Sri Lanka is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited. In the land of tea and spices, I have found landscapes covered in breathtaking green mantles, postcard-worthy beaches, an ancient history and a welcoming population that will open their arms to visitors without a second thought. It’s no wonder that its Sanskrit name means “resplendent island”. The Portuguese heritage, left in the country between 1505 and 1602, is still visible in various places, as well as in Sinhalese language itself through the sharing of words such as “bola” (ball), “lenço” (scarf), “sapato” (shoe) or “camisa” (shirt), among others. Below you will find a Travel Guide about Sri Lanka full of useful tips that will help you plan your visit to this country as thouroughly as possible.
Sri Lanka is located in an island in the Indian Ocean, which has a length of 432km and a width of 224km and is home to approximately 21 million people. It is separated from India by the Palk Strait. The capital of Sri Lanka is the city of Colombo, located on the west coast of the country.
Language in Sri Lanka
The official languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhala and Tamil. Both are composed of words originated from the Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch and English languages. The Sinhalese language consists of two different dialects: one in the central/western area and the other in the southern area. Tamil has 3 distinct variations: one of Batticaloa, one of Negombo and one of Jaffna. The most spoken language in the country (spoken by around 70% of the population) is Sinhalese.
English is regularly spoken by 10% of the population. Younger generations often communicate with each other entirely in English.
Some basic words/phrases in Sinhalese and Tamil:
- Yes= Owu (“Ou”) – cingalês | aːm (“aam”) – tamil
- No= Nǣ (“Né“) – cingalês | Ilːaj (“illai”) – tamil
- Hello= Halō (“alô“) – cingalês | Vaṇakkam (“vanécam”) – tamil
- How much is it? = Kee∙yȧ∙dhȧ? (“qui â da“) – cingalês | Idhevvalavu? (“idiavalave”) – tamil
- Please = Ka∙ru∙naa kȧ∙rȧ∙la (“cáruná queralá“) – cingalês | Tajavu seiθu (“tayavu seitu”) – tamil
- Excuse me= Sa∙maa vén∙nȧ (“sámá ven nâ“) – cingalês | Porukkavum (“porukkavum”) – tamil
- Thank you very much = Bo∙hō∙mȧ sthoo∙thi (“bohome isstuti“) – cingalês | Romba nandri (“romba nandri”) – tamil
Climate in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a tropical climate with 2 seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. Despite the country’s small size, the climate on the West and South coasts contrasts with the climate on the East and North coasts. Monsoons affect the West and South coasts from May to September and the East and North coasts from October to April. The best time to visit Sri Lanka is therefore very relative, as the West and South coasts are best enjoyed from December to March and the East and North coasts from April to September. However, it’s important to bear in mind that, despite this information, the climate in Sri Lanka can be extremely unpredictable.
The high season is from December to March, when European tourists flee the cold temperatures and invade the country. Christmas and the New Year are times when Sri Lanka is in high demand, as well as the months of July and August, when the festival season is occurring.
The highest areas of the country have lower temperatures throughout the year with averages between 16º and 20º. The coastal zones reach annual averages of 27º, reaching up to 33º from March to June.
Money in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s currency is the Singhalese rupee. Check the exchange rates here.
There are several ATMs spread all over the country, with a larger volume in the biggest/ most populated cities. The ATM’s usually accept VISA or MASTERCARD, although I had some problems in Colombo. The only bank where I managed to withdraw money on my last day there was at the Commercial Bank. There is a fee of 300 rupees for each transaction (to which you have to add the fees usually charged by your bank).
There are many places where you can exchange money in Sri Lanka, with the USD, Euro and GBP being the most widely accepted currencies. You can do this at banks or at one of the many exchange houses available, as well as in some hotels (although in this case the exchange rates may be less good and entail additional fees).
In most restaurants there is a service charge of 10 to 15% of the invoice value, which makes tipping an unusual practice in Sri Lanka.
- 1 meal in a local restaurant: 300 – 600 LKR
- 1 meal in a touristic restaurant: 800 – 1000 LKR
- Short Tuk Tuk ride (within the city): 150 – 300 LKR
- Bus Ride: 40 – 350 LKR
- Train Ride (2nd class): 90 – 400 LKR
- 1,5L Water Bottle: 80LKR
- Low-budget accommodation rate: 1500 – 4000 LKR
- Average-priced accommodation rate: 4000 – 20000 LKR
Visa for Sri Lanka
In order to avoid longer waiting times at the airport on arrival, it is advisable to obtain a prior authorization to enter Sri Lanka, which you can do online. I used the ETA Sri Lanka website. On the same day I received an email authorizing my entry which I printed and presented together with my passport when I arrived at Colombo airport. This prior authorization costs 35 USD. No additional payment will be required at the airport.
The visa is valid for 30 days as of the entry date in Sri Lanka. You may apply for a visa extension at the Immigration Office in Colombo for a maximum period of 6 months. Documents required for the visa extension application: official form (you can download the file here to save time, or fill it in there), passport and a passport-type photo. The fee you pay depends on the nationality of the passport.
Transportation in Sri Lanka
It’s possible to move around inside Sri Lanka in an inexpensive and easy way. There are tuk-tuks, buses, mini-vans with AC, trains or private cars at your disposal. All of them have their advantages and disadvantages. Below I give you additional information about each one so that you can choose the ones that suit you best.
The tuk-tuk is the Sri Lankan taxi. They can be found everywhere, be it in big cities or in more rural and remote areas. In Colombo there are some tuk-tuks with a taximeter, but as a rule you’ll always have to negotiate the fare before you start your journey. A good way to get a feel for the right price: tuk-tuks with a taximeter charge 50 rupees per km. If you have your GPS on hand (the app maps.me is a good option) calculate the number of kms until your destination, multiply it by 50 and then you will get the correct price for your trip. Usually within the cities/locations, I paid between 150 and 300 rupees.
A bus will take you anywhere in the country. For intercity journeys you may have to take the bus at the terminals (this is the best way to get a seat). There are always several buses leaving every 5 or every 30 minutes to several destinations. The ticket is paid inside to the driver’s assistant. There are 2 options: air-conditioned mini-vans and regular buses. The mini-vans offer you a more comfortable trip but the ticket is more expensive and since there is no room for luggage you will have to pay an extra ticket as your backpack/bag will occupy one seat. Buses usually have space for luggage in the back, and although the journey is not as comfortable as in the mini-vans, it is the most affordable transport for you. For journeys within localities you can have the buses stop at any time on the road to get in, since there are no actual stops. Oh, bear in mind that travelling by bus in Sri Lanka means seeing your life flash before your eyes a few times. Drivers are completely delusional and think that they are constantly driving on a rally track.
Riding a train in Sri Lanka is one of the best experiences you can have in the country. It allows you to have contact with the local population, travel in a cheap way and enjoy the magnificent landscapes that this country has to offer, particularly on the routes between Colombo and Kandy, Kandy and Ella and Colombo and Galle. You can check the train schedule on the official Sri Lanka Railways website, but you can’t buy tickets online unless you do it through a travel agency. I have never used a travel agency before, so I cannot recommend one in particular. For these particular routes it is important that you buy your tickets as early as possible, at least 2-3 days in advance. You will be able to choose between carriages with reserved seats and carriages without reserved seats (2nd or 3rd class). On the Seat 61 website you will find more detailed information about the routes and the types of existing railways and carriages.
In the areas with the highest tourist demand it’ easy to find private cars to move to another place. If you want to save time and travel more comfortably, this may be a good option, but considerably more expensive. For example: a 90km drive from Ella to Tissa (near the Yala Natural Park) would cost 8500 rupees (about 53€). To reduce prices, most travelers who choose this type of transportation are looking for other travelers to share the ride with.
You can always rent a motorcycle (something I did when I was there) for short trips within the localities. However, I don’t advise you to travel around the country like this, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience riding bikes in this type of country. The traffic is chaotic (as in any other Asian country) and this would be a very dangerous adventure. The rental of a motorcycle is about 800 rupees a day (about €5).
HealthCare in Sri Lanka
The only mandatory vaccine for those who visit Sri Lanka is the Yellow Fever vaccine and only for those who come from high risk countries, such as Brazil. However, there are other vaccines recommended by the CDC for most travelers such as Hepatitis A and Typhoid. These recommendations obviously do not exempt the consultation of professional advice through a Pre-Travel Consultation.
Some important recommendations:
- Use a lot of mosquito repellent both during the day and during the night (there is Dengue in the country and the mosquito is more likely to attack during the day);
- Always drink bottled water
- Peel the fruit before eating it, especially if it is bought in the street or eaten cooked.
- If your meal consists of fish, make sure that the fish is properly cooked before eating it.
- If you have to walk through dense vegetation after a rainstorm, wear trousers. Leeches usually appear after rain and wait attached to the vegetation for a ” prey ” to which they can cling to.
I recommend that you get yourself travel insurance before you leave for Sri Lanka. From the poor road conditions, to the crazy driving of bus and tuk-tuk drivers, to the poor hygiene conditions of some destinations: there’s a high chance you’ll have some misfortune during the journey. I usually recommend the one I normally use, World Nomads insurance, one of the most complete on the market.
What to eat in Sri Lanka
Food in Sri Lanka is one of the spiciest and seasoned food that I have had the opportunity to try in Asia. It doesn’t matter how many times and how intensely you say “no spicy” when ordering your dish: you can be sure it will always come spicy. But it’s undoubtedly one of the most interesting and tasty gastronomies that I’ve ever tasted.
Kothu Roti is one of Sri Lanka‘s traditional dishes and it is absolutely delicious. It consists of a mixture of vegetables and Roti (bread) cut into small pieces using 2 blades that produce one of the most characteristic sounds of the country. If you’re looking for economical alternatives for your meals, immerse yourself in the world of Rotis: a kind of flat bread that can be served simple or with several fillings. Everywhere in the country you’ll find the famous Roti Shops, where Rotis are made in all shapes and sizes: of chicken, vegetables, egg, chocolate, banana… Normally the prices are around 250 to 350 rupees per Roti (between €1,50 to €2,50). Curry is also another traditional Sinhalese dish, with Chicken Curry being one of the most famous (but watch out for the spiciness).
You can’t leave Sri Lanka without having tried a traditional breakfast as well. I swear you’ll be full nearly until mid-afternoon. In addition to the traditional elements of Western breakfasts (toast, juice, eggs…), you are also served a banquet of curry (usually potatoes), egg hoppers (a dough made from coconut milk and flour), with an egg on top), string hoppers (the same dough but in threads and without the egg) pancakes stuffed with coconut and honey and a separate bowl with Coconut Sambol to be sprinkled all over the food (grated coconut with coconut milk, lemon and salt). Everything is delicious, I promise!
Don’t forget to take a look at the article 10 Typical Sri Lankan Dishes not be missed
What to visit in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka‘s capital is located on the West coast of the country and, like all major cities in Asia, is a city with chaotic traffic and an intense lifestyle. The large skyscrapers contrast with the architectural heritage of hundreds of years scattered throughout the city, composed of ancient colonial houses, European-inspired churches (Portuguese, Dutch, British) and centenary military structures. It’s a destination that contrasts sharply with the more modest, rural and humble environment found in the rest of the country. I confess that it wasn’t one of my favorite places in Sri Lanka (perhaps because I left it to the end), but it certainly deserves a visit, even if it’s just for one day. In Colombo I recommend the ACA Hotel where I stayed one night.
Kandy is located in the center of Sri Lanka and was in the past the capital of the country. Set amidst tea plantations, densely forested mountains and characterized by the large lake around which it was established, Kandy is also home to one of Sri Lanka‘s largest temples and one of the most important of the Buddhist religion: the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which is said to house a Buddha’s tooth. The train journey from Colombo to Kandy is a special experience in itself, offering a magnificent landscape along the way. In Kandy, as far as accommodation is concerned, I recommend the Gruhaya Boutique Villa, where I stayed for 2 nights.
The train journey from Kandy to Ella is undoubtedly one of the highlights of a trip in Sri Lanka. The scenery is stunning: hills, valleys and mountains covered in a breathtaking green mantle. The city of Ella is a paradise for those who love hiking and trekking. There you can climb to the top of the Little Adam’s Peak or to the top of Ella’s Rock, be close to waterfalls or watch the train go over the magnificent Nine Arches Bridge. Walking along the train tracks (despite the prohibition signs at the train station) is also part of the experience. In Ella I recommend the Ella Rock House Hotel, where I stayed at for 3 nights.
Nuwara Eliya was once a shelter for the Brits and Scots who worked in the tea industry in Sri Lanka because of its high location in the hills, and because it offered cooler temperatures than the rest of the country. Here you’ll find waterfalls, tea plantations, parks and gardens, golf courses and racetracks (if you’re interested). It’s also a good place to explore the famous World’s End, in the Horton Plains National Park.
Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada)
Adam’s Peak is one of the most important places of religious pilgrimage in the world. Every year, from December to May, thousands of pilgrims come to this 2,243m-high mountain to climb the 5000 steps that lead all the way to the top. At the top a sacred footprint can be found. Buddhists claim that it is a footprint of Buddha, the Hindus of Shiva, and the Catholics of Adam. Regardless of whose footprint it is, the view from the top (especially at dawn) is absolutely magnificent. Walks are usually initiated at dawn, around 2:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m., and the top is reached just before sunrise, at 5:00 a.m. To avoid the typical “traffic” of the pilgrimage season, it’s advisable to do the hike in the period between June and October, however, at that time, the path is not illuminated and it’s necessary to carry a flashlight. It’s possible to stop on the way to go to the toilet or to drink hot tea. The town of Hatton is a good place for your exploration.
If surfing is one of your passions, then Arugam Bay cannot be missing from your Sri Lanka travel itinerary. Located on the East coast, it’s considered the best surf spot of the country. The town itself is quite small, with only a few hundred inhabitants, offering a quieter and more relaxed environment. The high season lasts from June to October.
The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka is made up of Anaradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Sigiriya. These are destinations that cannot be missed when visiting this country, because of their historical and cultural importance. Sigiriya was indeed one of the highlights of my trip in this country. In Dambulla you can find the Golden Temple and the fabulous Cave Temple, filled with figures and religious paintings that have inhabited these caves since the 1st century. In Polonnarwua and Anaradhapura you have the opportunity to visit a variety of millenary historical ruins and in Sigiriya you will find the famous Lion’s Rock: a rock that is about 360m high where you can also see the ruins of an ancient civilization and find a magnificent view over the surrounding area. I chose to stay in Dambulla in order to explore the Triangle. In terms of accommodation I recommend the Sevonrich Holiday Resort Guesthouse where I stayed at for 3 nights.
South Coast Beaches
Looking for postcard-worthy beaches? Then head towards the beaches on the South coast of Sri Lanka. Here you’ll find giant palm trees that bend over the sea, sunsets that don’t even need an Instagramfilter, grilled fish eaten with your feet tucked in the sand, warm water and near-perfect waves for surf lovers. Mirissa, Hikkaduwa, Midigama, Ahangama and Weligama are some of the beaches on this side of Sri Lanka. The coast is entirely coursed by the road and the railway that connects Galle to Colombo, making it extremely easy to move from area to area. As for accommodation, I recommend the Sooriya Sewana Guesthouse where I stayed for a few nights, in Mirissa, and the beautiful Sakara House, where I spent the last days of my trip, in Ahangama.
Galle is probably one of the prettiest cities in Sri Lanka, if not the prettiest. You can find traces of Portuguese, Dutch and British presence and colonial architecture everywhere: from the Dutch fort, initially built by the Portuguese and later fortified by the Dutch (it’s the largest fortification of European origin in Asia), to the St. Mary’s Cathedral (built by Jesuit priests), the National Maritime Museum or the Galle Harbour. Throughout the city there are now small charming hotels, shops and restaurants appearing, which contribute to the more artistic and sophisticated environment that it has been acquiring. It’s without a doubt a destination to include in your Sri Lanka travel itinerary.
National Parks (safaris)
If there is one thing that is not missing in Sri Lanka it’s wildlife in abundance, of many different species, types and forms. And the best way to get in touch with this wildlife is through a Safari in one of the many Natural Parks around the country. Yala is undoubtedly the most popular and extensive Natural Park of them all. Located on the South coast, it extends over an area of about 978 km2, 300 km away from Colombo. Here you will be able to see (among others) elephants, leopards, bears, deer, jackals, crocodiles and a huge variety of birds.
On my trip I chose to visit the Udawalawe Natural Park, a natural park with a smaller size, which offered me a better possibility of sighting animals. In addition, for being less popular, I could enjoy a calmer environment, with fewer tourists and jeeps, in the middle of that pure nature. In addition to these 2 Parks, there are also Wasgomuwa, Minneriya, Kaudulla, Wilpattu, among others. To visit the Natural Park of Udawalawe, I stayed in the Silent Bungalow Guesthouse (which I recommend) where I ended up buying the tour and entry tickets. (I advise you to visit during the morning in order to enjoy the fresher air and the smaller number of tourists).