Solo Travelling a Country in Crisis: Sri Lanka
Booking a flight to another continent is a risk during Corona times. But when all my travel plans with friends fell through, I was very depressed and in one of my darkest hours decided that I would simply go on vacation by myself. Little did I know that Corona was gonna be the smallest issue on my beautiful journey through Sri Lanka.
Thinking back to when I traveled to South Africa it seems that I have a hand when it comes to traveling to countries that are in crisis. If Corona, the devaluation of the Sri Lankan Rupees and the shortage of diesel and energy (daily powercuts were part of my journey) weren’t enough, my timing brought me to Sri Lanka during civil riots. The peak of this chaos was reached when social media apps were blocked during a 24-hour lockdown to counteract announced protests resulting in 26 national ministers later resigning. Putting aside the political and economical problems, Sri Lanka was a beautiful country to visit nonetheless. Let’s start from the beginning.
- Check the news before booking
- Bring Euros or Dollars to save money and make locals happy
- Do not spend your home currency until you have a feeling about the prices
- Locals pay less than tourists and considering the pay gap that’s OK, but make sure you’re not being scammed
- Bring a headlamp/flashlight for morning hikes or possibly powercuts
- Bring a power bank
- Never face a buddha statue with your back, especially in pictures
- Wear pants that cover your knees when you visit a temple
- Some may consider themselves black, others brown (or differently), avoid labels and be sensitive
- Don’t plan too much ahead – most things will fall into place as soon as you’re there
- Use the app PickMe instead of Uber
- Street dogs are friendly but possible carriers of Rabies – consider getting the vaccine
When I arrived in Sri Lanka I didn’t know much about any crises and had I had more knowledge I would’ve brought Euros with me and a headlamp for the powercuts. But I am glad I didn’t know about any of it because it might’ve made me cancel my plans. The capital Colombo as well as its smaller brother, Negombo (where the airport is located) aren’t necessarily Sri Lanka’s most beautiful places to visit. I wanted to stay one night to get a feeling of how big cities feel but now I’d recommend skipping these cities altogether.
After strolling around and going for the least refreshing swim of my life I arrived back at my hostel without electricity. I didn’t have a flashlight, needed to save the battery of my phone which doubled as my torch and I was close to a panic attack. I had no idea of how to get out of the city and no one knew when the power was gonna come back on. Luckily for me, I later met a lovely couple at the beach who shared my travel agenda. So, the next day, after an early checkout and heartfelt breakfast, we moved forward together.
- Do not stay longer than one night or skip the capital
- Have awesome food or breakfast (starts at 8 AM) at Skinny Suddha Zen Cafe (Negombo)
- Hostel tip: TukTuk Hostel
I continued to Dambulla to check out the Cave Temple as well as the Golden Buddha. These are the main attractions found in Dambulla and I can recommend visiting both. The short hike there brings you a nice view over the green surroundings and the Golden Buddha was specifically impressive to me as I feel very close to the spirituality and mindset of Buddhism. I’d still recommend staying in the nearby city of Sigiriya, specifically in the Tree House Hostel. A local guide was kind enough to get me there in his TukTuk. Short travels are very easy in this area of Sri Lanka, you’ll always find a driver, locals are very helpful and you won’t get scammed either.
Sigiriya was one of my personal highlights, partly because of its beautiful UNESCO heritage sights and stunning early morning hikes. I specifically loved staying in the Tree House hostel because it was always a dream of mine to sleep in a tree! The family running this place actually built water pumps, so every tree house has its own small but sufficient tree bathroom. To me, Sigiriya was just a slice of paradise! It was here when I stopped rushing. I calmed down and stayed there a couple of nights longer than initially planned. Doing Yoga in the middle of nature was an awesome add-on to my experiences. I was in Sigiriya when the political crisis climaxed and for 10+ hours daily there was no electricity. Then, a 24-hour lockdown was put in place with social media apps being blocked.
- Get up early to see the sunset over Pidurangala Rock and/or
- Take the longer hike up Lion’s Rock
- Visit the Cave Temple and the Golden Buddha Temple in Dambulla
- If the TukTuk driver takes you to a Spice Garden just play along but be aware that this ‘attraction’ is a play to get tourists to buy stuff
- Hostel tip: Tree House Hostel (formerly Sigiri Queens Rest)
I have heard that Kandy is a big and dirty city you shouldn’t spend too much time in. When I was there waiting for my train, however, I was pleasantly surprised. In my opinion, Kandy is a lot more beautiful than the capital and features interesting architecture, lots of shopping opportunities and many green areas. When I was in Kandy, I also got a firsthand look at what the media liked calling ‘aggressive’ protests. Compared to the kind of protests I have seen in my life, I feel that these were rather harmless and peaceful. I never felt like I was in any kind of danger and local people go out of their way to make you feel safe!
The greatest attraction of Kandy is quite possibly the scenic ride on the train from Kandy to Ella. You cross beautiful landscapes, tea plantages and get a great view over Sri Lanka. Most importantly, the second and the third class of the train keep windows and doors open. Not only can you take beautiful pictures but you can also hold your legs out of the door and feel a refreshing breeze.
- Get on the train to Ella which always departs at 0700, 0855 and 1110 and takes around 7 hours
- Choose 2nd or 3rd class to enjoy the open doors
- A ticket reservation was not necessary when I took the train
I arrived in Ella late in the night and was honestly a little sad about having left my beautiful tree house. However, I was open to seeing the beautiful sights of Ella and meeting new people. And man did I have fun in Ella and meet lots of awesome travelers! The first night I went for the kinda famous (but in my opinion underwhelming) Banana Blossom Curry at Matey’s and went to bed early. In the morning I was surprised by the stunning view the Hangover Hostel had over the close-by mountains. I definitely recommend staying either there or finding a place nearby to enjoy this view! I’ll always remember playing the guitar at Hangover when a Silent Hill-like fog appeared which gave the scenery a mystic flair (photo below).
The next couple of days I visited the Nine Arch Bridge – an absolute highlight of Ella – went hiking on Little Adam’s Peak (probably a bit more exciting if you didn’t grow up near Austria’s mountains) and went on a zipline back down again. I also went to visit a tea factory but purposefully chose one that’s not touristy and proper but where I could see the real deal. One day, we took a TukTuk ride to see the Diyaluma waterfalls. The peculiar thing about these waterfalls is that you can swim up in the top pool of the falls and look down 220 meters. Yes, this was a beautiful moment but when we were there it was raining and I’d summarize that this trip was not worth the 90 mins (!) TukTuk ride. I skipped the Ravana Cave because another traveler seriously injured herself going down this 2km cave into a transparent underwater pool. I’ve heard people say it’s an amazing experience but I personally am not a fan of wandering down an unsafe path of old bat poop. If you choose to do this anyway, wear proper shoes and do not enter the cave without a guide (danger to life).
Any other attraction in Ella really doesn’t need to be visited with a guide, however, the people there will try their best to make you feel that way. Not only will some local tourist guides tell you to go the wrong way, so you get lost, but they also put up signs that lead in the wrong direction. In case you’re unsure trust Google maps or ask other travelers. Of course, you can also get a guide, they will be more than happy to help 😉
- See the Nine Arches Bridge
- Early morning for a hike up Little Adam’s Peak including the zipline (~18 Euros)
- The larger Adam’s Peak (in Hatton) and Ella Rock only if you’re a hiking enthusiast
- See a tea factory, e.g. Kinellan Tea (5 mins from Ella) or Lipton’s Seat (~2hr drive)
- Skip the Diyaluma falls and visit the closer Ravanna falls
- Only do the Ravana Cave (Nil Diya Pokuna) if you’re not claustrophobic, afraid of the dark, afraid to get dirty and only with a local guide!
- Have a bowl at the (mostly vegan) Rainbow Café
- Visit One Love if you want to party
- If you want to have (western) souvenirs, buy them now
- Hostel tip: Hangover Hostel (or similar in that area)
I only stayed one night in Mirissa and spent my beach days in the nearby Weligama. While the latter is more for surfing, Mirissa is known for its nightlife and beach restaurants. I stayed in the Why Not Hostel and went partying with the people there and even though Mirissa’s nightlife is pretty fun, I would not recommend this hostel unless you wanna drink and party all day every day. I personally rather wanted to see tropical beaches but the beauty of Mirissa is hidden under layers and layers of tourist crap, booze and street trash. I can recommend visiting the Coconut Tree Hill and the secret beaches and staying clear off the main road. If you’re lucky you can even see baby turtles hatch and take their first steps toward the ocean!
The most memorable thing I did in Mirissa was going scuba diving with two friends I met in Ella. After a short introduction (which proved to be a little too short for beginners) we went out in the ocean to an underwater rock formation. There’s just something incredibly beautiful and peaceful in watching fish go about their day, eat and play with each other while you’re being totally cut off from the outside. The best part was that the dive instructors let us stay underwater until we ran out of oxygen, so I got to enjoy an hour of diving! Afterward, we swam with the sea turtles that can be found close to the diving center.
- Visit the Coconut Tree Hill
- At sundown enjoy the awesome veggie burger at SALT and wait for baby turtles to appear
- Baby turtles can be spotted next to the coast guard
- Large sea turtles can be seen at Mirissa’s Diving Center (full day diving ~40 Euros)
- Skip the overpriced ‘Doctor’s House’ party in Madiha and rather party at Mirissa beach
- Hostel tip: JJs Hostel
The final destination that I spent most of my time at (I postponed my flight twice!) was the small fisher and surfer town of Weligama. In comparison to Mirissa, the beaches of Weligama are not the best for swimming as there are constant waves – perfect for surfing though! I can recommend getting a private surf teacher to show you the basics and you’ll stand on that board in no time. Trying it by myself, however, I had to realize that surfing is a lot harder when you don’t have someone choosing the perfect wave for you. When you have enough of surfing it’s easy to visit some beaches nearby, Weligama is only a ten-minute TukTuk ride from Mirissa. You can also do a day trip to visit Galle and its Dutch Fort. Galle is located a bit to the north and only a 45-minute bus ride (~1 Euro) from Weligama. I’d also recommend checking out the busy streets of Weligama for some authentic local shopping. You will see that these streets are crazy chaotic and when you’ve settled into the slow pace of Sri Lanka, shopping for sure is a different experience. But I’m sure you can score some awesome and cheap outfits here!
When my travels were coming to an end I had already given up my hopes of having a holiday romance, but little did I know this town was gonna change that. I met a Sri Lankan guy who is living abroad and was home for festivities. It’s hard to put in words why this encounter felt so special because in the end it was just a couple of days but I really felt a connection with him. He also went shopping with me to buy a classic Sarong and even made sure I paid the local price for it. When we had to say goodbye we were in public and since homosexuality is unfortunately still illegal in Sri Lanka, we could only hug goodbye. Not being able to show public affection felt like a bad throwback and I really hope that the government changes this law soon. Most Sri Lankans are quite open-minded and official laws should reflect that!
Unfortunately, a couple of things went the wrong way when I was in Weligama, the worst being that my phone suffered water damage. I had a small panic attack when I was in my pitch dark room without electricity, no phone flash and no way of checking my blood sugar levels. I sorted this the next day (which was one day prior to Tamil and Sinhalese New Year) by simply buying a new phone. This was annoying but at least I felt safe again! Through a series of fateful coincidences, I got myself and my seven travel companions of that time invited to family dinner at my surf instructor’s house. As a perfect ending to our travels we got to taste all the amazing spices and foods of Sri Lanka one more time, and since I haven’t mentioned it yet, let me just say that Sri Lankan cuisine is incredible and mostly vegetarian too! The public celebrations of this holiday are rather tame, there are only private fireworks. So, we hung out at a beach and later went to a techno rave in Mirissa. All in all lots of fun, however, I do wanna mention that it’s bullshit that tourists pay € 3 for entrance while locals have to pay € 9!
- Take surf lessons (~6 Euros for 90-120 minutes) or
- Just rent the board (~1.50 Euros per hour or 3 Euros per day)
- Visit Galle and the Galle Fort (half-day trip)
- Try the 10 Curries menu at Lucky Fort Restaurant (Galle)
- Hostel tip: Spindrift Hostel
After Weligama, I shared a taxi with four co-travelers back to Negombo. At this point it was quite difficult to travel because of the diesel shortage, some busses were not running and it was hard to find a driver. To put it mildly, I didn’t know if I was gonna make it to Negombo in time for my flight. A friend was able to find a driver who had been queuing in line for five hours at the gas station to fill up his tank and I am so thankful they came through. Besides the powercuts, the diesel shortage, the devaluation of the money and the protests it was simply lovely to visit Sri Lanka. And while the mentioned problems might seem like a big deal, I was never afraid that something would go terribly wrong and the reason for that is the kind and helpful behavior of Sri Lankan locals. I would 100% recommend Sri Lanka as a holiday destination, however, you may wanna check the news before making a booking.
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Accidentally staying in Johannesburg’s Ghetto during aggressive Civil Riots
How Some Humans Kill Animals while others Protect them
Wisdom from my Balkan Roadtrip
I’m Going to Berlin
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