Sri Lanka is often a pleasant surprise for travelers. When Arab traders first came across the lush island that gave them sort-after spices and pearls they called it “Serendip” — which in turn gave birth (thanks to Horace Walpole) to the word “Serendipity” — an unexpected turn of events that yields a fortunate outcome.
This basically sums up Sri Lanka.
You’ve probably read bits and pieces in magazines. You’ve heard of the bloody 30-year civil war. You’ve seen the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami on TV. You know there’s something about “the world’s best tea” and an obsession with the sport of cricket.
But you know nothing, Jon Snow.
Leave the bits and pieces aside. Here are 12 solid, cool, and quirky reasons you need to visit Sri Lanka ASAP.
You Can Climb a Really Cool Ancient Rock Fortress
There’s still some debate as to what exactly Sigiriya (“Lion Rock”) was built for. Was it a defensive bastion built to protect against attackers? Was it a pleasure palace filled with pools, gardens, and hot babes? Was it an ancient monastery where Buddhist monks could meditate in solitude? Historians do agree that King Kashaypa developed the rock into a city and fortress around 477 – 495 CE Today, you can walk through the giant lion paws at its entrance, see the unfaded frescoes of beautiful women, and marvel at the breathtaking view from the top of this UNESCO Heritage Site.
Did you know? King Kashyapa usurped the throne from his father and moved to Sigiriya to defend himself against the rightful heir, his brother. He probably had some daddy issues: according to historical texts, he had his father killed … by walling him up alive.
You Can Become a Total Surfer Dude
As an island with some great variety in waves, Sri Lanka has some pretty awesome spots for surfers. Remember the best times to go: from October to April, the southwest coast has perfect conditions (Weligama is perfect for beginners, while more advanced bros can head to Mirissa) and from April to October you should hit the east coast of the island (Arugam Bay has some pretty sweet waves, but gets busy with surfers from all around the world).
Fun Fact: You might have seen a lot of Sri Lanka’s famous scenery in music videos by British pop act Duran Duran, including in this one for the 80s classic Hungry Like a Wolf!
You Can Taste Some of the Best Tea in the World
For centuries “Ceylon tea” was unparalleled (and still holds its own) for its flavor and smoothness. You can visit any tea factory up in the hills (the regions around the towns of Nuwara Eliya and Hatton are some of the most picturesque) to see the tea-making process, sip on some fantastic teas, and witness tea pluckers, who for generations have plucked the tea leaves by hand, regardless of weather conditions and rough terrain.
Did you know? When the British first colonized Sri Lanka, they started growing coffee in the cooler climes of the island’s central hill country. Unfortunately (or luckily), a virus wiped out all the coffee. The British decided to grow tea instead. Lo and behold — a legend was born!
History Buffs Can Go Crazy
From ancient dagobas, man-made reservoirs, statues of the Buddha, and cave temples, there’s no shortage of great sites for history buffs. I mean with a 2,500-year-old history, there’s bound to be some interesting stories in there right? Plus, the best part is that you’ll find most of them in close proximity to each other, which means you can easily visit the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya, which are all a few hours’ drive from each other.
You Can See One of the Buddha’s Teeth
In the central hill country capital of Kandy, the ancient Temple of the Tooth houses the left canine of the Buddha. The relic was seen as a symbol of rule, and everyone — from colonial powers to warring kingdoms — fought bitter battles over it. Every year in August, the Sacred Tooth Relic is paraded by decorated elephants through the streets in a procession called Perahera.
Did you know? The island has been a center of Buddhist scholarship and learning since the introduction of Buddhism in the third century BCE.
Fun Fact: You might have seen a lot of Kandy in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!
Frolic on Some of the Best Beaches in Asia
Nilaveli, Passikuda, and Kalkudah on Sri Lanka’s east coast are just some of the island’s finest beaches, and as you go south you’ll also find some totally Instagrammable stretches in Tangalle. You’ll see shallow turquoise waters, golden sands, colorful coral reefs, and not too many people in your lounging space. But you better hurry if you want to enjoy the peace and quiet — an increasing number of tourists and resorts are creeping in.
Did you know? On Sri Lanka’s southern coast, you’re also likely to catch a glimpse of stilt-fishing — a practice that started just after World War II — in which fisherman are perched on long wooden poles immersed in the water and rooted in the coral reef.
You Can See One of the Largest Density of Leopards in the World
The island’s Yala National Park and Wilpattu National Park are probably the best places to catch a glimpse of these beautiful creatures, and you’re basically guaranteed to sight them thanks to their numbers in such a small area. You can also see elephants, sloth bears, and diverse species of birds while you’re there. In recent times, the abundance of visitors in Yala (and their very noisy off-road vehicles) has been a concern for the welfare of the park’s natural inhabitants, but if you like a quieter nature-watching experience then Wilpattu is your place.
Get up Close and Personal with Tons of Elephants
The elephant plays a very significant role in Sri Lankan culture. It was used in ancient combat, for lifting heavy timber, and even in Buddhist religious processions. In Minneriya National Park, You can witness the annual gathering of the largest group of Asian elephants. The pachyderms congregate to drink and frolic in the waters of the man-made Minneriya tank during the dry period between July and October (the best time to see them is in the months of August and September).
Did you know? It is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia. Unfortunately, human-elephant conflict is increasing due to conversion of elephant habitat to settlements and permanent cultivation. (Wikipedia)
Taste Some of the Most Interesting Food in the World
Spices were the main reason traders came to Sri Lanka, and the rich flavors of spices can be found in most forms of Sri Lankan cuisine. Dig in to an egg hopper (a crepe with a sunny-side up egg in the middle, often enjoyed with a spicy onion relish) for breakfast or try the famous street food kotthu rotti (chopped up pieces of rotti with meat and vegetables), or the Dutch-influenced lamprais — a mix of rice, meats, and vegetables wrapped and steamed in banana leaves.
See How Colonialism Adds Color to a Culture
The remains of more than 400 years of colonialism — firstly at the hands of the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the Britsh — has left an indelible mark on the island’s infrastructure and architectural look and feel. Visit the Wolvendhal Dutch Reformed Church, where you can still see the “slaves benches” reserved by colonial masters, or the red and white Cargills Building in Colombo’s York Street. Dotted along its coast are also the many forts built by the colonists, including the famous one in Galle that withstood the full force of the 2004 Tsunami.
Did you know? The colonists also contributed to other segments of Sri Lankan society. The Dutch brought down Malays as soldiers, whose descendants have healthy communities in parts of the island. The Portuguese also brought down African slaves, whose descendants are classified as “Sri Lankan Kaffirs,” and whose distinctive creole language and music made a big impact on the island’s culture.
It’s Pretty Awesome for Whale and Dolphin Watching
Just off the southern tip of Sri Lanka, large humpback and blue whales make their annual migration routes. Gently spewing water, and at other times executing massive splashing dives, you can enjoy these animals in all their glory when you hit the southern cities of Mirissa, Galle, or Hikkaduwa. If playful dolphins are more your thing, then head to the northwest coast where you can see them from the beach off Kalpitiya.
You’ll Meet the Friendliest People on Earth
Often listed as one of the most friendliest countries in the world, you’ll always find a broad smile everywhere on the island. Sri Lankans are known for their limitless hospitality, opening their homes to strangers, and always stepping in to help when someone’s in trouble. After the 2004 tsunami, there were many articles written by tourists who were affected by the natural disaster, praising the generous food and shelter provided them by locals, who themselves barely had anything. It’s this kind hospitality that keeps visitors coming back again and again.
Did you know? Writer and sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) was one of the island’s most famous residents, who first visited out of curiosity and never left. He lived on the island from 1956 until his death in 2008.
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