My travel to Sri Lanka has to be the most impulsive international solo travel I’ve planned so far. And the best part — I let the destination figure out for itself. How did that happen, you ask?
Let me give you a background first. Ever since I got certified as an Open water diver in the Maldives, I’ve had this nagging feeling to take my diving skills to the next level. In the meanwhile, after a year-long break, I finally decided to rejoin the corporate world. So, this seemed like a good time as any to take the leap to be an Advanced Open Water Diver (AOWD) just before joining my new workplace.
I had my agenda in place, and tentative dates in mind — now came the most crucial part. Where do I want to travel to? I let Skyscanner decide it for me. Only that it needs to fulfill one criterion – an excellent diving location where I can get certified as an AOWD!
Netrani island off Murudeshwar would be the closest one for me (with great dives). But it has issues from time to time with the diving license. And then, Andaman islands recently had some issues with the diving license as well. So, I kept looking.
Browsing through Skyscanner for the cheapest flights out of Bangalore, I found return flights to Colombo at around 11,000 INR, and within 24 hours I booked the flight. I literally had three days before my travel date. Like I said, my most impulsive international travel plans ever! On such short notice, I wasn’t able to find company, so I decided to travel solo! Company or not, travel goes on for me.
Given that I had so little time to figure out my travel plans — honestly, I was anxious to see how it was going to pan out.
While I was exploring my options of diving there, I soon found out that diving in Sri Lanka is seasonal. Meaning if you happen to find yourself in Sri Lanka between November to March, you’ll have to dive on the west coast – and Colombo offers plenty of wreck diving opportunities. On the other hand, Nilaveli on the East Coast of Sri Lanka offers plenty of diving opportunities from April to October. So, since I was traveling in July, keeping my base as Nilaveli only made sense. Then, I started planning a trip to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Visa
A thirty-day visitor visa to Sri Lanka costs between $20 and $100 depending on the nationalities (For Indian nationals, visitor visa costs about $20).
I would suggest you apply for a Sri Lankan visa online as it would definitely save time from getting a visa on arrival at the airport. The queues at the airport are always too long. So, if you can get ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) online, I would suggest you do that. Click here to apply for ETA. It hardly takes 10 minutes to fill in your details, and make the payment. Once it’s confirmed, you’ll receive your ETA within a few hours.
How to Reach Colombo
I reached Colombo after a 2.5-hour journey by flight from Bangalore at 10.30 PM. I landed at Bandaranaike International Airport and I had to reach my hostel which was located somewhere in the Colombo city center – around 33 km and an hour away from the airport.
Either hop onto a taxi or a shared bus to the city center. My hostel charged me 30 USD for the taxi which was a lot of money for Sri Lankan standards. However, I was reaching Colombo in the night, and I didn’t want to take unnecessary risks in a new city at that point in time. So, I ended up shelling out a considerable sum for it!
Solo travel isn’t as glamorous as they portray it to be, and at times like these, it can be quite pricey too!
However, looking back, I would suggest you take the airport bus to the city for around LKR 200. I came back to the airport by bus, and it turned out to be quite safe as well.
Where to stay in Colombo
Like I said before, I reached Colombo late in the night and I was just looking for a place to crash. So, CityRest Fort hostel right in the Colombo city center seemed to be the perfect choice for me. It was cheap, close to the Bastian bus station [Olcott Mawatha, Colombo] from where I was leaving to Trincomalee (1.5km), and the staff was friendly and really helpful. So, overall no complaints there!
A Day in Colombo
The next day, I spent a sunny day in Colombo before traveling by AC night bus to Trincomalee [Sri Lanka].
Buying a SIM card
If you’d like to buy a SIM card, World Trade Center [1 Bank of Ceylon Mawatha, Colombo] has offices of Mobitel where you can buy a local SIM card from. It’s just a 5-minute walk from the hostel where I stayed at. SIM card, especially with the data pack, was quite handy for me as a solo traveler for navigation, transport, or just checking out reviews of different places while traveling around. Costs about LKR 250.
Next came currency exchange. I only had USD, and INR with me, so I thought of getting some LKR (Sri Lankan Rupiah) here in Colombo. As the prices tend to be cheaper in the capital compared to other towns. You can find many places for currency exchange near Colombo city center. I exchanged currency at the jewelry store opposite my hostel CityRest Fort – AR Jewellers where I got LKR for a good rate, and then I was all ready to explore the city.
Things to do in Colombo
I visited the Buddhist temples in Colombo – Seema Malakaya, Gangaramaya temples. And paid a visit to an interesting looking Red mosque as well. It’s one of the mosques in Colombo that accepts visitors, so check it out if you have the time!
Afterward, I spent my time walking around Galle Face. Also, I ended up visiting Bally’s casino (free entry, and free food and drinks) in the evening and stumbled onto one of the world’s largest book sale – The Big Bad Wolf. The brand is popular for hosting book sales in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philipines, and Sri Lanka. Just to give you an idea – there were over 1.5 million books, and people were buying books by the shopping carts. I was having a complex having only bought two books here!
You can easily navigate around Colombo through Tuk-Tuks which are quite common here.
Restaurants in Colombo
I ended up having lunch at Sugar Bistro and Wine Bar [Crescat Boulevard, Colombo] near Galle Face. It’s a good restaurant and the Churros here are popular, but I felt it quite expensive. I paid around LKR 1600 for a sandwich, glass of juice, and churros. Apart from Sugar Bistro, Ministry of Crab (Seafood) [Old Dutch Hospital Road], Gallery Cafe (Fine dining – local and international food) [2 Alfred House Rd], Nuga Gama (Sri Lankan) [77 Galle Rd], Kaema Sutra (Sri Lankan) [Shangri La Hotel, Colombo, 1, Galle Face], The Bavarian (German) [11 Galle Face Terrace] are some of the popular restaurants over here.
To be honest, I didn’t enjoy my time in Colombo — there wasn’t much to do except sightseeing and the scorching sun didn’t help either. However, I would definitely return to Colombo between November and March sometime, as wreck diving here is on my bucket list now.
Colombo to Nilaveli
From Colombo, you can either travel by taxi directly to Nilaveli. Or travel by bus or train to Trincomalee. And from Trincomalee, you can take another bus or Tuk-Tuk (Auto) to Nilaveli which is about 13km from here.
Taxi from Colombo costs around LKR 7000 and takes about 5 hours. You can find many taxis directly from the Colombo airport or from Colombo city center to Nilaveli. Else, you can ask your hotel concierge to arrange it for you.
Traveling by train would be the cheapest option if you can wait for a few days for train tickets. Fares to Trincomalee from Colombo train station ranges between LKR 200 and LKR 750. There’s usually a sleeper train regularly that runs between Colombo and Trincomalee at around 9.30 PM and takes about 8 hours to reach Trincomalee.
However, it’s not possible to book a train ticket from outside Sri Lanka. Also, since the trains are usually filled to the brim, you’ll have to book the train ride at least a day prior so as to find available tickets. The train availability is difficult to get for the same day. Since I didn’t have the luxury of time to wait in Colombo for the train ride, I was only left with traveling by bus. I had to give the popular train rides of Sri Lanka a miss, for now! You can find schedule, and fares of trains in Sri Lanka here.
Trying to book a bus online wasn’t easy either since there were only a few options and I wasn’t sure of the legitimacy of these sites. So, I checked with my diving center (Island Scuba) folks in Nilaveli, and they suggested booking at a local site. You can book your bus tickets here. I wasn’t ready to go on a no-frills bus in Sri Lanka yet, so ended up booking an AC bus which was clean and decent. As I was traveling solo, I wasn’t sure how it was safe it was going to be in a local bus, and considering the humid weather — an AC bus seemed to be my best bet.
I took an AC overnight bus from Colombo at 11 in the night through Superline travels from the bus booking website for LKR 1200. I reached Trincomalee at around 5.30 AM.
From there, I jumped on to a local bus heading to Nilaveli, which is around 13 km from there (Takes about half an hour).
Most of them who visit Sri Lanka mostly stick to the west coast for the beaches, and central Sri Lanka for the national parks. If not for diving, I probably wouldn’t have ventured into the east of Sri Lanka either. But turns out, it was a great decision after all. The east coast of Sri Lanka is peppered with stunning coral reefs, rich marine life, and peaceful beaches that this place grew over me in such a short while.
It has a very laid back vibe, and as a solo female traveler, I felt totally safe, and people were friendly that I hardly felt I was alone. I feel that’s something a lot of people don’t get about solo travel – Traveling solo doesn’t mean you are alone!
I explored around Nilaveli (mostly around the beach side). It’s a quiet little town, with nothing much to do except for snorkeling at Pigeon island, whale or dolphin watching at Trincomalee, and diving in and around Nilaveli. Well, at least that’s all I was interested in.
Day Trips from Nilaveli
However, from Nilaveli, you can do day trips to Sigriya, Dambulla, Habarana, Polonarruwa, Anuradhapura, and Minneriya National Park. It might cost somewhere around LKR 8000 to 10000 by taxi, and around LKR 6000 by Tuk Tuk.
Where to stay in Nilaveli
Blue Whale Nilaveli
I initially had plans to stay for a couple of days in Nilaveli. And I found one of the few easy on the pocket accommodations (there weren’t many) in Nilaveli and booked it right away. It was called Blue Whale Nilaveli, which is just 100 m away from the beach. Also, turned out to be just around 50m from the diving center — which was a lovely coincidence!
When I arrived at Blue Whale Nilaveli early morning, they were gracious enough to offer me an early check-in (as early as 6 AM!). Thanks to their generous offer, I had enough time to rest before heading to the dive center in the morning.
Just within two days in Nilaveli, I was in love with the peaceful atmosphere, friendly locals, and the breathtaking dives! Initially, I had plans to go to Kandy, but I loved Nilaveli enough to extend my stay here. However, as July to October is the season time there, Blue Whale Nilaveli was all booked. Soon, I found out another place just 500m away from here – High Park Hotel. And, that’s where I ended up staying for another day.
High Park Hotel
If you’re going to be in Nilaveli, then stay at High Park Hotel. They have lovely little cabanas as well as well as some lovely rooms here. And total value for money. They offered me a free upgrade when the room I had booked from booking.com was all occupied. Check out the latest prices & book your stay at High Park Hotel now!
I even met with the hotel owner and found out that he manages his time between London and Nilaveli. He built this hotel in Nilaveli to provide employment to his fellow people, and he even dropped me at the bus station at Trincomalee. How kind!
I feel people sometimes go out of their way to look after me when I’m traveling solo, especially when I don’t ask for it! (I’m the kind of person who’d rather fumble around her own luggage than take up on someone’s offer to help. It’s so difficult for me to ask for help, so I end up being a one-woman army!). I’ve been blessed with the kindness of strangers too many times than I can remember that makes me believe there’s much good in this world!
Scuba Diving in Nilaveli
Even before you reach Nilaveli from Trincomalee, you’ll notice many hoardings announcing various scuba diving centers in the town. Even if you want to, it’s hard to miss it!
That’s when I realized that Nilaveli has a popular diving culture. Diving in Nilaveli was a memorable experience, and I’m so glad I took the call. I had five dives – one better than the other, and by the end of it, I was overwhelmed with all the beauty and calmness I was surrounded by under water. Just couldn’t help but be grateful to be able to explore this entirely different world which only a few get a chance to venture into!
Dive center at Nilaveli
I dived with Island Scuba and had a fabulous experience with them. My lovely Italian diving instructor Cinzia came with a vast experience of over 15 years of diving. Also, she was quite knowledgeable and so passionate about diving that I might have just developed a lady crush on her! Additionally, the diving center is managed well, and operates out of both Colombo and Nilaveli – so they are present throughout the year.
However, if you’re keen on underwater photography or videography, you might have to check with them to see if they have equipment available. You can reach out to them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I was charged around USD 330 for my AOWD course.
Diving spots in and around Nilaveli
Here are some of the dive sites that I highly recommend based on my own experience, and that of my dive instructors – Glasshouse, Deep Rock, and Swami Rock dive sites. These are excellent for diving. Overall, the reefs in Nilaveli, Sri Lanka were so massive. In my experience from diving in Thailand, the and Maldives before, the reefs here were the largest I’ve ever seen. And to top it off, there were so many different varieties as well. I must have seen over 20 different types of coral reefs in a single dive!
Some dive sites like Swami Rock was challenging for us, as we were diving against the drift, and it expended a lot of energy, and I ALMOST got lost. I could only dive for about half an hour, as opposed to 45-50 mins on regular dives.
But honestly, what I was most worried about was Deep Rock. I had to dive up to 30m at the Deep rock, and I had a prior incident with deep diving in the Maldives at 18m depth (I had nose bleeds after two of my dives there as I wasn’t equalizing the pressure in my ears properly). But I’m so glad that it went without incident. I witnessed first hand how scant the light is at deep dives. Surprisingly, it gives you an illusion of a different color underwater (Red looks like green).
In between the dives, we ended up swimming with the whales sharks as well. It was such a surreal experience. Here’s a video!
Advanced Open Water Diver course (AOWD)
I was on a tight schedule in Sri Lanka as I was only there for a week and wanted to make sure I have enough time at Nilaveli to see my diving course through. The course was going to be there for two days which would include fives dives and learning a different skill on each dive (like underwater navigation, deep diving, fish identification, and so on). Additionally, I need to wait for at least for 18 hours after my last dive to take a flight. Keeping all these in mind, I was running on a slightly tight leash. But, I was going to make it happen, nonetheless!
As an AOWD, you can now dive up to 30m in depth as opposed to 18m as an Open water diver.
Meaning you’ve access to a lot more dives than before. Surely, I’ll take any excuse to travel 😉 Most of the wreck dives begin at 15m and with an Open water certification, it won’t let you get deep into the wrecks, only just grace the surface. Which makes an Advanced Open water diving course all the more appealing!
Finally, after five dives, and a lot of unforgettable experience, I was graduated to an advanced Open water diver!
Dolphin/Whale watching in Trincomalee
I soon found out that Trinco, just half an hour away from Nilaveli is a popular whale watching destination too.
I’ve never really seen a whale so I was excited to go on a whale watching tour and witness these massive creatures in all its glory. But I soon found out that it’s not the season time, and my hotel owner suggested to go on a dolphin watching tour instead. Here, I have a small probability of spotting whales, but of course, as with all wildlife encounters go, it’s not warranted. I was happy with this deal and went forward with it.
I got up the next day at 5 am (one of those rare occasions which happen a lot frequently when I’m traveling!). And I was all set to head on the dolphin watching tour at 5.30 AM.
Whale watching is mostly seasonal and best during the month of February (when you have chances of watching blue whales along with sperm whales). As my luck would have it, I witnessed these majestic sperm whales in the month of July.
Dolphin watching costs about LKR 4500, and whale watching about LKR 6000 per person. Also, depends on the number of people as well. So, try to find company if you are traveling solo so that it can work out cheaper for you.
Snorkeling in Pigeon Island
After five amazing dives in and around Nilaveli, I wasn’t really sure if snorkeling at Pigeon island was even worth it. I heard that you might find turtles and sharks over there, so, I thought of checking it out.
As it turns out, it was one of the best snorkeling experiences I’ve had. All my apprehensions were put to ease soon as I witnessed some colorful fishes and coral reefs around the island.
It’s one of the two marine national parks in Sri Lanka and you’re in for a visual treat. Definitely, suggest visiting Pigeon island.
It sets you back by around LKR 3500 for the entire experience. Which covers boat rides between Nilaveli and Pigeon island, snorkel masks, and life jackets. You’ll have around 2-3 hours on the island to snorkel around.
Note – Diving is not possible in Pigeon island. Only snorkeling is allowed.
Here’s a video so that you can see for yourself.
Are these corals dead?
When I posted the above video on social media channels, I got a few queries questioning if these corals are dead. So, let me answer it here as well. No, they are very much alive. These are a particular type of hard corals called staghorn corals which is abundant at this area in Pigeon island.
My first time in Sri Lanka was enriching even if it was a brief fling, and I would surely go back there to explore more of the country, both underwater and over!
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JM De GuzmanSep 29, 2018
Sri Lanka is beautiful and I love their beaches. It’s been a while since my last trip over there and I cannot wait to do another one with my family this time.
thanks for sharing.
Raksha RaoOct 3, 2018
Totally agree with with you. Hope you get there soon! 🙂
Ranjith VallatholOct 7, 2018
Such an informative and useful article. Every aspect of travel covered. I am gearing up for some travel myself and you touch upon every question a traveller likr me might have. Keep sharing your light Raksha.
Raksha RaoOct 18, 2018
Thank you, for the kind words. Glad to be of help. Happy traveling, Ranjith 🙂
Renuka WalterOct 8, 2018
Wow! Looks like so much of spontaneous adventure and fun!