Okay. Here’s what you need to know about this island. Especially if you’re planning a visit, but also if you want to follow me around and see where and what this place is all about.
The Breakdown. I’ve seen this country broken down and categorized a ton of different ways that I’m sure are all politically correct in their own right, but for the sake of highlighting my areas and giving the simple layman version as not to bore you, here are the basics. In case it isn’t implied, take this as my interpretation- it’s not perfect, it’s what has applied to my time here and what could be useful for others. Not the written word. Oh and I’ve tried to reference my experience in parenthesis.
Western Province (The capital and surrounding areas)This is basically the sprawl of Colombo. It’s the most population-dense region and it’s all about some development. They’re big on industrializing and modernizing the country- and it shows. It’s the area with the biggest ego for sure, I guess the fact that there are indoor jobs a plenty may contribute. That said, I’ve found that it’s a pretty underrated region. The city itself has some beautiful hidden gems that are wide open to sky and sunlight (despite the urban scene), and on a sunny day the colors are unbelievable. The radius around Colombo are what you’d expect, a bustling area of not-quite-city that is a mix of shopping centers and buddhist statues that vary from high-class to “under construction.” This is the richest part of the country by far and it’s very common that workers will stay here during the week but spend the weekends with their families via bussing or training across the country.
The South (I’ve been through most of the stretch, Galle, Unawatuna and Mirissa specifically though)
Here come the beaches. Galle road is the backbone of the south west chunk of Sri Lanka, and it stretches from the capital all the way through the south coast. As I’ve been to a few beaches around the world, I’ve noted- and loved- the fact that beach culture is essentially the same no matter where you go. Surf bums are a universal breed and the touristically attractive beaches give the coastlines’ an economic contribution. There’s always that mix of tourists and locals that populate all beaches in some way or another. Anyhow, these beaches are blue. Some are more touristy (or touristic as everyone here says) than others, but all carry that sandy vibe you’ probably recognize. It’s easy to get stuck in a resort and never leave, because that’s how they design the towns. I’d search for a bike or throw on running shoes to get a more holistic feel for what these places are like.
UVa (Hambantota, Kataragama, Moneragala, and Arugam Bay, for me) This is the central and east chunk. It’s hella dry in the dry season (northern hemi’s summer and fall essentially) and just as wet in the rainy season. I’ve spent most of my village time out here, experiencing the heat on a whole new level. This bit also includes most of the big national parks. Which means Elephant Territory. Tourists are drawn to this part by safari adventures and the elephants know that. Which means they get fruit if they hang out near the roads often enough. I’ll let you do that math and draw your own ecological consequences on that one.
Kandy & the Hill Country (Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Hatton, Adams Peak, Worlds End). About 90% of the Sri Lankans I’ve asked have told me that their favorite part of the country is in this region. It’s cool, it’s crisp and it oozes a colorful culture. Kandy is a town all its own. Full of character in a way that says “no need to globalize us to pieces, we’re just doing our own thing here.” Definitely catering to tourists a bit, but not willing to destroy its personality in the process. Nuwara Eliya is similar. Surrounded by an incredible array of hills and tea plantations and mountains and clouds (seriously put colombo-hatton train ride on your to-do list. It’s long, but if you can score a window/door seat it could be the highlight of your trip). This town is called “Little England” and from my brief experience, seems to have the same attitude as Kandy. Totally content to let Colombo be the development capital of the island and show off its own bit of style. This region includes the Knuckles Mountains, and others, that make it the adventure center. Anyone looking to do some hikes, maybe white water raft, or otherwise be outdoors, will inevitably end up in this area. Enjoy it, it’s a beauty all its own.
Anuradhapura & the North Central Province (This is definitely a generalized section, but includes Dambulla, Sigiriyia, Anuradhapura, Padaviya, Pollonuwara). Back into the dry region. This is the ancient part of the island, full of the most history. There are ruins of all kinds throughout this region and I can only imagine the kicks national geographic would or did get out of this area. The temples here go all-in. Huge, beautiful and picturesque, fully aware that Anuradhapura was the original capital of Sri Lanka. Northeast of this area, the rural farming jumps in. I can’t imagine any guidebooks jump into here much, but our research has done just that. It can be hot, dry, and rural as all get out, but that feeling of really being off the map is wild. Staying in clay homes and driving through a field with the darkest skies and brightest stars I’ve ever seen isn’t something I’d dismiss.
The North and Northeast I haven’t been to these areas yet, but here’s what I know, you may here me reference them They include the hotspot cities of Jaffna, Kilnochchi and Trincomale. The north tends to be the Tamil area of the country, and with a twenty-year war that has only been over since 2009, tensions are still high. More info when I get to the cultural section, but it’s a sensitive spot for sure. Supposedly a region all its own, full of beautiful beaches as well as an Islamic culture that takes majority in this small sliver of the island. I’m excited to, hopefully, add some personal experiences to this part of the post in the near future :)
As far as a quick rundown of my time here, geographically, for all those interested and/or confused about these bizarre names with way too many consonants. First field visit I drove up (as you’d imagine looking at a road map) to Anuradhapura, watching in awe as my first drive through the country was occurring. I’ve since made three (or 4?) Trips to Kataragama, and two to the southern beaches. This is essentially a drive down the highway, or a train ride along the coast, and driving the stretch of Galle Road. I’ve seen all the big cities from the road and love the fact that I can get to know a place as well as I have without so much as a tea break in the cities themselves. Kataragama basically cuts inland before the east coast kicks in and goes up parallel to Arugam Bay. This also garners a return trip due west, through Ratnapura, home to Colombo. I’ve also made the separate trip to the hill coutry several times, mostly by train. It’s a beautiful ride and if you’re lucky enough to get a seat you don’t have to have the ever-constant worry that “this bus is absolutely going to hit this _____ (car, three wheeler, motorcycle, dog, cow, elephant…) there is no way it can possibly– holy crap. okay. maybe not.”
I’ve also peed in the Dambulla washroom in the orange cafe a record number of times. To this day I am yet to spend the night in this town, but shoot if every vehicle that I’ve ever passed through here in has chosen to pull over at this tea shop. A blinding percentage of those have been emergencies. Just when I’m experiencing a euphoric level of hydration and bladder capacity this good ‘ol shop comes into view. Just thought I’d give it a shout out, here’s to the waiters that know me by name despite never having purchased food.
That’s basically my two months. Tons of road time, lots of adventures, and a rudimentary understanding of this really, really cool island:)