How I Survived Travelling to Sri Lanka with a Toddler (and had the best time of my life)!

No one said travelling with a toddler was easy!

For some, the idea of travelling with a toddler sounds like a nightmare. The questions anxious parents ask themselves unscroll endlessly in their brains as the anxiety steadily increases. Logistically, how will all this work? Is it safe? Is it dangerous? What about the water? Will the time differences screw up his naps? How will he be on the flight? What if the trip is just an endless series of full-on meltdowns? But when we took our own toddler with us to Sri Lanka, none of the fears that plagued our pre-flight preparation ever surfaced. We had a dreamy time in the ancient island of Serendib, and in fact our son’s presence brought the sights sounds and tastes to life in ways we might not have even noticed had he not been there.

1. Slow down!

When travelling, move at a toddler’s pace and don’t try to rush through everything on your itinerary, to-do. Part of this means being prepared to change plans with little to no notice. On our own journey, we couldn’t get on the scenic train to Nuwara Eliya into the hills because of schedule disruptions, so we just ended up driving alongside the tracks and passing the train from time to time, which for a toddler was pretty darn exciting. Take advantage of the pit stops life gives you and use those places and events as excuses for catching your breath and taking a look around.

Our little one really enjoyed running up and down the steps of the train station and watching the travellers go by. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

On the way down from our time high (and wet) in the mountains, we came across a fuel truck jackknifed on the new road. All the villagers from miles around had congregated there to collect the diesel spilling from the truck. We had lunch at an amazing restaurant overlooking the scene, and periodically my son went out there to see what was happening. We were at a safe enough distance that even if something had gone wrong we would have been alright, and seeing the spill through his eyes. He now understands trucks like that transport fuel, that driving in wet conditions require you to be at a slower pace, and driving in the mountains mean to drive more carefully. He also learned when there’s plenty, make sure to share and not to let anything go to waste.

Jackknife! Fortunately no one was hurt. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

2. New and novel

When was the last time you flew a kite, or did a cartwheel? For toddlers, these experiences are new and novel, and trying to figure out these mysterious skills is an exciting challenge, so finding the open spaces for frolicking is always a priority for us. Greens, beaches, even hillsides covered with tea plants are great places for toddler activities like running, climbing and exploring, and joining your little one in these games is a simple but rewarding activity for parent and child alike. The mountainsides of Nuwara Eliya made a great place for exploring and poking around, and my son got a thrill out of discovering the snakes and lizards of this wild island. At that height the heat wasn’t even a factor, and we had far more stamina than we might have at hotter climes.

Despite his bedraggled appearance here, our son really enjoyed the horse ride and insisted on riding in the misty rain. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

3. See the wonders of nature through a child’s eyes

Leading your child through the discovery of nature causes you to pause a bit and see things through his eyes, and effectively re-enchants the world in a way that might not be possible for adults travelling in the company of of other adults. When my son saw a herd of elephants trundling down the road at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, he had never seen such mighty beasts so close and with no fences around them. His awe was infectious. Feeding the rescued elephants was a thrill he still talks about and reminisces excitedly a year later.

Elephants! Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

4. Let them try all the local food and delicacies

We have never shied away from letting our son try all sorts of exotic foods though we are careful about the spice level and cleanliness factors (though in fact there is mounting evidence that exposure to various bacteria at a young age actually makes kids stronger in the long run, and lack of exposure to these things can have a harmful effect on long-term development!).

Trying to determine how much he could handle really made us evaluate the food slowly and carefully – and gave us new appreciation for the subtle and sophisticated flavour palates of Sri Lankan cooking. If he doesn’t like it, or rejects it, no problem! He’s a toddler, so he constantly rejects things he loved less than 24 hours ago – it’s just what he does. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, and if he absolutely refuses to eat anything, there’s always formula.

He didn’t like the coconut and that’s OK. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

Hoppers were a hit for both dad and son. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

We all got a little messy eating with our hands. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

5. Learn to face your fears as a child (and as an adult!)

Invariably, something will go wrong, and tears will be shed. It’s all a part of being a child – and being a parent. This is fine and it’s natural. In our case, the biggest shock of my son’s trip came when a crow dive-bombed his head. Perhaps the crow thought it was a coconut! Tears were shed, and he has harboured a lingering suspicion of crows ever since, but we talked it out and have gotten to the point where we can laugh about it. He was pretty terrified of the awesome power of the ocean as well, and that’s something we’ve been working on to this day, but we’ll get there. He’s stronger, braver and more resilient as a result of exposure to these scary but somehow exciting things.

The big crashing waves were a little scary at first so we improvised. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

6. Appreciate the wildlife

In addition to the elephant orphanage, there are myriad opportunities for wildlife excitement in Sri Lanka. A safari in Yala is a surefire way to see exotic animals, and will teach your little ones patience. The turtle sanctuaries give them a chance to witness the miracle of baby turtles emerging from the sand, and the, blue whale tours are a rare opportunity to witness the largest animals on earth in action. Want to blow a toddler’s mind? Tell him or her that this animal is bigger than the biggest dinosaur to ever live. Wow! Even during those in-between times you’ll see something amazing. Those big black things in the tree over there? Those aren’t bird, those are giant bats!

Village chickens are a common sight in Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

7. Expose your offspring to the ancient history and rich culture of the island

Sigiriya was not a sight we saw on this particular trip, but knowing how my son loves lions, I know the titanic paws atop that ancient monument would blow his mind. As it was, we saw plenty of history both ancient and more recent. The filming locations of the Bridge on the River Kwai, the tea plantations of the mountains, the colonial-era architecture, the wet markets and more. All of these sights, sounds and smells have left indelible impressions on him that he still brings up today.

Vibrant wet markets in Colombo. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

Wet, wet market in Nuwaraeliya. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always fun (then again, neither is staying home for a lazy weekend with friends and family!), but it was absolutely worth it. Would we do it again? We’re planning a trip back next year.

Tripsle your way to Sri Lanka!

Whether or not you’re travelling with kids, a trip to Sri Lanka will be absolutely life-changing. But before you explore the Sinjaharaja Rainforest from Colombo, or tour Nuwara Eliya, make sure to book your Sri Lanka 4G Sim Card prior your flight!