TOP 17 important things you should know before visiting Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a tourist gem. And no wonder – the nature in this small island is so spectacular that you will wish to stay here forever! Sri Lanka is a precious pearl, its beauty attracts countless tourists every year, therefore the country is developing rapidly. Of course, there are some specific things that will help you to move around Sri Lanka. So here we have 17 most important tips to help you in your journey in this land of miracles!
Firstly, Sri Lankan visa is necessary for almost all the world`s nationalities. But it is very easy to apply for it. Basically, to enter the country you will need your passport that has to be valid for six months from the expected date of departure from Sri Lanka, and Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA), which will be your visa. You can apply for visa in homepage eta.gov.lk. There you will have to fill in your basic info and pay online. Be aware that there are quite a few companies that offer Sri Lanka`s visas, but this one is the official one. Here visa fee is around 30 euros, while in other sites we discovered even 80-euro-fees, so do not fall for that!
When you receive the confirmation you will need to print your visa and it will be stamped by immigration officers on your arrival. Some countries can get the visa on arrival, but this can take more time, and – who knows – you might not even get the visa, and then all the traveling expenses are wasted.
If you are reading this article in the right time, good to know is that those who hold passports of eta.gov.lk listed countries and travel to Sri Lanka from 01.08.2019 to 31.01.2020 for tourism purposes are exempted paying ETA fee, in view of enhancing tourist arrivals. However, it is still required to apply ETA and ensure pre-approval before the journey to avoid unnecessary delays at the port of entry.
2. Airport to Colombo and back
After arrival, you most likely will find yourself in the Colombo airport. The airport is located around 30 km (40 minutes) from the city centre, so it is good to know how to get to the city! Here you can choose between taxi, private driver and bus. Remember that in this country you need to bargain, and drivers in Colombo would try to trick you. If you take the cab, you will pay around 20 euros, but if you go just outside the airport, you will find buses that will bring you to the city for around 1 euro. Buses are comfy, the driver will probably ask you to pay a bit more for the luggage, but you can always negotiate. Also, the bus driver will wait till the bus is full and only then drive. He might ask you to wait for 5 minutes that later turns out to be 45 minutes to one hour. So the fastest way is hiring a private driver through various homepages in internet. You will know the price already and reach the city quicker. Though the crazy Colombo traffic affects everyone, no exceptions.
How to get back? Again, taxi, private driver or bus. There are two types of buses that you can get. And they can be found in two main bus stations which are located very close to each other. The last cheap public bus (that you can also catch in the airport at the arrival) leaves the city at around 7 PM, so after this time you have an option to take the minivan. Minivan is a bit more pricey – around 3-4 euros, but still cheaper than the cab. And, if you choose minivan, look for the express van as there are ones that stop in every single street, so the journey to the airport can take ages.
By the way, you will be able to get in the departure hall only three hours before your flight. So no hanging around there! And you can get through the gates only an hour before your flight.
3. Nature and animals
Sri Lanka is a spectacular country. In this small territory, you can immerge into tea plantations, climb mountains, swim in the sea, chase waterfalls, explore ancient sites, meet the wildlife, visit temples and so much more! But be aware of the dangers in nature. Parts of the country are still heavily mined. Also wildlife can be dangerous. Wild elephants and crocodiles may attack humans. There are venomous insects and snakes, leeches, stray dogs can carry rabies. But the saddest thing is that people tend to treat animals badly, throw them rocks, beat them. And this is the time you can set an example and be the one with the good heart, even by carrying a snack for the hungry. You don`t even need to touch an animal, as it is safest not to, but you can feed those that are starving while fat local ladies are counting their goods.
Sri Lanka is incredibly diverse and here you can experience so many different things! Yes, you can ride an elephant and hold a baby turtle in your hands. But is it really necessary? Locals will do everything for the tourist money and it is sad to see that tourists can be so ignorant. Elephants are caught, caged and abused just so that foreigner can ride them and show photos to others. Whales are basically chased for the tourists. Baby turtles held in sanctuaries use all their food reserves from the egg before being let in the open sea thus having very little chance of survival. You will see locals that have caught monkeys and snakes to entertain holidaymakers. So please be mindful and intelligent tourist that leaves just a footprint not a ruined life for another living being – do not take tours that are related to this cruelty to animals!
4. Weather in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has monsoon seasons and in various regions they are occurring in different times. North of the country has it`s monsoon rains from October to January, East – November to March, while Southwest has its rainfall from May to September. But monsoon season doesn`t really mean non-stop rain, it`s just that the rainfall is unexpected. Also, remember that it is not safe to go for a huge hike in the mountains during that time as landslides can occur and traffic can be paralyzed. Though during the monsoon everything is cheaper and it is easier to find the place in the transport and accommodation. The high season in South is from December to February, especially in Christmas time, and the peak season for the East coast is from around June to August. But even in the monsoon the sun will spoil you during the day. And, yeah, bring the sunscreen as it is unreasonably expensive in Sri Lanka. Of course, in Sri Lanka you can also experience extreme weather episodes like cyclones, or even tsunami.
Sri Lanka is very much visited country, so be ready for crowds, especially in the peak seasons that we were talking about earlier. Some are traveling with tour companies, some are individual travelers, but there are definitely many foreigners. Be aware that during the busy time you might not be able to find accommodation or public transport available as that all would be booked.
But even if this country is now called as one of the top traveling destinations, you will still be able to find remote areas where locals haven`t seen foreigner that often. Even if it is relatively easy (just time-consuming) to reach most popular places and get around, in some parts people won`t be able to speak with you in English and will be generally surprised seeing you.
Also, even if the transport and food is relatively cheap in Sri Lanka, it can be pricey in terms of accommodation and sightseeing. Especially temples, ancient castles and some natural sites are quite overpriced, foreigners pay 20 times higher price than locals. So search up the info about the place you wish to visit before you go there – otherwise you might reach it and only then realize you won`t be able to afford it.
6. Getting around Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is not that big country, but it can take too much time to get around as the traffic is terrible, roads are often too narrow and not properly maintained. The most popular way to get around the country is by train. There are trains between main cities, but many places can be reached only by car. Train tickets come reserved or non-reserved. There are also several classes—from viewing carriages to first, second, and third class. You can look up the timetable and prices in internet, but you have to book the tickets in the train station. Be prepared for queues, and buy the ticket in advance! If everything is full, the cashier most likely will ask you to return an hour before your scheduled ride as the unreserved seats will sell out. If this is the case, come early and then fight for your place! Trains are super-small for that amount of people who use them. Sometimes someone will already be sitting in your seat, so just ask them to show you their ticket. We have seen tourists just silently standing all the way just because they do not want to shoo away the one who has taken their reserved seat. Well, you have to fight for it, you know! Remember to count the money after buying the ticket. Sometimes locals will give you an excuse that there`s the old price shown on your ticket. Also, remember that there have been a number of fatal accidents because of tourists hanging out of the open doorways or windows of trains. Even if it is the most picturesque ride in the world (especially between Kandy and Ella) is it worth your health or life? Do not lean out the carriages before the train stops! And keep your train ticket until the end of the ride as you will have to present it at your destination.
Then comes the public buses with far more extensive network. There are long-distance buses and ones that go in between the smaller towns. Of course, those can be crowded, people are standing and luggage is sliding from one end of the bus to another. Bus drivers often drive like crazy. Though locals seem used to that. To get a ride, just go to the bus station and tell the locals where you want to go, they point you at the right bus. You can also wave the approaching bus if you`re on the right direction and roadside. You can buy the ticket in the bus from the conductor who goes through the bus selling tickets to passengers. It is useful to check how much are the locals paying as conductor may try to trick you.
Even if some taxi drivers will try to cheat you, most of them are generally kind people and won`t push you for a ride, just answer to refusal: “All good, no problem, have a nice trip!” It`s different with the tuk-tuk (three-wheeled vehicle with the motor of a small motorcycle) drivers that can be too annoying, following your every step so that you just get in their vehicle, and then rip you off. These guys basically aren`t regulated so the traffic just gets stuck because of number of tuk-tuks. Though tuk-tuk driver can be a good guide, if you manage to find one genuine among all those money seekers. Whole-day tour with a tuk-tuk might cost you around 30 euros.
If you wish to rent a car, remember that the traffic and road condition will give you a headache. Also, foreign drivers need International Driving Permit to rent a car in Sri Lanka. But anyways renting a car is not the best option. It is better to hire a driver that can also become your private tour guide.
And last, but not least, keep in mind that drivers tend to have some stronger spirit or some local drug when managing their vehicles. So don’t be afraid to refuse the ride after stopping the vehicle – safety comes first!
7. Travel scams in Sri Lanka
Apart from the drivers that will try to rip you off, there will be vendors, guides and just average locals that will try to get your money. Be careful with your cash! Always count your change, also in the supermarkets, as people had been tricked there, too.
It is common that foreigners pay more for entrée in the ancient sites than locals, but you should examine how much is it really as even then you might get overcharged.
Locals have figured out how to get benefit from tourists in various ways. Most of them do not try to get too much, but sometimes these tricks are annoying. For example, you may enter the temple and suddenly someone innocently starts to tell you all about the place and after charge you. If you ask for the direction, some may bring you to the place and then ask for money, some will just lead you the wrong direction and then ask for money to bring you out of that scary no-where. Be mindful, locals in Sri Lanka know how to play with tourists!
Also, check out the most common tourist scams when traveling around.
As we already discussed, in Sri Lanka, you should be careful with wildlife. Dogs and monkeys can have rabies, and if you get bitten, you might not get vaccination that easy. There is no vaccination against Malaria and Dengue fever, so mosquito repellent will be handy. Though in 2016, Sri Lanka was announced Malaria-free country after being one of the most Malaria – affected countries in the world in 20th century.
Sri Lanka has some tuff history. In 2009, Colombo declared the end of the 26-year-long civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers. LTTE was fighting for an autonomous state in the North and East, but Sri Lankan army managed to end this violence. Of course, it affected many – more than 80 thousand people died, country`s economy was damaged, but Sri Lanka is getting better. Though you still should be careful in some regions, especially affected areas in Negombo and Batticaloa. In all the country there`s still military and police presence, you`ll see soldiers with automatic weapons guarding government buildings. You should always carry your passport with you, and between the towns of Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Arugam Bay you might come across also military checkpoints. And if you do, follow all the instructions given by military. Photos of military installations or buildings are forbidden, and do not use drones. Keep in mind that there are still some landmines from the war. Whenever talking with someone, try to avoid political topics and it`s wise not to step on anyone`s side, at least not openly.
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Sri Lanka. More than 250 people including tourists were killed in April 2019 terrorist attacks that targeted churches and hotels. Do not participate in any political rally as these have occasionally turned violent and avoid large public gatherings.
Even if Sri Lanka is touristy country, still dress properly – cover your shoulders and knees. Let`s respect locals! Yes, Western women have reported incidents of verbal and physical harassment by groups of men, but keep in mind that this is not a country where you can walk half-naked and everyone will be fine with it. Do not create these kind of situations yourself!
And finally, mind your head if you are a tall one as in Sri Lanka doorways can be very low.
9. People and habits
Generally people are very nice and welcoming in Sri Lanka. Locals have been named as ones of the nicest in the whole world! Of course, they have their own disagreements among each other because of the religion and history, and they also might try to trick you, but there are plenty of amazing people that will make you love this country even more!
One confusing thing (that is common in India as well) – the head waggle. And it is not our common “yes” and “no”. As we came across this in India, we already knew that if the question has to be answered by “yes” and “no”, head waggling most likely will mean “yes”, and locals will just shake their head for “no”. Also, watch people`s eyebrows – the higher they lift them while waggling their head, the more certain “yes” it is! And if you are still not sure – just ask them to say it out loud instead of waggling their head back and forth as a response. There are two official languages in Sri Lanka – Sinhala and Tamil, but in touristy areas locals communicate in English, so it is easy to get around.
Locals are very keen for conversations and you might get lucky to get a new friend in Sri Lanka as well. And, if you have a local friend, some of the habits that are good to know is that you shouldn`t wear shoes in a house (that seems just too logical for us) and remember that lifting up your feet in train, on the chair or wherever is considered very rude! When visiting, it is common to bring a small gift. Just like in India, when eating use your right hand as left is the “toilet hand” and is considered impure. But, hey, maybe just ask for the cutlery?
People in Sri Lanka tend to be late and that is nothing uncommon. But they will be happy to take pictures with you, though always ask for permission. Yeah, and some tea pluckers will ask you money if you`re making photos of them.
Sri Lanka is a spiritual melting pot. Even if the majority of people are Buddhists and this determines much of everyday life here, there are also around 15% Hindu, 10% Muslims and 7% Christians, and all these religions coexist on this small island. There are many colourful religious festivals and pilgrimage sites. But be very, very respectful of the religion here! Buddha is everywhere and this is a really big thing. It is not acceptable to pose in front of Buddha`s statues or touch and kiss the Buddha. Mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and many have been convicted and deported for this. There were people deported even because of Buddha tattoo! Never let the soles of your feet face Buddha statues. And when visiting temples or other religious sites take off your shoes and hat, and keep your shoulders and knees covered!
ATMs are working good in Sri Lanka. Though your debet card won`t be that widely accepted. In Sri Lanka, you will need cash to pay for things, so always keep it with you. Also, it is useful to divide cash in several different pockets – change for buses, change for donations, etc., so that if you are really pushed to pay for something you didn`t even order, you can show them that this is all you`ve got.
The official and only currency of Sri Lanka is the rupee, and Sri Lankan Government has tight control over it, so there are strict limits on the amount of rupees you can bring in and out of the country. Generally, you can get the cash in airport, but the ATMs there would take up to 10 euros for transaction. Also, remember that your card is the last to take out, do not take money and leave!
In Sri Lanka, you should be careful with credit card fraud and try to use cash wherever possible. Also, the safest is to use ATMs attached to banks and major hotels. And inform your bank in advance of your travels so that your card wouldn`t get blocked.
12. Internet and SIM
Internet in Sri Lanka is generally fast and good, most of the hotels will offer free Wifi! Of course, you won`t get it in every local eatery, but for constant needs you may use SIM. Of course – when going through mountain tunnels by train, you won`t have your coverage, but in most areas it would work! You can purchase your SIM in airport by the ATMs and money changers. But no worries if you do not get it in airport – many small stores around the cities are offering SIM cards. There are companies like Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat, Airtel and Hutch. First two are claimed to be the best ones. You will need your passport for this and the vendor will help you to activate the card. When purchasing SIM you can also ask vendor to write down the name of the package – it might come handy.
It is quite easy to find an accommodation in Sri Lanka using all the major booking sites. Though, if you get discounts using booking sites, keep in mind that locals often won`t be willing accept those. That was weird. It seemed that they do not understand internet booking system, so you will need to convince them that this is really how things work.
Usually accommodations have also a restaurant attached or catering is offered, but that is at least three times more expensive than in a local eatery. Cool thing that most places would offer to do the laundry where it`s paid by kilos. But it`s always better to follow the weight of your clothes for yourself!
And, yeah, if you look for the room, do look for the signs “Rooms” not “Hotel” as the last ones are actually eateries. Read more about this in the next point.
14. Food and restaurants in Sri Lanka
Food in Sri Lanka is great, and it is usually cheaper to eat out than to cook for yourself. Of course, that really much depends on the place you are having your meal in, but generally local eateries are quite cheap. Kottu, biryani and so many dishes are in a price range of 1 to 3 euros! But keep in mind that many places give “a special” menu for foreigners where all the prices are higher. Also, vegetarians are seen a bit different here. If we say that vegans do not eat any animal products while vegetarians still eat milk products and eggs, here it`s considered that vegetarians do not eat eggs, but everything from milk products fits in.
Locals are very used to sugary foods and sweet drinks. Sometimes you will also find strange combination of chili sauce with anchovies. Let them know if you don`t like sweet or spicy when ordering your meal!
Always count your change and also follow the prices as locals tend to calculate the sum wrong. Though tip is expected. Sometimes restaurants add a service charge of 10%, but waiters will always be happy for a small change in their pocket. And always check which eatery do the locals choose, as that is a sign of good service, delicious food and the best price.
You probably already know that Sri Lanka is that same Ceylon, the country of tea plantations that kept the British Empire wealthy. And since colonial times tea plays very important role in country`s economy and local`s everyday-life. Oh, and people in Sri Lanka absolutely love their tea, though they love it sweet. If you do not have a sweet tooth, let them know in advance that you wish to have your tea, coffee or cocktail without the sugar.
Be careful with drinks in bars, do not take them from the strangers as the drinks can be drugged just to rob you afterwards. But basically, Sri Lanka is not that well-known for party life as they don`t really have drinking culture. There are some alcoholic drinks and local beer as well, but some places would serve it only on specific times of the day.
So you can drink tea, King coconuts (that are quite famous as well) and water instead, just remember that tap water is not safe to drink, so buy some bottled water! As in India, it is also safer to brush your teeth and wash your veggies with the bottled water.
16. Toilets in Sri Lanka
Even in touristy places it might be difficult to find proper toilets. Sometimes there wouldn`t be a lock, sometimes you may find only a hole in the ground. And generally you won`t find toilet paper as locals are used to clean themselves with water that will be there in the bucket. You will notice that male and female toilets are usually in totally different places even in one restaurant (if men have to go upstairs, women have to cross the building and go to the basement, or other way around). Of course, there would be toilets that are set for tourists, and you will also see such signs as “Foreigner toilets”, but they might be closed. And local`s public toilets can be quite nasty, even the holes can be full, the floor just flooded with the content of the sewer. So always make sure you go when you have that chance.
17. Shopping in Sri Lanka
As in India (read more about the tips for traveling in India), in Sri Lanka you will find something called MRP. These three letters you will see on the most products in the shops. MRP is Maximum Retail Price. Sellers legally cannot sell the product for higher price than MRP. People are even been encouraged to report if something like this happens. Of course, sometimes, especially in alcohol stores, locals still put the price up, but it differs in couple of cents. Though when in touristy parts they add couple of euros, you can tell them you know the law. And remember that vendors will put higher price for cold bottled water and they won`t care about MRP.
Always check your change. And not only for the right amount but also for notes as locals do not accept wrinkled notes, but they will definitely give you some. And, yeah, of course – the change can be given wrong quite often, even in the supermarkets.
But shopping in markets are generally fun. Except those few locals that just take you by the hand and drag you to their family store. This usually happens too rapidly, but it`s always best to check the prices all around before buying something, as prices tend to differ even in the nearby stalls. And bargain – you will be offered at least double the real price! But in Sri Lanka, you will be able to enjoy your market experience much better than in India as vendors are usually not that brave to run towards you and question endlessly. They become active when it comes to the bargaining process.
In Sri Lanka, you will find everything – from beaches to hill stations, delicious local cuisine, wildlife adventures and warm-hearted locals. We wish you a wonderful journey in this dream land, and we bet that you will be coming back!