You’re a busy person. You’ve got a job and possibly a family with about 1-3 weeks of vacation time. There’s not a lot of time to explore a place without an itinerary; to discover places and people off the beaten path. What’s the alternative? For me, it’s to know the place. I accomplish part of this by reading a book or two about the destination country and the relevant guidebooks.
It helps to research a country’s culture and history before you arrive. This typically means reading non-fiction that can range from memoirs to history books. For Sri Lanka, I opted for the latter and picked up The Sri Lanka Reader. This is a mammoth book of historical essays, ancient literature, and modern commentary by respected local and foreign authors.
I read half of the book, focusing mainly on Sri Lanka’s ancient through medieval history. It was interesting as I was more familiar with the events surrounding their civil war versus their ancient past. As I traveled across the country, particularly Kandy and the Cultural Triangle, I was more attentive to what I was experiencing as I was able to put these historical sites into a greater context. My traveling companions, Ryan and Ashley, were also pleased as they had the benefit of my knowledge of Sigiriya Rock, Polanarruwa, and other attractions.
There are also an assortment of novels and memoirs set in Sri Lanka that may be more interesting to you as the book above is 700+ pages and not a light read. Other recommended books include This Divided Island and Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka.
Guidebooks get a lot of criticism for inaccuracies, accusations of paid endorsements, exaggerating the positives, downplaying the negatives, overstating the alleged dangers, or suggesting activities and itineraries that the author(s) did not do themselves.
Almost every guidebook I’ve ever read has said the country, city, or activity is the single most amazing thing on planet Earth. It is described in the most grandiose terms. When you arrive, it fails to live up to even half the expectations set by the author.
Although I never felt something was clearly “bought”, I have encountered examples of the other issues. I purchased both the Lonely Planet (e-book) and Rough Guides (paperback) books for Sri Lanka. Both books have a lot going for them.
Their recommended itineraries were excellent, especially if you’re crunched for time. They break the trip down according to your wants and make some stellar recommendations ranging including cultural sites, safaris, beaches, and outdoor physical activities such as hiking and camping.
However, I was disappointed that there was no mention of Sri Lanka’s strict policy regarding alcohol sales. Alcohol cannot be sold near temples or schools. There are temples and schools everywhere! What does this mean for the average tourist?
For starters, there are no street food vendors where you can sit down on a stool and order a curry and a beer. They don’t exist. SAD! Not even all popular restaurants serve alcohol. You usually have to go to a restaurant aimed at tourists if you want an alcoholic drink with your meal. Tourist restaurants are, well, touristy. They are more expensive and there are more types of pizza on the menu than there are curries. I drink a lot of beer on vacation and I’m not ashamed to say it. If it’s not regularly available, that’s a bit of a disappointment.
However, I’m not an alcoholic and I can survive the lack of alcohol. Most importantly, I felt mislead about the beaches on Sri Lanka’s southern coasts. These include everything south and east of Galle all the way to Mirissa. The guidebooks make these small beaches seem like paradise on Earth. They are not.
Search for Unawatuna beach or Mirissa on Google Maps and then look for Matara Road. Matara Road is a major road that cuts across the southern part of the country all along the coast. It is literally just a few meters from the water. This busy road has created haphazard development, horrible traffic, incredible noise, and prevents anything along this road to be safely walkable. I would skip the beaches of the southern coast, including whale watching in Mirissa (more on that in another post).
Lonely Planet or Rough Guides?
I purchased both. I got the Lonely Planet as an e-book and the Rough Guides as a paperback. I used the Rough Guides more as it’s important to highlight desired places fold corners of pages of must-see items. It’s difficult to do that with an e-book. Regardless of your choice, opt for the paperback.
I did prefer the itineraries from the Rough Guides, but that’s not a deal breaker. You’ll be pleased with either purchase.
Have a question for me? Leave it in the comments below and I’m happy to help.
The next episode is coming out tomorrow, December 27, with an additional three episodes coming out after that 10-14 days apart. Want to know what this Sri Lanka series is all about? Check out the first video!