Hot, sticky humidity is my first experience of overseas travel. As soon as the plane doors open in Colombo after an 11-hour flight from Sydney, I feel the sweat dripping down my face.
But with plenty of breathable linen, cotton and silk clothing stowed safely in my suitcase, I'm ready to explore the island of Sri Lanka which floats like a tear drop off the southern tip of India.
I grew up in regional NSW in quiet, slow towns. At the age of 25, I've never left Australia before and nothing prepares me for the big three Cs of this pearl in the Indian Ocean: culture, colour and chaos.
My body is telling me it's 4am when our Sri Lankan Airlines flight lands, but it is only 11.30pm local time. As locals crowd around the arrival gates there's a tightness in my chest and the pit of my stomach and I don't know if it's fear or excitement.
But I spy my driver holding up a sign with my name on it and I feel like a real VIP from a Hallmark rom-com, the main character rolling effortlessly out of the airport and into a waiting personal car.
The next 45 minutes en route to the Radisson Hotel is spent in blissful air-conditioned comfort.
Upon arrival, I'm greeted with a cocktail and a tray of desserts in my room, including sticky dates draped in pistachios and chocolate-covered strawberries. I indulge and let it sink in that I'm in another country for the first time in my life.
Sri Lanka is rebuilding following a series of mass protests in 2022 when its government was heavily criticised for mismanaging the economy. The country is hoping for a tourism boost to bring it back from turmoil and rebuild an image of safety and security for overseas visitors.
As a young Australian woman with blonde hair there's no doubt in my mind I am going to cop some stares and I feel nervous being a first-time traveller. But the warmth of smiles from the Sinhalese and Tamil people make me feel at ease and I don't once feel unsafe during my six-day stay.
I start in the capital and travel three hours north-east to Kandy and then south to Galle taking in famous landmarks such as the Lotus Tower, elaborate temples and the Galle Fort. From these extraordinary sights to bizarre encounters with street animals, Sri Lanka kept me on my toes.
Here is my countdown of my top 10 experiences:
For comparison, Sri Lanka is roughly the size of Tasmania. The population of the Apple Isle is about 541,000, while Sri Lanka's is a whopping 22.16 million. Now imagine the population of Australia squished into Tasmania and that's what you're dealing with in Sri Lanka. After a city bus tour and swerving through the tumultuous traffic of buses, tuktuks, bikes and cars, a highlight for me was wandering down the main street of Sri Lanka's biggest city Colombo on foot.
The drag is filled with market stalls containing anything and everything from food and jewellery to underwear, with shopkeepers constantly calling out to try and sell you something. Crossing the road is a test of faith. If you step out, the traffic will either stop or swerve around you. It's almost like a game. I don't think I walked in a straight line once as I dodged vehicles and locals carrying bags of rice on their shoulders or pushing wagons full of local produce.
Colombo's 350-metre-tall Lotus Tower is a symbolic landmark in Sri Lanka. The green and pink building, quite literally shaped and coloured like a lotus, gives you a 360-degree view of the city from 13 floors high in the sky. If you're familiar with Sydney icons it very much felt like the Centrepoint Tower. It really put into perspective for me where I was. Over to one side I saw the stunning blue of the Indian Ocean where it met the sky, and on the other were speckles of colour composed of buildings, train yards, temples, mosques, cricket pitches and bustling roads.
I'm a typical Aussie, I love an ice-cold beer but it would be rude not to indulge in local concoctions while abroad. The island's fruit bounty includes mangos and pineapples - two of my favourite things and if you add a splash of alcohol, it's the perfect recipe. I ended most of my days with a sunset cocktail at the Radisson hotel's rooftop bar paired with the candy-coloured skyline and contemporary music. It was an excellent way to escape the hustle and bustle of down below and have a moment to soak it all in. My top picks of the trip were the Vanilla Passion - fresh passionfruit and vanilla shaken with vodka and served long; and the Breezer - rum, fresh pineapple juice, simple syrup with lime and soda, garnished with a fresh wedge of pineapple. The best part was they were an absolute bargain during happy hour between 5pm and 7pm at just $4.60.
Sri Lanka is rich in biodiversity, and the people utilise their natural resources for healing. I wandered through the New Paradise and Herbal Spice Garden at Mawanella, in the country's Central Province, where I was met with the scents of vanilla, cocoa, aloe vera, pepper, coffee, cinnamon and ginger. Medical doctor Bundara shared his knowledge of traditional medicine and how each plant has a purpose. There's a plantation factory on site and a small chemist where you can purchase their traditional medicines. I bought some herbal balm because the chaotic traffic made my insides turn on the tour bus. With a quick dab of balm on the centre of my forehead and on the middle of my neck, to my surprise it made me feel better.
A visit to the Lunuganga estate, the country home of the late renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, was magnificent. He purchased the 10-hectare neglected rubber plantation in Bentota, on the country's south-west coast, in 1948. The estate overlooks a lake which is actually a lagoon branching from the Bentota River. Pieces of recycled furniture decorate the property and the man had a spot for everything - a place to eat lunch, to enjoy dinner, to work, to watch the sunset, each of them overlooking the lake.
He was drawn to themes of black and white squares in his decor. Tour guide Krishna, who led me through the garden, said Bawa didn't like it when things were moved; they had to stay in the same place. It felt like a privilege to walk through his home - now a hotel - and I appreciated his attention to detail and the way he used the landscape and natural light to shade buildings. What a very clever man.
Smooth, velvety and probably the best coffee I've ever tasted was a coconut cappuccino I found when exploring the European-built Galle Fort. I noticed a sign that said "Italian coffee" on Pedlar Street, the main drag of the fort and I thought it might be worth a shot. After a few days of instant coffee I had been missing a proper caffeine fix. Nestled behind a poster shop was a newly opened - 10 days old to be exact - cafe called Bacuzzi. Hidden in a cosy courtyard with decorative greenery and light-washed walls, owner Jack took my order and told me the Italian-inspired cafe was "like jacuzzi but with a B". It was a fun, vibrant atmosphere with high beat music setting the scene; it felt like a slice of modern Europe in Asia.
A tuktuk is a must-ride when visiting Asian countries and I came to love an attempt at bargaining with tuktuk drivers. Some even offer to be hired as personal tour guides for between 500 and 1500 Sri Lanklan rupees, equivalent to $3 to $8. They're probably my preferred method of transport around Sri Lanka with their ability to manoeuvre and swerve through the streets, around people and other traffic. My first ride was a memorable one where we bargained with a local to drive us from the Main Street of Colombo back to the hotel. After some negotiation we settled on a decent price only to run out of fuel, sweat it out and wait 15 minutes at the petrol station to finally get back on route, only for the clutch to start going in the blue three-wheeler.
Visiting one of the most sacred places in Sri Lanka - which houses the tooth relic of Lord Buddha - at sunset was nothing short of magical. I felt a new sense of appreciation for the people and their religion. The temple building itself was magnificent as it sat amplified against a pink and orange sky with the mountains of Kandy in the background.
As I walked towards the temple I had a brief interaction with an elderly Sinhalese woman. She was carrying a lotus flower on her head. The creases in her sugary brown skin were prominent as she smiled at me, pointing to the pink and white flower I held. She motioned her hand attempting to get me to place it on my head. It was a small moment between two strangers from two different walks of life.
I got up close and personal with the wildlife on the island, from street animals to elephants and turtles. There are no glass walls, no steel bars, no cages. Having the chance to see these national treasures of Sri Lanka was an ultimate highlight as I fed a wild Asian elephant at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, where about 80 elephants roam freely around 10 hectares. For 1000 rupees I fed a basket of fruit to Supali the elephant.
She was playful and knew it was snack time as I stood close to her with a mix of bananas, watermelon and pineapple. With her trunk in the air and mouth open wide it was as though she was smiling. Gentle and clever, she posed for a photo with me. Over in Galle, at the Ahungalla Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Centre, I held a one-day-old baby sea turtle. Unfortunately the torrential rain meant I missed the chance to watch them be released into the ocean.
It's 9.30pm, and I watch as steam rises from the cobblestone path in the World Heritage-listed Galle Fort following a tropical shower. I'm sitting on the porch of the Galle Fort Hotel while sipping on a pint of Sri Lankan beer called Lion. It has aromas of XXXX Gold in my beer-tasting opinion. This deeply historic place - the fort dates to the 16th century - has a homey feel as I sit under the fairy lights, watching people stroll the evening streets. It's serene. After finishing my beer I too wander the streets of the fort, braving a light sprinkle of rain before catching a tuktuk with glowing green lights back to my hotel. It was the most beautiful night. Galle was glorious. It exceeded my expectations in every way. The people, the culture, the history ... I went to Sri Lanka with an open mind and it was everything and more.
The writer was a guest of La Vie Hotels & Resorts and Sri Lankan Airlines
Getting there: Sri Lankan Airlines has daily direct flights from Melbourne to Colombo, and thrice-weekly direct flights from Sydney, see srilankan.com
Staying there: In Colombo, the city centre and oceanfront 158-room Radisson hotel has rooms from about $180 a night. Rates at the 122-room Radisson Hotel Kandy start from about $200. The seaside Radisson Blu Resort Galle has 172 rooms, priced from about $275. See radissonhotels.com.
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