12 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Sri Lanka
To quote Condé Nast Traveler, “Sri Lanka Is Ready for Its Close-Up“. Since my first trip to Sri Lanka in 2015, I have been back every 2-3 months and it almost feels like a second home now. It feels like Sri Lanka’s reputation as the up-and-coming destination in Asia has truly blossomed over the past 18 months and if for some reason you need convincing, here are 10 excellent reasons why now is the time to see Ceylon. There are some common misconceptions about Sri Lanka as the civil war ended relatively recently (2009) but also some cool facts that you might not know. If you’re planning a visit to Sri Lanka, here are 12 things you should know before your trip!
1. It is time consuming to travel around Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is only about 430 KM tall and 220 KM wide, but it can take you hours and hours to travel from place to place as the roads can be extremely busy. Expect to wait for cows to cross the road, the occasional monkey appearing out of nowhere, crazy bus drivers and sometimes even a stubborn elephant in the middle of the road.
For example, it takes approximately 3 hours to travel from Colombo to the southernmost point of Sri Lanka (around 160 KMs). The good news is that highways are being built left, right and center but you will still have to drive through narrow streets in smaller cities to get to freeway entrances.
The fastest way to get around Sri Lanka is to book a private car and driver from point-to-point, but do not expect the prices to be dirt cheap, a 3-4 hour car ride can cost anywhere from US$100 to $140. Hiring a car and driving around yourself is not really a thing in Sri Lanka; you can probably find car rental places in Colombo, but your best bet is to take a train or hire a driver.
Train travel is popular in Sri Lanka as it is cheap and reliable(ish), but not every train has first or even second class carriages. Seats can be reserved in person at a train station up to 45 days before the trip and scenic routes fill up FAST. Train travel through tea country is an amazing experience!
Traveling around by bus is also dirt cheap, but not highly recommended because they drive like absolute mad men! If you are traveling a short distance (under an hour) then a tuk tuk, or 3 wheeler, is the way to go. Riding in a tuk tuk is an experience in and of itself – just make sure you agree on a price with the driver before the ride.
2. For a small island, there are a ton of things to see and do
Sri Lanka has every single type of traveler covered: explore tea country in the Central Province, chase waterfalls, hike stunning mountain ranges, discover UNESCO world heritage sites, lounge on world-class beaches, go on a wildlife safari in one of Sri Lanka’s many national parks, dive among shipwrecks, surf uncrowded waves, visit temples and so on…you get the gist! Because of the time it takes to travel between places, don’t be surprised if you don’t cover a lot of ground – 2-3 weeks is not nearly enough time to experience all of what Sri Lanka has to offer! If you’re planning a trip, check out my 2 week itinerary!
3. Sri Lanka is a safe country to travel to
Yes, the country went through a 20 year civil war, but life has since returned to normal after the end of the war in 2009. Sri Lankan people are famous for their hospitality, and violent crimes towards tourists are virtually unheard of. I have met some of the kindest and most welcoming people in Sri Lanka! Just as you would for any other country that you travel to, exercise a reasonable amount of caution and keep an eye on your personal belongings when you head out. Don’t flash money around and leave expensive jewelry and electronics in your hotel room or at home.
Sri Lanka is unlike some other Asian countries in the sense that it is still relatively modest. The primary religion is Buddhism so be mindful of your attire when you visit temples (cover your shoulders and wear pants) or walk around town. Let me put it this way: shorts and tank tops are fine, but I would not recommend that you drive shirtless on a scooter or walk around in a bikini. Some tourists are even being stopped by police in the street and told to cover up!
Every full moon is a public holiday in Sri Lanka (AKA “Poya”) and hard liquor consumption is fairly high in Sri Lanka. The preferred drink of choice is arrack (most often distilled from coconut flower sap) which is high in alcohol content – it is not uncommon for groups of men to get intoxicated and rowdy during Poya. I have personally experienced verbal harassment and lewd comments from men in Sri Lanka, but would not recommend engaging – if you are a solo female traveler, just keep walking and try not to be alone late at night.
4. Traveling around Sri Lanka is affordable, but not as cheap as other Southeast/South Asian countries
The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (different from the Indian Rupee), and the exchange rate varies from approximately 135-145 LKR: 1 USD. There are plenty of places to exchange money in Sri Lanka, and there are also ATMs in cities like Colombo and Galle where you can withdraw money.
In my experience, accommodation prices tend to be higher in Sri Lanka when compared with countries like India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos and so on. Luxury properties like Anantara are popping up like daisies across the country and a 5-star or boutique hotel can cost anywhere from US$300 to 1000 a night – seriously! It is also not uncommon for a 3-star hotel to set you back US$80-120 a night, but budget options are available, just be prepared for slightly higher rates than countries like India.
Travel tip: Use Booking.com to book your accommodation. If your dates or plans might change, the majority of the hotels listed on Booking.com allow you to cancel your booking for free! Just make sure you know what the deadline is for cancelling with no penalty.
5. Sri Lanka has 2 monsoon seasons and a number of different climates throughout the country
I’m often asked, “when is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?” Sri Lanka is a tropical country so expect lots of blissful sunshine and blue skies practically year-round. If we’re being technical, the island has 2 monsoon seasons: the northeast monsoon (December to March), and the southwest monsoon (June to October); however, you can visit Sri Lanka anytime during the year IMHO. While there are “rainy seasons”, it is nowhere near as unbearable as rainy season in Laos or Thailand, often it will pour in the evening and the sun will be out the next day.
You should also know that Sri Lanka has a few different climates so you may need to bring a sweatshirt or two if you’re visiting hill country as it can get very chilly. When we traveled through Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Ella, the temperature dropped to 14-17 degrees Celsius (57-62 F) in the mornings and evenings – not quite what you expect from a tropical island!
6. Many Sri Lankans can communicate in English
Sinhalese and Tamil are the two primary languages spoken in Sri Lanka, but I’ve personally found that many people also speak or understand basic English. Most people who work in, or live around, major tourist destination cities like Galle, Mirissa, Weligama, Unawatuna, Colombo and Kandy will be able to communicate in conversational English.
Here are some useful phrases you should know before you go:
- Ayubowan = may you live long, a formal way of greeting someone. You can also just say “hello” or “hi”
- Istuti = thank you
- Kohomadha = how are you?
- Hari = okay, got it, fine (you often say this twice – “hari hari”)
- Lassanai = beautiful
7. It is relatively uncrowded…for now
Unlike other popular tropical destinations, Sri Lanka remains relatively pure, untouched and unspoiled. Yes, there are massive tourist destinations and slightly shady beach parties, but you won’t find anywhere like Kuta, Patpong or Patong in Sri Lanka. With tourism rates projected to explode over the next few years, now is the perfect time to visit!
8. Don’t expect a big party scene
Sri Lanka, especially in areas outside of Colombo, is laid back and chill – there aren’t many places to go for a fancy night out and there are not a whole lot of clubs and bars. It’s definitely more of a beer & sunset place rather than a shots & fist pumping scene, if that makes sense!
9. Sri Lanka is a photographer’s dream come true
Sri Lanka is incredibly photogenic and avid photographers will have the opportunity to snap stunning shots of the landscape and people. You will need to bring an extra SD card or upgrade your cloud storage! Some photo opps, like the famous stilt fishermen, will cost you and unfortunately not many people still fish this way as it’s easier to charge tourists for a picture. Tip: Don’t pay over 500 LKR, especially if the fishermen are already positioned on the stilts.
10. There is an abundance of fresh produce and seafood
Local Sri Lankan food is often described as a milder version of Indian food (even though there are so many different types of Indian cuisine). Quintessential Sri Lankan meals consist of colourful curries, rice and roti, string hoppers (steamed rice noodles), kottu (a carb-heavy diced roti dish, often served with veggies, eggs or chicken), tons of fresh seafood from the Indian Ocean and an abundance of wonderful tropical fruit. Red meat dishes can be found at most hotels but it is not served often.
11. You will need a visa to travel to Sri Lanka
Most visitors will need to apply for a visa (except for nationals of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles) but this is easily done online for a fee. My recommendation is to apply a week or 2 before your trip, it usually takes 24-48 hours for the visa approval to come through.
12. Sunscreen is pricey and hard to find!
It is hard to find high quality sunscreen (anything over SPF 30 is impossible to find) in local shops, and shops that do stock sunscreen charge exorbitant prices. If you’re traveling to the beaches along the south or east coast of Sri Lanka, bring your own. While I’m at it, ladies: bring tampons.
What are some other things about Sri Lanka that you think travelers should know? Share your thoughts in the comments section below! Looking for more Sri Lanka travel content? Read my latest articles here.
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