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Sri Lanka Travel Guide

The Holiday Extras' Essential Guide to Travelling in Sri Lanka

Holiday Extras’ Essential Guide to Sri Lanka

Ayubowan and welcome to the Holiday Extras Guide to Sri Lanka!

Sri Lanka; doesn't it seem like the whole world is backpacking and trekking this tropical paradise in south asia, lately? Look no further than your Instagram feed and we guarantee that you'll see someone doing sunset yoga on Pidurangala.

Jungle Beach, Galle

Never one to miss out, we went to see for ourselves to bring you this guide to Sri Lanka.

Travelling in Sri Lanka

Truth is that Sri Lanka has oodles of appeal and is becoming an increasingly popular destination with tourists of all ages and expectations because it ticks a helluva lot of boxes. Backpackers are drawn to the likes of the gorgeous Nine Arches Bridge and the epic Sigiriya, while the stretches of white sandy beaches and like, totally tubular surf, make for a beachin' holiday.

Elephants at Udawalawe

Interesting facts about Sri Lanka

So let's look at some facts; Sri Lanka is roughly the same size as Ireland and sits to the south-east of India. The island boasts safari to rival Kenya, the best cup of tea you'll ever savour, 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites and fabulously gorgeous and wonderful weather. What's more, compared to the rest of south Asia, Sri Lanka ranks very high on the Human Development Index, which basically means that the quality of life is very good, thanks to access to both healthcare and education for the majority of the population.

Anywho… you're here for a Sri Lanka travel guide, so let's get cracking…

Coming up, I'm going to tell you about getting here, tips for getting around and then some other stuff about food, money, language and the awesome places you just have to visit. To make it easier for you, here's a breakdown of this essential guide to Sri Lanka:

  1. How to get to Sri Lanka with Holiday Extras
  2. The best ways to travel around Sri Lanka
  3. Top things to do when on holiday in Sri Lanka
  4. Food in Sri Lanka
  5. What language do they speak in Sri Lanka?
  6. Money in Sri Lanka

How to get to Sri Lanka with Holiday Extras

Flights to Sri Lanka

We flew directly from Heathrow to Colombo. This took around 10-and-a-half hours where our return flight took nearer 12 because of pesky jet streams. Shop around and can get reasonably priced flights from all major airports in the UK and you can save more money by adding a stopover. Now, although we're not an airline provider, we can help with a few other bits and bobs to make the most of your trip before you fly...

Make the most of your time

If you don't fancy that that epic flight, and let's face it, stopovers aren't everyone's cup of tea, do what we did and make the lead up to the flight as stress-free as humanly possible; stay in a nearby hotel parking at the airport the night before so you don't have a mad rush in the morning. Then, top it off with a couple of hours chillaxing in a lounge knowing that you're travelling with a decent insurance package.

Do I need a visa for Sri lanka?

Yes. To enter Sri Lanka, you'll need to apply for a visa. These can be done when you arrive, but in all honesty, do it online beforehand because you'll save yourself a lot of bother. Plus, after more than 10 hours in the air, do you really want the headache of admin?

What vaccinations do I need for Sri Lanka?

Finally, one last thing about getting in – you'll need to make sure you're up to date with the appropriate vaccinations, like tetanus and typhoid. For more information be sure to check with your GP at least 6 weeks before you travel or go to www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

The best ways to travel around Sri Lanka

Bus station

What do you need to know about getting around Sri Lanka?

Well, quite a bit in all honesty.

In a nutshell, know that buses are your standard means of travel, trains are good for long-distance travel, cars are for saving time and tuk-tuks are for those short journeys here and there.

Travel tips for Sri Lanka

Do yourself a MASSIVE favour and be prepared. Also have a realistic expectation about what transport in Sri Lanka is like. I will say that what you don't get in efficiency, you get back in heaps of character and experience.

Now that's out the way, let's knuckle down and go into a bit more detail…

Transport in Sri Lanka

Galle Fort clock tower

Buses

Buses are a standard and fairly reliable mode of transport, albeit quite uncomfortable if I'm completely honest. Sri Lanka Transport Board buses (the public ones) are usually red and surprisingly more enjoyable since the driver isn't compelled to fill it right to the brim like the private white ones.

My advice: take anything described as luxury or express with a very generous pinch of salt.

There's no exact science to getting the bus, but you can guarantee cheap fares. Regardless of bus type, expect to pay between 50 – 100 rupees for roughly an hour's travel and bear in mind that express buses will probably expect the full route fare, regardless of where you want to get off.

Pay for tickets at the booth by the stop or on the bus itself, and cash is always an absolute must.

These teeny-tiny things will help you be better prepared:

  • Bear in mind that timetables only really apply to longer routes or less-popular services. Short or popular routes tend to leave when the bus is full.
  • Reserving a seat is pretty much unheard of, so if it's empty, park your bum down.
  • Most of the signs and timetables do include English versions but where they're in Sinhalese, look out for information booths or ask a member of staff.
  • And I really can't stress enough to allow plenty of time.

Trains

Trains are an option for travelling long distances, though be warned, they're surprisingly slow. That being said though, the views are fabulous! You need to know that they're pretty basic but are certainly something that has to be experienced.

Carriages and ticket types are divided into three classes. There's not really a lot of difference between 2nd and 3rd, though I will say that seats in 2nd have a little more padding, the carriages have fans and are less crowded.

Fares are really cheap. The iconic Ella – Kandy route was Rs 1000 (£4.60), travelling 1st class. Just bear in mind that tickets can only be purchased on the day of travel.

Firstly, travelling 1st Class genuinely won't make a huge impact on even the most stringent of budgets, but don't get too excited…

Remember what I said earlier about managing your expectations?

Get ready for a slice of reality.

The trip takes well over 6 hours and I will say that the surprisingly cheap upgrade is well-worth it for a slightly more comfortable journey with air-conditioning. Though, 'air-conditioning' on our train meant being able to open the windows. We also drove through a storm at one point and our carriage leaked. If I were to do it again, I wouldn't. I'd get a taxi.

Cars

Sri Lankan roads

As for cars, hiring a driver to chauffeur you about Sri Lanka is surprisingly affordable and, let's face it, way less stressful – PLUS, it's a massive timesaver, which is always a bonus.

The roads themselves are in relatively good condition, which is refreshing… it's just the other crazy drivers, suicidal wildlife and throngs people that make driving a little hair-raising at times.

We used Red Cabs, who are based near Galle. They were super flexible and met us for several trips throughout our cross-country expedition, including Colombo – Unawatuna, which was Rs9000 (roughly £40).

Tuk-tuks

Tuk-tuk

Failing that, you could always haggle for a tuk-tuk (or rickshaw, depending on what you call them) which are ideal for short journeys.

While a pretty novel way to travel, you do need to know a couple of things here:

  1. Always agree your price with the driver before setting off, so prepare to barter…
  2. … AND you must be firm about where you want to go. If they offer detours or 'quick stops' it's often a bid for them to get some more money out of you, so don't be fooled.

Top things to do when on holiday in Sri Lanka

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

So what's the appeal? If you're not sold already, check out these places to visit in Sri Lanka.

1. Galle – Galle Fort

Galle Fort

Galle Fort is one of Sri Lanka's 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a must-see for history buffs.

The fort was initially founded by the Portuguese in 1588 when they colonised the island. Some years later, it was taken back by the Sinhalese, only then to have the Dutch come in 1640 and pinch it back from them. These guys went on to build churches, organise sewage systems, established a port for trade and further fortified the… errr, fort. Come 1796 and enter the British, who took not only the fort but pretty much the entire island and kept it until the mid-twentieth century…

Today you can have a mosey about the ruins, admire the panoramic views of the ocean and check out the nearby town for shops and restaurants.

Our tip: You can get around the site pretty quickly, so go early and don't expect to be out all day if you're staying nearby. Spend the rest of the day at the beach.

2. Unawantana – Fishermen and beaches

Unawatuna beach

Less than 4 miles away from Galle is one of Sri Lanka's most popular beaches. Unawantana is loved by locals and tourists alike, and with palm trees, white sands and blue waters, it's certainly easy to see why, plus it's a great place for surf.

The area has plenty of guest houses, restaurants, gift shops, yoga retreats and places that host Sri Lankan cooking classes.

We really liked the chilled out vibe here and would definitely recommend making this the last stop of your travels since there's nothing better than strutting across the soft sand and dipping your toes in the warm waters of the ocean and letting your mind go blank as you look out to the horizon.

If you fancy a stroll, head to the west of beach for a massive Buddha statue and a lovely look out point to top up your Instagram feed.

We've got some important stuff about Buddhist customs coming up, so you don't end up being an obnoxious tourist.

Also, while we're talking customs – Ladies, going topless on the beach is a definite no-no, and if you're a couple, make the P in PDA stand for PRIVATE, not PUBLIC – Sri Lankans are very conservative.

Not-so-fun-fact: The beach was hit by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.

3. Uda Walawe National Park – Elephants

Elephant safari from a jeep

This by far, was hands down, one of the best highlights from our Sri Lanka road trip!

In my opinion, Sri Lanka has the best safari outside of Africa. Why? Because this island has one of the highest rates of indigenous plants and animals in the world. Uda Walawe National Park alone has around 210 different species, and if you're looking for elephants it's the BEST place to see wild ones. Go either really early in the morning or later in the afternoon when they're avoiding the blaring midday heat.

Elephants

Tours are easily arranged through your hotel, but we did ours at the park when we arrived on the day. It cost us Rs 4000 (about £18.50) to hire the driver and his jeep, and then an additional Rs 13000 (that's roughly £60) per person to enter the national park. Bear in mind that we did this privately and that your can save money by going with a tour.

4. Ella – Train

Train station platform, Ella

If you're travelling around like we did, you'll see lush rice paddies and huge clusters of palm trees pretty much everywhere, but in the middle of the island, high up in the mountains lies Ella.

I'm having a hard time doing this place justice with mere words, but if you like breakfast with a view or taking time to explore waterfalls and stunning vista points, then Ella is an real gem. Also if you want monkeys straight off the tree and on your balcony, then you're not going to go wrong here.

Spot of tea?

Tea plantations should be on any tea lover's itinerary for a chance to sample Ceylon right from the source; just be wary of locals trying to sell you stuff because it can be a bit uncomfortable at times when you're just admiring the views.

Nine Arches bridge

Nine Arches Bridge, Sri Lanka

Of course, no visit would be complete without admiring 9 Arches Bridge. We took a leisurely stroll along the tracks and were politely greeted by fellow travellers and locals alike.

5. Kandy – Temple of Tooth

Mexico Beach Swing

Kandy's a great place; it's busy and has plenty going on in terms of food and culture but if I'm being entirely honest, this location could have been cut from our trip and I wouldn't have missed much, favouring the opportunity to spend my time elsewhere.

On the plus side, this city does have some interesting history surrounding its most famous temple, which certainly makes the stopover worth it…

Sri Dalada Maligawa or The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is a sacred temple that houses a tooth that belonged to the Buddha, and is also another of Sri Lanka's 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Legend says that the Buddha died in India, 543 BC and after the cremation of his body, one of his disciples retrieved his left canine tooth and gave it the King. Over the years, people believed that those in possession of the tooth had divine right to rule the land. The tooth was eventually smuggled to Sri Lanka and had many homes until it came here to Kandy, the former capital.

You won't actually see the tooth but the entire place gets crowded, so expect both tourists and worshippers. And make sure you wear clothes that cover your legs and your shoulders, and remove your shoes.

6. Dambulla

The Cave Temple

Sri Lanka, Buddha

Dambulla is most famous for its epic rock cave temple which is filled with huge Buddha statues. Before visiting, here's some stuff you need to know about visiting this important holy place…

Respecting Buddhist customs in Sri Lanka

Posing for pictures with the Buddha is kind of frowned upon because it's custom never to have your back to him, so try and bear this in mind when taking photos. That's not a 'never take photos' just be mindful about your angles.

Cover tattoos of the Buddha

It's worth knowing that the mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence. AND claiming ignorance won't fly here. Tourists have been convicted for their disrespect and British nationals have even been refused entry to Sri Lanka or faced deportation for having visible tattoos of Buddha.

If you been to countries like Thailand, you'll have been told to never point your feet in the direction of Buddha either. Fortunately this is only loosely observed here, though you might occasionally see people sitting in front of Buddhas with their legs neatly tucked under them – so do try to be respectful.

As with all temples, Buddhist (or Hindu), guests must be appropriately dressed – take off your shoes and any headgear and make sure that legs and shoulders are covered. If in doubt, follow the locals and do what they do. We found that there were signs to help us anyway.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya

Another big draw to Dambulla is Sigiriya; a huge temple carved from the bedrock of mountain. It's also called Lion Rock because of these massive paws.

Now, if tourists aren't your thing, you might want to check this out…

Pidurangala

Pidurangala

… instead of Sigiriya, though we really think you should visit, head to Pidurangala instead.

It's less well-known and offers stunning vistas of the main attraction. It's significantly cheaper at RS 500, rather than RS 7,500 at Sigiriya.

Go around 4:30 and make it for sunset. Oh, and please wear sensible footwear and be prepared for lots of climbing and generally being Lara Croft for a bit of the ascent.

7. Polonnaruwa – Unesco World Heritage Site

Pollunarwra

Speaking of Lara Croft, another great place to go exploring is Polonnaruwa.

It's divided in two parts: the new and the old, and it's the old town which is made up of the ancient ruins of the royal city.

The site itself is absolutely massive, so either hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you from place to place or do the environment a favour and hire a bike.

8. Colombo – City

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo is Sri Lanka's capital and it's great.

Firstly, you can use Uber, which is a treat after the novelty of being crammed in tuk-tuk has worn off.

It's also really westernised, with shops and restaurants you'll recognise from back home, if that's your thing. I will say that Colombo was the only place we stayed where the wifi was consistent, the hot water was constant and we didn't experience any power cuts.

My highlight was finding soya milk and gluten free food in a great little coffee shop overlooking the sea.

Food in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan curry

You'd be forgiven for assuming that Sri Lankan food is a staple of rice and curry, because, well, it is. But really, it's more than that – it's a fusion of local produce, imports from neighbouring India, and colonial influence from the Dutch, the British and the Portuguese.

A key thing with Sri Lankan food is its versatility. The core spices and ingredients that make up Sri Lanka curry are always the same; coconut shavings and/or milk, turmeric, chili, curry leaves and/or powder, garlic and cumin, but they're used in a variety of different ways that mean no two dishes are ever the same.

Buddhism and Hinduism have heavily influenced the cooking style here, meaning that you'll find a lot of veggie dishes. Beef isn't as common as chicken or fish, which by the way is extremely popular. Expect jackfruit, which vegans have been bragging about since everyone else clocked onto avocados.

King Coconut

King coconuts are as refreshing as they are popular. While fresh fruit juices and smoothies are also widely available. The fruit is genuinely delicious, so make sure when ordering fresh juices that they're not topped up with water (unless it's bottled).

And also, in Sri Lanka it's customary to eat with your fingers, but knives and forks are widely available. Custom states you eat with your right hand, but it's hardly taboo if you're a lefty; just tuck in.

Another thing I like – potentially at the risk of sounding like a typical Brit abroad – Sri Lanka is the first country outside of home that I'll willing drink the tea because it's exceptional.

Lastly, bear in mind that alcohol and meat are not usually available on religious holidays and that you can be fined if you ignore instructions about not drinking or smoking in certain public areas.

Egg hoppers

Oh, and at breakfast, demand egg hoppers because they're super fun!

What language do they speak in Sri Lanka?

Learning Sinhala in Colombo

Sri Lanka has not one, but two official languages to get your head around – Sinhala, which is spoken by roughly three quarters of the population, and Tamil, which is spoken by a large chunk of the remainder.

Using Google Translate in Sri Lanka

The good news is that both languages are available on Google Translate – the bad news is that only Tamil is available to download and use offline, meaning that you'll have to use your phone data to translate any Sinhalese.

Fortunately, English is widely spoken and will be used in most public or commercial environments, meaning that going to a bus station or restaurant shouldn't be too taxing.

Here are some useful phrases that helped me get by:

Sinhala

  • Yes – Ow
  • No – Naa
  • Hello/good day – Ayubowan
  • Thank you – Istuti
  • Thank you very much – Bohoma istuti
  • Please – Karunakerara
  • OK/very good – Hari hondai
  • I don't understand – Mata terinneh neh
  • Please stop here – Metana nawaththanna
  • Where is the station? – Stesemeta eka ko?
  • What is this? – Mekeh mokadeh?
  • How much (is this)? – (Meeka) kiyadha?
  • Do you speak English? Ingirisi dannevada?

Tamil

  • Hello – Vanakkam
  • Goodbye – Poyvituvarukiren (then they reply Poyvituvarungal)
  • Yes – Amam
  • No – Illai
  • Thank you – Nandri
  • What is your name? – Ungal peyar yenna?
  • My name is (Dan) Yen peyar (Dan)
  • What is this/that? – Idu/Adu yenna?
  • What is the price? – Yenna vilai?
  • I don't understand – Puriyadu

Money in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka Bank of Ceylon

The currency in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan rupee, which is a closed currency, meaning that you'll have to change up your money when you get here. Note that Irish and Scottish notes are not accepted.

Sri Lankan money

Change can be hard to come by outside of major cities and towns, so make sure that you carry enough of the smaller denominations, especially if you're shopping at local markets.

In fact make sure you've got enough cash in general – credit cards aren't widely accepted outside of major hotels and local shops, and a lot of restaurants only accept cash.

Credit cards and ATMs in Sri Lanka

If you do plan on using your credit cards it's a good idea to make sure you've told your bank beforehand.

ATMs are a common sight, but it's my advice that you stick to ones in banks or exchange bureaus for 2 reasons: firstly they offer better exchange rates to foreign cards and secondly, a service fee for using an ATM is pretty common, but they'll be slightly cheaper here.

Haggling

Something about Sri Lanka that can be a bit of a shock is haggling – which for some might be a little uncomfortable. I found that when it comes to buying stuff in Sri Lanka, the vendors don't so much have a 'correct price' but more of a 'best price' approach. My advice, as weird as it sounds, is to have a slight sense of humour about the whole thing, just as long as you don't take the mick. By the local's standards you're still a whole lot richer than they are are, regardless of your budget.

Is tipping expected in Sri Lanka?

The same goes with tipping… culturally it's not expected and certainly has to be earned, but if you're feeling generous or received particularly good service, then by all means go ahead. Here's a rough guide:

  • Housekeeping – Rs 100, per day (50p)
  • Porters – Rs 50, more is luggage large or awkward (25p)
  • Barman – Rs 100, when you leave (50p)
  • Restaurants – Rs 100 – 200 if service charge hasn't been added (50p – £1)
  • Drivers and tour guides – Rs 500, per day (£2.30-ish)
  • Taxis – Not expected, but round up if you want
  • Temples and attractions – donations are welcome when when entry is free, Rs 500 is a good benchmark (roughly £2.30)

How much did we spend in Sri Lanka?

Here's a breakdown of what we spent during our trip to Sri Lanka:

  • Direct return flights with Sri Lankan Airways cost – £468 per person
  • Holiday Extras worldwide travel insurance, standard cover – £16 per person
  • 3 hours at No1 Lounge, Heathrow with Holiday Extras – £32
  • x1 guesthouse room in Dambulla – £40 per night
  • Street food in Kandy – RS 145 (about 66p)
  • Entrance to Cave Temple, Dambulla – RS 1500 (about £7)
  • Elephant safari at Uda Walawe National Park – RS 17,000 (about £77)
  • 1.5 ltr bottled water, sealed – Rs 95 (43p-ish)
  • Donations, when visiting free religious sites – about Rs 500 (about £2.50)
  • Authentic Sri Lankan curry – Rs 400 (that's £1.80!)

Leaving the country with Sri Lankan rupees

One last thing… it's illegal to take more than 5000 rupees out of the country at one time, which only works out to be around £24, so change your money back at the airport before you leave. Oh and if you're thinking of spending any remaining currency in Duty Free, think again. Only dollar, pounds and euros are accepted so be sure to change up any left over money before going through security. There's only one Bureau de Change when you're airside so do it as early as possible.

Things we loved about Sri Lanka

So that's it for our Sri Lankan travel guide! To summarise, the island is truly very beautiful, it's rich in history, has plenty of culture and has oodles and oodles of charm. Go if you love food and elephants, want to feel like Tomb Raider and love surfing.

If you're reading this and think we have missed out a top tip then let us know and leave a comment to share with other travellers!

Don't forget to subscribe to our Youtube channel for a ton more travel guides in places like Vancouver, Mexico, and Iceland! Plus you can check us out on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for loads more travel tips and guides to help you make the most of your free time and make travelling as hassle-free as possible.

Anyway, I'll see you next time… ayubowan!.

Exchange rates accurate at time of writing.

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