60+ Best Things to Eat, See, and Do in Sri Lanka

Ceylon. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Teardrop of India. With descriptors like these, it’s no wonder Sri Lanka is fast becoming one of Asia’s hottest tourism destinations. If you’re planning a trip and looking for things to do in Sri Lanka, you’ve come to the right place. I recently spent three months exploring this tropical paradise, and this is my personal list of the best things to eat, things to see, and things to do in Sri Lanka.

(As always, posts on My Adventure Bucket may contain affiliate links. Using these links costs you nothing but helps support the maintenance of this site and my dog’s organic broccoli habit.)

To make it easy for you, I’ve broken my recommendations down by region.

Because these are solely my personal recommendations, you won’t see anything from areas I didn’t visit. Although I saw a lot in three months, I’m sure I also missed some really excellent things. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you have some recommendations I missed!

Colombo

Things to Eat:

  1. Sunday brunch in the Barefoot Garden Cafe (704 Galle Rd, Col 3). Purely for the atmosphere, the tea, and the live jazz in the afternoon. Have a browse through the shop when you’re done; it’s a sweet rabbit warren of books, textiles, and other unique souvenirs you won’t find at the kitschy airport kiosks.

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    More tea, Vicar? Indulging in a pot of real Ceylon tea in a sunny garden is a fabulous way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
  2. Vegetable kotthu at any no-name dive joint. You can find kotthu all over, but the very best ones come from the sketchiest looking little roadside stands. Walk out of your hotel around 6 p.m. and follow your nose. If you’ve never had kotthu, the best way I can describe it is “spicy Sri Lankan Stove-Top Stuffing on steroids.” Half the fun of eating kotthu is watching the chef prepare it on his flat-top griddle with knives and sizzling spices flying. 

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    If you could feel the heat emanating from this spicy plate of kotthu, your eyes would water.
  3. OK, this isn’t something you eat, but the blackcurrant iced tea at Tea Avenue (55 Barnes Pl, Col 7) was outstanding.
  4. Mouth-watering fried dumplings at Momos By Ruvi (43/1D Galle Rd, Col 4). One of my favorite meals in Colombo, and ridiculously cheap to boot. It’s hidden down an alley, so you may have to search a bit, but it’s worth it. 

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    Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know what a momo was, either. All you need to know is that they’re delicious.
  5. Chicken tacos at Let’s Taco Colombo. Ignore the recently-opened Taco Bell and come to this family-owned startup serving the first real Mexican food in Sri Lanka.

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    What? You can’t eat curry every day, can you? Long live Taco Tuesday.
  6. A proper Sunday roast at a proper British pub: the Cheers Pub in the Cinnamon Grand hotel puts on an incredible spread. Despite the unfortunately smoky atmosphere, my inner Anglophile doesn’t allow me to pass up this favorite English tradition, no matter where I am in the world. It’s pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but the food is excellent.

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    This is only a photo; please don’t lick your screen.
  7. Masala dosa and other Indian delicacies at Shanmugas (53/3 Ramakrishna Rd, Col 6). Having come to Sri Lanka from a very enjoyable stay in Bangalore, I was experiencing severe Indian food withdrawals. This modest vegetarian joint hit the spot amazingly well.Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com

Things to See:

  1. Wolvendaal Church (Wolvendaal Lane, Col 11). This whole building is a work of art. Built in 1749, this little church at the edge of hectic Pettah is an absolute jewel. From the carved wooden furniture to the ornate Dutch colonial tombstones used as floor pavers, I spent at least an hour wandering and admiring.

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    Little bits of aesthetic magic are hidden literally all over this timeworn historical treasure.
  2. A tree full of enormous flying foxes in the center of Viharamahadevi Park.
  3. Gay pride celebrations every June. If you’re visiting from a western country, these gatherings might seem like no big deal. But here in a country where homosexuality is illegal, these inspiring activists put themselves at risk to wave the rainbow flag. Check out this article I wrote for the G&LRBest things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  4. Arthur C. Clarke’s house (25 Barnes Pl, Col 7). Although this private residence isn’t open to the public, if you’re a fan you’ll definitely get a thrill from being able to stand outside the very house where the sci-fi master lived for so many years. According to this article, the inside has been kept exactly the way it was when he died.

Things to Do:

  1. Attend the Vesak Poya celebrations in May. This major Buddhist holiday is celebrated throughout the country, but at Gangaramaya Temple, this is the Sri Lankan version of New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Only without the freezing temperatures and inability to find a bathroom.
  2. Get a pedicure at Nail Anatomy (14 Reid Ave, Col 7). After walking around sightseeing all day, the peppermint cooling gel is pure bliss.
  3. Or, go all out with a spa treatment at Amber Spa at Colombo Courtyard.
  4. Sunday afternoon at Galle Face Green. It seems like the whole city comes out here to Colombo’s front lawn on Sunday afternoon to walk, fly kites, soak in the sun, and sample treats from the myriad food vendors. Pull up a chair, order a Lion Lager and a plate of spicy kotthu, and settle in for some magnificent people-watching. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  5. Shop for souvenirs at the Laksala Museum Store. The shop has a ton of cute things and they’re not ridiculously overpriced. If you’re not a huge museum buff and/or you’re short on time, don’t feel guilty about skipping the National Museum. I loved the architecture and the old Dutch tombstones, but otherwise found it dark, stuffy, and rather poorly presented. After shopping, stop in the attached cafe for a fresh lime soda.
  6. Wander around Borella Cemetery for a few hours. The final resting place of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke and most of the city’s well-heeled dead, Borella Cemetery is a fabulous place to spend an afternoon. I don’t know about you, but I love to visit cemeteries in other countries and marvel at the different ways we find to memorialize our loved ones. See how many tiny Buddhist shrines you can find hidden in the trees. Learn from one of my myriad mistakes, though- don’t stick around too long if they’re burning plastic trash in the cemetery, which is unfortunately a common waste disposal  method. As I learned the hard way. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  7. Take your life into your hands by riding through the city in a tuktuk. OK, you’ll probably be fine, but…hang on, just in case. 

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    Clearly in mortal peril here, people.

 


The West

Things to Eat:

  1. Fresh pasta at the Dolphin Beach Resort. I know you’re not in Italy, but you may be second-guessing that after you taste one of the resident chef’s homemade pastas. The spaghetti carbonara I had here was the best pasta of my whole entire life. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  2. Fruit salad with ice cream at Top Secret, Hikkaduwa. This backpacker joint is anything but a secret anymore. The food is just OK, but this chilly dessert was an absolute godsend on days it was too hot for anything more substantial. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  3. Vegetable fried noodles at Tree Tops, Hikkaduwa. If all the spicy curries have your stomach a little on edge, this is just the kind of comfort food that will set you to rights. Added bonus: you’re basically eating in a tree house. 

Things to See:

  1. The Tsunami Photo Museum, Telwatta. Bring your Kleenex. This family’s tiny, handcrafted display of the devastating 2004 tsunami will rip your heart out. En route to the museum, take note of how many hulking shells of decimated homes and buildings still sit abandoned. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com

Things to Do:

  1. Lounge by the pool at one of Kalpitiya’s fabulous resorts. Yes, lounging by the pool is a no-brainer when you’re on vacation in a tropical paradise, but it’s even better here. The constant winds that make the Kalpitiya Peninsula one of Asia’s best kitesurfing spots also ensure you can sunbathe for hours without ever getting too hot or sticky. 

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    The massive oceanfront pool where I spent nearly all of my time at the Bar Reef Resort in Kalpitiya. Because it was the off season, I had this lovely scene all to myself most of the time.
  2. Touch a baby sea turtle at the Sea Turtle Hatchery & Rescue, Hikkaduwa. It’s a small rescue center so you won’t need a lot of time, but it’s more than worth a visit to support this grassroots conservation effort. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  3. Watch the technicolor sunsets on the beach near Ambalangoda. Yes, all sunsets are beautiful. But these sunsets are something special. 

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    No filter necessary.
  4. Shower under an enormous sperm whale skull at the Bar Reef Resort. Yes, really. 

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    The resort manager informed me that this is the only giant sperm whale skull shower in the world. Who am I to argue?
  5. Get an Ayurveda massage. For about $20 US or less, a nice person will spend an hour pummelling your sore muscles and marinating you in so many oils and spices you’ll feel like a pork roast. A really, really relaxed pork roast. 

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    Embrace your inner pork roast, friends.
  6. Buy some of these darling and ubiquitous soft pants that all the roadside shops have on display. Once you realize that it’s socially acceptable to wear things that feel like pajamas out in public, you’ll never go back to suffering for the sake of fashion. 

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    This is my friend Pride, and she’s the sweetest.



The South

Things to Eat:

  1. Vegetable curry at Spoon’s Cafe inside the fort. This crimson-fronted walk-in closet of a restaurant serves some of the best curry in Galle. Grab an outside table just after sunset, place your order, and get in some great people watching as the two young men in the kitchen start filling the air with mouth-watering aromas, laughter, and tinny Bob Marley tunes. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  2. Gelato from the Pedlar’s Inn, Galle Fort. They change up their selection every day, and after three weeks in the fort, I can confirm: they are all amazing. Grab one late in the afternoon to enjoy as you stroll along the fort walls.
  3. Fresh mango slices with paprika. Trust me on this.
  4. Hummus, Greek salad, and literally anything else on the menu at Chambers (40 Church Street, Galle). The best hummus I’ve ever had in my life, and one of the top three meals I had during my three months in Sri Lanka. I hate to repeat restaurants while I’m traveling because I always feel like I’m going to miss out on all the other great places around, but I came back to Chambers three times. It’s just that good. 

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    Would it be weird if I went all the way back to Sri Lanka just to eat here again?

Things to See:

  1. The Dutch Reformed Church (Church & Middle Streets, inside Galle Fort). If you enjoyed poking around Wolvendaal Church in Colombo, you’re going to love this antique beauty. From the stunning exterior with its curved moulding to the tombstone-paved floor and stained glass windows, there’s enough here to keep history and architecture buffs occupied for a good long time. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com

Things to Do:

  1. Take the train from Colombo to Galle or vice-versa. Secure your baggage and lean out the open doors with the hand rails for support. The track runs right along the ocean in some places, and you’ll feel the salty sea spray on your face and arms. Bonus points if there’s a light, cooling rain. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  2. Take an early morning or sunset stroll around the Galle Fort walls. Sunset will be crowded; that’s when the whole city comes out to relax and reconnect. Trust me, you’re going to want to grab a gelato and join them. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  3. Get a pedicure at the Galle Fort Spa. This was one of the most relaxing pedicures I had in Sri Lanka, and that’s saying something. Instead of traditional pedicure chairs, you sit on a cushioned bench on the wide back porch and watch for monkeys frolicking in the plumeria trees while the aesthetician works her magic on your tired feet. 

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    Yes, I’m wearing these pants again.
  4. Watch for whales! If you stay inside the walls of the fort, try to get a guest room facing the water. I spent many happy hours relaxing on my guesthouse balcony with a cocktail, watching humpback whales migrate past.
  5. Crash a wedding inside Galle Fort. Or, just watch from the sidelines. Sri Lankan brides are uniformly stunning with their colorful gowns, flawless makeup, and flower-accented hair. On one sunny Saturday I counted no less than 14 weddings taking place inside the fort, each one more elaborate than the last. 

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    You’ll want to stop short of crashing the reception, though. Don’t make it weird.
  6. Drink a “Galle Fort” cocktail on the balcony of the waterfront restaurant A Minute By Tuk Tuk in the Dutch Hospital Shopping Complex while watching a storm roll in over the ocean. 

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    Take lots of pictures like this one and you, too, can make your friends back home hate your guts.
  7. Listen for Galle’s musical garbage truck inside the fort. No one leaves their trash outside to attract vermin; when they hear the pastel truck’s soft classical melody, residents walk outside to deposit their refuse directly into the truck. It’s a terribly elegant way to deal with such an unsavory task.



The Hill Country

Things to Eat:

  1. Chicken curry at Villa Rosa. If you’re a guest of the hotel, you’ll even be invited to join the chef on his daily trip to the local market and help out in the kitchen. 
  2. Anything on the Menu du Jour at Ceylon Tea Bungalows. In my collaboration with this hotel, I described it as being less like a hotel and more like going to stay with your doting Grandma. That absolutely extends to the dinner table, where you can relax with a glass of wine under the stars while they whip up some delicious comfort food for you. Don’t pass up the chance to try the spicy beet curry if they offer it. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  3. Chicken samosas on the train. You might not even be hungry, but when a man with a large plastic bin hops on your train and yells, “Hot hot very fresh samosas!” you need to flag him down. Period.Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  4. Baskin Robbins flavors you can’t get in other parts of the world. Try a Roses & Cream, made with pink and white rose ice cream and real rose petals. Your breath will smell like Valentine’s Day.

Things to See:

  1. Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy. The holiest site in Sri Lankan Buddhism, this is the one spot in Kandy that you just can’t miss. The temple itself is absolutely gorgeous, and the reverence with which the locals approach it is beautiful to watch. Photos are allowed, but read up on appropriate temple etiquette before you go so you don’t inadvertently become that clueless tourist taking selfies with a Buddha statue. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  2. The World Buddhism Museum. On the same grounds as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, this was one of my favorite museums in Sri Lanka. It’s very well laid out and takes you on a journey following the spread of Buddhism throughout the world.
  3. Kandy Garrison Cemetery. Yeah, you may have noticed I have a thing for cemeteries. This little hilltop graveyard is a fantastic history lesson, though. If you want to know what became of the British officers who settled in Kandy, well…here they are. Keep an eye out for the charming young man who tends the cemetery; he is an absolute wealth of knowledge. He knows the story behind every monument here and will happily tell you about all of them, including the “very very fat man” who succumbed to sunstroke while fleeing a rampaging elephant. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com

Things to Do:

  1. Take a stroll around the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens. You can easily pack a picnic lunch and spend an entire day here if you’re a nature lover. And if you enjoyed the flying foxes in Colombo, wait until you catch sight of the massive colony that roosts here. Thousands of them fill the trees near the avenue of majestic royal palms; walking under them with your eyes glued skyward will make you feel like you’ve stumbled into a prehistoric jungle. In the unlikely event that enormous bats aren’t your thing, the orchid house is breathtaking. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  2. Take the train to Ella, or anywhere else in the hill country. There’s a reason this is considered one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Photos don’t do it justice, and you can experience all of this breathtaking beauty for just a few dollars. If you’re feeling extra fancy, pay a dollar more and get a first class reserved seat in a glass observation car for the ride of your life. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  3. Walk to Ella Rock. Make your trip to Ella worthwhile, because it’s mostly a huge tourist trap. If you replaced the mountains with the beach, you’d be in Hikkaduwa. But the mountain views are legitimately gorgeous and worth the stroll. If you can stand a little bit of tourist trap atmosphere, make a brief stop at Cafe Chill for an Ella Mule: cardamom-infused vodka, lime, local ginger beer, and fresh ginger. (Then get back on the train and head somewhere with fewer backpacker hostels and juice bars.) Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  4. Get up at the crack of dawn for a visit to Uda Walawe National Park. Have you ever had a herd of wild elephants all to yourself? You can here. Worlds different than the crowded Yala, Uda Walawe always seems to get passed over for its hectic sibling. I left my guesthouse in Galle at 5 a.m., spent two hours trying not to hurl on the winding mountain roads, and arrived at the gates right when they opened. Without another tourist vehicle in sight, I spent a brilliant morning riding through the empty park, spotting elephants and loads of other wildlife with no other company besides my jeep driver and guide. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com



The Ancient Cities

Things to Eat:

Keeping it real here: I don’t have anything to recommend in this category. I ended up eating in my hotel most of the time, due to a combination of illness and not having other options within a reasonable distance. Between bland hotel food and lackluster local options, there’s nothing in this category I can recommend. I’m hoping one of my readers can make up for my failings in the comments!

Things to See:

  1. Dambulla Cave Temples. Despite the disastrous day I had surrounding my visit to Dambulla, I had an absolutely amazing time poking around in these ancient caves. It’s a pretty steep trek to the top, so wear comfortable shoes and bring lots of water. And watch out for the monkeys. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com

Things to Do:

  1. Climb to the top of Sigiriya. This ancient rock monastery has come to symbolize this whole exotic island, and once you get there, it’s easy to see why. It’s an even tougher climb than Dambulla, but the views from the top (and sense of accomplishment) are more than worth it. Beware the extreme winds you can encounter as you near the top; at one point I was crawling on my hands and knees to avoid becoming a human kite. Please note that is not on this list of things to do. Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  2. Join the throngs of white-clad Buddhist faithful on a pilgrimage to Sri Maha Bodhi on a full moon poya day. Make sure and go early if you want a chance of getting near this sacred tree; by mid-morning, the crowds and heat will be unbearable. Black and very dark clothing is prohibited, so consider adapting the local dress code. (Wearing all white will also keep you as cool as possible!) Best things to do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com



Jaffna & The North

Things to Eat:

  1. Ice cream at Rio in Jaffna. The perfect spot to cool off on your walk around town. You’ll see everyone here from elderly Buddhist monks to groups of young men on motorcycles. When you’re out braving the punishing northern sun, the mango sundae is the best 200 rupees you’ll spend all day.
  2. The morning pastry buffet at the Jetwing Jaffna Hotel. Find the things that look like skinny croissants rolled in coarse sugar crystals and eat 15 of them. This is nirvana. Best Things to Do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com

Things to See:

  1. Puja at Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil. This regular ceremonial worship inside Jaffna’s massive golden temple is like a rock concert for your soul. There’s drumming, elaborate ritual, and shirtless men running around with fire. Expect it to stir the very pit of your stomach.
  2. The Mantri Manai, the ancient Minister’s Quarters of the fallen Jaffna Kingdom. If you’re a history buff, be prepared for heartbreak. Decades of war means precious little attention has been paid to preserving, excavating, and protecting Jaffna’s archaeological treasures. At the time of my visit, I was able to walk right into this and other priceless historical sites unquestioned. Unfortunately, vandals and graffiti artists have been afforded the same freedom. If you can overlook layers of spraypainted initials, you’ll marvel at the bones of this grand old structure. Best Things to Do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  3. The Mansion at Old Park. Like the Mantri Manai, this former British colonial governor’s residence is an architectural work of art that has been allowed to fall into heartbreaking disrepair. I spent hours walking around and taking photos without anyone bothering me because there is no official protection or preservation for this crumbling piece of history. If you haven’t had enough of my beloved flying foxes yet, there’s a tree full of them in the back of the playground next door. Best Things to Do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com
  4. Thousands of Hindu temples like sweet shop candies piled up into the sky. The intricate detail of these carvings is made all the more remarkable by the fact that you’ll only see a tiny portion of them from your vantage point on the street. Best Things to Do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com

Things to Do:

  1. Wander down any random Jaffna street and marvel at what remains of the elaborately appointed old homes, mouldering and overgrown but still as captivating as an aging beauty queen. There’s no denying that war has ravaged this city ferociously, but the beauty is still there. If you have a little imagination, you can see what a paradise this place once was. Best Things to Do in Sri Lanka www.myadventurebucket.com

There you have it, adventurers: my personal list of the best things to eat, things to see, and things to do in Sri Lanka. Did I miss something? Do you have favorite things to do in Sri Lanka that I missed? Let me know your favorites in the comments!


Looking for more things to do in Sri Lanka? Check out all of my Sri Lanka posts.

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They Don’t Need More Stuff. Give Adventure Instead.

Posts on My Adventure Bucket may contain affiliate links. Using these links costs you nothing but helps support the maintenance of this site and my weekly pedicure habit.

It’s that time of year again- “holiday gift guide” posts are popping up on all of your favorite websites. They promise to help you find that perfect gift for everyone on your list. The only problem is, no one you know needs more stuff. You might think they do. They might think they do. But I promise- stuff is a prison. Give an experience instead. (Everyone needs more adventure!)

Almost a year ago, I got rid of 95% of my belongings so I could adventure around the world unencumbered. I was apprehensive at first, but once it was all gone, it was the most freeing feeling imaginable. I know I had way too much stuff. I know you do, too. Because everyone does. Source: 15 years as a Funeral Director, listening to thousands of families discussing what on earth to do with all of Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa’s stuff now that they’re gone. 

The Best Gift I’ve Ever Received

Several years ago, I dated a man who was a phenomenal gift giver. One Christmas morning I unwrapped an envelope containing a description of my gift: a trip to Minnesota to drive a tank and crush a car with it. Not only was it the most badass gift imaginable, it also got me a mention on CNN Money because I did the tank drive in a floor-length camouflage skirt and flip flops. (Woo, fame!) I can’t recommend the experience enough, so if you think this is something someone in your life needs, check them out at DriveATank.com. 

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Surveying my destruction. Yes, this was every bit as fun as it looks.

 

The Best Gift I’ve Ever Given

A year of adventure. Not going to lie, I think I really hit it out of the park with this one. I purchased a tabletop globe in a wooden stand and cut it in half. (This is way harder than it looks, FYI, and should not be attempted on Christmas Eve while marginally tipsy. Or so I’ve heard.) I found 12 envelopes lined with an antique map print and labeled them with the months of the year. In each envelope I inserted a card with a description of that month’s adventure. In January, we visited an ethnic restaurant we’d never tried before (I enjoyed Ethiopian food, he didn’t, but we both had a blast!). In February I sent him on a Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt that ended with a fancy dinner at my house. In March we did a weekend-long tour of Florida’s best craft breweries. Etc., etc.

Just a smidge better than a new video game, right?

It only takes a little bit of creativity to come up with a fun and meaningful adventure gift that your recipient will love. Here are a few ideas to get you started. (Bonus: most of them can be sorted just as easily as you would order any other gift online. So even if you do all of your shopping on Amazon, you’re still covered.)

Gift ideas that aren’t stuff:

  • Spa day
  • Tinggly gift certificate or other experience gift cards
  • Dinner out
  • Restaurant gift card & an offer to babysit
  • Plan a trip! Anything from camping in the county park or splashing out on a flight & hotel or something in between. Even a small adventure is better than none at all. And I might be biased, but I happen to think helping someone check something off their bucket list is just about the coolest gift you can give. 
  • “Upgrade” an upcoming trip the recipient already has planned. She’s going on a cruise? Pay for a shore excursion. He’s going to Europe? Book him a city tour with a company like Intrepid Travel. They’re planning a tropical getaway for spring break? Pay for their SCUBA certifications to help them have an even more amazing time.
  • Sign the recipient up for a class at a local community center or adult education program. Bonus points if you take the class together.
  • Indoor skydiving, ziplining, etc.
  • Wine or beer tasting
  • Cooking lessons, surfing lessons, etc.
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This is, like, way more fun than socks.
  • If you live near a body of water, check for day sails, sightseeing boats, etc. I’ve taken boatloads (ha!) of friends on a Schooner Freedom sail in St. Augustine, Florida. Everyone always has an amazing time.
  • Book a family photo shoot.
  • An annual membership to a local museum/science center/planetarium/theme park, etc.
  • A plane ticket for a far-flung friend or family member to visit you.
  • Tickets to a sporting event.
  • Horseback riding lessons or a trail ride.
  • A ride in a train, or a hot air balloon, or a horse-drawn carriage.
  • Enroll the two of you in a mud run, color run, or obstacle course.
  • A gift certificate to an airline, hotel, or travel agent.
  • Pay for a young (or not-so-young) relative to get their first passport.
  • A visit to an ethical wild animal sanctuary.
  • Many zoos, museums, and other attractions have “behind the scenes” tours that you can find on their website. I’ve gifted behind the scenes tours to an aquarium and the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and both were extremely well received. Everyone likes to feel like a VIP!

Bonus tip: Every single woman you know who has young children wants an overnight stay, alone, in a nice, quiet hotel. Trust me on this.

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Does she even wear those earrings you gave her last year? Probably not.


OK, cool, but I’m like totally broke. Now what?

No worries. There are still plenty of super cool experiences you can give.

  • Recipient hates to cook? Offer to come over and make a homemade dinner & clean up afterward.
  • Scan the local events calendar for your city & make plans to take them on a free city tour, holiday open house, etc.
  • If you live in or near New York, score tickets to a TV show taping.
  • Schedule a brewery or distillery tour; these are usually free and provide samples at the end.
  • Sign the recipient and yourself up for a day of volunteer work at a local soup kitchen, Habitat for Humanity build, etc. Bonus warm fuzzies, no charge.

These are great, but I need more inspiration. Where can I find more ideas?

  • Groupon! This is a treasure trove of awesome gift ideas. Looking at my local area deals, I see flight lessons, photography classes, driving experiences, and hundreds of other things that would make great gifts. I may or may not have also bought a car detailing for myself. (Try to have a little more self control than I do.)
  • Airbnb Experiences. Not just for booking someone’s guest room anymore, Airbnb now has an “experiences” tab where you can book photo shoots, local tours, cooking classes, and all sorts of cool things in a neighborhood near you.
  • The local newspaper events calendar. Find gallery openings, festivals, shows, musical performances, etc.
  • A local community college. The ones closest to me offer art and STEM summer camps for teens, 50+ learning, and classes in finance, creative arts, and languages.
  • Travel deals websites like Travelzoo. In addition to flights and hotels, they usually have deals on sports and event tickets, restaurant discounts, and other creative gift ideas.


No doubt your mom loved that sweater you gave her last year (which looked a lot like the one you gave her the year before, if we’re being honest) but I’m going to be real here: you can do better. Also, your dad doesn’t want another insulated coffee mug. He wants to drive a race car.

Are you giving any experience gifts this year, or do you have fond memories of one you gave or received in the past? Tell me about it in the comments!

They don't need more stuff. Give adventure instead. www.myadventurebucket.com

 

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Dear Galle…a Love Letter

Have you ever visited a place that was too special to be summed up in an ordinary way? The minute I arrived in this southern Sri Lankan city, I fell in love. I know I’m not the only one; huge numbers of Galle’s fantastic old houses are being bought up by expats, which lends to the fort’s multicultural air. I originally only planned two nights in Galle before moving on to points east, but felt such homesickness the day after I left that I impulsively hailed a cab to go back and stayed for three weeks. I completely derailed my itinerary, but I don’t regret it for a minute. 

To my beloved Galle,

It has now been four months since I left your rocky walls and boarded the train. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t imagined myself sitting on the balcony of my small guesthouse, looking out over your embankments to the crashing surf full of passing ships and migrating whales.

Dear Galle...aLove Letter www.MyAdventureBucket.com

Though we only had a few short weeks together, we made so many memories, and they will stay with me forever.

I could have gladly spent the rest of my life wandering your hidden alleyways and walking your fort walls at sunset, gelato in hand. 

Dear Galle...aLove Letter www.MyAdventureBucket.com
Every evening the citizens of Galle converge on the fort ramparts to fly kites, stroll hand in hand, and take in the spectacle of the sun setting among the waves.

 

I miss so many things about you. Your street dogs who stole and broke my heart in equal measure. Your Dutch scrolls reaching into the tropical skies, whitewashed walls keeping the secret of mystical blooming courtyards. Grey bricked streets ending in ancient beachfront steps cracked with bougainvillea roots. I loved it all.

Dear Galle...a Love Letter www.myadventurebucket.com

You are glittering jewels and white plumeria, salt air and swaying palms, ornate history and softly crumbling magic. Nowhere have I ever felt so instantly at home.

Dear Galle...a Love Letter www.myadventurebucket.com

 

I have danced in the falling snow in Athens and sailed over the fairy tale landscapes of Bagan, climbed through misty mountaintop jungles in Africa and floated through the Balinese surf. And still you are the most beguiling place I have ever seen. Equal parts tropical island and walled medieval kingdom, you are as singular as you are lovely.

Dear Galle...a Love Letter www.myadventurebucket.com

Until we meet again…

Dear Galle...a Love Letter www.MyAdventureBucket.com
Can’t you just smell the salty air?

All my love,

Leslie


No matter how much I travel, some places just capture my heart in unexpected ways. Usually it’s the places I never expected to love; the runners-up, the “if I have room in the itinerary I’ll squeeze this place in” spots. If you ever find yourself in my beloved Galle, take some time to stroll the fort walls at sunset, and please- give her my love. 

Dear Galle...a Love Letter www.MyAdventureBucket.com

Want to read more of my Sri Lankan adventures? Start here.

Want to visit? Galle is located in southern Sri Lanka, a short drive or train ride from the capital Colombo.

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So Long, Sri Lanka! What’s Next?

Wait, didn’t I just get here? How can it possibly be time to leave Sri Lanka already?

I’m killing an afternoon in a Colombo coffee shop until my taxi arrives to take me to the airport. I’d love to take another stroll around the neighborhood, but as I’m going to be stuck in these clothes for about 45 hours, I’m trying to stay as sweat-free as possible. You’re welcome, fellow passengers.

The last three months have been a fantastic adventure, and I’ve made some memories that will last forever. Like being the only visitor to sit and watch a family of elephants just after sunrise in Udawalawe National Park. Or being run out of a guesthouse on suspicion of being a witch.

I have left pieces of my heart all over this gorgeous little island- mostly with the hundreds of sad-eyed street dogs who trusted me enough to approach me for a bit of food, and love.

So Long Sri Lanka MyAdventureBucket.com

When I first told friends and coworkers that I was quitting my job to travel full time, starting with a brief stint in India and three months in Sri Lanka, many of them said I was crazy. Well, obviously. But who wants to be normal? Normal is boring, and no one is handing out prizes for being a martyr and giving up on your dreams.

If what I’m doing is crazy, the way I’m doing it is downright insane. Who lets a random computer algorithm determine where they go and how they spend their life? Well, I do, and it’s a terrific amount of fun, actually.

I’m only in Sri Lanka today because my Random Bucket List Picker chose it from my massive list after I completed a train ride across Canada. I was only on that train because the RBLP decided that’s where I should go after visiting the Scottish highlands, after exploring ancient Buddhist temples in Indonesia, etc., etc.

I wonder how normal people do things.

The last three months have flown by in an absolute blur of ancient temples, gorgeous beaches, breathtaking train rides, amazing food, and approximately 175 gallons of Lion beer. You have to admit, there are worse ways to spend a summer. I will miss this quirky little island paradise (and street cart samosas) but the next adventure awaits.

So Long Sri Lanka MyAdventureBucket.com

As always, the next adventure has been randomly chosen for me by the Random Bucket List Picker: driving the entire length of Interstate 80 from New York to California. With my favorite canine copilot by my side, naturally.

So Long Sri Lanka MyAdventureBucket.com
She’s cute, but she’s absolutely useless with directions.

As a bonus, there are quite a few other bucket list entries I’ll be able to cross off along the way. No, I’m not going to tell you ahead of time what they are- what fun would that be? I have to make sure you keep checking back for more stories.

I have set aside six weeks for this adventure, which should be plenty of time to get myself into all kinds of predicaments. I hope you will follow along with me!

Don’t miss any of the adventure- follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, too.

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Hotel Review: Villa Rosa, Kandy

The first thing that hits me when I check into Villa Rosa and start exploring is that this is the perfect location for a romantic retreat.

Between the candlelit dinners, the breathtaking mountain views, and the secluded hilltop setting, I’m really wishing I hadn’t come to Villa Rosa solo. This ridiculously photogenic villa just screams romantic rendezvous. The canoodling couple having dinner two tables away from me would likely agree; they’re currently holding hands and staring out at the river. I can’t say that I blame them- this view belongs on a postcard, or maybe your desktop wallpaper.

This is no business traveler’s hotel- the information binder in my room informs me that the Wi-Fi will be turned off at 10pm and when it’s on it can’t handle streaming a video conference. You might not notice- the cozy second floor library will pull your attention away from work with its large collection of reading material and panoramic views of the river and the mountains.

Villa Rosa Kandy MyAdventureBucket.com

Back to dinner, though. Villa Rosa is a foodie’s paradise, and they win my award for the absolute best rice and curry I’ve had during my three months in Sri Lanka. That’s a pretty big deal- *everyone* makes rice and curry here, and it’s almost always fantastic. Villa Rosa goes the extra mile, though. The chef visits the local market every morning, and guests are welcome to tag along and see how he chooses the freshest spices and produce. If you’re really keen, you can join him and his team in the kitchen to prepare your own meal while having a lesson in authentic Sri Lankan cooking.

Villa Rosa Kandy MyAdventureBucket.com

On the off chance that you want to do more than smooch your travel partner all day, Villa Rosa is perfectly positioned for exploring Kandy and the surrounding area. The extremely accommodating staff will happily drop you off in town at no charge, or arrange transportation for more far-flung adventures. While I was here, I explored the impressive botanical gardens, the city of Kandy, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (don’t miss this! Easily the most beautiful Buddhist temple I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen rather a lot) and the Kandy Garrison Cemetery.

The river that you’ll find yourself continually staring out over is the Mahaweli, the longest river in Sri Lanka. Every time I settled down to read or write or work on my laptop, I only lasted a few minutes before I found myself picking up my camera and wandering over to the edge of the property to snap just a few more photos. Sri Lanka is outrageously beautiful in general, but the view here is absolutely mesmerizing. Try to get back from your day of adventuring in Kandy before sunset if you can. There is no better way to start your evening than with a cold beer on the open air balcony while watching the sky go all pink and purple and orange while the flying foxes venture out to their nightly hunt and the chanting of the monks from the city temples down below drifts up on the breeze.

Villa Rosa Kandy MyAdventureBucket.com
The view from my dinner table. Are you kidding me??

Art lover alert: The owners of Villa Rosa are connoisseurs of fine art, and have decorated the villa in impeccable style. Make sure you take a wander around the entire property to have a look at some of the fabulous pieces in their collection.

Villa Rosa Kandy MyAdventureBucket.com

Villa Rosa is located at 71/18, Dodanwela Passage, Asgiriya, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Visit Villa Rosa here for more information or to book your own romantic rendezvous.

Villa Rosa Kandy MyAdventureBucket.com
Wouldn’t you like to wake up to this breakfast table view?

This has been a sponsored conversation with Villa Rosa. I had the pleasure of being hosted at their beautiful property for the purposes of this review, and as always, all words, photos, and opinions are my own.

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Villa Rosa Kandy MyAdventureBucket.com

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Hotel Review: Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya

I had the immense pleasure of being hosted by the Dolphin Beach Resort for the purposes of this review, but as always, all words and opinions are my own. Furthermore, I’ve been in Sri Lanka for two months at the time of this visit and Dolphin Beach is, hands down, the most incredible accommodation I’ve had on my entire trip. I would, without question, go back on my own dime and stay in their gorgeous tents and eat their amazing food for a ridiculously long time. 

So this is what it’s like to go “glamping” in paradise. Glamping, or glamorous camping, is a trend that has grown like crazy over the last few years, with more and more secluded destinations getting in on the act. Instead of pitching a tent and rolling out your sleeping bag on the ground, these resorts set up permanent tents on real foundations with real furniture and indoor plumbing.

Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya

My first thought upon entering my tent was that I’ve been transported to Harry Potter’s Quidditch World Cup tent; it looks like a normal tent from the outside, but on the inside it’s magically enlarged and furnished with all the comforts of home. Every time I enter the tent during my stay I imagine I can hear the flute music from the tent scene just before the Death Eaters pop in and ruin everybody’s fun. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you know what I’m talking about! And just like the movie, I find myself gazing around the tent in fascination, saying, “I love magic!”

Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya
Look. This is inside a tent! Tell me this isn’t magic.

Sadly there’s no quidditch being played on broomsticks outside the tent, but if you do need to get your sporting fix, there’s incredible kite surfing that you can watch from the beach or the pool. Kalpitiya is, after all, currently the hottest kite surfing destination in Asia, and Dolphin Beach runs a kite surfing school in which you can enroll if you’d like to experience the thrill for yourself. I’m more of a “spectator with a nice fruity cocktail” type myself, but to each her own.

Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya
There are more gorgeous, private lounging spots than there are rooms, so you can always find a nice secluded place for your sunset cocktail.

As with most resorts in Sri Lanka, Dolphin Beach employs an army of ridiculously polite and helpful young men to take care of everything from carrying your luggage to arranging your meals. They are uniformly kind and solicitous and eager to please. And frankly, adorable.

Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya
It would be creepy to post pictures of the staff, so here’s a beautiful flower bowl outside my tent that they create every morning.

Several times a day, the serving boys bring me a menu and I get to
order all the food and adult beverages I want while floating in the
pool next to the ocean. I don’t even remember dying, but apparently
Heaven is a lot easier to get into than you think.

Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya
You can literally be lying here by the ocean while people bring you cocktails.

Speaking of menus… I was told by the Dolphin Beach manager when I arrived that Maduka would be taking excellent care of me and would recommend the best dishes on the menu for every meal. I eagerly awaited his arrival at my magical tent the first afternoon to put his culinary knowledge to the test. He arrived at 5:00 sharp, as promised, and presented me with the evening’s dinner menu. Before I even had a chance to look at it, Maduka said, “You have to have the pasta.” OK, I’m already skeptical. “Pasta” and “Asia” aren’t usually two things that go together. I’ve had several pasta dishes on this trip so far, and they have been uniformly disappointing. Maduka insists. “We have amazing chef. Please, try the pasta.” OK, fine. I order the spaghetti carbonara and prepare myself for a lackluster dinner.

Dude. You guys. THE PASTA. This, right here, is hands down the best meal I’ve had in Sri Lanka. This chef could be making pasta in Italy and be a star. Thick, creamy, al dente, freshly made pasta, in the most amazing Parmesan sauce with great big hunks of bacon. This is the best pasta I’ve ever had in my entire life, and somehow I’m having it in a grass roof dining hut on the beach in a random town in Sri Lanka.

Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya
Just…just look at how beautiful this is.
Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya
I love how sustainable this resort is while still being luxurious. They grow their own produce and it’s delicious.

After two days of frolicking in paradise (and stuffing myself silly with that amazing pasta) I’m really, really bummed to have to leave. Of course, they don’t make leaving easy; upon hearing that I have a long drive ahead of me, the manager insists upon packing me a lunch and sending me off with enough food and bottled water to feed an army. As I drive away, I’m already thinking about how I can rearrange my schedule to come back…

If this sounds like your kind of vacation, you can find more information or book your stay here. Please order the spaghetti carbonara and send me pictures.

Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya
The resort really comes alive at night, with these glowing lotus flowers and illuminated orbs all over the property.

I also had the pleasure of staying at Dolphin Beach’s sister resort, Bar Reef Resort, and you can read about that stay here.

Dolphin Beach Resort, Kalpitiya
Did I mention that the sunsets are absolutely spectacular?

Hotel Review: Bar Reef Resort, Kalpitiya

I had the pleasure of being hosted by the incredible Bar Reef Resort, Kalpitiya, for the purposes of this review. As always, all words and opinions are my own. 

If you ever read any Swiss Family Robinson tales as a child, you’ll feel right at home as soon as you arrive at Kalpitiya’s Bar Reef Resort.

Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com

This eco resort is an environmentalist’s dream, without sacrificing even the tiniest luxury. The beds are kitted out in high end linens, but they’re washed by hand and hung to dry in the sunshine to conserve electricity. The whole resort is a flowering tropical paradise, but apart from being gorgeous, each plant was specially chosen to bolster the threatened bee and butterfly populations.

You probably won’t be thinking about the eco-friendly aspects of the saltwater infinity pool while you’re floating away the afternoon, but it’s still nice to know. And if it makes you feel better to know that the entire menu is organic and locally sourced, go ahead and order an extra dessert. It’s Sri Lanka, they’ll just smile at you.

Also, this is probably the only place in the world you can shower out of a giant sperm whale skull. I didn’t even know this was on my bucket list, but I’m adding it retroactively because it’s that cool.

Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com
Seriously, it’s a giant sperm whale skull and you can shower under it. How cool is this?

I’m traveling during the “off season,” but all that means for Kalpitiya is that it’s kite surfing season. They put up a few woven screen barriers around the pool and the dining pavilions to keep the sand out, but otherwise it’s business as usual. 

This small peninsula on Sri Lanka’s west coast is fast becoming one of the best kite surfing spots in all of South Asia. During the week I’m here, I meet groups from as far away as France, Germany, and Australia who have come here just to experience the famous Kalpitiya winds at the various kite surfing resorts popping up all over the beach.

Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com
Nothing goes to waste at Bar Reef Resort, including coconut shells.

Gliding along through the massive infinity pool as the famed Kalpitya
winds make waves on the surface, I think this must be what it feels
like to be one of the dolphins who makes her home off these choppy
shores.

Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com
THE POOL. I’ve been in Sri Lanka for about six weeks now, and this is my favorite resort pool so far.
Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com
The faucet in my outdoor bathroom.

At the end of the day, sitting in a thatched roof pavilion with a cold beer and candlelight, feeling the ocean breeze across your sun-warmed back is just about as close to heaven as you’re going to get.

Things I Loved:

  • The incredible attention to detail. Nothing is overlooked, no matter how tiny. The outdoor bathrooms would still be gorgeous even if the faucet wasn’t a conch shell, but these small touches make everything feel special.
  • The enormous pool! I felt like I was swimming to India.
  • The magnificent staff, whose attention to detail surpasses even the interior design. I mentioned after lunch on my second day that I had been under the weather when I arrived; the next morning at breakfast I was presented with a delicious homemade porridge known for curing tummy troubles.
  • The utter lack of plastic and man-made materials. Bar Reef Resort takes their commitment to the environment so seriously. Throughout my stay I only saw two items made out of plastic: the light switches in the cabanas, and the water bottles. The manager and resident naturalist assured me that he’s working to source a local supplier of glass bottles so even these will soon be a thing of the past. The staff collects fallen palm branches and other natural debris and turns it into everything from cabana roofs to bathroom coat hooks.
  • The solitude. During my stay there were very few other guests; only one small British family and a solitary kite surfer. I would have the entire pool area to myself for hours at a time, and it was unimaginable bliss. It helped that I wasn’t traveling during the peak season, but even when the resort is at capacity, you’re still talking about a very small number of guests. The cabanas and pool pavilions are arranged for maximum privacy, so you’ll never feel crowded.
Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com
The front of my darling little cabana.

Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com

Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com
Truly, no detail is overlooked.
Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com
The pool bar serves more than fancy cocktails; they’ve probably got an herbal tea for anything that’s ailing you, too.

If you, too, have some luxurious deserted island fantasies to live out, you can find more information and book your stay here. I also had the pleasure of staying at the Bar Reef Resort’s sister property, Dolphin Beach Resort. You can check out my review here!

Bar Reef Resort Kalpitiya www.myadventurebucket.com

No Bus to Kalpitiya: Public Transport in Sri Lanka

I really can’t stress this enough: when it comes to Sri Lankan transportation, you can’t rely on Internet information. I’m telling you this as I fester in a broken plastic chair at Pettah Bus Station, swatting away flies like an irritable cow. According to “the Internet,” there is a Kalpitiya-bound bus leaving from here once an hour.

This, of course, is a lie. Armed with this misinformation, I assume I can arrive at the bus station whenever I please and have less than an hour to wait before I’m on my way.

“Kalpitiya? No, there’s no bus to Kalpitiya.” The tiny man in greasy overalls is all smiles as he juggles a pile of wrenches from one gnarled hand to another.

Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic…

“…not until 11:00.”

Whew.

An interested group of men appears in front of us, as an interested group of men always does when one is discussing how to get from Point A to Point B.

“11:00,” the youngest in the group agrees. “This bus right here.” He points to the shiny blue hulk in front of us with the flashy prismatic paint job.

More men join the discussion. One points further down the platform. “That way.” He’s the only one not smiling.

The rest of the group erupts in chatter, contradicting No Smile in Sinhalese I don’t understand. I take a seat on a filthy plastic chair and try not to be pissed that I got up at 6am for nothing. I’m stewing about missing out on an afternoon of lounging by the pool at my lagoon-front hotel.

After a few minutes, the youngest member of the group approaches and indicates that I actually should follow No Smile’s directions and head further down the platform. Apparently they’ve been arguing about it this whole time.

In the distance, I see a grimy yellow sign written in an alphabet I can’t decipher, with one word I do understand: Kalpitiya.

Hallelujah.

The bus driver at Bay #7 smiles as I approach. “Where are you going?”

“Kalpitiya.”

The smile fades. “Sorry, madam. There is no bus to Kalpitiya.”

“Not until 11:00, I know.”

He nods gravely. “Not until 11:00.”

“That’s OK, I’ll wait.”

This is, apparently, an unheard of proposition. It’s just past 8:30. He calls over another driver to help talk some sense into me.

“You can take this bus to Puttalam,” New Driver explains. He’s gesticulating as wildly as a man in a loud suit, hawking plastic crap in an infomercial. “Have the driver drop you off by the church before you get to the roundabout, then you can walk to the other bus station and take a different bus to Kalpitiya!” (What could possibly go wrong?)

I’m definitely not doing that.

“But the 11:00 bus goes directly to Kalpitiya? No changes?”

He reluctantly admits that it does.

“Ok, I’m going to wait for that one.”

He looks at me incredulously and shrugs at First Driver. ‘She’s clearly an idiot; I can’t help you,’ that shrug says.

I should note that only the red buses in Sri Lanka are government owned. They are generally considered to be ratty and inferior, and they pick up in a different place than privately owned buses. These are generally considered much nicer; some even have Wi-Fi. But because they’re privately owned, there is competition, and individual drivers will try to convince you to change your travel plans, even if it isn’t convenient for you. Stick to your guns unless you’re a lot more adventurous than I am.

No bus to Kalpitiya
On the plus side, there are lots of amusingly translated signs to occupy you if you end up with a long wait at the bus station.

Other things to know about taking the bus in Sri Lanka:

  • Unlike the train, you don’t need to buy a ticket in advance. Just get on; an employee will come around and sell you a ticket at some point after the bus departs.
  • Bus rides are ridiculously cheap; my 4.5 hour trip to Kalpitiya cost 198 rupees, which is a little over a dollar.
  • That cheap bus ticket came complete with 4.5 hours of Bollywood’s latest and greatest on the TV mounted above the driver’s head. Bring earplugs or headphones unless you hate yourself.
  • The “official” bus route might show few or no stops, but don’t kid yourself. They’re stopping at every bus stop they see and cramming on as many passengers as they can shove in. You won’t have that seat to yourself for very long.
  • Eating and drinking is fine on the bus; if you forgot to pack your own snacks, don’t worry. Vendors hawking drinks and food will randomly hop on and wander down the aisle. You can get a bottle of cold water for 50 rupees, awesome fried snacks, and maybe a large bag of coconuts.
  • Bus schedules for government owned red buses can be found on the National Transport Commission website here, but you’re still better off just asking someone.
No bus to Kalpitiya
The interior is as loud as the Bollywood movie marathon. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In the end, I get to Kalpitiya mid-afternoon, in plenty of time to get in some pool-lounging time. Well, it would be plenty of time, except I immediately get sick with some kind of rare Dengue Fever-like virus and do nothing all afternoon except lie in the dark and pray for death. What else did you expect?

 

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Extending Your Sri Lankan Tourist Visa

Sri Lanka is rapidly becoming one of the hottest new tourism destinations, thanks to its combination of gorgeous beaches, incredible temples and landscapes, lovely people and rock-bottom prices. Luckily, they make it simple to visit by issuing visas electronically before you travel at eta.gov.lk.  I had my email confirmation within 12 hours of applying online, and my visa was good for 30 days from the date of entry into the country. That’s more than sufficient for your average vacation, but what if you want to stay longer? Since I’m a nomad and have no office to hurry back to, I wanted to spend a little more time exploring the island. A two month extension (giving you 90 total days) is available, but you can’t apply for this online. The extension will only be granted at the Department of Immigration in Colombo. I had read online that this was a quick and painless process and you can just stroll up to the visa counter, get a stamp, and be on your way.

LIES. SO MANY LIES.

I ended up wasting a boatload of time because all of the information I had read before my trip was either completely outdated or so inaccurate I assume the authors of those articles were actually talking about a different country altogether.

Because I don’t want you darling readers to suffer the same fate, I have documented the entire visa extension process here, so you can breeze through the process and get back to exploring Sri Lanka. Well, maybe “breeze through” is a bit optimistic; you’re still going to have to sacrifice four hours of your day here. There’s no way around that unless you use one of the many visa couriers around Colombo to take care of this for you. I spoke to several people who did that, and I’m sure they were all happy with the experience, but I was determined to sort it out myself, for several reasons:

  1. How hard can it be? I hate paying someone else to do something just because I can’t sort it out myself.
  2. It irks me to pay someone to do something that I should be able to do myself.
  3. I just can’t bring myself to hand over my passport to someone I just met and trust that they’re going to bring it back to me the next day. What if they lose it? What if they get in a tuktuk accident on the way to the passport office and it goes flying off a bridge? What if they’re mugged?

If you, too, are determined to sort out your visa extension yourself, read on for everything you need to know.

Before you go:

    • Get visa pictures taken. Expect to pay 300-400 rupees and make sure you tell the photo shop operator that you need visa pictures, not passport pictures. There are tons of photo shops with aggressive touts lining the streets around the Department of Immigration office, but any mall photo booth can provide these for you if you’re out shopping.
    • Bring your own pen! And a notebook to use as a lap desk. The office doesn’t provide pens and there are only two small, wall-mounted writing stations in the entire office since they remodeled and took out the long writing counter.
    • Get there early. They stop processing applications at 1:30 p.m. and the place is a madhouse by 10 a.m. If you’re traveling to Colombo from elsewhere on the island just for a visa renewal, consider coming the day before and spending the night so you can get to the office soon after they open at 8:30 a.m.
    • Bring a book, Kindle, etc., and don’t make any plans for the next few hours. There are signs up throughout the office telling you that the visa extension process will take approximately four hours, and they don’t lie.

 

  • TAKE NOTE! The office has moved from the old centrally located spot referenced on some websites. The new building is in the suburb of Battaramulla, on Sri Subhuthipura Road. All the tuktuk drivers know where it is, just tell them you need to get to the passport office. For extra insurance, take a screenshot of the Google map listing showing the address and phone number (this is good advice for anywhere you need to go in Sri Lanka, actually!) If you’re coming by bus, the Department of Immigration website has a list of bus routes that will reach them.
Extending Your Sri Lankan Tourist Visa
No one cares what an ugly government office looks like, so here’s a lovely Buddha instead.

While You’re There:

  • When you arrive at the Department of Immigration, go into the main building, walk straight ahead and turn right (walking around all the rows of chairs that fill the center of the room). Go out the doors and across a walkway to the second building. The visa office is on the fourth floor. As you enter the building, turn to your left and pass a large staircase to reach the elevator bank. Look to your right: these are the elevators that go as far as the 9th floor; the ones on the left are for the 10th-19th floor only and won’t stop on any lower floors.
  • Exit the elevator on the fourth floor and take a right out of the elevator bank. The visa office (Wing C) is straight ahead. You can pick up an “Application for Extension of VISIT Visa” at the token issuing counter as you walk in. Note: You can also download the application from the website before you arrive, assuming you have a printer where you’re staying. It’s really short, though, so it’s not worth going to a lot of extra effort to fill it out ahead of time.
  • Fill out the application using that pen I told you to bring. There are a couple of wall-mounted writing stations to use, but if you listened to me and brought a notebook with you, you won’t have to wait for one of these. Notice the little canteen in the corner. This should tell you how long you’re going to be here. Avoid the coffee at all costs.
  • Affix one of your pretty mug shots visa photos to the top right corner of the application. There are bottles of glue on the wall mounted writing stations. Yes, I know the bottles are labeled “baby cologne,” but trust me.
  • Bring your completed application back to the Token Issuing Counter and hand it over along with your passport. The employee will enter a few details into the system and give you a false sense of hope that things are moving along nicely. A receipt (“token”) will print out and be handed to you along with your passport and application. The employee will smile kindly and motion you into the Wing C Waiting Area. You’ll go cheerfully, not realizing that you’ve just been sent to purgatory.
  • Keep an eye on the two flat screen TVs at the front of the room. These will display the token numbers ready for processing. No verbal announcements are made; you have to keep watch.
  • When your number appears on the screen, approach the counter under the televisions and hand your token/receipt to the queue master.
  • FYI, while you’re waiting, you can consult the large poster on the wall detailing visa extension fees for various nationalities. All prices are listed in US dollars. If you’re from neighboring India, you’ll only pay $3 for the privilege of extending your stay, while citizens of Tanzania have to pay a whopping $200. My American passport will cost me $100 for my extension.
  • The queue master will scan your ticket and direct you down the hall to the B Wing Waiting Area. You might get excited again, thinking that things are finally progressing. Don’t. Keep your book/iPad/knitting project out because you’ve only been sent to sit and wait in a different room. There are more flat screen TVs here for you to watch; once again, don’t get distracted and forget to watch for your number. No announcements will be made, and numbers don’t always appear on the screen in consecutive order.
  • When your number appears, it will be accompanied by a letter to designate which of the four glass cubicles you are to enter for your “interview” with an immigration officer. Don’t be nervous, it’s not as intense as it sounds. My interview consisted of watching the young officer in a lovely red and orange sari finish filing some paperwork for a few minutes, and then nodding when she asked, “You want to stay another two months?” She gave a little Indian head wiggle, said, “OK!” and directed me to go wait in the payment area until they were ready to take my payment.
  • The payment area (AKA Shroff Counters) is back down in the C Waiting Area, ahead and to your right as you enter. There is another screen where you will sit and wait for your number to appear before you will be allowed to go forward and pay.
  • You used to have to bring cash to pay for your visa extension, but that is no longer the policy. They take Visa and Mastercard now, and there are no extra fees for paying by card.
  • After you’ve paid, take your printed payment receipt across to the Dispatch Waiting Area (still in area C) to sit and watch one last monitor for your number. You’re in the home stretch!
  • At some point, an employee will enter with a huge pile of passports and the staff at the counter will sort them and start calling out numbers. When your number is called, go forward and present your payment receipt, sign the logbook to confirm that you’ve received your passport, and you’re done!

So there you go. Step by step instructions on extending your Sri Lankan tourist visa. If you use these instructions on your next trip, please drop me a note in the comments and let me know if they were helpful to you! If you find anything has changed in the future and needs to be updated, please let me know so I can keep these instructions as current as possible. Happy adventuring!

Extending your Sri Lankan travel visa
Now you’ve got this out of the way, it’s time to get back to having fun!

Psst, before you go! If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one!

Sick in Sri Lanka: Yet Another Time I Almost Died

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Know what’s better than being sick and alone in a third world country, ten thousand miles from everyone know you know? Basically anything.

I had big adventuring plans for today, but here I am, still in bed late in the afternoon because I woke up feverish and feeling like I had a ball of razor wire stuck in my throat. No doubt the culprit is all the toxic smoke I inhaled yesterday while taking photos in a gorgeous old cemetery. What kind of moron wanders around a cemetery while they’re burning huge piles of poisonous trash? In my defense, a thunderstorm was rolling in and the sky was ridiculously atmospheric. Well, I never claimed to be smart. But look at these gorgeous photos:

Sick in Sri Lanka

Sick in Sri Lanka

Sick in Sri Lanka

But back to my current predicament.

Did I mention the power has gone out so I’m lying here in the 90 degree heat without so much as a fan? I wonder how long it generally takes a human being to sweat to death. If I’m still alive when the power comes back on, I’ll Google it. 

I muster up the energy to check my trusty Lonely Planet for the location of the nearest reputable medical facility. It appears to be about a 45 minute tuktuk ride away. Through madhouse Colombo traffic in the sweltering heat. That sounds even less appealing than death, so I don’t bother to get up.

Learn From My Mistakes

Here’s how you can be a little smarter on your travels than I generally am:

  • If you’re traveling to a place with a known air quality problem, bring a scarf or bandanna to cover your mouth and nose when necessary. Even if, for some reason, you don’t like poking around old cemeteries.
  • Have a well-stocked first aid kit, especially if you’re traveling alone and you don’t have anyone to go and fetch you supplies. I’d kill for a few throat lozenges right now. From now on I’m just going to assume I’ll be getting the plague at every destination and pack accordingly.
  • Yes, that lovely Airbnb apartment in a leafy suburb looks very appealing, but how far will you be from the nearest medical services in a worst case scenario? This may not be a huge concern in the developed world, but if you’re traveling off the beaten path, you could find yourself a long way from adequate medical facilities.
  • Keep some flexibility in your schedule in case illness does strike and cause you to have to rearrange some plans. Out of 8 days in Colombo, I have two that I purposely left wide open. This would have been more than sufficient if I had only been sick for two days. As it turns out, I’m sick for the rest of my time in Colombo and I end up missing nearly everything on my list. Including the once-a-year Vesak Poya celebrations. I’m still a little bitter about that, to be honest. 
  • Know the generic names for any kinds of prescription medicine you think you might need on the road, but keep in mind that you might not be able to get what you’re used to at home. I desperately want some NyQuil to knock myself out and stop my persistent cough, but discover it was outlawed in Sri Lanka several years ago. I end up dragging myself to a pharmacy and explaining my miserable condition to the pharmacist, who gives me a packet of pills wrapped in white notebook paper with a few handwritten words of instruction. I don’t realize until later that it’s nothing but generic Claritin. Pharmacies are plentiful and very inexpensive here, but you need to know what you’re looking for.
  • Last, and most importantly: don’t be as stubborn as I am. Seek real medical treatment when you need it. Preferably before you find yourself coughing up blood in an Airbnb and deciding you should just pack up your belongings to make it easier for the homeowner when you die. (Spoiler alert: I survived, barely. But I was sick for nearly two weeks and it really put a damper on the first part of my trip. Don’t let that happen to you!)