Sri Lanka is a wonderful and eye-opening country to visit. Due to its small size, Sri Lanka doesn’t get half as much attention in travel news as nearby and giant India, and we found that this was a reason for a lot of its charm. Sri Lanka is home to excellent cuisine, rich in flavor, and we loved that everyone we met was eager to help us and make sure that we enjoyed the country.
Sri Lanka is a developing country and is somewhat newer in the world of tourism. We have a list of important tips to help you out.
1. The food in Sri Lanka is amazing
Sri Lankan food is like Indian food and rich in spices, but with more flavors and notes of coconut. In fact, there is so much coconut in Sri Lankan food that you’ll soon get used to it. Try the coconuts from vendors on the street, who will saw off the top and stick a straw in, so that you can drink the fresh juice!
Hostels and guesthouses will usually offer breakfast, which will be home-cooked and is sometimes included in the price of your room. Guesthouse breakfast can be either buffet-style with toast and fruit from 7-9am, for example, or might be a set breakfast. If the breakfast is set and pre-arranged, the guesthouse owner or person speaking English will ask you what time you want breakfast (and it’ll be prompt!) and dinner (needs to be pre-arranged about four hours ahead).
Just like when you’d travel in India or elsewhere in Asia, it is smart to avoid drinking the tap water. Luckily, bottled water is very cheap and you can buy it at any store or restaurant.
If you have the chance to shop in a Sri Lankan supermarkets, check out the snacks and fresh produce that is native to the region. Supermarkets will also have water, milk and many kind of sugary juices and sodas.
We loved trying all the foods that were new to us, namely string hoppers (rice noodles in rolls or pancakes), Sri Lankan curries, kotthu (chopped noodles with a sauce and onions/egg/chicken) and roti (sometimes spelled rotti), which are breads. It soon became clear that Sri Lankans do not have a strong preference for eating out, and that restaurants in non-touristy areas are sometimes hard to find. They also may close early, before 9pm, for the evening.
We found that alcohol is not very widespread, and we did not find alcohol offered to us nor available on menus until we arrived in to Ella, which is kind of like backpacker central. Here, beers go for around 300-350 rupees and cocktails go for 400-900 rupees. Try Cafe Chill, the main spot for nightlife in Ella. Wine is not so popular.
2. Health & safety in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is very safe. Most people are helpful and don’t want to cheat you. Locals will say hello and you can talk to most people who want to practice English. Just like with travel anywhere, keep an eye on your bag. Theft seems rare, but it pays to not be an easy target.
Waking alone at night seems fine, but staying in groups or with a travel buddy is always better. We only read one TripAdvisor story of a solo girl getting harmed by locals on a hike, so we’d suggest not hiking alone, as most hikes are not marked (except for Little Adam’s Peak, which is wildly popular and has a fair amount of clear signage).
Restrooms in Sri Lanka may be western-style or squat style. It’s always good to bring your own paper and hand sanitizer. Sometimes bathroom use comes at a fee, but usually this charge is only around 20-100 rupees. If someone tells you that the WC has “no water,” it could mean that the sinks are turned off, in our experience.
3. Transport & accommodation in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has plentiful transportation for travelers, including rail trains, buses, minibuses and tuk-tuks. Rail trains have to be reserved in advance at the station for reserved seats (not standing room). First class seems to sell out early, but you can book in advance in person at a station from the ticketing window.
Now, a little bit about Sri Lankan trains
- First class cars have air conditioning and TVs. This was pretty nice!
- Second class has regular seats and fewer frills than first class, but makes for a fine ride. We actually sat most of the ride in second class because it was easier to take photos out of the windows.
- Third class means you may be standing, and the tickets are very affordable. This is for the adventurous type, as it is not a level of train ticket that exists in western nations.
A little bit about Sri Lankan buses
The standard bus has no air conditioning and you do not need an advance ticket purchase. Buses are very cheap and sometimes we took them for as little as USD$0.50 per person. Even though it seemed like the driver charged us whatever price he felt like, it seemed we were paying the same prices as locals. Buses can be between US$1-3 per person for a long ride, even between 3-6 hours.
Minibuses are a dab more money, around US$2-4. These smaller buses have air conditioning for comfort, unless the drive is in a cold climate, like the ascent to Nuwara Eliya. Minibuses do not have standing room and sit approximately 20 people.
For tuk-tuks, it’s time to haggle! Tuk-tuks are privately-owned small metal cabs that have small motors. Tuk-tuks can drive you far, and we met travelers who hired tuk-tuks for a three-hour drive. We aren’t sure that we’d recommend that, as the fumes from everything else passing by in your face can get irritating. We took tuk-tuks mostly short distances, but we took a tuk-tuk for one hour from Galle to Mirissa, at night, to save time.
Accommodations in Sri Lanka come in a range, and you will get what you pay for. Hostels are less popular than guest houses, but they exist in some popular destinations. Some guesthouses are tiny, and we stayed in a guesthouse that was a house that some locals turned into a bed-and-breakfast.
What’s important to note is the difference in price charged for a Fan Room versus an A/C Room. If you see online ‘basic’ vs ‘deluxe’ room, this is usually language meaning the basic room has a fan and the deluxe has A/C. In Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella, you actually don’t need A/C at night due to lower and more moderate nighttime temperatures, and you probably won’t be in your room during the day when it is hotter.
From Negombo to the Mirissa region and anything coastal, A/C will save your life if you are like us and can’t sleep while overheated. Dish out the US$10 additional for it! The south and coastal areas are also incredibly humid, and A/C will be a big treat.
4. Languages in Sri Lanka
English is widely spoken in Sri Lanka due to a past of British colonization. The two main native languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhalese (looks like curly noodles and ribbons) and Tamil (spoken more in the north and east). We learned that the Tamil language came from India during the days of the tea trade, as tea plantation workers came from the Tamil Nadu province in India. Tamil looks like square noodles. You’ll see trilingual signs that contain all three languages. Our favorite Sinhalese word to use is “eh-stoo-tee” for “thanks.”
5. Sri Lankan locals are so friendly!
Locals are very friendly, helpful and usually wanted to say hello and start a conversation about where we were from.
6. Introduction to the currency in Sri Lanka
The LKR, Sri Lankan Rupee. At time of our trip in July 2017, the exchange was 153 LKR to 1 USD. Some quick exchange math is as follows:
- 1500 LKR is $10
- 1000 LKR is around $6.50.
- ~450 LKR is $3.00
- 100 LKR is a common figure to be charged for 2 waters or for a bus ride in the south for around 20 minutes. This is US$0.66.
You’ll soon find yourself haggling down from 200 LKR to 150, and then you’ll realize that it’s a save of $0.33.