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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.

Q: 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.”

Q: 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. ”

Q: 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.

“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.”

Q: 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.”