29 Things You Need to Know about Travelling to Sri Lanka

JJ

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Sri Lanka is, without a doubt, one of the best holiday destinations in the world. It might sound like a cliché but Sri Lanka really does have something for everyone. Do you like the beach? Well, guess what; there’s hundreds of gorgeous beaches to choose from. Maybe you prefer mountains? Lucky you, because Sri Lanka has hills, mountains, cliffs and everything else in between.

There is nothing not to love about this beautiful little island. But, if you want to make sure your holiday is as perfect as possible it is a good idea to know a bit about Sri Lanka before you go. I’ve compiled a list of everything you need to know about travelling to Sri Lanka. I hope it helps you make the most of your vacation.

Basics

It’s Hot & Humid Dec- Mar

With fabulous weather comes much less fabulous sweat patches. Sri Lanka is really hot and humid all year round. And when I say hot and humid I mean drenched in sweat from the moment you leave the house kind of hot. But, of course, it’s worth it to soak up some of those golden rays.

There’s not much you can do to combat the humidity other than wear loose, light clothes. Loose clothes will stop you from getting sticky and uncomfortable and light clothes won’t absorb so much heat. Also make sure you’re generous with the sun-cream and constantly drinking water.

It is also a good idea to minimise the amount of time you spend outdoors between 12-3 as this will be peak heat time. December to March is usually the hottest time of the year in the main tourist destinations. The rest of the year is still hot but the heat is broken up by monsoon downpours.

More expensive Dec-Mar

Naturally, when the sun comes out, the island is much more popular. Unfortunately, this popularity can lead to some pretty hefty price hikes as people capitalise on our desperation for sunshine. If you plan on travelling during this peak time then be aware that you might need a slightly larger budget.

If you are going to Sri Lanka between December and March, I would also recommend booking accommodation well in advance. As it is high season, accommodation will be harder to find. Booking in advance will eliminate the problem of showing up and having nowhere to stay. Also know that tourist attractions will be more crowded during this time. But hey, it’s worth it for that weather.

Sri Lanka is Very Different to Europe

Unsurprisingly, Sri Lanka is very different to Europe. They have a different culture, different belief systems, different food, different language (although most people speak a bit of English), different just about everything. You will probably encounter some things that you find weird or don’t like.

For example, a lot of locals chew betel nuts, a red substance that causes an adrenaline boost and euphoria. Once chewed it is spat out – usually on the ground. This might seem disgusting at first but it is a way of life here so you’ll have to get used to it. Cigarettes are very expensive in Sri Lanka so hardly anyone smokes. This is their substitute.

Surprisingly Good Internet Connection

For a developing country, Sri Lanka is incredibly well connected. You will be able to find WiFi across the island in virtually every hotel, hostel, restaurant and cafe. And it will usually be really good.

Of course, there are some places where the signal is a bit weaker. If you need to be connected 24/7 you should buy a pre-paid sim card. This is super easy and can be done in the arrivals hall of the airport for a few pounds. Mobitel and Dialog tend to be the best providers.

Northern & Eastern Beaches are Deserted Nov – Apr

The northern and eastern beaches of Sri Lanka are much less popular than their western counterparts. This is a blessing for those who like to escape the crowds. However, they are quiet for a reason from November – April and that reason is the monsoon.

If you still want to go North or East during this time, I recommend exploring the city of Jaffna or focusing on the Cultural triangle. A much better option, however, is to head to the southern and western parts of the island. Here, the beaches will be in peak condition. Places like Mirissa, Hikkaduwa and Bentota thrive from November – April.

Southern 7 Western Beaches are Deserted May – Oct

The southern and western beaches are hit by monsoon rains from May – October. As a consequence, they are usually completely empty. If you want to go to the beach at this time of the year you will need to head North and East. Beaches near Trincomalee and Arugam Bay have much better weather at this time.

If you insist on remaining in the South then I recommend spending time in places that have more than just a beach. Galle is a great option because you can explore the city and museums when the weather is bad. If the weather clears up for an hour or two then you can head down to the beach.

Sockets and Plugs

The standard voltage in Sri Lanka is 230 V and the standard frequency is 50 Hz. Sri Lanka uses three different types of plug socket – D, G and M. D and M are used in India and have three round prongs arranged in a triangle. G has three flat prongs arranged in a triangle and is used in the UK and some parts of Asia. UK plug sockets are another remnant of colonial times.

To be on the safe side it is a good idea to take a universal adaptor with you. Some guesthouses and hotels will have an adaptor you can use but it is always better to have your own. This way you will be prepared for any eventuality.

Need Visa to Travel

You need to apply for an online visa before you travel to Sri Lanka. This is really easy to do. Fill in the application online, submit the application and then wait for approval. Once approved you have 3 months to get to Sri Lanka so do not apply too far in advance or it will expire before you get there.

Once you arrive in Sri Lanka your visa will be valid for 30 days. The cost for the visa is US$ 35 and free for children under the age of 12.

If you don’t manage to get your visa beforehand then there is a Visa on Arrival option. When you arrive in Colombo, you simply go to the visa counter and they will sort it all out for you. It is generally an easy process but it costs $5 more than doing it online.

It is also a good idea to carry a pen with you as well as you will need to fill in an arrival form. There are pens in the airport but if you have your own you can fill the sheet out on the plane and get through customs that much faster.

Safety

Low Crime Rate

Sri Lanka is considered a safe tourist destination. It has a low crime rate and there are virtually no recorded incidents of violent attacks against tourists. Nevertheless, petty theft and scams do occur so you should have your wits about you.

Women Still Don’t Have Equality

As with virtually everywhere in the world, women are seen as inferior to men in Sri Lanka. This doesn’t mean that all the men here are bad, that’s just how the culture is unfortunately. So, as a woman it is important to be aware that you might be treated differently to your male companions. It is incredibly frustrating but there’s not much you can do about it.

Expect to be stared at (regardless of how you dress in some cases), catcalled and chatted to randomly. I got asked hundreds of times where I was from. Followed by an inquiry as to whether or not I was married (“No?! Why not?!”). It was important to know if I belonged to someone else. If not, I guess I was fair game.

While women might not be equal here, this discrepancy probably won’t affect you too much on your holiday. Violent crime against foreign women is unheard of in Sri Lanka so you don’t need to be too concerned about that. It’s just irritating.

One thing worth noting is that it is absolutely forbidden for women to touch the Buddhist monks. Even by accident. If you see a Buddhist monk walking towards you, you should step off the pavement so they can pass without accidentally brushing against you. It sounds absurd but that’s how it is.

Ladies, If You Show Your Skin Men Will Stare At You

This is something I can talk about extensively from first hand experience. So, I got stared at a lot less in Sri Lanka than I did in India. Maybe it’s because Sri Lanka is more used to tourists or because they have a predominantly Buddhist culture. I have no idea. That’s just how it was.

However, I was still stared at quite a bit. It was never in a threatening way, it seemed to be more out of curiosity. Local women dress very conservatively so it’s quite a sight to see a woman with her thighs bared. The attention didn’t bother me too much but it can get annoying.

To avoid this, I recommend wearing long trousers and tops that cover your shoulders. You can buy loose, elephant trousers everywhere for a few pounds. You will look like a classic tourist but these trousers and comfortable and modest. Perfect for wandering around and exploring.

This advice predominantly applies to cities and big towns such as Colombo, Galle and Kandy. On the coast, the locals didn’t seem to care if I walked around in shorts. I guess they are so used to seeing tourists in swimwear that a bit of skin doesn’t bother them anymore.

Stay Away from Illegal Drugs or Prostitutes

This one is pretty obvious. Illegal drug use is not tolerated in Sri Lanka. Those found in possession can face severe penalties. Basically, stay away from drugs while you are there – one night of fun is not worth the chance of a lengthy prison sentence. For drug trafficking, you can be sentenced to death – although this is usually commuted to a life sentence. Either way, not ideal.

When I was in Sri Lanka I got offered weed and hash all the time by touts on the street and tuk-tuk drivers. Although guys tend to get offered drugs much more often than girls. There are virtually no recorded incidents of tourists being arrested for possession of marijuana but you wouldn’t want to be the first.

When it comes to prostitutes penalties are less harsh but I recommend avoiding them anyway. Prostitution in Sri Lanka is not technically illegal but soliciting and running brothels is. If you get caught with a prostitute you could face legal consequences. Also a lot of the girls who work in Sri Lanka’s sex trade are under-age or have been trafficked in so from a moral stand point it is better to avoid them.

If you do find yourself being confronted by the police (whether you are guilty or not) it is important to know that usually they just want a bribe. If you hand over $10 you could see all your problems disappear. It’s corrupt but that’s how it works.

Homosexuality is Illegal

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is not as progressive as the UK and most other Western countries when it comes to homosexuality. It is still illegal to be gay in Sri Lanka. Technically, same-sex acts are punishable by law. While no tourists have been convicted of this as of yet, I would be careful to avoid public displays of affection if you are in a same-sex relationship.

Money

You Can Only Get Sri Lankan Rupees in Sri Lanka

I didn’t know this until I went to the post office in my town to buy rupees but you can only get Sri Lankan Rupees in Sri Lanka. This is because the Sri Lankan Rupee is a closed currency. Once you get to the airport in Colombo you will be able to withdraw local money from the ATMs or exchange your £/€/$ at one of the currency exchange counters

ATMs are Limited to Big Cities

Generally speaking, ATMs are pretty easy to come by in the big cities, such as Colombo, Kandy and Galle. They are harder to find in the more rural parts of the country. I recommend stocking up on cash while you are in the cities, just in case.

Click here for more information on whether or not ATMs in Sri Lanka are safe to use.

Sri Lanka Can Be Very Cheap

The cost of living in Sri Lanka is 40% less overall than London. Even if you’re eating out every day and staying in fancy accommodation you won’t spending much money from day to day. For example, dinner and a beer or fresh fruit juice often only cost me about £3.

Whenever I go on holiday I always like to find out where the locals eat. If you have to queue for food even better. In my experience, the longer the queue, the better the food. The locals know all the best and cheapest places to eat so ask around and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Some Tourist Sites Have ‘Tourist Prices’

Tourist prices exist all over the world and while they can be annoying, they are understandable. Yes, as a foreigner you might have to pay ten times more than a local. But, chances are if you could afford to fly to Sri Lanka, you can afford a slightly more expensive entry fee.

Anuradhapura, for example, costs a pretty heft $25 (£19.50) to enter. This is a bit cheaper than the £22 ($35) it costs to enter the Tower of London or the $115 (£90) entry fee for Disneyworld Florida. However, when you compare these prices to the GDP per capita: Sri Lanka – $3,926.17, UK – 43,734.00 and USA – 55,836.79; you can see why Sri Lanka needs to charge a cheaper price for locals.

Tourists almost invariably have more money than local Sri Lankans so you can’t begrudge them trying to squeeze a few extra dollars out of you. It also makes sense to give local people cheap access to their local attractions.

Tipping is Not Expected But Greatly Appreciated

If you go to the US and don’t leave at least a 15% tip, the chef will come out of the kitchen and interrogate you. In Sri Lanka, if you left a 15% tip, the chef would probably come out and kiss you. Tipping is not standard practice in Sri Lanka but it is greatly appreciated.

Those few extra coins you leave might not mean much to you but they will make a huge difference to your waiter. As you might imagine, wages are low in Sri Lanka so your extra 100 rupees (50p) will make a huge difference to their daily take-home.

Customs

Always Carry a Scarf to Religious Sites

Most religious sites that you will visit, including Dambulla and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, require you to dress modestly. This means you should cover your shoulders and knees and, in some cases, your hair.

Obviously, if it is boiling hot you won’t want to be covered up all day. This is where a scarf is handy. You can spend all day wearing a vest or strap top and then, when you need to, you can cover what you need with your scarf. Genius. If it’s a white scarf, even better. Wearing white at religious sites is considered more respectful and white doesn’t absorb too much heat. And, if it gets too hot, your scarf can be used to shade you from the sun.

Left Hand is Considered Dirty

In Sri Lanka, your left hand is used solely for personal hygiene and for this reason is considered dirty. Eating, waving, shaking hands or offering someone something with your left hand is inappropriate and disgusting for local people. To avoid offending anyone just leave your left hand by your side at all times.

Do Not Disrespect the Buddha

Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country and as such they treat images of the Buddha with the utmost respect. There have been numerous cases of foreigners being arrested for having tattoos of the Buddha. In 2014, Naomi Coleman was famously deported for having a Buddha tattoo on her arm.

Posing for a photo in front of a Buddha statue or causing any kind of damage or offence to a Buddha image are also serious offences. It might not seem like anything to you but it can be very insulting to the locals. Be smart and avoid doing anything that could seem disrespectful to a Buddha image.

Health

Stick to Sri Lankan Dishes

A lot of restaurants have tried to adjust their menus to appeal to westerners. Don’t be surprised if you see spaghetti bolognese and pizza amidst the curries and rotis. It is nice of the restaurants to make the effort but I can tell you now these dishes will not be the home comforts you know and love.

While you are in Sri Lanka, stick to Sri Lankan food – this is their forte (duh). It will be much, much better than their attempt at knocking together a western dish for you and a lot more authentic. If you get sick of spicy food then opt for fried rice or just ask for your dish to be as mild as possible.

Don’t Drink Tap Water

This doesn’t need much explanation. The tap water here is very much undrinkable. Buy bottled water (it’s super cheap) from a reputable source and make sure its seal isn’t broken. Also avoid ice cubes (they might have been made with tap water) and anything that could have been washed (salad, unpeeled fruit etc.

Be Wary of Food Hygiene

As I’m sure you can imagine, food hygiene in Sri Lanka is different to food hygiene in the UK. Sri Lankan street food is delicious, cheap and generally amazing but you should take care when buying it. If the food is covered in flies or looks like it has been sitting in the sun for ages then you might want to avoid it.

When eating in restaurants, I recommend checking TripAdvisor before you eat. Make sure there aren’t any reviews about food poisoning or bad hygiene. If the reviews are all good but you get there and it doesn’t seem great, opt for something else. You really, really, really do not want to get sick while you are on holiday.

Take Vaccination Before Travelling

It is very easy to avoid getting seriously ill in Sri Lanka provided you have the right vaccinations before you go. Hepatitis A and typhoid are a must. Hepatitis B is not essential but I really recommend it. Obviously, you should also make sure you are up to date with all the jabs you need to live in your home country.

Malaria pills aren’t necessary but you should still take mosquito repellent with at least 50% DEET to prevent bites. Dengue fever is transmitted through mosquitos and is really, really horrible. There is no vaccine for this so just try not to get bitten.

Travel clinics tend to get full up weeks in advance back in the UK. Don’t leave getting your vaccinations until the last minute. I suggest getting an appointment around 4-6 weeks before you plan on travelling just to be safe.

Take Some Medicines

While serious illnesses are reasonably preventable when travelling to Sri Lanka, you might get a dodgy tummy while you’re there. This is due to the change in diet you will experience whilst in Sri Lanka – and also possibly because of lower hygiene standards.

If you get a tummy bug in Sri Lanka it will make you feel rubbish for a couple of days but it’s not the end of the world. The important thing is to stay hydrated and take some medicine. It is a good idea to take some generic stomach sickness medicine with you to Sri Lanka. This is a lot easier than trying to explain what you need to a Sri Lankan pharmacist.

Fortunately, there are plenty of pharmacies and doctors in Sri Lanka so if you don’t take your own medicine it’s not a huge issue. If you can find a doctor who speaks English or someone willing to go with and translate you will have a much easier time.

Getting Around

Cheap and Reliable Public Transport

Sri Lanka has excellent transport links. You can get almost anywhere by bus or train and your journey will cost you a matter of pennies in most cases. The only downside to taking public transport is that it can take a very long time. Buses stop every few meters to let people on and off and trains go quite slowly.

If you are short on time and have the cash to burn then you are better off hiring a driver. You will miss out on the authentic experience of taking a Sri Lankan bus or train but you will get from A to B a lot quicker.

Avoid Self-Driving

So for starters, Sri Lankans drive on the left – a remnant from the days of British colonisation. This can be confusing if you are from a right-side driving country. Next up, the concept of road rules doesn’t really exist here. From what I understand, the biggest car is king of the road and if you are in their way (even if it’s your right of way) you need to get out of the way. Fast.

Stopping for pedestrians is unheard of unless you want to be rear-ended so crossing the road can also be hard. You really just have to take any chance you get and pray to Buddha you make it. Sri Lanka also has a bit of a problem with drunk drivers (particularly tuk-tuk drivers) so be wary of this. Police are cracking down hard on drink-driving but it remains an issue.

My advice is to hire a driver to get you from A to B during your time in Sri Lanka. They will know the roads and how to navigate them far better than you ever could.

Sri Lanka is… Completely and Utterly Incredible

Sri Lanka truly is one of the most incredible places on the planet. I have nothing but fantastic memories of my time spent there and I am sure you will leave with the same. Everything, from the food to the people to the landscapes, is exceptional.

My final parting words of advice are simply to keep an open mind and give everything a try. You will very rarely regret trying something new. So try that exotic new dish, do that tricky hiking route and go searching for elephants. And, most importantly, enjoy yourself!

Tell us what you think about Sri Lanka

I’d love to hear your experience in the comment area below!
Have any questions about Sri Lanka, don’t hesitate to ask me!

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JJ
About the author

After catching an incurable case of wanderlust at the age of 20, JJ has spent the last 4 years travelling the world and writing about her adventures. Sri Lanka will always hold a special place in her heart because of its unbelievably good (if not sometimes ambiguous) food, friendly locals and stunning beaches.

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