It’s common while traveling to be approached by locals trying to make a few a bucks by offering to show you around. I typically respond with a polite “no,” but on this particular morning in Kandy, a small city in the center of Sri Lanka, I was looking for someone to take me on a tour of the sights. Santha, a small, middle-aged man with a big smile, must have sensed it, because he made a beeline for me as I approached the small park near the Kandy Municipal Market on Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe Mawatha Street in the center of town.

After a quick negotiation we were off, crammed into the back of a blue tuk-tuk, zooming down streets slick from the morning’s rain and smelling of wet leaves. Santha yelled to me over the loud buzz of the auto rickshaw’s engine: “I was born in Kandy, raised in Kandy and married in Kandy.” He added, “And I will die in Kandy!”

I could easily have spent months in Sri Lanka, the small island nation off the southern tip of India. Full of fantastic food, kind people and astonishing natural wonder, Sri Lanka is a place best seen slowly, even if you only have four days on the ground like I did. The train was my preferred means of transport (when I wasn’t in a tuk-tuk), winding from Colombo to Kandy, in the middle of the country, before taking another train down to Ella, on what was one of the most beautiful and scenic train rides I’ve ever experienced. And as far as cost goes, I was able to keep my expenses comfortably under control.

First, some logistics: A train trip in Sri Lanka requires planning. Many popular routes, including the one from Kandy to Ella, can sell out reserved seats weeks in advance. The Sri Lanka Railways website isn’t going to be much help here: you can only reserve tickets in person or through your local mobile phone. I consulted the website The Man in Seat 61 and eventually decided to place my trust in Visit Sri Lanka Tours to make my bookings.

My ticket in the observation car from Colombo to Kandy, with comfortable seats and a big picture window at the front of the compartment, cost 11 British pounds, or about $14 for the two-and-a-half hour ride. (The agency is U.K.-based and charges in pounds, payable through PayPal.) I snagged the last reserved second-class seat on the Kandy to Ella route — this is with booking 20 days in advance — and paid 13 pounds for the more ponderous, nearly seven-hour jaunt through the green hills and tea plantations of central Sri Lanka.

The Airtel SIM card I purchased in India didn’t work when I landed at Bandaranaike International Airport on my SriLankan Airlines flight (about $180 for a one-way flight from Chennai, India). Luckily, I had bought an AIS travel SIM card for about $18 ahead of time, which is good for eight consecutive days of travel in over a dozen Asian countries, including Sri Lanka. I can’t speak for service in the other countries on the list, but I had no trouble plugging it into my unlocked iPhone and using it over the next several days in Sri Lanka.

After a visit to a government-run medicinal garden and a stop for a quick beer (100 rupees buys you a local Anchor beer from the supermarket), we zoomed back toward town, Santha narrating as we went along. “Very dirty right now,” he said as we crossed a muddy-looking Mahaweli River. Why would I choose to visit Sri Lanka now, during rainy season? he asked me. I didn’t have a good answer.

The Royal Botanic Gardens was the final stop on our tour. Despite the relatively hefty entrance fee (1,500 rupees for foreigners, 60 for locals), I found the gardens a lovely respite from the traffic and hubbub of the area. They seem more like an arboretum than anything else, and I admired mazelike java fig trees, a towering smooth-barked kauri and a fascinating cannonball tree, which holds dozens of large, spherical fruits.

The food is wonderful in Sri Lanka; bright flavors, sharp spices and complex curries usually eaten with rice as the centerpiece. I thoroughly enjoyed the Flavors of Sri Lanka cooking class I booked as an Airbnb experience ($22), with the friendly Chitra taking the lead and her daughter Hasara assisting. Learning about the different spices and produce was a delicious and elucidating education, like gotu kola, an herb, and goraka, a small, sharply acidic fruit that’s commonly dried and used to flavor meat and fish.

A 400-rupee tuk-tuk ride from Chitra’s house on the western side of town took me to Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (1,500 rupees admission) just in time for the 6:30 p.m. puja, or worship ceremony. Hundreds of people packed into the temple, fragrant with flowers and ringing with the rhythm of drums beaten by men in traditional dress. After the puja, I wandered north along a narrow moat until I came to a man standing in front of an old, regal-looking building. He introduced himself as Vipula, and we chatted about the building, which was the residence of Kandy’s king until the British seized the kingdom in 1815. The king, Vipula said sadly, was betrayed by his own people.