How to Find Authentic Sri Lanka

At first glance it’s easy to see Sri Lanka as a Paradise Lost. The war is over and “India Lite” is swelling with Euros and Aussies dumping cold Lions down their gullets, chainsmoking and lying about their best waves. Urban hustlers scam tourists for scooter rentals and mango lassis. The flip side is because it’s new and popular, people seem to flock to the same destinations. It’s a tale of two worlds: gorgeous places full of people or deserted places that are even more gorgeous.

If you’re looking for an authentic experience in Sri Lanka though, all you have to do is try.

We duck into a small guesthouse on the southern coast, hoping to track down some empty waves I saw off the side of an almost-island and paddle out to flying fish and lumbering lefts in water warmer than our shower.

The beginner surfing crowd sticks to Lazy Lefts and Coconuts, those in the know flock to Ram’s and we have Marina’s Almost-Island to ourselves. I’m starting to get the hang of this…look where people are not. Here’s some other easy ways to peel off the tourist gauze and find some Lanka nuggets:

#1 Rent a Tuk Tuk

Most foreigners only see the backseat of these tuk tuks but we’re thinking, why not rent the whole thing? With no International Driver’s License and certainly no experience we score a $16/day tuk tuk (2500 rupees). It has a giant “X Files” sticker on the back, a Bob Marley plastic bench seat and it really despises settling into neutral.

After a five minute crash course in left side of the road, modified-motorcycle driving, we’re off. One honk: hey I wanna pass. Two honks: Thanks! Three honks: what’s wrong with you?!

We putted from Midigama to the southern tip of the island

and didn’t find Mirissa’s Secret Beach, (we saw signs- not so secret- and ignored them) but we found this. Bumble into Mirissa’s colorful harbor past the busloads of confused faces, fishermen and stray dogs, take a left up the hill, park at the fancy hotel and walk down to this beach. I was greeted with an ulua in my face in four feet of clear water. A little boy ran down the hill and sold us 75 cent coconuts.

And then we start sweating after turning into a Muslim neighborhood not wide enough for the two lanes of tuk tuks and steady stream of bikes and pedestrians.

#2 Try Ayurveda

A girl at our guesthouse Villa Coconut recommends an Ayurvedic doctor in the jungle nearby who gives full body herbal massages. We shrug. We follow her directions up meandering dirt paths, past a house blaring Islamic radio, waving dark faces that say how are yooou! Good afternoooon! and make several wrong turns before finding barefoot Lasantha.

I tell him I have a cold I’m congested and he says ok, give me half an hour to get the herbs going. I drink tea and nibble on jaggery, a traditional sweet made from palm flower sugar in his “waiting room.”

For a minute I think my nose is going to melt off my head. I’m facedown on a massage table in Lasantha’s adobe treatment room with massive clouds of steam circling the box my face is stuffed into. “Eyes closed! Face down.” But after half an hour the plant spirits have curled into my nose and burrowed out whatever didn’t belong and I can breath again.

Sam and I both have several treatments from Lasantha. Some appointments don’t show so he tells us about his young goals to be a monk and how his parents forced him to marry instead. He did manage to spend two years alone meditating in the jungle, and I swallow at my trepidation to try just 10 days of Vipassana. And then he invites us to a giant party next door.

Wait this guy parties?

#3 Say yes

It looks like a wedding. Every tree is lit neon, the DJ stand is set up on the swept clay dirt and I gingerly follow Sam and Lasantha to plastic tables filled with men. Only men. Like a middle school party, the women and girls are at the other side of the party in sequins and shy smiles. “Is it okay that I’m the only girl here?” The answer isn’t clear.

A waiter plunks a fat bottle of coconut moonshine and a liter of coke on the table. Then come the beers. The plates of yucca and fish. Later when we’re dripping sweat from dancing and Lasantha says come, dinner is served, and I look over to a parade of eager silver buffet trays, my eyes bug.

Who is this all for? A ten year old’s birthday. The waiters slip through tables with cigarettes, more moonshine and more beers.

#4 Hire a Local Driver

Drivers are found by word of mouth, ask around. To get from the southern coast up to the tea country there’s no train service, so we take advantage of our driver Turen to ask all kinds of questions and learn:

Elephants are killing people– 84 last year. New villages pop up and elephants lumber along their traditional migration routes, ramming their tusks right through people’s homes. People are also killing elephants. They linger at the edges of electric fences where they’ve been cornered, genetically determined to escape to traditional feeding grounds, and starve to death. Numbers unknown.

The Sri Lankan government charges a 400% duty on cars. Can you imagine your car costing four times more than it did?

Maybe 10% of hotels are licensed. The rest pop up anywhere, everywhere, dubiously unregulated.

AIDS is now rampant. Ever since the war ended in 2010, men have been having sex with newly arrived foreigners, contracting AIDS and passing it on.

They milk buffalo. Creamy Greek-like yogurt called buffalo curd is sold along rural roads in clay pots for 200 rupees, a little more than a dollar. You keep the pot. It will stay good out of the fridge for days, and these places sell $2 bottles of coconut honey to pour on top. The area around Bandula National Park is famous for their curd. The further you get from here, the more expensive it gets and the thick yummiess gets watered down by middlemen. To demonstrate the authenticity, Turen takes the clay pot and turns it upside down where it remains. “See?” He grins. “Fresh.”

I recommend Turen +94 76 971 1622

He’s got an air conditioned Prius and speaks good English. He can also take you to money changers in a jewelry shop that hasten the half hour process in a bank down to a calculator, a smile and about two minutes. And bonus, he’s willing to be dragged along on our waterfall adventure that leaves us all stumbling through the jungle with cell phone flashlights:

# 5 Do the top of Diyaluma Falls with guide

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

For 1500 rupees ($7) I feel ridiculous I doubted this guy. He leads us through a village, a rubber plantation, and up a hill to a series of waterfalls before stopping at the newly Insta-famous (and luckily empty) top of Diyaluma. I had no idea the rest of the river was so gorgeous! There are several jumps, deep pools, and you can camp on some of the giant flat boulders riverside.

Problem is, the sunset was so epic we can’t make our feet move out of there fast enough. Then as we crest the ridge to leave, we see massive flames and a plume of smoke erupting in the dark next to some higher falls. “Normal,” our guide says. “Villagers.” Um. There’s also one large male elephant (not something you want to encounter) who frequents the river, so best to have a guide. I can’t remember his name so look for this guy:

It smells good as we’re walking through the village in the dark. Our guide asks one of the mamas spinning roti by firelight for a few and we happily munch our newspaper nest of steaming naan-like treats down the mountain.

# 6 Go to the backwoods of the tea country

To get away from travelers and hang with locals, skip Ella. Get off the train at the tiny stop called Ohiya. Hill Safari Lodge is ten minutes up the road from the station into a misty wonderland crowded only with trees and ferns. The five rooms are lorded over by the friendliest Sri Lankan couple we have ever met. Their showers are hot, their ayurvedic chef is outstanding and when the mist clears, it’s views galore.

Hill Safari Lodge is also the closest place you can stay to:

# 7 Horton Plains National Park

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

That’s important because you have to be at the park by 8 am to get walking before the mist rolls in. Sambuks wander the moors and bogs perched at the edge of the interior’s biggest mountains and a river runs through it.

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

If you can handle sharing the trail with plenty people (who probably didn’t stay in Ohiya and woke up god knows when to get here) then you get to see one of the most beautiful vistas I’ve encountered, rolling blue mountain ranges all the way to the sea. Lakes shimmer, native red rhodedendrons light up the green jungle, and if you follow the tiny trail at the end of End of the World, you get to the empty and quiet viewing spots where the trail literally turns white in paths of crushed quartz.

# 8 Ride the train

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

Here’s the deal on trains. All the tourists reserve first class. Get a second or third class ticket with the Sri Lankans for half the price and you’ll have a better chance at scoring a window seat. For an 8 eight journey from the tea country back to Colombo expect to pay about $2, while a couple kilometer tuk tuk ride around town costs the same! If you miss your train you can always hop on the overnight mail train and rattle along with the letters by starlight. It might actually be a score on a full moon. Here’s the Colombo to tea country schedule:

Everyone travels the route from Kandy to Ella. Do it backwards and the train will be much less crowded. There are waterfalls everywhere.

Use the train travel as much as you can, not just the tea country. Unofficial vendors sneak on until they’re shooed off, so you can buy samosas and something mysterious in banana leaves without leaving your seat, and you can buy endless 30 cent cups of sweet chai from the train’s snack bar.

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

We took the train from Colombo, past Galle to Welligama in the south– the tracks are largely ocean front and the express trains don’t stop except at the major stations so it’s fast. Expect to be humbled flying past people living fifteen feet from the tracks with dirt floors and no running water, drying their clothes on the ground.

Expect surprising and polluted sunsets, kids grinning and waving and teenagers filming you back from their cell phones on the side of the tracks.

Plus, you can meet Sri Lankans and hum along and clap to Bollywood pop songs while blurring past rice paddies.

# 9 Hang out in overlooked Colombo

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

There’s not a lot of love for the capital city but it’s worth it for the food alone. We spent hours every morning lounging through the buffet at the Hilton Residences on Union Street, drinking chai, fresh watermelon juice, coconut water and eating fish curries with coconut chutney, rottis and “egg hoppers,” crepes with an egg, caramelized onions and hot sauce.

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

Their rooftop pool lit up with a live band isn’t bad either. Or you can try some top notch food at Rare, inside Uga Residences on Park Street. Just look at this food!


The raw mango juice blew my mind. Not overly sweet syrup, but balanced and heavenly. The homemade ice creams are ridiculous, with flavors like tamarind, amaretto and passion fruit with chili flakes.

The hotel itself feels like it’s picked out of the city and deposited into a rural oasis. It’s a 180 year old mansion with  horse stables renovated into suites, surrounding a pool under a giant mango tree. Uga Escapes started the popular Sri Lankan tradition of Wednesday Ladies Night in Colombo where the ladies drink free.

The best temple I’ve seen in Sri Lanka is in Colombo. And believe me I saw many. This is my, “eh,” face for an island temple in Matara. Standards get high here in the land of temples.

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

Buy a $1 ticket to the floating temple on Slave Lake and you get in free to Gangaramaya.

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

The pictures do not do it justice. It’s like visiting the Sistine Chapel in terms of energy that went into painting and decorating this place. A girl walks around picking up single fallen leaves with bare hands like an endless mediation, and that is indeed the current of feeling here.

Westerners gawking and tearing up mix with orange clad monks and silent devotees paying homage to Buddha, who is revered here like a diety.

Photo credit: Sam Sternthall

If you really want to be the only foreigner, head to the market section of the city called Pettah. You can stock up on Hindustani bridal jewelry, buy perfumy smelling tea from wholesalers straight out of the human sized canvas sacks, munch on pomegranate and buy anything you could possibly think of, to the soundtrack of the call to prayer blaring from a mosque.

Or just walk the streets and see what you find.









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