Once known as Ceylon, the island nation of Sri Lanka off the southern coast of India is still finding its tourism balance as it rebuilds from the devastation of the 2004 tsunami and years of political unrest. As such, Sri Lanka doesn't see nearly as many visitors as its neighbor to the north, where it's often easy to find good value on accommodation and tour packages. If you're looking for a destination that offers the color and spice of India, and all the gracious hospitality and natural beauty of Southeast Asia, but still feels relatively free of tourists, Sri Lanka may be the ideal choice. Here are three reasons why:
The Gathering of the Elephants
While Sri Lanka may not immediately seem like a safari destination, it offers one of the most unique wildlife experiences in the world -- The Gathering. You can stand in a jeep in Minneriya National Park, just as the sun sets along the mountains, surrounded by hundreds of Asian elephants as they munch on grass, drink from the reservoir, and swim. Their annual migration, which takes place from July to November, happens only in northern Sri Lanka.
Ancient Rock Temples
Sri Lanka’s history is deeply rooted in Buddhism, though there are several religions practiced in the country today. Across the island, you can visit the ruins of ancient Buddhist cities, shrines, cave temples, and dagobas that date back thousands of years. One of the most unique ruins is Sigiriya -- a towering rock column that was once used as a fortress for a king. Along the climb up to the large flat top where the fortress once sat, you’ll pass cave paintings of nymphs as well a set of enormous lion paws carved into the rock itself. Once you reach the top, you'll have a panoramic view of the mountains.
Golden Sand and Stilts on the Indian Ocean
The beach is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular draws. Along the southern and eastern coasts are miles of beaches, aquamarine surf breaks, and coconut palm trees lining the sand. In addition to enjoying a swim in the warm Indian Ocean, you can also witness Sri Lanka’s iconic stilt fishermen at work. Though you’re most likely to find them perched on their poles in the early morning and around sunset on the southern beaches, this method of fishing is not as common as it once was. Some fisherman only go through the motions for tourists, but you may be fortunate enough to find the real thing if the tides are right.
A note about getting there and around:
There are no direct flights from the United States to Sri Lanka, but you can connect through Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or India. Travel time is a minimum of 18 hours each way. Cities such as Dubai, Delhi, Bangkok, and Singapore are between 3-5 hours by plane from Colombo. Only an hour flight away is Kerala, India’s tropical southern state known for its everglades-like backwaters. Also only an hour away are the Maldives, one of the top beach destinations in the world.
The international airport is in the capital city of Colombo, which is connected via train to Galle and the beaches in the south and inland to Kandy. Hiring a private driver is also reasonably priced (about $60 per day) and is the most efficient way to get around the "Cultural Triangle" in the north, as well as the Central Highlands and down to Yala National Park in the southeast.