Cycling in Sri Lanka: 10 Reasons Why It’s Great
… and 5 reasons it isn’t. This is our second summary post, and I am getting it done a little more quickly than I did for Thailand. Without further ado:
1. King Coconuts: Sal(i)vation on the Road.
Dmitry was not a huge fan of coconut water in the US, the kind that came in tetra-packs, and I generally only drank it when I was hungover. But the coconuts in Sri Lanka – big orange guys that are called “king coconuts” – taste totally different, and totally delicious.
A good size coconut costs less than 50 cents and contains a huge amount of liquid (probably more than a pint). When you finish drinking, the coconut-seller uses a machete chop off a piece of a shell as a scooper, then hacks the nut in two so that you can enjoy the tasty insides. Many riding days were reinvigorated after a coconut break.
2. Cheap or spendy, Sri Lanka’s got what you want.
We spent the first part of our trip traveling with our friend and his family – whose travel style is a little fancier than ours – and had a chance to see how the other half travels for a few days. The Eden Resort outside Beruwala is set on a beautiful beachfront, has a swim-up bar at the pool, and hands-down the best buffet food I’ve ever had. And the Paradise Resort & Spa near Dambulla is probably one of the prettiest resorts I’ve ever been to – I was very sad that we only stayed one night.
Once we were on our own and back to our usual cheap ways, we were pleasantly surprised by the number of really great hotels we were able to find in the 1500 LKR to 2500 LKR range ($11 USD to $19 USD) – all with private bath, all reasonably clean and comfortable. Stand-outs include Ranga’s Beach Hut in Arugam Bay ($11/ night for fan room; delicious and cheap rice & curry lunch) and Eden Homestay in Hikkaduwa ($15 for ac room, including breakfast).
Food is very inexpensive – a full, all-you-can-eat meal for around $3 USD. Our favorite giant crab lunch at Yarl Hotel in Colombo was a splurge (but still under $5 USD).
Getting a SIM card for the phones was also very inexpensive and simple – purchased at the airport in just a few minutes, we got more than enough talk/text time and 5GB of data for around $10 USD.
3. Triangles – the perfect roadside breakfast.
Sri Lankan “short eats” – grilled or fried breads with filling – are delicious. Vegetable roti, which we call “triangles,” are the best of the lot. Basically a thick tortilla filled with a lightly spicy potatoes, cooked fresh on a griddle. Together with a banana or two, these make a perfect roadside breakfast. Triangle spotting became my special talent in Sri Lanka – I could always tell where the griddle was.
4. Wild Elephants – another roadside attraction.
After spending the day with a group of rescued elephants in Thailand, we were pretty excited about the possibility of seeing some in the wild – and Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to spot wild elephants. After our first few days here though, we thought we might only see the dung they leave along the roads, until we spotted two within just a few minutes on our way to Tissamaharama. They were enormous, and they were beautiful.
5. Wildlife and Birds – too many to name.
Sri Lanka is absolutely teeming with wildlife, and is an absolute treat for a cycle tourist. We saw mongoose darting across the road, monitor lizards ambling at their own pace, peacocks calling out from the tops of the tallest trees, monkeys having meetings in the shade, green parrots resting in branches, clouds of butterflies floating around us, and graceful painted cranes fishing in the water. No leopards, but we hear that you only see them when they are about to pounce on you, so… no regrets.
6. Religious Ambient Noise – the sounds of the morning.
On many of our morning rides we heard either Buddhist chanting, Hindu drumming, Muslim calls to prayer, or Christian hymns – pouring into the road from loudspeakers attached to electric poles. The noises we heard changed based on cardinal direction: Hindu in the North, Muslim in the East, Buddhist in the South, and Christian in the West, and each made its own lovely soundtrack to the morning.
7. Cyclists everywhere, carrying everything.
Cyclists of all kinds are common in Sri Lanka, we even saw a few guys on road bikes. We especially admired the cyclists carrying amazing loads of firewood, palm fronds, or coolers of fish.
Being in a place with lots of cyclists also paid off in a more practical way – it was easy to find a mechanic when Dmitry needed his chainring fixed.
8. Arrack – not quite whiskey and not quite rum (but maybe better than both).
Our favorite self-catering beverage while in Sri Lanka. Arrack is made from coconut flower dew, and has a distinct and delicious taste. Our favorite local brand was DCSL VSOA (“very special old arrack”) – for about $10 USD/bottle.
9. The Views – beaches, villages, tea plantations, and rice paddies.
Dmitry said that if he had to pick one word to describe Sri Lanka, it would be “green.” That said – for such a small island, Sri Lanka has amazingly diverse landscapes. There are emerald tea plantations and lush rice paddies, but there are also white sand beaches, rainbow villages, and soaring blue skies. With so much beauty, I was never bored while riding.
10. Friendly Greetings – A “good morning” everywhere we went.
I have to admit, I found the constant shouts of “hello” and “where are you going” a little annoying when we first got to Sri Lanka (although the bit smiles from little kids were always a joy). But now that I’ve been in India for a few days, where the people – at least so far – have been less friendly along the road, I really miss the constant greetings.
Bonus: Witnessing history.
Without planning to do so, we happened to be in Sri Lanka for both an election that unseated the unpopular incumbent president and a visit from Pope Francis. No promises your trip will have so much history packed in, but it did make ours extra-special.
1. Wild Elephants – both a pro and a con.
We were delighted to see wild elephants, but we were also terrified. We are very vulnerable on the bikes – an elephant can easily outrun us – and some of the other cyclists we met on the road had been charged and cornered in Yala National Park. They were saved when a truck went by and the elephant finally moved off. We got very lucky – only spotting them from a distance – but we were always on our guard when riding in elephant country.
2. Roads – not as smooth, clean, or broad-shouldered as I would have liked.
Dmitry and I straight up disagree on this one. He thinks that the road surface was good enough to be considered as a pro. I think that we had too many days on bumpy roads where I couldn’t get momentum, too many hours with no shoulder, and too much dirt/ debris/ trash in any shoulders that did exist to say the roads were good. The roads were acceptable – in that we rarely had to get off and walk – but they weren’t good.
3. Honking – I hate it.
A few hours into our first ride, we seriously considered wearing ear plugs while riding. Honking is constant – often one honk for each of us from any passing vehicle, even if we were only a few yards apart. The honking seems well-meant, and is a regular feature of traffic in Sri Lanka (not an aggressive of offensive gesture), but it is a huge annoyance on the road. [NB: Sri Lanka is much better than India though, where the horns are even louder and even more frequent.]
4. Public transport – buses are a no-go, but trains seem ok.
Public transportation wasn’t terrible, it just didn’t seem as comfortable and easy as some other places we’ve been. We didn’t take any buses in Sri Lanka, but we did see a lot pass us by on the road. And the ones that did pass us by were packed sardine-can-style. There may be good bus options out there for longer travel, but we heard that most of the government buses try not to pick up anyone with large bags, because it means they are unable to cram fewer passengers.
The one train we took was fine, though less comfortable than Thai trains, and the overhead storage wasn’t large enough to fit the bikes (though we just put them into an empty seat).
5. No Coffee and no iced drinks = sad times.
Sri Lanka is a tea-drinking nation, which is understandable with all the tea plantations. But with such hot weather, you’d think they would at least serve iced tea? No luck. And the only coffee we did find was either (a) Nescafe – shudder or (b) ridiculously overpriced and only served in tourist cafes. I guess this is a plus if you want to kick your caffeine habit.