My Top 10 Sri Lanka Travel Tips (Especially if you’re British)
Written by Jaillan Yehia
When I need a break from whatever life decides to throw at me, I have a habit of packing a bag and heading to a different part of Southeast Asia. I’ve explored The Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and parts of Laos and Vietnam, and in late 2018 I chose to spend a whole month in Sri Lanka. I can tell you I did not regret it!
So if you’re planning a trip to this tropical island in the Indian Ocean, check out my Sri Lanka travel tips to get more out of your time exploring a truly unforgettable part of the world.
Oh and if you’re British like me, there are a couple of specific tips you’ll find especially useful.
General Sri Lanka Travel Tips: Things to know before going to Sri Lanka
How Tourism In Sri Lanka Has Changed
First a bit of backstory: my most recent trip to Sri Lanka wasn’t my first visit to the island previously known as Ceylon. I visited on a 2 week holiday just after the country’s devastating civil war ended. And my first tip is to tell you that a lot has changed with the Sri Lankan tourist industry since then – and now is a brilliant time to visit, because it really is the destination on everyone’s lips.
In 2009 I was one of the first tourists to visit what was then a recovering war torn country, and I found most of the key sights were deserted.
I opted for a straightforward package with a driver on my first visit, and was guided around all the highlights. There was no Sri Lanka travel blog back then to help me plan my trip so I stuck to the mainstream stuff.
It was clearly a stunning country but the mood was understandably subdued and I didn’t feel the need to rush back – until late 2018.
Sri Lanka has now been transformed into a seriously sought-after tourist destination; I heard so much positivity about what was going on in Sri Lanka from fellow travellers that I decided to spend a month exploring the west and central areas of the country, excited to see how it has changed and blossomed.
Get Ready To Embrace A Slower Pace
Sri Lanka is about the size of the island of Ireland, but with just one stretch of motorway (connecting Colombo to Galle) and very limited (though much-instagrammed) train routes, it can take a long time to get anywhere.
Add in the jaw dropping and varied terrain which includes navigating around majestic mountain landscapes and vast national parklands, then throw in millions of tuk-tuks acting like pace cars on every part of the road network, and even with a month to spare you can’t cover anything close to the whole island.
By slowing down I really fell in love with Sri Lanka and its people and I’d definitely recommend this fun, friendly and far-flung destination to any traveller.
Here I want to highlight some of the things to look out for beyond the beautiful beaches which have always made Sri Lanka a popular honeymoon paradise.
From spotting everything from leopards to wild elephant herds in the country’s staggering 22 national parks to marvelling at man-made wonders created by Sri Lanka’s most famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa, this is a varied and awe-inspiring country.
I also have to give mention the tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya and the Temple of The Tooth in Kandy which were absolute highlights of my first visit and which I didn’t get back to this time around.
But first the basics. Things I learned when travelling in Sri Lanka that made the logistics of my trip run smoothly and I wish I’d been sure of in advance.
From how to get a SIM card, and what the latest visa rules are, to how to avoid getting ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers, this is the stuff that forms the foundation for any stress-free trip.
Sri Lanka Flight Tips
My tip for getting to Sri Lanka is to fly with the national airline Sri Lankan. I used the airline for both of my trips to Sri Lanka; the first time I paid full price, but, full disclosure, the second I was offered a discounted media rate.
Flying Sri Lankan means you get direct flights from Heathrow (for us Brits) and I prefer to avoid stopovers completely when flying long haul. It also means flying overnight: flights depart LHR at 9.30pm arriving in Sri Lanka at lunchtime the next day. Doing it this way helps avoid the possibility of luggage going astray – always a bonus – plus the service and the in-flight entertainment on Sri Lankan really is top notch.
And most importantly the food is delicious. I was actually looking forward to my airplane meal of a tasty curry from the moment I booked. There’s not many airlines where I can say I’m excited about the food in economy!
Sri Lanka Taxi Tips
One of my top tips for Sri Lanka, especially if you’re a city dweller and used to the convenience of Uber in your everyday life, is to download the Pick Me app as soon as you arrive to help you get around (you won’t be able to download it while you’re still in the UK).
Pick Me is currently only available in the Western Province of Sri Lanka where it dominates the ride sharing and taxi hailing offering, but the service seems to be expanding rapidly across the island with tours as well as rides available. The best thing about Pick Me is that you can choose from nine classes of car, including budget tuk-tuks.
This means you can use the app to book a larger vehicle on trips to and from Bandaranaike Airport or anytime you’re transporting your luggage, while using the cheaper and more plentiful tuk-tuks when you’re off to see the sights.
Even though Pick Me is the Sri Lankan version of Uber I should point out that Uber is also available, but it definitely plays second fiddle to Pick Me here. There are also new players entering the market all the time, but Pick Me definitely seems to be the safest bet.
Despite most tuk-tuk drivers in Sri Lanka being friendly and helpful, you do always have to be careful about pricing and safety when using tuk-tuks here, just as in any other country.
Scams do exist, so make sure you see they use the meter when hailing a tuk-tuk, or agree a firm price before you begin the journey, and don’t allow drivers to take you anywhere other than your chosen destination.
In a month of tuk-tuk and taxi rides the worst experience I had was being slightly overcharged (once in Weligama, once in Colombo) but I couldn’t leave this point out when giving my top tips for travel in Sri Lanka.
Money in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan currency is the Rupee, abbreviated to Rs, and at the time of writing you get Rs 233 for £1 GBP.
When travelling in Sri Lanka it is definitely a good idea to travel with cash; it’s always accepted, perfect for paying for tuk-tuks and tourist services, and of course makes haggling (essential in many places) much easier.
The Sri Lankan currency is a closed currency which means it’s not available to buy outside the country, and in fact it’s illegal to take over Rs 5000 out of the country with you.
This means you have to bring cash in a stable international currency (eg. Dollars or Pounds) with you and exchange it once you arrive. It may feel a bit strange bringing a wedge of cash with you and handing it over to someone the minute you arrive in another country but this is what is done here.
On both my trips I brought Pounds, and exchanged them at the airport: there are lots of desks as soon as you exit security, and these days Colombo’s Bandaranaike Airport is far less hectic than it used to be, so you can do this safely and easily.
That being said there are of course plenty of places where you can pay with a credit card in Sri Lanka and I used my Revolut card for all the larger costs on my trip, such as hotel bills. Revolut is a card which cuts out all foreign transaction fees and gives perfect interbank exchange rates, rather than some made up rate your bank feels like charging that day that leaves you out of pocket so I use it on all my travels.
Sri Lanka Mobile Phone Tips
If you’re a UK mobile phone customer with the network Three you’re in luck as the company includes Sri Lanka in its list of Go Roam countries. If your usual mobile network is one of the other UK providers you can easily get yourself a PAYG Three SIM and use it while in Sri Lanka for data and some free services.
If you’re not with a network that gives you free data while in Sri Lanka, don’t worry, as buying a SIM in country won’t break the bank.
Simply head for any phone shop and pick up a local PAYG SIM card from the network Dialog who brilliant Sri Lankan bloggers NatnZin recommended I stick with. I found it very reliable.
Calls are cheap here so unless you plan on making a lot of local calls, you can get away with topping up with just a few rupees. The key thing is to ask for a dedicated data package to be added to your SIM. It costs a few pounds to get a hefty data allowance: prices at the time of my visit were 199 Rupees for 1GB, 649 Rupees for 4GB and 949 Rupees (about £4) for 7GB.
One thing to note is that in Sri Lanka the data allowance is separated into peak and off-peak times, so a bit like Economy 7 heating back in the UK, meaning there’s an incentive to use the service during the night when it’s not in such high demand.
Sri Lanka Visa Tips
Sri Lanka is really having a moment when it comes to popularity with travellers, and that’s been reflected in the huge jump in visitor numbers in the last few years, a large proportion of whom are from the UK.
So it’s perfect timing that the government has relaxed the Sri Lanka visa regulations for UK travellers recently, as well as for tourists from around 35 additional countries.
When I visited Sri Lanka last year I paid $35 in advance to get a one month visa but now UK citizens and those from the EU, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea are all eligible for a visa on arrival free of charge.
Of course you might fancy avoiding potential queues by getting a pre-arranged visa which is still possible – I can remember arriving in countries with visa on arrival systems and being stuck in a queue for hours.
Now the fun part: Tips on Travelling in Sri Lanka and why it’s so great!
My Top 10 Sri Lanka Travel Tips
1. Embrace Ayurveda In Sri Lanka
Travel offers us the chance to change our lives, even if it’s just temporary. But Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which uses a special system of natural medicine which helps you know and change your body and mind for the better. It’s called Ayurveda.
Basically, if you’re into yoga, meditation, healthy eating or anything like that you’re going to want to take the opportunity to explore the concept of Ayurveda while in Sri Lanka.
Think of it like this: if you’ve had mint tea after a heavy meal to help your digestion, eaten citrus fruits to fight a cold, or noticed your body tends to react to certain triggers and then avoided them, you’ve already tried Ayurvedic medicine.
Ayurveda takes the natural abilities found in food, drinks, herbs and spices and based on 5,000 years of experience, uses the right combination to make you feel your best.
There are more ayurveda doctors in Sri Lanka than there are traditional practitioners of Western medicine and as I focused my time in Sri Lanka on health and well-being, I stayed at both a dedicated Ayurveda resort, Barberyn Sands, as well as a remote rustic jungle retreat Mahagedara Wellness Retreat.
Even if you’re not intending to focus on this, can always get a consultation, or just book an Ayurvedic massage while in Sri Lanka.
2. Fall For The Local Fruit
The fruit in Sri Lanka has some of the most amazing flavours and textures you’ve ever experienced and much of it is unique to the island.
Something as small and seemingly trivial as a fruit plate at breakfast becomes one of life’s great pleasures when you’re in Sri Lanka. My personal favourite Sri Lankan fruit is the bright yellow Egg Fruit which has a bizarre waxy consistency reminiscent of play dough but tastes a lot better (I imagine, I mean I never ate my play dough).
I became addicted to the sour candy flavours of the Soursop Fruit – it makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
There’s also all sorts of fascinating fruits you’ve never heard of from wood apples and bread fruit to red bananas and you’ll see king coconuts, which are special sweet coconuts native to Sri Lanka, being served everywhere from roadside stands to 5 Star hotels.
3. Set Off On A Sri Lankan Safari
One of the best things about Sri Lanka as a destination is the varied nature of the island. Wildlife, mountains, heritage, culture, beaches, this place combines a lot of different types of holiday in one place.
But did you know you can also go on safari in Sri Lanka? It’s one of the best places in the world to see leopards, blue whales, sperm whales and Asian elephants, and there’s some amazing statistics about your likelihood of seeing these animals in the wild here. It’s also a fantastic bird watching destination with a staggering 400 species many of which are endemic to the teardrop-shaped island.
Sri Lanka is the best place on the planet to spot leopards, in Yala National Park there are around 40, and it’s also the top country to see both blue and sperm whales during one outing. Animal lovers will be in paradise.
One note about elephants: I did see an elephant in chains and giving rides once during my visit and I made my horror and disgust known to the person riding the elephant and told my hotel and driver that tourists do not support this kind of behaviour. Please, if you see this, do the same.
4. Ditch Your Preconceptions of Colombo
I doubt you’ll find anyone making the trip to Sri Lanka just to visit Colombo. Obviously this island’s best features are the verdant and unspoiled natural landscapes, abundant wildlife, paradise beaches and atmospheric temples. Not the congested capital city.
But – and it’s a big but – if you’re any kind of a city break fan you shouldn’t miss out on spending at least 1 day in Colombo, which has a pretty cool side to it these days, complete with boutique hotels, cafe culture, plentiful shopping, and great restaurants. It was one of the highlights of my trip, and I’m not just talking about the view from the rooftop pool.
5. Swerve over-touristed Sigiriya and Climb Pidurangala at Sunrise
I’ve written a whole post about this tip – but having done both the Sigiriya and Pidurangala climbs at different times I have to say I favour looking at the tourists’ favourite, Sigiriya Rock, from the far more serene vantage point of Pidurangala. You can check out my post about climbing Pidurangala at sunrise and decide for yourself which is right for you, and of course you may want to do both, time and budget permitting.
6. Open Your Eyes To Architecture
I bet architecture wasn’t the first thing to spring to mind when you thought of Sri Lanka. Well that makes two of us. I also wasn’t expecting to spend one of my days in Sri Lanka touring a vast country estate, house and garden that looks like something you might find at home in England.
But Sri Lanka’s most famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa, studied and lived in England before coming back to Sri Lanka to complete an ambitious building project. Lunuganga became his weekend home, and which you can now take a guided tour of, much like you would an English stately home.
Bawa’s went on to design Sri Lanka’s parliament building and other key national buildings as well as the Anantara Kalutara hotel, all of which showcase his unique tropical modernist style.
As well as his architectural studies Bawa learned quite a few habits Brits will relate to, which he retained back in Sri Lanka: he drank a gin and tonic at the same time and in the same spot in his gardens each evening as the sun went down.
7. Do Go To Galle
Galle, and this entire section of the Western coastline, is now one of the most touristed parts of Sri Lanka, and is a draw for backpackers in particular.
I loved being in remote parts of Sri Lanka, but if you’re hankering after that Southeast Asia vibe and have travelled in Thailand or other popular parts of this continent, I think you’ll enjoy spending some time in Galle.
The colonial Portuguese and Dutch architecture of this old trading post makes a beautiful backdrop for a decidedly hipster scene. It’s very laid back and has a youthful edge, but it’s not been ruined by the masses; the seaside city of Galle is a place I wish I had spent a bit more time.
8. Celebrate Sri Lankan New Year
As well as the traditional Western New Year the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year – known as Aluth Avurudu – is a cause for big celebrations across Sri Lanka.
The national holiday is based on a lunar calendar, marking a celebration of good harvests and prosperity and takes place each year around 13th and 14th April. Of course there are always pluses and minuses to visiting during any national holiday (hotels can be booked up, services can be closed etc.), but you’ll experience a festive mood across the nation.
9. Be Respectful of Buddha
One of the few news stories which has highlighted Sri Lankan travel around the world in the past year was not a particularly positive one: that of the tourist being arrested for showing off a Buddha tattoo.
There have also been numerous incidents where unthinking tourists have ignored some of the culturally sensitive rules around how to behave when visiting Buddha statues.
Basically, if you have Buddha tattoos, or clothes and accessories with Buddha on them, this isn’t the place to flaunt them, and when you do visit a Buddha statue, remember to be respectful.
You should avoid standing with your back to Buddha and remove your shoes at temples in Sri Lanka, but never point your fingers or your feet toward a Buddha or a Buddhist, as this is considered rude.
I have witnessed tourists dressed inappropriately and pretty much breaking all of the rules above, but I think it’s important to make an effort to be as respectful as possible, even if those around us aren’t doing the same.
10. Get Ready to Fall In Love With A Hopper
No, not that Hopper.
With all that great curry, sambal and yummy veggie dishes to eat, as well as the aforementioned exotic fruits, it’s hard to pick just one special food that sums up Sri Lanka, but I am convinced that you’ll fall in love with the hopper.
Little yummy part-pancake, part-roti baskets, these Sri Lankan breakfast staples hold a perfectly cooked egg, and can be dressed with everything from chilli flakes and sambal (traditional) to bacon and baked beans (but more of a British twist).
I think they’re the absolute best way to eat an egg. I even brought hopper batter mix home with me, so one final tip: leave some room in your suitcase for that.
I hope this post has proved useful if you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka; I really wanted to show that Sri Lanka has way more going for it than just the tropical beaches you’ve heard about (though they’re not too shabby either) and that however long you set aside for exploring this exotic country, it will never be enough.
And for UK travellers to Sri Lanka the logistics of visiting couldn’t be easier right now: country’s Commonwealth status, its recently relaxed visa regulations and the fact you can ‘roam like home’ with a British SIM, plus plentiful flights from UK airports (which are often on sale, yay!) all make it easy to jump on a plane and get away from your troubles for a while in a perennially sunny and increasingly stylish destination.
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