Sri Lanka: As Peace Prevails, Tourism Thrives

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Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage Sri Lanka

2022 Update: Please note that this post was originally written as part of my 7th annual RTW trip in 2012. Current travel advisories are in place for travelers to Sri Lanka due to the political situation. Please check for the latest US state department travel warnings before planning a visit.

After an amazing few days in the Maldives, it’s time to move on to the next stop on Round the World #7, Sri Lanka!

Read More: Where are the Maldives? (& Why You Should Go Now!)

A quick and painless 90-minute flight from Malé later, we land in Colombo, Sri Lanka just as the sun begins to set.

My good friend and travel accomplice for this portion of trip, Susan, is in charge of hotels for this stop. She booked our room here in Colombo with her Hilton points and arranged for the hotel to pick us up at the airport.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will undoubtedly blow on more flights (it’s a vicious cycle).  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

As a frequent solo traveler, it’s a nice change to have a friend along to take on some of the planning responsibilities. Especially a friend with a lot of hotel points (like me).

We briefly consider renting a car for our 30-hour stay. But since we’d have to pay for 2 days, we decide to head to the hotel first and consider the car rental for tomorrow.

Driving in Sri Lanka

The drive into the city takes almost an hour. As I peer out the window, I quickly realize this is not a country I want to drive in.

I’m generally pretty adventurous when it comes to driving in foreign countries. And I’m more than comfortable with driving on the other side of the road. But as I look around, what I see outside the window reminds me of my visit to India more than I care to admit.

There are no lanes or no traffic lights. And the streets are thick with buses, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and cars. The entire scene verges on chaos and I truly have no desire to be an active participant in it.

Arrival at the Hilton Colombo

But soon the chaos of traffic melts away as we arrive at the lovely Hilton Colombo Hotel.

We inquire about hiring the hotel’s car and driver for tomorrow (a much safer plan!).

We don’t have a very ambitious itinerary for our brief stay. The plan is to visit the Elephant Orphanage and the Royal City of Kandy in the hill country nearby. Since the traffic and roads are so bad in Sri Lanka, the 60 mile drive to that part of the country can take up to 4 hours.

The hotel car with driver is about $200 for the day and we can go anywhere we want. Then, it will drop us off back at the airport for our redeye to Bangkok. Never afraid to throw money at a situation if it makes the most sense, we decide to go for it.

Spending $100 each to have a driver who knows where he’s going is clearly the safest and most efficient way for us to see some of Sri Lanka’s countryside in a day.

So we book the car, settle into our room, order room service and set the alarm for 6am.

Exploring Sri Lanka

The next morning, we enjoy breakfast at the hotel, check out and load our bags into the hotel car. Then, it’s time to head out for our day trip around Sri Lanka.

Believe it or not, National Geographic Traveler Magazine named Sri Lanka one of the “Top 6 destinations for world travelers in 2012.” Despite this commendable title, I only planned a stop here for one reason. All of the flights from the Maldives seem to go through there.

It seemed silly to just connect through the airport without trying to see a little of the country. So I decided to spend one night in Colombo and take in a few sights.

Why visit Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka put an end to a bloody 25 year-long civil war in 2009 and since then tourism has expanded rapidly. Today, peace prevails and top hotel chains like Marriott have announced plans for new construction.

The landscape of Sri Lanka has a lot to offer visitors. From white-sand beaches and rolling tea plantations to wildlife parks and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Sri Lanka’s natural resources are likely to draw increasing numbers of visitors now that the political situation has stabilized.

A Visit to an Elephant Orphanage

After a 60-mile drive that indeed takes almost 4 hours in traffic and on mountain roads, our first stop for the day is the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.

A friend of Susan’s who is from Sri Lanka told her about the orphanage and it’s the #1 thing we both want to see while we were here.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage Sri Lanka
Pinnawala residents bathing in the Oya River, Sri Lanka

Thanks to the delay in our arrival, we miss the morning bottle feeding of the baby elephants. But we do arrive just in time to see the elephants enjoying their late-morning trip down to the river.

There are dozens of elephants – young and old – enjoying the cool river on a blazingly hot Sri Lankan day. There are also hundreds of people (mostly locals) who have come out to see them.

Since today is Sri Lanka’s national independence holiday, tons of local families are out and about enjoying the day. It was so much fun to watch the baby elephants play in the water and we spend quite a while just taking it all in.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage Sri Lanka
A baby elephant at the orphanage

A visit to a Sri Lankan tea factory

From there, we visit Sri Lanka’s oldest tea factory.

Tea is Sri Lanka’s primary export and much of the local economy centers around it. I’ve never seen tea made from earth to tea cup before so it’s actually a pretty interesting stop. We even get to sample some of the tea at the end of our tour.

The Royal Botanical Gardens

Next, we visit the Royal Botanical Gardens.

The grounds of the botanical gardens are pristinely landscaped and quite beautiful. There is an elaborate orchid house with orchid varieties I’ve never seen before and a restaurant where we decide to stop for lunch.

The Royal City of Kandy

Our final stop for the day is one of Sri Lanka’s prime tourist sites, the Royal City of Kandy.

Set in the center of lush hills and surrounding a scenic lake, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kandy was the last bastion of resistance to colonial rule.

The city is known for distinctive architecture, dance, art and music. Its most famous site is the Dalada Maligawa or the “Temple of the Tooth.

The temple is home to the Buddha’s tooth relic which is an item of great significance to all Buddhists.

Temple of the Tooth Kandy Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth – Kandy, Sri Lanka

The temple is gorgeous from the outside but thanks to the holiday it’s literally packed with worshipers. So unfortunately we aren’t able to go in.

We appreciate the temple from the outside and walking around the city for a while.

Then, it’s time to start heading for the airport since it could take at least another 4 hours to get there.

Wrapping up a day in Sri Lanka

As the sun set on our long drive, I rehash our day in my mind and try to develop on opinion on Sri Lanka as a destination.

The closest thing I can compare it to was my visit to India several years ago. The infrastructure is certainly lacking and there is extreme poverty in some areas. But as a whole, I enjoyed my day in Sri Lanka. The natural beauty of the country and some of the lovely people we met make up for a lot of its shortcomings.

girl Kandy Sri Lanka
A little girl playing outside the temple in Kandy

The one thing I don’t like (which is an issue in many countries) is the persistence of the hawkers at all the tourist sites. It seemed someone was always trying to get money from us – either to buy something from them or to hire them as a guide.

It’s exhausting to be barraged like that for hours on end. You feel like a target everywhere you go because you are clearly a foreigner. (I also felt this way on a later trip to Myanmar.)

Read More: Myanmar – Part Two: The Temples of Bagan

Our driver was pretty good at watching out for us and hovering close by whenever he dropped us off somewhere, so I never felt unsafe. But I did feel like many of the locals were determined to get every last dollar out of the few tourists they have. And that’s something that often turns me off about a country.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the reason behind it. For some, it’s their only option for income.

But to Sri Lanka’s credit, they are a new kid in the tourism block. They’re likely to get better at it as the infrastructure improves with the influx of tourist dollars. All in all, I think I’d go back someday. But I’ll give it a few years…perhaps when that new Marriott hotel is finished!

An airport upgrade

After 14 hours in and out of a car driving all over Sri Lanka, we are beat when we finally arrive at the airport. To make matters worse, it’s 8:00pm and our flight to Bangkok doesn’t leave until 1:00am. We can’t check in until 3 hours before at 10:00pm.

So we find a seat and wait for a bit until we can head over to the counter. At the check-in counter, we decide to ask how much it would cost to upgrade our coach seats to business class. We still have 3 hours before our flight and a 4-hour redeye to Bangkok. Perhaps it’s worth the extra expense for access to the lounge and a bigger seat to sleep in?

When a fairly reasonable price is given by the agent, we look at each other and without hesitation decide to go for it. Ten minutes later, we have business class tickets in hand and are headed for the lounge.

Amazingly, the Sri Lankan Airlines lounge turns out to be awesome – complete with massage therapist and free-flowing champagne. We take turns getting free 15-minute massages in the massage room and in no time at all it’s time to board our flight.

Money. Well. Spent.

Next stop, Thailand!