. There are thousands of stairs to climb and I found it pretty challenging— my trekking muscles had left me!
When I reached the top, huffing and puffing, the viewing area was fairly crowded with a mix of young monks, pilgrims and foreign tourists. I weaseled my way into a good spot and pulled on a sweater as my sweat-drenched shirt began to chill me.
The vast landscape below was a sea of clouds, with a few smaller peaks poking through. A few streaks of pink light hung in the sky. As the scene grew brighter, a drum circle started up in the temple above us. There was a palpable energy energizing the crowd as the sky changed colors. Monks began a chanting ritual as the sun rose out of the clouds. I had goosebumps.
The sunrise was absolutely stunning, especially over the cloud-covered mountains below us. It was a fantastic reward for hauling myself up all those steps. But sharing that experience with so many strangers in a sacred ritual was magical.
Don’t Miss the Gem Island
I could go on and on with more highlights, like the amazing hiking around Ella and the picture-perfect beaches. But hopefully this list has convinced you to add Sri Lanka to your bucket list!
To be honest, we didn’t even cover half the island while we were there— but I can still say easily that Sri Lanka is one of my favorite countries to date. I can’t wait to return and explore some more!