Sri Lanka: Budget

Number of days spent in country: 20

Goal daily budget pp/d: $25 CAD

Actual daily expenditure pp/d: $27.39

Things that were expensive: Entrances fees! The majority of our budget was blown on the several $30 USD entrances fees to the major ruin sites. Accommodation was also more expensive than we were anticipating, but it was excellent quality.

Things that were cheap: Transport, food at stalls

Sri Lanka: Part 2

Hello Everyone!

We traveled from Dambulla to Kandy via local bus, the first 45 minutes of which both Chris and I were subjected to standing. Imagine trying to stay standing while the bus driver is driving like a maniac on a suicide mission, rounding blind corners on the opposite side of the road, thrashing you into those surrounding you as you try and find a way to brace yourself. It was an effective core workout if nothing else. It gave me a new appreciation for the bus conductors who have to navigate the aisles constantly, pulling themselves along from the bars attached to the roof as one would when playing on the monkey bars on a playground, finding ways to slither amongst the standing passengers when there is seemingly no space to pass. We both finally snagged seats as other passengers got off, and happily sat through the rest of the journey despite the sudden bursts of speed and the slamming of breaks. We made it to Kandy by midday and headed directly to our guesthouse. We opted to stay at a small guesthouse in the hills surrounding Kandy, rather in the downtown core, as we heard this was the best way to experience the city. We were very happy with this decision as the guesthouse turned out to be one of our all-time favorites, and we were able to relax peacefully in the hills where there was no traffic or noise. (The name of the guesthouse is Hanthana Jungle View Holiday Home).

Our first day was spent doing some much needed laundry, and then taking care of some online business. Full time life on the road often means we spend a day or two every few weeks latched to our phones taking care of bills, finances, blogging, planning, and catching up with loved ones. As mundane as this sounds, we relish in the feeling of ‘normalcy’ these tasks afford. It was a perfect day for a down day as it it downpoured all afternoon. Sri Lanka is a tricky little country as there are several monsoon seasons despite how itty bitty it is, meaning at all times of the year there is rain on some part of the island. For the most part it is a quick afternoon soaking before the return of the sun, but it didn’t let up all day. All the more reason to take care of errands!

In the evening we had dinner at the guesthouse, prepared by the lovely owner. She opened the guesthouse as more of a hobby rather than a job as her children are grown and her husband, the head engineer in charge of water safety for the area, works full-time. She spoke minimal english, but her kindess and warmth radiated with all of her actions. The dinner was so incredibly delicious, and a massive portion for only 500 LKR ($4.65).

The following day we got dropped within the city of Kandy early in the morning, after a seriously devine breakfast that was included in the room rate. The day was passed at a very leisurely pace, taking our time walking to all of the attractions the city had to offer. We spent a long time walking around the massive man-made lake in the center of the city, enjoying the beauty of it in the sunshine of the day.
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Along our walk we spotted a shop selling SIM cards and stopped in to purchase one. Having a SIM makes life so much easier as you can call guesthouses or attractions, and having data means you never get lost with the help of google maps. For $4.65 CAD we were able to buy the SIM, 2 GB of data, and 20 minutes of calling. I couldn’t help shake my head at the cost of cellphone plans in Canada compared to most countries such as Sri Lanka who operate on top-up plans such as what I purchased.

We made our way to the Kandy viewpoint, before heading to a coffee shop for a break in sight-seeing. The weather took a turn for the worse while we were in the coffee shop, causing us to abandon our plan to visit the botanical gardens and instead checkout the local market. On our way to the market we ducked into a local restaurant to escape a quick rainshower. The restaurant specialized in fruit smoothies and salads, and was jam packed with locals. Everything looked devine, so we threw caution to the wind and ordered a fruit salad and mango smoothie. The fruit salad had whipped cream and drizzled honey. The mango smoothie had ice cubes that I was fairly certain weren’t made with bottled water, but one taste left me willing to accept the risk. Neither Chris or I fell ill after our dabble on the wild side of food precautions, our immunity to bugs must be nearly 100% after so long on the road. We headed to the market after our fruit treats, but it was nothing particularly special and we ended up spending most of our time sitting in a bench in the local park.

One of the most popular things to do in Kandy is to see a traditional dancing show. We had tickets for the evening show but were a bit hesitant.Having been to so many of these ‘cultural’ shows had made us very skeptical of them at this point as more often than not they are a massive let-down. This show proved to be no different, the dancers spent half of the time on stage laughing as they had no idea what they were doing. I really wouldn’t recommend spending the 1000 LKR on the show.

The following day we slept in, had breakfast, and then were dropped at the railway station in Kandy where we were boarding our train from Kandy to the tea hills of Ella. We had purchased tickets for the observation car located at the front of the train as it has full carriage sized windows at the front of the berth to be able to fully appreciate the views. There are only 24 seats in the car so it sells out very quickly, you should purchase tickets at least a few days in advance of when you want to take the train. We were happy with our decision to buy tickets in this carriage, despite having to leave a day later to be able to get tickets, as it really did make the trip extra special. We almost felt like we were watching a beautiful movie as the train snaked its way slowly through the hills. The ride was spectacular, we took turns hanging out the window of our seat taking in the full effect of the scenery. It was our favorite train ride of our travel careers, it is a must-do while in Sri Lanka!

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A few tips for taking the ride: we departed at noon and the weather was clear until 5 pm, when it clouded over and began to rain. If I had a do-over I would try and take the morning departure to avoid the afternoon rain. Also, many websites say at every station along the route there is food to purchase, but this is no longer true. We went 7 hours without any food items, or water, due to this old information! Bring snacks!

We arrived to Ella at 7pm and walked into town, up a very steep hill, and checked into our guesthouse. Having settled our things into our room, we headed back to the main street to find food after our unexpected 7 hour fast on the train. We opted for Different Corner, a small little place serving delicious curries. Best of all, the price was much cheaper than all the other restaurants on the strip.

We rose early the next morning to tackle Little Adams Peak, a viewpoint within the town that requires a 30 minute hike to the top of a hill. The trail was lovely, and the ‘hike’ was more of a leisurely stroll. The views from the top were beautiful, well worth the effort.
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On the way down we stopped at a small shop selling “coco-passion” juice, a concoction of coconut water, passion fruit juice, and lemon juice. I am majorly hooked on fresh fruit juices due to their availability and cheapness, and this juice was the best so far by a long shot. I still find myself thinking about it. When the juice was finished the guy who owns the little shop cracked the coconut for us and sliced the flesh so we could eat it. It was infused with the flavor of the juice and was almost better than the juice itself. I hope I can recreate it back at home!

We then walked to the nine arches bridge, slipping and sliding in the mud on the small trail that leads you to the bridge. The bridge was pretty, but it would have been even better if we timed to be there for when the train rattles over it. The train times have been posted on the TripAdvisor page for the nine arches bridge, which I only discovered after our visit. It was still a lovely, quiet place to visit. We had the bridge entirely to ourselves, save a lone cow tied to graze. As we were leaving we noticed massive hornets nests that must have been the inspiration for the mythical creatures ‘tracker jackers’ and their nests from the Hunger Games. We departed quietly so as to not disturb them.

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We headed back into town to grab a quick bite to eat. We wanted to try a place listed on TripAdvisor but it was difficult to locate, and once we did locate it, it was all in vain as the chef had gone to the market! We walked around until I spotted a small convenience store that appeared to be serving food. I mentioned in my previous post about the serious lacking of a restaurant culture in Sri Lanka, and these convenience store/restaurants are the local haunts for quick eats. We ordered the national dish called kothu roti, a dish made with roti and a mixture of vegetables, egg, cheese, +/- meat, or any variance of those ingredients. These ingredients are cooked on a flat top grill, the cook mixing and shredding the ingredients in a way that creates a rhythmic, musical beat. Once you know the noise you will hear it echoing through the air of every street in Sri Lanka, beckoning you to the restaurant preparing the dish. We each received a mound of food with a generous helping of spicy sauce to add as we liked. It was really delicious and simple, and his since become an almost daily staple of ours.

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After lunch it began to rain so we called it quits on sightseeing for the day and headed back to the guesthouse to get caught up on one of our favorite tv shows, ‘How to Get Away with Murder.’ I always get a bit nervous googling that title in foreign countries, I try to ensure I add ‘television show’ in the search.

The next morning we were up early to do another small hike to Ella Rock. We found very detailed directions on how to go to Ella Rock on our own on TripAdvisor entered by Philip. I highly recommend you print these to take with you as it is a little confusing as there are numerous small paths on the way. Their are ample numbers of guides hovering at the start of the trail if you are more comfortable taking a guide.

We hooked onto the railroad behind our guesthouse to make our way to the start of the hill. Along the way we had some spectacular views of the hills and a beautiful waterfall on the walk, in my opinion even nicer than the view from Litte Adams Peak.

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Once on the trail you notice it is definitely more remote than that to Little Adams Peak, and it is an actual hike where you will work up a sweat. We enjoyed the physical activity and once at the top were rewarded with some fantastic views. If in Ella make sure you do this hike, it is much better overall than Little Adams Peak. It will take around 2-3 hours depending on your fitness level, and there is a man at the top selling refreshments.

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On the walk back we got to experience being on the tracks as a train rumbled towards us, letting out blasts of its horn to let us know to get out of the way. It was the first time I have ever experienced this and I found it to be very exciting!

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After the hike we filled up on kothu roti before relaxing at the ever popular restaurant among foreigners, ‘Chill Cafe.’ We chatted and caught up on wifi while enjoying a passionfruit juice and fanta. We debated going to the tea factory 4 kms out of town, but decided it wouldn’t be worth it for us as we did a very similar tea tour in the South of India. The evening was spent lazily reading our own respective books before hitting the hay early.

The next day we caught a bus that would take us directly to the coast where beautiful beaches and weather were calling to us. The trip was very easy and took 4.5 hours to reach our destination of Mirissa. We booked at ExtremeHost Guesthouse for $10.5 CAD each a night, a complete steal as the room was beautiful. The guesthouse was a 3 minute walk from the beautiful beach where there was ample amounts of sand and beautiful turquoise water. We originally booked 3 nights, but ended up staying 8. After 11 full months of traveling both Chris and I need some sun, sand, and relaxation. This was the longest we stayed in any one place on the entire trip, and it was much needed. When we were planning the trip we set out to stop somewhere for at least a week every three months to make sure we didn’t get burnt out. That didn’t happen, and it really did catch up with us (to me especially). The timing and intensity of India wore on me terribly, stealing some of my traveling spirit and replacing it with a negative aura that needed to go. Being in one place for so long, building a daily routine, and getting a killer tan has me feeling rejuvenated and excited to head into our last leg in SouthEast Asia.

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We were originally meant to fly from Sri Lanka to Singapore, and then on to Indonesia, but we have had a change of plans. Neither Chris nor I were overly excited about traveling Indonesia, mainly because of the amount of time, effort and money needed to get between islands. Not to mention it is currently monsoon season and the ferries in Indonesia are notorious for sinking. In one year alone the ferry between Bali and the Gili islands, arguably the two most popular destinations in Indonesia, sank twice! I read a fellow bloggers entry about her experience surviving a shipwreck in Indonesia on a blogging trip and it was terrifying. Weighing all of these cons out lead us to the decision to fly from Singapore to Phnom Penh, Cambodia instead. We will spend the month we were going to spend in Indonesia traveling through Cambodia and Laos. We are very excited about the change as we think it is a better fit for us at this stage in our trip, especially on our budget. We were able to change our flight thanks to our MultiFlex pass with STA travel, and got a refund for £200! Happy Days!

Sri Lanka: Part 1

Hello everyone!

We arrived to Sri Lanka at 11:00 pm after a particularly turbulent plane trip due to the rain and wind. We cleared customs, grabbed our bag, and headed outside for our first tuktuk bartering session in the country. As with every airport, there are drivers waiting to prey on arriving passengers naivety, offering preposterous rates on the off chance they will accept. After two outrageous offers we found a very young driver who was reasonable and we settled on an agreeable price. We made it to our guesthouse shortly before midnight and immediately crashed after our outlandish last day in India.

The following day we woke early after getting a good nights rest and discussed our itinerary for Sri Lanka. We decided on spending the first part of our trip in the Cultural Triangle, a compilation of 5 cultural sites located within the centre of the country. We opted to head straight to the city of Anuradhapura, the city located furthest North in the triangle. It meant a long bus day for our first day in the country, but very short bus trips on the subsequent days. (Side note: do you know how to pronounce Anuradhapura? We certainly didn’t, and still don’t. Most place names in Sri Lanka are incredibly difficult owing to the number of syllables and interesting blend of consonants).

We inquired with our guesthouse about the best way to get to Anuradhapura and were delighted to hear buses leave every 30 minutes from the main station. The owners of the guesthouse were even kind enough to drop us on the main road to catch the local bus to the bus station! We had read about the local buses and their need for speed in several blogs, but that still didn’t quite prepare us for our first ride.

We identified the bus we needed by the number on the front and flagged it down. The bus slowed just enough for us to run and attempt to leap on, a monumental effort with all of our bags and a narrow opening due to people standing in the doorway. These people were ultimately our saviours as they pushed and pulled us onto the prehistoric beast that threatened to send us straight back out the door as it took off again at breakneck speed. We staggered down the aisle, the centrifugal force of the bus rounding a corner slamming us into our seats, knocking the wind out of us in the process. We have been on thousands of buses at this point, all having varying aspects of pandemonium, but that took the cake.

Once at the bus station we easily found our way to the correct platform for the bus we needed with the help of a very kind man. Chris grabbed us a few snacks from a vendor to hold us over until we made it to Anuradhapura, and we hopped on. What a joy to be able to not worry about reserving tickets in advance or missing one of the only buses of the day! This was how we traveled all throughout South America and it is by far our favorite way to get around, for obvious reasons.

We were happy to be boarding the bus at the station to avoid another running leap of faith as in our first experience. Despite being a ‘long-distance’ bus there was a noticable lack of luggage storage. The seats were also very small and packed tightly to fit the most number of people possible on the bus. This meant cramming ourselves and small bags in a ‘two-seater,’ while leaving our large bag at the front by the driver. The bus left the station at precisely the time we were told it would depart, a welcomed change from India. Our mounting enthusiasm for the buses in Sri Lanka took a major blow over the course of the five hour journey; the bus driver drove at a suicide speed, overtaking all vehicles on the road with complete disregard of oncoming traffic or blind corners. This was juxtaposed with slamming on the breaks to slow to pick other passengers with such force you were thrust into the seat ahead of you in a position not unlike the ‘brace’ position found on the airplane safety cards for emergency landings. All the while there was Sri Lankan hip-hop songs blaring at ear-splitting volumes over a state of the art speaker system, complete with a flat screen tv displaying the music video. There was no air-conditioning, only the ability to open the windows. Half-way through the journey it began to torrential downpour, necessitating the closure of said windows with the effect of a newfound sauna. The ride ended with both Chris and I dehydrated, migrainous, and feeling as if we had been in a car wreck several times over.

We haggled half heartedly with a tuktuk driver and arrived to our guesthouse, Shanketha Palace Hotel, deflated. Luckily, we were staying with the worlds sweetest couple and they welcomed us as if we were their own children. A welcome drink and several litres of water later, we were feeling much better. Things continued to improve upon seeing our room, one of the nicest we have had in our nearly 11 months of travel. The owner mentioned if we stayed two nights he had several promotions to offer and it was a no-brainer for us to accept; we would need more than a day to work up the courage to get back onto a bus. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and getting caught up on the ultra fast wifi connection. We opted for the buffet dinner that evening as it was the best bang for our buck and were treated to one of the best meals of our travels. Buffets generally conjure images of lukewarm, tasteless dishes, but this buffet was all homemade Sri Lankan dishes freshly prepared by the owners wife. All the dishes were made with such fresh and tasty ingredients, our tastebuds were in heaven.

The following day we woke up to the prospect of rain and made a gut-check decision to opt out of visiting the ruins of the ancient city. While they are the oldest of the cultural triangle, many bloggers wrote of their disappointment after visiting the ruins considering the entrance fee of $30 USD. We spent the day instead finalizing our license details as well as updating our resumes. We were very productive all day and overall very happy with our decision to not visit the ruins. We ordered the chicken curry for a late lunch/dinner and received the most delectable meal. It came with not only the curry and rice, but also 3 side dishes, unlimited papad, 2 incredible homemade sauces AND dessert. It was a feast that we thoroughly enjoyed.

The next day we said farewell to our amazing hosts, who dropped us at the bus station, for our next jaw clenching journey to our next unpronounceable city of Polonnaruwa. The ride was seemingly more tolerable than our first, or it could have been we were armed with a measuring stick. We arranged a tuktuk to bring us to our accommodation, Ruins Villa, and were met by the very welcoming owner who immediately went out of his way to help organize our day. We made sure to arrive early so we could visit the ruins the same day. He had bikes we could rent for the day (groan) as the ruins were spread quite far apart throught the town. We arranged to have dinner at the guesthouse after visiting the ruins, and set off on our biking adventure. The bike ride into the town where you purchase your ticket at the museum was a breathtaking ride (even on a bike). We biked along a small road that ran adjacent to the canal where locals bathe and wash their clothes, the children excitedly calling ‘Hello, Hello!’ as we passed. There were rice fields on the opposite side of the road, farmers busy preparing them for the season which starts in a few weeks. Before we knew it we had gone the 4kms to the main road and reached the museum. We bought our tickets, walked briskly around the museum, and hopped back on our bikes to head to the different ruin sites.

The first site listed was on the hill above the museum and when we biked to the top we discovered a lovely lake. Abandoning the archeological site visit, we decided to bike along the road that went around the perimeter of the lake. After 20 minutes of riding we came to several ruins that we had originally not intended on visiting as they were far from the others, but our joy ride brought us there anyway. We then continued to bike down the lake road until the road turned inland. As we were turning around on our bikes we heard a very loud rustling beside us in the ditch, and when Chris saw what had caused the noise he let out a yelp and jumped off his bike, beckoning me to do the same. He couldn’t even articulate what it was that he saw, he just kept saying, ‘Holy shit it was big!’ He finally settled down enough to describe a komodo dragon like creature. He spotted another one a bit further down and when we got closer I was shocked to see the size of the creature. It was absolutely massive and very intimidating. We have since learned they are Asian Water Monitors, the second heaviest lizard after the komodo dragons. Google image to see what they look like, and then picture having no idea they run amuck in the country you are in until you almost run one over!

We continued our bike ride to the main ruin site without any further animal scares. We made our way slowly through the massive complex, engrossed with the beauty of the ruins and surrounding area. It was well worth the hefty entrance fee of $25 USD as we spent 5 hours biking and exploring the sites. Check out the pics below!

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As we were leaving one of the sites two guys stopped and began chatting with us, and it turns out one of them holds the world record for having had the most number of tractors driven over his abdomen. He excitedly showed us videos of the record, explaining he has very strong abdominal muscles. The beauty of traveling- random encounters!

Finishing our visit of the ruins around 4pm, we headed into town to pick up snacks and more water before relaxing at the guesthouse. Another couple from France had checked in while we were out, and we spent the evening chatting and sharing beer over dinner. Alcohol is very expensive in Sri Lanka, for one beer it is around $3-4 CAD depending where you are. After the few shared over dinner we decided that was it for us for Sri Lanka, far too expensive to indulge in!

The next morning we headed to the train station to book our train ticket from Kandy to Ella, a famous train ride that notoriously sells out days in advance. Tickets in hand for three days time, we hopped on a bus to the next town in the cultural triangle, Sigiriya.

We arrived early to our homestay and the owners mother was the only one home. She spoke zero english, but handed us a handwritten note from her daughter explaining what time she finished work for the day, and how to occupy ourselves in the meantime. The mother made us a pot of tea, and we utilized the wi-fi until her daughter showed up from work. As there was still time to do something, but not enough to climb lions rock, she suggested we climb another rock, called Pidurangala Rock. The entrance fee for this rock was only 500 rupees ($4.60 CAD), versus the fee for Sigiriya Lion Rock which is 4200 rupees ($39 CAD)! She arranged a tuktuk to pick us up and drop us back off as it was over 6 kms to the start of the climb.

The clouds looked threatening as we made our way to the start of the climb, and we prayed we would make it without getting absolutely dumped on. Our tuktuk driver stopped briefly at a temple, where I snapped a beautiful picture of the Buddha before we continued on to our destination.

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We began our climb to the top of the rock, meeting several very sweaty tourists on their way down. I tried to mentally prepare myself for a tough climb based on the sweat level of these tourists, but it never arrived. It was an easy, gentle uphill ascent, with a bit of scrambling over boulders at the end. I am still confused how the other tourists worked up such a lather, but I was thankful to avoid ending up in the same state.

The view from the top was beautiful, it gave a wonderful perspective to Lion Rock and the surrounding area. Lion Rock looms 200 meters above the lowlands, the remnants of an eroded volcano ontop of which are the archeological ruins of an ancient city and palace. We spent an hour at the top of Pidurangala enjoying the view from all angles.

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We finished our visit and headed back to our homestay, where our host prepared us a lovely dinner before we passed out early for the evening.

The next morning had us rising at 6 am, enjoying a breakfast of sweet coconut pancakes at 6:30, and heading to Lions Rock at 7. We wanted to make sure we had ample time at the top before the clouds rolled in. It was a lovely walk to the entrance of the park, meeting a very sweet older lady along the way who spoke perfect english and wanted to have my address so she could write me a letter. This is just another example of how friendly and welcoming the people of Sri Lanka are, we have been overwhelmed with kindess since we have arrived. She was so adorable, check out the picture of her and Chris below!

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We made it to Lions Rock a half hour later, begrudgingly paying the insane entrance fee before making our way through the gardens to the start of the climb. We had a beautiful sunny morning, affording some fantastic pictures.

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The first part of the climb led us to a winding staircase with perfectly preserved paintings on the walls of the cave at the top. Chris remarked they must not have been ‘butt-men’ in their society.

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We then went down the otherside of the staircase and continued our ascent. Soon after the paintings we arrived at the entrance to the mountain kingdom, a staircase flanked by two humongous lion feet. Apparently, the stairs used to be inside a massive lions head, but that no longer remains.

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A 10 minute climb later had us on the summit of the rock amongst the archeological ruins. I couldn’t help notice the parallels between this experience and our experience at Machu Picchu, minus the massive numbers of people at Machu Picchu. I was equally, if not more, impressed with our experience with Lion Rock and would highly recommend visiting (despite the massive pricetag). We sat for a long time at the top, chatting and taking in the stunning 360° views.

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We then began out descent and headed back to our homestay where we grabbed our bags and headed to the main road to catch a bus to our next stop, Dambulla. While we were waiting for the bus a tuktuk driver approached us stating he was heading back to Dambulla and rather than go empty, he was willing to take us for a very reasonable price. We happily hopped in, saving both time and energy by avoiding the bus.

The tuktuk driver dropped us at our next guesthouse and we checked-in quickly before grabbing a bite for lunch and heading to the Golden Temple and Rock Temples. We were yet again working against the weather clock, as dark clouds were rolling in as we began our climb to the rock temples. We had a lovely visit of the temples, I snapped loads of pictures with varying rates of success with the lighting. It is remarkable to me the immaculate state of the ancient temples, in terms of both the wall paintings and statues.

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Our visit to Dambulla and the Rock Temples and The Golden Temple was the last major archeological site in the cultural triangle. We enjoyed the sites we visited in the triangle, but the entrance fees to all were much higher than we anticipated. This is something you should account for in your budget if you are planning a visit to Sri Lanka!

Even more than the sites we visited, we relished in the surrounding beauty of Sri Lanka. It is one of the most visually stunning countries we have been too. More than that, the people are some of the kindest we have ever had the pleasure of interacting with. The food continues to be a major highlight, eating most of our meals at our guesthouses/homestays as there is not a major restaurant culture in Sri Lanka. At its closest it is a mere 35 kms from India, but it has felt a world apart, in the best way possible.