The Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Sri Lanka

This post about my personal highlights and tips for traveling Sri Lanka.

After spending a few weeks traveling in Sri Lanka, I predict that Sri Lanka is going to blow up as the next hot travel destination in very near future. Along with Northern Spain, they are my favorite travel ‘discoveries’.

The food, the deserted beaches, and the pristine countryside of Sri Lanka left me utterly impressed by this tiny island off the coast of India. Not to mention the Sri Lankans themselves who gave me many memories of warm encounters (and one awkward one).

Highlights of Sri Lanka:

  • Sri Lanka Hill Country – Taking a local train through tea plantations, climbing Adam’s Peak, the town of Ella, Lipton’s Seat.
  • Being the only foreigner at Beruwala fish market
  • Visiting Sigiriya
  • Watching wild Asian elephants on a safari at Kaudulla National Park
Sigiriya from across a lake
Sigiriya from across a lake
View from top of Sigiriya rock
View from the top of Sigiriya rock
sri lankan tuk tuk driver and his son on their way to school

Already things in Sri Lanka are changing…
Ella was surprisingly (for me – coming from quiet Haputale) westernized with its Main Street lined with cafes and guesthouses. I have a feeling soon it will be indistinguishable from any other backpacker-overrun towns. While in Galle, the stilt fishermen have discovered that they can earn more money from tips than from fishing.

Come visit Sri Lanka soon before things change too much and keep in mind the following tips for visiting Sri Lanka.

Tips for traveling Sri Lanka

DON’T underestimate the distance between places in Sri Lanka

View of Sri Lanka's hill country
View of Sri Lanka’s hill country
Climbing Sigiriya rock - a hot and sweaty affair
Climbing Sigiriya rock – a hot and sweaty affair

When I first looked at Sri Lanka, I thought, “Man, this island is TINY. I should be able just zip around this place real quick.’ – oh boy. Big mistake.

For example, according to Google Map the trip from Dalhousie (Adam’s Peak) to Colombo airport should take roughly 2 hrs. In reality it took me close 5 hrs to cover the 135 km distance. And that was using a private taxi!

DO take the train through Sri Lanka’s hill country

Everybody loves a selfie
Everybody loves a selfie
tea picker in Sri Lanka's hill country
Tea picker in Sri Lanka’s hill country
Lipton's Seat in Haputale
Lipton’s Seat in Haputale

Sri Lanka’s hill country is no doubt my favorite region of the country. With miles of hiking trails and endless tea plantations covered hills, it’s one of the most scenic parts of the country and a must visit for trekkers and hikers.

Don’t be surprised if it takes you 2 hours to go 20 miles. The trains in Sri Lanka is a great way to see the hill country, but it’s also very, very slow. Bullet trains these are not. Thank goodness there are always people selling tea and snacks on these trains. And the view wasn’t bad either.

Don’t be afraid try to take 2nd and 3rd class trains- not only is it many times cheaper, it’s also a great way to meet locals who are always curious about you and if you’re into photography, opportunities are abound for some great photo ops.

Tip: if you aren’t able to make a reservation for trains leaving Fort Colombo, be ready to elbow your way in to secure a seat. It was rough.

DO know the average prices in Sri Lanka

Tambili - king coconut in Sri Lanka
Tambili – king coconut in Sri Lanka

Tuk tuks in Sri Lanka cost about 35-45 rupees per kilometer. Unless in Ella and other more touristy places when they’d charge you twice the normal price. In Colombo, there are metered tuk tuks that are often than not, the cheapest way to get around.

How much do things cost in Sri Lanka?

Tambili (King coconut): 40 rupees
Samosas (and other short eats or snacks): 35-45 rupees
Small short eats: 5-10 rupees
Rice and curry:110-150 (about twice in touristy restaurants)
Buses: on average buses cost 40 rupees per hour journey
A room in a guesthouse: 800-2000 rupees (always negotiable)

DO eat rice and curry. So cheap and delicious!

Milk rice and curry, a typical Sri Lankan meal
Milk rice and curry, a typical Sri Lankan meal

Egg hopper, one of Sri Lanka's breakfast dishes.
Egg hopper, one of Sri Lanka’s breakfast dishes.

Egg hopper with curries
Egg hopper with curries

When I read that Sri Lanka’s national dish is called ‘rice and curry’, I got super excited. They are 2 of my favorite things to eat! Needless to say I ate so much while I was in Sri Lanka. While others complained that it was getting monotonous, I had rice and curry 3 times a day. I loved, LOVED Sri Lankan food. It packs a lot of spices with just the right amount of heat.

Rice and curry is also the cheapest meal option in Sri Lanka: street eateries would have signs advertising buffets and for 110 – 250 rupees ($1-$2) you can eat as much rice and curry as you want. They usually serve different types of curry. Most are vegetarians and you have to pay a little more for the meat options.

DO get a local SIM card

3G coverage is everywhere. I use Mobitel. For 700 rupees ($6) you get 4.5 GB of data. It’s mind boggling that I’m standing in the middle of a jungle in Sri Lanka and tweeting while there are spots in San Francisco where I’ll get no signal (are you listening TMobile?)

Most guesthouses in Sri Lanka have wifi but I found that it was more reliable and faster to tether off my phone than relying on these free wifis.

DO try the ‘short eats’ and know that places selling them are called ‘hotels’

Not the kind of hotel you think of
Not the kind of hotel you think of

Short eats are fried snacks sold on trains and little street shops in Sri Lanka. They are almost always fried and range from chinese egg rolls type of thing, to prawn cakes, and corn fritters.

Eateries selling snacks and pastries in Sri Lanka are often confusingly called ‘hotels’. In small villages when looking for a place to stay it’s better to use the term ‘guesthouse’. Otherwise, like happened to me twice, you’d be directed to the nearest snack shop.

DON’T ride the elephants

A lone elephant near a watering hole in Kaudulla National Park
A lone elephant near a watering hole in Kaudulla National Park
Kaudulla National Park during the gathering

Elephant riding isn’t the most humane thing to do. Then again, to me entertainment and wild animals are never a good combination.

Want to see elephants in Sri Lanka? Why not see them in the wild? Seeing wild elephants in Kaudulla National Park was one of the highlights of my trip to Sri Lanka. You can see up to 200 elephants around watering holes, a whole family tree of them. It felt like SUCH a privilege to see such a sight.

If you haven’t been to Sri Lanka, I hope you’ll have a chance soon. I don’t think you’ll regret it. It’s one of my favorite countries in Asia. Have you been to Sri Lanka?

Valuable Resources

  • Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders, for those who love anything weird and offbeat.
  • Resource Toolbox: How I find cheap flights, accommodations, and other travel hacks.

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6 Replies to “The Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling Sri Lanka”

  1. Hi! I’m planning a trip to Sri Lanka with my sister in the third week of August, and I could really use some advice.
    We’d be landing in Colombo, and will have only 3-4 days (incl. the travel dates). I’d like to include seeing some of the local culture, some outdoor activity & shop for a few typically Sri Lankan souvenirs. What would you recommend we see/do in those 3 days, preferably without wasting too much precious time travelling from one place to the next?
    Would it be safe for 2 young women to travel around without being harassed? Do the local people bother/harass white people? I really don’t mean to sound racist, but my sister is so fair that within India she often gets mistaken for a white person, which becomes problematic (like in some temples which don’t allow foreigners, or tourist spots that have a higher entry fee for foreigners).
    We both speak fluent Hindi and I can speak a little Tamil – would either be necessary there, or is language not a problem?
    I’d be grateful if you could help us be better prepared for what will be our first trip out of the country. (We’re excited & nervous!)

    1. Hi Soheni, I thought that traveling in Sri Lanka was pretty slow so you probably won’t be able to do much unless you rush about. If you like hiking/the outdoors, I’d head straight to the hill country (like Ella) where you can do a couple of days worth of hikes easily once you get there. Maybe a short train detour to Kandy? You only need a few hours to see the Temple of Tooth before jumping back onto the train. Can’t help you with souvenirs, sorry 🙁 – I didn’t do any shopping there.

      In terms of safety, I thought Sri Lanka was one of the more hassle-free countries I’ve traveled in Asia. Then again, I’m of Chinese ethnicity so that could play a part. Having said that, a few western women I traveled with didn’t have any issues traveling in Sri Lanka either. It’s really hard for me to say because just because nothing bad happened to either of us, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to somebody else, you know? So I can just tell you about my experience.

      Have a safe travel. Hope you find Sri Lanka as beautiful as enjoyable as I did. Let me know if you have other questions I can help you with.

  2. Hi Jill,

    These day I and my family making one travel trip to Sri Lanka . that is why think make little research about it before final our trip. this blog post and your comment really help me to understand why I have to visit Sri Lanka

  3. I’ve been reading your posts on Sri Lanka and Nicaragua. I’ll be traveling this summer with my family and cannot decide between the two countries. Any advice? We’ve been to Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) and to Costa Rica. We’re budget travellers—-do it ourselves. We like to combine culture, history, beaches, outdoor activities. We’re happy wandering through villages and seeing what we see.

    I’d love any feedback you can give me.

    1. Hi Erica,

      I enjoyed traveling in both countries, but I honestly preferred Sri Lanka more. The food was better, the beaches were some of the best I’ve seen (and so many empty stretches!), the scenery is more varied and pristine, and I found as a woman traveling by myself, I got hassled less in Sri Lanka. The people were so friendly.

      Transportation in Sri Lanka tends to be slower so if you have limited time, make sure to take that into account. Did I mention the food? If you like heavily spiced food, Sri Lankan food wins hands down. Nica bean and rice got old real quickly 🙂

      Also in terms of hiking and trekking, I enjoyed those activities in Sri Lanka so much more. The hill country of Sri Lanka is INCREDIBLE! Little Adam’s Peak, Lipton’s Seat, and Ella Rock are some of the highlights.

      In terms of accommodations, Nicaragua has better hostel networks so it was easier to meet other travelers if you’re traveling alone (not applicable in your case). In Sri Lanka I stayed mostly in guesthouses, extra rooms in someone’s house that are rent out for visitors, which I prefer actually. I’d eat the food made by the hosts and get to see their way of life. I loved it.

      Like I said, I enjoyged my time in Nica as well. Nicaragua has pretty colonial towns, volcanoes, and since I speak Spanish – I interacted more with the locals and came away with more human interest stories which I didn’t get in Sri Lanka (mostly because of language barrier) – if that makes sense. I have to add that in Nicaragua I found myself a lot more ‘on guard’ whenever I was out and about just because I heard warnings of pickpockets and robberies more there.

      Another thing that might be useful in making a decision is checking the local season. Nicaragua is super dry and dusty and brown during the dry season, and I heard Sri Lanka is awful in rainy season – mud slides, leeches, eek!

      So that’s my 2 cents. Hopefully that helps. Let me know if I can help answer any other questions you might have.

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