Sri Lanka Travel Tips article is a must read for your Sri Lankan adventure.
If someone asks me to describe Sri Lanka in just one word, I’d say “green”. It doesn’t matter where you go but you will surely see a lot of green. The entire country feels like one massive national park and you’re guaranteed to see a wild elephant or two if you spend more than a few weeks here.
Anyway, we spent close to a month in Sri Lanka and we have some useful tips to share with you. We also have a very detailed post with a flexible itinerary for Sri Lanka that can fit 2 weeks or even a month. This post has been written after visiting Sri Lanka on two different occasions.
Traveling to this beautiful island country is somehow suddenly “in fashion”, maybe thanks to Instagram. It looks even better than Insitagram because the real colors are even more intense here. If you end up booking your tickets for Sri Lanka, here are some important travel tips that you should keep in mind before visiting Sri Lanka.
Travel Tips for Sri Lanka –
01 | Visa for Sri Lanka
Unlike many other Asian countries, Sri Lanka doesn’t offer a visa on arrival. However, you can apply for an electronic visa or eVisa. An eVisa is a double entry visa for 30 days, which is usually enough for most of the travelers. The fee for an eVisa is $35 for all the countries but is only $20 for SAARC countries. Yes, India is a part of SAARC so I had to pay only $20 while San paid $35. I’d recommend you apply at least a week in advance. You can click here to apply for your eVisa to enter Sri Lanka.
Please be very careful in filling up the eVisa application because even a single wrong digit will impact your entry and you will be forced to apply again at the airport. I highly recommend you apply for your visa through iVisa to make things simple. If you’re a citizen of Maldives, Singapore or Seychelles, you don’t need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. For a longer stay visa, you can apply directly at the embassy.
02 | Do you have a Buddha Tattoo? Hide it!
Sri Lanka has a zero tolerance for tourists with Buddha tattoos. In fact, there have been cases in the past wherein tourists with Buddha tattoos have been arrested and deported. A few weeks back, a friend of mine was stopped by the police at Kandy railway station for carrying a bag with Buddha face but luckily she escaped trouble. Oh, and also, one of the pop musicians Akon was also barred an entry to Sri Lanka because one of his music videos featured a Buddha statue next to skimpily clad women. Back in 2012, three French tourists were sentenced to 6 months in jail for clicking pictures of them kissing a Buddha statue.
I’m not religious but it makes sense to me because some countries regard the usage of religious objects and symbols in ornaments or fashion as disrespectful. Don’t be an asshole while traveling and respect Sri Lanka’s culture. In fact, don’t disrespect any country’s culture and religion. If you have a Buddha tattoo, please hide it while you’re in Sri Lanka.
Read: 13 Unique Experiences in Sri Lanka
03 | Negombo vs Colombo
Wondering why this point is even on the list? Well, because when you book your flight to Sri Lanka, your ticket will say that you’re flying to Colombo. In reality, it’s not Colombo but the suburb area of Negombo, which is a different place entirely and is an hour away from Colombo. Maybe it’s good this way because I didn’t particularly like Colombo but I definitely enjoyed Negombo. It is less stressful and has a massive strip of uninterrupted beach. Moreover, for your journey to other parts of Sri Lanka, it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re in Negombo or Colombo because they are both well connected by a network of trains and buses.
On a side note, it was pretty funny because San booked our hotel in Negombo and for the first few hours that I was in Negombo, I thought I was in Colombo. It happened because I suffer from a selective hearing disorder and assumed that Colombo is massive and Negombo is a part of it.
04 | Tuk Tuk Scams
Living in India, I have faced more scams than most of the people and because of this, I am not easily “scammable”. Despite a lot of pre warnings, we were scammed on our very first day. Every tuk tuk driver quoted 5x the rate as we landed in Sri Lanka. How do we know it was 5x? Well, because we asked a few locals what should be the normal price for reaching our hotel. At last we finally found a tuk tuk driver who agreed to a lower cost, which was still double of what the locals told us. However, within a few minutes he stopped the tuk tuk mid way even though, he had agreed that he would drop us at our hotel. He started yelling and after a while, we gave up and ended up paying extra because we were very tired and just wanted to reach our room.
Don’t get me wrong, Sri Lankans are very nice, humble and honest but many tuk tuk drivers are not. Another scam that I encountered was how the drivers tried to convince us at many bus stops that there was no bus that was going to our destination in an attempt to get us to spend on a tuk tuk instead. By then, I had done enough research to know that they were fooling us. These scams are highly prevalent if you travel to touristy places.
05 | The Best way to travel internally is by Train
Picture this – you’re sitting in a cute train coach and everywhere you look, you see tea estates, forests, waterfalls, hills, monkeys.. and maybe even an elephant if you’re lucky. From time to time, you can walk around and even sit by the door and get lost in the beauty (but please hold the door handle firmly if you do).
This is why many say that a train ride in Sri Lanka’s hill country is perhaps the most beautiful train journey in the world!
San and I sat by the door all the time and didn’t want to leave. We even bought a few snacks on the train and ate them as we sat by the door. I was such a “tourists” here and couldn’t stop clicking and making videos for my Instagram. Trust me when I say this, but this was the BEST thing we did in this beautiful country. Oh, and I must tell you that it was dirt-cheap. We traveled on a third class coach, which was comfortable and clean.
You can do this journey from Colombo or Negombo but I recommend you start from Kandy and head to Nuwara Eliya, or Haputale or even all the way to Ella. I also have a post about this specific train journey that’s from Kandy to Ella on my blog with route information as well as the train timings.
Nothing can match the experience of riding a slow moving train through Sri Lanka’s scenic hill countryside. It may not be the fastest way, but it is the most beautiful way to travel internally. Alternatively, you can travel by buses too, but you will not be as comfortable as compared to the train because the bus seats in Sri Lanka are very small. Oh and you should know that the train ride from Kandy to Ella is supposed to be the most scenic one.
Click here for more information about trains in Sri Lanka, the time table and tips.
06 | Where to go in Sri Lanka
Most of the people think that Sri Lanka is mostly about the beaches, but no they couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, my favorite places here were very far from the beaches.
Broadly speaking, Sri Lanka can be divided into four zones – the beaches, the hill country, forests and historical places. The beaches are pretty but it is the middle area that made us fall in love with Sri Lanka.
Our favorite was the hill country, (Nuwara Eliya, Haputale, Elle, etc.) where everything was greener than the color green. You must have noticed a lot of “green” pictures from Sri Lanka on our Instagram account, well, someone mentioned that they reminded them of their time in Sapa, Vietnam; have you ever visited this place?
We also enjoyed the forest area around Sigiriya and Pottuvil, where we saw a lot of elephants and a few crocodiles at a safe distance. Lonely Planet markets Sri Lanka as a “beach lovers paradise” but I think it is more of a nature lovers’ / forest freak’s haven. Anyway, here’s our itinerary for exploring Sri Lanka in a month, or you can check out this itinerary for spending 10 days in Sri Lanka.
07 | Tap Water in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the locals were mostly drinking tap water but we stuck to bottled water. Although it is safe for them, but it may not be for you because it may contain micro-organisms that your body is not used to. Don’t take a health risk while traveling and please stick to bottled water. In my experience, the cost of bottled water was a little higher if you compare it to most of the Asian countries.
08 | Costs can be extreme (Low and High both)
When we first arrived in Sri Lanka, we got a shock because everything was expensive in Negombo. Maybe it was because we were comparing it to India but even basic things at supermarkets were expensive. We did eventually find a few affordable eating options but there were not too many. Beach Towns like Arugam Bay, Negombo were definitely more expensive than the hill towns. On our train to Ella, we spotted a cute village called Haputale with breathtaking views, and decided to jump off here. It ended up being our favorite and the most affordable place in Sri Lanka for us. If you’re traveling on a budget, then you should consider spending more time away from the beach towns.
Read: 20 Travel Mistakes that can ruin your trip
09 | ATMs and Banks
After traveling to many countries, Sri Lanka was the first country where my ATM card refused to work in most of the ATMs. I tried many, but the only ATM where my card worked was at Bank of Ceylon ATM. I met a few people who faced the same issue, even after alerting their banks that they were going to Sri Lanka.
I suggest you carry a few US Dollars or Euros to be safe if such a situation arises.You can always head to a bank to exchange currency in case your card doesn’t work. Another important point to note is that most of the banks in Sri Lanka shut at 3 pm, which is quite early as compared to international standards.
10 | About Sri Lankan Food.. and restaurants are called Hotels
One word: delicious! Sri Lankan food is similar to South Indian food but with very a mild difference. I fell in love with Rice and Curry meal combos, which were usually served with more than one curry, daal, beetroot salad and “Sambal”. Sambal (or sambhal) is a dry preparation of shredded coconut with red chilies, curry leaves, and a few herbs that Sri Lankans eat with their food. Sri Lankan roti is like India’s Malabari Parotta, which is my favorite kind of Indian bread. This roti can be shredded and mixed with spices, egg, meat or fish to form a delicious meal called “Kothu”. In fact, Kothu (or Kottu) is what Pad Thai is for Thailand – an affordable meal that is popular with backpackers. I also enjoyed egg samosas in Sri Lanka, which are very spicy and way different than Indian’s samosas. In smaller towns, a meal can cost around 100 LKR (less than $1), but can go as high as 500 LKR in bigger towns. I experimented a lot with Sri Lankan food and will try to write a full blog post about it.
11 | Drinking Sri Lanka’s Local Brew – Arrack & Lion lager
San and I always make it a point to try a new country’s local brew, so Sri Lanka was no exception. If you compare the costs with the neighboring countries, drinking in Sri Lanka is expensive. Arrack is Sri Lanka’s local spirit, which is like rum and is made with coconut flowers. (I didn’t even know that coconut trees had flowers!). We saw a lot of price and quality variations when we bought Arrack. At one time we spent 1200 LKR (around $7) but 2000 LKR (around $13) on another occasion.
The most popular local beer in Sri Lanka is Lion Lager and it costs 250 LKR ($1.5) if you buy it from alcohol shops. Of course it costs double or even triple when you buy it in bars and restaurants.
12 | Plug Points and electrical sockets in Sri Lanka
In most of the hotels in Sri Lanka, I saw two kinds of plug sockets – one with round holes (type D / M) and the other with rectangular prongs, which can easily fit UK plugs (type G socket). We didn’t carry a universal adapter and didn’t even need one in Sri Lanka. We were able to use our Indian as well as European plugs (both plug type C) in Sri Lanka without a problem. Yes, our Indian and European plugs had two spikes but could fit the Sri Lankan plugs without a problem. It is obviously recommended that you carry a good quality universal adapter so that you don’t end up harming your gadgets.
13 | Is Sri Lanka safe for single female travellers?
I don’t have a one-word-answer for this. Although I traveled with San but I often met women who were traveling solo and didn’t face any issues. Sri Lankan people are polite and extremely helpful but I did see several instances of local men persistently trying to befriend international women tourists. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being friends but please be careful when they invite you for parties because there are enough horror stories on the Internet. Just like India, you will need to appear confident and at times intimidating to ward off trouble. As a rule of thumb, dressing sensibly, befriending other travelers for company and trusting your sixth sense will go a long way in keeping you safe.
Do you have any points to add in this post about Sri Lanka travel tips? Let me know in the comments.
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Thanks Sonal,Just returned from Srilanka and your travel tips were really helpful. I was surprised that you had similar experience with debit cards.I was happy with the cost of living and food, felt very similar to south India. Kothu and mixes fried rice at local restaurant was one of the best meal.
Rekha @ http://www.theunconventionalgirl.com
Rekha, yes while I was in Sri Lanka, I felt I was in South India. But I found food and rooms to be cheaper in South India – both in Kerala and Chennai areas in comparison. I really fell in love with Kothu. In fact, I want to eat one right now. I do remember eating something similar in Chennai, but it is called “Kothu Parotta” there.
Hoping to go there sometime! Very helpful travel tips. I’ll definitely come back to see this when I’m ready for a sri lanka trip 😁
Hey Jenny, you’re gonna love Sri Lanka. It’s very green. 🙂
Thanks for dropping by.
This is really informative, thank you. I am going to Sri Lanka in June and I will definitely be referring to these tips 🙂
Thank you, good to hear that. 🙂 Hope you have fun in Sri Lanka
Nice article, very helpful information.
By the way, let me spice up your blog with the information below.
Travelling solo female is not an issue at all. Common people on the island are very friendly and helpful. But they should be careful on the beach areas, where some beach boys can cause the problem. Best thing is to keep away from them.
Sure that’s actually exactly what I have mentioned in slightly different words 😀
Sri Lankan food is super spicy 😀 😀
Thought I’d make quick mention that the north of Sri Lanka is now worth visiting now that the troubles are finished. Spent a short time in Jaffna and loved it – especially the Jaffna Curry Crab. a good place to visit if you have time.
Hello! Thank for for this very helpful article! I’m planning to visit Sri Lanka in mid July 2018 – Triconmalee, Sigiria and Horton Plains. Since I would be flying in to Colombo will need to take a train to Trinconmalee. I’m really struggling with the train booking! Haven’t found any online portal to book the ticket and not sure whether I would get a seat at the last minute. Do you have any helpful information about this?
as per sri lanka raiway website, only way to make a reservation is by visiting the station personally . follow below link for more information.
I have a once in life opportunity offer for you, for more information please reply.
We’ve been in Sri Lanka and greatly enjoyed our stay, these are all very valuable advices! Have to say though was really surprised about the Buddha representations being so negatively percieved, luckily we had none of this on us!
Absolutely brilliant information – well written and exactly what I needed to read…although my brain is a little seized from information overload at the moment. Going there as a single well traveled female (age late 50’s) and have been struggling how to plan my months visit – thanks heaps from this Kiwi gal.
Hi Barbara, you’re going to have so much fun in Sri Lanka. We also have a very detailed post about itinerary for exploring Sri Lanka in a month – hope you have seen it already.
Would love to see you recommending a water purification + filter bottle instead of purchasing bottled water.
Promoting single-use plastic bottles is actually super irresponsible, given their impact on the environment and a lack of adequate recycling programs through much of the developing world. There’s pretty much no reason to ever buy bottled water, even in countries with unsafe tap water, if you invest in something like a Steri Pen, The Grayl water bottle, or Lifestraw.
I haven’t bought a bottle of water in over 18 months, even travelling through the Caucasus, Sri Lanka, southeast Asia, and parts of Europe where tap water is dirty – and I haven’t been sick once!
Sarah, yes very good point. I’m very impressed that you haven’t bought a water bottle since 18 months and we’re trying very hard to buy as less as possible. While we were living in India, we drank RO purified water (reverse osmosis) but had to buy tap water where there’s no RO. We (and my other family members) have been really really sick at times because of water. Love your recommendation about Steri Pen, The Grayl water bottle, or Lifestraw – will check them out. Cheers!
This is indeed a very informative post and should be very helpful to tourists.
Unbiased, factual & insightful.
PS: I’m From Sri Lanka
I am now on my way to Sri Lanka, thank you for the tips
You’re welcome! Have fun traveling in Sri Lanka. 🙂