Let me begin this post by saying – 5 days is not enough to explore Sri Lanka! I know this statement holds true for any other country equally and I’ve always felt this end the end of every trip that I wish I had more time. But until that day when I quit my job to travel full time (fingers crossed, that day will come), I must make the most of the short trips that I can make. I’m going to focus my writing on what to do in Sri Lanka in 5 days and leave you with some recommendations of what else you might want to see if you’re lucky to spare a few more days in this lush green diverse country.
Although the cities are well connected by trains, and it’s easy to traverse within towns and cities on tuk-tuks, it is not very expensive to rent a car with a driver to take you around. It gives you a great amount of flexibility and a local to help you out wherever you might need, making it extremely convenient and stress-free to roam around.
Day 1: Colombo
I begin with Colombo because chances are, you will land in the capital city, which is well-connected and one of the few cities with an international airport in Sri Lanka. Most likely, you will be curious to explore the largest city in this country, though I wouldn’t recommend that you spend any more than 24 hours here.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Colombo is one of those few cities in the world that did not impress me the least bit and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. In my opinion, it absolutely lacked any character at all and was a disappointment owing to many factors – lack of infrastructure, filth, not much to offer and quite boring, so to say. Yet, since I had a day, I decided to explore everything there was, and you might want to read my post on 10 things to do in Colombo, if you plan to spend some time there as well.
Suggested budget city-stay hotel: CityRest Fort
Day 2: Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary & Kandy (optional Dambulla Cave Temple)
If I had more time, I would’ve gone further ahead to explore Sigiriya. However, due to the lack of time, I decided to keep it to Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary and Kandy.
Drive time: 2.5 hours to Pinnawala + 1.5 hours to Kandy (optional: 2 hours to Dambulla Cave Temple + 2 hours to Kandy)
Alternatively: take a train from Colombo to Rambukkana, and take a tuk-tuk to the orphanage.
Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary: With the rising concerns on animal welfare, I wanted to make sure that I am also doing the ethical thing and visiting this place only if there is absolutely no hint of animal cruelty. I did my research before going here and came across several posts. After some study, I finally decided, that I was convinced and wanted to see the elephants here.
Firstly, don’t be taken aback by the crowds here. Also, the elephants are in chains which might make you wonder how it’s not considered cruel. For those of you who are also concerned and want to read in detail about why elephants are chained here, or babies are often separated from the adults, this post, written by a blogger who went extensively into researching about this place, might help you understand.
There are several areas at the orphanage where you will see these elephants roaming freely and tourists are advised only to look at them from a distance and not interact with them. If you wish to interact, you might want to go to the area with ‘fruit feeding’ or ‘milk feeding’ where under supervision, you can even feed baby elephants milk from a bottle. However, the most interesting part of the visit is watching the elephants bathing in the river, a ritual that takes place twice in the day.
The river is across from the orphanage and the elephants are guided here by the trainers, into the river. While you walk to this area, you will come across many shops selling paper made from elephant pool and they are happy to take you through the process of how that paper is made (which was quite interesting, in my opinion). I did think it was interesting to recycle ‘waste’ to create paper, instead of cutting down trees and thus ended up buying quite a few things, to do my bit in conserving nature. At the river itself, you can seat yourself at the café in Hotel Elephant Park, which overlooks the elephant bathing spot and has one of the best vantage points. It is surely a lot of fun to watch these elephants bathe, some extremely naughty, and you can see them having a lot of fun!
Bathing times are twice a day – 10 am and 2 pm. While some elephants love to roll themselves in the river, spraying each other with water for fun, others require the staff to spray water on them from a large hose at the corner of the river. The elephants are clearly enjoying this, as some of them actually rush to the river as soon as they approach it. I would advise you to maintain your distance from these wild creatures. Keep about 1 – 1.5 hours for the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and try to make it for the bathing ritual, which is the highlight of the experience.
Depending on your appetite for a road trip, and the time available to you, I would advise you to either proceed to Dambulla Cave Temple (2 hours drive) or straight to Kandy (1.5 hours drive). As Kandy itself doesn’t have a lot to do and see, if you’re able to start early in the day, you can make a trip to Dambulla Cave Temple.
Dambulla Cave Temple: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this temple originally dates to the 1st century BC, with renovations that were carried out in 11th, 12th and 18th centuries. Known to be the refuge of King Walagamba during his 14-year exile, these caves were converted into a temple with his return to the throne. Although the temple isn’t that impressive from the outside, the site is massive and 5 main caves house the most visited attractions – with numerous Buddha statues and paintings. Located below a vast overhanging rock, the ceilings of the caves are painted beautifully with murals of various Hindu gods and goddesses. An intriguing artistic place of worship, these cave temples are unique and display superior craftsmanship and deserve a visit, should you be able to find the time.
Kandy: If you’re not in for slightly unpleasant road trips (the roads aren’t in the best condition in Sri Lanka), you must proceed directly to Kandy from Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
In Kandy, although the lake is quite scenic, there are no cafes or restaurants to sit at to enjoy the lovely view with a meal. However, there is a walking path that takes you around the lake and several places where you can just sit and take the view in. On one side of the lake is the famous Temple of Tooth Relic. Kandy was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of this Buddhist temple which houses one of the only two surviving relics of the tooth of Buddha.
Remember the guidelines for entering temples in Sri Lanka: Your knees and shoulders must be covered. You need not cover your ankles. If you, however, don’t have anything to cover your knees, you can borrow a wrapping cloth from the temple’s premises for the purpose. Also, you need to remove your shoes before entering the temple.
The entrance to the main hall is through a bridge over a moat. There are two floors in the temple and the tooth relic is stored in gold caskets studded with precious stones, on the upper floor. Personally, I didn’t find the temple impressive from the inside as I did it from the outside, the architecture and the backdrop to the temple are stunning, with tall green woods of Udawattakele forest sanctuary and the lake. Unlike most temples, you will not find any ancient or medieval images of Buddha at this temple.
As you step out of the temple, your entrance ticket also allows you to enter the International Buddhist Museum behind, an interesting one that showcases the spread of Buddhism across the world with its origins in India. Interesting artefacts and scripts take you on a journey through South-east Asia and the story of the religion’s roots and expansion.
Kandy is a cultural city, so your evening will be spent learning more about the Sri Lankan culture. After the temple, you can visit Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha, the large statue that you can see atop the hill, overlooking the entire city. It is not very tough to get here if you’re in a car, it’s hardly a 20-minute journey to the top, no doubt a steep climb. Here, they’ve made a small temple which requires (minimal) entrance fee. Once you’re at the entrance, you can enjoy 360-degree views of the city of Kandy (including the famous cricket ground), the lake and the hills. The views are breathtaking and get even better as you climb the statue’s stairs to (almost) the top of the statue. The statue is one of the tallest in the region.
If you have enough time, you might want to visit Udawattakele Forest Reserve, situated in the heart of the city, right behind the Temple of Tooth Relic. There are several Buddhist temples and hermitages inside the forest reserve. If you’re a forest enthusiast, a walk through the dense vegetation might be right up your alley!
In the evening, cultural enthusiasts might want to watch the vibrant and unique traditional and folk dance performances at the Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre, situated right next to Temple of Tooth Relic. Although there are other centres with such performances, this is one of the top-rated ones in Kandy.
Recommended budget city-stay hotel: Kandy City Hotel
Day 3: Drive to Nuwara Eliya and overnight at The Tree House
This was personally my favourite part of the trip because of how beautiful this drive is! The winding roads through the lush green hills, covered with endless tea plantations, are a sight for sore eyes! I was lucky to have a rainy weather, with the clouds descending low on the hills and we drove over the clouds, creating a very romantic setting amidst breathtaking scenery.
Drive time: 2.5 hours to Nuwara Eliya + 2 hours to The Tree House in Ginigathena (optional)
Alternatively: The train ride between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya is considered to be one of the most scenic ones in the region.
Although the train ride is popular and spoken about extensively, there's nothing like having the flexibility of your own vehicle which allows you to stop anywhere, anytime and take in the lovely views. Nuwara Eliya's tea plantations and waterfalls are so beautiful that you will want to spend some time on your journey rather than reach the destination directly.
Read my detailed post on Things to do in Nuwara Eliya.
Day 4: On to Bentota
Since an evening is not enough in the beautiful Nuwara Eliya, I'd recommend you to spend this morning trying out some adventure sports in Kithulgala. If you choose to stay at The Tree House, you're not too far from this area. Waterfall abseiling, white-water rafting, kayaking are some of the popular activities offered here.
In the afternoon, proceed towards Bentota.
Drive time: 5 hours from Nuwara Eliya or 3 hours from The Tree House in Ginigathena
Although there are several options to enjoy the beachside resort and activities, such as Galle, Negombo (closer to Colombo) and Bentota, we chose Bentota due to the proximity (only 1.5 hours drive from Colombo) as well as the diversity of resorts and activities offered here. Since it is a long drive from Nuwara Eliya, you're likely to arrive late evening and thus, I would recommend you to spend this day relaxing and enjoying spa therapy or drinks by the beach. Here, I decided to treat myself to a luxury beach resort stay.
Recommended (luxury) stay: Vivanta by Taj
Vivaanta by Taj is located only a few steps from the beach in Bentota. The best part about the hotel is that every room here has a view of the ocean and their outdoor restaurant (which was unfortunately shut when we went because of the storm), is one of the best places to enjoy good food and superb views. With ample lounging space and sun loungers spread out in the poolside area as well as the gardens, spending a day here just relaxing is something you'd absolutely enjoy! I'm sharing a few pictures here of the resort, which will convince you to shell out a few extra bucks and book this amazing place.
Read my detailed review of Vivanta by Taj, Bentota.
Day 5: Bentota/ Madu River Safari & back to Colombo
There are a lot of activities that you can enjoy in Bentota. Some of these are:
Watersports in Bentota River/ Ocean
From wake-boarding to windsurfing, scuba diving, renting a jet-ski, banana boat, donut ride and kayaking, there are several activities for the adventure enthusiasts and water lovers in Bentota and these are not even expensive! Click here to read in detail about the options available and prices.
Bentota/ Maduganga River Safari
This mangrove boat tour is available both in Bentota and Madu Ganga River (which is about 30 minutes drive from Bentota). The Madu Ganga River tour is more popular because of the diversity of experiences available such as fish spa, visiting an island temple and the cinnamon island. However, if you're looking for more wildlife such as crocodiles and repltiles, Bentota River is a better bet. The 2-hour safari takes you through mangroves and is a great way to understand the ecosystem in Sri Lanka. It costs as less as $25 for a boat that can accomodate 4-5 people.
Two popular places which are not too far from Bentota for whale watching are Galle & Mirissa. Most hotels in Bentota (including Vivanta by Taj) arrange for the whale watching tour for their guests. Galle is about 70-minutes from Bentota whereas Mirissa is further away (almost 2 hours drive). The best time to experience this cruise is from October - March as this is when the dolphins and whales populate the waters and are easy to spot.
About 70 minutes by road from Bentota is this UNESCO World Heritage Site built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. The best part about this fort is its setting, it is surrounded by the ocean on three sides. If you have time, do visit the Flag Rock at the southern most end of the Fort where you might be able to catch some adventurous people cliff diving. The place is gorgeous, with rocks jutting out into the deep blue sea and also perfect to catch the sunset. It might be worthwhile to take a day trip to Galle as there are many interesting places to explore, with old European architecture and lovely beaches.
Closer to Bentota is one of the popular Turtle Hatcheries called Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project. However, since I read several mixed reviews of this place, I decided to skip it altogether. If you're interested, to read up before you plan to visit a Turtle Hatchery in Sri Lanka.
What to do if you have more time:
If you have more than 5 days in Sri Lanka (I'd recommend to plan a trip of minimum 1 week), here's what you can add to your itinerary:
The ancient city of Sigiriya is about 2.5 hours away from Kandy (and only 30 min ahead of Dambulla Cave Temple) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace and temple complex is located on a massive rock plateau formed by the magma of an extinct volcano. The site is as old as the 3rd century BC and served as a monastery as well as a royal residence over the years. It was then abandoned and has now become one of the most popular ancient sites to visit in Sri Lanka.
Many people take the train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Ella because it is known to be one of the most gorgeous train rides ever (similar to Kandy - Nuwara Eliya) as you pass through tea plantations and lush green forests. In Ella, climbing Adam's Peak is a popular activity. The hike is not tough, takes about 1 hour to get to the top and the views are breathtaking.
Yala National Park
This is one place I missed visiting on my trip but would've loved to include in the itinerary for Sri Lanka if I had a couple of more days to spare. Yala National Park is home to very rich wildlife and you can find elephants, crocodiles, buffaloes and monkeys, apart from Sri Lankan Sloth Bear and Leopards. Wildlife safaris are organised by several companies here and it might be worth spending 1-2 days here if you're an animal lover and safari enthusiast.