Sri Lanka Travel Guide

Sri Lanka Adventure Travel Guide: Ideas and Inspiration

PureTravel Says: “Sri Lanka is testimony to a rich history and diverse wildlife that has endured through time. Formally known as Ceylon before 1972, the island nation is just located 31 kilometers off the southern coast of nearby India. To its east lie the countries of Malaysia and Thailand, while to the northeast is Myanmar. Home to over 20 million people, it has a rich ethnic diversity and a beautiful history told through ancient ruins and preserved structures.”


Walking & Trekking – Sri Lanka is a country with trekking attractions that provide not only a good holiday or adventure, but a close look at Sri Lanka’s history as well. These sites include the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, as well as Kandy, the last stronghold of the Sinhala Kings before they were defeated by the British.

Culture – The culture of Sri Lanka was greatly influenced by the Indians, but they had their own distinct culture under the many different dynastic monarchies that ruled it. The most important and longest reigning dynasty was the Sinhala, under whose rule the religion of Buddhism was accepted and propagated among the Sri Lankan people.

Rafting – Sri Lanka is home to three rivers that are excellent for rafting. These rivers are: Kelani River, the Sitawaka River and the Kotmale River. Out of the three, only the Kelani River is non-exclusive and open to all levels of rafters.

Wildlife – Sri Lanka is home to a very diverse wildlife. From the commonly seen elephants to the rarely spotted sloth bear, and the tree-climbing leopards, you can enjoy all of these by visiting the many wildlife reservations and national parks that abound. Highly recommended parks are the Udawalawe Games Park, Yala National Park which is Sri Lanka’s largest national park and the Yala National Park. Sri Lanka is perfect for those seeking a holiday of exotic and rare wildlife and engage in a safari.

Mountain Biking – Sri Lanka has several paradises and havens for mountain biking enthusiasts, including the Hill Country, waiting to be discovered.

When to Go

The best time to go trekking is during July or August, where you will bear witness to the parade of golden caskets and the corresponding festival in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, a prime trekking location.

Ideal months for animal wildlife viewing vary from park to park. For example, if you wish to see birds, the best time will be anywhere within February to July as this is the time that the migrant birds are in the park. In some parks, it is ideal to visit from February until June when water supply starts becoming low and animals start appearing and competing for water. Some parks who have turtles advise the same period in order to observe female turtles up on the beach. Crocodiles and deer are easily spotted during the months of October and December.

Top Tips

- When mountain biking, be sure to bring ample water supply or energy drinks. There are some wayside shops.
- Bring mountain biking repair equipment as shops may not stock all equipment, especially for specialist bikes.
- Buy only sealed drinking water.
- Respect the local culture.

Holidays In Focus

Walking and Trekking

One of the best trekking sites is the old medieval city of Polonnaruwa. This city was declared the capital and the seat of power of King Vijayabahu I, the king who defeated Chola invaders in 1070 CE. Today it is home to several archaeological sites. It is also famous as the backdrop in some scenes of the music video for the Duran Duran song “Save a Prayer.” Because of its historical and archaeological value, the city is declared a UNESCO heritage site.

One of the prime attractions of the trek is the large statue carved into a cliff in Gal Vhariya. Actually, there are four statues of Buddha in the site. The archaeological sites in the area are mostly ruins and relics, including the Gedige Lankathilaka which feature an 18-meter statue of the Buddha and a bas relief sculpture in its exterior. Polonnaruwa is also home to the Parakrama Samudraya Lake, which served as the irrigation tank under the king Parakramabahu I, feeding about 18,200 acres of paddy land. The lake still serves this purpose up to this day.

Another good spot to visit is Kandy, possibly Sri Lanka’s most beautiful city, Kandy is historically the last city where the Sinhala Kings held power. Its main attraction is the Temple of the Tooth. The best time to visit Kandy is during the parade of the golden caskets in July or August of every year. The festival also shows a parade of live elephants, as well as human dancers, drummers and village chieftains. When visiting the temple of the Tooth, make sure to adhere to the dress code as this is considered a holy place for the Sri Lankans.

Touring Kandy will also show you the old Royal Palace compound, located right beside the Temple of the Tooth. You can see where the Queen as well as the King’s royal concubines slept in their separate quarters. You can also see the armoury of the king’s men, as well as the council chambers where the ruler met with his advisors and generals. The Royal Palace is now used as a museum, with the council chambers itself showcasing an example of the wooden architectural style of the period.

Other spots in Kandy include the Gadaladeniya Temple with its South Indian architecture, the Embekke Temples with its 14th century carvings that are dedicated to the god Kataragama, the Hindu shrines, the Buddhist temples and the 40-hectare Royal Botanical Gardens which has the best tropical plant life in the island.

Of course, the Sigiriya, The Lion Mountain or Rock Fortress, which features a huge magma plug that hardened into rock. It is the site of an ancient 5th century castle built by King Kasyapa. Aside from the palace, visitors to the rock are treated to a look at the creativity of the builders of the palace.

Get a chance to enjoy an aerial view of the ancient Sigiriya Gardens and the city from the vantage point of the terrace in the middle part of the rock. Get magnificent views from a higher point: the upper palace itself in the flat upper portion of the rock. You can also enjoy frescos that have been drawn into the rocks of the Mirror Wall, as well as read inscribed verses written by various visitors of the site although nowadays people are banned from writing on the walls.

Culture and History

In ancient times, Sri Lanka was a monarchy. Its longest ruling dynasty was the Sinhala, who ruled for over 2,000 years. Invasions and wars were not uncommon, although they were infrequent. Invasions were conducted by several South Indian kingdoms, which sometimes resulted to brief occupations of some part of Sri Lanka like the periods under the Chola, Pandya, Chera and Pallaya dynasties. The Indians were responsible for bringing Buddhism to the country in 3rd century BCE. The religion was embraced by the Sinhalese ruler at that time.

Being a major trading post in ancient times, the Europeans arrived during the 16th century. First the Portuguese, the Dutch, then the British made a colony out of the country. The Kingdom of Kandy managed to resist until 1815, when it fell under British hands and established the British’s rule over the island. Since then, Sri Lanka was a major base for the British, even serving as a military station for American and British ships and troops during World War II after which the country declared independence.

Modern Sri Lankan culture is a mix of different ethnicities. The country is predominantly composed of Buddhist Sinhalese, Hindu Tamils, Muslims and Burgher Christians. The latter are minorities in Sri Lankan, with the Christians coming from generations descended from earlier Dutch colonists that lived in the country. No one could really point to the origin of the Muslims in the country, although they may have descended from the early Arab or Indian traders in the country. The Tamils under the name Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are currently at war with the government of Sri Lanka since 1983.


Perhaps the most remarkable rafting spot in Sri Lanka is the Kelani River. Even though there are others spots for white water rafting, the Kelani River is recommended for those who are beginners and even experts. Just in case it rings a bell, Kitulgala is the city in which the 1957-film Bridge on the River Kwai was shot. In fact one of the highlights of this rafting experience is to pass through the film’s actual location. The Kitulgala rafting experience takes you through 90 minutes of grade 2 and grade 3 white water rapids.

A second rafting spot, recommended for experienced rafters, is the Sitawaka River off Avissawella. This run takes you through grade 3 and grade 4 rapids and lasts two years. Beginners are not allowed to take this course. The Sitawaka River is only an hour and a half away from Colombo.

The third and last river recommended for rafting is the Kotmale River. Situated on a higher elevation, the Kotmale River run offers you a grand view of the mountains. Just like Sitawaka, only experienced rafters are allowed to take this course.


Sri Lanka is home to several endemic species of animals and birds. The Sri Lankan government is very active in preserving the diverse animal life of the country.

Sri Lanka is home to the elusive sloth bear. Because it is enigmatic, there is no information on the animal’s ecology, its distribution across the country and its preservation status. The country is also home to the leopard, which unfortunately is poached for its fur, teeth and meat.

In addition to carnivores, Sri Lanka has five species of deer running wild. The species that has the largest distribution across the country are the sambar and the spotted deer. Like the leopard, it is also poached and may soon become endangered. Of course, Sri Lanka is home to the elephant, which has been historically important to the way of life.

Sri Lanka has over 60 species of fresh water fish, as well as almost a thousand saltwater fish. Over 24 species of freshwater fish are endemic to the country. Because of industrial progress, the fresh water and saltwater fishes are currently endangered along with other marine ecosystems. Sri Lanka also has 26 endemic species of birds as well, and has a greater number of visiting and migrating birds entering its lands.

There are several places to experience the rich diversity of Sri Lanka’s wildlife. One of the highly recommended is Dambulla, where you can see elephants and parrots. Aside from animals, you can also play cricket and visit Dambulla Temple in this site.

Next to Dambulla, you can visit the Uda Walawe Games Park which has an elephant sanctuary. Established in 1972, it is a sprawling 308km sq. park where elephants freely roam and you can see them in all their glory and natural lifestyle in the fields. Aside from elephants, different kinds of birds can be spotted in Uda Walawe, as well as the Uda Walawe people who reside within the park.

Of course, Sri Lanka’s largest national park, the Yala National Park, should be part of your itinerary as well. Yala is home to most of the large mammals in the Sri Lankan ecology which, aside from elephants, include the wild boar, wild buffalo, as well as the leopards, deer and bear. You can also see crocodiles in its lakes, as well as migratory and indigenous birds including birds of prey such as the Crested Serpent and White-Bellied eagles. With its large expanse of land and diverse local ecology, it is perfect for an outdoor safari adventure for the whole family.

Mountain Biking

If you want to go mountain biking, this south Asian gem is a great location. Hill Country is one location which has hills that are perfect for mountain biking and exploring. Aside from hills, you can use your bike to explore the many mountains in the area. You will also come across a waterfall during your biking adventures, as well as tea plantations that you will not see anywhere else and beautiful, verdant scenery of low-lying plains.

However, the best attraction to Hill Country is the town of Nuwara Eliya. The town is an old remnant of the colonial times, built by tea growers from England. Up to this day, the town still retains its old, colonial ambience. Sip some tea and relax and then see rare mountain orchids at the Hakgala Botanical Garden. For the inquisitive, it is highly recommended to get in touch with some of the tea estates in the area prior to the trip so they can give you a tour of their factories on your trip.

Classic Itineraries

- Kandy
- Sigiriya Rock
- Dambulla

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There are 8 World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

- Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
- Ancient City of Sigiriya
- Sacred City of Anuradhapura
- Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
- Sacred City of Kandy
- Sinharaja Forest Reserve 28
- Golden Temple of Dambulla
- Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

Travel Resources

By Julie Bowman


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