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 is my 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 about this country. If you’re planning a visit, here are 12 things to know before going to Sri Lanka!
Looking for more Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides? Click here for everything you need to help plan your trip to Sri lanka!
12 things you should know before traveling to Sri Lanka
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.
First timers to Sri Lanka often make the mistake of packing too many places into a 1 or 2 week itinerary without factoring in extensive travel time. The fastest and best way to travel 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 one-way 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.
Traveling by train in Sri Lanka is an incredibly cost-effective and picturesque way to get around, and many people believe it’s an integral part of the overall Ceylon travel experience. Click here to read more tips on train travel through tea country in Sri Lanka!
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 in Sri Lanka
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 like Sigiriya and the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, lounge on world-class beaches, go on a wildlife safari in one of Sri Lanka’s many national parks like Yala or Udawalawe, 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!
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Click here for my 2 week itinerary to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean!
3. Sri Lanka is a safe country to travel to
But there are a few things you should know first. Yes, the country went through a 20 year civil war, but for the most part, life has since returned to normal after the end of the war in 2009. Sri Lanka has made international news headlines a few times since 2009: a 10-day state of emergency was declared in March 2018 due to violent unrest between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Kandy; political unrest and protests took place in late 2018; and hotels and churches in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo were attacked on Easter Sunday in 2019. Read on for some updates if you’re thinking to yourself, “is it still safe to visit Sri Lanka?”
Update April 22nd 2019: In the immediate days following the attacks in Sri Lanka, several governments have issued travel advisories asking citizens to exercise increased caution or defer non-essential travel. Airlines and the international airport in Sri Lanka are operating as scheduled, but increased security has been put in place so you should allow for plenty of time to arrive at the airport ahead of your flight, and expect delays when it comes to airport pick-ups. Hotels are also conducting luggage and bag checks before you are allowed in, and most will not allow curbside pick ups and drop offs.
Update May 31st 2019: Several countries are relaxing their travel advisories to Sri Lanka and the authorities have reported that say all those directly involved in bombings are dead or have been arrested. There has, however, been incidents of unrest following the attacks, and social media bans across Sri Lanka have been placed and lifted as a result – these generally last no more than a few days at a time. Drones have also been banned from Sri Lankan airspace.
Update June 17th 2019: The majority of countries including Australia, India, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, Switzerland and Germany have downgraded and relaxed their travel advisories for Sri Lanka. Visitors should still allow plenty of time for increased security checks at Bandaranaike International Airport – vehicle checks are still being carried out so curbside pick ups and drop offs may be delayed.
Ultimately, the decision to travel to and around Sri Lanka during this time is yours. However, read on for some important precautions to take:
– avoid the affected areas in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa;
– avoid large gatherings;
– allow extra time for increased security measures at airports;
– be alert and aware of your surroundings;
– local authorities have temporarily blocked access to social media in the past. If you are relying on social media to stay in touch with friends and family back home you may need to use a VPN service;
– leave your drone at home;
– stay informed of the evolving situation by keeping a close eye on local media;
– check with your country’s foreign office on the latest travel advisory status; and
– contact your travel insurance provider to enquire about coverage.
Just as you would for any other country that you travel to, exercise a reasonable amount of caution and be aware of your surroundings. It may also be prudent to avoid large gatherings and places of worship during major religious holidays. Don’t flash money around and leave expensive jewelry and electronics in your hotel room or at home, and keep an eye on your personal belongings when you head out. 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.
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!
Looking for more tips on what NOT to do in Sri Lanka? Click here for 15 things to avoid doing in Sri lanka!
Every full moon is a public holiday in Sri Lanka (AKA “Poya”) and hard liquor consumption is fairly high in Sri Lanka. Though places do not sell alcohol on Poya day, many people stock up from their local liquor shop ahead of time. 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 in Sri Lanka, just keep walking and try not to be alone late at night. Sri Lanka’s tourist police are very responsive – dial 1912 to get in touch with them, or 119 to reach emergency services.
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 160-175 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 Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort, Anantara Tangalle, Anantara Kalutara and Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge 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.
I’m passionate about promoting unique and boutique travel experiences, and personally look for comfort, beautiful decor and warm hospitality when I travel. Click here for some of the best boutique and luxury hotels to stay at in Sri Lanka!
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Click here for more accommodation options! 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. Don’t let people talk you out of visiting southern Sri lanka from June to September as it tends to be much quieter and crowd-free. Check out my guide to Sri Lanka’s south coast for more insider tips!
For your reference, the peak season for the southern province is from around November to January (be mentally prepared for significant crowds if you are visiting Sri Lanka in December around Christmas or New Year’s Eve), and the peak season for the east coast is from around June to August.
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
- Hondayi = very good
- Kiyeda? = how much?
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. Lounging on an empty beach is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka – it’s definitely more of a beer & sunset place rather than a shots & fist pumping scene, if that makes sense!
More: There are tons of great accommodation options in Sri Lanka (and places with beachfront or poolside bars, wink wink) – click here for more hotel options and current prices!
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.
However, Sri Lanka’s photo-friendliness is a double-edged sword. I have never seen so many Instagrammers rush from Instagram spot to Instagram spot, sometimes even engaging in irresponsible and unethical experiences just to get that money shot. To make the most of your stay in Sri Lanka, I truly recommend not treating it like an Instagram backdrop and being mindful of your time in the country.
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.
Most places will also sell western dishes, and the cost of eating out in Sri Lanka will depend on where you eat; as you can imagine, it will be more expensive to dine at a big hotel rather than a small beachfront shack. 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 Sri Lanka tourist visa (except for nationals of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles) but this is easily done online for a fee (approximately $35 USD).
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. Alternatively, you can obtain a Sri Lankan visa on arrival for $40 USD in cash. The only caveat is that there are only a handful of counters and you could end up waiting in line for a long while during the peak travel season.
Update June 5th 2019: Although there were some rumblings earlier in the year that Sri Lanka would be offering visa-free entry to citizens of 39 countries, this program has since been put on hold in response to security concerns. You should therefore apply for a tourist visa online ahead of your trip.
12. Sunscreen is pricey and hard to find in local shops!
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. Reef-safe sunscreen is also a rarity. If you’re traveling to the beaches along the south or east coast of Sri Lanka, come prepared and bring your own. Otherwise, you can pick some up (at a mark up) from The Box surf shop in Madiha (near Matara), Urban Island in Colombo or The Bite coffee shop in Arugam Bay.
While I’m at it, ladies: bring tampons.
What are some other things about Sri Lanka that you think travelers should know? Did you find these Sri Lanka travel tips helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
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