Sri Lanka is a country rich in culture and colour, yet is often an overlooked destination amongst us Asia enthusiasts. It is said to be one of the most biodiverse islands in the world, and has everything from beaches to rainforests, hill stations, tea plantations and wild elephants. However, the pristine nature found throughout the island masks the troubles the country has been through in recent years, such as the 2004 tsunami and a civil war which lasted 25 years. Despite this, the people are some of the friendliest in the world, and the photo opportunities are endless.
When to go?
For the locations outlined below, the best time to visit weather-wise is December to March, when there is much less rain. However, due to two separate monsoon seasons hitting the small island at different times, if you’re heading to the East Coast for some surf, April to September is best. Remember to bring some warm clothes too, as the tea country can get particularly chilly in the evenings.
Public transport is pretty solid in Sri Lanka, and you can rely on trains and buses for most of your trip. They are also dirt cheap but don’t expect them to be fast. The train between Kandy and Ella takes over 6 hours, and only 4 by car. Private cars and vans are available throughout Sri Lanka, but come at a price. I’d recommend taking a car for a couple of the trips if you are a bigger group and tight on time. We were a group of 5, and so could get most of the car journeys at around £10 per person, which was totally worth it.
Another point to note is that the train from Kandy to Ella (running East) gets booked out a month in advance and buying tickets for the non-reserved cars on the day can mean you are standing up for a 6+ hour journey, shoulder to shoulder with all the other travellers who prefer to travel last minute. However (good news), the train from Ella to Kandy (running West) isn’t nearly as busy as most tourists circle the country clockwise, and so if you reversed your trip, you will have a less busy train ride. Or just book your tickets in advance like a responsible adult...
So, get booking your flights to Sri Lanka to discover a jewel of Asia, and check out these locations below whilst you’re there...
SIGIRIYA ROCK FORTRESS
Referred to by locals as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress is one of the most visited locations in Sri Lanka, despite being one of the lesser-known strange rock formations in the world. The rock was formed from magma from an extinct volcano, and has panoramic views over the lush forest from the top. The ruins of the fortress on top show the remnants of life thousands of years ago.
Getting there: Sigiriya town can be reached from Colombo in about 4 hours by taxi. If you would rather take public transport, there is 1 train to Habarana per day, and from there it’s a 15km tuk-tuk or taxi ride to Sigiriya. The rock is within walking distance from town.
Entrance fee: 4500 LKR.
Best time to go: Be there for when the park opens at 7.30am to get the best possible light, or go there just before the gates close and watch the sunset from the top.
Photo tip: Go to the lake at the bottom of the rock to get a better perspective of the rock itself, or hike up Pidurangala Rock at sunrise for more great views.
DALAWELLA ROPE SWING
The incredible beaches of southern Sri Lanka are some of the most beautiful in the country, and Dalawella has been made famous in recent years because of a particular rope swing. The family who own the rope swing and hotel, named Pearly’s Dream Cabana, are some of the nicest people in Sri Lanka (not biased at all), so it’s definitely worth a stopover, even if it’s just for dinner. Whilst you’re in the area, I would highly recommend stopping by the Mihiripenna Dog Care Clinic, an organisation who are doing incredible work for the street dogs on Sri Lanka. They welcome anyone to visit and learn about the fantastic work they are doing, and if you don’t have time, check out their website here to donate.
Getting there: Dalawella is just a 5-minute drive from Unawatuna, a hub in the south of Sri Lanka. It’s also extremely close to Galle, which lies on the public transport route on the south coast.
Entrance fee: 500 LKR (or free if you stay/eat there).
Best time to go: Sunset is great for photos but can get busy.
Photo tip: Ask Kushan, the 16-year old son of the family that own Dream Cabana to be the model on the swing - he has had a lot of practice!
DALAWELLA TRAIN TRACKS
Whilst you are down near Dalawella beach, why not visit the local train tracks, where you can see tuk-tuks and monks crossing simultaneously on one of the many crossings. It is a great place to take some lifestyle shots and is much less busy than some of the more well-known train track photo spots in the north.
Getting there: From Dalawella beach, cross the road and the train tracks will be in plain sight.
Entrance fee: None.
Best time to go: Late afternoon, but be careful as the trains aren’t as slow as at Nine Arch Bridge.
Photo tip: Use a zoom lens to blur the background of the photo.
NINE ARCH BRIDGE
One of the highlights of a trip to Ella is visiting the Nine Arch Bridge and watching the train you just took to get to Ella pass by, which makes for an excellent photo. Rumour has it that the bridge was built with only stone and cement, and no supporting steel, which is particularly impressive when you see it for yourself. There are many viewpoints of the bridge, or you can shoot the train coming past from the bridge itself.
Getting there: The easiest way to get to Nine Arch Bridge is by walking along the tracks from Ella Station. The bridge is on the other side of the tunnel, about a 20-minute walk from the station. You can also get a tuk-tuk straight to the bridge if you are short on time.
Entrance fee: None.
Best time to go: Early morning or late afternoon is when most of the trains pass.
Photo tip: The hill you can take up to the viewpoint from the tunnel has a tree with the train times on it, so you can plan where you want to stand for the big event.
LITTLE ADAMS PEAK
The surrounding natural beauty is what draws many travellers to the town of Ella, and Little Adams Peak is a great hike to do whilst in the area. I say hike, but it’s more of a leisurely walk with exceptional views over the valleys below from the top.
Getting there: You can walk to the trailhead for Little Adams Peak from Ella, which takes you through 98 Acres Resort & Spa, or take a tuk-tuk to the bottom, and it’s a short 10-minute walk to the top.
Entrance fee: None.
Best time to go: Be at the top for sunrise for a chance to catch the low clouds and the sun lighting up the sky over the tea country.
Photo tip: The peak is a great place to drone from as you can really get a sense of scale of the peak with a birds-eye view.
You will undoubtedly take a train at some point on your trip to Sri Lanka, and if you hadn’t planned on it then I would definitely recommend it, as it is a great way to appreciate the countryside. The train to and from Kandy and Ella is supposedly the most beautiful train journey in the world, so if you’re going to pick one train ride, I would choose that. We actually decided to drive from Kandy to Nurawa Eliya and take the train to Ella from there as we were limited on time.
Getting there: You can get on the train anywhere through the centre of Sri Lanka, but the most common journey is from Kandy to Ella and in reverse.
Entrance fee: Depending on which class carriage you take and whether you book reserved seat tickets in advance, it can be anything from 130 LKR to 1000 LKR.
Best time to go: An afternoon train is the best for photos, but can also be the busiest so try and book your tickets in advance.
Photo tip: Find a door and occupy it! You can get photos of your model in the door from a nearby window with a wide-angle lens.
The practice of stilt fishing in Sri Lanka began during World War II, when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots meant that fishermen had to get creative. Nowadays, however, the practice has all but died out, partly due to the 2004 tsunami destroying most of the coastline where these fishermen operated, and partly because these fishermen make a much better living posing for photos for the swarms of tourists that want the world-renowned Steve McCurry photograph. But, who is to blame them? These fishermen need to make a living somehow, after all.
Getting there: Koogala is a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride from Unawatuna, and is where you will find most of the stilts on the shoreline.
Entrance fee: This depends entirely on your bargaining skills and the time you are visiting. The ‘fishermen’ like pack up before sunset so if you’re wanting a sunset shot, they will charge more.
Best time to go: Sunset if the weather is good.
Photo tip: Make sure you bring your polariser for the reflection when the waves come in and get low to the sea for a different perspective.
TEA PLANTATIONS NUWARA ELIYA
The reason we added Nuwara Eliya into our itinerary was to visit the well-known tea plantations in the area. Sri Lanka is the fourth largest tea producer in the world and Nuwara Eliya holds some of the best plantations in the country. We visited the Pedro Estate to find out where our morning cuppa originates from.
Getting there: Taking a tuk-tuk to the tea plantations is the best way to get there, and the tuk-tuk will wait and take you back to town afterward for about 500Rs.
Entrance fee: None, but if you want a tour then you have to pay.
Best time to go: Go in the morning to catch the tea pickers at work.
Photo tip: Of course you need to pay the tea pickers, but they will be happy to let you take photos of them
DALAWELLA BEACH PALM TREE
Just down the beach from Pearly’s Dream Cabana is a horizontal palm tree and a rock which is a great spot for photos. It’s getting more popular thanks to social media though, so go before the hotel behind it starts charging!
Getting there: Walk out of Dream Cabana onto the beach and turn left. Walk for 2 minutes and you’ll find the infamous palm tree.
Entrance fee: None.
Best time to go: Sunset always.
Photo tip: You’ll need a wide-angle lens to get the tree and the rock in the same photo.
The Ambuluwawa mountain and stupa is well known amongst locals, but hasn’t made it to the tourist trail just yet. The views from the stupa are breathtaking, and it is also a great place to get some drone shots.
Getting there: Ambuluwawa is situated in Gampola, which is about an hours drive from Kandy. Hire a taxi as they will be able to take you right to the gate, saving you the hike up the hill to the top.
Entrance fee: 300 LKR.
Best time to go: Go for when the temple opens if you want to climb up (9.30am), or earlier if you’re okay to drone from outside the gate.
Photo tip: The panorama mode on your drone will serve you best here.
There are, of course, so many more places to visit in Sri Lanka, including seeing wild elephants in one of the many National Parks. Unfortunately for us, our visit to Yala brought only the sighting of a peacock, and when we tried to visit Minneriya Park, we were told the elephants had moved elsewhere… But, I'd definitely recommend giving it a shot, and hope that you'll be luckier than we were!
And if you're in the region for an extended period, why not consider visiting India too? You can check out my guide to the Golden Triangle in India here for some inspiration!