Sri Lanka Budget Breakdown

Budget Sri Lanka

I did not budget well in Sri Lanka.

Coming straight from New York City was a bit of a rough transition. In comparison to NYC prices, everything looked like it was dirt cheap, even if it was unreasonably expensive in local terms. And even though the steady pay checks have stopped, I could conceivably have just been on an extended 3 week vacation. I think it may take me a few more weeks to fully wrap my head around the fact that very little money is coming in and very, very much money is gushing out.

My relationship with money is changing, but it’s taking me a while to construct a new framework for evaluation. My first day in Sri Lanka, I went to a recommended restaurant that had fancy 2500LKR (<$15) dishes, which is better than anything you can get in NYC. But that same night I got dinner with a hostel buddy for just 150LKR ($1) which quickly put things in proper perspective.

Still, am I supposed to think that $4 (600LKR) is expensive now? How far should I be willing to walk to avoid a 300LKR ($2) tuk tuk ride? And at what point does a high price tag (like the 4500LKR ($30) fee at Sigiriya) make the experience not worth it? I think I am reasonably able to answer these questions now for Sri Lanka, but they’ll all be slightly different for each country.

I splurged a little in Sri Lanka, but the finally tally is better than I thought! Thank goodness the country is relatively inexpensive. Im only $5.38 over my goal of $50 per day, but I’ll definitely have to be more mindful of my budget in the next locations to make sure that I can hit the $50/day average overall.

Budget breakdown

Total: $1274.56
Average: $55.38/day

Budget Sri Lanka Pie Chart

Accommodation: 27.49%

Total: $350.35
Average: $15.23/day

Accommodation averaged to a reasonable $15/day, though the types of places where I stayed varied considerably. The highest price that I paid was $27 for a beautiful air conditioned bedroom with a TV in Mirissa, whereas the cheapest place was $9 for a bed in a 4-bed dormitory at a hostel in Kandy.

I stayed in a single room for 8 nights in a row, which I concede is a little excessive – but definitely nice once in a while (and if it has a TV, it’s probably too nice). I definitely had the most fun in hostels: The Best Hostel in Kandy is where I met my fantastic traveling buddy from the Netherlands, HU Peritos had the most scrumptious meals outside of my favorite one at Matey Hut, and DriftBnB is ironically one of the most comfortable places I stayed (mostly owing to the absence of mosquitoes and despite a ceiling tile falling in the middle of the night).

Crazy good meals at HU Peritos: BBQ, and a proper Chilean feast (the owner is Chilean)

Food: 11.55%

Total: $147.25
Average: $6.40/day

Even with my fancy dinner, food averaged out to a reasonable $6.40 per day. For the most part I tried to eat in local restaurants, which are always cheaper than the tourist places and luckily didn’t have any sanitation issues. The portions were often pretty big too (especially any sort of kottu, which is basically fried rice except with chopped rotti instead of rice), so I could take dishes home and eat them for a second meal.

The two western places I went to accounted for 25% of the food cost: the $27.18 dinner at the Gallery Cafe was 18.7%, and the $10.71 drinks at the Galle Face hotel were 7.3%. I’d say the latter was worth it because of the beautiful sunset, but the former not so much.

Snacks mainly consisted of fruits, as almost all the snacks available in grocery stores were cookies.

Transportation: 7.52%

Total: $95.78
Average: $4.16/day

Transportation across Sri Lanka was both extremely easy and extremely cheap. The first time I got shuffled onto a bus in Colombo, I thought the fare collector asked for 200LKR ($1.33) and handed him a 1000LKR bill. To my surprise, I got 980LKR back in change. Turns out local bus rides are only between 10 – 25 LKR!

Even longer rides between cities don’t cost all that much, whether by bus or by train. My bus ride across the southern coast from Tissa to Mirissa was less than 250LKR ($1.66). Trains are a little more if you manage to reserve a seat, but even then first class is only around 600LKR ($4). and anyone can jump on a train with an unreserved ticket, which is only around 150LKR ($1). A little crowded, but low cost and low stress!

I managed to split longer car rides to Sigiriya and Worlds End with other travelers, which cut down on transportation costs considerably. The only times I paid more than $10 for transportation were for the taxi from the airport to Colombo ($18.79), the van from Ella to Tissa ($15.44), and the train from Colombo to Kandy ($13.79 – only this much because I prebooked a seat while abroad).

Experience: 17.06%

Total: $217.46
Average: $9.45/day

My experience costs were high because many tourist attractions had high fees, and I also splurged more than I had to. The most expensive place to visit was Sigiriya at $44.83 including the car, followed by Worlds End at $26.31 and the temple of the tooth/botanic garden in Kandy at a combined $20.81.

Some of my highest individual costs were guided experiences, the Safari at $80.07 and whale watching at $26.67. I could have easily gotten both at half the cost (if not a little bit less), but I splurged for the highest rated companies on TripAdvisor. The guides were knowledgeable, the trips were a little more comfortable, and I saw everything that I had set out to see. But I could have gotten almost the same at half the price, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that the additional cost was worth it.

The cheapest experience, my cooking class at Matey Hut for $13.42, was ironically my favorite! And one that I had stumbled upon by sheer luck. Similarly, it was fantastic to witness the procession in Tissamaharama, which was completely free and also a spontaneous addition. Goes to show that the highlighted experiences are not always the best, and it pays to keep an eye out and stay flexible!

Essentials: 0.36%

Total: $4.59
Average: $0.20/day

Essentials includes things like lotion and contact solution that I had to replace while on the road. Since I’m just starting out with freshly packed toiletries, these purchases are still fairly small.

However, I had a whole host of minor health issues during my first few days in Sri Lanka, so I had to go see a doctor and buy prescription medicine, which totaled 36.13. It only costed 350LKR ($2.33) to see the doctor, and I was in and out right away! And 5 days of antibiotics only totaled around 400LKR ($2.66). So overall healthcare was super cheap, but I also inflated my expenses because I saw a second doctor and bought a lot of medicine that I didn’t actually need to use.

The category also includes water, and in my 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, I only purhcased 1 bottle of water for 80LKR (around $0.53)! For the first half I relied on water dispensers and boilers at the hostels. And once I learned to use my SteriPen, I simply filtered tap water instead. At $49, the cost of the SteriPen will take a while to recoup…but if I filtered 3L of water/day for the last 10 days, I’ve made up at least 80LKR x 30 = 2400LKR ($16) so far!

Treat: 2.2%

Total: $28.00
Average: $1.22/day

The treat category includes all nonfunctional expenditures or gifts, and only totals two items in Sri Lanka. The first is a massage at Thusare Talking Hands which cost $20.13 (this was my first day, so I also left a pretty generous 500LKR ($3.33) tip, before I learned that Sri Lanka generally doesn’t do tips). And the second is a coconut oil rub I bought at the airport for $7.87, since I couldn’t exchange my last 1480LKR.

Spread: 33.82%

Total: $431
Average: $18.74/day

Spread is the category for all of the bigger misc one-time expenditures. Miraculously the flight from NYC to Sri Lanka was only $342.40, with a $35 visa. The $9.91 SIM card with 9GB of data was the single best $10 I ever spent, and I’m forever ruined from traveling SIM card-less again.

The Charles schwab debit card refunds any ATM withdrawal fees, so it’s perfect for traveling abroad. But unfortunately because I didn’t sign up in time to get the card before I left, I had to use Wells Fargo for a withdrawal. For a $100 withdrawal, I got slapped with $7.87 in fees. I called to FedEx the debit card to me while I’m abroad, and it couldn’t come fast enough!

Sri Lanka Wrap Up

Aryubowan Sri Lanka

Three weeks have gone by, and my time in Sri Lanka has come to an end. One country successfully under my belt. (I survived!!) Below are some of my notes and observations on Sri Lanka in general:

Sri Lanka is just starting to get on the traveler radar since its civil war ended in 2009, but it’s rapidly gaining popularity. Tourists were EVERYWHERE: hanging out of the doors on all of the trains and squeezing past each other at all the tourist attractions. Granted, I followed the tourist-beaten track through Sri Lanka to a T, but I didn’t expect to see as many foreigners as I did. The majority are Westerners (mostly backpackers), but Chinese tourism especially is rapidly growing and is sure to be a booming industry down the road.

Despite the number of tourists, the Sri Lankan people are still very kind and friendly. For the most part they seem eager to share their culture with new visitors, instead of keen to take advantage of foreigners and squeeze out whatever money they can. Every interaction began with the same series of questions:

“Where you from?”
“How long you in Sri Lanka?”
“You like Sri Lanka?”

This may have come across as intrusive to some fellow tourists, but I think it’s usually devoid of ill-will (and honestly, it’s the most obvious topic of conversation). As more foreigners visit and the industry grows, this friendliness factor may change – so I would say visit as soon as you can!

Sri Lanka also had bit of the energy that I liked so much about places like Turkey and Vietnam: an optimistic outlook and a drive to work hard. You can see it just from the number of entrepreneurs, both local and foreign. Some of the guest houses I stayed in were run by local families next to their own homes, while others were opened by previous travelers who fell in love and stayed to make a living. And for most services, people went above and beyond.

Something else that surprised me about Sri Lanka was the prevalence of English. Almost everyone I spoke to had enough English knowledge to answer my inquiries (though sometimes there was a fair amount of gesturing involved). Conversely, even though Chinese tourism is growing and China and Sri Lanka have very close economic ties, not many people seemed to know conversational Chinese. Someone should definitely get on that, stat!

In terms of the sights, Sri Lanka was wonderfully diverse. Whether it’s culture/history in the north, mountains and hikes in the center, safaris in the north and south, or beaches in the east and south, there’s a little bit of everything for everyone. None of these are necessarily the best in the world, but they’re still beautiful. And where else can you find so many different types of terrain and activities concentrated in such a small space?

Overall, Sri Lanka was a great place to begin my trip. It’s foreign, but still friendly and small enough to give me time to ease into traveling. I’m going to miss it, but I’m ready for the next adventure!

Misc Sri Lanka observations:

  • When other people fill out forms for me, they automatically use the suffix “Mrs.” I wonder if it’s because there is no “Miss” suffix, or if people automatically assume that I’m married? Most of the time they’ve gotten “Jessica” right, but I’ve also seen “Jasika.”
  • In Columbo, tuk tuks start at 50 and go up based on distance traveled. However, Colombo is the only place with meters. Everywhere else, they’re generally a bit more expensive and require haggling. As a general rule of thumb, 1km should only cost about 100LKR.
  • Many major street corners have buddha statues encased in glass pavilions. The larger ones have buddhas over 10ft tall, but smaller street corners have mini 2ft buddhas, in their own little glass cases.
  •  The exchange rate was close to 150LKR/$1 for $100 and $50 bills, but about 145LKR for $20 bills.
  • Bus fare collectors walk up and down the bus with cash in hand, collecting money from everyone and (sometimes) issuing a small receipt from a receipt machine they were around their wrist. How do they keep track of who has pad and who hasn’t?
  • Local restaurants serve food on newspaper and offer newsprint or newspaper as napkins.
  •  All bathroom light switches are outside the bathroom. I’m sure there is a practical reason for this, but it makes sneaking into the bathroom at night very hard.
  • Stray dogs are everywhere, I’m not sure if any households actually keep dogs as pets. I saw one pet store in Unawatuna, but otherwise no other evidence of pet dogs.
  • Every toilet has a spray nozzle. That’s every toilet, even public ones deep inside Yala National Park. I’m not quite sure what for, but they’ve saved me on occasion when I don’t have any toilet paper.

Toilet with spray nozzle

 

Galle Fort & Unawatuna

Jungle beach, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Galle is an old port city south of Colombo, and it is a wonderful place to relax after a trip around Sri Lanka. I understand now why it is so popular to travel counterclockwise from Colombo to Kandy, then Ella, eventually ending with the beaches on the southern coast.

I stayed in Unawatuna, which has nice sandy beaches and is just a 15 minute bus ride to Galle. I’m not much of a beach person, but I have to admit, a dip in the ocean was nice!

Unawatuna beach, with swanky restaurants and beach chairs:

Unawatuna beach, Sri Lanka

Chairs on Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka

And Jungle beach, which is a little more secluded, and requires a small hike to get to:

Jungle beach, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

Jungle beach, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

During one of my days in Unawatuna I took a day trip to Galle, where the main attraction is a Galle Fort. This is an old Fort built by the Portugese in 1588 and fortified by the Dutch in 1684.

The main entrance to Galle Fort:

Main entrance at Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

Even today, it is the center of Galle and still in use – the judicial courts, two schools, and countless shops and restaurants can be found inside.

A school inside Galle Fort:

School in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

But if you walk around the perimeter, you can see remnants:

Old Dutch buildings at Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

Old ship remains at Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

The lighthouse:

Lighthouse at Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

The clock tower:

Clock tower at Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

Sadly, my time in Sri Lanka comes to an end soon. But I’m glad I got to end it here!

Lessons from weeks 2 & 3

Week 2 & 3 Lessons

1. You are your own advocate

Strangers that you meet may be nice, but they won’t fight for you as much as they would for themselves or people in their inner circle. They won’t even know what you want until you ask for it.

So speak up and be your own advocate. Haggle for that better price, raise any concerns you have, and ask the safari driver to stop so you can take a picture of the Sri Lankan national bird that nobody else is interested in because it looks like a common chicken (just, you know, a random overly-specific example).

2. Experiences are better when shared with other people

While I haven’t necessarily felt homesick or lonely yet, I have realized that experiences are better shared with others. Not necessarily friends and family (though of course that would be ideal), it could just be a friendly stranger that you met at the hostel or during the activity itself.

I noticed this from the safari and whale watching, when I was part of a group and alone, respectively. On the safari, I was a lot more engaged, had a lot more fun, and was less bored, in general. Climbing Adam’s Peak was also a bit of a struggle, though admittedly for other reasons too.

An experience is just overall more enjoyable when you have someone else to point things out to, to share small jokes with, and to turn to when you can’t believe what you just saw. And it’s nice to have someone to split tuk tuk costs with and to look after your things on the beach!

3. Don’t judge things right away

When I first arrived at Nethuli guest inn in Ella and realized how far up the mountains it was (at minimum, a 30 minute walk), I was pretty upset that I had booked something so remote. I added up the tuk tuk costs in my head and even started looking for other available places.

However, within an hour, my opinion had changed and I was convinced that it was the best place I had stayed thus far. It was run by a family who made wonderful home cooked meals and went out of their way to ensure that their guests were comfortable. When I ordered dinner and sat down to eat on the porch by myself, the grandpa paced up and down the driveway, saying “you single, I security.” It didn’t take too long to fall in love.

So don’t dismiss something if it doesn’t seem ideal at first. It may turn out to be fantastic, and even if it’s not, there are always positives to be found.

4. Experience it in person, not through your camera

Though pictures and video help capture the moment, trying to get the perfect pictures will cause you to miss it entirely. This is a principle that I already knew, but yet I found myself sinking into the trap again on this trip.

For the procession and whale watching in particular, I was so absorbed with capturing a good photo that I looked through my camera most of the time. The ironic part is that the pictures for both were even more of a disappointment than usual when compared with the original, due to low lighting and distance.

It’s a fine balance because I don’t want to end up with no pictures at all, that’s better than the alternative of not really experiencing it at all.

5. Don’t blindly follow reviews

My accommodation booking strategy has been to filter by the lowest price range and then sort by rating. This worked out great for the first few locations, but I realized with the last few places that good ratings do not necessarily translate to a good experience for me.

The place where I stayed in Mirissa, the Paddy Field View Resort, had a 9.9/10 rating on booking.com. Surely it must be AMAZING, right? But it was on the outskirts of Mirissa, a 35 minute walk to the beach and a minimum 300LKR tuk tuk ride away. For a budget-minded traveler like me who wanted to be close to the center of the action, this was terrible. But for a couple on their honeymoon who wanted something nice and quiet, it was wonderful.

I’ve seen this setting on booking.com before and just ignored it. But now I know. Use it!

Sort by solo travelers on booking.com

6. You can build anything with a little imagination

Most places that I stayed in either had built-in mosquito nets or something over the bed that I could use to hang my own, but the last hostel I stayed in gave me nothing to work with. After suffering through the first night, I decided that I had to make something happen for the second. Using the few tools I had at my disposal (my backpack, the pillow, and a broom), I fashioned this tripod fort:

Mosquito net fort

Was it the most comfortable night I’ve ever had? No. But was it mosquito-free? YES. It was a little awkward when they came looking for the broom, though.

 

Whale watching in Mirissa

Blue whale tail, whale watching at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has many beach towns along its southern coast, and the beaten track is to go from Colombo up to the mountains and then finish up the vacation by relaxing on the beach (basically the exact route that I’ve been following). One of the larger beach towns that is popular among tourists is Mirissa.

I’m not much of a beach person and I only had one day in Mirissa after adding a day in Tissa, so I just opted to do one of the most popular and unique activities there: whale watching.

A typical whale watching boat:

Whale watching boat at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Everywhere you walk in Mirissa, you see signs advertising whale watching packages. Every hotel will also help you book whale watching, with the same blue tickets that state a “full price” of 6000LKR ($40) but which they generously offer for 2000LKR to 3000LKR ($13.33 – $20).

As I did in Tissa, I found the top rated place for whale watching on TripAdvisor, the Whale Watching Club. Their package was a little more pricey (surprise, surprise) at 4,000LKR ($26.66), but the owner/captain said that he had 15 years of experience and carried fewer people on his boat. So why not? It’s hard to quantify experiences, and it’s worth paying a little more to ensure you get a good one…right?

Whale watching didn’t require as early of a wake up time as the safari, but I still had to be ready to be picked up at 6am. I arrived at the harbor and got on the boat, and we were off at around 6:30, before any of the other boats.

Back at the office, the Whale Watching Club had provided sea sickness tablets to anyone who needed them. Even though I’d never experienced any sea sickness before, I got paranoid listening to stories of the rocky waters. So while on the boat, I took one for good measure. Turns out that you’re supposed to take them a while BEFORE setting sail, so it might not have even worked at all. But that placebo effect is strong.

Shortly after setting sail, we got our breakfasts of an egg sandwich, egg roll, and banana. I was super impressed at the crew, who came to us one by one without tripping or spilling any food.

About 45 minutes to an hour out at sea, the crew suddenly pointed to something in the distance and beckoned everyone to look. I think all of us were a little bewildered for the first 2 minutes, until someone realized that we were looking at the horizon, where the occasional tiny splurt of water appeared. Dang, very good eye!

Whale Watching Club boat, Mirissa, Sri Lanka

We booked it in that direction, and eventually got close enough to see our first whale! A blue whale, up close and personal.

Blue whale blowing water at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

The dorsal fin, how you tell that it’s a blue whale:

Blue whale dorsal fin, whale watching at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

And the coveted tail shot:

Blue whale tail, whale watching at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

The blue whales apparently only surface for a short period of time and then dive back down for 15 minutes before resurfacing. Somehow the captain could tell where it would resurface (that’s where the experience comes in), so we followed this whale (if it was just one whale) to see it another two times.

However, by that time all the other boats had caught up, and there were about 6 other ships chasing the same whale with us. Some of them were a little over-eager, just about running over the whale in their haste to get close to it.

Line of whale watching boats at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

We didn’t come across any other whales, though I had a few false alarms. The waves in the distance are crested and dark, so every few minutes I would think that I saw a fin.

Around 10:30 we all started heading back, but we went on a slight detour down the coast in the hope of seeing some dolphins. Eventually we did come across a school of them:

Dolphins, whale watching at Mirissa, Sri Lanka

And then it was time to go back to shore. On the return trip, everyone crashed. I found it exceedingly difficult to keep my eyes open, and I was confused – why was I so much more tired on the boat than on the safari, when I woke up much earlier? Was it the rocking of the boat? Was I just that much more tired over the past few days? Or, as I later discovered, was it because drowsiness is one of the side effects of motion sickness pills? Ah, that would do it.

Whale Watching Club boat, Mirissa, Sri Lanka

So that was whale watching! I got a taste of all the big animals in Sri Lanka. It was a nice experience, but to be honest, I’m not sure if I’d do it again… unless I can swim with them next time!

Tissamaharama Procession

Fire jugglers at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

One goal of my trip is to learn to be more spontaneous, and I got my first chance to do just that!

After the safari at Yala, I arrived back in Tissa and set abut finding dinner. Unfortunately the area that I was in didn’t have many food options, and the night before I had had my worst meal ever in Sri Lanka (veggies with airplane-food sauce, and chicken that took some significant skill to make so rubbery). So I walked a ways down the main road, trying to find anything that looked remotely like a restaurant.

I finally came across a small local place that advertised food. There, a high-school aged local girl came over to take my order and we got to chatting while I waited. She asked me where I was going next (the beach town of Mirissa the next day), and excitedly told me that there would be a procession in Tissa the following night. A big procession! Only in Tissa. And a great opportunity for me to see much more of the Sri Lankan culture, she said.

No matter how many different ways I tried asking the question “what is the procession for?” I couldn’t quite arrive at an answer – just that no, it wasn’t for a holiday. So I wasn’t quite sure… but these are the moments that you seek while traveling and the whole point of being flexible, right? So I agreed to extend my stay in Tissa for another day if I could go along with her to the procession, and she excitedly agreed. It was a date!

The next night I met her at 7pm at the same restaurant (her sister and brother-in-law’s), along with some friends from the hotel who were also interested in seeing the procession. We walked from there to the local temple down the road, which was the end point of the procession.

Temple in Tissa, Sri Lanka

We met some of the friendly monks there, including this little monk-in-training!

Monk-in-training in at a temple in Tissa, Sri Lanka

He was very fascinated with our cameras.

Monk-in-training in at a temple in Tissa, Sri Lanka

My local friend and I at the temple:

Local friend in Tissa, Sri Lanka

After that, we continued walking down the main road. All along both sides, locals were setting out chairs and preparing to watch the procession. Vendors with balloons and snacks were also milling about. We stopped close to the beginning of the procession, picked a spot with (semi) good lighting, and waited to see what would come.

Locals waiting for the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

Vendors at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

Around 9:30pm, the procession began. It started with a line of boys striking the ground with loud whips made of coconut materials, which was meant to symbolize the thunder before a storm.

Whip crackers at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

Then came some bicyclists with home-decorated bikes:

Decorated bikes at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

The most exciting act, people twirling flames:

Fire jugglers at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

Craziness!

Fire jugglers at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

And a slew of people dancing, playing instruments, and holding ornaments. A few moments I managed to capture:

Sri Lankan traditional dance at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

Ornament bearers at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

Torch bearer at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

A dance that involved little girls wearing beards

Bearded dancing girls at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

A snapshot of Sri Lanka’s biggest traditional dance:

Sri Lankan traditional dance at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

There were also about 4 elephants in the procession. This one carried a relic on its back.

Elephant carrying a relic at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

But while stopped in front of us, it did something rather unholy (look in the lower righthand corner).

Elephant doing its business at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

This was about 25% of the way through the procession, so for the rest of it we watched in amusement as people came upon the elephant’s gift and tried to dance around it barefoot.

The “devil,” who actually was a bit frightening. I’m the biggest scardey cat, but I’m just saying. Wouldn’t want to encounter that in a dark alley. (Like, really though, would you?)

Devil mask at the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

This is the “king” of the procession, who I gather is the biggest financial sponsor.

The king of the procession in Tissa, Sri Lanka

An hour later, it was over. So glad I stayed and managed to catch the festivities! All by pure luck – I tried to look up information on the procession online, but I wasn’t able to find anything. So it was all because I was lucky enough to stop by that particular restaurant and strike up a conversation.

Many, many thanks to my new local friend! Here’s to many more of these adventures to come.

Yala National Park Safari

Elephant family at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

When I researched Sri Lanka, I found that it has the largest safari outside of Africa for big game. Since I’m in Sri Lanka now and I’m unlikely to go to Africa in the near future, I figured I might as well go see the Safari.

Safari jeep at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Yala is the top national park for safaris, and you have to hire a Jeep to enter the park. From what I could find online, the starting price of a Jeep was pretty steep (5000LKR, or $33.33, and up). The cheapest offering of Ajith Safari, the top-rated safari company on TripAdvisor, was 13800LKR or $92 (?) for a 4hr safari for one person. That was a pretty penny indeed. As with Sigiriya, I hoped I might be able to find a group to join, and I figured I would work it out when I got there.

The closest city to Yala is Tissamaharama (or plain “Tissa” for short). There unfortunately isn’t a direct bus from Ella to Tissa, but the men at the info area advised me that I could take get to Tissa in 4ish hours if i took a bus and transferred. So I arrived at the bus stop in the morning and steeled myself to potentially stand for 4ish hours if I couldn’t get a seat.

At the bus stop, a local man asked where I was headed. Upon hearing that I wanted to go to Tissa, he said that I could get a ride for 2000LKR. The cheapest direct ride I had heard thus far was 4000LKR, so this was actually a pretty good deal. And he also didn’t give off a creepy vibe, so I could believe that the offer was real.

As more tourists started arriving and the bus looked like it was going to be even more crowded, I agreed. The man called his friend, who was driving a van that other tourists had already booked to go to Tissa. And just like that, I joined three English people on their way to Tissa. They thankfully didn’t seem to mind that the driver had literally picked someone up off the side of the road!

When we arrived at Tissa, as luck would have it, the driver took us straight to the Ajith Safari, the place that I had looked up before. My companions wanted to do a full day safari, and graciously allowed me to join them for another day. Yes, safari problem solved! It came out to 11,500LKR ($77) per person, which is more than double the rate that the hotel quoted for a safari…but then again, it was double the time plus a little on top for (hopefully) a better experience. Anyway, when $77 is a big splurge, that’s not half bad.

Alright, enough with the arrangements and on with the Safari itself!

Yala national park opens at 6am and it takes about 20 minutes to get there from Tissa. However, every morning a massive swarm of Jeeps descend on the entrance, so it’s better to leave early. The standard pick up time is 5am, and the hotels pack you an egg/cheese sandwich breakfast to take on the road with you.

Sunrise at Yala:

Waiting outside the gate to Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Sunrise at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

While we waited for the driver to get an entrance ticket and for the park to open, car after car after car (what everyone refers to as “Jeeps”) appeared. The Jeeps themselves all look the same, trucks with 3 rows of seats staggered upward so that everyone can see. We were told that we had “luxury” Jeeps that were quieter (so as not to scare animals away) and more comfortable. But from what I could observe, there wasn’t really a tangible difference between the Jeeps. Does a quieter engine even matter if there are 4 noisy Jeeps bearing down the road behind you?

Our Jeep:

Our safari jeep at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Once the gate opened, we were off to the races. The drivers were all very competitive, veering sideways off the road to pass each other (but first peering over to see if the slower Jeep was looking at anything worth seeing).

Jeeps passing each other on the road at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Leopards are the rarest and most coveted animals to spot, and we lucked out 2 minutes into the park! Almost as soon as we drove in, we spotted a black shape slinking across the road. Just like that, it was gone, before we could even register what we saw. That sort of counted as a leopard sighting, right?

Here are some animals we did definitively spot:

Water buffalo

Water buffalo at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Water buffalo at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Baby water buffalo at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Deer

Deer at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Wild boar

Wild boar at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Pretty birds

Colorful bird at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Stork at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Iguana

Iguana at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Monkeys

Monkey at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Monkeys at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Tusker elephant (though there are about a hundred elephants in the park, there are only about 10-15 Tusker elephants. Only a small percentage of male elephants have tusks, which is also what’s saved them from being over-hunted).

Tusker elephant at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Tusker elephant at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

At one point we were ambling slowly down the road, when all of a sudden our driver made a U-turn and booked it in the other direction. We were all bewildered, but it seemed like he was on a mission. We soon discovered what it was:

An group of elephants, on a family outing to the water hole:

Elephant family at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Look at dad’s protective glare in the back. After he made sure mama and baby were safely done drinking, it was his turn.

Elephant family at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Elephant family at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

And then all three of them turned turned to put their rumps in our faces and never turned back. Guess that was the end of the photoshoot. We got there just in time!

Elephant family at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Turns out that our driver had received a call from one of the other drivers, who tipped him (and about 10 other cars) off about the elephants. That’s a nice collaborative system, to ensure that everyone gets higher tips.

Most of the other cars that were doing 4- or 7-hour safaris left before noon. But as we were on a full-day safari with lunch included, we pulled into a picnic area near the beach for lunch. I’m not sure why it was okay for us to roam about outside the vehicle in that particular area and not others, since I didn’t see a fence or any physical barrier between us and the animals. But I guess it must have been alright, since we were soon joined by all of the other Jeeps that were having lunch.

Lunch break at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

The driver laid out a delicious spread of curries:

Curry lunch spread at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

After about an hour and a half, we were back on the road. This must be a hard job on the drivers, who must navigate for 7 hours straight while also looking around for animals to point out to their guests. And then to have to do another 5 hours of the same thing with just a brief break…ooof.

Our driver wanted us to see a leopard for real, so we drove to a clearing where a leopard was reportedly supposed to cross. We turned off the engine and waited for 30 minutes, but still no leopard. So we drove out and up another side of the clearing, when all of a sudden a squawking, flying peacock crossed the road. The driver turned off the engine, and then pointed out the screeching noises that the monkeys were making, which apparently was reserved for whenever a leopard was nearby.

And then we saw it, crossing the road about 50 feet away from us:

Leopard at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Leopard at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

So we ended the day with a proper leopard spotting. Mission complete!

I KNEW I brought those telephoto lens for a reason.

It was lots of fun, but also a long day bumping along in a Jeep. I think a half day ending at noon would probably have been sufficient, but I’m glad we got to see everything that we did!

Cooking class at Matey Hut

The finished meal from the cooking class at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

Up to now I’ve mostly stumbled across restaurants or asked for local recommendations, but in Ella, for the first time, I decided to check TripAdvisor. The top rated restaurant was one called Matey Hut, which looked like it had authentic local cuisine and was also reasonably priced. Because most of the other restaurants in Ella looked more touristy, I went to check out Matey Hut for dinner.

That dinner, which consisted of okra curry, pumpkin curry, coconut sambol, and paratha, was easily the best I’ve had in Sri Lanka so far. Somehow, miraculously, it was also one of the cheapest! For the first time, I considered returning to a place simply to revisit a restaurant.

By chance, my table was right below a hand painted sign that read “Cookery classes.” When the bill came, I asked for details. The owner explained that they offered the classes in the morning at 9am, for only 2000 LKR ($13.33). In class, you learn how to cook 6 dishes and then have them for lunch afterward.

Cookery classes at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

I was so there!

The next morning I arrived as they were setting up shop. For a moment I was worried that they might have forgotten that I had signed up for class, but after a few minutes, I was beckoned into the small, dark kitchen.

This is where the magic happens! A roughly 8×4 ft space with three burners.

The kitchen at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

The kitchen at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

I was surprised to find that I was just me, essentially shadowing the cook (whose name I now realized that I never got, but she is the wife of the husband and wife owners). The class was less formalized, and I guess not set up to scale – but given that only one other person max could have squeezed in the kitchen with us, scaling would certainly be difficult.

The cook had the teaching part down pat, though. She first showed me all the ingredients that we were going to use:

Ingredients for the cooking class at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

Spices for cooking class at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

And then had me help to prepare them. I shaved a coconut with a hand-cranked shaver, cut up the onions and garlic, and cut up vegetables whenever she directed me to.

These are the four essential ingredients that we used for every dish: (1) chopped onions, (2) chopped garlic, (3) rampe leaves, and (4) curry leaves:

Ingredients for the cooking class at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

Somehow, miraculously, we churned out 6 dishes in 2 hours, with 3 burners in a space where we could barely squeeze past one another. Meanwhile, it usually takes me 2 hours to cook 1 meal for the week, for which the only real seasoning I use is salt or soy sauce. I am in complete awe. It was masterful coordination! She knew exactly what to start prepping while what was cooking and how long everything would take.

The three burners at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

Here is the final result, which I cooked! …kind of. I admit I might have spent more time scribbling down recipes than actually doing the cooking. Because there are SO MANY ingredients. No wonder why Sri Lankan food is so flavorful!

The finished meal from the cooking class at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

The finished meal from the cooking class at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

Curries, coconut sambol, and daal from cooking class at Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

Without further ado, the recipes, in the order that we made them:


Pumpkin Curry

Ingredients:

150g pumpkin, cut in chunks
Handful chopped onions
Handful chopped garlic
Handful curry leaves
Pinch of rampe leaves
Pinch of cinnamon
Chili powder to taste
1 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp tumeric powder
Few fenugreek seeds
Salt to taste
1 tsp coconut oil
2 dried red chilis
1 cup light coconut milk
1 cup thick coconut milk
1 tbsp blended roasted rice/coconut

Instructions:

  1. Heat wok on medium heat
  2. Add handful chopped garlic, handful chopped onions, handful curry leaves, pinch of rampe leaves, cinnamon, chili powder, curry powder, tumeric powder, fenugreek seeds, salt, and light coconut milk
  3. Cook until liquid dries up
  4. Add coconut oil, dried red chili, more chopped garlic, chopped onions, curry leaves, and rampe leaves
  5. Cook until the mixture is golden brown
  6. Add thick coconut milk, blended roasted rice/coconut
  7. Add pumpkin
  8. Cook until pumpkin is soft, able to stick a fork through without much pressure

Mango Curry

Ingredients:

3 small mangos
3 cardamom seeds, chopped
Pinch of cinnamon, chopped
5 cloves, chopped
1 tbsp coconut oil
Handful chopped onions
Handful chopped garlic
Handful curry leaves
Pinch of rampe leaves
1/4 tbsp mustard seeds
chili powder to taste
2 1/2 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp tumeric
salt to taste
1 cup water
1 tbsp sugar
Dash of thick coconut milk

Instructions: 

  1. Peel mangos (we used small ones, about the size of my fist, but any size is okay)
  2. Heat wok on medium heat
  3. Add coconut oil, wait until oil is hot
  4. Add all ingredients except mango, water, and coconut milk
  5. Cook until slightly brown
  6. Add mangos and water, and coconut milk
  7. Cook until liquid is dried up and mango is soft, able to stick a fork through without much pressure

Green Bean Curry

Ingredients:

2 cups green beans
Handful chopped onions
Handful chopped garlic
Handful curry leaves
Pinch of rampe leaves
2 small tomatoes
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp mustard cream
1/4 tsp tumeric
Salt to taste
1 cup thick coconut milk
1 green chili, sliced

Instructions: 

  1. Break ends off green beans and break green beans into roughly 1in chunks
  2. Chop tomatoes into quarters
  3. Heat wok on medium heat
  4. Add handful chopped garlic, handful chopped onions, handful curry leaves, pinch of rampe leaves
  5. Cook for 1-2 min until brown
  6. Add rest of ingredients
  7. Cook until liquid is dried up and green beans are soft, able to stick a fork through without much pressure

Eggplant Curry

Ingredients:

2 small eggplants
2 small potatoes
Green chili to taste, sliced
Handful chopped onions
Handful chopped garlic
Handful curry leaves
Pinch of rampe leaves
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp tumeric powder
Pinch of chili flakes
2 cardamom seeds
1/4 cup thick coconut milk
2 tsp jagri, honey, or brown sugar
Oil to deepfry

Instructions: 

  1. Cut eggplant into vertical strips about 1/4-1/2 inch wide
  2. Deep fry egg plant in oil until golden brown
  3. Remove egg plant from oil
  4. Heat wok to medium heat
  5. Add all ingredients except eggplant, jagri, and coconut milk
  6. Cook for 1-2 minutes until slightly brown
  7. Add eggplant and coconut milk
  8. Add jagri
  9. Cook until all liquid is dried

Daal

Ingredients:

100 grams lentils
1 cup loose coconut milk
1/2 tsp tumeric
1/2 tsp chili powder
Pinch of cinnamon
Salt to taste
Handful chopped onions
Handful chopped garlic
Handful curry leaves
Pinch of rampe leaves
Green chili to taste, sliced
1/4 cup thick coconut milk
Oil to deepfry

Instructions: 

  1. Wash lentils and soak them in water for 10-15 minutes
  2. Heat pot on high
  3. Add lentils, loose coconut milk, tumeric, chili powder, cinnamon, and salt
  4. Cook until water is reduced, then reduce heat
  5. Add handful chopped garlic, handful chopped onions, handful curry leaves, pinch of rampe leaves, and green chili
  6. Cook until the water is all gone
  7. Add thick coconut milk
  8. Stir and turn off heat
  9. Slice a handful of onions and garlic into very thin slices, deep fry very briefly
  10. Deep fry curry leaves by just dipping them in the oil
  11. Sprinkle fried onions, garlic, and curry leaves on top of the daal

Coconut Sambol

Ingredients:

1 cup scraped coconut
1/2 small onion
1 small tomoato, sliced
Pinch of curry leaves
Pinch of salt
1/2 tsp chili flakes
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp pepper
1 small green chili, sliced
1 lime

Instructions: 

  1. Add all ingredients in a bowl
  2. Mix with hands, no heat required!

The talent behind the delicious food:

The owners of Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka

So glad I happened to check TripAdvisor and had enough time to participate in the cooking class! I really wish more people knew about it (and that they charged more for it – just the ingredients themselves had to add to up 500 of the 2000LKR). But so fortunate to have caught it when I did.

Now to try to reproduce these dishes at home…I’m sure that will be a whole separate adventure.

The hike to Ella Rock

The view from Ella Rock, Sri Lanka

Ella is a small town in Central Sri Lanka that is surrounded by mountains and forests. The town center itself is just a single strip of mainly touristy restaurants and guesthouses, but all around Ella are great treks and scenic views. One of the popular treks is the hike to Ella Rock, which is on a nearby mountaintop that affords panoramic views of Ella and the surrounding valley.

Even though the hike to Ella Rock is well-worn, there isn’t an easy way to get to it from the center of town. The path is not well-marked, and it includes a portion along the railway track and through a local village. To be safe, some tourists hire local guides for around 1500 LKR ($10) to take them to Ella Rock and back. But with this handy online guide, Lisa (my travel buddy!) and I decided to see if we could find it ourselves.

Following the guide, the hike begins at the Ella Railway station, where you walk South along the tracks for a couple of kilometers. Both of us were a little nervous at the prospect of walking on the tracks, especially with the huge signs that say “WARNING: Walking along the tracks is forbidden.” But seeing that locals and tourists alike use the tracks as a pathway, we soon got comfortable with it.

Warning signs next to the train tracks, Ella, Sri Lanka

Clearly no one heeds the sign, but I guess its presence means that people can officially say “told you so!” if something happens.

Walking down the train tacks on the way to Ella Rock, Sri Lanka

Walking down the train tacks on the way to Ella Rock, Sri Lanka

We followed the tracks until we reached the next small station at Kithaella. The turnoff from the tracks was just shortly after that, and we almost missed the small path because it bent back around a corner. Thankfully, a friendly local woman pointed us in the right direction before we had gone too far past it.

Passing the Kithaella station on the way to Ella Rock, Sri Lanka

From there, the path went down to a bridge and then through a village. We circumvented a field, crossed the front yard of one of the houses, and dead-ended in the front yard of another house (but a local there was able to reroute us in the right direction). With the number of confused foreigners that must wander onto their properties, you would think the locals would get tired of pointing and put up signs. But then I guess that would ruin business for all the guides, so I can see why they might have incentive to keep it confusing.

Past the village, the path became much more straightforward. All we had to do was continue going uphill. We soon reached the first scenic overlook. You can see Little Adam’s Peak (not sure why they call it that, since it doesn’t seem to bear much similarity to the Big Adam’s Peak) across the valley. That one is a much easier hike, just an hour of so out from town.

The first viewpoint on the path to Ella Rock, Sri Lanka

And then 30 minutes later, we were on top of Ella Rock! This is the view out the other side, of Ella and the surrounding valley.

The view from Ella Rock

On the other side of the mountain, through a forest of thin, straight trees, there is another panoramic view:

Tall, straight trees near Ella Rock, Sri Lanka

The view from Ella Rock, Sri Lanka

We retraced our steps on the way back down, and stopped by a restaurant along the railroad tracks. There were at least 3 or 4 of these restaurants (and even a grocery store/guesthouse) that deliberately faced the tracks. So there are plenty of businesses depending on people ignoring the WARNING: Forbidden signs.

The restaurant we picked served a wonderful collection of vegetables, homegrown rice, and mixed fruit juice. I unfortunately totally spaced on taking a photo of it all though, because we were swarmed by HUNDREDS of little fruit flies.

Seriously, HUNDREDS of tiny flies in a giant cloud around the two of us. We had to fan ourselves incessantly with paper to get enough peace to eat. The moment I stopped, at least 30 would settle immediately on my left arm (and the left arm in particular – whyyy?). The other tourists we passed would nodd in agreement and say “oh yeah, they’re everywhere,” but I don’t think they suffered to the same extent. Why us, WHY? I suspect it may have something to do with my (pretty ineffective) natural and organic sunscreen mixed with sweat. But wow, drawing flies has gotta be a new low.

Anyway, hike to Ella Rock, success! It was a fun adventure to find it ourselves, so I highly recommend it. There are plenty of other tourists going up and down the same path, so you’ll never be terribly lost.

What I DON’T recommend is hiking to Ella Rock the day after doing Adam’s Peak. Not a smart move on my part. For the next two days my legs were so sore that I could only hobble down stairs. But guess I can at least say that I’m getting some exercise!

Climbing Adam’s Peak

The sun rises over Adam's Peak

Adam’s Peak is one of the tallest peaks in Sri Lanka, and it holds lots of religious significance for locals. It’s most popular to hike to the top to watch the sun rise. When making the hike, locals and tourists alike stay in the nearby towns of Delhousie or Ratnapura and wake early in the morning (e.g. 2am) to make it to the top in time.

Getting to Adams Peak is quite the special trip. I took the train to Hatton, the closest train station, and then took a bus from there to Delhousie, the closest town (actually, if you search Delhousie, Sri Lanka in google maps, it doesn’t exist. The actual town is Nallathanniya, for booking purposes). There, I booked one night at a hotel just to have a place to store my bags and nap for a few hours before the climb.

The bus to Delhousie was quite the experience in and of itself. I got on early and secured a seat, but the front rows are reserved for the pregnant, disabled and members of the clergy. 6 monks got on right as we left, so I had to vacate my seat and stand for the 1.5 hour bus ride.

This would be fine, except this was one of the most exhausting bus rides I’ve been on, in terms of the effort required to remain upright. The bus barreled down multiple hairpin turns while other buses did the same from the other direction. As the German guy standing next to me said, “in Sri Lanka you don’t need to go to the gym, you can just ride the bus” and get a workout by holding on for dear life.

The view along those hairpin turns was extraordinary, though. I got some picks from the return bus trip, when I wizened up and sat in the back instead.

The view from the bus from Hatton to Delhousie

At Delhousie, I learned that because Friday was the full moon AND it was the weekend (Saturday night/Sunday morning), hundreds of thousands of locals were going to swarm the mountain. The man at the restaurant that I ate at suggested leaving at an earlier time of 12:30 instead of 2, so that I could actually make it to the top by sunrise, at 6:30. This scared me a little. I had read in a blog post by a previous visitor that on a similar holiday weekend, there was a 5 hour line for the last 2% of the climb. But surely it couldn’t be that bad, could it?

To be sure, I went to bed at 7pm and woke up at 11:30pm to gather my stuff and start climbing. Now THIS is officially the earliest (or latest?) I’ve ever woken up for anything. I set off promptly on my way, relishing at all the people I was going to beat to the top of the mountain… and then got lost in the parking lot for 15 minutes. There is no CLEAR SIGNAGE, at least in English. I learned that almost the entire path is pave in concrete. And about 50% of it, at least the first hour and a half or so, is lined with shops selling roti, sweets, fried food, drinks, stuffed animals, trinkets, you name it.

If the path looks like this, you’re on the right track:

Shops along the path to the top of Adam's Peak

The way up to the Peak is well-lit, and you can see it from a distance.

The path up to Adam's Peak in the dark

Generally, the first two hours weren’t bad. It was basically a lot of stairs amongst a lot of festivities. Great, I thought, I’ll get to the top at 3, and then I can write or read for 3 hours while I wait for sunrise.

But around 2am, the procession ground to a halt. Well, we couldn’t be too far from the top, since I thought it looked fairly close when I last saw it. How very, very wrong I was. 2:30 came, then 3, then 4, then 5. And we trudged along like one giant moving tin of sardines, at a rate of about one step every 3-4 minutes.

Along the way, I picked up another friend. He was a tall local who spoke a bit of English, and from what I gathered, he worked at an Italian factory and was making the trek for the holiday. He took it upon himself to guide me up the mountain, pointing out gaps that opened in the crowd and leading me up the stairs on the other side (which are supposed o be reserved for people coming down, and surprisingly most people actually do leave clear, except for ones like us with no shame). I think he was concerned that if he didn’t push me up the mountain, I would forget to move forward or fall off of it entirely. Not that I could fall off if I wanted to, since there were 1,000 people immediately behind me to catch me. We got separated on the way down, but thank you, friend!

Finally, FINALLY, at close to 6am, we could see what looked like the top. The line led into what looked like a temple, and we were about 40 feet from the entrance. However, we came to a dead stop. The local officials shouted something I couldn’t understand, and my local friend translated that the temple was closed until 6:30.

At that point some color started appearing on the horizon, and I decided sunrise > reaching the peak. I went back down the stairs the that I had labored for so long to climb, and parked myself at a good vantage point.

We were up high above a sea of clouds!

Sunrise on top of Adam's Peak

Peering through the clouds during sunrise on top of Adam's Peak

Mission (somewhat) accomplished.

The sun rises over Adam's Peak

Now that the sun was up, I could take some pictures on the way back down. Look at this crazy line, which was just as long as it was on my way up:

The 5-hour line to climb Adam's Peak

And this is the place where the line first started, a corner where people prayed and left long lines of white thread. I have no clue what it was for, I was in such a hurry to rush up and down that I wasn’t able to stop and find out.

Where the line started on the climb up Adam's Peak

From this I’ve learned my lesson: pick your dates wisely! Especially with the greater freedom that comes with extended travel, I totally should have predicted and avoided this. At least it was a crowd of locals, and not tourists – how often can people say that they were part of an authentic local pilgrimage? However, once is more than enough. I’ll be checking dates a little more carefully from now on, thank you!