What to Wear in Sri Lanka: Packing Checklists and clothing

If you are thinking of packing only shorts and tube tops for your Sri Lanka trip or only full pants and tunics because it is a Buddhist country, you must go through this post. Sri Lanka is vivid, and you must pack your bags with various clothes too. Here is your complete guide to what to wear in Sri Lanka.

What does local Sri Lankans wear?

Alert SriLankan cabin crew members avert a major incident onboard UL 166

Image from Sri Lankan Airlines -Kandyan saree.

As soon as you board Sri Lankan airlines, you will notice air hostess outfits. Like Air India, Sri Lankan hostesses wear their traditional sarees on board. Their saree is called “Kanydan” or “Osariya” saree, and it is draped differently from what you see in India. A significant difference in the pleats and folds. Though it looks like the pleats around the waist is a different piece of cloth, it is the part of the saree. 

Doing our favourite thing – Wearing South Indian traditional attire at Kandalama Heritance celebrating our first wedding anniversary. Ashrith in silk Panche+ Shalya and I in peacock motif Silk saree

Though Kandyan saree is their traditional outfit, not every woman you see on the streets wearing this. Except for a group of school teachers we saw at Galle and devotees at Kandy temple; usually, ladies wore below-knee skirts with short-sleeved shirts. Wearing makeup is not common among locals.

An evening at Kandy

Men wear shorts and sleeved T-Shirts mostly at their shops and homestays – The incredible heat has no room for Denim pants. Otherwise, Linen or Cotton pants are most prefered by local men. It is common to see men bare-chested at the beachside wearing only Sarongs (similar to South India’s Panche) in different colours. 

Shockingly, even in that scorching heat, the younger crowd wore denim at Bentota and even got into the water in their Denim Capris and pants.

Don’t forget to observe the signboards “Beauty Parlor”. The Salons usually have their advertisement with traditional Sri Lankan Bride and groom in their wedding dress. Most hoardings had a bride in a white Kandyan saree wearing many jewels. The groom wore a red crown with a highly ornated maroon shirt with broad shoulders and puffed sleeves. The bottom wear was a combination of white Sarong and white pants.

As a tourist, what is expected of you?

Stylish yet modestly dressed tourists at Galle

Sri Lankans dress up modestly, and most of them are very religious. We saw homestays boards that say, ” Please wear modest clothes inside our house premises.” A cafe in Galle had a board outside saying,” We request guests to be dressed appropriately while in the cafe.”

I won’t say I wore appropriate clothing here at Galle. Because most tourists and locals wear knee-length skirts or capris & I was in shorts!

 We also saw a board at Heritance Kandalama before the dining hall. “Guests are requested to enter Dining hall with smart casuals. Kindly do not enter the hall in swimwear.” These two sentences are enough to understand what locals expect you to wear. It doesn’t mean you can’t wear your bathing suit in pools or beaches. Bikinis/swim shorts are perfect (a must need) for Sri Lankan beaches, and you must restrict it to beaches only.

When you walk around on the premises and the streets, cover your body with non-transparent dresses that reach your knees. Shorts with T-Shirts, knee-length skirts, sleeveless dresses are all good in beach towns like Mirissa, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa. It is better to wear below knee dresses/ capris with at least short sleeve bottom wear at cities like Colombo and Nuwara Eliya.

Even fishers wear shirts once they are off the beach. So men walking on the streets of the beachside town will be odd. 

But Ashrith wore it appropriate – Casual shorts and T-Shirts work perfectly for almost all parts of Sri LankaWandering in the Dutch Colony. Somehow globally, men in shorts belong to modest clothing and women in shorts are not modest enough.

Since local women don’t wear much makeup, it is better to keep it minimal as a tourist. You must hide any Buddha tattoo on any part of your body if you have one. It is considered very disrespectful to wear Buddha’s T-Shirts also. When locals see a tourist wearing a Buddha print T-Shirt, they approach you and request to change it.

Strict dress codes for Buddhist temples

Inside Tooth Relic temple of Kandy– One of the holiest sites for Buddhists. You can see tourists covering their shoulders with a scarf and knees with sarongs.

All the temples monitor the dress code strictly, and you will be denied entry if you fail to meet their specified standards. . Both men and women are supposed to wear Long Pants/long skirts only. No shorts, No sleeveless shirts allowed. Ladies, if you are wearing a sleeveless top, you can cover it with a scarf. It is accepted, unlike in Thailand, until you manage to hold on to the veil on your shoulders.

In the Kandy tooth relic temple, if you go without the specified dress code, they give you a long piece of cloth, like wrap-around skirts (plain ones). You can tie it around your waist or cover your shoulders. While exiting the temple, you have to return it. But while you are going to the Dambulla cave temple, no wrap-around skirts will be given.

Indian ladies, Need not worry about Sarees since saree is another similarity between Sri Lankans and us.

Perfectly dressed for Dambulla temple.

Shoulder covered – Check
Knees covered – check
To be more respectful, I put on an overcoat that drops to my knees

What to wear while hiking on the trails that got Buddhist Shrines?

The Nine Arch Bridge at Ella – I wouldn’t say don’t wear shorts like I did at Ella. But it is better to wear something that covers your knees.

The tropical weather with high humidity makes you sweat like a pig. Especially when you go hiking, it is impossible to cover your body completely. But many hiking trails either has Buddhist shrines on the way, or the endpoint itself is a temple. For example, starting and endpoint of Adam’s peak trail is a temple. So in this kind of scenario, you can wear your sports Bra with skinny/loose capris. But carry a shirt along. Usually, the five striped flags begin to appear when you near the temple. Put on the shirt until you cross the area, and you can remove it later. 

Packing according to Seasons of Sri Lanka

After sunbathing in Mirissa beach – Short skirts/shorts are absolutely fine.

Before going to Sri Lanka, check the prevailing season because Sri Lanka has four Monsoon seasons with rainfall in different regions at different times. In general, except for hilly areas, Sri Lanka remains hot throughout the year. The strawberry farm caretaker at Nuwara Eliya said that the coldest temperature ever recorded in Sri Lanka was -4*C at Nuwara Eliya in 1914. Otherwise, it is generally 10*C there. But the beach towns temperature varies between 25*c to 32*c. When we went, it was 31*C in Mirisssa with 90% humidity in April. So though the temperature isn’t on the higher end, high humidity makes the heat harsh – So it is always sunny-side up in Sri Lanka.

To warm yourself up at Nuwara Eliya, carry a thin, lightweight jacket and keep the rest light cotton airy clothes suitable for summers.

Sri Lanka travel essentials

Keep your luggage as light as possible wherever you travel. We carried a 40L backpack for both of our clothes along with a day pack for eight days. Sri Lanka is cheap, especially in dresses and sandals. So westerners travelling in Sri Lanka for a longer time pack lightest and buy cheap stuff here. 

Paragliding at Bentota – You must wear something light and stretchable for paragliding.

General packing list –

  • Sunscreen – Your life saviour. I use 40SPF Ultra Aegis sunscreen.
  • Skin hydration.
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun hats
  • Quick-dry towels for the beach and hiking.
  • Any medicated energy drink that keeps you hydrated and saves you from scorching heat.
  • Steripen and reusable bottle if you don’t want to spend on water bottles
  • Footwear – I wore my flip-flops even to hiking in Ella. While Ashrith wore slip-on shoes. Flip-flops are most essential for Lankan beaches. So if you carry flip-flops or any slip-on sandals with thick and soft soles which are fit for hiking, you need not have an extra pair of walking shoes. Though you may tan, the luggage you carry must be as least as possible. Plus, Sri Lanka isn’t dusty. The streets are clean. So flip-flops or slip-on sandals are the best for Lankan beaches and streets. 

Whether it was hiking in Ella or wandering on the streets to watching the sunset on the sand – I wore the flip-flops all time.

  • If you are going on a bit of extensive hiking, bring Slip-on hiking shoes. Don’t bother to bring those heavyweight trekking shoes- they aren’t needed for trails of Lanka. You need to remove shoes while entering temples. So shoes with laces may get irritating.
  • Umbrellas or raincoats if travelling to hills in monsoon season.
  • Personal medicines – Paracetamols for headaches in particular.
  • Camera, phone and its chargers along with socket adapter for westerners.
  • Ear phones/ear pods and ear plus for train journey.
  • Day pack and a money belt.
  • Toiletries- shampoo, soaps, conditioners, toothbrush and paste.
  • Underwears and other innerwear.
  • Tops /Shirts that have “No Buddha’s face or Buddhist religious symbol printed on it.” Wearing anything related to Buddha (especially outfits and tattoos) is considered disrespectful

Tourists, Locals and pretty Tuk-tuks at Galle.

Women –

  • Airy cotton capris or pants. Avoid Denim.
  • Knee-length dresses
  • Leggings/ Yoga pants.
  • Shorts which aren’t too short.
  • Sarong or wrap on for the beach.
  • Bikinis/swimsuits.
  • Top wears of various sleeve lengths – noodle straps/tube tops and sleeveless for beaches. Sleeved ones for temples. T-Shirts for hiking and cycling.
  • Smart casual dresses for hotels
SEcret beach MIRISSA

Men –

  • At least one pair of pants with a sleeved shirt for visiting temples
  • Casual Shorts for cities
  • Cotton T-Shirts
  • Sweatshirts for cycling/hiking
  • Swimshorts for the beaches along with sleeveless shirts for beaches

Did we help you pack well for your Sri Lankan trip? Let us know in the comment section below. 

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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