Traveller stories: What we didn't expect on our Sri Lanka tour

Houndstooth Studio Alex Cearns
Houndstooth Studio Alex Cearns

It hit us like a tuk-tuk driving 100km per hour around a blind corner as we stepped through the doors of Colombo Airport. That smell. The one that took him straight back to the dusty streets of Kathmandu, and me to the back roads of Bangkok. Don’t get me wrong, though; we both love that smell. It was like a hit of adrenaline. We’re back.

With jetlag on our side, we woke early and headed to the beach outside our room at Rani Beach Resort, which had been veiled in darkness when we arrived the night before. Greeted with a game of beach cricket, wooden catamarans covered in colourful sails, and some “very good salesmen” trawling the beach, we already felt accomplished. And it wasn’t even 9am.

Buffet breakfast. Tick. First shower of the day. Tick. Ready for more action. Tick.

After meeting the guide for our World Expeditions tour that would start that afternoon, we headed off to the main fish markets via a tuk-tuk that was nicely haggled down in price by him. Thank god he’s here, I’m hopeless at that stuff.

We could smell it before we arrived. A stark contrast to the fish markets we’d visited in Tokyo; while store owners lined the road, spruiking their offerings, the beach was covered in meters of hessian topped with neatly arranged fish. I wondered how they stopped the birds from eating it until I saw a bird swoop down and score a small fish. The answer to my question: they don’t.

Sellers at Negombo's main fish market. Photo: Emma Breislin

After a friendly toothless man excitedly told me that I could watch the markets from my television, thanks to a visit from Rick Stein a few years back, we wandered through the fruit and vegetable markets. The only way to describe it was colourful, which coincidentally happens to be a pretty good summation of Sri Lanka overall so far.

Colourful fruit and vegetables on display at the markets. Photo: Emma Breislin

We headed to the Dutch Canal, spanning a whopping 240km for a boat ride with a bit of wildlife spotting. Monitor lizards, kingfishers, herons, owls and the occasional bit of rubbish. It was as if our guide had arranged a meeting place with each bird, as he was able to spot things our amateur eyes simply couldn’t.

The banks of the canal were littered with tin shacks sheltering small smiling children, next to large concrete complexes containing the very apparent disproportion of wealth. Breaking into more open water, we headed across the lagoon to the Muthurajawela Nature Reserve, a tropical wetland known to home crocodiles, sea eagles, monkeys, and all manner of birds. While we unfortunately (or fortunately?) didn’t see any crocodiles, we did manage to be boarded by some pirates who liked the look of our afternoon tea.

A life of austerity and meditation

The next morning, we headed off to the rural mountain town of Salgala, to the monastic complex housing 19 Buddhist monks. Leaving the comfort of touristy Negombo, we finally got a glimpse of the real Sri Lanka, in all its nitty-gritty-ness. Streets littered with dogs, the brightest bunches of bananas hanging from the awnings of crumbling straw huts, colourful buses charging down thin streets, and fields of rice bordered by the tallest coconut trees. As the roads got bumpier, the excitement only grew.

Once we made it to the monastery, an 88-year-old gentleman, sari-wrapped and thong clad, with only a few teeth and not a word of English, led us around the complex and up through the forest. He explained to our guide, who translated, that there were 18 caves in the forest that the monks reside in, but that they were originally built for the King when he fled to the mountains to avoid Indian invasions in the second century.

The Salgala Buddhist monastery is a haven for monks. Photo: Emma Breislin

The monks now use the caves for meditation, of which they perform from 1pm each day until the following sunrise. We walked bare foot and admired temples hidden in stone and stupas entangled in vines, but not so much as our utter admiration for the elderly gentleman who led us, using nothing but the end of an old broom as a walking stick to take him all the way up to the lookout at the top, which swept across from Colombo Harbour all the way out to Adam’s Peak and beyond. I was a sweaty mess by the top, but I swear I still saw a spring in his step up there. Age is just a number, folks.

Elephant Bay Hotel in Pinnawala

That afternoon we headed to our hotel for the night, stepping over the sleeping guard dog through to the grand colonial style entrance. The view directly across the lobby opened onto a magnificent river, dotted with rocks in a way that the water sparkled as it trickled over its obstacles. If you look over the balcony you’ll notice a bright blue infinity pool, overlooking the gushing river. Now look a bit closer and you notice one – no two – no, make that a herd of elephants bathing in the river.

The hotel provided a stunning spectacle of elephants bathing. Photo: Emma Breislin

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was just across the road, and a few times a day they walk the elephants across the road, down the small side streets, and into the river for a release from the heat. They eat 300kg of foliage a day and need 250 litres of water. Needless to say, we watched them all night: from our balcony, our bed, the pool and over the dinner table.

Trekking, tea and 'glamping'

Adam’s Peak rests at 2224m above sea level, and with almost 20,000 steps done before 8am, we climbed it for sunrise. Setting out shortly after two in the morning, I must admit, it was a challenge for me. I blame all the curry. But then again, he managed much better than me and he’s had just as much curry. Deciding to put the camera down and just enjoy the sunrise, it was a pretty special moment.

Watching the sunrise from Adam's Peak. Photo: Emma Breislin

And then we had to go down. With the sun up though, the view of the rolling hills below us was enough to distract me from my shaking knees. If you are thinking of hiking Adam’s Peak, bring a pole.

The early morning ascent was well worth the views from Adam's Peak. Photo: Emma Breislin

We were welcomed back into town like war heroes. It was eggs or eggs for breakfast, as my body needed some radical refuelling.

Just out of Nuwara Eliya, we headed for Pedro Estate Tea Plantation. For a staggering R200 (less than two bucks), we were taken around the tea processing factory, which has been in operation since the 19ᵗʰ century. Each day, eight tonnes of fresh tea is picked and processed in the factory, producing two tonnes of the dried leaves we love.

Trekking through the tea plantation. Photo: Emma Breislin

Next time you sit down with a cup of the good ol’ green stuff, raise it to those who pull off back-breaking work day in, day out, to get it to you. Absolutely amazing.

The next morning, we headed to Ohiya, where we were to embark on our six-hour hike to Bambarakanda Falls, the tallest in Sri Lanka. We stayed at Sri Lanka’s Eco Team Campsite in Beilhuloya. And when I say campsite, I mean glampsite. There were proper beds, pillows, doonas, and some delightful chairs out the front. The bathrooms were all modern concrete and timber, and we were served a four-course meal under the light of the flame torches that surrounded us. It was like a scene from Survivor, but with more food and much more comfort.

Our campsite in Beilhuloya. Photo: Emma Breislin

Earlier in the afternoon, we’d figured it would be a good opportunity to fly the drone he gifted me for Christmas, and after asking permission, we stood in a clearing metres from our tent, with most of the staff looking eagerly over our shoulders and sent it up. Filming over the tents, trees and down to the glistening lake surrounded by folding mountains, it was breathtaking. The best part, without a doubt though, was that one young staff member was so taken aback by the footage we showed him later, that he asked us to send it to him. He explained, in broken English, that he had lived in the area since he was a small boy. He had hiked all over it and seen it from every angle, but never from the top.

Taking in our beautiful campsite views. Photo: Emma Breislin

The standard of service at the camp was absolutely without fault, and so there was no hesitation from us that we would get him the footage. And we did. Watching him stop in his tracks as he walked back to the kitchen, fingers clutching his phone, eyes glued to the screen, was a small but pretty touching moment.

On safari

This may just be me, but when I thought of Sri Lanka initially, I didn’t even realise you could do a safari. But you can, and you should.

Picked up in our jeep, fitted out with canvas canopy, weighty wheels and snug seats, we climbed aboard and headed for the national park. Dusty roads and shrub for miles, our driver expertly weaved his way through unmarked roads, over potholes and through low-hanging branches. Not long down the road we saw a herd of buffalo bathing in a swamp, one in particular, was keen to have his photo taken, lolling around in the mud in front of us.

A herd of buffalo bathing in the swamp. Photo: Emma Breislin

Further on we saw our first elephant, once an orphan, now roaming the park freely. Then some lounging monitors massaging each other in a tree. Peacocks strutting their stuff, eagles soaring above us, crocodiles, a snake, a jackal, and the list goes on.

Spot various wildlife during your safari at the prolific National Parkland. Photo: Emma Breislin

At one point, our driver turned down a small path, and suddenly we lost sight of any other jeep in the park. In the distance, on the road ahead, we saw a looming grey figure. Before we could make it out, we heard the trumpet of the elephant and saw it running at full pace away from us. Slowly, we rolled forward and it wasn't long until we came upon the most magnificent of moments.

Turning the engine off, I sat speechless, and only managed to look over at him to make sure what I was seeing was real. It was. There in front of us, two grown female elephants stood side by side, trunks linked. Between their bodies were two calves, one a few years old and one a newborn calf. Once they were sure we were safe, they slowly unlinked, revealing their gorgeous young to us. It was surreal. It was breathtaking. It was so utterly… human. We sat there for a good 10 minutes watching, seeing what they say about elephant’s emotions in action. They feel love, they feel fear, they feel safety.

A pair of elephants interlinking. Photo: Emma Breislin

Confident we would not surpass that moment, we drove on, discovering more and more wildlife as we went. We often never went longer than five minutes without spotting something new.

And then it happened. ‘STOP!’ ‘GO BACK!’ ‘DID YOU SEE THAT?!’

In a flash our guide was on the roof of the jeep. I’m sure it almost rolled as we all threw ourselves over the left-hand side of the vehicle. He‘d seen the face, I’d seen the spots slinking away through the shrubs. It definitely was. No way. It really was. We’d seen a leopard.

We had been told outright that we wouldn’t see a leopard. Our guide had never seen a leopard, only tracks. They were incredibly rare and incredibly shy. Plus, there are only about 700 remaining in the country. But we saw one. And it was mind-boggling.

Sri Lanka, in a word, you’ve been swell.


Emma Breislin is a twenty-something who started writing about travel when she was nine – forced to by her mum on family holidays. Now addicted to it, she travels the world archiving her adventures and sending stories home to mum … and anyone else that may want to read them along the way. She was fortunate enough to travel to Sri Lanka as the winner of our co-sponsored Lonely Planet competition.

Experience it yourself

Go on a 14-day adventure tour through the remote regions of Sri Lanka and immerse yourself in the country’s rich culture and stunning landscapes. Ascent the famous Adam’s Peak, canoe down the Kalu Ganga and sit in close range with elephants on a wildlife safari. View full trip details >

Have you been to Sri Lanka? Share your highlights in the comments below.

culture, eco campsite, elephants, leopard, markets, monastries, peaks, Safari, Sri Lanka, tea plantation, trekking, views, traveller stories

Comment (1)

Kirthi Hulangamuwa

Absolutely facinating, and colourful...... The young girl showed me all over the country.... -sorry, my country- which being an Eng. writer on wild life, nature and travel, failed to visit.. so far...

3 years ago
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