Read this guide before travelling to Sri Lanka: 39 essential travel tips
Planning to visit Sri Lanka?! Brilliant decision! Here's everything you need to know, including our essential travel (and food!) tips, visa requirements, health and safety, and history.
Ask us both what our top 3 countries are, and Sri Lanka makes the list every. single. time.
I mean, how could we not love it?!
From the turquoise coastlines to its lush green heart, the insanely welcoming nature of the locals to some of the greatest food your tastebuds are likely to ever enjoy, this culture-rich bite-sized Utopia in the Indian Ocean is a true traveller’s paradise. There’s absolutely a reason it’s now enjoying its moment in the sun as the ‘it’ travel destination!
After two trips to Sri Lanka over the last couple of years, there are definitely a few things we’ve learned along the way, along with travel tips we wish we’d known before we arrived to Colombo airport for the first time. If you’re planning your own travels there sometime soon, we’ve put together this list of Sri Lanka travel tips we really think you should know before you visit.
You know, the good and simple stuff, that will help you travel better and more responsibly in the teardrop isle.
39 essential Sri lanka travel tips: everything you need to know
SRI LANKA FACT FILE
Size | 25,330 square miles
Population | 21.7 million
Languages | Sinhala, Tamil, English
Capital city | Colombo
Currency | Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR)
31 essential things to see and do in Sri Lanka | The ultimate bucket list
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS | GENERAL
#1 - IT’S AN INCREDIBLY FRIENDLY COUNTRY
Long after your holiday tan has faded and the spices are no longer tickling your nose and mouth, the thing that will stick with you most about Sri Lanka will be how friendly the locals are.
In many ways, ‘friendly’ doesn’t even begin to describe how warm, genuinely kind, and generous Sri Lankan people are. As travellers, often our default mode is (sadly) to be cautious or guarded when someone approaches you to ‘chat’, as so often this is the gateway to an attempted sale or scam. But here, we were constantly caught off-guard by their radiant smiles, genuine desire to chat, to learn about each other’s cultures, or simply to help out someone who clearly wasn’t from around these parts.
We’ve had tuk tuk drivers surprise us with coconuts on long drives, fellow passengers help us manoeuvre our bags (and selves) into safer positions on overcrowded trains, families welcome us into their homes for tea and a chat, and people go out of their way time and time again, of their own accord, to make sure we felt welcome. It’s a pretty special thing to experience, and it’s one of the reasons we love Sri Lanka so dearly.
#2 - IT’S MORE DEVELOPED THAN YOU THINK
What many people don’t know about Sri Lanka is that its small geographical size and huge population make it a great testing ground for new technologies. From hybrid cars to 4G networks and general infrastructure, the country is far more developed than most travellers generally assume when they first arrive.
#3 - IT’S CHANGING REALLY BLOODY RAPIDLY, SO VISIT NOW
Mostly due to the civil war, Sri Lanka had remained very much under the tourism radar for a long time, but that’s all about to change. This is a country on the brink of a tourism boom, and we actually noticed a huge shift in tourism from our first trip in early 2016 to our second in late 2018. Sleepy coastal towns have morphed into backpacker hotspots, ‘Instagram spots’ are a thing now, and these days there are plenty of travellers on streets where we saw none before.
Now that Lonely Planet has named Sri Lanka as its top travel destination for 2019 - not to mention the Chinese-led development of a second major metropolis being built on reclaimed land in Colombo - expect that change will arrive even quicker for this beautiful island nation. So get there soon!
#4 - don’t let its size fool you, there are so many things to do in SRI LANKA
For an island roughly the tiny size of Ireland, Sri Lanka packs a serious punch when it comes to diversity of things to see and do (which you can read all about here!).
Endless golden beaches with pumping surf ring the island’s lush, jungle-clad heart; bustling cities full of colour and spice give way to hidden palm-fringed hidden alcoves; timeless World Heritage sites dot all corners of the island, while Elephants and Leopards still roam national parks in abundance.
Then, there are the wonderfully friendly locals, the picturesque train rides, the tastiest cuisine you could gift your tastebuds with, and more than one vibrant and fascinating cultures steeped in ancient history and tradition.
It’s the kind of diversity entire continents dream of, and all packed into one small island in the Indian Ocean. Utopia, plain and simple.
#5 - IT’S PRETTY AFFORDABLE, BUT MORE EXPENSIVE THAN OTHER SOUTH ASIAN COUNTRIES
In our experience, Sri Lanka is a pretty affordable travel destination, but its definitely pricier when you compare it with many of its asian neighbours.
Food and transport is particularly cheap here, with our longest train ride (Jaffna to Colombo) only setting us back £1.47 each, and most local meals coming in between £1-3 per person.
The real budget breakers here are accommodation which we found to be pretty pricey both trips, with private rooms in guesthouses priced at about £15-25 per night, meals in the trendy cafes and restaurants dotting the southern coast (obviously!), and paying for guided tours, like safaris.
Again, compared to western pricing it’s still very much a budget destination, but for those travelling on a backpacker budget, it’s something to be aware of.
#6 - LOCAL DATA IS SUPER CHEAP (AND RELIABLE)
On our most recent trip to Sri Lanka, we actually ended up just using our 3 UK sim cards (thank you, ‘Go Roam’ coverage!), but during our first trip in 2016, we bought local sim cards and topped up with data as we needed.
4G is readily available here, and actually seems to enjoy a better signal than we used to get living in London! Better yet, buying pay as you go credit is super cheap.
Dialog have free sim cards available to travellers at the airport, and LKR 1300 (USD $9) will get you 9GB of data and LKR 350 of local calls. To top up, simply head to any little convenience shop.
#7 - ENGLISH IS SUPER WIDELY SPOKEN
We’ve never had any trouble communicating while travelling through Sri Lanka, as almost everyone has at least a basic level of English, particularly as it’s also their third official language.
Alternatively, if the person you’re speaking with doesn’t understand you, they’ll likely go out of their way to help you find someone who does speak English, so don’t stress!
#8 - THIS ISN’T A PARTY PLACE
If it’s thumping beats, free-flowing booze and a crazy party scene you seek, Koh Phangan or Goa may be more your thing.
In stark contrast to many of its asian neighbours, there really isn’t much in the way of nightlife in Sri Lanka, particularly outside of Colombo or a few of the busier southern beach areas (Unawatuna or Hikkaduwa, for example).
In fact, raucous public drinking is pretty frowned upon here, and most of the local life revolves around quiet evenings and early starts, so try to limit your rowdiness where possible.
#9 - THERE ISN’T REALLY A HOSTEL CULTURE - STAY IN FAMILY-RUN GUESTHOUSES INSTEAD
Don’t expect to see your stock standard lively, dorm-room, rooftop-bar, communal-breakfast-area type hostels that are common to the rest of Asia here - there’s actually a surprising lack of hostel culture throughout the country.
This is mostly down to the developing nature of tourism here, but also due to the fact that outside of Colombo, accommodation generally centres around family-run guesthouses or airbnb rentals.
We actually prefer this when travelling here anyway, as Sri Lankans are absolutely some of the kindest, most hospitable people on the planet and every single one of our hosts went out of their way to make us feel comfortable throughout our stay. Plus, when you stay in locally and family-owned accommodation, you support and empower communities directly.
We found all of our guesthouse accommodation super easily by either searching Airbnb (use this link for up to USD $40 off your first booking!) or booking.com, or simply turning up and asking a local where to stay!
Read more | A travellers guide to Airbnb
#10 - IT’S ONE OF THE BEST PLACES TO LEARN SURFING IN THE WORLD
If you’ve always dreamed about shredding the waves like the best surfers out there, Sri Lanka is the place to come and learn how to do it.
Beautiful beaches, insanely cheap prices for both lessons and board rental, and plenty of expert local surfers and schools around to help guide you to becoming a surfing pro make this one of the world’s best learn-to-surf destinations.
The best place to try your luck surfing is Weligama on the southern coastline (2 hours from Colombo, 30 minutes from Unawatuna), where hundreds of surf schools dot the beach, or the horseshoe bay of Hiriketiya.
We booked with Freedom Surf, and a 1 - 1.5 hour lesson costs LKR 2,500 per person. You’ll cover the basics, including how to stand up, paddling for a wave, surfing etiquette, and safety. Somehow, we both managed to stand within our first five waves, and the thrill was incredible. We're now 100% converted to surfing.
Other places you can learn to surf on the south and east coast, include Unawatuna, and Arugam Bay.
#11 - THERE ARE TWO MONSOON PERIODS
Unusually for an island of its size, Sri Lanka experiences not just one, but two monsoon periods each year, affecting opposite sides of the island and alternate times of the year.
Obviously for travellers looking to see the most with as little rain as possible, this means a slightly more complicated itinerary-planning mission. The good news is though, that these rainy seasons are generally short, and sunshine and good beach weather can always be found somewhere on the island.
The main southwest monsoon, ‘Yala’, brings heavy wind and intense rains to the west (Colombo, Negombo, Kalpitiya), hill country (Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Haputale, Adam’s Peak) , and southwest coastlines (Galle, Mirissa, Unawatuna, Tangalle, Yala National Park) from April/May through to August.
This tends to be the largest monsoon period on the island. Needless to say, peak travel season through these parts is during the dry season, from October to April.
The second monsoon, ‘Maha’, hits the east coast and northern regions (Trincomalee, Arugam Bay, Nilaveli, Jaffna) between October and February. By all accounts, much of the action shuts down over this time, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find much in the way of accommodation, restaurants, etc open.
Depending on how long you have for your trip, you might want to focus on one side of the island to avoid crappy weather in others. If you’re keen to see as much as possible across the entire island, we’d recommend December-March, as it tends to be the driest across the country, including in the cultural triangle (Sigiriya, Anuradhapura).
We’ve travelled in both April (sweltering and wet!), and November (lovely), and definitely recommend the latter.
#12 - IT’S REALLY BLOODY HOT, SO BE PREPARED
One thing that remains constant in Sri Lanka’s weather patterns is that it’s pretty generally hot, all year-round.
Average temperatures island-wide range between 26-30c most months, and the humidity is intense beyond words. In fact, on our first trip to the island in April 2016 (which we later discovered tends to be the hottest month!), we found we had to get most of our sightseeing done before 10am, when the heat of the day became almost unbearable.
Be prepared; pack lots of light, loose-fitting clothing, sunscreen, your sunglasses, a hat, and always carry a full reusable water bottle - you’re going to need it!
The best things to do in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka’s historic seaside fortress
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS | HISTORY & CULTURE
#13 - SRI LANKA HAS A DIVERSE AND ANCIENT HISTORY
Ancient kingdoms, multiple colonial heritages, and a civil war: Sri Lanka’s history is fascinatingly diverse and complex.
For thousands of years, this tiny fertile island was an important trading hub along the Silk Road route, the woody spice of its native cinnamon bark desired the world over. The immense power of the nation’s ancient Kingdoms can still be seen today, in the many UNESCO-protected ruins (Polonnoruwa, Sigiriya, and Anuradhapura) that dot the so-called cultural triangle of the centre of the country.
In the 1500s, the first colonisers invaded; first Portuguese, then Dutch, and eventually British, bringing their religion and social class systems, extensive Fortifications and architecture - many of which can still be found today (particularly in Galle). Colonial rule lasted almost 450 years, until Sri Lanka were finally granted their independence in 1948. Then came the fierce and bloody civil war, a drawn-out 25-year battle for independence by the Tamil Tigers of the north, from which the country has been trying to rebuild since 2009.
It’s this diversity of Sri Lanka’s heritage that make it such a fascinating destination for those seeking a cultural, historical experience on their travels.
#14 - IT’S EMERGING FROM A DECADES-LONG CIVIL WAR
For more than 25 long, bloody years between 1983 and 2009, Sri Lanka tore itself apart from the inside out during a brutal civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. The war’s origins are complex and varied (read the full history here), but in short, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought desperately for the creation of an independent Tamil state.
While many violent attacks occurred all over the country, the majority of the battle raged in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil north, and more than 80,000 (mostly civilian) lives were lost during the conflict.
Today, both sides live relatively peacefully as they continue to rebuild and heal. But while the fighting may be over, the pain of that time still runs deep - particularly in Jaffna, where bullet-ridden, bombed out buildings and fields full of landmines still scar the landscape - so tread carefully when raising it in conversation with locals.
#15 - THE NORTH IS VERY DIFFERENT TO THE SOUTH - BUT IT’S ABSOLUTELY WORTH YOUR VISIT
Before we travelled to Jaffna and Sri Lanka’s northern reaches, we’d been warned that it totally was different to the rest of the country, and it’s true.
These northern realms of Sri Lanka drum to a beat entirely different to that of the south, lead by the predominantly Tamil population with their strong Hindu culture.
Here, colourful Hindu temples dot the region, frequented by brightly sari-clad women and shirtless men praying to the gods. The language, Tamil, is distinct from the Sinhalese spoken down south, the people less effusive and more guarded, and the cuisine influenced strongly by southern India, less than 100km from its coastline.
This was the epicentre of the bloody civil war, which raged here until 2009 and killed thousands of people. Today, though the region is rebuilding and healing slowly, the scars of the war can still be felt deeply in the burnt out homes and bullet-filled walls that remain. For many up here, the war is not over, and there’s still some lingering resentment towards the south.
Despite this, Jaffna is a seriously raw and authentic place to visit, and we were blown away by the warmth of the locals. It might be world’s away from the south, but it’s no less worthy of your visit. To understand modern Sri Lanka, you need to understand its tragic past - and this is the very place to do so.
Read our full guide to Jaffna and the north here.
WHY YOU NEED TO VISIT SRI LANKA’S NORTH: THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN JAFFNA
#16 - AVOID TRAVELLING DURING SINHALESE AND TAMIL NEW YEAR
When we first travelled to Sri Lanka in April 2016, we had no idea that we were walking into the biggest celebration the island sees all year: Sinhalese Tamil New Year (Avurudu / Puththandu). What’s more, we were about to hike up to Adam’s Peak, the most sacred religious monument in Sri Lanka, on New Years’ Eve!
Over the 13th - 15th of April every year, as the sun moves from the Meena Rashiya (House of Pisces) to the Mesha Rashiya (House of Aries), Sri Lankans welcome in a brand new year with a bucketload of firecrackers, colourful fireworks, and lots of traditional sweet treats.
It’s a wonderful, lively time to be in Sri Lanka, except for travellers it means one thing: the entire country basically grinds to a halt.
Families travel from one side of the country to the other as they go home to visit their families, shops, restaurants, and attractions close, and hotels book up weeks before the celebrations begin. The transport network is heaving beyond any comprehension, making travel between destinations difficult - we couldn’t actually physically get onto our train in Hatton, for example!) - and unless your hotel or guesthouse has confirmed they’re serving food, you may struggle to find it.
If possible, settle into one destination (and the celebrations!) during this time, and make sure your hotel is serving food. Trying to travel on either the 13th or 15th of the month is absolute bedlam!
#17 - LEAVE THE BUDDHA T-SHIRTS AT HOME, AND COVER UP YOUR BUDDHA TATTOOS
As you’d expect from a majority Buddhist country, Buddha is a deeply revered religious figure here. Showing off tattoos or clothing that shows depictions is not just disrespectful here, it can actually get you arrested and deported here.
That’s not a gross overstatement either; in 2012 singer Akon was banned from entering the country thanks to a music video showing people partying in front of a Buddha statue. In both 2013 and 2014, British tourists were deported for sporting Buddha tattoos on their arms, and in 2017 an Indian woman was detained for wearing a t-shirt with Buddha on the front.
#18 - DON’T TAKE PHOTOS WITH YOUR BACK TO BUDDHA
Never stand with your back to Buddha, and absolutely never take a photo with your back to Buddha either. If seen, you’ll be asked to delete the images by security. Likewise, don’t touch, kiss, or ‘interact’ with depictions of Buddha either - like the French tourists who posted themselves kissing Buddha statues and found themselves with a suspended hard labour sentence.
If you do want to take a photo with a statue, make sure everyone in the shot is facing Buddha.
#19 - THE CULTURE IS PRETTY CONSERVATIVE - SO DRESS AND BEHAVE APPROPRIATELY
If you scroll the Sri Lanka hashtag on Instagram, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a land of bikinis, short shorts and singlets - but it’s definitely not the case.
Sri Lankan are majority Buddhist or Hindu, and their culture is built upon modesty, politeness, and conservative behaviour and dress, which means excessive drinking, PDAs, loud or brash behaviour, and skimpy clothing really is frowned upon.
In the touristy coastal areas, you can get away with bikinis and shorts on the beach, but please cover up as you move further into town. In Colombo, it’s below knees and covered shoulders as the rule.
#20 - ALWAYS PACK A SARONG IN YOUR DAY PACK
The humble sarong, or in our case, Turkish towel, is probably the most versatile item in our backpack.
In seconds, it can transform your outfit into suitable temple wear, provide protection from the blazing midday sun, a towel for an impromptu beach session, something to sit on during dusty travel days, or as a makeshift blanket on long air conditioned bus rides. Throw one in your bag and you’ll never be left wanting!
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS | MONEY MATTERS
#21 - ALWAYS CARRY CASH
From tuk tuk drivers to restaurants, grocery stores to tour operators, this is a country that runs on cash.
While ATM and card facilities are pretty widely accessible in the main tourist areas, they can’t always be relied upon. We’d recommend withdrawing as many Sri Lankan rupees as you need in batches (from the ATM rather than a currency exchange so you don’t get ripped off), and using that to pay your way instead.
#22 - TIPPING ISN’T REALLY EXPECTED IN SRI LANKA
We’ve never really encountered a tipping culture here, although we have tipped when we’ve felt that restaurant or guiding service has been worthy of it. We tend to stay in guesthouses rather than hotels, where a service charge and tax is generally added on top anyway. On the few occasions that we tipped a tuk tuk driver, they actually chased after us to give us our change (one flat out refused to take our tip!).
If you feel the service is worthy in a restaurant, rounding up your bill is totally fine. For tour guides, tip what you feel you can manage, but generally no more than about LKR 500 per day.
While tipping isn’t really a thing here, bargaining absolutely is! Be sure to bargain (respectfully) for the best price, particularly for tuk tuks or shopping in markets.
SRI LANKA TRAVEL GUIDE | food and drink in sri lanka
#23 - IT’s HOME TO THE WORLD’S BEST TEA
If you’re a fan of a good cup of tea, Sri Lanka is absolutely the place for you.
Small though the island may be, it’s also the world’s fourth largest tea producer, a legacy left behind by the English during colonial times when they razed the thick jungle of the hill country and replaced it with endless, rolling tea plantations instead.
Today, Ceylon tea is revered by tea drinkers the world over, and some of the largest names in tea (Lipton, Dilmah) use these very plantations for their production. Sri Lankans are extremely proud of their tea heritage, and you’ll be offered tea almost everywhere you go. Our favourite was the sweet, spicy Sri Lankan milk tea (kind of like chai) drunk at breakfast time.
Be sure to take the trip up to Lipton Seat, the famous viewpoint where tea mogul Sir Thomas Lipton used to sit and contemplate his vast plantation and the magnificence of Sri Lanka’s high country while sipping the world’s finest tea, straight from the source.
Read our full guide to Ella and the tea country here.
#24 - SRI LANKAN FOOD IS INSANELY GOOD
In our humble opinion, Sri Lankan food is the best in the world (and we’ve tried many).
It’s flavoursome, healthy, and influenced by both its proximity to India, its colonial past, and its access to lush, fertile farming lands and oceans.
This is the home of cinnamon and spice (and all things nice), and you’ll be hard-pressed to make it through a day without some new nose-tingling aroma of freshly-cooked food wafting down a street and making your mouth water.
Our tip? Eat ALL the street food, we’re yet to encounter anything we don’t like! Here are a few of our favourite dishes and street food delights to look out for:
Rice and curry | The Sri Lankan staple - expect to eat it day and night (more on this below!)
Kottu Roti | You’ll hear this street food long before you taste it, so ubiquitous is the metal clanging of the hot plates its cooked on. This is Sri Lanka’s most popular street food, a mix of shredded godamba roti, vegetables, and spices cooked and chopped quickly on a hot plate and served on just about every street corner.
Hoppers | These little pancake-like bowls are traditionally a breakfast dish, made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. You can order them with or without an egg, and they’re typically served with a yellow lentil dahl.
String Hoppers | Similar to the hoppers, but made as a ‘noodle patty’, these are served with a mild curry sauce (kiri hodi) and a coconut sambol, again typically for breakfast (but we ate them all day long!)
Vegetable roti | our go-to street food! Little parcels of roti goodness, with lots of veggies inside.
Wade | Listen out for the call of ‘wade (wah-deh) wade’, particularly on trains, which signals the presence of deep fried dhal cakes (aka heaven on earth).
Sri Lankan food is known for being relatively spicy, but they’re also used to travellers not being able to handle their level of heat! If you’re worried, just ask for little or no spice in your meal.
#25 - RICE + CURRY IS LIFE
Our love of Sri Lanka’s staple dish, rice and curry, is very, very real.
‘Rice and curry’ typically involves a pile of rice, two vegetable curries as well as the option of a meat curry (or a third veggie curry), and coconut sambol. We ate it three times a day, and still couldn’t get enough of the stuff. In fact, we ended up buying a bag of Sri Lankan spice mix to try and recreate our fave dishes at home!
The dishes blend warm spices, coconut, vegetables, and occasionally meat (generally fish) to form the most delicious of flavours. Curries you absolutely must try are:
Dhal | the staple comprising of lentils cooked in spices with a coconut milk
Brinjal (eggplant) curry | sweet, almost caramelised eggplant with spices
Jackfruit curry | tender baby jackfruit (with a meaty texture) mixed with spices
Just about every local establishment serves rice and curry, and these tasty meals should only set you back about LKR 150 - 500. It’s the perfect option for those on a budget, as it’s delicious, super filling, and seriously cost effective too.
Our top tip: Our best meals were eaten in some of the most run-down looking eateries imaginable. Look for eateries packed with locals, and you’re in for a tastebud treat!
#26 - VEGETARIANS + VEGANS ARE WELL CATERED FOR
Sri Lanka is one of the most vegetarian and vegan-friendly countries in the whole world, thanks in large part to its predominantly Buddhist population.
As you’ll see from the lists above, most of the traditional staple dishes here are actually vegan, as coconut milk tends to be used for creaminess rather than dairy, and veggie curry options are plentiful (and delicious).
After spending a few months travelling through meat-heavy Italy and then the Caucasus prior to our most recent trip through Sri Lanka, it was so bloody good to finally be able to tell a waiter we’re vegetarian without being looked at as though we had two heads!
#27 - RIGHT HAND FOR EATING, LEFT HAND FOR WIPING
Sri Lankans don’t use cutlery, instead scooping their rice and curry with their right hand.
If you decide to join them, be sure to use only your right and keep your left hand well away from the action. It’s considered to be the ‘dirty’ hand, reserved for tasks like wiping post toilet.
#28 - HOTELS AREN’T ALWAYS HOTELS
It can get mighty confusing when you first arrive to a new town in search of a bed to rest your head that night, and all the ‘hotels’ listed on Google Maps actually turn out to be local hall-in-the-wall style restaurants instead.
In times gone by, if you wanted to go out for a good meal in Sri Lanka the place to be was an actual hotel - a fact that local operators cottoned onto pretty quickly, and decided to name their own restaurants ‘hotels’ too.
These local eateries serve up simple, generally delicious, local food at super affordable prices - and we definitely recommend eating at them!
#29 - THE SOUND OF ICE CREAM VANS DOESN’T EQUAL ICE CREAM
The first time we heard the jingle of an ice cream van (actually, tuk tuk) trundling down the street, Mim just about threw herself out the window in a rush to go and snatch up a sweet icy treat.
Alas, much to her dismay, the happy jingle we’d normally associate with a frozen dessert is actually the calling sound of the bread man, who rides through neighbourhoods spruiking his best baked goods. Not quite the treat we thought we might get!
The best things to do in Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s exciting northern city
Sri Lanka | transport and getting around
#30 - it’s really easy to get wherever you need to go by public transport
Whether you’re headed for the beaches or the mountains, you can get basically anywhere in Sri Lanka pretty easily. The network of buses will literally get you anywhere and everywhere you want to go on the island, while the train services all the major hubs and points of interest for travellers.
For everything else, there are tuk tuks and taxis. Hiring a private driver is definitely doable, however they tend to drastically overcharge, and journeys really can be easily made using other public transport.
#31 - THE BEST WAY TO TRAVEL IS BY TRAIN
Hotter than the London Underground on a summer’s day, takes eight hours yet only costs £5. It sounds a little like hells, but trust us, the train rides in Sri Lanka are the best you’re ever likely to take.
There aren’t many places that can boast a train line that runs just metres from jaw-droppingly beautiful turquoise coastline and a winding adventure through breathtaking misty forests and tea plantations - yet Sri Lanka has both, and more. In fact, there’s hardly a train journey here that isn’t really, really, ridiculously good looking.
Beyond the views though, what we love most about train rides here is their vibe. Despite crawling along the tracks at a rather slow speed, there’s a real sense of freedom and adventure to be felt in these carriages; the wind whipping through doors and windows to tease your hair, groups of locals singing and dancing in carriages, dangling your feet out of the open doorway and watching the tracks blur by, platforms full of colourful saris and families waving goodbye to each other. Vendors balance flasks of sweet chai and steaming hot wade precariously as they race through carriages, and everyone, local and tourist alike, is positively beaming with excitement.
The most famous train ride is the section between Kandy and Ella (Haputale to Ella, to be exact), which is where most of those insta-famous snaps of people hanging out of doorways in lush green surrounds have been snapped.
A few tips on making the most of your train journey:
Book ahead | When we first visited in 2016, the Kandy to Ella train ride was yet to really hit the big time with travellers. These days, the train can get pretty crowded, and you’ll need to book your travel in advance (usually 1-2 days ahead), which you can do at the train station, or at 12GO Asia (although we have heard that booking online can occasionally be a little unreliable. Book your train tickets on 12GO Asia here.
Book third class | Third class is obviously the cheapest option, and in our opinion it’s also the best as you can sit/hang out of the doorway. It’s generally also full of friendly locals keen to chat, which only adds to an already awesome experience!
#32 - BUS JOURNEYS ARE ONE WORD: WILD
Buses in Sri Lanka are basically the mechanical bulls of the road. They’re fast, they’re loud, they’re sweaty, and the somewhat maniacal driving will lurch you from one side of the bus to the other (or up and down, depending on how bumpy the roads are!) - but we have a secret soft spot for these neon metal beasts!
They’re generally a pretty festive affair with local music, horns, and flashing lights blaring, and they run so regularly that you’ll never have to wait more than about 5 minutes for one to pass by. The network is also pretty extensive, so you can navigate the entire island easily - although be warned that the roads aren’t great, so some journeys take longer than others.
This is by far the cheapest way to navigate Sri Lanka, only setting you back between LKR 30-400 per trip. Our 7-hour journey from Dambulla to Jaffna only cost us LKR 350 (GBP £1.50)!
For those on a budget of looking for an authentic Sri Lankan experience, this is your best bet. A few tips for bus travel in Sri Lanka include:
Prices are fixed
You’ll need small change to pay your fare
If you’re backpacking, backpacks can go on the front engine hub next to driver or in the rear luggage compartment... ask the attendant where to put it
Get on/off and settled easily - these buses don’t wait for anyone!
exploring Sri Lanka’s cultural capital | a travellers guide to Kandy
SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS | HEALTH AND SAFETY IN SRI LANKA
#33 - IS SRI LANKA SAFE FOR TRAVEL?
Despite having been through a tumultuous few decades during the bitter civil war that raged between the Tamils and Sinhalese, Sri Lanka is an incredibly safe destination to travel to. In fact, we’ve often commented that both of our trips through the country were probably the safest travels we’ve ever had.
Obviously we need to acknowledge that not everyone will have the same experience as us, nor can any of us be sure that nothing will go wrong on our travels, but overwhelmingly, it’s been our impression that there’s very little for travellers to be worried about here.
Locals are exceptionally friendly to the point that we were often caught off-guard, expecting an incoming scam or similar when all they wanted was to chat or help us find a seat on a train. The crime rate is also relatively low, and beyond the usual travel concerns (scams, road safety, and health), it’s rare for crime to be directed towards foreigners.
Beyond a couple of tuk tuk drivers trying their luck, we’ve barely encountered any real scams or safety concerns on either of our trips, but here are a few things to watch out for just in case:
Tuk tuk scams | Like most places around the world, the most common scam in Sri Lanka involves tuk tuk overcharging. While most drivers are decent people who offer a fair service, some, particularly those waiting out the front of major tourist points or train stations (Colombo Fort being one in particular), are more of your tuk tuk mafia inclination, and will demand grossly overpriced fees while behaving particularly aggressively.
In cities, only take tuk tuks that have meters, and request that they’re turned on prior to getting in to the vehicle. In other areas, be sure to clearly agree on a set price before getting in to the tuk tuk. Alternatively, use apps like PickMe (basically the Uber of the tuk tuk world here!) to avoid any issues.
In other instances, tuk tuk drivers may also insist on taking you to their ‘friend’s cinnamon/herbal/gemstone shop’ as part of a ‘tour’. Politely but firmly decline, as this is purely to earn a commission from whatever you may purchase.
Pickpocketing | As with most destinations, the risk of pickpocketing, particularly in crowded areas like Pettah market in Colombo. Try not to flash your expensive items, and avoid putting your valuables in your pockets or easily accessible areas of your bags.
Stilt fisherman | There’s no image more iconic in Sri Lanka than the stilt fisherman, expertly balancing on two strapped-together sticks in the shallows of the southern coastline, fishing for the day’s catch. While a small handful do genuinely practice this traditional fishing method (most prefer boat fishing now), there are also plenty of unscrupulous non-fisherman who partner with men on the beach to demand payment once you’ve snapped your winning picture.
Milk powder scam | A scam common to much of Asia that seems to be making its way to Sri Lanka. Read more about it here, but in short, do not purchase baby formula or milk powder for anyone on your travels, no matter how convincing their story may be.
#34 - WOMEN’S SAFETY IN SRI LANKA
By and large, Sri Lanka is safe for female travellers, as long as you take the usual precautions you would anywhere else in the world: don’t travel alone at night, buddy up with other travellers, keep your wits about you when drinking, etc.
Do dress modestly on your travels here, as Sri Lanka is a conservative culture and Mim did find that she got a little unwanted attention (staring) when wearing loose-fitting shorts in Colombo particularly. Think below-knees and covered shoulders.
If you do feel uncomfortable at any point, seek out other travellers or local women/families for help or company.
#35 - BRING YOUR VITAL MEDICATIONS FROM HOME
We discovered just how strict Sri Lanka’s medication governance is when Mark had an eye infection and we needed to buy some eye drops from the Pharmacy. Given these are pretty standard over the counter products back home, we assumed there’d be no issue picking some up here too.
Wrong! In Sri Lanka, you need a doctors prescription for just about everything, and we couldn’t even buy eye drops without visiting the doctor first (and of course, they’d all just shut for the day too!). If there are items you might need during your trip, like anti-inflammatories or painkillers, eye drops, etc - be sure to pack enough from home to avoid any hassles during your trip.
#36 - USE A WATER PURIFICATION BOTTLE FOR WATER
The tap water in Sri Lanka generally isn’t safe for drinking; but that absolutely doesn’t mean that you need to go buy plastic bottled water just to stay hydrated.
Travel with a water purification system (we recently switched to The Grayl after using Water to Go for about a year), and you can fill up direct from the tap, purify your water and filter out any nasties, and drink with confidence.
We haven’t bought bottled water in over 18 months, and despite travelling through some places with very questionable water (Sri Lanka included), we’re yet to encounter a single tummy bug. Not a single one!
#37 - ALWAYS Travel with travel insurance
You know the saying; if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
Travel insurance provides you with medical coverage if you get sick or injured, reimburses you if your camera or electronics break, your flight is cancelled, your bags are stolen, or a family emergency forces you to cut your trip short and fly home. The unexpected can, and does, happen on the road (like when Mark was bitten by a snake in Malawi), and insurance is a safety guard that can save your life, or at least a life of severe debt.
We travel with World Nomads and find they’re the best when it comes to providing a good range of cover and service, at affordable rates.
SRI LANKA TRAVEL GUIDE | VISAS, ENTRY, AND EXIT REQUIREMENTS FOR SRI LANKA
#38 - IT’S CHEAPER AND EASIER TO ORGANISE YOUR VISA PRIOR TO ARRIVAL
Tourist visas are generally issued for a 30-day period, and it’s best to organise it via ETA (Electronic Travel Authority) before you arrive in the country. To organise your visa, head to the ETA website about a week before your arrival, pay the fee via credit card, and then you should receive the visa confirmation within a couple of days.
Prices for the ETA Visa are:
SAARC countries | USD $20 for 30 days with double entry
Non-SAARC | USD $35 for 30 days with double entry
Although it’s currently still possible (as at March 2019) to organise a visa on arrival to Sri Lanka, it’s preferable to organise this ahead of time - and you will pay an extra USD $5 if you choose to organise yours upon arrival.
You will also need to meet the following entry requirements when you arrive at Colombo airport:
Proof of departure flight
Minimum 6 months validity left in passport
Blank page to stamp
Proof of Yellow Fever and Cholera vaccination (only important if you’re travelling from an infected area, such as Africa, within 10 days).
#39 - YOU CAN EXTEND YOUR VISA TWICE
If you decide you love Sri Lanka too much to leave just yet (we don’t blame you!), you can renew your 30-day visa twice, and for 30 days each time.
To extend your visa, download the relevant form here, fill it in, and take it to the Department of Immigration & Emigration, Colombo. Get there as early as possible, and prepare to spend a few hours navigating the Sri Lankan bureaucratic system!
Have you been to Sri Lanka yourself? Share your own Sri Lanka travel tips with other readers in the comments below!
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