A Sri Lankan holiday is usually planned around its warm beaches, jungles crawling with leopards and mountains shrouded in myth. The island’s historical sites, ancient architecture and cultural mishmash have been at the core of its magnetic pull on tourism for decades, both pre and post-war.
Today, however, in the aftermath of years of turmoil, a new culture has emerged, setting the stage for artistic expression through a myriad of talents. The city of Colombo is buzzing with events hosting performers of all genres, lifestyles of all natures and creativity that is arguably some of the best in South Asia.
The paradise island is still, no doubt, the home of many a wonder to behold. But its people (the youth in particular) have become more than facilitators of a brand of hospitality. Here are five experiences you must seek out when planning your next trip to Sri Lanka…
Listen to the Music of Thriloka
Sri Lankan folk music was born on the lips of men and women who worked the paddy fields during harvest. They created the melodies, they made up the words and they sang the tunes that would later become categorically known as Jana Kavi. The five-man band Thriloka uses these melodious roots as the inspiration to their music. Thriloka literally means ‘three worlds’ (and none of them resemble the one we live in).
These boys paint the Sri Lankan spirit in sounds they create from almost anything they can get their hands on: clay vessels, brass ornaments, sand paper, sticks and stones — anything. Their commercial performances see them complementing each other on more established instruments. But even then, like the reapers of the harvest in the years gone by, they compose original pieces on the spot that neither they nor their listeners will recount when the music stops playing. They are a modern take on the sons of the soil and their music, a representation of the progressive prayers of thanks to the harvest gods. They spend most of their time at Music Matters (an experimental music school in Colombo) teaching, jamming and laughing.
Watch a Mind Adventures Theatre Company Production
Theatre in Sri Lanka dates back to the days of old when ritual and custom were the only known sources of inspiration for dramatisation. The superstitions of the Sinahalese people played a huge role in developing storylines and plots. And even though colonisation brought with it the western spotlight, the stage was still very much speaking the native language.
In the past five decades or so things have changed rapidly for English theatre in Colombo. The city boasts over 10 theatre companies that flourish the performance boards, across the year, featuring works that are both original and renowned. One of them — Mind Adventures — has recently begun devoting less time to the spectacle of dramatic entertainment and more time starting a two-way dialogue on social and sexual politics that are very much local.
A signature feature of the company is their choice of venue for the social commentary they set in motion. Mind Adventures has performed inside a bathtub on a rooftop nightclub, on the lawn of the British Council (where they attacked audience members with water balloons), on a circular stage in the backyard of a church with a banyan tree growing out of the middle of it and most recently inside an abandoned hotel in the heart of Colombo, burnt in the fires of 1983.
These thespians offer English theatregoers the opportunity to revisit the history of the land with fresh perspective, shedding light on the roots of local theatre itself and using the methods of devised and immersive theatre to do it.
Go to a Bang Bang Party
The Sri Lankan youth revere partying for the unspoken religion it is, and Bang Bang Productions set up some of the most remarkable stages to give it its due. A true appreciation for the new age of electronic music, the variety of sound it resonates, the surrounding of acceptance it manifests and the good vibration it permeates — these seem to be the ideas that are nourished at a Bang Bang gig. To call it ‘rave culture’ would be doing it an injustice, though many have seen fit to call it just that.
Each of the Bang Bang DJs plays their own pleasure, music they enjoy dancing to. And who are they? Young men and women, friends and party people who celebrate good music and are willing to share it with anyone who wants to listen. Some of them have even made a career out of producing music and now promote their work under international labels. Deep tech house, progressive psychedelic, funk, dub, techno, bwomp, wobble and glitch hop are just some of the genres throbbing off the speakers on a given night (or morning).
What makes these parties special is that they don’t happen every week. They come around a few times a year, but when they do, they do so in severe proportions.
To get to Sri Lanka from Vietnam you will need to travel via Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Bangkok. Sri Lankan airlines fly from all three cities direct to Colombo — return flights from Bangkok cost from VND5.5 million depending on how early you book. Return flights with AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur start at VND4.5 million.
Unless you’re from Singapore or the Maldives, you will need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. This needs to be applied for online, lasts for 90 days and costs between US$15 and US$30 (VND315,000 and VND630,000). Go to eta.gov.lk to make your application.
US$1 = 130 Sri Lankan Rupee
Expect cost in general to be similar to Vietnam. So, eating locally will cost you around VND30,000 or VND40,000 a meal, while going for a main course in a tourist restaurant will cost about VND100,000 to VND120,000. Hotel and guesthouse prices are also similar, starting at VND120,000 a night and heading upwards.
If you’re going to splurge a little, then expect a car and a driver to cost around VND1,200,000 a day, although bus travel remains cheap — you can get from one end of the island to the other for around VND450,000.
Visit the Good Market
A child looks amused at something she just created using pink glitter and glue. A young man wheels by on his skateboard, waving at his friends as he takes a sharp turn. A woman in one stall tells the couple who’ve stopped by to check out her goodies and have a look inside her neighbour’s stall as well. A young musician plays his guitar as people gather round to listen to words that are his own. This is the vibe of the Good Market, and it happens every Thursday in the capital of Sri Lanka — Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte — and on Saturdays at the Colombo Race Course. The personalised stretch of stalls that pop up on these two days are packed with homemade foods, handmade jewellery and machine-made chocolate milkshakes that just hit the spot. The vendors have become friends and they call out to each other by name, offering a sweet here and a cup of water there as they walk by.
The Good Market is an initiative to help self-sustaining individuals market and sell their products in an environment full of likeminded people. The produce is organic and the merchandise is made from scratch. There is no competition here, merely a similar approach to the results of diligence and hard work. Its foundation rests on the values of a green economy and encourages its community to educate others on this way of life and its many benefits.
Some of the stalls at the Good Market include Jewelry by Manga — a collection of colourful accessories made of paper; Sapling — a range of bottled hummus with no artificial colours or flavours, made for vegans by a vegan; Sunara’s Art — a place for kids to hang out and go wild with a young friend who paints and colours with them; and of course the Achcharu Kade — serving Sri Lanka’s favourite fast food: your choice of fruit dusted in chilli.
Stay at the Bludge House
When the city becomes too overwhelming simply leave it behind and head on down south. That’s also what some local businesses do, especially the ones who are all about the chilled-out life. A few years back, ‘The Bludge’ started off as a T-shirt company in Colombo, with a brand ethos that revolves around living the dream and making it count for you whilst offering others an example of how easy it is. Its co-founders started off by giving up their day jobs and reminding Sri Lankans everywhere that their island home was made for enjoying life.
Their latest venture involves a holiday home away from home, tucked away on the greener side of Hikkaduwa, soon to become a well-known secret for weary travelers with heavy baggage on their minds. The Bludge House serves up a spiritual timeout for those who seek to lose themselves completely or find themselves once more.
A double room at the villa costs Rs. 1500 (VND243,000) and food is available on request. A 10-minute tuktuk ride from this quiet hideaway will take you to the beaches of Hikkaduwa. Here you will find rotti shops galore offering a host of sweet and savoury delights that are set to melt on the tongue after an invigorating swim. Snorkeling along the reef, boating on the lagoon and surfing when the waves curve up just right — these are just some of the lesser attractions you can amuse yourself with outside the solitude of this retreat. Inside, it’s all about you-time; doing what you want, when you want to.
The Island Awaits…
Sri Lanka is still very much about the temples of Kataragama, the waterfalls of Nuwara Eliya, the pilgrim’s climb to Adam’s Peak, the rejuvenation of the Jaffna peninsula and all the rest that’s just waiting to be explored. But there’s more to the story of the land and it’s being told right now through its people. Go meet them.
Things to do in Sri Lanka
If you’d rather go with the more standard options when you visit Sri Lanka, here is a list of places to go and things to do. This is just the start
— the island has a wealth of attractions to its name.
— Visit the ruins of the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa
— Climb the Sigiriya Rock Fortress
— Go whitewater rafting in Kithulgala
— Climb the Bambarakanda Mountain and discover the secret Sri Lankan Map-Shaped Pond
— Go on a safari in the jungles of Yala
— Escape to Unawatuna Bay on the south coast or Arugam Bay along the east coast
— Journey through the tea estates of Nuwara Eliya and Bandarawela
— Enjoy club hopping in Colombo
— Go snorkeling in Trincomalee
— Go kite-surfing or whale and dolphin watching in Kalpitiya
— Take a walk inside Galle Fort
— Go for elephant rides in Habarana
— Visit the elephant sanctuary in Minneriya
— Trek through the majestic Singharaja Rainforest