8 things I wish I had known before I went to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a beautiful, exotic island full of ancient culture, breathtaking scenery, wildlife, and smiling faces. For a country with such a recently violent history, the island is actually home to some of the friendliest people out there. Located in the Indian Ocean, just off the southern coast of India, Sri Lanka is neither quite like India nor Asia, leaving it in somewhat of a curious middle ground as far as geography, features, culture, landscape, and customs. You might already assume that some places here don’t serve beef (12 percent of the island’s population is Hindu), but here are some not so obvious things I wish I had known before I arrived in Colombo.

  1. DON’T SKIP COLOMBO:

It would be easy to take advantage of all the information out there that tells you to skip over Colombo, but there is actually a lot to this multi-layered city. Like all capital cities, Colombo is a bustling town with a lot of traffic; on the surface it seems to be all there is to it. But if you slow down, open your eyes and look beyond the cars and tuk-tuks, you’ll see something beautiful. A city of contrast, Colombo is a product of Sri Lanka’s colonial history. Around Pettah and Galle Face Green the architecture is a nod to the colonial past with Buddist and Hindu temples rubbing shoulders with Christian churches. For some peace among the frenetic pace, head to Galle Face Green and play some cricket with locals; or to Beira Lake and take in the tranquility.

2. ALWAYS BE RESPECTFUL OF THE POLITICAL PAST

The civil war may be over, but it only ended a few years ago. While things are safe now, you should definitely be aware of the past and show respect when talking to locals. While it’s totally cool to ask locals generic questions about their lives and families, I probably wouldn’t bring up or get involved in any type of political conversation. It’s still a delicate subject and, unless you’re a scholar on Sri Lankan politics and policy, it’s best to stick to the simple stuff. More than 70,000 people lost their lives in the civil war, so chances are pretty high that the locals you’ll meet either lost family or know someone who did.

3. IT IS SAFE TO TRAVEL HERE

There is a huge misconception out there about how safe Sri Lanka is, and I get it. Call it civil war or terrorism (your word choice will depend on which side of local politics you sit on), it raged for 26 years, and killed more than 70,000 people. Since the war’s end, the Sri Lankan people have been rebuilding their country and tourism has boomed. The aim is to make tourism their biggest industry by 2020, and with more and more people visiting this little gem it won’t stay like this forever.

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4. TOURISM IS STILL DEVELOPING

Tourism is booming. Sri Lanka has more visitors each year, and the numbers keep growing. While this is actually a great thing, you can get around the country without seeing another tourist for a few days; it also means that outside of the major tourist hubs of Colombo, Kandy and the more popular southern beaches places might not exactly be tourism ready. Don’t expect to order your lunch and have it arrive in the next 20 minutes. Or even be the correct food for that matter. Communication can be difficult, especially if English is not your language. English is fairly widely spoken, but in more rural areas tuk-tuk drivers and back street vendors may not understand what you need. Transport can be difficult away from hotels, and where there might be a hotel does not necessarily guarantee plenty of activities. It’s not super convenient to pick up things you might have forgotten at home, like power converters or even shampoo once you’re outside of Colombo. If you’re a five-star luxury lover, you’ll be disappointed in a lot of hotels on offer, don’t expect the same standard as you would get at home. At the moment, Sri Lanka demands patience. But don’t wait. Go now, while she is still finding her feet. You’ll be richly rewarded.

 

5. IT’S NOT BACKPACKER CHEAP

Sri Lanka isn’t like Thailand or Vietnam, those two have been well established on the backpacker trail for years now and the sheer volume of tourists banging down the door makes for cheap options for backpackers. Add to that the fact that a lot of the island’s goods are imported, taxes hike up the cost of drinks and some foods. That said, you can always find a cheap place to eat if you’re happy to eat curry for three meals a day. ATMs can be hard to find outside major towns like Kandy and Colombo, so make sure you always have plenty of cash on you – hidden of course!

6. YOU HAVE AMAZING WILDLIFE SPOTTING CHANCES

I know, you might not have immediately thought of safari when you think of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s varied landscapes make it a perfect spot to spot some of the world’s biggest and most fascinating animals we usually only connect to Africa. In fact, Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park in the south has the highest concentration of leopards in Asia, while Minneriya National Park, located near Dambulla, is where a yearly elephant gathering takes place. Elephant are literally everywhere; I fell asleep on our bus and woke up stuck in traffic with an elephant staring through the window at me. On the southern coast, Mirissa shows off an annual production of blue whales meandering through. Hiking through Horton Plains you have the potential to spot several species of monkey and colourful birds hanging out of the trees.

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7. THE LANDSCAPES ARE MASSIVELY INSTAGRAMMABLE

I don’t know if you caught it, but if you checked out my Instagram anytime while I was in Sri Lanka you’ll know that the country if beyond stunning. The rolling greens hills of tea plantations, Horton Plains and the end of the world, the sandy stretches of the beaches in the south – I can’t pick one highlight.

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8. YOU’LL NEVER BE MADE TO FEEL MORE WELCOME

My tour guide told me, “You come to Sri Lanka for the first time as a stranger, but you leave as family. And now you always have somewhere to call home.” This is just about the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me while I have been travelling, and the best part was that he truly meant it. I’ve been back at home in Australia now for just about a month, but I’ve already had a few emails from him and the other friends I made while I was away. I thought Africa was a friendly continent, but Sri Lanka takes that cake.

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Sri Lanka, ethical tourism and the elephant issue

Those of you who follow my Instagram and Facebook feeds will be well aware that I have been on the road recently, eating and hiking my way through the lush green of Sri Lanka. What I expected and what I found there were two vastly different things.

Sri Lanka is a tiny drop of an island, lying just off the southern tip of India. The landscapeΒ is dominated by mountains and tea plantations, the people are warm and inviting and the food is surprisingly devoid of overpowering chilli. Lanka is a bio hotspot, with an astonishing number of endemic plant and animal species which are under threat as habitats are flattened to make way for urban sprawl and farmland.

Watching locals and tourists alike in wilderness areas, it was easy for me to sit back and pass judgement on the mistakes made and places that could use some improvement in their responsible travel aims. Travel is very much headed in a more ethical and responsible direction, and if Sri Lanka truly wants to make tourism their primary industry by 2020 then they have a ways to go in this department.

From my many trips to Africa, you’ve probably guessed that I like my wildlife to be exactly that – wild. Elephants have occupied a special place in Sri Lankan culture for centuries. In ancient times they were considered Crown property and to kill an elephant was a terrible offence. Elephant iconography is evident in most major temples and ruins, and legend has it that it was elephants that stamped down the foundations of the oldest temples in Sri Lanka; the ruins can be found at Anuradhapura. Today elephant are still held in high regard, even those in captivity; the male tusker that carries the scared tooth relic in Kandy’s Esala Perahera festival is probably the most revered of all.

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Despite being the symbol of Sri Lanka, elephant numbers are dwindling. During the Colonial years, British big-game hunting was ridiculously popular, and the extent of the hunting delivered a huge blow to numbers across the country. Today experts seems to agree that there are approximately 3000-4000 wild elephant, about half of which live in protected national parks. But what of the domesticated numbers?

My research puts the numbers of domesticated or captive elephants at around 300-500. For me, that’s 300-500 too many. We know what happens to captive animals. They don’t usually live as long, especially when forced to carry large loads of visiting white tourists. Fun fact, elephant actually struggle to hold up their own weight. In the wild, you can often see them resting one foot up while balancing on the other three – this isn’t something they do for fun. It’s the elephant equivalent to girls taking off their high heels after a night out on the town. They do it to ease the pain.

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In addition to the dwindling numbers, elephants in Sri Lanka face a similar issues as their brothers in Africa. Farming and elephants don’t mix. Farmers who have set up in elephant country face huge issues with elephant eating or trampling crops, destroying buildings, and even taking farmers’ lives. During the cultivation season, you’ll see farmers keeping round-the-clock watch by rotation on their lands, sitting in tiny tree houses with fire crackers and shooting them at marauding elephant in the middle of the night. For the nation’s poor, losing their yearly crop to elephants is a situation that simply cannot afford.

But how can the issues be solved?Β 

Don’t ride them to start. Refuse to patronise places where elephants are kept in chains, or poked with mean looking sticks. Trust me, if it looks like it hurts; then it definitely does. No matter what the guy with the stick says. When visiting them in protected national parks, go with an accredited guide, and make sure he doesn’t drive too close to them since this will just cause stress on the animal. Use your visit to the national park to learn about local conservation projects in the area, and give generously. Reward ethical animal treatment by locals when you see it, and speak up against mistreatment when you see that. If joining a group tour, ensure you research your options prior to booking to ensure you travel with a reputable company with a strong responsible tourism background.

Sri Lanka is still a developing tourism industry, and it is up to us as travellers to demand ethical and responsible treatment of animals now, while the country is still growing.