India gets a lot of the subcontinent travel hype, and justifiably so. It’s pretty freaking amazing. But when it came time to plan one of our original travel challenges, way back in the mists of time, we chose Sri Lanka. Why? Because we knew this place was going to be big. And history has mostly proved us right. After recovering from a Civil War that ended in 2009, the country has been kicking tourism butt, with booming numbers and a growing travel infrastructure. Travelers are drawn to Sri Lanka because it offers a few things that India doesn’t: world class beaches (sorry, Goa), a massive mix of cultures (European as well as subcontinent) and a cuisine that can go toe-to-toe with any country in the world. Oh, and like a tenth of the crowds. Need more excuses to give Sri Lanka travel a try? Find out more about our Sri Lanka travel bucket list.
Let’s start with the tasty stuff. Sri Lanka is probably one of the biggest up-and-coming food destinations on the planet. Legit. It may not be duking it out with Michelin starred giants like Tokyo and New York as yet, but for street food and (more importantly) culinary diversity, it’s in a league of its own. Mostly this is down to heritage and history. Dutch colonialists, migrants from southern India, Moorish spice merchants, English and Portuguese traders – every single one has left its mark on the country’s food scene. Must try dishes include: fiery Tamil curries on the north coast, piping hot ‘hoppers’ from a street-side stall and the infamously delicious Ministry of Crab at Colombo’s Dutch Hospital. You’ll eat like a king and spend like a pauper (a simple rice and curry will set you back about $3). Pro tip: pack extremely elastic pants.
India has plenty of natural diversity too, but it’s spread out over about 1.2 million square miles. If you want to leap from the jungle to the beach to misty forest hills, there aren’t many places to do it. Enter Sri Lanka. The island is so small, and the diversity of landscapes so big, that you could literally see something different every day of your trip. Fragrant tea fields around Kandy one day, dripping-wet Sinharaja rainforest the next, then perhaps a coastal stop at post-card worthy beaches like Bentota or Passikudah: all bone-white sands and swaying palm trees. If you’re looking for a compact travel challenge that offers good value for money, Sri Lanka is the place. There’s just so much to see in such a concentrated space. A 9-day itinerary here goes a long, long way.
Sri Lanka sits in a weird climactic zone where anything can happen at any time, and often does. It’s equatorial, which means there’s a very distinct dry season (December to April) and a wet season (May to August), when the Yala Monsoon buffets the island. But because it actually spans a decent latitude, not to mention its topographical diversity, it’s not a lie to say that it’s dry somewhere on the island at any time of the year. That means that unless you’re traveling in peak monsoon season, you can be smart and avoid the worst of the rain. The highlands of the island’s interior also provide cool relief during the warmer summer months. So while temperatures in Colombo can push 94-degrees at midday, it might only be a balmy 80-degrees in Kandy.
People travel to Sri Lanka for a lot of reasons, but history is one of the big ones. Few countries can boast as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites crammed into such a small area (there are 8, if you’re playing along at home). Our pick of the bunch is definitely Sigiriya, The Lion Rock, which you’ll see on our 9-day Sri Lanka tuk tuk challenge. It rises out of the low plains like something from an Indiana Jones movie: an ancient fortress thought to be the epicenter of the mysterious and short-lived kingdom of Kassapa. The country is also dotted with literally thousands of Buddhist stuppas, Hindu temples, Islamic mosques and Christian churches. One of the benefits of being smack bang in the middle of the old spice trade is that you quickly get a very diverse historical mix. And now travelers are reaping the benefits.
India is a wonderful country, but it’s also pretty impenetrable. The crowds are immense, the roads are chaotic, and even after a decade-long tourism boom, it’s still a tricky place for travelers to navigate. Sri Lanka is like the best bits of India (the amazing food, friendly people and beautiful scenery) without the chaos and stress. It’s compact too: you can see the world’s oldest living tree in the morning (Anuradhapura) and watch hundreds of elephants in the afternoon (Minneriya). The exchange rate for US travelers is also fantastic right now, so money isn’t a problem. And there are dozens of coastal resorts and villages to check out once you finish your travel challenge. Public transport and infrastructure is still a work in progress, but it beats rush hour in Rajasthan or Delhi any day. And with more and more travelers adding Sri Lanka to their travel Bucket List, now’s the time to go. The country is just waking up from decades on conflict – see it now before the crowds catch on.