Sri Lanka is a popular destination for travelling families right now and it’s not difficult to see why. Over the past few years we’ve had some amazing family adventures with our boys (aged two and three) but our recent trip to this teardrop-shaped island has perhaps been the best ever! You can read our travel itinerary here. It’s a relatively small country so travelling between places is easy, yet it still offers enough activities, must-see sights, and fun to keep the whole tribe entertained. Indeed, for a country roughly the same size as Ireland, it manages to offer so much variety – both natural and cultural – that we’re sure you’ll fall in love with it too.
Tourism is booming here, which is a fantastic testament to the resiliency of its people, who over recent years have had to overcome civil-war and the devastating tsunami. As with other places, the rapid development isn’t without its problems and, as a result of limited regulation and flagrant breaches of planning laws, a few recently-untouched places are becoming over-developed with little consideration to the natural environment. All of which means: don’t leave it until your kids are older, NOW is the time to visit. These are the reasons why we think Sri Lanka is fantastic for young kids…
Sri Lanka has some of the best beaches in the world; with thousands of miles of coastline to choose from, you’ll easily find clean, pristine sand, perfect for building sandcastles and digging holes. You really don’t have to look hard for a quiet patch to yourselves. Just be careful of those huge waves with the little ones; they will love jumping over the crashing shoreline but ensure you hold their hands so they don’t get swept away by the strong current. Our favourite spots were the shady bay of Mirissa, and Elephant Rock Beach (a ten minute tuk-tuk ride down a dusty track from the party scene at Arugam Bay).
Close encounters with wild elephants
Take your little ones on a jeep safari and meet elephants in the wild, for a fraction of what it would cost in Southern or East Africa. You are pretty much guaranteed to see them on a three hour safari (just the right amount of time for young kids, with the help of snacks along the way). Bouncing around in an open jeep also adds to the adventure! It’s likely you’ll also spot crocodiles, buffalo, plenty of colourful peacocks, and if you’re extremely lucky and look very very hard, a leopard. We loved our experience in Udawalawe NP, camping the night before at Kottawatta Village. You can also hang out with the elephants at Minneriya National Park, Yala National Park, Kumana National Park and the lagoons around Pottuvil.
Ride the rails
Our boys absolutely love trains. There’s something about seeing a train arrive at a station, jumping on-board and then sitting back as you chug along a track that all kids (and parents!) enjoy. Book your trains either online before you arrive, or at the station in Colombo (especially during peak season) and take what are considered to be some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world – along coastal tracks or lush, green mountain passes and tea plantations. Your kids will love hanging out the window and sticking their tongue out like
a dog Dad, or sit in a doorway with your feet dangling over the side, watching the world pass by. One of the most beautiful stretches is between Ella and Haputale.
Mountains that little legs can climb
One of the highlights of our trip was hiking to the top of Little Adam’s Peak in Ella. You can take a tuk-tuk part of the way, and then it’s a forty minute walk (for our 2 and 3 year old – adults and older kids will do it in half the time!) to the summit. There are quite a few steps for little legs to navigate, so take some snacks to coax them up and enjoy those stunning views from the top.
Sri Lanka is clearly a winner in the natural beauty stakes but it’s no slouch from a historical perspective either. Throughout history it’s been controlled by the British, French and Dutch, who left their mark with forts, grand buildings and churches but the local influences are apparent as well, be it temples, palaces or ancient ruins. The kids will love experiencing it all and the majority of the sights are free and easily accessible.
Distances are short
As mentioned earlier, a fantastic amount of natural and historical variety is compacted into a relatively small area so there is no need to take internal flights or long, overnight journeys and it’s unlikely you will need to travel more than four hours to your next destination. Train is always our preferred mode of transport but if the tracks don’t take you to where you need to go, it is always very easy to arrange a car or tuk-tuk. Just ask your hotel the night before. Strong haggling techniques are very rarely required. A car will get you to your destination quicker, but we always prefer the tuk-tuks (called tri-shaws in Sri Lanka, with a speed limit of 40km/h, although they usually bounce along at closer to 50km/h). For some reason the boys are always more chilled in them; something about the open sides and air rushing through.
Soft landing and introduction to Sri Lanka
Unlike many Asian capital cities, which can seem loud and chaotic on arrival, the relaxed coastal city of Colombo will gently ease you into Sri Lankan life. We loved arriving into Colombo where our hotel allowed a very early check in (4am!), tuk-tuks all use the meter (note, this is only a Colombo thing), the best park ever (Viharamahadevi Park) which offered a playground, water fountains, boating lake, small train ride, aquarium and also horse-riding! Our boys loved the park on the first day after we’d had a long nap to recover from the night flight. But even if that feels like too much hard work, head to the beach resort of Negombo, which is actually much closer to Colombo International Airport (about 30 minute drive, rather than the 1 hour to Colombo), for that first day or so.
Nappies and milk are readily available
Even a small town will have a convenience store to purchase cow’s milk. In Colombo you can get the familiar plastic bottles from the fridge. Once you travel into the countryside, UHT milk is generally sold in boxed cartons, which you don’t need to refrigerate until open. If there’s no fridge at the hotel/guest-house, we leave the carton of milk overnight in the sink with cold water. Not all places have a kettle so, if you need warm milk, pack a thermos flask for boiling water (provided by accommodation) to then add to the milk to heat. We do regret not getting our boys used to cold milk, our youngest always needs it heated to the perfect temperature and can seemingly detect a one-degree difference simply by holding the bottle!
Nappies are available from convenience stores. However, you may have to make do with the local brand. Don’t bother with Pampers, it’s not at all the same quality as the brand you’re perhaps used to. An expat friend in Colombo has done heroic research and recommends Soft Love nappies (or Drypers). Stock up when you see them and strap a pack to the side of your backpack. Also, get a size bigger than usual as they tend to come up small in Sri Lanka.
We didn’t meet a single grumpy person in our whole two weeks in Sri Lanka. Not one! Everyone has such a happy, chilled outlook and it’s infectious (except when train travel is concerned, the locals become strangely forceful there!). More importantly, everyone we met was so open and fun with our kids. So much so that our boys blossomed with every interaction and we could genuinely see the immediate positive effect of travel on their social well-being.
To average Western tastes, Sri Lankan food is spicy and you may find your little ones don’t like it. That’s fine as many places serve pancakes or omelettes and you’ll also find pasta, pizza and chips in many tourist towns, although I’m sure most kids will love the hoppers (a bit like a pancake in the shape of a flying saucer). If all else fails, there is tropical fruit aplenty and you can always find plain rice. However, us parents absolutely loved the local food and we were easily able to find restaurants to suit everyone’s palate.
It’s relatively cheap
This is always an important consideration for families as travelling with kids tends to inflate the budget. Sri Lanka is not as cheap as other Asian countries but your western money still goes a long way. Train travel in particular is very cheap in Sri Lanka. First class train from Colombo to Galle is just Rs800 (GBP4).
Family friendly accommodation
There are so many family homestays dotted around Sri Lanka which are perfect for travelling families as there will often be toys and new friends to play with. You’ll also find many hotels and guesthouses with a garden or pool, which is always a winner with the kids, across a range of prices. We booked most of our accommodation through booking.com. You can find lovely quiet homestays for under GBP20 per night or splash out on some incredible family-friendly boutique luxury (we loved our stay at Living Heritage Koslanda, with its abundant open space, infinity pool and private waterfall for swimming – read our review here).
Apply online, pay the USD35 on application and it’s done. Easy.
No malaria, but you may need some jabs
No need for anti-malarials as the World Health Organisation certified Sri Lanka as malaria free in September 2016. However, it is advised that all the family receive vaccinations for Diphtheria, Tetanus, Polio, Hep A and Hep B, Rabies and Typhoid. Check with your local health provider for up-to-date information. Also, ensure you pack a lot of kids’ mossie repellent. There are quite a few mosquitoes in Sri Lanka (dengue is a serious problem) and the local repellent can be quite harsh on young skin.
We absolutely loved our time in Sri Lanka and hope to be back again soon. Have you been? Do you have any favourite places?