We were backpacking with our two children (14 and 18 years old), so we were looking for a safe, easy to travel, not too touristic and diverse country. I think Sri Lanka is 'booming', getting more and more tourists each year. We wanted to be there before mass tourism.
We went there by plane. In Sri Lanka it is very easy to travel by public transport; buses and trains. Distances are not that big and it's very cheap. If you don't mind being in a crowded bus now and then it's a great way to travel! There is lots to see, outside and inside the busses and local people like to have a chat with you. At busstations everyone is willing to help you get on the right bus and if you ask the bus-assistant, he will give you a sign when to get out.
If you want to make the beautiful train trip from Ella to Kandy or vv, it might be wise to make a reservation in advance. We didn't and the next 3 weeks tickets for seats were sold out. We bought free tickets, without chair numbers and were lucky to find 4 chairs in third class, but many people stood for over 7 hours! So, if you already know when to make this trip, reserve tickets.
Where To Stay:
We stayed in hotels and guesthouses. We were surprised by the good free wifi in most hotels/guesthouses, so a day before leaving a place we booked the next accomodation by bookings.com. There are many accomodations in all price ranges. Just read the reviews on bookings.com or tripadvisor and pick your place!
Our top stay: Mangrove Beach Chalets at Marakolliya Beach/Tangalle
What To Do:
Temple of the Tooth (be sure to visit one of the daily ceremonies), very nice colourful market, Pinnawalla elephant orphanage (it's nice to see the elephants this close, but I wouldn't recommend it. Is is extremely touristic, didn't see any injured elephants that needed to recover, it's a bit of a circus. Minneriya or one of the other national parks are a much better choice to see elephants)
Traintrip Kandy to Ella or vv! Best traintrip ever, going through the mountains (2000 m.) through a landscape of tea plantations.
Town itself not very special. It's very, very busy and touristic, not a relaxed backpack town as mentioned in our guidebook. But if you like a touristic place and lots of restaurants it's ok. The environment is beautiful and that's why we think Ella is worth the visit. Climb Ella Rock or the easier Little Adams Peak. Great walk through tea plantations! Visit a tea factory. Go to the Ravana waterfall. Walk over the railway to the Nine Arches Bridge and back.
We stayed in Tisamaharama to do a 6 hours morning safari in Yala. They warned us Yala could be very crowded, but I guess we were lucky to be there on a relatively quiet day. Saw lots of beautiful landscapes and many animals, including 2 leopards (lucky us!)
Lovely beach. Stayed 2 nights close to the centre of town in a hotel at the beach. Nice plae to eat on the beach is Frangipani, you can reach it on the streetside or on the beachside.
Must do: visit Mulkirigala Rock Temple, a hidden treasure. So beautiful and we wondered why we only met 3 other tourist! You climb the mountain and find several caves with reclining Budhas and amazing painted walls and ceilings! Just arrange a tuktuk on the street and let it wait for you while you visit the temple, and let it bring you back again.
Marakolliya beach, a few km from Tangalle. The perfect desolated beach to relax for a few days in a cabana, an amazing place!
We choose to stay in a hotel in Unawatuna, because hotels in Galle Fort were so expensive and no great reviews, and from Unawatuna it's only a few km to Galle and many buses go this way. Absolutely must visit Galle Fort, but also take some time for the new town! Galle Fort is full of remains of the Portuguese and Dutch colonial period, very impressive.
Unawatuna has a nice beach and good fresh fish restaurants on the beach.
Go by train to Colombo, a nice trip along the coast line!
Colombo: We only liked 2 things in Colombo: 1: the very busy quarter Pettah with it's stretlife and market and don't forget the amazing Jami-Ul-Afar mosque. 2: the beach, called 'Galle Face Beach'. When you go to this beach end of the afternoon you'll see many Sri Lankan families, all kiting, eating, buying toys, wandering and yelling with their feet in the surf.
Where To Eat:
Lot's of small restaurants everywhere, with a variety of good asiatic food and sometimes western food. Not expensive. Only in Ella restaurants were realy more expensive.
5 Word Travel:
Easy to travel
Nature (mountains, safaris, beaches)
Some towns don't have an ATM yet, for example Sigiriya and Ella. So be sure to have enough cash before going there. Most popular touristic places have a special tourist entrance fee, which is a lot more than locals pay. You can pay this in cash dollars or local currency, but can't pay with a card, so another reason to make sure to check if there is an ATM or withdraw enough cash in another town. O yes, also many hotels can only be payed cash!