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Sri Lanka with Kids: How We Taught Our Kids To Be Travellers (Not Tourists)

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Mum of two Joanna tells us how her 12-day trip to Sri Lanka taught her kids about gratitude, important life lessons, and how to be travelers (not tourists). Big holiday goals!

We wanted to take our kids somewhere where they would be pushed out of their comfort zone, to learn and gain insights instead of just posing in front of tourist sites snapping selfies. Call me a Tiger Mom, or chalk it up to way too many beach resort vacations (not complaining, just saying…), it was very important to us that our kids become travelers, not tourists, on this trip.

Big goals. Especially considering we have a 6- and 4-year-old, who are both pretty picky eaters. But we were extremely lucky to chance upon Chaminta and her team at Ayu In the Wild. They meticulously planned every aspect of our 12-day adventure in Sri Lanka. I had very specific “Mom requests”: No more than four hours of driving a day, some culture but no temple overload, availability of food for our littlies in case they couldn’t handle curry….the list went on. And boy did Chaminta deliver.

Sri Lankan culture

During our trip research, we found lots of companies offering tailor-made itineraries. But Chaminta went the extra mile. Yes, we went to all the tourist sites (more on this below). But she also arranged for many meaningful touch points and interactions with the local people. This is where the kids truly learned to embrace Sri Lankan culture, where they learned life lessons that are hard to teach at school.

Kandy: Cooking and dance lessons with a local family

Kandy is known for the Perahara, an annual procession of dance and grandeur. Think fancy costumes, dancing and drums, elephants, and lots of fire. We had plans to watch the Perahara, so Chaminta thought a private Kandian dance lesson would further our understanding and appreciation of what we would see the next night. Our instructor came from a long line of Kandian Perahara dancers. All his ancestors have danced for Presidents and world leaders. What a treat to learn from the best!

After dancing, his wife invited us into her humble kitchen and taught us how to make dhal, and how to extract coconut milk from fresh coconuts. They very graciously answered our kids’ questions, like “Why is there no A/C in your house?”, “Where’s your microwave?” and “Why do you use your hands to eat?” Truth be told, we were a little mortified, but they had a good laugh. During lunch with their family, we had to pick our jaws up from the ground when our kids ate their dhal. Getting kids to try local food without a fight: achievement unlocked!

Sigriya: Visit with a local farmer, his family home and a rural village school

Sigriya was a pretty easy 3-to-4-hour drive from Kandy. It is home to the Sigriya (Lion) Rock, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in close proximity to Minneriya National Park. While we enjoyed both tourist destinations, the best part of our stay in Sigriya  actually the best part of our entire trip was having the opportunity to meet with a local farmer and his family as well as a separate visit to a rural village school.

Upon our arrival in Sigriya, Chaminta arranged for a local guide to take us to an onion farm. Chatting with the farmer (through our guide who translated), we learned firsthand the challenges he faces from the natural environment like the recent droughts, and the tricks he has to use to outsmart elephants who trample his crops. We also learned about his family and kids, and how he wanted his kids to learn English. It was amazing to see our girls absorbing and processing all of this information, and asking inquisitive (thankfully less mortifying) questions!

Our local guide, Dhanu was great with our kids. He made it a point to simplify context in a way they would understand. We found out Dhanu was a former national parks ranger and nature expert, which made our time with him even more engaging for the kids because he would keep pointing out interesting animals, insects, and occasionally pick fruit for the kids to sample.

The next day, still in Sigriya, we were invited into a rural village primary school. I can safely say the few hours we spent with the village kids will be memories we keep for a lifetime. Though they spoke very little English, it was amazing to see our kids and the school children find other ways to communicate. We played games, the older kids took turns to push our littles on the swing (our girls loved the attention) the kids took selfies together, they taught us to count in Singhalese and we taught them to count in Mandarin. They did much better than we did!

We learned from the school headmaster that the school caters to Grades 1 through 6. This baffled our kids — there was only one classroom! The different grades were separated by mere bulletin boards. And our older daughter said to me in a quiet aside, “Where are their computers and iPads? Our school at home is a bit bigger!” Which presented us with the perfect teaching opportunity.

We spent 12 epic days in Sri Lanka. We saw many of the “must see” sites. We took a lot of pictures. But what stays with us, and what the kids are still talking and asking questions about, stems from the intimate interactions we had with the locals. The real face time. The unscripted conversations. That is what we wanted our kids to take away from this trip. Life lessons, gratitude, and how to be travelers.

Our Itinerary Hit List and Travel Times

  • We flew from Singapore to Colombo on Sri Lankan Airlines (under 4 hours)
  • Colombo to Kandy (normally a 4-hour drive that stretched to 6 hours because of traffic): If travelling with young kids, I would suggest talking to your travel agent on ideas to break up the drive.
  • Kandy to Sigriya (under 3 hours):
    – Sigriya rock
    – Minneriya National Park Elephant Safari (2 to 4 hours safari)
  • Sigriya to Negombo: Under 4 hours
  • Negombo to Colombo Airport: 30-minute drive

All images courtesy of the author

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