sri lanka

Solo Travel Adventures in the Sri Lankan Capital


journey profile

Where: Colombo, Sri Lanka. Asia.
When: April 2024
What: Lotus Tower, Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, Gangaramaya Temple, Asokaramaya Temple, Isipathanaramaya Temple, Poorvaramaya Temple, Sri Lankan curry dishes, Viharamahadevi Park, Learning Buddhist prayer, Buddhist Poya Day holiday, Pettah district shopping and Floating Market, Tuk-tuk adventures around the capital, Colombo Town Hall, Infinity Pool.
How: International flight, domestic flights, walking, tuk-tuk, taxi.
Country counter: Country No.96
Illnesses or mishaps: The Sri Lankan Visa system changing overnight, resulting in me heading to the country with only half a visa and an assertion from the Sri Lankan High Commission that it would be fine; one of my tuk-tuks getting a flat tyre shortly after I boarded; the closure of key roads in central Colombo hours before I was due to leave resulting in a fraught two-and-a-half-hour dash to travel a mere 30 kilometres to the airport.

Sri Lanka, an island country off the coast of southern India, is half the size of England and was once a British colony named "Ceylon". In 2022 and 2023 Sri Lanka faced political upheaval with mass demonstrations against the Rajapaksa government which resulted in the president fleeing the country. Protests since this time have died down but dissatisfaction with the economic and repressive state of the nation remains. In 2024 tourism is resurging and, determined to explore a country in Asia, I came across irresistible direct flights between Australia and Sri Lanka. And so this gorgeous land in the Indian Ocean, with its sweltering humidity, Buddhist temples and respectful people became my 96th country. It was the first time I'd travelled solo in nearly a decade and the first time travelling in Asia alone. And what a land to have chosen for such milestones as these!

I based myself in Colombo's coastal district of Kollupitiya. It was as good a base as any from which to explore the capital. Unrelenting heat in the low 30s, exacerbated by high humidity, meant that although a walkable city by distance, I had no option but to explore the city using its characterful tuk-tuks; exploring the city on foot was not an option in a place where the "feels like" temperature was 40 or 41 degrees daily. In practice this meant a foray out to two or three sights by tuk-tuk, picking up Wi-Fi spots along the way, before returning to the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel by mid-afternoon. I used tuk-tuks throughout my stay not only because they were cheap but also because they were authentic. There's something about the rudimentary nature of their construction, the jolting and bouncing on the broken seat with no belt or doors, the fractured windscreen, the headache-inducing petrol fumes and the kitsch interiors of fluffy dashboards or murals of forests on the canopy which capture something of the spirit of travel and appeals to my inner child. Clambering into a tuk-tuk I become boy again. In my mind's eye I'm on that rattler of a roller coaster at the fairground - an experience where fun meets danger. A regular taxi with windows and doors is transport, but a tuk-tuk is an adventure! You can see, smell, hear and feel the place you're zooming through, unfiltered and uncompromising. In a tuk-tuk you become part of the place itself, albeit for a short time, but you become part of the city. You're now in its bloodstream. You tasted it, smelt it, breathed it deep into your lungs. You were here - and you did it by tuk-tuk!

Many spend a very short time in Colombo before heading elsewhere in Sri Lanka. Others, I imagine, cut it out of their itinerary entirely. I resisted the temptation to gallivant around the country, fuelled by the tourist noise of "Must See" and "Top 10 Things to Do" lists. As a seasoned traveller I've begun to distance myself from this kind of travel mentality. I know from experience that 'must sees' are more often than not tourist traps of the worst kind. They also lead to packed itineraries, impatience, stress and disappointment. I stayed in Colombo the whole time and found plenty to love. Staying in one place meant that I could pace myself and enjoy being in the place I'd taken so much effort to get to. Staying put meant that I was around long enough for Colombo, like the iconic Lotus flower, to slowly open her petals, revealing her beautiful spirituality, her warm people, her exciting freneticism. However, I was also around long enough to sense that all this beauty belies anger and frustration at the state of the nation. Indeed, I was to experience this first hand on two separate occasions during my trip. Still, I've learnt over time that some of the most rewarding countries are those with issues and problems to be overcome and so this is how it was with Sri Lanka. The best places demand you work hard to visit them.

Wonderfully, and quite unexpectedly, Colombo's Buddhist temples became something of a refuge, a home from home of sorts full of deferential smiles and friendly encounters. My third morning in the Sri Lankan capital started with the obligatory mundanity of eating breakfast at the better hotel down the road, during which I set my sights on the Asokaramaya Buddhist Temple. It wasn't on any of the 'must see' lists but in my opinion was completely enchanting. I arrived by tuk-tuk and entered, having removed my trainers and donned the cotton trousers I bought outside a temple in Bangkok. Asokaramaya echoed with the cawing of crows and tuk-tuks zooming past in the medium distance outside. Gone was the frantic nature of the Gangaramaya Temple which I visited the day before teeming, as it was, with visitors. It was just me and a giant statue of Buddha, one with the most beguiling of expressions. The eyes were piercing yet somehow benevolent and caring. I knelt down, looked up and prayed. My thoughts were a bit of a jumble of fears and hopes. I felt a warm flush through my body as I did so. I was joined by a young lady who sat in one of the doorways deep in thought and in silence. A man entered and prayed by the wall with a gentle, rhythmic chanting in a foreign tongue, presumably Sinhala. I felt the two strangers in this strange land had shared something special with me - something deep. We were all in reflective synthesis for a while underneath the Buddha. I stayed in the temple for an hour and a half, but spent two thirds of that with my thoughts under the statue. I believe that anything which encourages reflection, appreciation, introspection and humility can only be good for the soul. And for humanity.

The following day I sought out a different temple, arriving at the Poorvaramaya on a Poya Day to a place full of Buddhists dressed in white and praying to rhythmic chanting. I took off my trainers and socks, fished my cotton trousers out from my backpack and took off my cap, thus the soles of my feet started burning on the hot ground, my legs running with rivulets of sweat and my head getting the full UV force of the Colombo midday sun. A young man at the foot of the temple steps observed me changing. I approached the steps tentatively, drawing glances from locals; I was the only white person there and I was the only person not wearing white. This was also a temple strictly off the beaten track. I found myself a spot on the tiled veranda and sat meekly amongst those in prayer. Within a few minutes the chanting had reached its denouement and people filed out, a few lifting their faces to smile at me or nod in respect. The young man hung back to speak with me. His English was near-perfect. He beamed a beautiful smile. He took time to explain what I had witnessed and relay that he had been touched by the respect I had shown in adjusting my attire. He gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder. And this exchange underscores something important for me: the welcome and acceptance I received from Buddhists at their temples was quite special. They shared their space and prayers with me. They patted me on the shoulder, put their arms round me, literally, explained their faith, showed interest in my life and treated me as an equal. I was really quite touched. After Poorvaramaya, I returned to the temple I felt something of a connection with: Asokaramaya. Two temples in a single day. This time I came prepared with a Buddhist prayer in English. It was simple enough to remember. As part of guided meditation practice, drawn from Buddhism, I've often been encouraged to picture the people you are thinking about looking back at you smiling in a state of bliss. I did just this as I spoke the prayer aloud. It was serene and beautiful and soothing.

My journey to Sri Lanka was a geographical one, certainly, and in terms of my country counting it was a statistical journey too, but never did I anticipate it being such a spiritual one. I went to Asokaramaya four days in a row, the frail man with the white beard sat at the entrance noting my unusual frequency of visits with a quizzical expression on the third day. I don't need to make any decisions about anything, but I have decided to read more about Buddhism. I think it could help me to re-frame how I respond to events, to recalibrate what's important in my world, to live in the present more than I do. This solo trip unexpectedly took on a moving, spiritual complexion. Isn't that the whole point of travel anyway, to move us, to better us, to elevate us? Ordinarily one leaves a travel destination with a few tales to tell others, some photographs and kitsch souvenirs. But Sri Lanka touched my soul. I reckon I'll be travelling around Sri Lanka in my head and my heart for years to come.


Gangaramaya Temple colombo
Gangaramaya Temple buddha
Gangaramaya Temple flowers
the Gangaramaya Temple buddhas
Gangaramaya Temple buddha

The beautiful Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple - wonderful, but often teeming with visitors.


Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple
Beira Lake Buddhas

Part of the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, the golden Buddha statues, gifted from countries from across Asia, cut a striking image against the emerald of Beira Lake. 


colombo tuk tuk
colombo tuk-tuks
colombo tuk-tuk
colombo tuk tuk adventures

Tuk-tuk adventures: these metal boxes on motorbikes were my transport of choice around a sweltering and humid Colombo: colourful, kitsch, quick and like the locals do. Right: my tuk-tuk gets a puncture.


lotus tower colombo
lotus tower colombo

Colombo's Lotus Tower, South Asia's tallest self-supported structure and Sri Lanka's tallest building.


Asokaramaya Temple colombo
Worshippers at Asokaramaya Temple Colombo
Asokaramaya Temple Colombo
Asokaramaya Temple Colombo

The glorious and beguiling Asokaramaya Temple. I visited this temple four times in as many days.


Asokaramaya Temple colombo
Asokaramaya Temple colombo

The Asokaramaya Temple is without doubt the most beautiful Buddhist temple in Colombo.


reclining buddha Isipathanaramaya Temple
Isipathanaramaya Temple
Isipathanaramaya Temple

The Isipathanaramaya Temple with its giant reclining Buddha.


Poorvaramaya Temple colombo
Poorvaramaya Temple colombo

Poorvaramaya Temple on a Poya Day: a temple of gentle smiles, respectful nods, warm exchanges and pats on my shoulder.


Viharamahadevi Park birds
Viharamahadevi Park
Viharamahadevi Park

Viharamahadevi Park, the "lungs of Colombo" and the largest park in the capital.


Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque

The striped candy-like Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque.


kollupitiya sunset colombo

The sun sets across the tracks at Kollupitiya district of Colombo - the district I called home in Sri Lanka.


infinity pool
colombo skyline from Kollupitiya

Views over the Kollupitiya district of Colombo - including my first experience of an infinity pool.





travel tips, links & resources

  • Solo travel is a bit daunting, even for the most fearless of travellers. If anything goes wrong you are pretty much on your own. As this was a solo adventure I made sure I packed a comprehensive first aid medical kit which included several rounds of antibiotics. Travelling alone does have a number of advantages: people are far more likely to engage you in conversation and you are also more likely to engage others in the same way.
  • I see countries experiencing difficulties, as in the case of Sri Lanka, as travel opportunities. Often flights and accommodation are cheaper than more popular destinations and both government and locals are far more appreciative of your visit. It also means you help businesses and local people at the point at which they most need it - when other mainstream travellers stay away.
  • If getting some good photographs of you on your trip is important to you, as it is me, and you're travelling alone, a crucial piece of kit to pack is a mobile phone tripod. Mine includes a Bluetooth remote clicker. Sure, you could ask strangers to snap photographs of you but, in my experience, these are normally of poor quality. My tripod enabled me to get some well-composed, website-worthy photographs of myself in-situ.
  • I am cautious about what I eat abroad. Trying to eat on a budget can end up being a huge false economy if you become sick, lose days of your trip ensconced in the bathroom or have to seek out expensive medical help. Sure, your insurance may pay out in the end, but this won't recoup the travelling time you have lost. Where eating abroad is concerned, prevention is better than the cure. I'm even more cautious when travelling alone. Therefore, what and where I eat is always at the higher end of the market. I do this knowing that it is an investment in the journey itself just like the cost of flights or accommodation. 
  • As across Asia, don't drink the tap water. Instead, buy bottled. Keep an eye on ice being added to your drinks or drinking fruit juice which hasn't come directly from a carton as they are likely to have been made, or watered down, using tap water. I also pack some water purification tablets with me just in case I am unable to access bottled water.
  • When applying for your visa make sure you book using the official government website; there are a number of copycat websites which, while official tourist agencies, are not connected to the Sri Lankan government. Cut out the middle man and avoid the hassle of delays. I made sure I went through the Sri Lankan Airways website under 'Travel Information > Visa and Passport Requirements' to make sure I was using the official visa website. A visa is not cheap, either, costing around US$85 for a tourist visa.
  • I navigated Colombo's hot, sweaty streets thanks to Uber. It's not as unadventurous as it sounds; there were tuk-tuks on the app and so it was a characterful way of getting around the capital just like the locals do. This also had the added benefit of educating me about approximate fare prices as well as cutting out tiresome haggling and miscommunication over destinations. 
  • The heat, humidity and UV levels are unavoidable travel companions in Sri Lanka. I limited my daily itinerary so that I had sufficient cooling-down time in-between seeing the sights. Make sure you bring a quality sun block with you and apply liberally.
  • Mosquitoes carry Dengue Fever in Sri Lanka so you'd be wise to bring a quality DEET spray with you as this is surprisingly hard to get hold of locally. Consider packing a mosquito net to sleep under if you're planning to stay in mid or low-range accommodation.
  • Be cautious when photographing statues of the Buddha. Make sure you are never seen posing for a photograph with your back to the statue; to do so is a cultural faux-pas which could, in extreme cases, land you in prison. Instead, you must stay facing the Buddha with the photograph being taken over your shoulder. See this signage from Bandaranaike International Airport here.


you may also like




© agmtraveller.com. All Rights Reserved.