Sri Lanka unseen

With this scenic island increasingly on the radar, we brave leeches and cliff-top trains to avoid the usual tourist trail

Sri Lanka is in many ways like a more digestible version of India. You’ve got the history (2,500 years of it), the beautiful colonial architecture, the temples, the hazardous tuk-tuk drivers and the sometimes equally hazardous street food. Like India, there’s that sense that you might just see something weird and wonderful – on our visit, it was wild elephants strolling past red British post boxes.

But it’s also easier – you can get all the culture, plus brilliant beaches and nature thrown in, in just one weeklong visit. The only catch is that other people are figuring this out, too. Sights such as the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Unawatuna Beach and the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala are becoming increasingly well trodden.

So we’ve found some alternatives for those on a two-week visit. Staying in Colombo, Galle and Kandy on our trip, the adventures we’ve listed here are all accessible from these three cities. So get out and try Sri Lanka – before everyone else does!

Colombo by cliff train

Most locals know that the best way to see Sri Lanka’s striking hill country is aboard the old Podi Menike train. This 140-year-old 290km journey takes ten hours but it’s worth it to see some of the country’s most beautiful scenery. The train clings to cliffs as it passes tea plantations, the great Mahaweli River and the old colonial hill town of Nuwara Eliya, on the way to the summit at Pattipola, 1,898m above sea level. After that, it descends past waterfalls on the way to its terminus at Badulla, one of the country’s oldest towns. They don’t make train rides like this anymore (tickets from 10RMB; +94 11 243 2908;

Go on a wild jungle trek near Galle

Sri Lanka is a magnet for wildlife, with 70 percent of the world’s frog population, 435 bird species, over 90 species of snake (including cobras), plus crowdpleasers such as the odd elephant, leopard and masturbating monkey. The nature experts at Rainforest Rescue International run wild trips to lesser-known forest reserves, such as Kanneliya and Sinharaja. Outings differ depending on what nature is doing – ours involved using leaves to make soap in the rain, eating the insanely bitter juice from a snail (apparently it’s a good form of natural disinfectant), and learning how to remove leeches without getting their heads stuck on your skin. Tours from 125RMB (+94 77 453 5746;

Save the turtles on the south coast

To stop the illegal collection of the eggs laid by five species of endangered turtles, the Bundala National Park – a few hours east of Galle, round the south coast – have set up overnight turtle watches on Rekawa Beach, with luxury camping and meals included. The scheme was created not only to protect the creatures, but also to offer an alternative income for the people involved in the illegal trade. Aside from turtles, the park also hosts elephants, crocodiles and 197 bird species. Trips cost around 1,640RMB for two days and one night (+94 11 583 0833;

Surf on you own private beach

As an alternative to the famous surfing spots of Hikkaduwa and Arugam Bay (north of Galle), you can pay 600RMB to rent a whole beach for the day and surf its waves exclusively. You don’t even have to bring a surfboard – the Amanwella boutique hotel offers equipment and tuition at either its own dreamy private beach or an equally secluded one in the vicinity (non-guests welcome). If you’re waiting for the swell, visit the nearby Mulkirigala Rock Temple. Few tourists know that a massive reclining Buddha statue is just sitting there in the forest, and the caves around it hide ancient wall paintings. Find Mulkirigala Rock Temple near Beliatta road. Surf lessons on your own private beach start from 600RMB. Phone ahead to check the surf report and book your session (+94 47 224 1333;

Cook your own curry near Galle

A clever way to enjoy Sri Lankan cuisine is to cook it yourself. Kahanda Kanda Hotel, near Galle (see ‘Where to stay’), offers lessons with fresh, locally sourced ingredients chosen by head chef Ruwan. You’ll learn to cook dishes such as traditional milky fi sh curry, spicy chicken curry and vegetable curry with fresh ginger, curry powder and coconut (plus some secret ingredients). After the lesson, devour your creations at the hilltop restaurant overlooking the jungle. Lessons run daily and cost 75RMB per person for a two-hour session.