Sri Lanka remains one of the world’s practically untouched destinations. Don’t let any reservations you may have keep you away. This breathtaking country is one of the most rewarding travel experiences in Asia, and we think its popularity is about to skyrocket. Here are a few reasons why it’s captured the attention of savvy travelers worldwide.
There’s a reason Sri Lanka is often called “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. This small island off the coast of India is overflowing with natural beauty from its lush forests and verdant mountainsides to its stunning coastline and jaw-dropping panoramic viewpoints. Join a boat tour through the pristine mangrove forest in the Madu Ganga and see how cinnamon is harvested. Beach bums can unwind by the dreamy tropical seascape of Tangalle or snorkel in the secluded bay of Jungle Beach in Unawatuna. Every turn is more picturesque than the last.
It’s off the beaten track
Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent are chock full of awe-inspiring destinations, and every single one of them deserves the attention they get. But let’s be honest – sometimes you just aren’t in the mood to push through the crowds in Bangkok, dodge the scooters in Hanoi, or be the millionth foreigner checking into a resort on Bali. Sri Lanka has yet to become a tourist mainstay, due to years of war and tsunamis. But this is exactly what makes it a terrific escape from the typical backpacker trail and a wonderful place to get close to nature and to a warm, genuine people.
It’s easy to get to
India and the Maldives are both wildly popular destinations, and Sri Lanka is just a hop, skip, and a jump away, so why wouldn’t you add it to your itinerary? Perhaps you’re interested in your own epic train journey across India, in the vein of Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. After the bustle of massive cities like Delhi and Mumbai, Sri Lanka is the perfect place to catch up on your R&R. Or maybe you’re on your way to a tropical honeymoon in the Maldives. Schedule a brief stopover in Sri Lanka, if only to climb up Mihintale for a selfie with your sweetheart as you catch a 360-degree view of a striking sunset.
As an added bonus, the island itself is so small, you can easily explore its farthest reaches in a short trip. The Dutch colonial city of Galle is about two hours south of current capital Colombo, while another three hours will plant you in the wildlife-rich Udawalawe National Park. On the other side of the country, historic Anuradhapura is a mere hour and a half from epic hiking point Pidurangala Rock and its royal cave temple.
It’s rich with culture
Sri Lankan society is vastly multicultural, and the country is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the north, you can trek up the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya or dive into history at Anuradhapura. The former Ceylonese capital was abandoned and lost in the jungle for years before its rediscovery and revival. If its 2000-year-old history isn’t enough for you, perhaps the promise of seeing the world’s oldest tree can motivate you. Creative types will flock to the south to soak up inspiration in the vibrant colonial town of Galle, where Dutch influences still abound. The city’s Fort area is also UNESCO recognized, dating back to 1588. You’d rather learn about village life? Hiriwadunna is right up your alley. Join a tour to meet local farmers, paddle across the lilypad-strewn reservoir while keeping an eye peeled for birds and crocodiles, and learn how locals in Sri Lanka really live.
You can follow in Marco Polo’s footsteps
What name evokes the exploratory nature of travel more than Marco Polo? The worldly legend landed in what was then known as Ceylon in 1265, only to declare it the finest island of its size. The country went on to become part of the Silk Road, the complex web of trade routes linking the mystical East to the imperial West. Sri Lanka was one of many stops on a maritime route for the spice trade, and the island is still a great producer of spices. Ceylon Cinnamon is a particular strain of the spice that is indigenous to Sri Lanka and is widely considered to be the best cinnamon in the world. The truly adventurous might incorporate a visit to Sri Lanka in an epic journey across the entire Silk Road.
The food is great
Don’t make the mistake of conflating the cuisines of Central and South Asia. While its proximity to India may have brought South Indian influences into the mix, Sri Lanka very much has its own style of cookery. The Dutch colonial days certainly left their mark on the country’s cuisine, as did the island’s location on the Silk Road. As traders of various nationalities passed through, each brought their own ways of cooking and eating.
Rice, coconut, and various spices are all staples of the Sri Lankan diet. While you’re in the country, you’ll likely indulge in more than one curry, but you should also keep an eye out for more unique plates, like hoppers, a range of dishes made with fermented batter, or the Sri Lankan roti flatbread. Like any island nation, seafood has a strong place in Sri Lankan cuisine, and a traditional meal might consist of rice and prawns.
Add something special to your trip by taking a class in traditional Sri Lankan cooking. Authentic recipes make the best souvenirs. Some hotels on the island, like the Rawana Holiday Resort in Ella, offer classes to their guests, and it never hurts to ask at the front desk of your accommodations. There are various other class offerings around the country, many of which invite you to select ingredients at a local market or pick vegetables from an organic garden before rolling up your sleeves and getting down to business.
You can go on safari
The word safari probably conjures images of the African savannah as crowds of eager tourists sit poised, ready to snap photos of lions or migrating wildebeest. While an African safari is an incredible experience, a Sri Lankan safari deserves a place on your bucket list as well. Visit during the dry season to see hundreds of elephants convene for bathtime with local birds and fish in Minneriya National Park. Uduwalawe National Park and Yala National Park are also great safari destinations. Between the two, you can spot plenty of wild elephants, buffalo, leopards, peacocks, deer, and more.
You can give back
Developing countries often attract well-intentioned travelers who want to use their journey as a chance to not only experience new places and cultures, but help support communities in need of aid. While you should always approach foreign aid work carefully, one simple way to ensure you make an appropriate contribution to your destination is to work directly with an NGO. Before your trip, browse Wango’s worldwide NGO directory and see if any local nonprofits like the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservatory need any particular items. Pack an extra bag and rest easy knowing that your solicited donation will do some real good.