Driving in Oman: rules, rules and more rules

View from the Muscat Expressway on a Friday morning

The best way to experience Oman as a tourist is to rent a car and hit the road. This is a very easy country to drive in, and most of the roads are really well-maintained. However, we have made some mistakes and picked up a few pieces of info along the way that might be helpful for anyone planning to do some driving in Oman.

First, car rentals. There are several car rental companies at the airport and if you want to really explore, make sure you rent a 4WD vehicle. However, make sure you get unlimited mileage. Lots of companies impose a 200 kilometer per day limit, and if you exceed that amount you have to pay out the nose. For example, if you rent a car for seven days, you get 1,400 kilometers. We learned this the hard way. Europcar is one of the few companies that does not have a limit, and you have to book online in advance.

Khor Najd, with its fun twisty crazy road

Second, driving in Muscat. There are a lot of rules/guidelines which you need to always follow, and the consequences can be serious.

Here are the biggies:

  1. NEVER EVER RUN A RED LIGHT. You will have to spend a night in jail. When the light starts flashing green, prepare to stop. (I’m not kidding)
  2. ALWAYS FOLLOW THE SPEED LIMIT. If you don’t know what the speed limit is, follow the speed of traffic. (There are traffic cameras everywhere)
  3. NO ROAD RAGE ALLOWED. No flipping the bird, no hand gestures, no yelling, etc. (The police will get involved and you will go to jail and be deported. Once again, I’m not kidding.)
  4. ALWAYS BE PREPARED FOR ANYONE TO PULL IN FRONT OF YOU.
  5. PRACTICE DEFENSIVE DRIVING.
  6. DO NOT PULL ALL THE WAY UP TO STOP AT A RED LIGHT. This is considered running a red light. You’ll notice that the locals stop a good distance back; follow their lead.

Here are some other helpful guidelines:

  • At traffic circles, those entering the circle need to yield to those already in the circle
  • For most lights with right turns, there is a designated right turn lane and you can turn right even if the light is red
  • If you come to an intersection without lights, drive like you have a stop sign
  • Watch out for maroon and white striped cars: these are student drivers
  • There are speed bumps everywhere
  • Just because there are arrows in a lane pointing in different directions doesn’t mean you can go any of those directions from that lane. It means you can get to lanes from which you can go in those directions from that lane. So for instance if you need to turn right, get in the far right lane.
  • Waze, maps.me and GoogleMaps give turn-by- turn directions here. Maps.me is helpful if you don’t have cell service because you can download the maps in advance.
  • On narrow, twisty mountain roads, honk your horn when you’re going around a turn to warn anyone coming in the other direction

Traffic can be a little more lawless outside of Muscat and away from the traffic cameras. Also, watch out for camels. They do whatever they want, including walk through the middle of the highway. Donkeys and goats also do this, but camels are the most dangerous.

Camels don’t care

Third, I also recommend buying a copy of “Oman Off-Road.” It’s available at Border’s (there’s a shop in just about any mall) or at Al Fair grocery stores. The book costs about 20 OMR ($50) and is definitely worth it if you plan on doing any exploring.

Lastly, if you really want to explore, you need a four wheel drive vehicle, and you need to be comfortable using the four wheel drive capabilities. If you want to drive in the sand you also need to have a gizmo to let air out of your tires down to 20 PSI and also an air compressor to put air back into your tires.

Now, go forth and explore! It’s going to be incredible!

Nate drove down this while I hyperventilated and swore.

The Sugar Dunes are impossible to reach with a 4WD vehicle

Good luck exploring this road in a sedan!

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Driving around Dhofar: camels and cyclone damage

Camels everywhere!

While we were driving around Dhofar and Salalah, I was struck by three things: how green it was, the extraordinary number of camels everywhere, and the amount of remaining damage from Cyclone Mekunu.  I was prepared for, but still surprised by, the first two, but I was shocked by latter.

Waze tried to make us take this road

We drove down some roads that probably shouldn’t have been open, and Waze tried to take us over a bridge that had been completely washed out.

Close-up of the photo above. See how the bridge is washed out?

Cyclone Mekunu struck Oman (and Yemen) in May earlier in the year, and apparently dumped over 10 inches of rain in Salalah in one day, and more than 24 inches over a 4-day period. It was the biggest natural disaster that Oman’s seen in some time, and the water rushing down the mountains caused a lot of damage. I guess I thought that they would have made all the repairs and so forth by now, but it was only 3 months ago.

I’m surprised this road wasn’t closed.

Also, I don’t think it’s possible to write about a trip to Salalah without mentioning the camels. They are everywhere. In the traffic circles, the highways, the hillsides, the ruins, you name it. I read that during the khareef the camels come down off the mountains and into the plains closer to the coast to escape the biting flies.  Whatever the reason, there are camels all over the place and they give zero shits if they are in your way. They will literally walk out into the middle of a freeway without a care in the world. It definitely makes for interesting driving!

Camels in the road

Camels don’t care

We tried to drive down this road, but we gave up (and got yelled at by the camel herder)

“WTF are you guys doing here”

Ruins and a camel

I tried to convince M this was a two-headed camel. He didn’t believe me. He’s no fun.

More camels

That one’s a non-conformist.

Camping in Dhofar (and Oman beach camping notes)

Our campsite at a random beach in Northern Dhofar before we cleaned up all the trash

For our second night of camping on our Salalah road trip, I had pre-selected a spot that another blog said was nice, but we would have arrived later than we would have liked to have time to set up camp and make dinner. Instead we drove to a beach that looked promising and not too windy, let the air out of the tires to 15 PSI, and kept driving until we found a good spot.

Once again, Nate got started on the fire while I set up the tents and M buried his plastic dinosaurs in the sand. One of those dinos is still buried, and luckily M is too young to care or realize that it’s gone forever.

The tide when out and a patch of pink shells appeared

The temperature on the beach was perfect, and I actually had to wear long sleeves and sleep inside my sleeping bag. There’s nothing like eating a yummy campfire meal and watching the sunset over the ocean, and then falling asleep with a gentle breeze to the sound of waves on the shore.

It was cold enough that I actually had to sleep inside my sleeping bag!

We’re not beach camping experts by any stretch of the imagination, but we have some wisdom to pass on to others planning to go beach camping in Oman. Here are some of our tips:

  • Bring a table. We also bring plastic bins, one for cooking gear, one for other stuff, and they also function as tables. There are no picnic tables here.
  • Buy firewood ahead of time. You can buy it reliably at the Sultan Center in Muscat (one bundle costs 2.500 OMR), and apparently at the OmanOil on the freeway by Quriyat. Do not plan on being able to find firewood or kindling at your campsite.

Beach sunset and the campfire

  • Bring an axe or hatchet to split your firewood. In the absence of an axe/hatchet, bring some fire starter.
  • Bring garbage bags. We always try to leave the campsite cleaner than when we arrived, and unfortunately in Oman you’ll find a lot of plastic garbage on almost every beach.
  • Bring a tarp or mat to put on the ground. You’ll want someplace where you can set things and they won’t get covered in sand. You can buy one of those large plastic mats at Lulu for less than 2 OMR.
  • Be prepared for late-night parties. The As Sifah beach is notorious for this. People will go to bed around 10 pm and then around 2 am the partiers will show up, playing music and making lots of noise until the sun comes up. We prefer to camp in difficult-to-access or off-the-beaten path areas for this reason.

Essential beach camping gear: beach tent + sleeping tent, plastic mat, plastic bins, cooler and water bladders

  • Embrace the sand. You’ll never get rid of all of it. It’s impossible. We keep a towel inside the tent by the door so we can wipe off our feet, but when we get home everything is still covered in sand.
  • Bring a beach tent. If it gets hot, you’ll be grateful for the shade, and if it’s windy, this is where you can prepare and eat sand-free meals.
  • Close your tent zipper fully, with both the zippers pulled up as high as they will go together (rather than pulling the two zippers together along the bottom of the tent). You don’t want scorpions in your tent!

Pork sausage and potatoes for breakfast

  • Don’t plan on finding ice anywhere after you leave Muscat. We bring a cooler with ice packs and we freeze what we can to help keep everything else cold. There is ice at the convenience store/gas station next to the freeway right by the Bimmah Sink Hole exit, and that is the only place I have ever seen ice.

Do you have any other beach camping tips? Let me know!

The Great Salalah Road Trip of 2018

The Wadi Darbat waterfall near Salalah

When you go on a trip, it falls somewhere on the vacation-adventure spectrum. During a vacation, you have not a care in the world, and ideally you’re lying on a beach in the middle of nowhere with a good book in one hand and a drink in the other. When you’re on an adventure, you hit the ground running, and you don’t come up for air until the whole thing is over. Most trips are somewhere in the middle, especially when you have kids (because, let’s be honest, taking a proper vacation with small children is impossible).

We recently took a road trip down to Salalah, Oman’s largest town in the south, and it was 100% an adventure. We drove on beaches and off-road, camped in beautiful remote areas, hiked, lost part of our car on a windy mountain plateau, got chased by wild dogs and camels, explored ruins and waterfalls, got nearly blown over by wind, waded through parasite-laden streams, took thousands of photos, and had an awesome time.

Salalah during khareef: mountains, muddy roads, greenery, and clouds

Every year there is a monsoon season in the southern part of Oman, called the khareef, and it turns Salalah into a desert oasis. Plants spring out of the ground, streams and waterfalls with bright blue water appear out of nowhere, and the entire area becomes Oman’s #1 tourist destination.

So much greenery and turquoise water!

The khareef runs from June to August, and we were initially planning to visit over the long 4th of July weekend. But Nate went to Salalah for work in April, and the hotel receptionist told him that the best time to visit is actually September. It’s less rainy, the mountains are at their greenest, and there are less tourists. That receptionist was spot-on 100% correct: September was a perfect time to visit the region.

We took the coastal route to Salalah rather than the inland route, and we spent two nights camping on the way down, followed by 2 nights at a hotel in Salalah. Rather than drive back to Muscat, we opted to fly home and ship our car back with a vehicle transportation company. The total cost of shipping the car and plane tickets was less than $260, which was very much worth not having to drive 12-14 hours back.

Camping at the Sugar Dunes near Al Khaluf

I’ll write more about where we camped and what sites we saw on the way down, plus what we did and where we went in Salalah. For now, here’s a color-coded map of what we did, with the red pins marking camping spots and the blue pins indicating places of interest.


Here is our general itinerary:

Day 1: depart Muscat around 10 am, arrive at Al Khaluf at 3:45, reach campsite in the Sugar Dunes by 4:30

Day 2: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop at Duqm Rock Garden, Ras Al Markaz beach, and the pink lagoon; reach Dhofar coast campsite by 4:45

Day 3: depart campsite by 8:30 am; stop in Hasik to see waterfall and ruins; stop numerous times along the route to take photos of the coastline; arrive at hotel around 5 pm

Day 4: visit Wadi Darbat: go to hillside viewing point for waterfall and travertine curtain; hike to waterfall; drive up to see ponds, streams and little waterfalls; hike to see travertine curtain from above; drive to see Tawi Ateer sink hole; drive to baobab tree forest; lunch in Mirbat; visit Ayn Tabruk and Ayn Athum

Day 5: visit Sumhuram ruins, Ayn Khor, Al Baleed archeological park and Land of Frankincense museum. Drop car off with vehicle transport guy at 5 pm and take taxi to airport

Also, if you’re planning to do this road trip, you may want to download the maps.me app. You can download the Oman map and it’ll still work well even when you have zero cellular service. Maps.me has all the tiny little tracks through dunes, mountains, and random fields that most people wouldn’t even consider to be roads. But when you want to go off the beaten track, even if you have GPS coordinates, it is very helpful.

Make sure you also have plenty of water, a towing cable, a tire deflator with a  gauge, a battery-powered tire pump, and a shovel. Also make sure you know where your jack and spare tire are. It’s always good to be prepared on a road trip to remote areas!

Camping at a random beach in norther Dhofar

An overnight at Ras Al Jinz

A mama turtle heading back to the sea, with a baby turtle following behind

About a month ago we visited Ras Al Jinz, a turtle nesting and research area on the eastern-most tip of Oman. Ras Al Jinz is a protected nature reserve, and it’s one of the few places in the world where green turtles nest year-round. Peak nesting season is June to August, and peak hatching season is September to November.

We departed Muscat at 10 am, and by noon we’d reached the white sandy beaches of Fins. After a nice lunch and swim, we got back on the road around 2:30. We arrived at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve and research center around 4:30; after we checked in, we made our way up to our tent. If you do the drive straight through, without stopping, the  trip from Muscat to Ras Al Jinz takes about 3.5 hours.

Camels along the road en route to Ras Al Jinz

There are two lodging options: eco-tents and a hotel. I can’t speak for the hotel, but the tents are pretty great.  There are tents for 2 or 4 people, and whichever tent size you pick, they are surprisingly large. We got a tent for 2 people, and there was plenty of space for M’s travel cot, plus a table, chairs, an A/C unit, television, and a minifridge.

Our tent

One strange thing about the tents: there is a long paved walkway leading up to the tents (it’s a bit of a hike), and there are signs saying you’re not allowed to drive on the walkway. But then there’s a large parking area up by the tents. We off-roaded a bit to drive up the tents, keeping to the unfinished area next to the walkway. I don’t know if a low-clearance vehicle could do it, but we had no problem in our Jeep.

A view of the tents from a nearby hill. Note the lovely parking area!

There was some down-time between getting settled into the tents and dinner, but there was space for the kids to run around and play. After spending several hours in the car, M was happy to finally be free, and Nate and I were happy with the bottle of wine and snacks that we’d brought with us.

Dinner at the resort starts at 7:00, and the price is apparently negotiable. It was a decent spread, with Indian and continental options. Nothing particularly special, but not bad either.

When you’re staying at Ras Al Jinz, you have two opportunities to see turtles: once at night, around 9 pm, and again in the early morning, around 5 am. I’ll tell you now that I enjoyed the morning viewing a lot more;  it’s also the best one for taking pictures and kids will find it more interesting too. At night you basically just get to see the turtles laying eggs, and there are mobs of people because the tour is open to people who aren’t staying at the resort, whereas the morning tour is only for those staying at the resort.  In the morning you can see the turtles in nests laying eggs, and also making their way back to the sea.

The resort and buildings are set quite a ways back from the beach, and for either viewing, plan on walking at least half a mile out to the beach on a dirt road or in the sand, tromping around in deep sand once you get to the beach, and then walking half a mile back. It’s not strenuous or anything, but it might be difficult for anyone with mobility issues.

A mama turtle digging a pit in which to lay eggs

Around 8:45 pm we elbowed our way through crowds of people and made our way down to the beach with a tour guide. The guides would message each other with the turtle locations so that we could (ideally) quietly and slowly, in a single file line, walk along the beach and see the turtles laying eggs and flapping in their sandy pits. With that many people, you can’t keep everyone quiet and following directions. If I were one of those turtles, I would have been pretty annoyed. But it was a neat experience, and definitely something I’d never seen before!

Another mama turtle heading back to sea after laying eggs

The next morning we woke up at 4:15 am to make it down to the main building by 4:55 to head back out to the beach. Poor M did not want to wake up, and eventually I told him we were going to see turtles. He leapt up and practically jumped out of bed, wide awake and ready for action!

The sun was rising as we walked back down to the beach, and we spent about 90 minutes at the beach, watching the mama turtles make their way back to the ocean. Our guide also had two baby turtles in his dishdasha pocket, which he set free on the beach. Those little guys frantically made their way to the ocean as quickly as possible, and it was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

Another mama slowly making her way out of her sand pit towards the sea at 5 am

All the turtle tracks leading down to the beach

Our guides on the beach with another mama turtle emerging from her nest

After watching the turtles in the morning, we headed back to the main building for breakfast. It was a good spread, but the definite highlight was the espresso machine. I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to function, and 5 hours just won’t do it for me. Coffee with added espresso shots to the rescue!

The view down towards the beach from the main building. It’s maybe a half mile walk each way.

We trekked back to the tent, packed up, and hit the road by 8:30 am. On the drive back we stopped at Ras Al Hadd, the ancient city of Qalhat, and Wadi Tiwi. Other options could be stopping at Sur, Wadi Shab or Bimmah Sinkhole, or even checking out more of the beaches around Fins. There’s so much to do in that area!

If you wanted to make a whole weekend out of it, you could go to Bimmah and then camp at Fins one night, go to Wadi Shab and Sur on your way to Ras Al Jinz the next day, overnight at Ras Al Jinz, and then do Wadi Tiwi on your way home.

I’d highly recommend Ras Al Jinz, especially to those with children. In fact, we’re planning to go back again later in the year!

Sri Lanka: Udawalawe

Elephants at Udawalawe National Park

 

Our next stop was Udawalawe, where we had only one goal: to see some elephants!

The drive to Udawalawe from Amba was less than 2.5 hours, and within 10 minutes of checking into our hotel we saw a wild peacock, a 6-foot long snake and a hornbill. We were off to a good start!

We stayed at Eliyanth Udawalawe, which was the most expensive of all the hotels during our trip. It wasn’t particularly child-friendly, with lots of ledges with minimal barriers and other safety hazards. We generally let M run around and explore, but here we had to watch him like a hawk, and he wasn’t even allowed out on our balcony. The food also was overpriced and not particularly great.

The very pretty-but-not-kid-friendly balcony off our 2nd story hotel room

But, and this is a big “but,” the 3-hour safari that we booked with the hotel was incredible.

We had an entire vehicle just to ourselves, and the driver knew exactly where to go to see lots of elephants and other animals. We picked up a local volunteer animal-spotter at the visitor’s entrance to the park, and he was particularly good at finding animals we might not have seen otherwise.

No trombone playing either

All the safari vehicles at Udawalawe are open-air 6-seaters, basically exactly like this.

We saw loads of interesting birds, several herds of elephants, crocodiles, wild water buffalo, deer, jackals, and even a leopard!

Peacocks

Parrots, just like the ones we see flying all over Oman

This big guy was hanging out along the side of the road by himself

Crocodiles

Wild water buffalo and pelicans

Jackals

We were initially wary of how M would handle being strapped into a jeep for 3+ hours with no entertainment, but he was a champ. We put his carseat in the vehicle and he napped for about 45 minutes, and dutifully helped search for animals the rest of the time.

M happily watching the elephants from his car seat

In Udawalawe we also visited the Elephant Transit Home, or ETH. Unlike other elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka (which are not actually sanctuaries and chain up the elephants for profit), the ETH houses and cares for orphaned elephants and then works with the government to release them back into the wild once they are old enough to join a herd. In fact, when you go to the ETH you’ll see herds of fully grown elephants which previously lived at the ETH hanging around past the fence looking for food. The ETH is situated in the national park, and you can attend elephant feedings at 9 am, 12 noon, 3 pm and 6 pm. We went to the 6 pm feeding, figuring it would be less crowded because there wouldn’t be any large buses of tourists. I don’t know how many people are usually there, but this strategy paid off and there were only about 30 other tourists there.

A baby elephant gets his dinner at the Elephant Transit Home

Juvenile elephants having a snack

We really enjoyed visiting Udawalawe, but I think one night here is really all you need. Arrive in the afternoon, go to the ETH, and then wake up early the next morning for a game drive. In three hours we saw just about all the animals we were probably going to see without getting bored and being tired of taking pictures.

More elephants!

Our driver picked us up after we ate breakfast following the safari. Next stop: Colombo!

Sri Lanka: around Ella

View of the valley around Ella from a hike to a near-by waterfall

We woke up bright and early and hit the road for Ella at 8:30 am. It was a long day in the car.

If you look at the Google Maps route from Sigiriya to Ella, it says it should take about 4.5 hours. It’s practically a straight shot east and then south. We suggested this route to our driver and he said the roads weren’t good, and that we should go through Kandy and Nuwara Elia, which would take 6-7 hours. Yuck.

But, we decided we should probably go with what he says, given that he is the paid professional driver and it is literally his job to know the best routes. We were wrong. Turns out those roads are in great shape, he just wasn’t familiar with them. Apparently this is a common problem among drivers because the roads are in a part of the country that the opposition formerly occupied. So most drivers simply don’t even know that the roads are there.

Anyhow, we stuck with the driver’s planned route since, at the time, we didn’t know any better. Plus, we  figured we could break it up with a few stops along the way.

Our first stop was Kandy, where we went to the Temple of the Tooth. One of Buddha’s teeth is in a shrine (which you can’t see) in the temple, so it’s a pretty big deal. I thought it was meh and I was glad we didn’t opt to spend more time in Kandy.

Inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. There are several other temples and some museums also.

The bottom level of the 3-story Temple of the Tooth. Buddha’s tooth is on the second floor.

After visiting the temple we went to a hole-in-the-wall for lunch and I was certain we were going to get food poisoning. Luckily we didn’t.

Then we got back in the car to start the drive to Nuwara Elia. After we got out of Kandy and started driving up through the tea plantations, it was a stunning drive. The scenery was beautiful, with waterfalls and green tea fields stretching as far as the eye could see.

Sri Lanka hill country views during the drive to Nuwara Elia

We reached Nuwara Elia, and the driver asked if we wanted to get out. It was about 60 degrees outside, and Nate and Marlowe were in shorts, I was in capris, and we all had t-shirts on, so we said no. At this point we really just wanted to reach our final destination.

We booked a room inside a cottage at Amba Estate, a tea plantation and organic farm that offers farmstays in the mountains outside of Ella. The drive to Amba took us through some rural areas, up and down a mountain and through a valley. We finally reached Amba around 5:30 pm, and we were pleasantly surprised by our room, which had one of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. The room was spacious and tastefully decorated with a fantastic veranda and even the bathroom had a nice view.

Amba Estate, our favorite part of our trip to Sri Lanka!

Our room on the bottom floor of the Clove Tree Cottage at Amba

The view from our cottage balcony

Once M got out of his carseat the poor kid wouldn’t sit still for the rest of the evening. We tried to take a family photo and, in it, Nate and I are smiling happily while M is in the background running in the other direction.

This path down into the valley through the tea bushes was right outside our room

We loved staying at Amba. The food was vegetarian and absolutely phenomenal, and you can do tea tours and tastings. Also, and this is very rare for Sri Lanka, Amba serves amazing coffee. They grow their own beans on the farm, in addition to tea and all the fruits and vegetables used in the food that they serve.

Amazing curries, plus pasta with butter and cheese for the kids. M was thrilled! Meals are served family style with the other folks staying at Amba.

Coffee beans growing on the farm

They provide laminated cards with directions for a bunch of hikes originating from the estate, and we spent most of our time there out hiking around the valley.

Our first morning we hiked to the top of Rawana Waterfall, and then down a little further to the second level, where Nate went for a swim. I did not because I was too scared of falling over the side of the waterfall.

Green tea, black tea, white tea, and a lemongrass infusion, all grown on the farm

After that we did the tea tour and tasting and ate some lunch, and then around 2:15 we headed out for Ella Rock. The directions said it was a 2.5-3 hour hike; we took 4.5 hours. It was not an easy hikes, especially with a 35 pound pack and baby on your back. The bulk of the ascent was in the first 2/3 of the hike to Ella Rock, which was mostly climbing up overgrown jungle paths. After that there’s a nice stretch going gently up through a eucalyptus forest.

Hiking through the eucalyptus forest. I have no photos of the other part because I was too busy trying to keep breathing and not fall on my ass.

As you approach the top, right after the path forks (go right at the fork), there’s another small fork off to the right that leads down to a beautiful cave shrine with lovely views of the mountains and valley. From here it’s maybe 15 min more to Ella Rock.

A hidden cave shrine along the hike to Ella Rock. The views from this spot were incredible!

View of the valley from Ella Rock

Ella town is on the far side of the valley

The hike down is almost harder than the hike up because it’s so steep and the path is covered in loose rocks. But we made it back by dusk, even with M demanding to be out of his pack and hiking uphill the last kilometer by himself.

With the two hikes combined, we hiked over 10 miles and climbed the equivalent of over 100 stories. It was quite the day!

The next morning we set off to explore a nearby cave and some old ruined tea processing houses, and then we relaxed in a natural pool in the river. After lunch our driver came and picked us up for our next adventure. At that point we were all ready to sit in the car for a few hours and do nothing! My legs were grateful for the rest.

I’d highly recommend including Ella on your Sri Lanka itinerary. There are so many beautiful places to explore and the temperatures are a little cooler than other parts of the country!

Sri Lanka: Sigiriya

Lion Rock

We left Trinco at 9:30, and the drive to Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, was only about 2 hours. We checked into our hotel, changed our clothes, and headed straight for Lion Rock.

After you get your ticket, there’s a museum you can explore. We didn’t spend much time there because it wasn’t air-conditioned. The grounds are full of more ruins and interesting places to explore, and there are some vendors selling wooden trinkets and other souvenirs.

The ruins and archeological sites around Lion Rock

The guidebook suggested climbing Sigiriya first thing in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat, or later in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the tourist hordes. The thing is, the climate at Sigiriya was downright comfortable compared with Oman, so we ignored the advice. We arrived around 12:15 and started the climb up around 1 pm. The climb took about an hour, with frequent water stops. It’s about 50 stories up, and it’s basically a continuous climb up lots of stairs.

The one time I was able to actually look at and take a picture of the view during the climb up without my fear of heights getting the better of me

There’s lots to see on the climb up, including cave paintings, a thousand-year old wall of graffiti, huge lion paws carved into the rock (which is why it’s called Lion Rock), and beautiful views, if your fear of heights doesn’t get the best of you on the climb. Mine did, and I reached a point where I just kept my head down and kept going up, rather than enjoying the scenery.

The paws are the only part left of the lion for which Lion Rock is named

Once you reach the top, there’s a bunch of ruins and more even better views. It’s definitely worth the climb!

Ruins on the top of Sigiriya

Stunning views from the top

After Sigiriya we went to Dambulla to see the cave temples. It’s another 25 or so flights of stairs up to see the caves. The cave temples are incredible, and there’s so much to look at. Each cave has a huge resting Buddha in it, and most of them have a bunch of other statues and paintings also, mostly of more Buddhas.

Dambulla cave temples built into the side of the mountain

Lines of Buddhas inside the cave temples

Buddhas everywhere!

A note about clothing: since Sigiriya is archaeological ruins, shorts and tank tops are fine. For Dambulla, you should cover your shoulders and your knees. If you aren’t appropriately dressed for Dambulla, they have sarongs and wraps that you can rent.

We stayed at The Nature Park Villa, which was lovely and very inexpensive. M had a lot of fun running around the hotel grounds, and we all slept very soundly. The breakfast they provided the next morning was delicious and more than enough food!

The sunset through the jungle at our hotel

I would say that climbing Sigiriya is a definite must-do on any trip to Sri Lanka. You really only need to spend one night here, and if the temperatures are too high, go visit the cave temples (only about 20 minutes away) first and then go to Sigirya later in the day. Just make sure you bring plenty of water: you’ll get thirsty on the climb up!

Sri Lanka: Trincomalee

Trincomalee shoreline

Our next stop after Anuradhapura was Trincomalee. We chose to go to Trinco because we wanted to go diving, and supposedly in June the diving is better along the Eastern side of the island. Plus there’s some interesting stuff to do, and we never say “no” to spending time on the beach!

The drive from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee is about two and a half hours. If you explore the Sri Maha Bodi and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba before leaving Anuradhapura, you’ll be able to leave by 11 am, arriving by 1:30 or so. There’s a hot spring you can stop at on the drive over, just outside of Trinco, and it’s an interesting opportunity to stretch your legs.

Very different from the hot spring we have near Muscat, but interesting none-the-less

There were metal pails you could fill up with water. Some people dumped water all over themselves (we did not)

We spent two nights in Trinco. The first day, after we arrived, we tracked down some lunch and checked out the beach, and we visited the Kandasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

The temple is scenic and beautiful, and the views of the ocean are stunning. The history of the area is also quite interesting, as are the tame spotted deer all over the peninsula. The cliff across from the temple is supposedly the best place in the world for whale-spotting, but we didn’t see any. If you are serious about seeing some whales, there are whale watching tours you can go on, or you could bring your binoculars and hope for the best. With a 2-year old in tow we didn’t really feel like doing either.

The temple facade

Vishnu was getting a facelift

Swami Rock, whale-watching central

The peninsula is loaded with tame spotted deer

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to go scuba diving. We used Taprobane Divers, and they were great. All our tanks had over 200 bar, the BCDs much nicer than I’m used to, and our dive guide, Rohan, was very cautious and safety-minded. The dive shop is located in Nilaveli, which is about 30 minutes from Trinco. We dove at Swami Rock, which is right below Kandasamy Kovil, and at Navy Island (not actually an island) which was right off the coast near our hotel. Neither spot was that great, frankly, but all the Hindu statues at the bottom of Swami Rock were pretty interesting. The visibility was so-so and we didn’t see anything particularly exciting, but it’s always cool to dive someplace new.

We spent the rest of the day playing on the beach (Nate and M) and napping (me). The beach is lovely, and the humans, stray dogs, and cows all seem to enjoy it.

Cows along the Trinco beach

We stayed at Dutch Bay Ocean Cottages, and it was… basic. It felt like a throw-back to our Peace Corps days. Granted it had air conditioning and a private bathroom, and luckily we didn’t get bedbugs or anything like that, but we pulled up and I was like “Oh boy.” Thankfully Nate focused on the nice view from the hotel veranda rather than the lack of amenities, and he stayed positive. The hotel provided a babysitter so we could go scuba diving, though, and she took good care of M while we were gone for 6+ hours. So that’s something.

Our hotel didn’t have a kitchen, and we had to venture out a bit for our meals. We ate at a place called Beach Paradise, and the restaurant didn’t look like much, but the food was AMAZING. I had seafood with rice, and Nate had deviled prawns. It took a while to prepare, but it was worth the wait. Our other favorite restaurant was the Green Park Hotel, which is actually not a hotel. We literally ate there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At dinner they set up tables and chairs on the beach, and it’s really lovely.

The view from our hotel

I’m glad we went to Trinco and we enjoyed our time there, but I don’t think we’d come back simply because we’d rather explore new places. We saw all there was see, which was really neat and worth the trip, but there’s definitely no need to spend more than 2 nights here.

Next stop: Sigiriya, or Lion Rock!

Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura

Ruins and guard stones in the Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura

We arrived in Colombo at 4:45 am, breezed through immigration and customs, met our driver, and we were on the road by 6:00 am. We stopped on the road to buy water and a quick bite to eat, and we checked into our hotel by 10:30 am. We were all pretty tired from the red-eye flight, so we took naps and arranged for the driver to pick us up at 2 pm.

Anuradhapura is known primarily for its ancient Buddhist temples and archeological ruins. Have your driver take you immediately to go buy your entrance ticket in order to make the most out of your $25. The museum is supposed to be pretty good, and after that go explore the ruins.

More Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

The moonstone in the Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

Cows roaming around the Abhayagiri Monastery

The following morning, before leaving for Trincomalee, go visit the Sri Maha Bodi, or the Bodhi tree temple, and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, neither of which are included in the $25 ticket. Our driver took us to before we bought the ticket, which gave us about 1.5 hours to explore the entire enormous area that the ticket gives you access to.

The ruins are really cool, and I was reminded a lot of the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It’s definitely not as awe-inspring as Angkor (what is?) but the ruins in the forest with the monkeys, cows and Buddha statues are fun to explore.

When you’re in the Abhayagiri Monastery area, first explore the moonstone and guard stone ruins, then walk over to the Abhayagiri Dagoba. This will give you a chance to explore all the ruins in the wooded area, and it’s a fun spot to walk around. You’ll find the Elephant Pond (no actual elephants, sadly), lots of Buddhas, and some other neat ruins to poke around in.

Visiting the Thuparamaya Dagoba, one of the oldest Buddhist dagobas in Sri Lanka

The Sri Maha Bodi: this tree is had generations of caretakers for the last 2,000 years and is a major pilgrimage spot for buddhists.

One thing to note is that, for most temples and the grounds, you have to take your shoes off before entering. So if you’re wearing sandals, this means you’re walking around on hot rocks, sand, and bricks barefoot. I’d keep a pair of socks in your bag for these occasions. My feet were swollen and bright red after spending a few hours exploring the temples, and it was pretty unpleasant.

The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Elephants lining the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Anuradhapura was a good first stop for our trip. Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, I knew next to nothing about the country, and the history and ruins of the area where a good crash-course.  We were able to explore at our own pace, not feel too rushed, and our hotel had everything we needed.

We stayed at The Lakeside at Nuwarawewa. The room was basic, but the hotel grounds were lovely and the restaurant was amazing. I ordered vegetarian curry and rice for lunch and I got enough food for 2 people for $5.

The pool area at the Lakeside at Nuruwewa

Lunch!