I was sitting restlessly in my hotel room in Bali, halfway through a six-week commitment but itching like crazy to get on the road again. It had been weeks, maybe months since I had truly felt like I was on a real adventure. Getting pampered by my family in the Philippines and then getting sucked into Bali’s overwhelming Instagram culture had me desperate for something different. The last few weeks could only be really called “traveling” on a technicality. The days had been filled with overtly comfortable, half-lived adventures that did little to excite, inspire, or fulfill me.
In short, I was bored. I was hungry for a real adventure, one of those that made you actually feel alive. Something grimy, gritty, and greasy that leaves you exhausted but with a cheeky grin and a full heart overflowing with an inspiration to share your stories. I impulsively booked a plane ticket to Sri Lanka, deciding that a brand-new, completely foreign country away from anyone I’ve ever known was the only solution to this dimming inspiration to continue traveling. Travel burnout is a real thing, but sometimes all it takes is the right change in environment. Sri Lanka turned out to be everything I ever wanted, a complete disconnect from everything I’ve ever known.
I arrived at Colombo’s Fort Railway Station, my first introduction to what became an addiction to the impassioned chaos of Sri Lanka’s public transportation. I watched from the bridge above the train tracks as a seemingly endless stream of people flooded out from each arriving train. Scores of people jumping out of moving carriages, hopping across railroad tracks, moving with a determined purpose to get to where they needed to go.
At first, I was just enjoying the show, organized chaos that I had not experienced in far too long. But then I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing, and moving without purpose here meant that you would get swallowed alive by the maelstrom of commuters. To an outsider, it was chaotic, overwhelming, and intimidating. To a local, it’s just business as usual. I was finally back in a country that pushed me to conquer my comfort zones or get eaten alive. Those harrowing experiences birth the best adventures.
My last train rides had been in Singapore, and you can only imagine just how different that experience had been. Clean, shiny, automated, with everything well marked. Sri Lanka? Well, thankfully there was a tourist information desk.
Finally, my train to Anuradhapura had arrived. There was not another tourist in sight and every local Sri Lankan had been born with the instinct to just know what to do and where to go. I hopped on the train nervously and paced from carriage to carriage looking for a place to drop my bags and hopefully sit for the next six hours.
I sat next to a smiling old man, relieved to finally sit down after hauling both travel backpacks for far too long in the muggy Sri Lankan heat. I shoved my backpack in the overhead compartment before he told me I was sitting in the third-class instead of the second-class cabin. Here we go again. The train had started moving at this point, no leeway for slow-movers and the indecisive. I wobbled my way towards the second-class cabins, hoping for even one seat available. Finally, a group of younger locals offered me a seat, but it came with a warning: you can sit here, but you won’t be able to sleep.
It was a mysterious warning, and at first, my wariness of being in a new, extremely foreign country kicked in. I initially took it as a threat to keep an eye on my things for the entire six hour ride. It took about three seconds before the drumming and singing started and I realized that was what they had meant.
Being the only foreigner in this cabin, I was quickly picked out to join their group for singing, drumming, and a lot of dancing. For the next several hours, we jammed as the train drove through Sri Lanka’s lush countryside as I took in all of the chaos that I had wished for. Vendors selling basketfuls of questionable snacks strolled from cabin to cabin, trying to navigate their way through the dance party that had formed in the already narrow aisle of our car.
I hope every train ride is exactly like this one. I thought to myself. They weren’t, but it sure set the tone for the following three weeks of pure, unfiltered, hectic, and ecstatically uncomfortable travels through a country that immediately won me over.
The rural location of Anuradhapura was a stark difference to the last few places I found myself. The trendy, hipster vacation spot of Bali, the futuristic urbanity of Singapore, and even Sri Lanka’s own Colombo, where I could still find a McDonald’s and a shopping mall to retreat to. Here in Anuradhapura, I considered myself lucky to find someone who could even speak English.
I took a night to recover after the lengthy train journey before waking up bright and early to explore the immense archaeological site of old Anuradhapura. I rented a bicycle and set off around 7 AM to beat the Sri Lankan heat. It proved futile as by 8 AM, it was already blistering hot. Despite this, the sights of Anuradhapura motivated me to keep pushing through. Never had I seen anything like what I was encountering every few minutes in the archaeological complex.
Cycling home around golden hour flanked by ancient ruins and towering dagobas was a surreal feeling. I stopped in a field to admire the purpling sky over the 100 meter tall dagoba. Cows grazed and birds flocked to peck on the bugs flicked up by the cows eating grass. Tuk-tuks and local buses parked themselves in the field because Sri Lanka had no rules. It was the first time in a long time that I felt like I had been transported to another world. The word dagoba was quite fitting, as it truly did feel like I was in some sort of planet out of Star Wars.
Sigiriya and Minneriya National Park
The adventures only grew more exciting from there. Watching the iconic Lion Rock emerge from the darkness to become draped in the soft purple colors of the dawn was an unforgettable sight. From that sunrise hike in complete darkness to finding ourselves the only humans amongst a massive herd of elephants, Sri Lanka was blowing all of my expectations out of the water.
Despite wanting nothing more than to just sleep the day away after hiking up Pidurangala Rock for sunrise, I answered the call of adventure once more. A small group of people at the hostel were looking to kill some time before they left Sigiriya in the evening and wanted to make a day trip over to Polonnaruwa. As would become a recurring theme on these Sri Lankan expeditions, I knew nothing about where I was going but laced up my adventure shoes anyway.
We hopped on a local bus, the first of what would turn out to be many along the way. I was growing accustomed to playing the part of tourist, which was a much different role in Sri Lanka than in other countries where tourism has taken a heavy toll on a country. Not necessarily in a terrible way, but in many parts of Sri Lanka, a wide-eyed, eager tourist was still a marvel before they was seen as a cash grab.
My knowledge of Sri Lanka was minimal, and letting the locals build my adventure for me has worked out well so far. So yes, Mr. Tuk Tuk Driver, call your friend who has a few bikes to rent for us in Polonnaruwa. We got off the bus and immediately were welcomed by a local who had bikes ready for us. They cost a meager 300 LKR ($1.75 USD) for the day but I’m guessing we must have had to pay extra for the brakes. Despite that minor setback, we left Polonnaruwa unscathed, and what was originally imagined to be a quick way to kill time ended up being one of the most jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring adventures of my time in Sri Lanka.
It felt like Angkor Wat on a smaller scale. With how intricate, complex, and extravagant some of the ruins of Polonnaruwa were, it was mind-blowing to me how such an impressive archaeological site has gone mostly unnoticed by international tourism.
I left Sigiriya the following morning, feeling like I was being sent off to college after how Roy and the rest of his family at Roy’s Villa Hostel treated me. They even sent me off with a warm sandwich for the bus ride down to Kandy. And no, this isn’t sponsored or anything. He did ask me for help to create an Instagram account and I mentioned how I would usually do Instagram promotions for free stays and discounts before I started feeling guilty when he responded “but I don’t want business, I just want to see where all of my friends go after staying at my hostel.”
But yeah, stay at Roy’s and let him I know said hey. You won’t regret it. Anyway, I was back on the road again and as the bus started pulling in to Kandy, I was quickly realizing how blessed I was to have started in the less-trafficked areas up in the north. Kandy was hectic. But it also served as a pleasant stopover where I could find decent Wi-Fi, ATMs, and proper restaurants for the first time since leaving Colombo.
Hatton/Nallathanniya – Adam’s Peak
Kandy felt like a rest stop, where I took it slow. That turned out to be a good idea because I got sucked into what would be the toughest workout I experienced in months. Waking up before 2 AM to take on Adam’s Peak’s grueling 5,500 steps was one of the most why am I doing this to myself moments I have had in all of my travels. But once the sun started rising and the landscapes that we were complete blinded to started revealing themselves, it became evident why this is one of the most essential things you need to do in Sri Lanka.
Hiking Adam’s Peak was one of those rare but unforgettable moments that brought me to tears. It reminded me why my passion for travel existed. The sheer beauty of this sunrise was indescribable, a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing for sure. However, the camaraderie even at the ungodly hours of the early morning was what made this experience even more amazing. People from all walks of life supporting one another on this grueling hike, from young kids to elderly devotees to tourists, all of us coexisted on this mountain with nothing but encouragement and smiles for one another. Moments like these are best shared. My sweat-covered face couldn’t help but be all smiles despite the shaky legs and blistered feet.
We found ourselves on the rails again as we departed Hatton mere hours after finishing up Adam’s Peak. We can rest on the train, we told ourselves, knowing damn well how unlikely it was that we would actually find a seat. Even if we did, there was no way any of us would shut our eyes for a minute on what is widely-renowned as one of the most scenic train rides in the world.
You’ve likely seen some of the iconic photos on Instagram. What started out as cute, harmless pictures of people sitting outside the train escalated into what will definitely be a few Darwin Awards winners in the future. As people tried to one-up each other for that dangerous, wanderlusty Instagram pic that will get people talking, I found myself content just enjoying the views. Yes, I got a picture of my own but nope, no handstands or daring, risky kiss out of the train for me.
Arriving in Ella was a bit of a change from the rest of Sri Lanka. It was closer to a Bali vibe than a Sri Lanka vibe, with bamboo bars and massage parlors lining the street. Local street food vendors were nowhere to be found and cheap restaurants offering rice and curry for 100 LKR ($.60 USD) were replaced by coffee shops selling a cappuccino for 750 LKR ($4 USD).
Ella is undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s hottest destination for a new age of travelers. Despite my initial hesitance at embracing Ella, it became quite clear just why it was as popular as it was. From the stunning Nine Arches Bridge to the plethora of waterfalls in the area, Ella offered no shortage of adventures. From sunrise hikes to traipsing along railroad tracks, it had an endless supply of things to do and photo ops to throw up on the ‘gram. I’m not ashamed to admit that I visited the iconic Nine Arches Bridge a second time just to take some better pictures.
Little Adam’s Peak
Nine Arches Bridge
Yala National Park
The next adventure took us to the confines of Yala National Park. An early morning wake up call was in order as a Safari Jeep hauled our groggy selves east towards the rising sun in hopes of spotting an elusive leopard. And spot one, we did. Through the thick, dry brush of Yala’s forests, one could barely make out the unmistakable eyes of the Sri Lankan leopard. A glimpse was all we were gifted as the magnificent creature scurried away moments later.
The journey ended on the shores of Sri Lanka, where I washed up over and over again being dragged by my surfboard onto the sands of Sri Lanka’s stunning Southern Province. Beach hopping took us from small town to small town, mixing in surf with relaxation and the joy of doing nothing.
I actually started my trip in Colombo but for the sake of creative freedom I’m throwing it at the end. The incredible three weeks in Sri Lanka were, to put it kindly, dulled by a series of devastating terrorist attacks targeting Colombo. I was sitting in a cafe at Mirissa when I found out, and at the time, it did not seem all too serious. After a couple of hours away on a secluded beach, we got back to civilization to find out just how serious things were getting. Curfews were being set, roads were closed, taxi drivers were too terrified to take my friends to the airport that night, resulting in them missing their flights.
It was the scariest situation I have ever had while traveling, with constant anxiety and a feeling of dread always weighing over mine and many others’ heads. Even walking down the street on a main road had me scared that a car bomb might go off as I walked by. My original flight out of the country was booked for the 24th, 3 days after the series of bombings on Easter Sunday. Despite more threats and potential attacks, including several controlled explosions and raids throughout the country, I was able to make it out of the country without too much of an issue.
Although I thought about ignoring that part entirely while writing this, it is definitely the elephant in the room when it comes to talking about Sri Lanka right now. Tourism is at an all-time low following the recent resurgence after the Civil War ended a decade ago. It is hard to blame people for second-guessing Sri Lanka as a safe destination to travel to. However, once the dust settles, I hope Sri Lanka regains its prominence in the spotlight of international tourism.
This is a country where I had never felt more safe and genuinely welcomed by the people, many coming from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and religions. As I was hiking Adam’s Peak, a holy site recognized by Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists, I felt nothing but happiness and genuine positivity emanating from everyone on that mountain. People in Sri Lanka come from all walks of life. As an outsider, it truly felt that Sri Lanka was a place where people from so many cultures and religions were able to coexist in harmony. Don’t let the actions of a few extremists define what Sri Lanka and its people are.
This is a country that deserves better than what it has gone through, and it is a country that I truly believe is one that must be experienced by everyone. If not for its stunning nature, rich cultures, diverse wildlife, or endless adventures, then at least for its people. The Sri Lankan people welcome travelers with genuine intrigue and overwhelming hospitality. They know how to enjoy life and take in every moment despite any hardships or struggles. Sri Lanka wouldn’t be what it is without its people.
Thank you, Sri Lanka, for some of the best adventures I could have imagined. Never had I felt so consistently inspired to wake up every day to discover whatever that day held in store.
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Damn. What a crazy and heartbreaking way to end an adventure-packed trip through a country that has quickly become one of my favorites. I fly out of Colombo tomorrow after three weeks in Sri Lanka that had me hanging out of jammed local buses, waltzing through railroad tracks, sweatily struggling up mountains for sunrises, swimming among the sea turtles, spotting leopards in the jungles and elephants in the grasslands. Indiana Jones-ing through millennia-old ruins, cycling through immense archaeological sites, swinging off palm trees, the list goes on. But man, the people of this country have far and away been the best part of this trip. This country has some of the most welcoming and fun-loving people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. I immediately felt at home here with everyone welcoming travelers with both overwhelming hospitality and genuine intrigue, a country with so many cultures and religions that no foreigner was ever really treated like a foreigner. I know it’s a tough call to say whether Sri Lanka is safe to visit right now, especially with the attacks so fresh in everyone’s minds, but I really hope that in the long run, these attacks do little to deter people from experiencing this indescribable country. Keep your thoughts and prayers with Sri Lanka and its people. 🇱🇰 got so much love for this country ❤️