Planning a trip to Sri Lanka: everything you need to know
Where can you find the rugged coasts of Hawaii, the diverse wildlife of Africa and the lively beach towns of Bali, all in the one place? Sri Lanka has built a reputation as a one-stop-shop for adventure travel, where you can unwind on pristine beaches one day and explore ancient temples the next.
Formerly called Ceylon and now affectionately known as the 'Teardrop of India', the Southeast Asian country was actually named Lonely Planet's #1 destination to visit for 2019, thanks to its wide appeal to travellers of all tastes.
In this article, we dive into all you need to know about this booming tourist hot spot. We'll cover when, where and why to go, practical information on visas, language and currency, and offer some helpful tips on accommodation, food, festivals and etiquette.
About Sri Lanka
But before we get to all of that, let's review what makes the small island nation tick.
Located just beneath the southeastern coast of India, Sri Lanka is fairly small in geography but rich in history, culture and natural splendour. It has 1,340 kilometres of coastline, a population of over 21 million people, and countless religious sites.
Sri Lanka is of a mostly Buddhist faith, which values goodwill, humanity and patience. You'll notice many colourfully decorated roadside shrines celebrating both Buddhist and Hindu deities on your travels.
The official currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee, and the predominant language is Sinhala, although English is commonly spoken throughout the country.
Getting there: the basics
Most flights to Sri Lanka involve a stopover in Malaysia, Singapore or Hong Kong, followed by a short flight to the nation's capital, Colombo. From there, a rail service connects travellers to several popular tourist areas, like the west and south coast beaches of Hikkaduwa, Mirissa and Galle, and the inland attractions of Kandy. We'll offer more tips about the railways a little later on in this article.
When to go
Sri Lanka experiences monsoons throughout the year, which bring heavy rain and storms to certain parts of the country at different times. The west coast of the country, which includes popular towns like Hikkaduwa, experiences monsoon weather from around April-October.
On the other hand, the east coast, including regions like Arugam Bay, experiences its monsoon season from around October-April.
Depending on where you plan to travel, it's important to check the weather and adjust your itinerary according to these seasons. During monsoons, many popular tourist towns are almost deserted of travellers. You'll find discounted accommodation, but also very few of the amenities available during the high season (not to mention the persistent rain!).
Australian citizens need an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) visa to travel in Sri Lanka, which can be obtained from the ETA website. This is valid for 30 days from arrival, although can be extended for up to six months on request.
There have been cases of unsuspecting travellers being ripped off by phoney websites claiming to sell Sri Lankan visas. Ensure you only use the official ETA website and not a third-party. Note that your visa will be emailed to you once complete, but it’s best to keep a printed copy with you while you travel.
Smartraveller recommends a vaccination for Japanese encephalitis when travelling to Sri Lanka. It also warns against illnesses like:
- Dengue fever
Discuss your travel plans with your GP and seek their advice regarding necessary health precautions.
Dengue fever is common in the country, which is transmitted by infected mosquitoes like many other travel diseases. Remember to use insect repellent and wear long, loose fitting clothing to protect yourself from bites.
Where to go: top five tourist spots in Sri Lanka
For a small country, it's startling just how many incredible places there are to visit in Sri Lanka. Here are five of our top picks, which will appeal to families, honeymooners and backpackers alike.
1. Beaches in the south
Best for: A tranquil coastal holiday with a twist
Sri Lanka's beaches rival anywhere in the world, and those in the south of the country are some of the most picturesque. Mirissa, Hikkaduwa and Weligama are just a few of the popular strips of sand in the region, where you'll find a mix of upscale resorts and budget beach shacks.
Wherever you choose to put your feet up, the southern beaches have great snorkelling, photogenic seascapes and plenty of room for exploration. Remember to protect yourself from the sun and stay hydrated - the tropical heat can be extreme at certain times of the year.
Best for: Lovers of grandiose temples, sprawling gardens and intriguing histories
The historic town of Kandy lies in the middle of the hill country, bordered by dense jungle and home to some of the most significant historical sites in Sri Lanka.
No visit to the town would be complete without exploring the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic; the home of a tooth of the Buddha. Although visitors don’t actually see the tooth itself, the temple and surrounding shrines are truly breathtaking to behold. Remember to remove your shoes and wear modest clothing that covers your legs and shoulders when visiting.
3. Arugam Bay
Best for: Younger travellers hitting the waves
Known as Sri Lanka's premier surfing destination, Arugam Bay has everything you'd expect from a small surf town.
Great waves, cheap food, rustic hostels and a beach party every night make this east coast gem a favourite among backpackers and travelling surfers.
Best for: An unforgettable view of the jungle
Located just south of Arugam Bay, Yala National Park is Sri Lanka's second largest and most popular nature reserve.
If it's wild elephants, leopards and crocodiles you're looking for, chances are you'll find them on a Yala safari tour. Remember to only book your tour of the park with a licensed and experienced operator.
Best for: An authentic view into modern-day Sri Lanka
Many visitors see Colombo only as an entry point to the country, not as a destination worth exploring. However, the capital has its fair share of temples, museums and restaurants to keep all travellers entertained.
The National Museum, Viharamahadevi Park and Dutch Period Museum are all worth a visit. As in many crowded cities, tourists can often become easy targets for pickpockets, so stay mindful of your valuables while out and about.
As a fairly small place, many of Sri Lanka’s tourist destinations are easily accessible. Let’s look into some of the most popular ways to navigate the country.
Tuk tuks are undoubtedly the go-to form of transport for short journeys. These three-wheeled scooters are everywhere, and often decked out in psychedelic colours or over-the-top sound systems, to the delight of travellers.
Tuk tuks are great for zipping around town but won’t be incredibly comfortable for a longer trip. Their open sides also make them quite dangerous and they have a poor reputation for road safety. If your driver is too gung-ho with their accelerator, don’t be afraid to politely ask them to slow down.
Private drivers can be the most comfortable and convenient way to travel in Sri Lanka, and a necessity depending on where you’re visiting. If you’re travelling from Colombo to east coast towns like Arugam Bay, public transport can be a multi-day affair, whereas a driver can get you there in half the time (and half the stress).
The Sri Lankan railway is a favourite among travellers and connects to many popular regions, like the southern beaches and Kandy in the centre of the country.
From Colombo, you can travel the scenic railway south to towns like Hikkaduwa and Galle, east through the hill country and onto Kandy, or north to cities like Jaffna. The scenery is breathtaking on each of these routes, and the trip can be a relaxing way to soak in the countryside (depending on what class fare you choose).
First and second class seats can be reserved when you buy your ticket, but third class cabins are a first-come-first-serve situation that can be overwhelming for tourists. If you’d rather spend your energy admiring the view than worrying about being squeezed into an un-airconditioned tin box, we recommend you spend the extra few dollars to travel first class!
There have been unfortunate instances where travellers have had valuables stolen by pickpockets on Sri Lanka’s railways. Take extra care of your valuables while in transit and consider using a money belt that you wear beneath your clothing.
Where to stay and what to pack
Many Sri Lankan towns have accommodation options to suit most travellers, whether you're looking for high-end luxury retreats or budget beach shacks to share with other backpackers.
However, even lower-budget options should have air conditioning (or a ceiling fan), mosquito nets, and bottled water readily available to make your stay safe and enjoyable.
When writing your packing checklist, don’t forget the tropical essentials like:
- Mosquito repellent
- Sunscreen and zinc
- A wide brim hat
How to eat like a local in Sri Lanka
Like their Indian neighbours to the north, Sri Lankans love spice and familiar favourites like rice and curry. However, there are also a few distinctly local dishes to tempt your taste buds.
One such dish is the legendary kottu roti; a street food made from fried and chopped roti mixed with vegetables, spices and a protein like chicken or seafood. Kottu is often called the ‘hamburger of Sri Lanka’ for its easy preparation and delicious taste, but most famous for the way it’s cooked. Kottu chefs clang their large knives rhythmically to chop the roti, which is a sound that’ll become mouth-wateringly familiar when passing local restaurants.
Other Sri Lankan favourites include:
- Fish ambul thiyal, a sour fish curry
- Hoppers, a pancake-esque finger food
- Pol sambol, a coconut relish that seems to go with everything.
Street food safety
Enjoying the local cuisine is one of the best things about travelling to new and exotic locations. However, that experience can quickly turn sour if you’re not careful with what you eat. Remember to exercise street food safety, like:
- Avoiding raw and undercooked foods
- Avoiding food which should have been hot but has gone cold
- Avoiding anything containing ice (such as iced coffees)
- Avoiding foods which may have been washed under tap water (such as salads)
- Sticking to busy street vendors – often a sign the food is good
- Sticking to vendors where you can see the kitchen (and that look hygienic)
Sometimes even these precautions aren’t enough to avoid an upset stomach, especially when you’re eating unfamiliar foods. Talk to your GP about whether dietary supplements or tablets like Travelan or activated charcoal may help.
Festivals in Sri Lanka
Also like their Indian neighbours, Sri Lankans love religious festivals and celebrate 25 public holidays throughout the year. These include Buddhist observances like the Poya festival (festival of lights), which falls on the first full moon of March, and Hindu holidays like Maha Shivaratri, which celebrates the Hindu god Shiva in June.
Other festivals like Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) and Ramadan (Muslim festival of fasting) are also celebrated during the year, reflecting the multicultural nature of the country.
Cultural etiquette tips
Sri Lankans are widely regarded as warm and welcoming people, however travellers should do their best to respect local norms regardless. This includes:
- Not balking at the idea of eating with your hands
- Passing money using your right hand
- Not patting the top of children’s heads
- Not turning your back to Buddhist statues, or posing alongside them
- Not wearing traditional clothing, or showing tattoos that borrow from Buddhist culture
- Wearing modest clothing when visiting temples
- Observing ‘no photography’ signs
- Avoiding excessive public displays of affection
- Unfortunately, same-sex relationships are still illegal in Sri Lanka, so LGBTQ travellers should take note
As you can see, Sri Lanka offers an exciting and exotic alternative to long-time favourites like Bali, Thailand and Hawaii. Its stunning wildlife, photogenic landscapes, lively culture and concentration of magnificent tourist attractions have propelled its popularity in recent years, and many who visit can’t wait to go back.
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