SRI LANKA ~ WITH LORI HARDING
Gold Coast-based mama Lori Harding and her man Matt recently travelled to Sri Lanka, an island country southeast of India and northeast of the Maldives, with their three sons Justice, Noah and Atlas in tow. They’ve kindly shared their adventures, insights and tips with The Travelling Tribe.
What did you love most about Sri Lanka?
It felt like we had found a hidden paradise. The beaches were untouched and many of them deserted, there were no cafes with Wi-Fi, no lattes or supermarkets and no built-up towns for tourists or the threat of being taken advantage of. One thing that struck us was our mini-van drivers didn't use any sort of technology to find locations; they would simply wind down the window and ask the locals how to get there. It sounds like a silly thing to mention but it was really beautiful. I guess what I loved most was the energy! Everyone was happy and relaxed so we immediately fell in-sync with that.
Also, it was an adventure! Although we had researched and roughly planned where we would travel to, we really had no idea what to expect. I think that is the best way to experience a new country - with little expectation. It makes it so much more exciting.
Which parts did you visit, and do you recommend those places for other families?
We had several factors we needed to keep in mind when planning our trip. We were travelling with another family - my sister-in-law, her partner and their two children - so we had five young children with us, as well as Matt’s mother. We wanted to keep the trip as simple as possible and the travel times to a minimum so we made the decision to stick to the West Coast and travel along the beaches. Sri Lanka also has monsoon season, which you need to keep in mind when planning your trip.
We flew into Colombo but had been advised to avoid it, so we booked an incredible Airbnb just out of Columbo in a small fishing town called Negombo and stayed there for two nights so we could recover from the 24-hour travel time with the kids. It was a beautiful 100-year old colonial house on a coconut plantation (https://www.airbnb.com.au/rooms/4849768) and our host spoilt us with home-cooked traditional Sri Lankan food served by the pool. I would highly recommend this Airbnb to families.
Our host Janaka picked us up from the airport in the early hours of the morning and graciously showed us his hometown. We loved it so much we booked our last night there too, so that we were relaxed and close to the airport for our trip home. Janaka organised our transfers to Udawalawe National Park for our elephant safari. This was a resort and was our splurge of the trip, but was well worth it to stay in the national park as we passed elephants on our way into our accommodation and had peacocks walking through the resort.
We only booked our first four nights and relied on the advice of fellow travellers and locals to determine our next destination. We used bookings.com and agoda.com to book our accommodation, usually on the day of travelling, and that was perfect for us. After the national park, we headed to the beaches and travelled along the coast to Mirissa, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Midigama. Hikkaduwa was probably the most popular place for tourists [there was even a cafe that served soy lattes!] and we loved our accommodation there. The surf was amazing and literally at our doorstep however Midigama was our favourite because it was so laid-back and easy.
Did you visit any turtle hatcheries on the West Coast?
We did! We visited one when we were in Hikkaduwa and the kids were able to hold the baby turtles and get close to some bigger ones, which weren't as friendly and had lost arms and legs from plastic. This was a great lesson for the kids! Matt saw many turtles in the surf and we spotted so many bobbing their heads over the waves, which was really exciting for all of us! One of the locals gave the boys a baby turtle to put back in the ocean when we were on the beach playing one morning and they were so proud to be given that very special job!
The Asian elephant has played a central part in Sri Lanka’s culture and ecology for thousands of years. Did you visit an elephant orphanage or the elephant transit camp in Udawalawe National Park? Can you tell us about this?
We did take the kids on an elephant safari, which was a dream realised for all of us! However we travelled to the elephant orphanage and missed the opening time by 10 minutes. We had to wait several hours for the next visiting times so with a mini-van full of restless kids we decided to move on. However our disappointment was quickly turned to elation when we were walking back to our car and [literally] a busload of locals piled out of the bus, grabbed our babies out of our arms, kissed them, posed for photos with them and we all used lots of hand gestures, pointing and laughing to communicate with each other. It was a really beautiful moment I will never forget.
What were the locals like? I hear they adore kids!
They were so welcoming, generous and incredibly proud of their culture and country. We were, as I am sure all parents are, anxious about the safety of our children in a new country, however from the moment we arrived we were met with an overwhelming amount of love and kindness from everyone. We felt instantly comfortable. We were invited over to peoples’ homes for dinner, a tuk-tuk driver brought his wife and young daughter over to meet us after we became friendly with him and our homestay host stayed up drinking with the men one night. They couldn't understand a word he was saying after a few drinks but it didn't really matter!
What is a must-do when visiting Sri Lanka?
Our favourite was Midigama. You could eat $2 curries from roadside stalls and drink 50 cent coconuts in the streets, swim in bath-warm water until dusk and then fall asleep listening to the ocean under a mosquito net for just $30 a night. Of course, I think a safari is a must-do for anyone and especially for families.
What was the food like and can you share any details of restaurants or memorable meals with us? Is it easy to get fresh fruit?
I could talk all day about the food; it is the best I have ever experienced. We had curry and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner and never tired of it. The kids were a little confused why we were eating rice for breakfast but loved these coconut rice squares you could eat like a sandwich. My favourite was a vegetarian curry made from jackfruit! My sister-in-law and I were both breastfeeding and were constantly hungry so rice every meal and samosas in between suited us just fine!
The fruit stalls were a work of art sitting on the side of a dirt road. We lived on bananas (smaller and sweeter than ones from home) papayas, watermelon, mangos and coconuts. We didn't visit many restaurants because, to be honest, there weren't many! It was mostly home-cooked meals from our hosts or in-house where we were staying.
How did you get around?
Minivans! Transport was easy to organise through whatever hotel or guesthouse we were staying at. However you never really knew what or who was going to turn up [laughs]. Some of our minivans were air-conditioned and spacious and the driver spoke basic English and others were hot, cramped with surfboards down the aisle or shoved over our heads and the driver would communicate only via an Indian nod which is more of a head wobble so we could never work out if they were saying yes or no! It was both hilarious and at times testing with the five children in the van.
Best beaches for families?
We loved Midigama for the beaches. There was a variety of beaches for all of us. Reef breaks for the men and small waves that went on forever for the kids. The beaches were untouched and mostly deserted, with the traditional fisherman on sticks in the water. Along the coast, they had spots that were similar to Bali, with board hire and Sri Lankan surf teachers with long hair and muscles chatting up tourists, which I found a little hilarious because it seemed so out of place! Hikkaduwa was amazing for the guys, they basically didn't talk to us for three days because they were either surfing the break or watching the break but the waves were too big and dumpy for the kids.
Were there any obstacles you experienced and anything/anywhere you’d recommend other families stay away from?
Not really. We weren't really in any situations that we felt unsafe and unfairly treated. We didn't love Unawantuna and only stayed there for one night, only because it was more of a diving town. The vibe was more European and the beaches weren't as spectacular as the rest but that is the only negative thing I have to say!
Any advice for other tribes visiting Sri Lanka with their kids? I am guessing you need to BYO a mosquito net?
[Laughs] Actually no, you don’t! They are very equipped for the mosquitos and it just became part of our daily routine to protect our skin. It isn't something I remember to be an issue! My advice would be to research and also to keep the monsoon seasons in mind when planning your trip. Our trip was a very tame version of what you can experience in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist sites in Kandy, waterfalls in Ella, the train ride across tea country, the East Coast beaches and Yala National Park are some places we want to go back and experience when the boys are a little older. There is just so much to see and do so I would say do some research so you can get the most out of your trip.
Most magical moment you experienced with your boys?
Just watching my boys expand right before my eyes. We were so proud watching our two eldest boys navigate this new environment with more ease and acceptance than us. One thing that sticks out is when we were staying on the beach in Mirissa and at 7pm every night, the power went out for a little while because that side of the island couldn't handle the amount of electricity used. The first night was unnerving but everyone else around us seemed unbothered by it so we just stumbled around until it came back on.
The second night, we told the boys to sit on the bed and colour in with our iPhone light on and the third night when the power went off, they just calmly pulled out their pencils and their book, turned the iPad on for its light only [which I found so adorable] and silently drew until they both fell asleep with their pencils still in their hands. Moments like that make all the planning and stressful travel moments worth it.