Just a short flight away, Sri Lanka is an oh-so-accessible holiday destination from Singapore, yet oozes that ‘off the beaten track charm’ we’re all searching for
We’ve been working our little heinies off to bring you glorious travel ideas from Singapore for a good few years now, and we can confirm that it’s getting trickier to sniff out great holiday ideas that cover all bases – astounding scenery, striking culture, delightful food and luxurious, yet unique accommodation; all for a reasonable price tag, of course.
However, there are a few countries that are acing the checklist, with seasoned travellers in Singapore flying a little further afield to seek out rustic destinations with gorgeous, affordable places to stay.
Sri Lanka is one such destination in Asia; growing more and more popular each year, due to its balance of natural beauty, friendly people, great grub and magnificent villas.
Thanks to the introduction of a highway from the capital city of Colombo, it’s possible to reach our favourite part of Sri Lanka in around two hours; the area of Galle in the Southern Province. With jungle, lakes and paddy fields at Koggala, white beaches and surf at Thalpe, parties galore at Unawatuna, and bundles of history and shopping in Galle Fort, it’s a hotspot for a plethora of travelling personalities.
Immersed in the urban landscape of Singapore day to day, we’re often drawn towards the greenest part of Galle and choose to stay near Koggala. A selection of stunning, affordable villas line the lake, with our favourite being the magical Mandalay Lake Villa.
Location-wise, it has the benefit of feeling like you’re hidden inside a private jungle retreat, while being a 6-8 minute tuk tuk to Thalpe’s wide beaches and chic restaurants and 12-14 minutes to the famous Galle Fort.
The two pavilions that make up Mandalay Lake Villa. Pretty tempting, eh?
Your private view across Koggala Lake
Charming tiles, dark wood and high beams contrast beautifully with the stark, white walls
How's this for a balcony?!
The master bedroom at Mandalay Lake Villa is bigger than our family home!
There's nothing dreamier than a rolltop bath by candlelight
Oh yes, we wouldn't mind working from this office!
A secret door off the bedroom revealed a private terrace!
The cosy living room, with a funky mix of dark floorboards and colourful antiques
One of the three bedrooms at Mandalay - perfect for little ones!
One of the downstairs bathrooms - we sure like that colour!
This lounging area is crying out for a sunset vino. Don't mind if we do...
Designed by famous architect Geoffrey Bawa, the huge Mandalay Lake Villa oozes style and authenticity (have a stare at its beauty in the gallery above!), with two vast pavilions that make up the sleeping area and the living space. The buildings are regal, with romantic balconies and half a dozen columns, yet there’s an enticing storybook feel, with unsymmetrical nooks, secret crannies and mysterious doors revealing themselves as you skip through the serene, verdant plot. The villa frames the twinkling pool, while looking out across the lake to the uninhabited island of Madol Doova (which is actually featured in a popular Sri Lankan kids’ novel).
The three bedrooms are spoiled with lofty ceilings, exposed beams, four-poster beds, upcycled local decor and sleek bathrooms. The dining area is open-air, with a big comfortable couch and steps into the pool. The kitchen is tucked to the side and filled with everything you’d need to cook up a storm (there’s a huge wine fridge too – whoop!). But, with that said, you’d be pretty silly to spend much time in the kitchen when you have the insanely talented Chinthaka at your service.
Oh yes, did we mention that Sri Lankan villas like Mandalay Lake Villa come with a brilliant team of friendly staff? Every day, Chinthaka would stuff us with a delicious local breakfast of egg hoppers, coconut roti and fruit smoothies, before popping to the market to buy fresh ingredients for our chosen lunch or dinner. You can even go with him to the local market and learn how to haggle for fish, veggies and more (caught and picked that very morning!).
To summarise how welcoming and fun the Sri Lankan people are, we celebrated an important birthday during our stay and the amazing team organised a three-course gourmet meal on the private pavilion over the lake, with a band, fireworks and singing cake! ‘Twas a sensational and memorable way to complete our stay at Mandalay Lake.
AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN GALLE
Stroll around the historic fort
Galle Fort is a huge part of what makes this area so unique – established by the Portuguese in 1558 and extensively built upon by the Dutch from 1649 onwards, the thick-walled fortress is a Unesco World Heritage Site that has been masterfully maintained by the government. Located on a 130-acre peninsula that juts out from the southwest coast, it is surrounded by water on three sides, and filled with a grid of colourful and picturesque streets. Think trendy cafes, edgy boutiques (Mimi Mango is a highlight) and shops filled with home knick knacks; all housed in small, bright higgledy-piggledy buildings with courtyards. Highlights: Mimi Mango and Jo Jos for shopping and Fort Printers and Fortaleza for bites.
Highlights include the white colonial courthouse that looks out across the banyan tree-lined square, the Dutch hospital (filled with bars) the original post office (still in use), the crumbling bell tower, the glamorous Amangalla Hotel and the picture-perfect lighthouse. Oh, and head to the clock tower to look directly into Galle International Cricket Stadium. Tip: to learn more about the sights as you stroll around the Fort, you can download a nifty app like Sri Lanka City Guides. If you fancy staying inside the Fort for a night or two, check out 5 Middle Street or 79.
Cycle through the paddy fields
Fans of nature, culture and, er, bikes should sign up to one of Idle Bikes‘ tours. The boys at Idle will lead the way, weaving through the paddy fields, jungle paths and local villages, with plenty of nature along the way. Do a loop around the local area and get a dose of culture while spotting monkeys, peacocks, monitor lizards and dozens of kingfishers, or cycle a little further to Koggala Lake for crocs and idyllic water scenes. It’s a pretty casual set up – we cycled to the lake in a skirt and sandals and had no bother! Idle Bikes is just behind Wijaya Beach on the main road between Galle Fort and Thalpe – the bikes are decent quality and the hire/tour won’t set you back much. Get ready to wave and shout ‘hello’ at all the cute Sri Lankan kids!
Cook up a storm
There are lots of local cooking classes that will teach you to whip up a local hopper (harder than it looks! We’d recommend enjoying a class in the comfort of your own villa – our chef Chinthaka cooked us the best curries we’ve had in years – to learn his recipe for aubergine curry and curried green beans was a gift to take home to our pals.
Stare at some whales!
If you can handle the early start (the boats leave at 6am), lots of boats around Mirissa (20 minutes from Thalpe) offer whale watching. We went along and saw four – five whales and a few dolphins, but you may see more (killer whales even pass through around the start of the year) or b*gger all. Take a jumper – it gets chilly out there, and don’t take the captain’s sea sickness tablets (we did and spent most of the day nodding off!). Lots of companies offer this – we booked with Whale Watching Mirissa.
Stare at some fish!
There’s plenty of snorkelling off the coast of Galle, but be very careful of the strong current and stick to the shallows. You can expect to see lots of tropical fish, a turtle or two and moray eels. There’s a good spot for snorkelling to the right of Thalpe Beach Club (and you can hang onto the fisherman’s poles rather than swimming!).
Catch the sunset
Now, we’re no photographers, but even we managed some decent snaps of the stunning sunset from the beach in Thalpe. Simply grab a cocktail at any one of Galle, Thalpe or Unawatuna’s beach bars, sit back and enjoy the show (look out for turtles playing in the surf too!).
Get your adrenalin pumping
While Galle and Thalpe are fairly quiet in the way of water sports, there’s a huge lake in Hikkaduwa (a 30 minute taxi ride from Galle) where you can wakeboard in amazingly quiet surrounds. We spend 45 minutes on the water with one of Spunky Monkey’s instructors and had a brilliant (and tiring) time (largely laughing at one another). If you’re after more watersports, grab a taxi for 20 minutes to the bigger, more touristy bays of Weligama or Mirissa for sailing, surfing or jet skiing.
Throw some shapes
If you’re looking to go ‘out out’ – head to the wide bay of Unawatuna. Located between Galle and Thalpe, Unawatuna is right on the beach and filled with hostels, cheap B&Bs and backpacker-style bars. While it gets pretty busy in the daytime, a night out in Unawatuna is a good laugh – the booze is cheap, the chairs are plonked in the sand and the music is loud.
WHERE TO EAT AROUND GALLE
Sri Lanka serves up some pretty amazing local food, and if you don’t have an incredible chef like Chinthaka at home, venture out to the below…
– Wijaya Beach is a popular, laid-back spot on the beach with its own little bay and a pizza oven. Along with the prosecco and bunting, there’s not much more you can ask from a beach bar in our books!
– Thalpe Beach Club – a gorgeous, relaxed cafe on the sand, with a wonderful pool that customers are very welcome to splash around in.
– While this is an Italian restaurant, we have to recommend the insane dishes on offer at WHY – a classy spot on the beach.
– If you’re looking for fine dining with an exceptional view in an uber stylish environment, Kahanda Kanda is a truly special boutique resort in the hillside that overlooks Koggala lake. Enjoy the winding trip into the canopy on a tuk tuk and don’t miss the birds cruising home to nest at sunset from your seat in the treetops.
– While you can’t go wrong with the local hoppers and prata found at various stalls along the road, our favourite spot was an unassuming cafe called Hotel Medina. It’s glass-fronted and you can see the chefs baking in the window – head there around 5.30pm-7pm when the hoppers are fresh. Your local tuk tuk driver should know it.
– If you’re in the old Dutch Hospital in Galle, there are lots of trendy places to eat and drink (with open views of the sea). Grab a cocktail at the hammock bar for a few funny snaps.
Flights to Colombo from Singapore tend to cost between 350 – 450 SGD for a direct return per person with Sri Lankan Airlines (via Skyscanner).
Hire a driver via your villa to pick you up from the airport – it’s the most cost effective way, plus your driver will know where to head. Our ace driver via Mandalay had a huge, comfortable people carrier which set us back around 120 SGD.
Or, for a cool, authentic way to travel (and amazing views), the Rajadhani Express is Sri Lanka’s old-school train service that connects Colombo to Galle (taking around three hours for less than 20 bucks). Note – Galle only has one line to and from Colombo. Here’s a good guide to catching the choo choo in SL.
At least one month before you head to Sri Lanka, log onto the Sri Lankan ETA and buy your visa. It’s incredibly easy to do, just a simple tourist visa that takes 1-5 days to process. It costs around 30 SGD – find out more and get yours sorted via the official Sri Lankan ETA site.
BOOK A VILLA
A stay at Mandalay Lake Villa starts at just 550 SGD, which includes the private villa, team of staff and a basic breakfast. For additional meals, you simply need to pay Chinthaka for the local ingredients (they’re negligible in comparison to Cold Storage!). If the beach, fort or paddy fields are your thing, see more incredible (and affordable) villas here.
We’d like to thank the kind folks at Mandalay Lake Villa for our stay.