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It’s not just because of the beautiful beaches—this multifaceted country has much more on offer than you think.

For many years, travelers to Southeast Asia skipped Sri Lanka, due to uncertainty about the country’s stability following a quarter century of civil war and a 2004 tsunami that devastated the small island nation. But Sri Lanka has begun to emerge from its complicated past by taking steps to protect its future—and now, travelers are once again dreaming of its idyllic beaches, world-class safaris, train rides through tea plantations, and rich local culture.

Among these travelers is photographer Carley Rudd. On a trip through Southeast Asia’s more frequented gems, like Indonesia and Thailand, she and her fiancé made a last-minute decision to spend the final two weeks of their adventure getting to know Sri Lanka. We spoke with Rudd about how Sri Lanka—in all its complexities—completely swept her off her feet.

How was your idea of Sri Lanka different from your actual impression of the country as you explored it?

“All I really knew about Sri Lanka before going was that, because of the tsunami and the civil war, tourism never really had a chance to take off like it did in other areas of Southeast Asia. But going to Sri Lanka, especially after visiting busy tourist towns in Indonesia and Thailand, was so amazing. You can really have off-the-beaten-path experiences and authentic interactions with local people.”

"These children in Kandy were so welcoming. They posed for this shot after we played a game of tag," Rudd says.

What struck you about Sri Lanka from a visual perspective?

“As a travel photographer, Sri Lanka really has everything you’d want. The landscape changes dramatically across the country, from lush mountains to arid regions to ‘sugar white’ sand beaches with turquoise waters. ”

What areas of the country made the biggest impression on you?

“We flew into Colombo, the country’s capital, and from there, we took a train to Kandy, a city surrounded by lush mountains and tea plantations. We hopped on another train down to Nuwara Eliya, which is in the center of ‘tea country.’ It felt like a completely untapped region—there were beautiful waterfalls in every direction. I was blown away.

“In Nuwara Eliya, we hired a driver to take us to Yala National Park, Sri Lanka’s most famous national park, which is known for incredible safaris. We saw elephants, monkeys, peacocks, tropical birds, and a leopard. I couldn't believe I was seeing a leopard in real life. I was so in awe of the majestic animal that I didn’t even get a photo of it—but the image is in my mind forever.

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"We saw these two elephants, a mother and child, in Yala National Park," Rudd says.
“Next, we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us along the southern coast of the country. We stayed in a small surf town called Weligama, then kept moving up the coast to Koggala where we got to see baby sea turtles hatching on the sand at sunset at the local sea turtle hatchery. It was just unreal.

“I also fell in love with Galle—a colonial fort city on the island’s southwest coast. I couldn’t stop ogling the amazing, crumbling Dutch and British architecture. You get so much diversity in this tiny country. In a matter of two weeks I felt like I went to 10 different countries.”
“This little girl’s gaze melted my heart,” Rudd says. “I waved, she blushed, we smiled, and our trains took off in opposite directions.”
Leaving Sri Lanka, what did you understand about the country that you hadn’t before visiting?

“In Sri Lanka, you really won’t see many other tourists. Unlike in other parts of Southeast Asia, we felt totally immersed in the Sri Lankan way of life and we had unique opportunities to connect with the people that live there. It didn’t feel like we were just tourists going down a tourist route—it felt like we were able to truly be alongside locals, enjoying the best parts of their country together. There wasn’t this major separation between us and the locals we met. That’s a really rare and neat experience, and it truly stuck with me.”

Scroll through the slideshow to see more from Rudd’s travels to Sri Lanka.

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Sri Lanka: A Photographer’s Dream Destination
Travel photographers, it’s time to add Sri Lanka to your wanderlists. Recently, @carleyscamera spent two weeks traversing the Southeast Asian island nation and fell in love with the photogenic paradise. These are some of the highlights of her adventure.
Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Train Travel
    “This was the view on our train trip from the bustling city of Colombo to the tranquil tea country and hills of Nuwara Eliya.”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Local Weaving Lessons
    “A kind local taught me how to harvest local Ceylon cinnamon—which is native to Sri Lanka—and also how to weave these beautiful palm fronds.”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Color All Around
    “I fell in love with the pink walls and wildflowers at one of the lovely boutique hotels we stayed at, called the Owl & the Pussycat.”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Tuk-Tuk Transport
    “In Sri Lanka, you can get wherever you need to go by train, bus, or, my personal favorite, tuk-tuks!”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Serene Local Scenes
    “A local river fisherman checks his shrimp nets in the Madu River.”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Temple Tour
    “We made a quick stop at this ancient Buddhist temple, which was only reachable by boat, during our river safari in Balapitiya.”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Fruitful Treats
    “This local jackfruit, also known as ‘jak,’ is part of the fig family and grows in Sri Lanka’s jungles.”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Sacred Sites
    “Lighting prayer candles at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. The complex houses an actual relic of Buddha’s tooth.”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Southwest Sri Lanka
    “Although it was ravaged by a tsunami in 2004, the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka is home to so many peaceful sights, like this one near Weligama Bay, a small surf village.”
    Photo by Carley Rudd
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    Hatching Turtles
    “We were lucky enough to witness this little sea turtle make its way from the shores of Habaraduwa out into the Indian Ocean during sunset. Good luck out there, little guy!”
    Photo by Carley Rudd

>>Next: The Unexpected Road Trip You Need to Take Now