Onward we went, from Nuwara Eliya to Yala. We had signed up for a safari. I really did not know what to expect, and had no expectations going in (more about that later, below). The drive from Nuwara Eliya to Yala took about 4 hours, with pit stops thrown in.
Again, getting to anywhere in Sri Lanka via the roadways has been awesome to say the least. It doesn’t matter if you take the scenic routes (A-numbered routes, or B) or if you take the expressways (E-numbered routes) - in either case the scenery/landscape is just breath taking.
Yala National Park
Yala national park is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka. It’s also one of the hot spots for tourists, all year round. With that being said, only some parts of the national park are open to the public, while most of the park is off of the menu.
Yala was designated as a wild life sanctuary in 1900. It was one the first two of the national parks in Sri Lanka, the other being Wilpattu. Both being important for the conservation of Sri Lankan elephants, and Sri Lankan leopards - both, the Sri Lankan elephants, and leopards are different subspecies, which are exclusively native to Sri Lanka.
On A Safari, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.
On reaching Yala, we checked into Cinnamon Wild in Kirinda - one of the two awesomest places in Sri Lanka that I’ve had the pleasure to stay at. The resort property is located within the national park, and is surrounded by forest. Wild elephants, wild boars, and water bisons are known to come up-to your cottage (they do not have rooms here). PS: Feeding them is big no, no.
Panorama from The Observation Deck & Bar at The Cinnamon Wild, Yala, Sri Lanka. (You can see the lake, right in the front-center. To the left is the sea, and to the right is the forest reserve).
Although we did not have any elephants coming in, some wild boars, and water bisons did manage to come up until the lounge-bar, and scrounge around one of our cottages here. They do not interfere with your routine, as long as you don’t with theirs. You’ll always be escorted to-and-fro from your cottage; you just need to place a call to the reception from your room/cottage. If you’re feeling brave, and up to it, then you can forego any escorts. The resort opens up into a lake filled with crocs, wild bisons, cranes, and other local fauna.
Lake, Right Outside The Cinnamon Wild, Yala, Sri Lanka.
Cinnamon Wild is a great place to stay, if you don’t mind nature, and animals. It’s pleasant to wake up around in, and the night is full of forest sounds. It’s surrounded by picturesque beauty on all sides. I would definitely recommend this resort to anyone traveling to Yala, for a safari or two.
Getting back to the topic of the safari - this would be my first ever safari. As mentioned above, I really had no expectations going in; I did not know what I would find, and what would this safari entail. I was just plain excited to be going off-roading in Sri Lanka.
The safari started at around 6:00AM. We had to check out by 12 noon, and thus opted for the first safari ride. As soon as we entered the gate to the national park, a sense of wild crept in. It was pleasant, morning-calm, and super exciting - all at the same time. It took us about 3 hours to roam around inside; blame it on us having to checkout early this noon - one of the mistakes of the trip, in my opinion was opting for just one night at Yala, instead of two or even three.
Spotting The Sri Lankan Elephant In The Wild - Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.
But, on the flip side we did manage to spot a baby bear, and an elephant sipping on some lake water, a baby crocodile, some land monitors, and a lot of different species of birds. The landscape of Yala is more so breath taking than anywhere else. You do get a sense of being in a forest. The sunrise is something to wake up for.
The Rooms (Cottages) At The Cinnamon Wild, Yala, Sri Lanka.
Once the safari was done, we headed back to the hotel to change, shower, and check out.
Galle, Talpe / Unawatuna Beach
Next up on the list was Galle, and this was the day I had received a message from a newly made friend, about she being around 10 minutes away from Galle. We decided to meet, and exchange our travel stories - something that as it turns out, would be one of the best decisions I’ve made there.
The drive to Galle, again was beautiful. It took us about 90 minutes to reach Galle; this time included pitstops.
The Scenic Route. Getting To Bentota In A Tuk-Tuk.
Galle is the fifth largest city in Sri Lanka. It has been a trading port, long, long before any western rule existed in Sri Lanka. Galle dates back to around 1400 BC, and it may have been an important port then took; considering that Sri Lanka still is famous for its spices. Galle is also a district, and it stretches a long way. The Galle Road (A2) takes you all the way from Galle to Colombo.
We weren’t staying at Galle; our hotel was much, much farther away - in Bentota. We were here to see what Galle was about; it had come highly recommended by a family friend. It’s a beach stretch through, and through. What piqued my interest was the fort built by the Dutch. It’s huge, and 400 odd years old. It was also the only surviving structure during the 2004 tsunami that devastated this stretch. It did play the important role of saving the inhabitants of the fort, during the 2004 tsunami.
View From The Suite At The Cantaloupe Aqua, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka. (Unedited version)
Once inside the fort, the whole feel changes. It’s no longer Galle inside. It is like Sweden. There’s a township, literally nestled inside the fort. With cafe’s, hotels, shops, and residential areas lining up the streets inside. Definitely worth a visit, or two!
Once done with the fort, we now were headed back on track with respect to our itinerary - headed to Bentota. Having decided on meeting the new friend, I got off here in Galle; said adieu to the family for sometime.
The friend was staying over at the Cantaloupe Aqua - the other best hotel stay I’ve had in Talpe, next to Unawatuna in Sri Lanka. She had invited me to the hotel, and I happily obliged. I wanted more than the experience of a tour, from this trip. And, her invitation only furthered that cause.
The moment I reached Cantaloupe Aqua, and ran into her is the moment I went speechless. Look at that view (see below)! I was sitting at the bar, and sipping on the local brew - Lion Beer; definitely give it a shot, if you love trying local brews. I’ve had nothing other than that, in Sri Lanka.
My View, From A Bar Stool At The Bar, Cantaloupe Aqua, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka. (How can I not be mesmerized? - Yes, this image has been edited. For an unedited view, see the panorama above).
Enough about the beer; but seriously, look at that view! I just wanted to stay here forever, and enjoy those waves crashing into the hotels wall; watch the sun set, see the clouds add to the saturation of the view, sip on the awesome brew, and enjoy sharing stories with my awesome, and extremely gracious company.
Eventually the Sun set, and both of us decided to head to Happy Banana - an evening joint on the Galle beach stretch; about 2 clicks away from Cantaloupe Aqua. Cantaloupe Aqua sits on the Galle beach stretch, right between a town called Talpe, and Unawatuna; Unawatuna being the more famous name, in terms of a tourist-y beach.
Happy Banana is right on this beach-stretch, clubbed together with other bars, and restaurants here. The original plan was to sit at Happy Banana, and have a few drinks, instead we decided to walk the stretch of the beach, and find any place to have a beer before skipping on to the next one. What ensued made me feel plain lucky, owed, and endowed.
We found a place called the Peacock Hotel. Initially we weren’t allowed in; the entirety of the restaurant/bar was booked by a Dutch family celebrating someone’s birthday. But, I had a very able companion who spoke her way through to them to let us sit on the beach chairs, and sip on some beers before we moved on to the next place. While there, we happen to talk to our host. He has served the Indian Navy for four months, and served for about fifteen years in the Sri Lankan Navy; before he retired, and started this restaurant/bar. He was kind, polite, and simply helpful. Check out Peacock, when you’re in the neighborhood.
Between the recounting of life experiences, stories, and the small-talk conversations with the host, we were surprised to witness fireworks right in front of us. I was ecstatic! Although, I do have a problem of/with emoting anything, and everything - but, true to God I was ecstatic! Who wouldn’t be? I mean there were waves, light rains, thunderstorm, the beer, the awesome company, and then there were fireworks!
Fireworks, Outside The Peacock Hotel, At Unawatuna Beach.
Much later, we opted to bar hop to some place else while walking towards the opposite end of the stretch, and sat down at the last restaurant / bar we could find to have another round of beers before heading out to dinner.
Once back at the hotel, I decided to get a room, and stay over. I would be nuts, not to wake up to the waves in the morning. Although, due to a certain circumstance, and familial responsibilities back at Bentota, I had to leave early. Nonetheless, as I said above, one of the best decisions ever made here in Sri Lanka. Thoroughly enjoyed my stay at the Cantaloupe Aqua - Definitely a place to stay at in Sri Lanka, if you love the waves, and the open seas as much as I do. (Full disclosure: I am not getting anything by mentioning their brand here. I am mentioning it because of the overall experience I had with them).
Contrary to the plans made late evening with my friend in Talpe, I had to check out early, and leave for Bentota. It’s a short ~42km drive to Bentota from Galle. Takes about 45 minutes by road, to reach Bentota from Galle via the Galle Road (A2 highway).
View From The Ensuite Balcony, Bentota Beach Hotel, Bentota, Sri Lanka.
We were hosted by the Bentota Beach Hotel by Cinnamon. It is a huge property. Sadly, there’s not much to say about Bentota, except that it’s a beach, and personally I preferred Unawatuna on the Galle stretch compared to Bentota.
Bentota is a quaint, and small beach town. I had nothing much to do here, but sit back, and relax. And, as luck may have it, I had another great experience of walking on the beach, during a thunderstorm in the late evening, and happened to make the photograph embedded below. This was also the spot, where for the very first time I saw a working lighthouse!
I spent a night in Bentota, and then we were off to Colombo. Again the drive was simply breath taking. We took the Galle Road (A2) to Colombo.
Colombo is the capital city of Sri Lanka. It’s the only place I saw skyscrapers in. It’s a beautiful city, that extends the same polite courtesy found elsewhere, here in Sri Lanka. While there are a lot of places to see, and be seen at in Colombo, the main event here again was getting a few drinks, making new friends, and catching-up with the new-old one from Galle.
While on our way to check-in into our hotel, we decided to make a pit stop in Colombo at Barefoot. I knew of Barefoot, from some prior information given by a friend from back home - I knew of it as a handloom, and as a shop. What I wasn’t aware of, was the fact that barefoot is also a kick-ass cafe! It was a delight to witness, experience, and listen to some live local Jazz. The food at the cafe was great. The ambience, and the mood were in perfect synergy with the music being played, and the band. Perfect start to the two days, here in Colombo.
A Live Jazz Band, At Barefoot Cafe.
It had had been raining non-stop since Bentota. It was raining still. The friend from Galle, was also in Colombo; both of us were here, to catch our flights back home. While here, we decided to head for drinks again, and check out the night-scene.
Colombo has a pretty awesome nightlife. Especially during the off-season. Imagine rains, thunderstorms, much conversations about nothing, and beers - just the way I like it. We were searching for a bar to sit at, and we landed at Love Bar.
Love Bar, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Love Bar is quite exquisite. It’s a great place to simply relax, and grab a few beers. I met Cam, thanks to the friend in Galle; a new friend made, yet again. The trip just got better, and better. We were there, sipping on the local brew, for about 3 hours or so, before we realized we all were hungry. It was late, and Cam remembered a place that would be open at that hour - enter Hotel de Pilawoos.
Terrace At The Love Bar, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Pilawoos, also known as Pilaroos - is a small, dainty all-nighter food joint. While here we were treated to some of the best tea, and kottu I’ve tasted in Sri Lanka. We also chatted up with, and made friends out of the owner of Pilawoos. A great guy, and businessman.
Eating Cheese Kottu At Pilawoos, Late Nights In Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Unsurprisingly enough, we were shown that Pilawoos has been featured by/in the Lonely Planet. Here’s the kicker, where we were surprised - Pilawoos has also been visited by Mr. Anthony Bourdain.
Yep, definitely worth the visit - for the food, and for the local experience. Best time to visit Pilawoos would be late evenings - and I mean, really late. It’s famous for it’s Kottu - which literally means chopped roti - with meat, spices, and veggies.
Anthony Bourdain, At Hotel de Pilawoos.
A Few Pointers For Your Sri Lankan Trip
Here are somethings to note, for your first trip to Sri Lanka:
Be polite, cordial, and accommodative. Everyone here is. Reciprocate.
Speak slowly. Not everyone here is well versed in English. But they do try to get what you’re trying to say.
Everyone is really helpful, unlike back home in Mumbai. Something I learned the hard way.
Cross the road using the yellow zebra crossing, where available. The cars will stop.
You cannot smoke anywhere, and everywhere. Be mindful of where you do so. Do not throw the stub on the road. Find a bin, or carry a trash bag. Sri Lanka is a very, very clean country; at the least that’s what I found, comparing it back to Mumbai, or India in general.
Try the local food. It’s spicy, yes. It’s also awesomely, insanely good food, and you have many options to choose from.
Skip Pinnawala Orphanage. Opt for a private one - here’s why.
Must places to visit, based on my first trip here, include: Yala, Nuwara Eliya, the Dutch fort in Galle, Unawatuna beach, Peacock Hotel, Cantaloupe Aqua, Love Bar, Barefoot, and Hotel de Pilawoos.
Kandy can be covered in a single day. That’s all the time you need there. Spend the extra day(s) exploring other places, or to do other things. The Tooth temple doesn’t house Buddha’s real tooth, that’s kept somewhere else.
Skip Bentota, instead opt for one of the other beach properties in, and around Galle, Unawatuna, Talpe, and Jungle Beach (Personally, I’ve not been there, but heard it’s a good spot to be staying at).
Strike up a conversation with everyone you can. You never know what may come out of it.
Get a local number, from the airport. Opt for Dialog. It has the largest coverage area in Sri Lanka. It’s extremely affordable. I never had to refill or reload the prepaid card. I got the connection for 1300SLR (~650INR / ~9USD). That gave me 4GB of Data, and about 500 SLR for IDD calls, and about 35 IDD messages free. It was more than en