Sri Lanka is often overlooked by many people who opt for the more commonly travelled Bali, India or Vietnam. Before you book your 8th trip to Bali because you want somewhere cheap to go for a short holiday – I urge you to read this guide!!
Sri Lanka is the hidden gem of South East Asia. It is located in the Indian Ocean approximately 60 kilometres off the south-east coast of India. Majority of the Sri Lankan population are Buddhist so they are relatively conservative and omit a gentle, caring nature. Below i have put together a quick guide on all things Sri Lanka – enjoy.
A Quick Guide to Sri Lanka:
Population: 20 million
Language: Sinhala (most common) and Tamil.
Known for: Ceylon tea, leopards, elephants, stick fisherman.
Prior to arrival:
You must apply for an Electronic Travel Authority prior to arrival which costs roughly $40. Once submitted the Government issues the approval within a week or two.
What should you pack to wear? Sri Lankans dress quite conservatively i.e. cover up your shoulders and knees. This is pretty easy for guys, but for us girls I found I could just wear a nice dress with a scarf over my shoulders or skirt/pants and t-shirt. This isn’t as vital in popular tourist areas, but when visiting religious places you will not be allowed in if not dressed appropriately.
A word of warning – having tattoos, jewellery and clothing reflecting Buddism is considered offensive and may lead to fines, arrest or deportation. Recently in 2014 a British woman was arrested and subsequently deported after she arrived in Colombo with a very large Buddhist/ Hindu tattoo on her arm. If you have a tattoo that could be offensive I suggest covering it up!!
Often if you have pre-booked accommodation an airport shuttle service is offered for a small fee, this is a good idea if you don’t want to barter with the taxi drivers once you arrive.
If not, there are plenty of taxi drivers outside waiting for your business. Make sure you negotiate a price BEFORE getting in. You will not find tuk tuk drivers outside of the airport as they have recently constructed a new highway between the airport and Colombo city, the speed limits are faster than a tuk tuk can go and so they are stopped at the toll points and turned around. The new highway is a great thing for tourists because it means you can get into Colombo much quicker than you used to be able to.
In most Sri Lankan cities all of the site seeing activities are within walking distance so, with a map handy, you should be able to get where you want by foot.
Tuk tuks: For bigger cities like Colombo (or if you are feeling lazy) tuk tuk’s are a dime a dozen. You will see them crowded outside of popular tourist spots or on the corners of main streets – just ask them if they are happy to take you to your destination, negotiate a price and jump in!!
If you feel the price is too high, you can always walk away, if it is too high they will flag you down and give you the ‘fair’ rate if not you know you are being unreasonable. I think whilst we were over there (2016) the rate was around 30-50 rupee per km. Unlike tuk tuk drivers in other countries, I found the Sri Lankan tuk tuk drivers friendly and mostly honest. They would point out landmarks as we drove through the city free of charge. Tuk tuk drivers are more than happy to drive you for an hour or so provided you pay them appropriately, again always negotiate this price beforehand otherwise jokes on you!!
Hire a scooter: In the smaller beach towns, if you are confident enough, I suggest hiring a scooter from the place you are staying and explore the surrounding areas. We did this is Mirissa and ventured along the coastline in both directions. It was seriously fun to explore the more untouched communities (and visit the snake man). Give it a go, outside of Colombo the traffic is minimal so it much easier to muster up some confidence.
Bus: If you are taking much longer journeys (i.e. like our 3+hour journey from Yala National Park to Matara) you can catch a bus. They are clean and well kept, be aware though – if you don’t get there early you may end up having to stand. Oh and just like all non-westerners, bus drivers drive FAST and make multiple stops along the way, when picking a seat don’t sit anywhere near the front where you can see what is happening!!!!
Trains: If you want to get up into the highlands trains are the best way. They are much quicker and safer than a bus service so I suggest taking that option. When booking a train in Sri Lanka they have ‘reserved’ and ‘unreserved’ carriages.
The unreserved carriages cannot be booked over the internet, you must turn up on the day and buy your ticket at the ticket office – it’s near impossible for these to be sold out. The unreserved carriages do not guarantee that you will get a seat and in our case we were stuck standing for a long time.
The reserved carriages sell out quickly, sometimes a month in advance, so I suggest if you want to do this book it well in advance if you can. This will ensure that you have a ticket and a seat number and the carriage itself will not be crowded as no standees are allowed. If you wanted to book the 1st or 2nd class reserved carriages before you arrive you will have to use a travel agency. I haven’t done this myself but other travellers have suggested using Visit Sri Lanka Tours.
You can travel to/from the hill country day or night, if you are not pressed for time I suggest doing it of a day as the scenery is breathtaking as you begin your ascent through the tea country.
Like with the rest of south East Asia the accommodation can vary. I always found that our accommodation was well kept and clean. I guess the biggest difference between higher end accommodation and smaller mum/ dad run businesses is the bathroom situation – you all know what I’m talking about, the combined shower/ toilet versus a screened shower.
I am not going to list all the places we stayed while in Sri Lanka, just jump on Tripadvisor/ Bookings.com and have a look at the ratings versus price. If you would really like to know where we stay in a certain city you can leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you 🙂
I will, however, mention the tranquil oasis we stayed at while visiting Yala National Park as this place was incredible and it can be hard to find accommodation here for a reasonable price. Cadjan Wild is a little bungalow eco-lodge literally located up against the National Park boundary which is a massive plus when you are getting up early for a safari and not having to travel for hours. This place serves the most incredible food and I can say, hand on my heart, this was where I ate the best traditional cuisine throughout my travels!!! You can read more about it here.
Food and Drink:
The food in Sri Lanka is just, wow!! I am not a huge fan of extremely spicy foods but over here I was in love!! You would not be judged if you travel to Sri Lanka for the food alone. It is a flavour unto itself but if I had to describe it, I would say imagine if an Indian curry had a baby with a coconut and Thai noodle/stirfry – it would kind of be like a delicious curry with a coconut twist. At many of the tourist restaurants they ask how spicy you would like your meal so you can dull it down if need be.
Sri Lankans love there curries, you will find that they eat them for breakfast and even clean their teeth with ‘spiced’ toothpaste – I wasn’t game enough to try this!! Majority of Sri Lankan dishes involve rice, a fragrant curry broth with large chunks of protein and sometimes vegetable. Sri Lankans eat with their right hand (no utensils).
It’s quite a site to see as they roll around there food on the plate into a sizeable ball before putting it into their mouths, however, as a tourist if you want a knife and fork you will be forgiven. The rough cost of eating out in Sri Lanka can vary – at a café style eatery you can expect to pay around $5 for a meal, however, at the popular tourist locations you will pay around $10-15.
Sri Lankans are also pretty big on their desserts (make sure you try watalappam!!). They are very sweet, often sweetened with treacle (jaggery) which is made from the sap of a tree – comparable to palm sugar. Like most tropical islands Sri Lanka has a mind boggling amount of fresh fruit which makes for a great snack while on the road.
In Sri Lanka you should only drink bottle water, you can find water very easily at most shops and restaurants and pay a few dollars for a large bottle. As a coffee connoisseur I was surprised at the quality of the coffees over here, you will have to hunt down the cafes though.
Sri Lanka has a wide array of traditional dishes, the basis of all are spices, rice and protein/ vegetables. Below is a list of some of the more common dishes you can expect to find when travelling Sri Lanka.
Dhal curry (Parippu): This is one of the most common curries you will find in Sri Lanka. This dish is a vibrant yellow and is made with lentils, spice and coconut milk and can be served with pretty much any side e.g. rice, string hoppers, breads.
Kottu or Kottu roti: This is an extremely popular Sri Lankan street food, which made up many of our lunch meals. Kottu is like a stirfry – it contains protein, vegetables, rotti and spices and makes a great quick meal, my particular favourite was the egg kottu it has so much flavour and is very filling.
Chicken Curries: Whilst travelling Sri Lanka I ate many, many chicken curries and one was never the same as the other. In Sri Lanka everyone has their own recipes for the same dish, they all taste like they have the same base ingredients but the making and quantities vary. The chicken curries can vary from a vibrant yellow to a dark brown but I loved each and everyone just the same. I suggest grabbing a chicken curry with some string hoppers – it makes an irresistibly tasty meal.
String Hoppers: were one of my favourite curry companions. These are essentially steamed rice vermicelli noodles that are served in a little circle paddy. We were served string hoppers at both breakfast and dinner with dhal curry. So tasty, definitely opt for these over the plain rice counterpart!!
Coconut rotti: This little gem was served a few times when we were on Safari with Cadjun Wild. It is basically a compacted coconut flatbread and can be served with curries or as a snack with either jaggery or spices. Its de-lish!!!
Dessert: Eeeek my favourite part!! Sri Lankans have quite a few desserts but the more commonly served ones are Curd with Treacle and Watalappam. Curd is made from buffalo milk and is a sour version of the plain yoghurt you find in your supermarket. When served with a generous helping of treacle (liquid jaggery) it is the perfect combo. Wattalappam was my favourite of all Sri Lankan desserts. It is an egg- coconut infused pudding, that has a crisp top and soft pudding inside. It taste slightly like a crème caramel/ crème brulee – I always found myself grabbing a second (sometimes third) serving – oops!!
What to do:
There is plenty to do in Sri Lanka. From relaxing on the beach, exploring the hinterland and going on Safari you can be as busy or as relaxed as you like. Below is a list of places we visited and the activities you can do in each, enjoy!!!
Thinking of travelling to Sri Lanka? I hope this post has inspired you to go and see it for yourself :)!!