The teardrop of India, Sri Lanka has recently transformed from a blip on the tourist radar to one of the most popular countries to visit this year*. A long and devastating civil war kept travelers away until 2009, but now the world is quickly waking up to a beautiful and diverse tropical isle. Although it may not be as alternative as it once was, there are definitely still hidden gems to make this a spectacular destination well worth exploring.
From heartwarming hospitality and fabulous food to brilliant beaches and awe-inducing adventures, Sri Lanka is the definition of "something for everyone". Ancient culture and steep history? It's got it. Luxurious resorts to kick back and relax in? Check. Undiscovered secrets? Of course! Exotic wildlife to ogle at? There are few places in the world that cater to such a diverse tourist spectrum as Sri Lanka, and even fewer that do it without breaking the bank.
Sri Lanka Facts
Bakers are the Sri Lankan equivalent of ice cream truck drivers
Throughout your stay, you will here the cute jingle of Für Elise in the morning (sometimes in the evening). This is the sound of "bakery delivery men", pottering round villages with mobile bakeries attached to their bikes. Pull them over to sample some freshly made bread!
Sri Lanka has a literacy rate of 92%
This literacy rate is the highest in South Asia. Education is very important in the country and the linguistic diversity of its residents means that the level of English is also very high.
The national sport of Sri Lanka is volleyball
Despite seeing cricket constantly being played from Jaffna to Galle, volleyball has been the national sport of Sri Lanka since 1991. It's an extremely popular after-school sport, especially among girls, although cricket still rules the streets and is a fantastic conversation starter.
Midigama beach, South Sri Lanka. Picture credit: Sasha Set
Sri Lanka was the first country with a female Prime Minister
Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the head of state in Sri Lanka in 1960 and was responsible for declaring Sri Lanka a republic, as well as for changing the name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in 1972.
Sri Lanka used to border Antarctica
300 million years ago when all the continents were linked as “Pangea”, Sri Lanka was not only joined to India, but also to Madagascar, Mozambique and Antarctica - pretty hard to imagine now while you're sweltering in the Sri Lankan jungle!
Our Guide to Sri Lanka
Deserted, pristine shores of the east coast. Picture credit Alex Booth
Sri Lanka top tips
Sri Lanka's small but diverse surface area makes it the ideal place to do a bit of everything. In a two week holiday, you can easily get a real feel for the country from north to south. From beach bumming to hiking in the hills, there's no need to compromise on what you want to do:
Sri Lanka Map
Ride the rails
I've often heard of Sri Lanka described as a "cuddly India". I think this is a pretty accurate description. Until you visit a train station that is. Boarding the train may seem like a whirlwind of chaos at first. Because it most certainly is. That said, there's nothing quite like sitting in an open doorway, watching Sri Lanka's verdant landscape whizz past:
Look how happy the trains in the hill country make you. Picture credit: uprouted.co.uk
The country's most famous train journeys take you through the luscious tea plantations in the heart of the country, between Kandy and Haputale (scroll down for more info). These train journeys in more touristy areas allow you to by something called observer class so you can sit back and enjoy the view without all the madness. For me though, the atmosphere complements the scenery perfectly and is one of the best ways to get to know local people.
Where should I stay in Sri Lanka?
Stay in guest houses
Accommodation in Sri Lanka maybe a similar price to its neighbour, India, but the quality is in another league. We loved staying in guest houses while we were traveling around the country, mainly because of the unbelievably friendly and welcoming homes we got to stay in. These guest houses usually only have room for a few tourists at any time, making them a very intimate and personal experience. Not to mention that the food sometimes on offer is outstanding:
At anytime of year it's probably best to book guest houses at least a few days in advance to avoid disappointment. At busy times, it's best to plan where you're staying in advance.
Treat yourself to some luxury accommodation
Everything is so wonderfully cheap in Sri Lanka you can easily afford to allow yourself a few luxuries. Maybe stay somewhere your budget would never normally let you, or try something you've always wanted to do:
Go to relax not party
Sri Lanka is not a party island. Quite the opposite, in fact. Alcohol can be and difficult to find and relatively expensive in some areas; nightlife is very much restricted to tourist hubs. If you're after a local "lion" beer and there aren't any stocked in your hotel or surrounding tourist bars, you can visit an alcohol shop (these are the only shops licensed to sell alcohol) and stock up. Most towns have one.
Do I need a driving licence to ride a bike in Sri Lanka?
Brush up on your rules
O.K. so, confession time. While exploring the east coast of Sri Lanka by moped, we got pulled over by the police. They asked us for our driving licences. We obliged. They then turned to us and went:
"No no no no, your Sri Lankan Driving Licences"
Now, at this point we were pretty smug. There's no way we needed a Sri Lankan driving licence, what a ridiculous suggestion! Clearly, this guy was after a bribe. We talked our way our way out of a fine and continued on our merry way very pleased with ourselves. Until we Googled Sri Lankan driving laws back at our guest house. Turns out, you're supposed to have an International Driving Licence, which should also be endorsed by the Automobile Association of Sri Lanka in Colombo.
Driving laws aren't the only ones travelers should be aware of. The mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and tourists have been convicted for this. In fact, the singer Akon was banned from Sri Lanka in 2010 after he released a video of a raunchy pool party in front of a statue of the Buddha.
There are a few other airports around Sri Lanka, but many of these only service charter planes so check before you make any flying plans. Don't worry though, it's really easy and fun to travel around the country overland.
When to go to Sri Lanka?
The best time to go to Sri Lanka will differ depending on which part of the island you're visiting.
On the west and south coast, the high season runs from September—April where it experiences its best weather and its low season runs from May—August, with the most rainfall in these months.
On the east and north coast, the high season and best weather runs from May—August and the low season runs from September—April, with the worst weather.
Therefore, February—April is a good time to go to Sri Lanka. Because no part of the island is in its high season, flights are generally cheaper at this time of year. Plus, because it's not low season, the weather can also be pretty good! Especially if you plan to travel across the whole island.
Do I need a visa to travel to Sri Lanka?
Most nationalities can apply for a Sri Lankan ETA online, which will grant you 30 days entry to the country. Fees for this process depend on which country you are from (between $25 - 100 USD).
The only thing you'll need when entering Sri Lanka, in addition to the online visa, is at least one blank page in your passport which must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry. It's recommended that you print out the visa confirmation but it's not usually necessary. There is a counter at Colombo's Bandaranaike International Airport for people who arrive without a visa but this process can be more expensive and very time-consuming.
Sri Lanka is a very fair country and I very much doubt you will feel ripped off at any point during your trip. However, it’s always useful to know a few price examples so you can work out if you're getting a good deal.
Accomodation: Backpacker/budget traveler - 2000 rupees for a double room ($12 USD) Mid-range - 3500 - 9000 rupees Top-end - 9000+ rupees Train from Colombo - Jaffna 320 - 1100 rupees Train from Colombo - Galle 100 - 180 rupees Bottle of water 60-80 rupees Bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla 340 rupees Kottu (and water) 200-400 rupees Breakfast for 2 at a local eating joint 450 rupees Vegetable rice and curry 200 rupees Fresh Juices 80- 150 rupees Tuk-tuk roughly 50 rupees per km (plus possible service feee) Beer 500 rupees (340 rupees for a 600ml Lion beer in an alcohol shop)
Where to go in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lankan beach destinations...
Good for: snorkelling & scuba diving
Trincomalee, or Trinco, is the backpacking hub of the east coast. Most accommodation is situated a few km north of the town, en route to the pristine beaches of Uppuveli. Many people use Trincomolee as a place to relax away from the increasingly busy south coast, but it's also a popular spring board stop to visit Pigeon Island.
Pigeon Island is a snorkelling and scuba diving sensation where you can swim with all manner of marine life from tortoises to sharks. However, make sure you look into environmental concerns before booking your trip, as the island as seen a huge detrimental impact from the influx of tourism over the last few years and cannot sustain the current amount of tourists.
Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka
Good for: Surfing
Arugam Bay is an attractive coastal alternative for those looking for some sleepy town solitude. But the bay's main draw is the swell. With a world-renowned surf reputation, it's the place on the island to catch some waves. The best time for surfing is from April - November.
Alternative Beach Destination: Batticaloa
Good for: getting off-the-beaten-track, solitude, good food
Batticaloa was one of those destinations we stumbled upon and instantly fell in love with. The town had a really chilled, good-natured vibe and the detached strip of land where all beaches and tourist accommodation is located felt secluded and similar to what I imagine Trincomolee was like just a few years ago.
Lose yourself in the ancient Buddhist civilisation of Anuradhapura. For Sri Lankans, it's a vital pilgrimage location, but anyone can feel the spiritual benefits of these surroundings as your jaw drops at some of the largest monuments constructed in the ancient world.
Good for: palaces and impressive sculptures
The distinctive mound towering above the spectacular site of Sirijaya is an impressive location for any royal home, but King Kassapa went one step further by constructing his palace on a precariously rocky mountain top. As you climb to the summit, you'll pass the paws of a ginormous sculpted lion – a truly majestic site.
Good for: cave temples and murals
“stunning” “enigmatic” and “Sri Lanka’s most dramatic sight” are just three of the ways Lonely Planet describes Dambulla, and it's easy to see why. A maze of ancient caves full of incredible artistry, this complex on the hilltop has the added bonus of some fantastic panoramas across the land.
Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan Hill County
Good for: charm, history and culture
The cultural centre of Sri Lanka, colourful Kandy was the capital of Sri Lanka's last Buddhist stronghold before the British invaded. There are many beautiful cultural and scenic sights to visit in Kandy, from marvelling at the temple of the sacred tooth relic to taking a leisurely stroll around the lake:
Kandy, Sri Lanka
Good for: accommodation, hiking, home-cooking
Ella has boomed into a tourist hub in recent years, but it's still managed to keep some of its hill country charm, especially on the outskirts of town. The area is known for having some of the best guest houses in the country and the home cooking may just be some of the best you'll have in Sri Lanka. Ella has also jumped on the asian tourist trend of cooking classes, which means you have the chance to learn about how to mix some of those fabulous flavours and bring a taste of Sri Lanka home with you! And, once you’ve eaten yourself into a food coma, there are plenty of gorgeous hikes you can do to walk it off.
Good for: Tea plantations, getting a break from the sun
Often shrouded in mist, Haputale offers travelers a rest from the intense heat of the Sri Lankan coastline as well as an opportunity to get lost in miles and miles of lush ceylon tea plantations. You can also hike to the famous “Lipton's Seat" (yes, as in Lipton tea!), which is supposed to be the vantage point from which Sir Thomas Lipton surveyed his tea empire.
Sri Lankan National Parks
If you're looking to do a spot of safari in Sri Lanka, there are so many national parks to choose from. This can be a bit of a dilemma: which one do you visit? Do you go to more than one? We actually found it really difficult to decide on which national park to go to. There are so many different fees to add up, it's not easy to work out on a definite total cost of a park visit. You also have to weigh up the the perks of getting off the beaten track when visiting a more remote park, against the cons, including the costs of reaching that park and the risks of not seeing any wildlife when you get there.
In the end, we decided to go to Uda Walawe National Park – the park was not as wildlife-heavy as the extremely popular "Yala National Park" but it made a great alternative safari destination. It was easy to get to from Ella and the guest house we stayed in offered us an all-inclusive fee. Plus, there were plenty of elephants for us to feast our eyes upon!
A diverse array of birds including eagles and toucans
Whales and dolphins (on a very different type of safari)
New Year's Eve in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka might not immediately spring to mind when thinking of the best places to spend New Year's Eve, but if you're looking for a beach party with a relaxed vibe, head to Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna or Mirissa, which all have amazing firework shows and a fun atmosphere.
Bonus alternative place to visit: Jaffna
Good for: a taste of South India
The overall vibe of Jaffna is infectious. Friendly, easy-going and oh-so tropical, Jaffna is very reminiscent of South Indian culture and Andaman Island atmosphere. The province is dominated by Tamils and hinduism is the more prominent religion. Food, especially Dosa and Paratha (breakfast bread) has a distinct and delicious south Indian flair – you may find food a tad spicier than other provinces! There's no particular "tourist sight" in the area, it's just a great place to be, meet local people and get off-the-beaten-path:
Cycling is the way to get around Jaffna. Picture credit: uprouted.co.uk