It’s 6am and the air is already thick with humidity. The sun has barely penetrated the horizon and a cluster of devoted surfers are tending to the waves. After all, the surf is always best in the morning. The rest of the beach remains dormant, aside from the handful of locals that are busy setting up their small dishevelled restaurants and board-hire stalls, ready to cater for the hundreds of tourists that will flock to Hiriketiya throughout the day.
The water licks the tips of my toes as I stand on the shoreline assessing the swell. Not too big, not too small, just right. After rummaging through my wallet trying to pull together the 500 rupee (approximately $4 AUD) that it costs to hire a board for an hour, I approach one of the locals and confidently ask him for a 7’10 fibreglass. He smiles and carefully picks the best of a battered-looking bunch of boards. “Perfect”, I say. The water is smooth, disturbed only by the sets of clean-breaking waves that come and go. I’m a mere novice compared to the group of seasoned surfers that are already occupying the water. I carefully position myself so as not to risk cutting any of them off accidently. God forbid if I did. I may be a rookie, but I’m experienced enough to know not to get between a surfer and their wave.
I sit propped up on the board, legs dangling loosely in the water, waiting in anticipation. After a couple of minutes have gone by a perfect wave begins to form in the distance. Determined not to make a fool out of myself I get into position and begin to paddle, remembering to keep my chest up just as the instructor taught me. As soon as the wave raises me up towards its crest I pop to my feet. Get this part wrong and you’ll be acquainting yourself with Mr Sea Urchin on the reef below. Fortunately, this time I get it right. With immense power, like that of a wild horse, the wave carries me towards the sun-blanched shore. Eventually, its white hooves begin crashing down beside me I decide to carefully kick out of the wave. I promptly drop down onto my stomach and begin paddling back out to sea, ready to do it all again.
It’s been almost six months since I returned from my three week trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year, and despite the horrific terrorist attacks that took place over Easter, my view of the country has in no way been tainted. However, I must admit that if someone had asked me this time a year ago whether I would consider travelling to Sri Lanka, I would have told them no. Not because I thought that it was unsafe or dangerous, but because it had simply never been on my radar. But that all changed after spending a sleepless night scrolling through the internet looking up the ‘best places to travel in 2019’. According to the well-reputed travel site, Lonely Planet, that was Sri Lanka. After conducting a quick Google search I found that it was not the dull cricketing country that I had assumed it to be, but rather, a vibrant and alluring island paradise. I was sold. The next morning, running off about two-hours of sleep and far too much coffee, I booked my trip to Sri Lanka. The question was, would I come to regret my hasty, somewhat impulsive decision? Looking back now I can safely say that the answer is absolutely not!
Upon arrival, I wasn’t sure what to expect but having spent three weeks there I can say with certainty that Sri Lanka is undeniably beautiful, which is hardly a surprise considering it is home to eight UNESCO world heritage sites. While the South boasts some of the most pristine beaches you will ever step foot on, travel further inland and you’ll come across temperate rainforests, rolling foothills and verdant tea plantations (lots of them). It’s almost as if you’ve entered an entirely different country. The people are incredibly friendly, their easy-going demeanour rubbing off on tourists as they pass through from one locale to the next. And of course the food, which was simply delightful (aside from the uncooked poached eggs I encountered at one point, but we’ll let that slide).
I chose to travel to Sri Lanka alone. Why? Well, to be honest, because I didn’t really ask anyone if they wanted to join me during my temporary bout of hastiness and rash decision making. But in hindsight I think I’m glad that I chose to do the trip alone, because as cliché as it may sound, it gave me an opportunity to become well-acquainted with myself. I won’t deny that it was difficult at times, but those occasions were far fewer than those that I felt completely unencumbered by any sort of restrictions or expectations. So, if you’re thinking about travelling solo any time soon (which I highly recommend doing), here are a few things that I learnt along the way.
- Dining alone is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. However, if you are daunted by the thought of copping judgement from your fellow diners (which I can assure you won’t, because they honestly don’t care), then you can always take a book to read, journal to write in, or a podcast to plug into. At dinner, try and find a venue that has some form of live music or entertainment, and if you’re concerned about taking up a whole table to yourself, then simply sit at the bar. This will also give you a chance to make friends with the staff and maybe snag a cheeky beverage on the house!
- While travelling with a buddy is fun and comforting, it’s easier to rely on each other for company than to spark up conversation with a complete stranger. Travelling alone, on the other hand, forces you to make friends with other travellers and locals.
- You’ll learn to embrace your own company and eventually, you’ll grow to love it. The fact is that when you’re travelling solo you spend a lot of time with yourself. This is a good opportunity to learn more about who you are as a person, who you want to be, and the things you like and dislike about yourself (*insert image of beach sunset and a cheesy caption about finding yourself here).
- You get to make all the decisions and be as spontaneous as you want. For me, this was tough, because for anyone that knows me I am frustratingly indecisive (I’m literally incapable of ordering food at a café without first asking the waiter or waitress what they would recommend from the menu).
- Travelling alone isn’t necessarily an unsafe way to travel (unless perhaps you’re thinking of going to a country that is known for being dangerous, such as South or Central America). But, in a country like Sri Lanka, as much as my grandmother would say otherwise, so long as you have some common sense and vigilance, you should be A-Okay.
- You will feel lonely at times and this is completely normal, but these feelings will quickly be surpassed by the sense of empowerment that comes with travelling alone.
- A great way to ‘travel solo’ is to join a group tour. This gives you the chance to build relationships with people from all over the world. It’s also great because as well as seeing all the main tourist attractions you’ll also get the chance to take part in experiences that might not be available to other travellers. I spent the second half of my trip with Intro Travel, a company I couldn’t recommend highly enough. Their staff were passionate and experienced, the tour was well organised and incorporated a lot of different activities, the accommodation far exceeded expectations, and I met some amazing people who I’m still in touch with today.
The Kip, Ahangama
A truly magical place, Phoebe and Seddy will go out of their way to take care of you and make sure that you have the best experience possible during your stay. Also be sure to check out their adjoining café which provides some of the freshest, tastiest vegan delights I’ve ever tried.
The Verse Collective, Dickwella
If you’re looking for the ultimate hipster hang out, this is your place. Situated just five minutes away from Hiriketiya, The Verse Collective is not only a perfectly located beachfront hostel, it also has a spacious open-plan co-working space and a trendy café/bar which serves up Australian-style coffee (i.e. the best style of coffee).
Layback Hostel, Weligama
A boutique surf hostel situated just five minutes from the Weligama beachfront, this is the place to stay if you’re looking to embrace the laid-back lifestyle of the local surfers.
Hangtime Hostel, Weligama
Salt House, Hiriketiya
While traditionally an Indian dish, the Sri Lankan’s have put their own spin on it, serving up pol roti (coconut roti). A simple flatbread made from flour, water and grated coconut, this is a great accompaniment to almost every meal.
This was my favourite local dish. A traditional form of street food, Kottu is made with roti, which is fried and chopped up alongside a selection of ingredients and served with a decadent curry sauce. Think of a classic AB from the Blue and White café on O’Connell Street but replace the chips with roti and yiros meat with curry. Yup, it’s heaven!
Even if you’re not a huge seafood fan, do yourself a favour and at least try it if you’re travelling along the coast of Sri Lanka. On one occasion my food came out about 20 minutes later than the rest of my group because the chef had to wait for the local fisherman to return with his morning haul. Fair to say I was happy to wait.
Coconut Sambal (Pol Sambal)
A fresh coconut relish made from a blend of finely grated coconut, red onion, chilli, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish. This dish is often used as a garnish or a side dish.
Basically a Sri Lankan pancake, made from a mixture of rice flour, coconut milk and sugar. The batter is then fried in a small wok to create a bowl shaped pancake.
Lamprais essentially means ‘lump rice’. It is a combination of spiced rice, spiced meat and sambol wrapped in a banana leaf parcel and steamed.
Any and every traditional curry that is on offer!
Don’t be afraid if there are some ingredients that you haven’t heard of before, that’s all part of the experience!
Sigiriya Rock Fortress
Tea plantations (there are many to choose from)
The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
Sea Turtles in Mirissa
The Nine Arches Bridge in Ella
Surfing in the South (Hiriketiya, Weligama, Ahangama)
If you’re looking for some top-notch surf instructors, get in touch with the guys at Layback. Thilina and his friendly crew are not only passionate surfers themselves, but are also extremely competent instructors. Whether you’re a complete beginner who has never touched a surfboard before or simply keen to improve your skills, they have you covered!
Climb Adam’s Peak or Little Adam’s Peak
Master the art of yoga
Treat yourself to an Ayurvedic message
Take a cooking class
Spend a day Galle, a fortified city founded by the Portuguese in the 16thCentury
Travel by Tuk Tuk
Take the world’s ‘most scenic train’ from Kandy to Ella.
Go on safari in Udawalawe National Park
Finally, if you’re interested in travelling with Intro, check out their website here! (this is not sponsored, I just genuinely believe they are a great company to travel with).