“Down South”: Beaches, books, and more

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I’ve learned in Sri Lanka that I’m more of a “mountains and rivers” and less “beaches and palm trees” kind of girl. That said, I have spent more time on the beach in the past few months than I thought I’d ever spend on the beach in the course of my entire lifetime. The beaches in the southern part of the island are generally quite accessible to me in Colombo thanks to a new highway. Nowadays it takes only two hours to get to Matara, for example, and before the highway that trip could take several hours along the coastal road.

I’ve also learned in Sri Lanka that, while I love the amenities a city provides, I also am a country girl at heart and need to get out of the hustle and bustle (and honking horns and traffic) quite often to keep myself enjoying the city life. So because it’s quick escape from city living in Colombo, I’m learning to love the beaches down south. I say “learning to love” because I still love my mountains and rivers but I’ve grown to appreciate the unique gifts of coastal getaways, despite my extremely sunburn-prone skin (I’m recovering from a burn as I write this) and the propensity for sand to migrate home with me from the beach only to inexplicably turn up in my bed (WHY??).

The south has not just provided me with a beaches but also with some fun activities, too. Here’s a round-up of some of my weekend excursions in the south over the past few months:

Dalawella beach

Towards the end of last year, some friends and I got into our heads that we should rent a villa with a pool near the beach. And, honestly, it was the best idea ever because it felt very luxurious but was actually reasonably priced because we brought most of our own food and split the cost of the house evenly. It was relaxing and wonderful to have time by the pool during the day and then venture out to the beach for sunset. It was a very low-key weekend but I think back to it fondly (except for the *wonderful* tuk-tuk drivers who ripped us off on the way there… but what to do?).

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Hanging out on the giant rock on the beach (some people went higher but I 100% chickened out!)

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The after-thunderstorm sunset was breathtaking on the beach

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We rented a villa with a pool! Such luxury!

Whale watching in Mirissa

For my friend’s last weekend in Sri Lanka, we decided to finally invest in seeing some whales. I say “invest” because it’s one of the pricier activities you can do in the south. I wanted to make sure I went with a reputable company that treats with the whales with the respect they deserve and I also wanted to make sure I was safe on a boat in the middle of the ocean so that meant going with a more expensive option.

At dawn, we were picked up from our hotel (a rather… interesting… establishment in nearby Weligama, where we had spent our Saturday lounging on the beach). Then we were shepherded onto the whale watching boat, which was much bigger than I expected, and given breakfast while we went about an hour out into the ocean, until it was deep enough to find the whales. Sri Lanka has a variety of whales that you can see but we were looking in particular for blue whales – the biggest mammals on Earth!

It took a bit but eventually we saw a few for ourselves. Because they are so big, they don’t breach the water like humpbacks or other smaller whales could. Furthermore, they are more shy and less curious than some other species so even though they are massive, they can be more challenging to find. When we did find them, it was amazing to see their backs come up out of the water and then see their tails as they dove into the depths again. We also saw approximately a billion dolphins on our way back to land, which was truly breathtaking.

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Late afternoon on Weligama beach, a favourite spot for surfers in Sri Lanka

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Caught the sunrise in Mirissa while heading out to find some whales

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Breakfast on the boat started with a HUGE plate of fresh fruits

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One of the whales we saw as it dove into the ocean (photo by Raja & the whales, the company we went out with)

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Some of the hundreds and hundreds of dolphins we saw on our way back in (photo by Raja & the whales, the company we went out with)

Galle Literary Festival in Galle Fort

People who know me know I’m a little more than extra nerdy about books and reading and it’s only gotten worse in Sri Lanka with my newfound love of audiobooks. So when I learned that there is an international literary festival in Sri Lanka, I was sure to visit! The festival is in Galle in January each year. I went earlier this year and stayed inside the fort to have easy access to all the events. I spent Friday afternoon, the whole day on Saturday, and then Sunday morning in Galle, attending events with authors like Christina Lamb, John Gimlette, Shyam Selvadurai and more. I also watched the sunset each night – which is spectacular from the fort walls – and, of course, I indulged in all my favourite Galle fort treats like fruity gelato, fancy ice teas, and I even took myself out for a fancy Sunday brunch by the sea at Jetwing Lighthouse hotel.

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One of the many beautiful sea views in Galle

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Cute outdoor hang-out area set up by the festival

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One of the AMAZING performances I saw during the festival

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I also had the honour of hearing Sri Lanka’s first Everest mountaineers speak about their climb in May 2016

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The Galle fort walls are one of my favourite places to catch a Sri Lankan sunset

Hikkaduwa

It took me a long time to finally get myself to Hikkaduwa but eventually one too many friends shared photos of themselves with sea turtles that I simply had to get myself down there. I visited friends in Matara on Saturday. We browsed beautiful batik at Jez-Look Batik and ate dinner by the ocean at Dutchman’s Street in Fort Matara. Then, on Sunday, I took the morning train to Hikkaduwa. When I got there, I immediately went for a long walk on the beach… at high sun… without sunscreen… (I’m really smart.) So after acquiring myself quite a lovely sunburn, I spent the rest of the day under palm trees reading and chatting with friends. Oh, and we all finally got to see Sri Lanka’s sea turtles! After seeing smaller sea turtles in Borneo at Christmas when I went snorkeling for the first time, I needed to see some again. They are so amazing and the ones at Hikkaduwa are so big and wonderful. It might have even been worth the sunburn.

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Very green view from my friends’ balcony in Matara

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Hikkaduwa beach (Taken as I accidentally baked in the sun… oops! Remember to wear sunscreen ALL THE TIME in Sri Lanka, folks)

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GIANT SEA TURTLE! So beautiful and amazing!

Here’s to more beautiful beach time in the future!

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!