The Complete Guide to Visiting Sri Lanka
For a seemingly small place, Sri Lanka or the Teardrop of India is jam-packed with diversity. From a wide range of cultures, cuisine, and landscape the island of Ceylon has a lot to offer. Lucky for you, I’ve got a comprehensive list of things to know before you go to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Travel Advice: When to Go
For such a small island, Sri Lanka experiences a diverse set of weather patterns. No matter what time of year, part of the island is experiencing a monsoon. For the most part, this is going to affect the beaches you’ll visit (and even though I’m not much of a beach person myself, Sri Lankan beaches are well-worth some time). It is possible to visit Sri Lanka throughout the year and still get some beach time. It really depends on where you want to explore!
The busy season for tourism runs from December until March. Even though there are a few more tourists, it’s an excellent time to visit. If you plan on visiting the Hill Country, December to March is the dry season, meaning you’ll get more dramatic views than if you were to visit during the rainy season, where the mountains are hidden in the clouds. From December until March the north and east coasts will be in monsoon, so avoid beach travel to those areas.
The major monsoon affects a majority of the island from April/May until September (with June being particularly wet). However, some of the big surf beaches, such as Aragum Bay have the best weather during this time. If you’re looking for a well-rounded Sri Lankan experience, I’d suggest traveling between November and March.
What to Budget Per Day in Sri Lanka
This is yet another tricky question. Sri Lanka offers a wide variety of accommodations, modes of transport, experiences and even prices of food. We dabbled in a bit of everything, mostly sticking to cheap, local eats and homestays. However, we did indulge in a few luxury experiences, including a scenic flight and glamping with our own private safari in Udawalawe National Park. After we tallied everything up, we spent around $60US per day. If we hadn’t splurged on a scenic flight and overnight safari experience, our budget would have easily been in the $40 a day range.
Here’s a quick look at price breakdowns
- Accommodation prices vary from around $10 a night for a dorm to $195 per night for luxury accommodation. We spent around $20-$25 per night on accommodation (mostly homestays). This included a private room, bathroom, aircon where needed and breakfast.
- Transportation varies widely. We took all forms of transport in Sri Lanka, from third class commuter trains into Colombo all the way to a private scenic flight on a seaplane. Trains and busses hardly cost $1USD per ride (unless you opt for first class). Keep in mind that they do move slowly and are often extraordinarily uncomfortable if you don’t snag a seat (a common occurrence). Tuk Tuks don’t rip you off too hard (but do bargain). Our most expensive tuk-tuk ride was an hour and 20 minutes long from Hatton to the base of Adam’s Peak and that cost us around $6.50US. Hired cars are sometimes highly convenient, especially when you’re tired of super-slow train travel. On average these rides cost around $10US per hour, sometimes more depending on the distance. John stepped on a sea urchin and had to get his foot sliced open, so we opted to take a private car from Dikwella to Negombo (a 4-hour drive) this set us back around $60US, so the prices of private cars add up quickly.
- Food is cheaper than what people are reporting. Again, this varies widely depending on what kind of traveler you are. If you stick to touristy restaurants you’ll pay $5 for a cheap meal (sometimes 200% more than the same meal at a local shop). We ate locally often and spent roughly $5 a day on food per person. Samosas and street snacks are cheap, while khutu roti and a couple of egg hoppers (enough for two) ran us roughly 450 rupees or $3USD.
- Activities are yet another area where it really depends on what you’d like to do. UNESCO World Heritage Sites will run a foreigner around $35 USD (ouch). Some of them are worth it, others aren’t (see my 2-week Sri Lankan Itinerary – coming soon to learn more). Other temples and activities usually cost around 200 rupees or just over $1USD. For some of the more exciting excursions, such as safaris, it really depends on the tour operator, but expect to pay anywhere from $65 to $300. Surfboard rentals are fairly standard, 500 rupees per hour or 1,500 for the day ($2.50-$6 US). Motorbike rentals vary by region but hover in the 1,000 to 1,500 rupee per day mark ($5.50 to $8).
What is the Food Like in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lankans know their cuisine and the country is packed with an amazing selection of local foods. Towards the end of our three-week journey, the food did get pretty repetitive, and I wouldn’t recommend trying the Sri Lankan version of other foods (western, Thai, etc). Most meals revolve around various small plates of curry and rice. The curries are coconut based and super tasty. String hoppers, best described as a ball of noodles, often eaten at breakfast although some homestays gave us some for dinner too. Hoppers, or crispy bowls of thin bread with a chewy bottom, are a common dinner item. Other foods include stuffed pastries or samosas with various fillings, stuffed rotis and khotu roti. Khotu is a dinner staple that contains chopped roti with veggies, optional meat or fish and spices.
Sri Lankans take their spice seriously so expect to feel the heat. Homestays, tourist restaurants, and some street vendors tend to mellow the spice a bit, so if you like the spice, be sure to ask for it. You can always ask for chili and spice it up yourself (basically dried chili flakes in a little bit of oil).
Practical Sri Lanka Travel Advice
The rest of this post is intended to teach you the things to know before you go to Sri Lanka. The island of Ceylon is layered with beauty, culture, wildlife and some not-so-nice things. Here’s some Sri Lanka travel advice to make the most of your holiday.
Don’t Go Gluten-Free
Much to my surprise, Sri Lanka is obsessed with bread, pastries (mostly savory), roti, and fried dough. They take this to an extreme, where tuk-tuks play music and slang bread, similar to an ice cream truck. For the most part, it’s delicious, although the barrage of white bread for breakfast gets old. Sri Lanka certainly does not cater to the gluten-free lifestyle, so always specify no bread. To be honest, if you’re gluten free, you will struggle a bit here since bread and its many forms are part of everyday life.
Be Buffet Ready
As a seasoned traveler, I’ve always steered clear of any buffet. Buffets are breeding grounds for stomach-borne illnesses. However, in Sri Lanka, the buffet reigns supreme. It isn’t a just for tourists, but locals alike enjoy a clay pot buffet. The tradition is so time-honored that there is a special caste of clay makers in Sri Lanka (although the caste system isn’t as prevalent as it once was). These curry buffets are everywhere and it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid them. We ate at a few without any issues and it was delicious. Just be sure that the food is piping hot, covered, and looks fresh. Look for places that have big crowds or use a heating element under the pots.
Stay with a Family
One of the most unique aspects of travel to Sri Lanka is the homestays. For a low cost, you can stay with a Sri Lankan family in a nice room. We did this across the country and loved all of our hosts. Breakfast is typically included and if you do your homework, you’ll land a great host that is more than happy to tell and show you their home country. Staying with a family brought us valuable insight into the lives of the people here and much of the information in this post comes from what we’ve learned. It would be a shame to visit this incredible country and not stay with a family.
Homestays involve a few special extras. Most homestays are willing to help you out with transport (usually for a fair price or even free) and personally show you around the sites nearby. We stayed with a lovely family at Sunflower Inn in Haputale and the host took us around in his personal tuk-tuk, showed us the best spots for local food, helped us find some unique spices to bring home, and answered all of our questions about life in Sri Lanka. To top it all off, most homestays offer a home cooked evening meal. The best meals we ate were cooked by the women of the house at our homestays.
Take All Forms of Transport
One of the best things to know before you go to Sri Lanka is the various forms of transport available to you. Sri Lanka offers the widest variety of transport that I’ve ever seen in such a small nation. If you have some extra cash, certainly splurge on a scenic seaplane flight. Sri Lanka’s scenery takes your breath away and flying over the hill country was truly a special experience.
Trains and busses get you practically everywhere. I’ve spent my fair share of days on vomit-inducing bus rides in Asia, so we only took a quick local ride in Ella. The train is a cheap way to get from point A to point B, but it does have its downside. The only time we ever sat on a train in Sri Lanka was when we booked a first class ticket. Also be wary of non-touristy routes or travel during rush hour. We had a particularly bad experience traveling into Colombo (the capital city) during rush hour. I have never felt a serious fear of being crushed to death by people, not to mention the man that would not let me get around his arms – he got between my boyfriend and I and pinned me for an entire stop.
Tuk-tuks are a cheap and easy way to bounce about. The only time we ever got hustled was by a tuk-tuk driver, so always ask your accommodation how much it should cost to get from place to place. If you’re feeling adventurous – rent a motorbike.
Sri Lanka is a Religious Melting Pot
Sri Lanka underwent a brutal 30-year civil war between the Hindu Tamils and Buddhist People of Kandy. The violence was brutal and it took a toll on the population. Eight years later the country is named one of the best places to visit. The war certainly struck hard, but the people of Sri Lanka have a bright outlook on their future. Religion plays an important roll in the lives of Sri Lankans. Expect to see stupas littering the landscape, Hindu drum processions, and even hear the call to prayer. Despite the war, many Sri Lankans have married across religious boundaries and pray to both Buddhist and Hindu idols. It’s a way of life here and certainly interesting to witness if you keep your eyes open.
This is Not the Place for Party Seekers
Alcohol is not widely accepted by the local population. In fact, it is illegal for local women to buy, sell or consume alcohol. This is great news for me, since I don’t drink, but if you’re looking for a party scene, you may want to visit a more pro-booze country instead. There are a few spots such as Ella, Colombo or Marissa where bars and clubs are more common, but you’ll find them packed with tourists.
You can only purchase alcohol at wine shops (which don’t always sell wine). This is essentially a walk-up counter with barred windows where you can purchase beer and liquor. They vary from friendly to ultra shady. Out of respect for the culture, I never went to a counter myself, since women don’t buy alcohol here. However, while I waited for John to buy a beer it wasn’t uncommon to see men hiding booze under their shirts or down their pants as they left the counter.
To my surprise, smoking isn’t really a thing here either and I only saw cigarettes for sale here at grocery stores and the occasional street vendor selling a smoke or two from his personal pack. However, Sri Lankans aren’t vice-free. They love their lottery. Street vendors sell little lottery tickets for different games all over the cities. I saw more than one sign for a betting house. However, the country generally keeps it pretty sober and smokeless.
Snag a Sunrise….or Three
The sunrises and sunsets of Ceylon will blow your mind. My best piece of Sri Lanka travel advice is to wake up before dawn, more than once. There are countless places to watch the sunrise. A few of our favorites were the summit of Adam’s Peak, Pidurangala Rock, or book a room with a view in Ella and watch the show from your bed. Sunsets don’t disappoint either. We enjoyed watching the golden hour from the Nine Arches Bridge, Dikwella Beach (pictured below), and from the small town of Haputale.
Wildlife Safaris: Do Your Research
Sri Lanka is home to many national parks and wildlife areas. Sri Lankans pride themselves in protecting the natural beauty of their homeland. With that being said, there is pressure from the influx of tourists looking to get closer to wildlife. Many of the national parks do not put caps on how many safari jeeps are allowed to enter the park. They also don’t do anything to stop safari drivers from chasing animals, getting too close, and generally harassing the wildlife. As more people come to visit Ceylon, this issue grows. Do your part as a responsible tourist and research the company you choose to safari with.
How to Take and Recieve Change
Sri Lankans have a formal way of exchanging money. First, always give and receive things with your right hand (the left is used for washing and considered unclean). Next, extend your right arm out and place your left hand underneath your right elbow. If you are receiving something, do the same thing, take care to receive the item with your right hand. We noticed pretty quickly that this is how cash is exchanged and we always got a smile when we used this method.
No Means Yes
Well, not literally. However, Sri Lankans nod their head from side to side as if to say “no” in the Western world when they are in agreeance with something. It’s a charming habit that you’ll soon find yourself partaking in.
Hike the Hill Country
No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without hiking and the Hill Country is the premier spot to do it. Most trails wander their way through tea plantations and you’ll spend part of your hike wondering if you’re trespassing on private property. No one seems to mind if you walk through the maze of houses, on the train tracks, or on the pathways through their farms. Most of the time people will actually stop and ask you how you are doing. Hiking in hill country is absolutely gorgeous and the views have to be seen to be believed.
New to hiking? Start here.
The Kandy to Ella Train is the Most Over-Rated Experience
There I said it! When I originally researched our trip to Sri Lanka I became overly excited about the train from Kandy to Ella. However, this train line has been taken over by content creators, travel bloggers, influencers and wanna-be’s. You’ll spend most of your time jockeying young tourists for the perfect pose hanging out of the train.
Is the ride pretty? Yes. Don’t make the mistake of traveling from Kandy to Ella in one go. Getting off at various towns along the route and discovering the hill country brings much more beauty than the train ride. You will miss out tremendously if you do not do this. Especially since Ella is a rather underwhelming part of Hill Country. We stopped twice along the route and the small towns along the way are far more beautiful than either Ella or the train ride.
Pack for Cold and Warm Weather
Once you reach Hill Country You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find cooler temps. We spent two nights in Haputale (a town that sits 5,000-feet high) and even had to wear pants and puffy jackets. The weather stays mild during the days (think 60s) and says cool at night. When we climbed Adams Peak or Sri Pada, the temperatures were below freezing!
Sri Lanka has a Street Dog Problem
Unfortunately, there is a large population of street dogs in Sri Lanka. Most homestays had a dog or two on their property that they cared for (although they were never allowed in the house). However, mangy, hungry, beaten up dogs run the streets here too. It broke my heart to see so many mal-nourished animals, but it’s a fact of life in Sri Lanka. Feeding stray dogs leads to fights. Be cautious about petting these animals, many have diseases and fleas.
Forget the Buddha Selfie
In Sri Lanka, Buddha and his imagery are considered sacred. You’ll find statues, stupas, and shrines littered throughout the country. Don’t turn your back to the Buddha for a selfie or photo. This is such a serious offense, it is actually illegal. There are minders in and around temple complexes who are not afraid to yell at you if you turn your back to the image of the Buddha. However, if you’re a fan of the back-to-the-camera, awe-inspired explorer shots that get all the double taps, then you’ll do just fine here.
Meet the Friendliest People
I’ve had the privilege of traveling to over 35 countries. I’ve met all kinds of people on my travels, some of which became lifelong friends. Sri Lanka has one of the friendliest populations I’ve ever met. Strangers stop you in the street just for a friendly chat, everyone says hello, and locals are always willing to lend a helping hand. When John got stabbed by a sea urchin and needed medical attention our tuk-tuk driver went well out of his way to make sure John saw the correct doctor and got proper care. If that’s not going out of your help someone, then I don’t know what is.
Don’t be a Basic Bitch: Dress the Part
General travel advice is to dress with respect to the local customs. Women in Sri Lanka cover their shoulders and knees. As a common courtesy, it shows respect to do the same. If you’re on the beach then locals understand but do be respectful and dress modestly. Oh and do note if you wear a super-showy bikini with your bits hanging out, you will get a few head turns. While we traveled throughout Sri Lanka we noticed that most tourists dressed modestly to match. Wear flowy harem pants or a skirt with a tee shirt. Any woman who wore short shorts or a tank top stood out like a sore thumb on the streets. In order to get into all temples, both men and women will need to have their knees and shoulders covered.
Tea is King
Ceylon is the tea capital of the world. The tea here tastes absolutely incredible while the coffee. Well, it leaves something to be desired. Ditch coffee for your trip and instead indulge in an all-out tea-a-thon. Be sure to bring some home too. Pro Tip: purchase it at a grocery store – it’s the same great stuff for a fraction of the price.
Sri Lanka is NOT “India Lite”
When people describe Sri Lanka they often use the term “India lite.” Look, I’ve never been to India, but I do know that it’s insulting to describe a country that way. Sri Lanka has a long-established (ancient) history of being separate from India. In fact, a lot of old conflicts exists between India invading Sri Lanka. The country of Sri Lanka is its own thing with its own culture, history, and traditions. To call it “India Lite” purely insults the entire country and the people in it.
Sri Lanka is a mind-blowing country filled with so many treasures it’s hard to capture in one blog post. However, now you are armed with a wealth of knowledge about the culture, food, wildlife, and what to expect when you visit Sri Lanka.