7 days in Sri Lanka (AKA thanks Aurora for flying 25 hours to visit me)

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This story begins a few years ago. My friend Aurora, who I’d met during high school, and I were plotting to travel together. After my co-op term in Ghana, we thought, we’d travel to Nepal. We both had been enchanted with the thought of visiting Nepal for several years so we thought it was the perfect destination. But then, life happened (as it so often does) and plans fell through.

Visions of traveling together were still fresh in our minds, though, when, a couple of years later, I found myself living in Sri Lanka… and Aurora found herself again falling into wanderlust. After a few Facebook Messenger conversations across time zones and continents, it was finally decided that Aurora would travel in southern Thailand for a couple of weeks and then fly to Sri Lanka to spend a week traveling with me around the country in November 2016.

I was ridiculously excited to host Aurora in Sri Lanka… So much so that I might have gone a little overboard in planning. I started by collecting a list from Aurora of all the things in Sri Lanka that she would like to see while she was here. I then created a spreadsheet schedule of what we’d do while she was here and excitedly emailed it to her. I got a message back saying that perhaps seeing 2-3 sites per day plus travel was not possible so I reigned myself in, scaled things back, and sent it off again. It was still going to be a very packed week of jetting around the central and southern provinces but it was doable. Aurora confirmed we could make these plans work so all I had to do was wait for the day to come that she arrived in Sri Lanka.

I met Aurora at the airport in Negombo and we so quickly fell back into our comfortable friendship, so much so that it felt normal for her to be hanging out in my apartment in Colombo, even though the fact that she was there was actually amazing. We spent her first day in the country exploring Colombo. I took her to all my favourite places (Galle Face Green, Independence Square, Gangaramaya Temple) and we ate all my favourite foods (roti, dosa, rice and curry, milk hoppers). We got to visit some places new to me (like the gorgeous Red Mosque in Pettah) and even managed to eat our dinner fast enough to make it to a play that night. It was a packed but brilliant day.

We fell into bed exhausted that night then woke early to take a long, incredibly bumpy train to Polonnaruwa. It was not my favourite train trip in Sri Lanka and I was embarrassed that we were so uncomfortable after bragging to Aurora that train travel is so wonderful here. Thankfully, things got better quickly once we arrived in Polonnaruwa because it was time for our elephant safari in Kaudulla National Park. I’ve seen Asian and African elephants a few times now, but I honestly think I’ll never become bored with them. In Kaudulla, we got so close to so many elephants (probably about a hundred in total) that hang out near the lake during the dry season. We saw elephants young and old and I could’ve spent ages watching them graze, play in watering holes, and even just walk around.

The next day was just as wonderful. We rented bikes and rode around the ruins of the ancient civilization that was once in this area. I had been to Anuradhapura just the weekend before but I never tire of ruins and it was so cool to explore Polonnaruwa with Aurora, who – as an artist – noticed so many things I wouldn’t. Walking around with her perspective made me look at the ruins in a whole new way. We expected to spend a couple of hours there but actually spent almost five hours biking around in the incredible heat of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. Aurora took the heat like a champ, even though we both wore conservative clothing to be respectful of the fact that Polonnaruwa is a Buddhist site. (We were absolutely drenched in sweat but kept hydrated with copious amounts of water and coconut water from vendors inside the historical park.)

Our day wasn’t over after the ruins! We boarded a bus for an hour and traveled to Dambulla, where we climbed to the top of the Golden Temple to see the beautiful cave temples in the mountain and also to see the beautiful view of the Dambulla area from up all those steps. (Also, we climbed those steps with our backpacks bags and shoutout to Aurora for not killing me for making her do that!) Then, we boarded yet another bus and made our way to Kandy for the night. We miraculously found a air conditioned bus to Kandy, which was an excellent treat after a long and hot day.

We spent the next morning in Kandy, wandering around the Temple of the Tooth and inside the nearby museums. I even dragged Aurora to my favourite restaurant in Kandy, the Soya Centre, which has entirely pure vegetarian food. We each bought a neapolitan vegan ice cream for ninety rupees (less than a dollar!) and a samosa for our train ride to Ellathat afternoon. Then we raced to the train station in Kandy to catch our train… only to find our train was late. (The only times trains have been late for me in Sri Lanka is when I’ve dramatically raced to catch them just in time and find myself feeling silly about why on earth I rushed so much if the train was going to be late anyways. Oh well!)

Our train finally arrived and we boarded with many other tourists with large backpacks like us. The train trip to Ella is one of the most famous in the world and for good reason! It travels through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka’s hill country and when it’s a clear day you can see the rolling hills for a long distance. Though somewhat cold and dehydrated (we didn’t have any water and strangely no one came aboard to sell us any) but the trip was amazing and I became enchanted all over again with the beauty of Sri Lanka.

The next morning we awoke very early for a sunrise hike of Ella Rock. The hike was beautiful but a bit “rocky” (haha) because we were a little sleep-deprived and the view was a little foggy at the top. Despite the clouds (I have yet to have a successful sunrise hike here!), I’d say it was worth it because the views from the top are breathtaking. It wasn’t even seven in the morning by the time we descended the rock so we took a short bus to see Ravana Falls, a famous waterfall in the area.

We scrambled up the rocks to see the various levels of this waterfall then had some refreshing coconut water, which always worked to perk us up. That afternoon, we took two (terrifyingly-fast) buses to get south and settled eventually in Mirissa beach. Aurora was again a trooper since she wasn’t feeling one hundred percent but managed to get herself on two three-hour bus trips (by local bus!) and still smile about seeing flying foxes (gigantic bats) on our way there. I was very impressed by her perseverance through illness and was grateful that she indulged my love of the app “Heads Up” (like charades) to pass the time on our bus ride.

The next day in Mirissa we spent on the beach and wandering around town. We had originally hoped to catch a whale-watching trip but with Aurora recovering from being sick and with me also being pretty tired from our gallivanting around the country, not going whale-watching was perfectly fine with me. We ended our day with a dinner on the beach… in a huge and aggressive rainstorm. Aurora was excited to catch a tropical rainstorm so, even though we were soaked through when we arrived back at our hostel, we weren’t too upset that the weather was being dramatic.

For our last day together, we explored a bit of Galle Fort, a favourite place to have delicious food and beautiful views of the sea while learning about Sri Lanka’s colonial history (Portuguese, Dutch then British colonizers) as well as the devastation of the 2004 tsunami. Once back in Colombo, we reflected on our travels and decided that, yes, we did a lot and, yes, we were tired but overall, yes, it was worth it.

With a teary farewell, I sent Aurora off to the airport, hoping that someday soon we’ll travel together again. 

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Elephants at Kaudulla National Park

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Ruins at Polonnaruwa

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Fun fact: inside this giant tree hole in were bees! (thankfully I survived unscathed)

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Aurora and I in Dambulla

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Sunset from the top of the hill that houses the Dambulla cave temple

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The beautiful grounds of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

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On the train to Ella

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On top of Ella Rock (it was just before 6AM here!)

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Street art in Mirissa outside of our hostel

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Sunshine on Mirissa beach

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A stormy dinner on the beach in Mirissa

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We found the perfect shop for Aurora in Galle Fort…. Called “Aurora”!

Thanks for such a wonderful trip, my friend!