Sri Lanka Travel Guide

To complete my series of blog posts on Sri Lanka, I wanted to do an ultimate travel guide including everything you need to know when planning a trip to this beautiful island.

This travel guide will include:
1. What route to take
2. When to go
3. How long to go for
4. How much it costs
5. How to get around
6. Tips to know before you go

1). What Route to Take?

One of the main things that plagued me before going to Sri Lanka was where to go. With so much to see and do, it felt like I’d need a few months just to get around everywhere. So my first bit of advice is to make a decision – North or South. Unless you’ve got loads of time on your hands, in which case go crazy, it’s hard to cover all the hot spots in Sri Lanka, but you can get close. After a lot of research, we decided on this 4-week itinerary which looked a little something like this:

1. Colombo – 3 nights
2. Kandy – 2 nights
3. Adam’s Peak – 2 nights
4. Nuwara Eliya – 1 night
5. Ella – 3 nights
6. Arugam Bay – 4 nights
7. Hiriketiya – 2 nights
8. Mirissa – 2 nights
9. Weligama – 2 nights
10. Unawatuna – 3 nights
11. Hikkaduwa – 2 nights

The last five places we went to were all beaches along the south coast. As serious beach lovers this was the route that appealed most to us. It meant that we could get the best of both worlds, starting our trip through in-land (central) Sri Lanka, in the country’s tea hills, before rewarding ourselves with endless beach days. Saying that, I also heard great things about the north, mainly Jaffna, Sigiriya and Trincomalee. Although four weeks would probably be enough time to cover the north and the south, I was so keen to savour each location that I chose to spend longer in each place, rather than rush around trying to see everything. Quality over quantity in my opinion!

If you only have 2-3 weeks I would definitely suggest picking either a north/centre or south/centre route, and sticking to that. The country is simply too big and the transport too slow to cover much more in such a short period of time. The plus side is, that whatever you choose to go for, you can’t really go wrong. There’s so many amazing places to explore in Sri Lanka, that I’m positive you’ll have a good time wherever you are.

2). When to go?

Again, when researching this I found this a difficult query to answer. And for good reason – different regions in Sri Lanka will vary in high season (makes sense really).

But this does make it quite hard to plan when to go on your trip, especially if you’re exploring more than one region. I have split them as follows:

High Season (December – March):
• Central Sri Lanka, plus the west and south-coast beaches are at their busiest and driest, which means prices peak
• The Maha monsoon season (Oct – Jan) keeps to the East and the North

Shoulder Season (April – November):
• April and September offer the best odds for good weather countrywide (I went during September and apart from a few bouts of heavy rain on some days the weather was fine all round)
• A great time for backpackers! As you can pretty much wander round without scheduling any bookings, as well as nabbing cheaper prices

Low Season (May – August):
• The Yala monsoon season brings rain to the south and west coasts, and the hill country, so tourism drops dramatically in these parts
• However, weather in the North and East is best this time of year
• Prices nationwide are at their lowest

As you can see, depending on where you go will most likely decide when you go! So decide on your route first and then think about when you’d like to travel. If you’re travelling to multiple areas of the country, I’d recommend the shoulder season, this is your best bet for good weather conditions all round.

3). How long to go for

This is sort of covered in section 1, ‘What route to take’, but I wanted to create a guide that gave people quick answers to simple questions, so I thought it deserved its own section. I’ll keep it short and sweet as I don’t want to repeat myself.

• If you’re a backpacker, or someone who’s got the time, take the full 30 day visa to discover and travel Sri Lanka properly. It’s more than worth it, and if you’ve seen my previous blog post, you’ll know it doesn’t break the bank.
• If you’re just looking for a new, exotic place to try on your annual holiday, then I suggest going for 2 weeks (10 days at least!). A week to me seems almost like a waste. Obviously it depends where you’re flying from, but if you’re making the trek from the UK, I’d save Sri Lanka for a period in your life where you’ve got more time to give.

4). How much it costs

This is completely up to you and your standards! Sri Lanka is probably one of the cheapest places I’ve ever travelled to. Some may choose to take advantage of this and enjoy the finer things in life which you otherwise couldn’t afford. For me, I took advantage of the low price tags and did most stuff on the cheap. Knowing I had 6 months of travel still go, I wanted to be careful with my spending and save my money for when I might need it later down the line, in more expensive locations. To see a complete breakdown of my costs, check out my previous blog post: Sri Lanka Travel Budget. This will give you an idea of how much to budget for accommodation, food, activities etc. (Tip – I always assume things will be slightly pricier than they are, this helps me prepare for any situation and means I always have ‘spare’ money if I need it).

5). How to get around

For a fairly small country, Sri Lanka can be a hard one to navigate. With small, winding roads, varying landscapes and unreliable maps, it’s difficult to decide the best way to get around this undiscovered country. Luckily I’m here to tell you your options, and let you know the things I learned during my experience. Listed below are the transport options you have on offer, along with their pros and cons, and what I would recommend.

• Public transport – this includes trains and buses. These are good for medium length journeys (ones that take around an hour or so). Both tend to be quite crowded, very hot and a bit unreliable in terms of arriving on time. The pros however, are that they’re very cheap and a good way to experience the local lifestyle. Some journeys can also be quite comfortable and very scenic! For example, there is the famous Kandy to Ella train journey, that takes you through Sri Lanka’s beautiful tea hills. I experienced most of this ride sitting by the open door, with no seat. And although my bum was numb by the end of it, I loved watching the landscape race by and hearing the locals whooping whenever we went through a tunnel.

• Taxi’s – Taxi’s are only really available in big cities like Colombo and Kandy. The same goes for Uber and PickMe. These are great because they don’t include cash and they ensure a set price. I didn’t have much experience with your bog-standard taxi so I can’t say too much about how these were, but tuks tuks are pretty much the equivalent.
• Tuk Tuk’s – Tuks Tuks are everywhere in Sri Lanka! And are used by tourists and locals alike. Being very small, easy to use vehicles they are great at winding their way through traffic, up hills and down small dirt tracks. Great for long or short journeys (although the engine noise can be quite loud). Just make sure you always have small cash on you, as some drivers claim not to have change. Drivers themselves can be quite pushy and very cheeky, especially with tourists. Be firm with them and be aware that they will almost always try to rip you off, so don’t be afraid to haggle!!

• Own mode of transport – this is something I desperately wish I had sorted for myself. Many other backpackers I met along the way had rented bikes or even hired their own tuk tuk or driver. This gives you so much freedom and means you can discover more in each place you go to, without worrying about how to get there, and how much it will cost. I know I definitely wish I’d had my own bike or ride in places like Ella and Arugam Bay. Both had great attractions and activities that were just a little too far for walking distance, and when you only have a few days in each place, you want to make the most of it! This was a silly thing not to have sorted, it only takes a quick trip down to the post office, where you can get an international driving permit (IDP) over the counter for £5.50. Do it!

6). Tips to know before you go

• Plugs: There are two associated plug types in Sri Lanka: type D and G. I found information regarding adapters for Sri Lanka hard to come by, so I risked it and went with none. This turned out fine as all that places we stayed at were compatible with our UK plugs. If you’re unsure, there are adapters you can buy at the airport.
• Religion: To understand and respect Sri Lankan culture I asked one of our airbnb hosts about the main religions in Sri Lanka. She confirmed that Sri Lanka is a very religious country, with around 70% of the population identifying as Buddhists and the rest being a small mix of Hindu, Muslim and Roman Catholic.

• Alcohol: As a predominantly Buddhist country, alcohol is not something regularly seen or sold in Sri Lanka. There are strict guidelines that establishments must follow in order to be allowed to sell alcohol. This doesn’t mean its non-existent, just don’t expect some of the parties you might see in Thailand. Saying that, more touristy areas like Arugam Bay and Ella had many bars and beach parties where alcohol wasn’t hard to come by.
• Dress: As a female I felt quite safe to wear what I liked in Sri Lanka, but within reason. Most, if not all Sri Lankan women, cover their legs and shoulders. Please do not walk around in a swimsuit or bikini as this is seen as highly disrespectful. Also note, that when visiting religious sites both men and women must wear bottoms that come up to the knee and your shoulders need to be covered.

• Culture: Other cultural things to note are simple words or phrases. Thank you is ‘estuti’ (pronounced es-stu-ty). Another thing I noticed whilst in Sri Lanka, which may be of use to you, is the head wobble Sri Lankans do. It’s neither a shake or a nod, but something in-between. I found this quite confusing at first, especially when they used it to respond to a question, but after being there for a month I took it to mean ‘yes’ or a simple acknowledgment of what you’re saying.
• Food: One of the best things about Sri Lanka is their food! Locally sourced and full of flavour, it would be a crime not to try the local cuisine. Some of my favourites included kottu (street food), lentil curry, roti, coconut rice and string hoppers. The curries in Sri Lanka are easy to come by and are the best I’ve had.

Okay, that’s everything from me! Quite a long blog post compared to my usual, but turns out you can learn a lot about a country after travelling it for 4 weeks. I also wanted to make sure this travel guide was really useful and thorough, having everything you need in one place.

Happy travels,

Bri xx