Are you Buddhist? No tourist… – On the road with public transport in Sri Lanka

I don’t know about you but when I ask my friends, everyone has either recently been or is planning to go to Sri Lanka on their next trip. After the end of the 26 years lasting civil war, in 2009 the country of tea fields, wild elephants and countless temples is becoming more and more popular between backpackers or as a logical stopover on the way to India or the Maldives.

The current state of emergency shows the fragility of this fairytale ambiance. Read about why Sri Lanka made me become a transport snob, I am beginning to be friends with home stays and where you can meet Sir Thomas Lipton for a little tea party.

Sri Lanka – the country of temples, tea fields and wild animals

As a far travelled, I meanwhile should be used to Uber, snapchat and co. But for some reason I am still not into this stuff. My brain is running on island mode – no streets, no car, no Uber. So it does not surprise that I was totally fascinated as my friend I was planning to travel with for the next three weeks, in the middle of the night organised a SIM card plus a driver who brought us for a few dollars straight to our five-star hotel in Colombo.

After 9 month in a Maldivian staff double accommodation I just wanted to treat myself a bit – at least at the beginning of our 3-weeks journey. A cosy, warm blanket, waterfall-shower and tapas at the rooftop bar at 26th floor. What a stunning view over the city – just wow.

Colombo: Temples, skyscrapers and a belly dance performance club

Our itinerary will lead us vice-versa to the usual backpacker trek – first towards the former Portuguese fort in Gaulle city to enable a birthday dive for my friend at he nearby coastal towns.

Our itienary

Triggered by the rumours of cheap train tickets and a good track infrastructure we did not even think about to prebook anything in advance. Just proceed to the counter, get a ticket and enjoy three hours of relaxed, scenic train ride along the coast to Gaulle. So far our plan.

As a German I convinced my friend to be at Colombo Fort train station early enough to get good seats. Well, you should definitively start to wonder when the Sri Lankan train arrives 15 minutes early, all other pale travellers are still at the track and the interior of the coach reminds more at a cargo train than a popular scenic tourist carrier.

Obviously I was torn away by the heat and the joy to final lyrics get on the road. As we were crossing the suburbs of Colombo, standing in the heated carriage butt-to-butt with lot of Sri Lankan workers, my gut feeling finally reached my brain and we decided to decent immediately. This could not have been the right train.

We are successfully rushing back to Colombo and just reached the right track as all the other German, French and Dutch backpackers are pushing themselves into the already full compartments. Lucky us as we are only travelling with hand luggage and could squeeze us in just in-time.

During the next three hours standing in tropical heat – this time butt-to-butt with other backpackers – I am thinking about how the people in the next compartment actually got their seats. There must be a way. Maybe there is even AC somewhere – I am daydreaming…

Spending a day in Gaulle
Spending a day in Gaulle

Gaulle itself does not show off this spectacular. A far too expensive, white-painted tourist town with a few leftovers of a former fort. So we are quickly proceeding by tuktuk to close by Unawatuna.

The beachfront reminds me a bit on a few spots in Thailand as dive centers are neighbouring Italian restaurants and souvenir shops. As a contrast our quiet hotel “Nature villa” reveals as a hidden pool jewel and the perfect spot for a nice birthday celebration. As we did not have trouble finding a dive shop taking us to a spectacular wreck, this from now on showed to be a great holiday.

Someones happy seeing wild elephants in Udawalawa

The next day three local busses finally brought us to my highlight of the trip – wild elephants in Udawalawa National Parc. We were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the owner of our little hidden hotel “City-In Safari Resort”, it’s mothers traditional Sri Lankan cooking for breakfast and dinner and the private Safari he organised. 8 hours being close to the elephants. What a highlight…

Tea, tea, tea
Lipton Seat

Used to home stays we spend two more nights in the mountains – in for me freezing cold Haputale to visit the famous tea fields, the Lipton’s seat and the in 1890 founded tea factory – also by Sir Thomas Lipton. I was impressed by the numerous pickers and how much work it is till the tea is ready to go into the bag.

Nine Arch Bridge in Ella

As we have been a bit lazy, we visited our next station Ella more for the scenic train ride and the nine-arch bridge than for trekking. Yeah, I know – I have missed something as I did not get up at 3 in the morning to run up a mountain – grumpy, hungry and in a bad mood – to see the amazing sunrise. Feel free to enjoy that adventure at your holiday 🙂

Furthermore I have been fascinated by the famous Buddhist cave temples in Dambulla – a really unique place to discover.

Temples in Dambulla

To do at least a bit of physical activity, we visited the gigantic temple Parc of Anuradhapura on two wheels – not knowing it was national day and packed with Sri Lankan visitors. Just stunning to see all the ceremonies and offerings.


Last but not least we also tested the two beach towns Trincomalee and the closely to the airport located Negombo. In Trinco especially the colourful Hindu-temple at a former fort and the wild deer in the middle of the city gave us some good camera shots. But next time we better go in dry season 🙂

Amazing Hindu temple in Trincomalee

Despite its variety, Sri Lanka was not my favourite travel country. Everywhere, but especially in Kandy I suffered from the dirty air and the huge traffic. But that’s my personal view. For me, three weeks were totally sufficient to switch from island to travel mode. Off I go to my next adventure – Australia.

By the way – I finally found out how to make a reservation for a first class coach and we enjoyed the last 4 hour train rides seated with AC for just 10$. If you have the same issue you just need to spend one hour of your time, follow the 45 steps booking procedure and think about to do it at least 2-3 days in advance. I actually hope that the Austrian couple which had a big fight about the fun factor of the Sri Lankan travel conditions also found that link before splitting up 🙂

That’s all about Sri Lanka. And even if I am walking around barefoot in temples, dressed in white, at Sri Lankan national day – I did not turn into a Buddhist – I am still an adventurous, curious tourist.