Backpacking in Sri Lanka with Young Children
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A brief outline of our April 2019 itinerary…
- Negombo Day 1
- Mirissa Day 2-5
- Tangalle Day 6
- Tissamaharama Day 7-8
- Ella Day 9-12
- Nuwara Eliya Day 13-16
- Kandy Day 17
- Colombo Day 18
In April 2019, we went backpacking through Sri Lanka with our young children aged two and four. Our sole aim was to see and do as much as possible. This is now my absolute favourite holiday destination, nowhere I have been comes close.
Having spent a good part of our lives backpacking around various countries in our pre-kids lives, we decided now was the time to introduce our children to the experience. Read this to see what made us decide. For anyone who is considering a trip around the southern part of Sri Lanka and have young children or not, this should give you an overview of our route.
We booked accommodation and a whale watching trip before we left but nothing else. The weather at the time was around 30°C along the coast and sunny most of the day. As we went into the mountains the temperature drops to around 15-20°C and there some were heavy rain showers, however, they don’t last long.
We stayed in home-stays and guesthouses, half to keep the price down and half to get a truer experience than you tend to get in hotels.
So here’s what we did and how we did it…
We flew into Bandaranaike International Airport. This is not actually in Colombo, but closer to Negombo, a small beach town, north of the capital.
We landed in Sri Lanka about 2am, not a great time to arrive with two young children but we booked to stay in Negombo in order to get them to bed asap. We arranged a taxi from the main airport kiosk and headed north for about 20 minutes to our first night’s accommodation.
Sri Lanka with Children – Day 1 – Negombo (1 Night)
This was only a stopover to sleep and then head down south the next morning. This is a pretty common move, apparently, but from speaking to others in the guesthouse Negombo is well worth a visit on its own.
Accommodation The Hermitage Our host was very friendly and cooked us an amazing breakfast, even after waiting up in the middle of the night for us to arrive.
TIP – The breakfast in Sri Lanka generally consists of fresh fruit and yoghurt served with ‘Hoppers’ which are basically bowl-shaped pancakes, some of which with an egg inside and rolled pancakes with coconut. The kids loved all of this.
Journey from Negombo to Mirissa
Our host at the Hermitage arranged a taxi to take us straight to Mirissa. The journey took about 3-3.5 hours. It was pretty much motorway all the way, not a lot to see. We thought about getting the train, but unless you’re actually in Colombo, I wouldn’t bother trying to get to the train station. If you’re in Negombo, save yourself the trouble and get a taxi. There will be plenty of train rides later on.
Sri Lanka with Children – Day 2-5– Mirissa (4 Nights)
Mirissa is a beach town with a long stretch of sand. It’s brilliant, but be very careful in the sea with kids, some of the currents can be a little unpredictable at times. Definitely don’t avoid going in the water, just be aware.
The town has three relatively distinct bays. Most of the action is in the larger bay where the main beach is, there are restaurants on and off the front including various shops and a supermarket.
Whilst having lunch we spotted a few turtles coming up for air in the middle bay. Due to the currents at the time, the visibility wasn’t great but grab your snorkel and take a swim, we saw a few big turtles appear in front of us before disappearing into the murky waters. Be careful about the coral on the ground, it’s very sharp so try not to put your feet down unless you want them ripped to shreds.
Take a walk up Parrot Rock, it’s got a good view of the bay and then get yourself to Coconut Tree Hill. It’s a clifftop, easily accessible with lots of tall palm trees…an Instagrammer’s paradise.
Whale Watching – Worthy of an entire post of its own. We had pre-booked with Raja and the Whales, they had a lot of good reviews and seemed to care a lot about the whales’ wellbeing. Our trip lasted about four hours, we saw five blue whales and about 100 spinner dolphins.
We were there early April 2019 which was coming to the end of the season on the south side of the island so if this is high on your list of things to do, the best time to see whales in Mirissa runs from November to April / May.
We had read some pretty scary reviews about being out for 11 hours etc, we thought the risk of that was worth it for what we saw.
TIP – You get given seasickness tablets but they are only for adults. I would definitely recommend taking medicine for kids and also the motion sickness wristbands.
Eco Lagoon Safari – Although rated highly on TripAdvisor, this doesn’t get advertised that much, no-one we spoke to knew of it. I would, however, 100% recommend this.
I can’t do it justice right here, but you are taken around a large lake on a raft with your captain pointing out various wildlife. You’ll get tea and a snack as you watch the sunset then a huge number of fruit bats will fly over your head from the nearby trees, 10,000-20,000 maybe.
They’re high enough up if you’re not keen on being close to bats but close enough for this to be one of the highlights of the holiday. Whilst it’s a small raft, its perfectly safe for kids and I didn’t feel like they were in any danger of falling in.
TIP – Do a search for the guide’s number on Google and send him a Whatsapp message. He will pick you up from your accommodation and drop you off. As of this very moment, according to Google, his number is showing as +94 77 916 9058
Accommodation Liyonage Resort –A guesthouse with a welcome swimming pool. Owned by a very friendly family who made us breakfast overlooking the sea. It’s a little bit out from the main strip of restaurants, you can walk but it’ll be a good 20 minutes in the heat. Very easy to catch a Tuk Tuk from on the main road.
TIP – Wherever you’re going, ask your host how much a reasonable price is for a Tuk Tuk. This will give you an idea of current prices for getting around to help with your bargaining. It’s not wise to always accept the first price.
Definitely at some point have dinner at one of the many beachfront restaurants, they all have similar menus but some have happy hour at different times.
TIP – keep an eye out for any baby turtle eggs hatching, as we were having our dinner on the beach one evening, one popped out the sand and ran to the water.
Journey from Mirissa to Tangalle
After four nights, (though we could have stayed longer) we left Mirissa to head towards Tissamaharama (Tissa) to go on safari but to break up the journey we stopped for a night in Tangalle. We took a Tuk Tuk from Mirissa which took about 1hr 20 mins.
Sri Lanka with Children – Day 6– Tangalle (1 Night)
This was never actually meant to be on our itinerary but following a mix up when planning, we found ourselves with a spare night so took the opportunity to see another place on our way to Tissa. As we were only here for one night, we didn’t get to explore it as much as we would have liked but check out this blog for more detail on Tangalle.
Tangalle suffered heavily in the 2004 Tsunami however is slowly starting to recover. We stayed for one afternoon and that night. We spent the day in one of the very few open beach bars eating ice creams and pancakes whilst playing on the beach and the massive waves.
The water seemed safe enough close to the beach but I would avoid going out very far given the strong currents.
Stopping over here worked out well as it was a good rest in-between exploring Mirissa and the days that were to follow. That evening we had a great seafood dinner at Oceana Beach Cafe, whilst watching hundreds of green parrots flying between the trees.
Accommodation – Karadiya Beach Resort -This was not a great place to stay to be honest, the reviews on booking.com are either fabricated or well out of date (in fact when I last checked, they were no longer on booking.com). It was really hard to find as they had changed their sign, there were no facilities and the room was dirty with ants crawling throughout the bathroom. The owners were friendly enough which was the only positive.
I’ve stayed in pretty poor places in my time, but this place needs a lot of work, there would be better places to stay. There are a number of guesthouses along the beach and in the main town.
Journey from Tangalle to Tissa
Our accommodation in Tissa offered to collect us from Tangalle (for a price of course) we agreed just for the ease of things, it would have been cheaper getting another Tuk Tuk or a direct taxi but we let this one slide. The journey took about 1hr 30mins.
Sri Lanka with Children – Day 7 -8 Tissamaharama (2 Nights)
The following morning we headed over towards Yala National Park, we spent a lot of time debating about whether to go here to Yala or Udawalawe.
Ultimately Yala has leopards and fewer elephants, Udawalawe has no Leopards but more elephants, but for more detail, there’s a really good comparison here.
TIP – If you’re doing the same route, on your way to Tissa, ask your driver to pop into Bundala National Park, it’s on the way and didn’t take long, there is no entrance fee and we saw a herd of buffalo having a bath, there are crocodiles here also, but we didn’t see any at the time.
Everyone goes to Tissa for one reason, safari. It’s up to you whether you book the tour before you come, we didn’t and it turned out to be the right choice, there are lots of travel companies around etc if your accommodation can’t sort it for you. (they will almost certainly be able to, most of the accommodation providers are set up for people coming on safari). We arrived in the afternoon and went the following afternoon. An early morning slot is also available.
When you arrive at the gates to Yala, you’ll be pressured into paying for a guide, you don’t really need one, the drivers are all pretty good at spotting animals and all the drivers talk to each other so between them they know where the animals are at that time. The trip lasts about three hours which I think is long enough. It’s a really good trip and the kids absolutely loved searching for the animals.
One thing I will say, the safari in Sri Lanka really is good but having also been to Africa, there is no comparison to this. Not to take anything away from Sri Lanka but if your ultimate goal is to go on a once in a lifetime, truly amazing safari, Kenya or Tanzania is the place to go.
I heard Sri Lanka is the only place in the world you could see the biggest animal in the sea (blue whale) and the biggest animal on the land (elephant) in the same day, whether that is true (or logistically feasible) or not I don’t know, but it is pretty cool.
Tissa isn’t huge, there’s a large lake you can walk around and operators offering boat rides.
If you look up in the trees you will likely see hundreds of fruit bats sleeping. Make sure you look up again as the sun sets and you’ll again be greeted with thousands of them flying off on their travels.
One day in Tissa is enough to do a safari and have a wander round.
Accommodation – The Kent – Couldn’t recommend this place highly enough, our host was so accommodating and had our dinner waiting for us when we arrived back after safari.
Journey from Tissa to Ella (Via Elephant Transit Home)
The same driver who collected us from Tangalle also took us to our next destination. Heading north and inland towards the mountains gave us a huge relief from the temperatures we had experienced along the south coast.
On the way, we took a detour to visit an elephant orphanage, it added about 90 mins to our journey but we thought we might as well visit whilst we’re here. It’s called Elephant Transit Home and is close to Udawalawe National Park. You drive along the southern boundary of the park to get there.
We spent about three hours in Yala National park and saw two elephants, we spent half an hour driving along the road by Udawalawe and saw about 20 of them by the side of the road, they come here as some people feed them (I wouldn’t advise you do) but they are behind an electric fence so shouldn’t get out!
The Elephant Sanctuary (not to be confused with the one in Sri Lanka Pinnawala Orphnage) was decent, there is a small museum you can look round and then watch as about 40-50 elephants come to be fed milk and grass, the whole thing took about 30-45 minutes and the children enjoyed it. Do not be fooled into thinking that you can feed the elephants however, despite the stalls outside selling peanuts!
It was a bit of detour doing this but definitely worth it, the beauty of not having everything booked beforehand is you have the option to change your mind and do things like this.
We got back in the car and continued to Ella via a roadside restaurant for lunch.
TIP – We were unsure of what to do when we had a driver for a long time and we stopped for lunch, do we buy lunch for them? where do they go? In fact, most restaurants and accommodations actually have space for the drivers to go whilst you eat, if you want to offer for them to sit with you, by all means, do that, but they won’t be expecting it.
To get to Ella you have to go up a long and winding road, I heard stories of people being sick in the cars because of that, it depends on how you all are with car sickness, we didn’t find it too bad.
The whole journey took about 3hr 45 mins, most of which was down to the detour.
Sri Lanka with Children – Day 9-12 Ella (3 Nights)
We opted for a homestay along Waterfall Road off the main road through Ella.
This particular road itself is full of guesthouses and homestays, likely due to the amazing views.
Ella is very much a backpackers’ haven. Our homestay was on the side of a mountain overlooking the valley, that in itself was brilliant, but the best thing about it, it was cold! It was a welcome break from what we had become accustomed to. You might want to take a light jumper if you have one but it’s still around 15-20°C.
Tip – There is a railway line running right through Ella, we saw loads of people walking along and thought they were crazy. However, we later learned there are only a few trains a day (we left Ella on one of them) so speak to a local, find out the times they run and just make sure you’re not on the tracks at that time. Everyone does it, the kids loved it and the train sounds its horn well in advance so it’s pretty much safe.
I loved Ella. There is a load to do here but this what we did
Climbed Little Adams Peak. This is a mountain a short Tuk Tuk drive away from the main road, depending on your child situation it will take you maybe an hour to get to the top but something you must do! Our 4 year old walked the whole way. I had to carry our 2 year old.
It’s mainly steps but once you get to the top there is the option to carry on to some other peaks, we did it but it wasn’t easy carrying our son. For slightly older children, there is a zip wire about halfway up which looked really fun.
Uva Halpewatte Tea Plantation – Well worth a visit, a very interesting tour and you get to see how tea is made up close plus there’s a tasting at the end, again with great views.
Nine Arch Bridge – An absolute must, though it’s busy with people just like us, taking the same photos. To see this is amazing.
TIP – Hire a Tuk Tuk driver for the day and tell them where you want to go, they will take you around and wait for you, it’s a perfectly normal thing for them to do so don’t feel you have to rush. Your host will be able to advise on current prices and probably be able to recommend someone to you.
You have your pick of bars and restaurants along the main street for all budgets and there are plenty of shops, pharmacies etc if you need supplies. Ella comes alive at night and a lot of bars have live music, its definitely worth keeping the kids up late to try it all out. The locals love kids so ours had plenty to keep them occupied.
Accommodation Natures Glow Homestay – I would highly recommend this homestay if not for the view, then for the breakfast. If you don’t want to eat out, then the host will cook you dinner, it’ll be a fraction of the cost in a restaurant.
Journey from Ella to Nuwara Eliya
So far we had been travelling in Tuk Tuks and Taxis but now it was time to say goodbye to Ella and start slowly making our way back to Colombo, on the ‘most beautiful train ride in the world’, one of the things Sri Lanka is rightly famous for.
Ok so there is so much information online about booking trains and I got really confused. This site has a lot of information but here’s my watered down version for this particular journey.
At present, you are not allowed to book train tickets online so you have two options;
- Book it through a travel agent, there are loads online, just do a Google search. They will then physically go to the train station and collect your tickets, you will however probably end up paying at least 10x the price.
- Book tickets when you get to Sri Lanka, at ANY train station. When we were in Mirissa we got a Tuk Tuk to Matara Train Station and combined this with a day at Matara Beach. You can book tickets for all your journeys from there, or any station. If you’re going to do this, I would recommend doing this at your earliest opportunity, so they don’t sell out.
The trains are split into 3 main classes, this is where we got confused.
1st Class – I would avoid this, the reason being that because the air con is on, the windows are shut. One of the best things about this train ride is being able to hang out the windows or doors. In fact, on one of our journeys, we bought 1st class tickets and downgraded ourselves to 2nd class for this very reason. Also, the seats are no more comfortable than in 2nd Class.
2nd Class Reserved/Unreserved. This is where you want to be. If you can, get a reserved seat, especially if you are going on a long journey, you don’t want to be standing up for hours if you’re heading straight back to Colombo, especially with kids. If you’re on a short journey, to say like Nuwara Eliya, like we were, it’s only a couple of hours so not too bad.
3rd Class. If you have kids, avoid. These are absolutely crammed full of people.
In terms of snacks, there are people onboard selling various items, most of which spicy, but not all, just ask them which are suitable for kids but definitely come prepared with emergency food.
For our journey from Ella to Colombo, we took three journeys, all booked at Matara Station near Mirissa.
Ella – Nuwara Eliya (1hr 45 mins approx.)
Nuwara Eliya – Kandy (4 hours approx.)
Kandy – Colombo (3 hours approx.)
If your itinerary allows it, I would definitely recommend making some stops, it’s a long old journey doing it in one go.
TIP – It seems that the more common route is to go in the opposite direction to what we did, why, I don’t know, but what we did find is when looking at travel agents is that a lot of the seats on the trains going the other way were sold out for our dates. We had no problem getting tickets going in our direction, although that’s not to say it wasn’t busy.
Sri Lanka with Children – Day 13-16 Nuwara Eliya (3 Nights)
Nicknamed ‘Little England’ for various reasons, one being the cool temperatures, again another good stop to avoid the heat.
Worth spending a couple of days here, probably no more as it’s not huge but check out Victoria Park, a great big open space for the kids to run around in as well as having a playground and train ride.
Lake Gregory, we went here twice as the kids enjoyed it so much, there are watersports and just general lazing around spots. There are food stalls but don’t get your hopes up for anything decent, it does the job though.
Lovers Leap Waterfalls – we were staying close by so could walk from our front door but if not, get a Tuk Tuk to take you part of the way and walk the rest.
We ate at the Grand Indian restaurant, it wasn’t cheap but it was really good, then took a walk to the Grand hotel nearby, good for kids to run around the gardens.
Accommodation – Pedro View Homestay – Another homestay and our Host Christopher could not have been more friendly (a recurring theme with Sri Lankan people). Again if you want dinner just ask, he will make you something better than you’ll get in a restaurant and again for a fraction of the price. It’s slightly out of the way but that’s not really a big deal.
TIP – There is a not a train station in Nuwara Eliya, it is in Nanuoya. Get a Tuk Tuk, Taxi or Bus to the centre when you come out of the station, it’s about a 20 minute ride.
TIP – When you go, double-check public holidays in Sri Lanka. We purposely stayed a day later than we planned in order to avoid getting the train on a weekend as we were told it was busy then. Little did we know the following day was a public holiday and traditionally everyone descends on Nuwara Eliya on this day. We almost missed our train due to traffic, it’s unlikely you’ll be caught up in something similar but always best to check
Journey from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy
After three days in Nuwara Eliya, (two probably enough), it was back on the railway and this time heading north again to Kandy.
Sri Lanka with Children – Day 17 – Kandy (1 Night)
Kandy is a large city in Sri Lanka and a world away from the peacefulness of Ella and Nuwara Eliya, it’s busy, there’s a lot of cars, people and big chain restaurants, plenty of local ones too.
We only spent a day here, having done so much in our previous stops we were slowly running out of time so this was really just a stopover to break up the train ride.
We took a walk around the lake in the centre spotting a load of wildlife. On the southeastern corner is a large playground that will let the kids burn off some energy
At the north of the lake is the ‘Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic’ apparently a spot where Budda’s tooth is held. It would have been interesting to go in but as it’s a very spiritual place, we didn’t think our kids would understand that. We didn’t want to disrespect anyone with them running around shouting. But if you can go in, then it’s one of the top attractions in Kandy.
For more information on what you can do in Kandy, check out this article
Accommodation Muduna Walawwa Resort – This was a bit out of the centre but it was fine for what it was. It had a restaurant attached and the owner sorted us Tuk Tuks whilst we were there. One criticism is that the pool had a ridiculous amount of cleaning products in, our kids couldn’t go in for long because it hurt their eyes. However we had a great sunset view from the balcony.
Journey from Kandy to Colombo
Our final train journey from Kandy to Colombo ready to head home after a couple of days in the capital.
Colombo Day 18 (1 Night)
We first headed toward Viharamahadevi Park looking at the birds and playing on the rope bridges but after promising the kids a playground, it turns out that what was once an amazing set of slides and swings we had seen online, is now a pile of rubble. After a bit of last-minute googling, we jumped into a Tuk Tuk and headed to Waters Edge Hotel, they had a really good playground and a pool you could pay to use.
To be honest, after so much Sri Lanka adventure the last couple of weeks the children were worn out, so the following day before our late night flight we went back to Waters Edge and played in the pool all day. We would have loved to have explored more but working within the time constraints of our flights, this meant that we could only see so much and looking back, we had seen a lot!
Have a look at this more indepth look into what to do in the capital of Sri Lanka with young children, (bearing in mind that as of April 2019, the playground is no longer there)
Accommodation Port View Hostel – This now appears to have closed down however there is an abundance of accommodation in Colombo and its all relatively accessible so wherever you choose you should be fine.
Goodbye Sri Lanka
That night we headed back to the airport in a taxi arranged by our accommodation and flew through the night back home.
Sri Lanka is a country where you can do anything with children, there aren’t many places in the world I can think of where the people are so friendly and you can see a blue whale, go on safari, stand at the top of a mountain and ride a train through the most spectacular scenery.
If you are even remotely considering backpacking in Sri Lanka with young children, you just have to book your flights and go!