We were in Sri Lanka recently for a brief trip where I was talking at the PTBA TBC Asia conference. We did want to spend a bit of time exploring, particularly as Jess hadn’t visited before, but we only had four full days to tour, so had to be pretty focused on what we wanted to see.
As a tea lover, Jess was keen to visit a tea plantation – Sri Lanka being world famous for its tea production. I was particularly interested in wildlife spotting, and in particular, heading south to Yala to see leopards, something I had failed to do on my previous two trips to the country.
With this very specific set of requirements, and only four days to play with, we got in touch with Jetwing Eco Holidays, who happen to specialise in custom built itineraries. They said that yes, our itinerary was entirely possible – with the warning that it would involve a fair bit of driving, as the tea plantation area isn’t that close to the leopard area.
We decided we were fine with this as it meant we were going to be able to see everything we wanted, with the added bonus that all our transport was also going to be handled. So all we had to do was relax and enjoy ourselves. Win!
In today’s post I’m going to go over what our four day trip looked like, some of our highlights, to give you an idea as to whether or not this sort of trip might work for your visit to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Tour Day 1 & 2 – Colombo to Tea Trails
Our adventure started in Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka. This is where the airport is located, so is pretty much where every traveller will start their Sri Lanka journey. We were picked up from our Colombo hotel by our driver, Nawfer, who was with us for our whole trip, in a minibus that sat around 8 – 10 people. So plenty of room for the two of us and our baggage – with lots of room to spare! The seats also reclined an incredible amount if we wanted to sleep – something we took advantage of on our last day when we headed back up to the airport.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the start.
Our first day consisted of a fair amount of driving. Whilst distances in Sri Lanka tend not to be great, the roads for the most part are also not great, so it takes a while to get around. Getting from Colombo up to the tea plantation where we were staying was around a 4 – 5 hour drive. Nawfer was a great driver, Sri Lankan traffic can be a scary experience if you’re not used to it, but we never felt anything but safe in his hands.
On our journey we were able to stop if we saw something scenic that we wanted to photograph – one of the definite advantages to not being on a group tour was this flexibility. So we stopped to take pictures of an elephant having a bath in a river we crossed, as well as some waterfalls and, as we ascended into hill country, shots of mountains and tea plantations.
We also stopped for lunch on the way up at a lovely little restaurant by the river, where we had excellent fried rice and delicious fresh juices. One of my favourite things about Sri Lanka is the abundance of fruit, and the fact that there are so many excellent fresh juices to drink!
Finally, after a good long drive, we arrived at our home for the next couple of nights – the exquisite Ceylon Tea Trails property. This is the world’s first tea bungalow resort, and is made up of five restored colonial era tea bungalows. There are 26 rooms in total, but the bungalows are spread out around Castlereigh Resevoir, and each is really a self-contained property, with around 4 – 6 rooms available.
We stayed at the Tientsin Bungalow for two nights. This was a six bedroom property, which also featured a pool, billiards room, veranda, tennis court and croquet lawn. We stayed in the Brebham Luxury Room, which was just gorgeous, featuring a lovely huge bed, as well as a massive bathtub – the latter making Jess very happy indeed.
Being a fully inclusive property, everything during our stay was included. That meant all our food and drinks, which also included copious amounts of tea! We arrived just in time for a full afternoon tea, and also to discover that we were the only guests that night – this being the off season for this part of Sri Lanka due to it being the rainy season. Thankfully, the weather was fairly co-operative during our time there, with just a few rain showers in the afternoons.
Tea Trails was a really fabulous experience. The staff were friendly and attentive, and catered to our every need. Each day the chef would discuss with us the menu to be sure that we were getting what we wanted, and if we had any requests at all they would do their best to cater to them. We are pretty easy as guests I like to think, but I was keen to have mangoes for breakfast, and that was arranged for us.
Jess has done a full review of our two day Tea Trails experience, which covers all the bungalows that we visited (you can opt to have meals in different bungalows if you want a change of scenery), as well as more detail on our tea factory tour. You should definitely check that out if you want to know more.
Suffice to say that if you’re visiting Sri Lanka and want to experience true luxury in magnificent surroundings, you can’t go wrong with Tea Trails. Plus, you can even fly here if you’re not into the car ride, as the lake handily doubles as an airport for the local seaplane service!
During our Tea Trails stay, everything was handled by Tea Trails themselves, including transport between the bungalows. So we didn’t need the services of our driver and we didn’t see him during our stay. Our second day was spent enjoying the Tea Trails service, eating delicious food, and taking the aforementioned tour of the fully operational tea factory.
Again, Jess covers all this in her super-detailed post. Let’s forward on to our third day, where we sadly had to bid farewell to our fantastic Tea Trails team, all that delicious food and tea, and start our journey south.
Sri Lanka Tour Day 3 – The Road to Yala
The drive was incredibly scenic, winding over the tea covered hillsides of this part of Sri Lanka. As before, we were free to request stops whenever we saw something photogenic, something which happened a lot, with wonderful sights around seemingly every corner.
We stopped in the town of Bandarawela, one of the larger towns in hill country, for a cup of tea at around 11am. Very civilised. Then, it was on to a lunch stop at a restaurant with one of the finest views I’ve ever had to accompany fried rice, followed by a pause at Rawana Falls, a gorgeous 25 metre high waterfall which is one of the widest in the country.
A few photos later, and our journey continued. Our trip felt a bit more structured on this day, with more impressive stops scheduled than on our first day. My advice for a tour like this is to be sure that if there’s anything you really want to see, to make that clear up front.
A highlight of the day was definitely Buduruvagala, an ancient Buddhist temple, which features seven Buddha statues carved into a huge rock face. The largest of these is 16 metres in height, making it the largest standing Buddha statue in Sri Lanka.
Getting to Buduravagala was also a bit of fun. The main road was out, and the alternative route was unsuitable for our van. So we took a tuk-tuk instead, manned by an enterprising young chap who had clearly figured out a good way to capitalise on a broken bridge. It was only a 15 minute ride or so each way, and a lot of fun!
After Buduravagala, we continued on for the last section of our trip, stopping only a couple more times for some photos, once of some roadside monkeys, and then to take some pictures of a temple. And then we arrived at our camp, just before sunset, ready for dinner.
Jetwing Yala offers a couple of types of accommodation. There’s a traditional hotel, with the sort of rooms you would expect from a good hotel. Beds, walls, floors, en-suite facilities, a TV – that sort of thing.
Then, there’s the tented camp. I’ve never actually stayed in a tented camp, although Jess has experience staying in them in Africa, and we decided this would be more of an adventure.
Of course, a luxury tented camp is a little different to my previous camping experience, particularly my year living in a tent in Australia. To start with, there’s a proper, giant bed. And a wardrobe. And a fridge. And power. And an en-suite bathroom. It’s basically a gorgeous room that happens to be made out of canvas.
Oh, we had our own butler as well, the lovely Thilanka, who not only made fantastic towel animals on our bed, accompanied by scented petals, but also chauffeured us to and from our tented accommodation. This wasn’t just for fun – at night there is the risk of running into wildlife, so a golf cart is a safer mode of transport.
We definitely loved our tent. But we couldn’t spend too much time loving it, as we had to both get dinner and an early night, as our morning safari was starting at 5.30am.
Dinner was buffet style, with a good mix of Sri Lanka specialties and more European style dishes. We had the option of dining inside or under the spectacular night sky with the sound of the sea – no prizes for guessing which option we went with!
And then it was to bed, and an early wake up call for our fourth day.
Sri Lanka Tour Day 4 – Safari in Yala National Park
With our alarm going just after five, we had time to make coffee in our room (no day is ever going to go well without coffee), before our butler arrived to chauffer us to our waiting safari jeep, which was parked outside the hotel reception. Our safari was a private trip, so it was just Jess and I, our Jetwing driver, Nawfer, and the jeep driver.
The jeep was much like most safari jeeps, with six comfortable seats in the back of a flatbed pickup, and a roof (to stop leopards falling on our heads), but no windows or anything like that to obstruct the view. The seats all had excellent views, so we had plenty of choice in terms of where we sat.
From our hotel we drove to the Yala National Park entrance. The park opens at around 6am, and there’s usually a queue of jeeps waiting to get in. There aren’t any accommodation options in the park itself, but Jetwing Yala was only about a five minute drive from the entrance gate, so it wasn’t very far. Our driver paid the entry fee, and when the gates opened, we were in!
Now, the big draw of Yala, and the whole reason I was visiting, was of course to see a leopard. Yala National Park has one of the highest density of leopards in the world, with around 25 leopards believed to be in the part of Yala that is open to the public. So, in theory, this is one of the best places in the world to see leopards.
That isn’t of course a guarantee. Leopards are wild animals, and do whatever they want. So we just had to hope. Would we see a leopard? I very much hoped so.
There are of course far more animals in Yala than leopards. There are over 215 bird species, and we saw a huge crested serpent eagle only a few minutes after entering the park. If you’re into bird watching, Yala is kind of a dream come true.
There are also plenty of mammals, 44 species in fact, with notable highlights being (other than the leopard!) the elephants, Sri Lanka sloth bear, wild water buffalo and red slender loris. The loris being nocturnal, we weren’t optimistic, but we were hoping for the others.
To put you out of your state of leopard suspense, I am delighted to say that we did see leopard in Yala. In fact, within our first hour we came across a leopard stalking a herd of deer. He was lying in wait for them to come closer, which they did, and then in a controlled explosion of dust, he made his move.
Unfortunately for him, he failed to get his timing exactly right, so the herd of deer made their escape, and he slunk back into the forest shadows without his breakfast.
With the leopard sighting in the bag, we could really relax and enjoy the rest of our safari. We’d brought packed breakfasts with us, so we paused by the beach for a short while to enjoy these, and then carried on. We saw all sorts of animals, from elephant to crocodile, wild water buffalo, and countless bird species – as well as two more leopards! Suffice to say, a fantastic morning.
By 11am it was starting to get hot, so we headed back to the hotel. We did have the choice to do an all day safari, or to take two safaris, one morning and one afternoon, and we opted for the later, thinking it might be nice to take a break at the hotel for a while.
This was an excellent idea. Safari’ing is dusty, thirsty work, so a swim in the hotel pool along with a bite to eat and a refreshing iced coffee was just the ticket. Then we were able to relax for a little while before starting our afternoon safari at around 2.30pm.
Having seen three leopards (I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of course!), our driver turned his attention to finding a sloth bear. This is a small bear species with long claws and a mouth designed to suck up a lot of insects at once – their primary diet. Despite the name, they’re not related to sloths, nor are they particularly slow, but they are able to hang upside down like sloths, which may explain the name a bit.
We were lucky enough to see two sloth bears. Once, we had an encounter all to ourselves, with a sloth bear crossing the road in front of us. The second time there were multiple vehicles, and the sloth bear walked right past our seats – close enough to touch had I leant out!
This was a wonderful way to wrap up a superb day of safari in a beautiful country.Yala is a truly wonderful national park to take a safari in, and I’d say it’s an absolute must if you visit Sri Lanka. We saw plenty more animals that I’ve not mentioned here, and we could have happily gone back for more days if we’d had the time.
As it was, that was our last day! We had a super early start the next morning, as Nawfer drove us all the way back to Colombo in order to get our plane home, and wave farewell to Sri Lanka – likely not for the last time! Now, let’s talk about some practicalities.
How do You Plan A Short Tour in Sri Lanka?
Whilst it is of course possible to do a trip like this on your own, we found that using Jetwing Eco Holidays was a wonderful way to take the hassle of planning out of the equation, as well as give us more flexibility and freedom to do exactly what we wanted. The whole trip was customised to precisely our requirements, and having the same driver throughout was also just right for us.
The benefits definitely made the trip for us, particularly having the vehicle to ourselves, meaning we could stop whenever and wherever we wanted, based on our interests.
Jetwing Eco Holidays offer a fully tailored experience, or they have a number of preset tour itineraries that you can pick from. Overall, we can definitely recommend Jetwing Eco Holidays to anyone looking to do a custom, tailor made Sri Lanka tour.
Further Reading on Sri Lanka
If you’ve got more time to play with in Sri Lanka, or just want a bit more information on visiting, check out my two week Sri Lanka itinerary. That is stuffed full of practical advice and tips for your trip, plus has a detailed two week itinerary to help you plan your visit.
And that sums up our four day Sri Lanka tour! Definitely not enough time to explore all that this magnificent country has to offer, but we were thrilled by what we were able to see. Have you been to Sri Lanka? What would you recommend for a four day tour? Let us know in the comments below!
So you know: our Sri Lanka tour was provided to us complimentary of Jetwing Eco, who covered the majority of our meals, as well as our transport and applicable entry fees. Our time at Ceylon Tea Trails was courtesy of Tea Trails themselves. We’d like to thank both of these firms for a wonderful trip, and of course, to let you know that all our opinions remain our own. For more information on who we choose to work with, and what that means, you can read our code of ethics.