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Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide)

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While Sinharaja Forest Reserve is Sri Lanka's top destination for birders, small Lahugala National Park is well worth visiting for avian encounters. Come in the late afternoon, when you can also watch elephants and buffalo grazing peacefully in the water-logged beru grass. The park's forests of tall satinwood, rosewood, and palu trees are home to dozens of species of forest birds, including the rare red-faced malkoha. If you’re looking to stay put in Sri Lanka for a while, keep in mind that imported products like chocolates, biscuits, cheese, and cosmetics are expensive and hard to find. Shop for local brands at supermarkets and grocery stores. It’s always cheaper to buy fresh vegetables, fruits, and cooking ingredients from small stalls by the road or the local market. Seek out women-run health food outlets for vegan and vegetarian meals Kalpitiya is a 35km (22-mile) peninsula that juts out from the northwest coast near Puttalam. Firs flank a beach that extends almost uninterrupted to the very tip of the peninsula, where there’s a ruined Dutch Fort. To the east lies the vast Puttalam Lagoon, where the dancing sails of kite-surfers color the skies during the windier, off-season months of May to September. Mawella Sri Lanka Railways runs the nation's trains, including services on the spectacular Main Line, which slices east from Colombo through the island’s highest mountains, cloud forests and tea estates. It’s a stunning journey and hugely popular with tourists and locals alike, particularly the section between Kandy and Ella.

In Sri Lanka, buses fill the gaps train infrastructure can’t, connecting much of the country. There are both public and private buses to choose from. While elephants are the main attraction, Kumana is also a bird lover's paradise; keen birders might spot 100 species in one day. And, with an estimated 40 leopards roaming around, this park offers a very real chance of spotting Sri Lanka's most famous predator without being surrounded by other jeeps. For a better and more conscientious safari experience, head to Wilpattu National Park in the northwest of the island and book with a responsible operator like Leopard Trails. Their guides don't chase after possible sightings, but they do turn off their vehicle engines near animals. They will also whisper near any sighting so as not to disturb the animals. As well as leopards, the park is also home to Asian elephants, sloth bears, and bark deer all in their natural habitats. The park merges with the northern tip of Wasgamuwa National Park, and elephants can occasionally be seen wandering into the park fringes. Polonnaruwa is just a 30-minute drive away along the edge of the wewa, making this park a good choice if you want to combine history and nature in a single day trip from the coast.Sri Lanka is one of the safest countries in Asia when it comes to petty crime. Violence against tourists is very rare, and theft and robberies are uncommon, though they do happen occasionally. As a precaution, wear a money belt and use your hotel safe.

Weligama’s smiling 2km (1.2-mile) bay has emerged as one of the best surfing beaches in Sri Lanka for beginners, thanks to a forgiving sandy-bottomed break. Rent boards and book lessons from the surf outfits to the west of the bay – most are run by young surfers with first-hand knowledge of the local breaks. Weligama’s fine sand attracts families too, and there are plenty of places to eat, drink and sleep in every price range. Kabalana Some train trips are so scenic, they’re an activity in themselves. The six-hour ride from Kandy to Ella, which weaves through seemingly endless tea fields, is right up there among the world’s best train routes. A recently renovated route from Colombo to the historical city of Galle conversely runs on the edge of the west coast, offering mesmeric views of the Indian Ocean. Here are some additional ways to cut your expenses and visit Sri Lanka on a budget. Book your flights well in advance It also offers something other parks don't – a volunteer program run by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, where you can observe the elephants in the wild and help with their conservation. Bundala National Park Best for seeing turtles, crocodiles, and flamingos The peak tourist season in Sri Lanka runs from December to April. If you avoid these months, particularly December, January, and April when local New Year and holidays begin, you can save on accommodation. May to September is the northwest monsoon season, but don’t fret: Sri Lanka’s tropical climate means monsoon downpours don't last long.

One thing to be mindful of is Sri Lanka’s two monsoon seasons. The northeast monsoon season is from September to March, while the southwest is from May to August. Heavy rain can slow down all kinds of travel, but especially road travel – posing a particular challenge to dirt roads, which might become full of puddles, washed out and unsafe to drive on. You’re better off relying on the trains during the monsoon seasons. The only trade-off is that some train windows are stubborn to close, so there’s a chance you might get a little wet. As the financial capital, Colombo is a transport hub from which trains spring off across the whole country. They travel east to the city of Kandy and down into Nuwara Eliya – a town in tea country. Northbound trains reach the cities of Anuradhapura and Jaffna.

The Vedda are the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Originally forest-dwellers, their numbers have dwindled over the years due to migration, habitat loss, and assimilation into the nation's dominant Sinhala-Buddhist culture. Now scattered across the island in small numbers, some Vedda families still preserve their native language, cuisines and rituals in places like Dambana, an indigenous village and museum in the southern part of Maduru Oya National Park. The best ways to get around in Sri Lanka at any time of year Lahugala Kitulana National Park, Eastern Province Best for combining history with birdwatching Female travelers should avoid traveling alone at night, particularly on public transport, and take care walking alone on empty beaches. Given Sri Lanka’s conservative culture, long sleeves and dresses are culturally appropriate and will reduce the chance of being harassed. 18. Do not drink the tap water

It takes a surprising amount of time to travel around Sri Lanka thanks to winding routes and the limited number of roads crossing the interior of the island. Traffic also has to navigate a variety of hazards including badly surfaced roads and roaming wildlife (buffaloes, cows, feral dogs and even elephants). To do the island justice, don’t rush. You’ll need at least a month for a circuit of the island with detours to national parks, ancient cities and tea plantations inland.

Sri Lanka is home to an estimated 4000 wild Asian elephants, best seen in their natural habitats, the country’s national parks. During the dry months from July to September, the large reservoirs in Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks draw herds of wild Asian elephants where they graze on grass, bathe and play together. Hot days see elephants sheltering in the nearby jungles, but in the afternoon, around 4pm, they slowly emerge. This is your chance to see hundreds of the creatures hanging out by the lakes, the largest gathering of wild elephants in the world.Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter. Kumana National Park, Eastern Province Best alternative to the crowded parks Planning tip: Arrive early in the morning to beat the sweltering sun and get the best of this wonderful archaeological park to yourself. The Polonnaruwa ruins are crowded during weekends, school holidays, and on the full moon. 17. Get close to nature with a stay in a treehouse Sri Lanka was one of the countries worst affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which swept away more than 35,000 people and devastated many coastal areas. Following the disaster, early warning systems have been put in place in major towns and resorts, but not in rural, isolated areas, so be alert to signs of earthquakes and tsunamis. On the way there, you’ll rattle past rolling hills, paddy fields, lush stands of tropical forest, palm trees waving like giant hands and miniature village train stations with tin roofs and station attendants standing at attention in immaculate uniforms. You’ll also feel the air cool as you leave the baking coastal plain for the more pleasant climate of the hills.

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