Last Updated on February 2, 2020 by Natasha Amar
By Guest Contributor Luke Storey
Sri Lanka, the jewel of the Indian Ocean, is a beautiful country with a rich culture, breathtaking scenery and incredible wildlife. We recently spent a month travelling around the island of Sri Lanka and had such a blast. Along our travels we picked up some useful Sri Lanka travel tips that would have made our lives a bit easier had we known them before arriving.
There are a few things to know before going to Sri Lanka that will help you understand the country and its culture a little bit better. These things can also help you plan your trip as you learn about the logistics and infrastructure of Sri Lanka. We find it’s always handy to understand a few things before arriving in a new country and that’s why we put this post together. We hope that when you arrive in Sri Lanka this post will allow you to hit the ground running. These travel tips will help you plan the ultimate Sri Lanka itinerary.
Sri Lanka Travel Tips and Things to Know Before Going to Sri Lanka
Culture in Sri Lanka
The population of Sri Lanka is 21 million. Several different religions are practiced here but the vast majority, over 70%, are Buddhist. There are also a large number of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The main languages here are Sinhalese and Tamil although English is widely spoken as well.
Top Tip: Cover up your Buddha tattoo. There have been several instances of tourists being arrested for displaying their Buddha tattoos and one just recently. If you have a Buddha tattoo, ensure it is covered up to avoid any hassle. Don’t carry or wear clothing or accessories that have an image of the Buddha.
When eating or exchanging money or goods with the local people, it is considered polite to use your right hand. The left hand is considered to be dirty and reserved for cleaning. It’s common to eat with your hands, so if you’re not comfortable doing that, ask for cutlery and most restaurants will happy hand you a set.
When visiting Buddhist temples, be mindful of the fact that it’s disrespectful to turn your back or stand alongside an idol of the Buddha, not even for a photo. Do not ever touch the head of a child, person or a Buddhist monk- that is disrespectful in Buddhism.
Expect an extremely warm and friendly welcome from the Sri Lankan people. They are amazing. We found them to be so helpful and kind. When our scooter broke down on the side of the road someone stopped to help almost immediately and asked for nothing in return. Local police asked us all about our trip and wanted to make sure the local people were being friendly and welcoming. It really is a nation full of kind hearted people.
Dress Code for Tourists in Sri Lanka
In the tourist areas and beach towns the dress code is much more relaxed. Women are able to wear shorts and tank tops without drawing attention or causing offence. But nowhere is it acceptable for tourists- both men to be shirtless or women to be in bikini tops- and ride around town on motorbikes or in tuk tuks, not even in beach towns.
Swimwear is acceptable on the beach, but not really elsewhere. When in doubt, dress as the locals do. Note that nudity on public beaches and in public areas is illegal- so don’t sunbathe naked when in Sri Lanka. Once you head inland and away from the tourist areas it is expected for women to cover more of their shoulders and knees.
The same is also true for visiting temples where both men and women are expected to cover up. A sarong is a great accessory to pack as you can easily cover yourself with this light and breathable item of clothing. At the Dambulla Cave Temples, even men wearing shorts are asked to wrap a sarong around their legs to be respectful. So whether you’re a man or a woman visiting a temple, it’s best to wear something that covers your arms, shoulders and knees. Always remove your shoes and hats, bandanas, caps before entering a temple.
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Photography Etiquette and Rules in Sri Lanka
Regardless of where in the world you’re traveling, it’s best to seek permission before photographing people. Always ask before taking photos inside temples and refrain from taking photos of people praying unless you have their explicit permission.
When wanting to photograph people in markets, ask and you’ll find that most Sri Lankans are happy to pose for you- whether at fish markets or fruit stalls- they’ll even flash you their best smile if you’re being respectful.
Do not take photos of military personnel or government buildings.
Money and Local Currency in Sri Lanka
The currency here is the Sri Lankan rupee and is written as either Rs or LKR. At the time of writing this article, 1 USD is equal to 179LKR. It is very easy to access the local currency when you arrive. There are numerous currency exchanges in Colombo International Airport (CMB) arrivals, therefore you can change major currencies such as USD or Euros to receive the Sri Lankan rupee.
ATMs are also common across the country and there are several in Colombo airport. We never had any issue finding somewhere to withdraw our money. Most towns of moderate size should have at least one ATM available that can be used with international cards. The maximum withdrawal limit at these bank machines tends to be around 50,000LKR ($284.61 USD).
Trying to split large bills here can be a nuisance. During our visit there was a nationwide shortage of small bills and many places often refused to take our large bills. Unfortunately, the ATMs give you large bills which can be difficult to break down.
Top Tip: We found that our accommodation and larger convenience stores, such as Food City, that you’ll find all over the country, were our best bet at breaking our large bills.
Prices in some stores are fixed, however when organising tuk tuks and shopping in market stalls or shops in small towns, asking for a discount is common practice. Many people will often start with an inflated price and you will have to work to bring that price down to ensure you aren’t getting ripped off. If you are in any doubt as to what something should cost, ask the owner of your homestay for advice.
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Credit Cards in Sri Lanka
The use of credit cards is possible here, but mainly at big hotels, malls, restaurants and cafes in big cities. Note that when they are accepted there is usually a fee and this might be inconvenient depending on the fees your own bank charges you for every transaction. Local no-frills type restaurants, market and food stalls, and smaller convenience stores generally do not accept credit cards. Most businesses in Sri Lanka are cash only, as a result, try to ensure you are always carrying at least some cash. Larger hotels may allow payment in credit cards but the local guest houses we often stayed in were cash only.
Transportation & Getting Around in Sri Lanka
Getting around Sri Lanka takes much more time than you may expect. Although it is a relatively small country, with the existence of many bus and train routes, the transportation infrastructure is slow and not super extensive. This often means travelling short distances can take longer than you think, thanks also to high traffic during peak times.
Public transport is the cheapest way to travel around Sri Lanka. You can travel for hours on a bus or train for just a couple of dollars. The buses and trains do tend to be very busy and almost never have air conditioning. Having said that, they are a great way to travel on a budget and they were the main way we travelled across the country.
For those that don’t wish to brave the public transport system there are several more options. You can hire a tuk tuk or a private car, both with a driver, to take you around Sri Lanka. This is a more comfortable, and faster option than public transport but it tends to be much more expensive. Tuk tuks are a great alternative for short day trips and visiting local attractions as this will not be too expensive. If you’d rather have a car and driver for your trip, check at the arrivals lounge at the airport. There’s an association of drivers, approved by the government, and they offer standard rates for a car and driver, with some discounts for longer duration stays. At the time of writing, the cost of a car and driver is about USD50 a day- this can work out if you’re two or four travellers sharing costs.
Top Tip: A great app to download is PickMe. It is similar to Uber and can be used in the major cities to order cheap taxis and tuk tuks.
Accommodation in Sri Lanka
There is a huge range of accommodation choices here from beachfront Ayurveda retreats to luxurious safari lodges. At the budget end, private double rooms with a fan are available for an average of $10USD per night. For a budget room with air conditioning expect to pay double this. At the other end of the scale there are also some amazing luxury hotels including swimming pools, spas and 5-star service. There is something to suit every type of traveller on any budget in Sri Lanka.
This is one of the few countries where we found that it was actually cheaper to book online with Booking.com than it was to book directly with our accommodation. Several places we stayed even encouraged us to book online rather than book directly.
Food in Sri Lanka
The food here is amazing. Rice and curry is one of the main staples here and it is delicious. We found that the local hole-in-the-wall places did the best food and it was ridiculously cheap. Vegetarian food is also quite popular here and we ended up eating almost no meat as the vegetarian options were so good and very budget friendly. If you enjoy a good curry, you will love the food here.
Western food is also widely available and is actually quite good. However, the prices are much higher than for the local food.
Budget Travel in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is the cheapest country that we have ever visited. Accommodation, transport and food are all extremely cheap and we ended up spending about half of what we expected to. If you are willing to take public transport and stay in budget accommodation, then you can make your money go really far. We didn’t feel like we missed out on anything and we spent less than $500 each in one month here. Travelling Sri Lanka on a budget is easy as it is crazy cheap.
Internet and WiFi in Sri Lanka
Finding a reliable internet connection can be a difficult task in some parts of the country. The Wi-Fi can be terrible in small towns and villages- being slow and unreliable at the best of times. While this can make a nice change for many visitors, for those that work online it can be very challenging.
Grab a SIM card to get access to the internet on your mobile phone. Dialog is the main service provider in Sri Lanka and we often found our mobile internet to be faster and more reliable than the Wi-Fi. We paid 650LKR ($3.67 USD) for 9GB of data with Dialog. Avoid Mobitel as the coverage isn’t the best.
The plugs here are unique, with three round pins, and are not included on most global travel adaptors. Most of the places that we stayed provided adaptors with multiple outlets for American style plugs. Adaptors for Sri Lankan plugs are cheap and easy to find when you arrive. It is worth buying one as not all accommodations will provide an adaptor.
Sri Lanka is such an incredible country, with amazing festivals, delicious cuisine, vibrant culture, and spectacular nature, and we are sure you will fall in love with it just as easily as we did. We hope these Sri Lanka travel tips will help you to understand more about the country and make your trip that little bit easier.
Author Bio: Luke Storey is one of the two faces behind The Coastal Campaign, a couple of twenty something adventure travellers. The Coastal Campaign is all about exploring off the beaten path destinations and once they get there, ripping round on scooters, cliff jumping, hiking, finding amazing beaches and other epic locations.
Have you traveled to Sri Lanka? Would you add any tips to this list?