Sri Lanka – Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles

January 25, 2020

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

This year I’d like to do a proper trip somewhere. Really explore it? And there are a couple of destinations that really niggle at me, where I’ve been, but definitely not for long enough, and where I haven’t really seen, or understood, enough. Sri Lanka is one of them. 

A few decades ago you really couldn’t go to Sri Lanka, it was just too dangerous. And it’s had more than its fair share of natural disasters to challenge those of us hankering to explore its ancient cities and temple-hiding jungles. But I did go, and I lounged on the soft sands of Galle, met artists in the fort town, and met elephants outside Kandy. I went to Hatton and rode the tea-train down through the lush hills, and I saw Sigiriya rising magically out of the jungle, like an offering on a great stone pillar. But I did it all in two weeks and that’s definitely not long enough. So I need to go again…

For an Exotic City Break

Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles
Colombo city

It used to be that lush, tropical Colombo was thought of as ‘the garden city of the East’, a romantic, colonial capital, elegant with grand boulevards and white pillared buildings, and topped off with a fantastic fort. But, while much of colonial-era Colombo remains, today this capital has more of an international city feel: it’s a cosmopolitan place busy with commerce and sprawling beyond its original elegant boulevards. And most travellers want to see both sides of Colombo, the myriad of markets and the burgeoning international foodie scene, and the historic architecture, museums and galleries. Plus the ocean, which runs along the edge of the city creating so many opportunities to see the perfect Indian Ocean sunset. And it’s just that bit far away and tricky to get to, so it still feels like an adventure, even though it also offers all the pleasures of a classic city break. 

Where to Stay?

Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles
Villa Raha

The Villa Raha is a stylish, six room bolthole in a great residential part of Colombo known for its cafes and eateries, and within walking distance of Galle Road. The villa has a fabulous all-day brunch menu too, so you’ll certainly not go hungry. The accommodation is quite luxurious (and excellent value) and the owners are extremely hospitable. Plus there’s a beautiful leafy terrace, and the pool is a Godsend if the weather is hot. Rooms start from around £60 per night.  

Practical Details: Bandaranaike Airport is Sri Lanka’s main international airport and it’s about 20 miles, or 25 minutes, from the centre of Colombo. Depending on which airport you leave from, the journey to Colombo from the UK takes about ten and a half hours. Colombo’s weather is warm, mild and dry for most of the year, with the hottest months reporting daily maximum temperatures of 31ºC, and the coolest registering 22ºC. So the only really bad time to visit is during the monsoon season, which, in Colombo runs from May through August. 

For Sri Lanka’s Pristine Coastline

Galle and its surrounding coastline feels almost tropical, with long stretches of white sandy beach fringed with palms and mangroves. And it’s a colonial beauty, so certainly a favourite in Sri Lanka, and especially key if you’ve never been to Sri Lanka before. Before the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century Galle was a small village, but they quickly fortified it and turned it into a major spice port, and it’s an incredible effort of fortification, covering most of the peninsula. Then the Dutch took over and built more, including some beautiful churches. Today the fortified section is UNESCO Heritage Listed and full of boutique hotels, bijou boutiques and cafes, and is a popular hang out for arty types.  

Where to Stay?

Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles
Fortress resort and spa

The Fortress Resort & Spa is a luxurious resort right on the Indian Ocean on beautiful Koggala Beach. As well as the incredible ocean views the resort is surrounded by a lush walled garden with beautiful water features, so every window you look out of offers a view fit for royalty. Though you do need to keep the doors closed because the chipmunks are cheeky! Inside all is tranquil; there’s an Ayurveda spa, a yoga pavilion and an infinity pool overlooking the ocean to help you achieve relaxation. There’s also an excellent Sri Lankan/International restaurant. And you’re close to both Galle and the Sinharaja Forest. There are 53 rooms with rates starting from around £140 per night.  


Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles
Bentota - could this be paradise?
Bentota – is this paradise?
Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles
Paradise Road The Villa, in Bentota

Paradise Road The Villa is in Bentota, which is just along the tropical coastline from Galle. Converted from a family home in the 1970s by acclaimed architect Geoffrey Bawa into Sri Lanka’s first boutique hotel, this is certainly what many of us think of as paradise. Designed to let the best of the outside in, with perfectly positioned doors and windows and many quiet courtyards, this 15 room hotel also has two pools, and enough palm trees and frangipani to keep your mind on being on holiday. The monochrome decor fits perfectly. And rooms start from around £100 per night.  

Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles

Practical Details: To get to Galle you’ll probably have to pass through Bandaranaike Airport, which is in a suburb of Colombo, or through Kandy or Sigiriya. Which route you takes depends where you start from, but Galle is about two hours drive from Colombo, and there’s a choice of trains or buses, as well as hiring a car or taking a taxi. Galle’s weather is similar to Colombo’s: warm, mild and dry for most of the year, but again you need to watch out for the monsoon, in Galle it rains between September and December.    

For the Beach & the Jungle

Trincomalee isn’t as popular with visitors as it should be. Lots of folk pass through on the way to the beaches to Uppuveli or Nilaveli, but this city, which sits on one of the world’s best natural deep-water harbours, has an incredible history, having changed hands seven times during the colonial era. It also has a very significant Shiva temple. And of course you’re close to those incredible beaches, and surrounded by lush jungle too, so it’s a wonderful base if you want to do some exploring of your own, either above or below the waterline.  

Where to Stay?

Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles
Jungle Beach resort

The Jungle Beach resort is deserving of both parts of its name, it’s a collection of modern cabins dotted along the coastline in and out of the dense jungle, close to Trincomalee. There’s a good amount of thatching, on pointed roofs and on bridges and terraces otherwise open to the elements, but inside the cabins it’s all very modern with hard wood flooring and dark wood furnishings. There’s a beautiful pool, an elegant bar, and a restaurant that serves both local and International cuisine (though they’ll also arrange candlelit meals on the beach). Rooms start from around £125 per night. 

Practical Details: Trincomalee can be reached via Sigiriya, after which you can catch a taxi or train, or by Batticaloca, which is a longer flight and then a shorter transfer by taxi – but it’s still around two and a half hours, or via Colombo with a four hour taxi transfer. Kandy is an option too, with a long flight, followed by an hour in a taxi and almost six hours on a train. But it will be well worth it. The temperature variation in Trincomalee is about four degrees from the coolest month to the warmest: from daily average maximum temperatures of 25°C in January, to 29°C in June. The sea is warm all year round too, what really varies is the rain, with the monsoonal rain coming to Trincomalee later in the year, between September and December.  

Or Just the Jungle?

Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles
Sigiriya - one of Sri Lanka's most dramatic sites

Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most dramatic sites, and a pretty essential place to add to your itinerary.  This fortified palace and monastery is perched on top of a tower of rock, which rises, perfectly flat, 200 metres out of the surrounding jungle. Inside are incredible frescoes, and surrounding it are some of the world’s oldest landscaped gardens. It’s incredible for so many reasons: the views, the location, how it was built, why it was abandoned. The jungle around, including the Minneriya National Park, is lush, and home to a menagerie of exotic animals. It’s not easy to get to, but really, really worth it!

Where to Stay?

Sri Lanka - Ancient Cities and Temple-hiding Jungles Kumbukgaha Villa in Sri Lanka

Kumbukgaha Villa is a chic, seven villa complex in a secluded spot close to the water and the Minneriya National Park, which is known for its elephants. Each hideaway villa has a high beamed ceiling, whitewashed walls, traditional artefacts, and an open-air bathroom – watch out for the peacocks, butterflies and geckos – and all feel private and luxurious. There’s a restaurant offering local specialities and villas start from around £70 per night.  

Practical Details: Depending on where you live it could be possible to fly direct to Sigiriya. It takes about 15 hours from Heathrow. If you travel via Colombo you’re looking at about two and a half hours in a cab after you land, and if you fly to Batticaloa you’ll need to travel onwards on the train for about three and a half hours. Sigiriya is warm and humid for most of the year with average daily maximum temperatures ranging between 26°C in January, to 29°C in June, July and August. It’s driest when it’s hottest too, with the rain coming to Sigiriya between October and December.  

Getting the holiday travel bug? Lots more ideas for you here.

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