I have returned from three weeks traveling around the emerald island of Sri Lanka. Oh, how was my trip? It was great! You want to hear all about it? Okay. I’ll use this post to briefly touch on the best and worst parts of my trip, and I’ll follow up with more in-depth posts in the future. Does that work for you?
Sri Lanka Highlights
One day I took a walk in the residential area of Mirissa. An old man called me over to his house, invited me in, and offered me tea. Back on the street, a little boy ran over and gave me a rock and posed for photos with his sister. Later at the docks, a group of fishermen called me over and offered me cigarettes and sandwiches. I chatted with them for a while about politics, fishing and children. After that, a monk gave me a private tour of his temple and showed me a room with a beautiful Buddha statue and colorful paintings. That night on the beach, a group of hip youngsters from Colombo offered me whisky and hash.
To recap, in one day I was offered, tea, rocks, a temple tour, drugs, booze, smokes and food! I am not saying I accepted all these things, I’m just saying they were offered. The people of Sri Lanka are among the most generous and friendliest people on Earth!
All over the country, we met exceedingly nice people and everyone seems to have a big, genuine smile plastered on their face. They are the number one reason I enjoyed my trip, and the main reason I will return someday.
Jaga Food is an open air restaurant in the middle of a rice paddy near Polonnuwara. If you don’t know it is there it is very difficult to find. But trust me, everyone knows about it because it is one of the best restaurants in Sri Lanka.
Jaga food has a rice and curry buffet that will blow your mind. They offer up about 15 different curries in clay pots kept warm by open flame and serve it with rice, papadum and coconut roti. After we were stuffed from rice and curry, they fed us a pancake filled with coconut chutney AND curd and honey. I have never been so full in my life.
On our second day in Polonnuwara, we had the following conversation with our driver:
ME: So, we are thinking maybe we want to eat at Jaga Food again and maybe we want to…
DRIVER: (Cuts me off from speaking) Jaga Food?!?! Okay, we go JAGA FOOD. JAGAAAAAA FOOODDDDD!!!!!
ME: Well, I guess we are going to Jaga Food again.
Galle Face Green
Galle Face Green is a big open field in downtown Colombo bordered by tall buildings on the east and open sea to the west. At sunset, people gather to fly kites, wade in the sea, eat delicious street snacks, kiss under the privacy of large umbrellas, and for the foreign tourists, drink beer from unliscenced shops that wrap the can in a brown bag so you can feel like a real drunk. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, foreigners, Singalese, and Tamil, all gather in this space.
On one visit to the park, we had the bonus of a poorly planned lantern festival. In the field, people lit large paper lanterns and set them afloat to drift out to sea. The problem: they had to float over the flammable food stall tents and pedestrian walkway before reaching the water. Although most of the lanterns flew high and drifted out to sea in a beautiful yet environmentally tragic scence, some of the lanterns crash landed amongst the people and nearly set the the whole place on fire.
Sri Lanka is a street photography paradise. Many women wear resplendent saris and walk around with bright umbrellas, men often wear colorful lungis, and the children are beautiful and smiling. Colombo isn’t most travelers favorite city, but I really enjoyed the frenetic energy of the capital and especially Galle Face Green as mentioned above. The colonial city of Galle featured beautiful backdrops and brilliant seaside light. Even the small towns were great places for photos with vibrant markets and colorful buildings. And like I said before, the people are friendly and easy-going.
After a day walking around in the hot sun, there are few things better in this world than drinking a cold beer. I expected to be disappointed by the local beer since south Asia isn’t exactly known as a beer drinkers mecca, but Lion Lager was surprisingly delicious and crisp. And they have a badass logo too.
Lack of hassles
Due to its proximity to India, I expected Sri Lanka to have similar hassles, cons and scams. Sri Lanka turned out to be one of the easiest Asian countries I’ve visited. Almost all tuk tuk drivers offered a fair price on the first offer, there were almost no touts, con-artists or hucksters in the tourist areas, and since English is so widely spoken, it was very easy to buy train tickts, book hotels, get directions, etc. In short, Sri Lanka is an easy place to travel.
The Pilgrims of Anuradhapura
Our first destination was the ruins of the ancient city of Anuradhapura, a place that was the center of Theravada Buddhism for centuries and has a tree that has been continuously maintained for over 2200 years. There were some interesting and spectacular ruins, but the thing that made it special were the thousands of pilgims clad in white praying, giving offerings, and touring the site. Since it was the start of school holidays, we saw extended families visiting the ruins and came across a few colorful and lively religious ceremonies. What would have otherwise been an interesting yet somewhat dull experience was transformed into a highlight of our trip by all the amazing people and festive atmosphere.
Accidental NYE party
The Bells are not big partiers. As I mentioned before, I thoroughly enjoy a Lion Lager after a day walking in the hot sun, but we are often in bed by 9-10pm exhausted from the day. On New Years Eve, we were at Mirissa Beach struggling to stay awake as we ate a grilled fish on the beach at 7pm. Our goal was to stay awake through dinner! Almost all the beach bars had DJs and the normally serene beach had been transformed into a rave, complete with competing music and flashing lights. We got caught up in the energy and ended up staying awake partying with the youngsters until midnight! Yeah us.
Seriously, tea as a highlight, you might ask? That is because you don’t know Sri Lankan tea. In the cool highlands of Sri Lanka, they grow rich, flavorful tea that when mixed with milk and copious amounts of sugar becomes the nectar of the Gods. In addition, the tea plantations and mountains of south-central Sri Lanka are full of thundering waterfalls, scenic villages and craggy peaks.
Sri Lanka Travel Lowlights
In our three weeks in Sri Lanka, I personally saw at least 1000 street dogs, almost all malnourished with weathered fur and sad expressions on their faces. Sri Lanka has a serious stray dog problem. To make matters worse, the habitat for the dogs seems to be in the middle of the road, meaning our buses, cars and tuk tuks narrowly missed them over and over, making any journey in a vehicle a cringe-worthy experience.
Mirissa Beach Bars and Restaurants
Mirissa beach is a beautiful crescent of sand on the southern coast that is lined with low-key beach bars. The best way to enjoy the beach is to get a table or lounge chair at one of the beach bars and while away the afternoon drinking, eating, reading, swimming and watching the more active people surf the waves.
The beach bars on Mirissa Beach are spectaculary, even comically, bad. Almost all the bars had patrons in one of three states:
- Sitting at a table waiting to get a menu while looking hungry and sad
- Sitting with a menu with hand in the air waiting to flag down a seemingly blind server
- At a table with dirty dishes and hand in the air trying to flag down a server to get the bill
Moreover, the bathrooms looked like they were cleaned every six years whether they needed it or not, and the kitchens looked like incubators for a major food borne illness outbreak.
Being the absolute peak of high season, every beach establishment was busy and the workers quite simply didn’t care. We also noticed no rhyme or reason to the sections. Each server had a section of gerrymandered tables meaning he might be taking care of us on the far side of the property but also be responsible for others on the opposite side of the restaurant, and those servers helping the ones near us averted their eyes when walking past us like we were covered in a hideous skin rash.
Away from the beach, we ate some great food at places where the food and service are important and they are not simply relying on the proximity to the beach to draw customers.
That giant f$%^ing spider in Kandy
We had a spider in our hotel bathroom in Kandy the size of a rugby player. I yelled out to Kristi in horror when I saw him and she didn’t believe me, but when she walked in and saw him she burst out in nervous, crazy singing as she ran away.
We told our guesthouse owner and he said they are harmless. “You can touch him. See.” He reached up to pet the spider but the spider quickly bit off his hand at the elbow. That is a true story.
New Years Eve Rogue Wave
While having a romantic stroll on the beach – you know, while being blinded by flashing disco lights and having our ears assaulted by competing techno music – we were hammerd by a rouge wave. Along with several other people, we found ourselves soaked with sticky salt water and covered in sand and Kristi’s New Years party dress was a mess. On a positive note, since we were a sticky mess, we were able to go to the reggae bar and fit in the with dirty hippie travelers.
Trump bad, Obama good
It is a little embarrassing being an American overseas right now even though our president* is a very stable genius, but when we told people we were from the USA, one of the most common reactions by the Sri Lankans was to say “Trump bad!” while giving a thumbs down with a disgusted look on their face. However, this was always followed by a bright smile, a big thumbs up and an enthusiastic “Obama good!”
I was talking to a group of men who fix fishing nets for $5 a day. Most of these guys had a limited education but they had a firm grasp on world affairs. They told me they hated Trump. “Your president is a too proud man,” said one of them. On the flip side, a few dark skinned people touched their skin and said “Obama black” with a sense of pride. I had several people tell me how much they admired and respected Obama. If the Obama presidency wasn’t sandwiched between the Bush and Trump presidencies, I am not sure we’d be welcomed overseas.
I hope you enjoyed this recap of our time in Sri Lanka. Have you been to Sri Lanka? What did you like and dislike? If you haven’t been, is it a place you are interested in visiting?
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Jeff I was delighted to read your overall positive account, of your time in Sr Lanka. You got a pretty good grasp of things in 3 weeks. Yup, those spiders are pretty intimidating! You forgot to mention the crazy lunatic kamakaze bus drivers haha! Re beaches, most tourists go as far as Marissa, but the best beaches with way fewer tourists and issues, are to be had further South. Wish I had known you were coming, would have been fun to meet up. Lovely pics, thoroughly enjoyed especially the politics angle. In the far North in Jaffna the temples were putting their coconuts on Clinton winning!
Love in particular, your stupa photo.
Oh yes, lunatic drivers should have listed as a lowlight, but maybe I blocked out those rides from my memory! Where are you in Sri Lanka?
If I had a few more days, I’d have gone to a beach other than Mirissa, but I did have some of my best experiences there. I hiked to a secluded beach one day, and I met so many great locals away from the beach.
Overall it is a great country and I’d highly recommend anyone go there. I saw what I wanted to see, but I’d go back for the people for sure!
We live near Fort Galle, well fifteen minutes away and about ten minutes inland from Unawatuna. So you were right here!!
Now I just read your post to Ben and he says “re the politics, it is actually a more nuanced reality. Many of the Sinhalese in the South were traumatized by Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State who prioritized a human rights driven agenda, but given the history of conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil (that is another story altogether), and given the Tamils strong embrace of Hilary for obvious reasons, there was an epidermic reaction in favor of Trump initially. And to some extent that still remains. Of course all this has changed as Sri Lankans have observed the U.S. essential withdraw unilaterally from Asia Pacific changing the geo political map overnight and giving China pretty much free reign. These are challenging days for Sri Lanka finding itself in the middle of a region that is full of turmoil.
And about the dogs… compared to Nicaragua, the dogs here are in way better shape for the most part as people do actually often feed them. That said they do have skin diseases and there are tons of street dogs as you observed. In Viet Nam, there are not any stray dogs, because dog meat is routinely eaten. So its all relative.
Loved your photos and how much you appreciated the colorful saris on the streets. We love those too.
Looking forward to your subsequent Sri Lanka vignettes… 🙂 Ben
Thanks for the insights from a local! Maybe part of the reason we met anti-Trump people is that they saw the horror and shame in our eyes when it was brought up! We wish there was a patch you could put on dogs to spay or neuter them so this could get under control. I just feel bad for all these strays. In Bangkok, we have a stray cat problem.
Outside of Galle would be a nice place to be. The fort is beautiful and I enjoyed the town as well.
Glad you enjoyed Sri Lanka, Jeff! It’s one of my all-time favorite countries to visit. On my first trip, I was pleasantly surprised to see how orderly people were — relative to what you would expect to see in developing countries across Asia. Cars, buses and motorbikes actually stopped at pedestrian crossings to allow people to cross, unlike in Indonesia where you need to look right and left and right again and run to get to the other side of the street. All the good things I remembered from my first trip remained the same on my second trip, which was nice considering how a lot more popular the island nation had become by then. Shame I didn’t try Lion Lager — I had too much wood apple juice in both trips!
Yes, people stand in lines, crossing the road isn’t Russian Roulette, and overall it is very clean and orderly. It was a sharp contrast to India. At the airport an Indian guy squeezed to the front of the line at Immigration and they send him to the back!
I think few countries pack so much into a small space. Mountains, ancient cities, waterfalls, beaches, wildlife, colonial cities, it really has it all.
I truly enjoyed your posts sounds like a lot of memeries to carry with you for a life time.
Yes, they will certainly will. Thank you for the comments!
Jeff, with the exception of that scary spider, I must say it sounds like a fantastic adventure. Sri Lanka is not a destination I have ever considered but between you & Peta, I find it a consideration for future travel!
Definitely put it on your list, although it is halfway around the world for you. I still have nightmares about that spider.
So many wonderful people. I’m glad the highlights outweigh the lowlights. I don’t think I would have cared for the mega-spider!
Yes, the people made the trip. There seems to be a general fear of that spider amongst the commenters.
Glad you enjoyed Sri Lanka. I am currently there, but it’s different when you’re originally from Sri Lanka. Of course the minute I mention I live in US, I get the same reaction about Trump.
I’m working on a post and some pictures. Glad you enjoyed your trip.
I’ll check your Instagram, I’ve posted a few on mine too.
Beautiful pictures Jeff! W loved Sri Lanka as well and we should all go back together!! Did y’all take the train?
Pretty sure I got bit by a spider in Tangalle…had a nice painful, red, inflamed bump.
We took three trains, and they were all awesome. I probably could have listed that as a highlight too. Sorry about your spider bite. Our guesthouse owner said this one wasn’t poisonous but it did look carnivorous. Yes, come back to Asia and we will go on a trip!
Lynn said it first – between you and Peta, Sri Lanka is a now a real potential travel destination. You two should be travel consultants 🙂
Your photos are always gorgeous and I really enjoyed this summary of your likes and dislikes … but mostly thanks for your honesty about the spider (I think this is the first time I’ve seen your artistic endeavours ). I’ve often wondered why NO ONE ever mentions close encounters of the insect or reptilian kind when visiting tropical countries. I can’t believe there aren’t any!!! I had a close encounter with a monster spider in Australia once and it still gives me the heeby-jeebies just thinking about it!
Maybe we don’t mention these encounters for fear of scaring people away! I also opened a bathroom door and saw a monitor lizard in the stall on the trip.
Yes, put Sri Lanka high on your list. It is a small country with a variety of things on offer.
Ahhh, yes. I remember the great “lizard in the shower” incident from our Australia visit. It’s my son’s favourite “mom lost her shit” story 😛
Great report Jeff. As usual, you got me chuckling, especially about the spider, the partying, and the “very stable genius” (actually the last one just makes me want to cry…I do feel sorry for you guys). Your people photos show such warm, genuine smiles…beautiful. As some of your other readers mentioned, Peta initially got me excited about Sri Lanka. Now I’ve read so many glowing reports recently. I better get there before it becomes the next Iceland.
I think last year about 1.4 million people visited Sri Lanka, up from 1.2 in 2016. It is growing in popularity, but still it is easy to get off the beaten path. At the ancient cities, we saw almost no tourists. When we got to the mountains and southern beaches we saw a lot more, especially since it was peak season. I’d like to go back and get farther off the beaten path and hit Jaffna in the north. For a small country, it has so much to see and do.
Jaffna is very interesting. Definitely worth the effort to get there.
Thanks for the additional info. I remember reading Peta’s posts on Jaffna and thinking that would be a cool place to visit.
If you had just not mentioned that spider, I’d be buying a ticket to Sri Lanka ASAP. Really, I’ve had some growing interest in Sri Lanka for a while, but your saying it’s an easy place to visit bumped it up for sure. As always, your observations brought smiles, chuckles, and outright laughs – thanks for the interesting and amusing summary of your time there!
Sri Lanka is an exceptional travel destination, Peta! It seems like you had an awesome time there. When’s the best time of the year to explore it?
That is a great question. They have two different monsoons season. In December, we experienced rain in the northern areas and mountains, but sun in the south. Here is a link that might help. https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/asia/sri-lanka/when-to-go/
I enjoyed this post very much Jeff. We’ve not been to Sri Lanka, but perhaps now we will consider it. You’ve made it sound enticing despite the drawbacks. As for Sri Lankan tea – I was raised on that (or Indian black teas) and it has been my revival nectar all my live – being of good British stock it’s only natural right? It took me until I was mid 60’s to finally ditch the sugar! Eeeeeek to the spider! Love the shots of tea fields and especially the shot of the woman in front of the Galle Fort.
I am sitting here drinking Sri Lankan tea for breakfast and I’m using less sugar but I doubt I can make a clean break from it!
Since you like Myanmar, I think you’d like Sri Lanka too. It is certainly different, but is a southern Asia country that is less touristy and has a variety of things to see.
So many beautiful faces and yummy food 🙂
Amazing post. I love it when strangers invite you into their homes to offer chai. Happens to me in India and it’s very humbling because they are always incredibly poor. That jaga place looks so good.
Yes, the man who invited me in was no doubt poor. Those with the least are often the most generous!
Really enjoyed this post! I just arrived in Sri Lanka and you’ve filled me with good vibes about the place 😁
Glad to hear! How was your trip?
So happy I have come across your blog. Definitely took some notes down for my travels. And I must say the illustrations are the best! Thanks for sharing!
Thank you Yvonne!
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