I left home knowing nothing about where I was going except that there would be waves, but I had a feeling it was going to be different from anywhere I’d ever been. And when I stepped off the plane 26 hours later, I knew I was right. During the time I spent in Sri Lanka, I fell in love with its culture, scenery, people, food, and, of course, its surf scene.
I’m exposed to many different cultures and people at home in New York City. But, in Sri Lanka, I was introduced to a whole other world where religion plays a major role in making the country what it is. Shrines and temples to Buddha (more than 70 percent of Sri Lankans identified as Theravāda Buddhists in a 2011 census) and other deities are on display everywhere — on crowded city streets, empty highways, tourist landmarks, even the countryside.
I was also struck by the way in which traditional Sri Lankan ways seem to coexist peacefully with the modern world. Everywhere I went, I saw the two contrasting and converging. As I walked the streets, I noticed that some people wore saris while others wore jeans and T-shirts, and, in restaurants, some people used utensils while others ate with their hands.
In addition to beautiful, and mostly deserted, beaches, Sri Lanka has jungles, waterfalls, high mountains, and amazing animals. After making such a long trip, I figured I had to try something new while I was there. So I went on my first safari in Yala National Park. During our four-hour ride, I was lucky enough to see water buffalo, spotted deer, elephants, leopards, and an incredible array of birds. Sri Lanka is also home to eight UNESCO World Heritage sites that take you back in time. All of them are equally impressive — from ruins of ancient cities to incredibly preserved sacred temples.
But the most memorable moment of our trip happened by chance. While driving up a small road near the Sacred City of Kandy, we came across a massive tea plantation overlooking the countryside. There was no one there but us, and all I could see was mountain after mountain. Then again, everywhere I went — along the coast, in the big cities, in the forest — there always seemed to be something amazing to see.
One of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting the locals, and I had a field day in Sri Lanka. Everywhere I went, people were all smiles and always trying to be helpful. When I arrived in Sri Lanka, I was bummed to realize that I had forgotten the fins for my surfboard at home. But on our first day at the beach, I met a family who had a son named Chathuranga, and they went out of their way to make sure I could surf.
Getting out there and meeting locals can change the whole course of your trip and expose you to things you’d never know existed. At my hotel in Weligama, Chathuranga introduced me to local tea while I waited for a friend of his to call back about fins I might be able to rent. I met another kid at a surf shop who took me on my first tuk-tuk ride to check out fins at another place, where they had a skate ramp right by the beach. “Do you like Sri Lanka?” everyone asks me. Yes, I do.
Another thing I love about traveling is getting to understand the different culture through the food. And being on a tropical island, I made sure to take advantage of all the fresh fruit. I enjoyed smoothies and juices along with local curd for breakfast each day.
At first glance Sri Lankan food reminded me of Indian food, but it has a totally unique flavor. Most of the foods I tried were spicy, and I loved everything that was put in front of me. And while iconic Elephant House Ginger Beer didn’t do much to deflect the heat coming off their curry (myth busted!), I really developed a taste for the refreshing soda. But if you really want to understand Sri Lankan cuisine, I recommend visiting a spice garden where you can learn about all the fresh ingredients that are grown on the island and see how they are made into the dishes I eat.
Surf is what brought me here in the first place. I was part of a small group of travelers who came to Sri Lanka for the grand opening of the new Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport which is meant to boost tourism to the island’s east coast and make world-class surf spots such as Arugam Bay more accessible. Believe it or not, people are even predicting that Sri Lanka will become the next Bali of the surf world.
I’ve never been to Bali (though it’s on my list), so I can’t compare, but I did finally find some fins and hit the waves in Weligama and Hikkaduwa. I didn’t run into a single American tourist there, but there were plenty of Australians and Europeans that were already in on the secret. While surfing my favorite break of the trip, in Kabalana, it seemed like everyone was French except for me.
In the end, everything was perfect: warm water, empty line-ups, killer waves, and smiles from the shore.
Booker Mitchell, host of Booker Travels and one of National Geographic’s inaugural Travelers of the Year, is a curious globetrotter who never leaves home without a skateboard — or a surfboard. Catch up with Booker on Twitter @Booker Travels or on his YouTube Channel.
- Check out Booker’s new video series about his trip to Sri Lanka on Booker Travels
- Find out why Booker was selected to be one of our Travelers of the Year
- Read the first article Booker wrote for Intelligent Travel, “Why Booker