When looking for tropical island escapes, Sri Lanka often is left out. Perhaps this is not so surprising, as the gem in the Indian Ocean suffered from a civil war that lasted for 30 years which killed thousands, not to mention being completely devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which also killed and displaced huge numbers of victims. The daily headlines out of the beautiful island became so grim that it completely fell off the tourist radar. However, those days are far gone, and the new Sri Lanka has emerged as one of the best spots to spend a holiday, offering a multitude of attractions at a very affordable price with far less of the tourist hordes that normally overcrowd the Southeast Asian trail.

View of the beautiful beach in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

View of the beautiful beach in Mirissa, Sri LankaOn my most recent visit to Sri Lanka, I came away feeling like I was in a land of delightful innocence. On Mirissa Beach, a strip of golden sand that rivals most spots in the Gulf of Thailand, I wandered into a bar to ask how much a beach chair and umbrella would cost for the day. The barman looked at me rather confusedly and said, “Please take it, it is free.” After a few hours of sunbathing I figured that I at least ought to buy a drink and give the guy some business. It wasn’t that the beach and bar didn’t have customers, but rather that in the aftermath of the war days, tourism is such a newfound and exciting thing, and most folks aren’t out to make a killing, a far cry from what one might encounter these days in say, Phuket.

In 2011, the country celebrated Visit Sri Lanka year, and tourist arrivals topped 800,000 in 12 months. If you do the math, that works out to around 2,000 visitors per day. Compare this with the 20 million plus that Thailand sees annually and you start to get the picture.

Most visitors to Sri Lanka spend their time in the south. The distances are short, the infrastructure is good, and there are a wealth of different experiences to be had. Beaches like Mirissa and Unawatuna dot the southern coast and offer plenty of sand and sun without the crowds. On the island’s southwestern tip is Galle, the old Dutch colonial port and a city that was built by the Portuguese as a fortress. The fortifications still surround the old town, and one can wander the ramparts overlooking the ocean and atmospheric city walls, which are home to some of Asia’s earliest churches and narrow cobbled lanes, all now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The stilt fishermen of southern Sri Lanka perched on their poles above the Indian Ocean

The stilt fishermen of southern Sri Lanka perched on their poles above the Indian OceanContinuing down the coast, one passes small beach settlements like Weligama and Midigama, chilled surfing hangouts for much of the year, but also the home of the unique stilt fishermen, weathered men who climb up on wooden crossbars above the raging surf and sit facing the waves, trying to haul enough of a catch to earn a living.

Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) on the road in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) on the road in Yala National Park, Sri LankaAt the eastern end of the south coast, the roads disappear and one enters Yala National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s real treasures. Yala’s wetlands and monsoon forests are home to the largest wild leopard population in Asia, as well as to herds of wild Sri Lankan elephants, sloth bears, and a prolific amount of birdlife, ranging from various types of herons and hornbills to colorful bee-eaters and much more.

View through the beautiful Ella Gap from Little Adams Peak near Ella, Sri Lanka

View through the beautiful Ella Gap from Little Adams Peak near Ella, Sri LankaBesides the coast, Sri Lanka features plenty of mountainous hill country, where the temperatures are cool, and the famous colonial tea plantations still churn out some of the best brewing leaves in the world. In mountain towns like Haputale and Ella, one can visit the plantations, worked year round by ethnic Tamils, even getting up to the awe inspiring Lipton Seat, the viewpoint at 2,000 meters above sea level, named after tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton, who frequented the fresh air spot during his plantation years. Another spot to call in on here is Adams Peak, also known as Sri Pada, a 2250 meter peak famed for having a Buddha footprint at the summit. Revered as a holy site by Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, pilgrims climb up the 5300 steep stone steps each night to watch the sunrise over all of Sri Lanka and make merit for present and future lives.

A Tamil tea picker working on the plantation near Ella, Sri Lanka

A Tamil tea picker working on the plantation near Ella, Sri LankaAt the heart of the hill country is Kandy, Sri Lanka’s cultural center and a beautiful jungle clad town built on slopes around a lake. Bathed in perpetual mist, Kandy is home to the island’s most important cultural and religious treasure, the Temple of the Tooth. Said to contain a tooth of the Buddha (which is encased in a jeweled casket inside of a shrine), the sacred tooth is only brought out once a year during the wild Esala Perahera Festival. The rest of the time, visitors must cross the moat surrounding the white temple, where they make their way through the palatial interior and stand in long lines to pay homage to the relic, giving offerings of lotus and frangipani bouquets, money, and other gifts of merit. The famed Kandy drummers open and close the daily temple puja offerings with raucous drumming and dancing sessions.

Sri Lanka is known as the “teardrop,” due to its shape, looking like a tear that has fallen from the face of neighboring India. However, these days, the only tears you will be shedding on this magical island are ones of sheer joy. Get to this island paradise now before the secret gets out.

TRAVEL TIPS

GO:

Sri Lankan Airlines (www.srilankan.com) and Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) both offer daily direct flights from Bangkok to Colombo. Visas are required in advance for going to Sri Lanka, but can be conveniently obtained online (www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa).

STAY:

For something completely unique, spend a night in Kandy at Helga’s Folly (www.helgasfolly.com), an imaginatively designed and wildly kitsch filled hotel that has entertained everyone from Gandhi to Laurence Olivier (not to mention having a song written about it by the Stereophonics).

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Dave Stamboulis is a travel writer and photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His photos, represented by Alamy and Getty Images, have appeared in publications around the world. He is the author of Odysseus’ Last Stand, which received the Silver Medal for Travel Book of the Year in 2006 from the Society of American Travel Writers. In addition to working as the updating writer for Fodor’s Guidebook to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, he is the “Bangkok expert” for USA Today’s 10Best website, and a regular contributor for publications throughout Southeast Asia such as Silver Kris (Singapore Airlines), Asian Geographic, International Traveller (Australia), Virgin Voyeur, Tiger Tales (Tiger Air), Bangkok 101, Look East, Tropical Magazine, Get Lost (Australia), Sawasdee Thai Air, and Bangkok Post among others.

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