Tips before you trip in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, a beloved neighbour of my nation, is one of the best locations for inexpensive and the best holiday. You can go trekking on the mountains or take a walk on the beach and harness your Chi listening to Buddhist chants in Sri Lanka. Its delicious food, culture, and ancient architecture to the contemporary architecture of Geoffrey Bawa – Sri Lanka surprise you many times. Here are 15 things you must know before travelling to this island nation.

Heads Up – Read our post “What to wear in Sri Lanka” to know more about why and how you must dress up modestly when you travel in Ceylon.

  1. Sri Lankan Currency.
  2. Using Debit and Credit Card.
  3. Cost of living for Tourists.
  4. Cell Phone Network and Wifi.
  5. Type of Power sockets.
  6. Public Hygiene and Toilets
  7. Roads and Transport – Trains, airports and Tuktuks
  8. APPS to be downloaded
  9. Food and Beverages
  10. Alcohol and Smoking
  11. Safety & Scams
  12. People and Language
  13. What to see in Sri Lanka and when
  14. Tipping Culture.
  15. Bonus tip –Srilankans aren’t Tamilians.

Currency.

Official Srilankan currency is Lankan Rupees (LKR). We thought we could use Indian rupees for currency exchange as I did in Bhutan, but INDIAN RUPEES ARE NOT ACCEPTED. Carry USD or EUROS for currency exchange, but USD is preferred. Exchanging money at the airport may be slightly expensive, but recommended to avoid getting fake currencies in the town. There are a few money exchange places in Colombo, but not in smaller towns. ATMs are not found in plenty, especially in smaller towns like Mirissa.

Card Payment in Sri Lanka

Amex cards didn’t work anywhere, while international banks’ Visa and Master cards worked at a few restaurants. Our Indian National bank Master card could draw money from ATMs but was declined when swiped at restaurants. DO NOT DEPEND ON CARD PAYMENTS FOR MONUMENTS ENTRY FEES. We had to borrow money from our Car driver at Dambulla and return later!

Cost of living for Tourists in Sri Lanka

For accommodation, Sri Lanka has more homestays and guesthouses than any other country we have travelled to. They are cheaper, and you get to stay with locals.
Left picture – 15OO INR/Night homestay at Ella.
Right side picture – 25000inr/night luxury resort Heritance Kandalama

Sri Lanka is one of the cheapest countries we have travelled to. The cost of living for us turned out to be cheaper than Thailand and costlier than Iran. We spent 3400 INR(50 USD)/ Person/day on average. That includes three meals a day at budget cafes and restaurants + accommodation at guest houses+ Transportation by Tuk Tuk, bus/taxi; Excluding international airfare, shopping & one night stay at Luxury hotel Heritance Kandalama. 

Cell Phone Network and Wifi in Sri Lanka.

We bought two sim cards of Mobitel with a tourists package that included international calls and a 4G internet pack. The network coverage was inadequate near Ella & other remote areas. We recommend you look for a better service provider.

Public Wifi is almost non-existent even at airports. The guesthouse wifi was good enough for browsing and social media apps.

Type of Power sockets in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka uses Type D & G. For a change, Indians don’t need a travel adapter, and Westerners need to carry an adapter.

Is Sri Lanka clean

Bentota from above – Kudos to cleaning Sri Lanka

You may find similarities between India & Sri Lanka culturally, historically and ethnically. Sri Lanka has a lot to teach us (Indians) regarding public hygiene. It is cleaner than India. It is common in towns like Bentota to see local men and women dusting the street with coconut tree leaves broomsticks. Lankans have a greater civic sense for keeping their country clean. We saw nowhere thrash filled streets. Even the most touristy beaches of Bentota was thrash-free.
Toilets in mid-range guesthouses/restaurants had EWC with jet spray and toilet paper. The public toilets were not so clean squat toilets with jet spray. So stick to using washrooms in private cafes/restaurants.

Roads and Transport in Sri Lanka

Prettiest train stations in the world are in Sri Lanka, I think – Bentota

Sri Lanka follows left lane driving like India and other countries colonised by the British. The driving style is similar to India and better than Iran because there are few motorbikes. Colombo traffic is one of the worst traffic I have ever been stuck in my life. If you know how to cross streets in cities like Bangkok, Cairo and Indian cities, you can cruise yourself like a pro. But travellers who aren’t used to it may find it rocket science. 

Self-driving is one of the cheap and best ways to enjoy Sri Lanka if you are experienced in driving in chaotic conditions. Our initial plan was to hire the car from Malkey Rent-A-Car and go on a self-driven road trip until we found out that our Indian Driving licence was invalid in Sri Lanka, and I didn’t have time to get my International DL before the trip. 

The road infrastructure was decent, with usually two-lane roads in the countryside and four-lane driveways connecting major cities.

Airport: Though there are two international airports in Sri Lanka, Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) is the most active. Once in this compact country, you may not need to take flights for internal journeys.

Railways: One of the most beautiful railway journeys must be Sri Lankan train journeys. Our initial plan of go to Dambulla from Ella, taking that beautiful train journey via Kandy. Due to Sahana’s great adventure with sea urchins at Mirissa. But we could see how beautiful Ella, Nuwara Eliya and Bentota railway stations were. The journey takes you through the middle of tea estates at times and by the oceanside sometimes. A usual delay of +15 minutes is expected, but Sri Lankans love their trains for the low price and efficiency. So getting around Sri Lanka by train is best for a backpacker and flashpacker on a budget.

Nine Arch bridge at Ella

Public Buses – This is another cheap way to travel between two Lankan towns if you are ready to hurt your bump and sweat like pigs in SLTB non-AC bus. We have travelled by similar buses in India for shorter distances. But these buses in Sri Lanka are incredibly tiring, but you can save a lot of money. There are private buses with Air conditioners. They will be more comfortable but pricey.

The bus that hurt our bum – Bandarwella to Nuwara Eliya

Tuk-Tuk – Tuk-tuks you find here are different from Thailand’s and similar to India’s. They are the soul connectors of these pearl islands. Whether getting to Heritance Kandalamaa from Dambulla or reaching the secret beach at Mirissa, Tuk-tuks are your best option. 

Prettiest photobomber at Galle – Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks come in various colours.

Cycling – There was hardly any separate cycling lane in Sri Lanka. Except for very few parts of the country, Sri Lanka is generally hot. So it isn’t ideal to go cycling. However, sleepy and green towns like Ella and Nuwara Eliya rents out cycles hourly.

Mobile APPS needed in Sri Lanka

There are no “Specific to Sri Lanka” apps other than the usual apps like Google maps, Booking.com  WhatsApp, telegram, and other social media apps. Sri Lanka’s favourite accommodation type is guesthouses run by small families. You can easily book them on booking.com. When we went, Uber was not that famous. Locals used an app called “Pick me” for booking cabs & Tuk-tuks. We never used it. Few useful links for booking and transportation

Train booking – Sri Lanka railway reservation. 
Bus route map – Routemaster

Sri Lankan food and Beverages

Appam and Coconut Chutney

Food:  Sri Lanka is a food paradise for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. As they grow many spices like cardamom and Cinnamon, their food contains a lot of flavours. Most of the time, Indian and Lankan food are assumed to be hot and spicy. We both use a lot of spice for tastes, not just to make it spicy. So Lankan food is bland/spicy/sweet/sour- Flavourful, mainly based on coconut oil and paste.

Curries are the soul of Lankan meals. Though Rice is the main staple, wheat rotis are served with veg or delicious fish/prawn curries. The island nation can’t go wrong with their seafood, you see.

A typical Lankan breakfast includes – Appam ( an inverted Dosa kind of a thing that you get in Kerala), steamed rice Shavige (string hoppers) with coconut-based chutneys. Plus fresh fruits depending on the season and egg toasts. 

If you are a vegetarian and not enthusiastic about local Lankan food, you can always rely on their fresh and juicy fruits. Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise that grows juicy Mangoes, sweet & sour pineapples and Passion fruits. Also, do not forget to try Strawberries in Nuwara Eliya. 

Sahana’s favourite veg dish was Coconut Sambol – coconut, red chilly and onions crushed together with sweet & salt. They usually add Maldive fish to it. So, Vegetarians must ask for the one without Maldive fish. 

My favourite dish was their egg dishes, especially Kothu Roti to Malabar Parathas. Trust me; these parathas taste better in streetside carts than in fancy cafes. Don’t be afraid to try Sri Lankan street food – in general, Lankans maintain excellent personal and public hygiene. So in a clean place, if you feel the food is hygienic, devour yourself in a street snack like Kothu Roti.

Beverages: 

Tea came to Sri Lanka in 1824 & now Sri Lanka is the fourth-largest producer of tea. Ceylon tea is world-famous for all the right reasons. Usually, Lankans prefer tea without milk and average sweet. So Ceylon black tea is like a national drink. But coffee lovers need not be disappointed, as Sri Lanka is making a comeback in coffee.

The refreshing Red coconut water at Bentota

Alcohol and Smoking in Sri Lanka

Smoking is prohibited in most public indoor and outdoor areas. However, open beach shacks, balconies in the guesthouses allow smoking.

Though Sri Lanka is most famous for its pristine turquoise beaches, drinking and partying aren’t common. Lion stout is their renowned beer brand, available in all beach shacks. Towns like Kandy are holy places. So be sure of the surroundings while drinking. Drinking street cafes of Galle is fine, but not in Kandy or Colombo.

Another common factor among India and Sri Lanka is – Toddy, AKA Palm wine, collected from palm trees. Especially Coconut. Though it is fascinating to try a natural alcoholic drink, you must know your capacity and body condition before drinking a barrel of it.

Safety & Scams in Sri Lanka

Solo travellers have mixed opinions on Sri Lanka. As a couple of travellers, we say Sri Lanka is not unsafe A lonely statue on Bentota beach.

I can’t generalise Sri -Lanka and put it under one category. – I would say Sri Lanka is not unsafe for sure. But avoid going out at night, don’t get drunk in public, stay where the crowd is. Go with a guide or trustworthy local when you go to an isolated place. I say this because of an incident at Mirissa –

At around 7 PM, we walked down Coconut hill at Mirissa after witnessing a magical sunset along with several other tourists. Once we hit the main road, tourists dispersed to their homestays, and a few of us walked towards the restaurants. Two men waiting in a jeep began to follow us, calling out names in a language that we didn’t understand. We were dressed modestly with no tacky jewels to attract thieves. Still, they followed us as we were the only ones going in that particular direction. To escape them, we walked for around 50M, went inside a grocery shop and behaved as if we were buying something. They, too, waited outside for us to finish shopping. The shopkeeper observed it and signed us to stay. So we acted asking rates of Potato and Onions. Bought some waterbottle and chocolates. Later, the shopkeeper carried those few items we purchased and said, “I come with you.”

We weren’t alone at Mirissa Coconut hill.

When those two men saw a local man walking with us, they got in their jeep and left. We couldn’t be thankful enough for that man who saved us from whatever was about to happen. Our guesthouse owner came outside, seeing us accompanied by a stranger and understood the situation. He said, “Sorry it happened to you. There are bag snatchers and thieves in Mirissa waiting for isolated tourists. So you wait in the room for a while and then go out after a while so that those two men aren’t around.”

This could be a situation even in a city like Paris or New York. So I won’t label it as unsafe. Take precautions that you would take in any other country. Avoid going to isolated places aft dark. Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009, and hence it is safer than before now

Tourist Scams in Sri Lanka

The Precious Gem shops pop up throughout – Do your research extensively before losing your fortune on fake stones.

Fake Precious gemstone is the biggest scam. Buy it only from government-approved authorised sellers and do your research about the place before buying. The stilt fisherman photo at Koggala is the second biggest tourist scam in Sri Lanka. A cousin of mine ended up there unknowingly and was forced to pay them 500LKR for them to pose. The pictures may look amazing, but they are not real fishermen, just posers. Hardly any Lankan fishermen use this method of fishing now.

Unworthy tea estate tour near Nuwara Eliya, poor quality & overpriced spice gardens in Ella, overpriced Tuk-Tuks, pickpocketers in crowded cities are something you must be aware of.

The usual scenes in Sri Lanka – Tourists haggling with Tuk Tuk drivers. – A morning at Ella town

Sri Lankan people and language

Ayurveda is a Sri Lankan thing too!

Their Official language is Sinhala. We could understand a few words resembling Sanskrit and our state language Kannada when Sri Lankan air hostesses made announcements.

  • “Karunakara” – Kindly
  • “Naama”-Name
  • “Samaipa” – Nearby

The signboards are in English, Sinhala and also Mandarian at many places. We could manage in English with guest house owners, bus agents & tuk-tuk drivers. 

PEOPLE: 

Dedunu homestay owner convincing Sahana to have his Herbal homemade juice for headache

We found it uncommon to smile at strangers and wish good morning/hi/hello. However, when you approach them for any touristy help, they smile and help. Tuk-tuk drivers to the guesthouse owner and bus conductors were polite and kind to answer our simplest doubts.

When Sahana was struggling with her foot pain caused by sea urchins, Mirissa Morning star guest house owner called up his family doctor and was ready to take us there. Chaminda from Bentota Dedunu homestay was the sweetest host we have ever met. The lady who cooked us delicious home meals at Ella wasn’t happy about her cooking because we didn’t eat as much as she expected us to.

Lastly, the cafe owner at Secret beach is the one who saved Sahana’s life while she was about to get swept away by the waves.

Sri Lankans dress up modestly and are very religious. So you see boards in homestays that says,” Please wear modest clothes inside our house premises.” Any tattoo or T-shirts of Buddha’s face or image on it must be hidden or not worn. It is considered very disrespectful, and for sure you will get into trouble with locals.

The Red mosque at Colombo

Asking about your religion is as common as asking your name there. They do not hesitate at all – A taxi driver from Dambulla asked us directly –” Are you Muslim or Hindu.” So there exists a kind of racism in Sri Lanka. We were often judged based on our skin tones many times – A guest house at Galle had a signboard saying,” Lodging for white people only”. So you might want to check these kinds of things before booking rooms, especially in Galle!

What to see in Sri Lanka and when

Sri Lanka is 121st smallest nation in the world. But don’t let its size fool you – It has got a lot to offer for tourists. 

Beaches to chill in Mirissa, Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa Buddhist temples for spirituality in Kandy and DambullaRamayana’s SeeatavanaAncient Dutch colony at Galle, Hill station like Nuwara Eliya and most beautiful Ella, Indiana Jones movie locations near Kandy, Pidurangala hiking – A country full of pristine beaches, beautiful train journeys, abundant marine life, serene hills.

How many days to stay in Sri Lanka – The typical answer is “As long as you want” As a short time traveller born and brought up in a tropical climate, eight days in Sri Lanka was a great time for us. So we are content with it. But, of course, there is more to Sri Lanka than what we saw. For Indian travellers, we recommend you to keep short trips to Sri Lanka for 7 to 10 days. In contrast, other citizens may find it fascinating to spend 15 days in Sri Lanka.

The rolling hills and tea estates of Nuwara Eliya

When to See –Like any other tropical country, October to March is the best time for beaches when the temperatures are mild. April to June is the hottest month. We travelled in hot-hot April to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. So we stayed indoors during noons or were travelling by bus.  You won’t regret spending on AC rooms in summer.

Tipping Culture in Sri Lanka

Tipping isn’t expected anywhere. But Tuk-tuk drivers tend to keep the lost money after you pay them. So if you pay them 100 LK for the bill of 96LKR, They assume that you don’t want back your 4LKR.

Bonus tip –Srilankans aren’t Tamilians; they are Sinhalas.

Selfie in the air while Paramotoring with my Sri Lankan Pilot at Bentota

Selfie in the air while Paramotoring with my Sri Lankan Pilot at Bentota

Less than 10% of the Sri Lankan population are Tamilians. So do not assume all Sri Lankans can speak Tamil. We asked our Mirissa guest house owner if he speaks Tamil. He was offended and said,” I am Sri Lankan; how and why will I speak Tamil”.

Sri Lanka was suffering from civil wars from 1983-2009. The conflict was between Sinhala Buddhist dominated government and Tamil rebels who wanted a separate state. The issues have been resolved, but scars remain in the hearts of either side. The problem is as complicated as Israel and Palestine. Sri Lankans state that the Indian government encouraged the Tamil Nadu government to train LTTE, and India denies that. (There are more to this political mess). 

The names sound Indian – at Kandy.

We (Indians) claim that Adam’s bridge is Ramma Sethu, built by Hindu Lord Raama. On the other hand, Lankans believe that it was created by king Raavana(the rival of Raama). Indians and Lankans both love cricket, and we are each other’s strong contenders.

So it may not be the entire Sri Lankan population hating India & Indians. But definitely, they don’t like getting associated/compared with Indians. Any sentence that compares Sri Lanka with India may ignite a heated and unhealthy conversation with a Sri Lankan. We are two different nations with few similarities. So it is best to respect their tradition, learn from their culture, and enjoy their hospitality without hurting their sentiments as tourists.

Which of these tips was useful? Let us know in the comment section below. 

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