Last updated: June 2019
The best Sri Lanka travel tips and advice to help you plan your adventure:
If you reading these Sri Lanka travel tips then you probably planning a trip to this beautiful country. Sri Lanka is well known for its stunning beaches, beautiful mountains, rows of tea plantations, wildlife and its a cultural gem.
The country offers a diverse opportunity for every traveller and there are so many things to do in Sri Lanka that will blow your mind.
We have discovered a variety of Sri Lanka tricks and hacks during our month long trip. Hopefully, the advice and travel guides in this post will help you perfect your travel itinerary and help you find the best Sri Lanka accommodation.
Visiting Sri Lanka is phenomenal, there are so many interesting facts about Sri Lanka and it has been of our favourite countries so far. It’s a beautiful country to visit that has so much to offer travellers.
If you compare the most beautiful Sri Lanka photos you see online and times that by ten then it will still exceed your expectations. (It certainly wowed us)
Things to know before going to Sri Lanka:
1. Do you need to get a VISA before arrival?
We applied for a Sri Lanka Visa online two weeks before our arrival in Sri Lanka using the Sri Lankan Immigration and Emigration online ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) It was a quick and easy process. We got our approval within an hour via email.
We were issued with a double entry VISA which is valid for 30 days. If you need a VISA for longer than 30 days then you can apply directly with your closest embassy.
How much does a Sri Lanka VISA cost?
Cost of $35 for tourist, however, if you from a SAARC country your VISA will only cost approx $20.
If you are from Maldives, Singapore or Seyshells and visiting for up to 30 days then you won’t need a VISA. Indian nationals will still need to apply for an online VISA using the link above.
2. Where in Sri Lanka should you visit and when?
Unlike most countries, Sri Lanka actually has 2 different monsoon seasons on different sides of the country. This really makes Sri Lanka a perfect travel destination throughout the year. Just make sure that you are on the right side of the island according to the different seasons.
The Southwest monsoon in Sri Lanka is between May and September. The peak months to visit this part of the island would be between December and March.
This includes areas like Mirissa, Galle, Negombo
The Northeast monsoon in Sri Lanka is between October and January. The peak months to visit this part of the island would be between May and September.
This includes areas like Trincomalee, Jaffna
Overall best time to visit
January – March is considered the islands busiest time. It will be sunny and dry most days with generally good weather throughout the island.
Remember the world’s weather is changing and it’s not uncommon to have clear skies in the middle of monsoon or a complete downpour in the middle of the dry season.
When it rains it’s normally hard but only for a short period. It is very uncommon to rain for the whole day.
3. Get a SIM/ mobile package on arrival
We have travelled to many countries and often relied completely on WiFi due to the expensive data cost. In Sri Lanka buying data is really easy on the pocket. We bought a ‘tourist data package’ at the airport for 1500 SL rupees which lasted us a whole month.
We were frequently working online, using Google Maps to navigate and updating our social media. It’s handy especially since Wifi can be sketchy around certain areas of Sri Lanka.
There is also a SIM hotel drop off service available which is worth checking out!
4. Respect the local’s cultures
Around the temples and religious sites
Sri Lanka is flooded with some remarkable religious sites throughout the country. Look out for Buddhist and Hindu temples, stupa’s, mosques, churches and even shrines. (which can be found on every other street corner.)
It is important to dress appropriately when visiting religious sites as it is considered very disrespectful in most cultures if you don’t. Most blogs or travel guides will advise on this and it cannot be stressed enough. In fact, it is probably one of the top Sri Lanka travel tips that we can offer. Most temples won’t let you enter if you not dressed appropriately.
Both men and woman will need to ensure their legs and shoulders are covered and don’t even think of wearing a cap or beach hat inside a temple.
Your shoes will need to be removed and left outside. At the bigger temples, you can leave your shoes with a shoe keeper (for a small donation of course)
The beautifully decorated temples and spiritual ambience makes it all worth it. Obey the signs if photography is allowed or not inside the temple. If you are uncertain just ask a local.
No Buddha Tatoo’s
It’s considered very rude if you put your back to a statue of the Buddha, so taking a “selfie” is a big no-no!
We have read many articles that people with visible tattoos of the Buddha have been refused entry to Sri Lanka. We don’t know how to true it is but if you have one we suggest you keep it covered.
Dress appropriately while using public transport
When catching buses and trains we also advise to cover up. Wearing short shorts, skirts and strap tops can be very uncomfortable especially on the busier buses as you may have no personal space.
Many locals will consider it disrespectful so always keep a shaw or 2 in your backpack, just in case.
The beach scene – Keep the tan straps
Sri Lanka is a very conservative country and in places like Aragum bay (which is all about surfing and beautiful beaches), it is strongly advised to keep your bikini for the beach and not the streets/ cafes.
Tanning topless in Sri Lank is taboo (even on the private and secluded beaches around Trincomalee) so you will more than likely be going home with a few tan straps.
5. Where to stay in Sri Lanka?
Check out our post about 14 Unique and out of the ordinary places to stay in Sri Lanka which has ideas on tree houses, homestays, beach villas and even a beautiful converted lorry.
6. Don’t drink the tap water
You can’t drink water out the taps in Sri Lanka.
Buying bottled water constantly throughout the day adds up for the budget traveller, especially when it is humid and you have to stay hydrated.
A good Sri Lanka travel tip for budget travellers is to rather support a local shop to buy water, which is far cheaper than restaurants or cafes.
Most bottles do have a set price on the label, however, some shops in touristy areas may add up to an extra 30 rupees per bottle for the unsuspecting tourist.
Best solution: Water filter bottle
The other option you have is to get a bottle with a filter. We recommend Lifestraw filter bottles which filter water and catches 99.9% of bacteria.
They have been very handy and often a “lifesaver” during our travels throughout Sri Lanka and India and even Vietnam. You just never know what situation you going to be in and when you going to need it.
7. SRI LANKA TRANSPORT TIPS
Transport in Sri Lanka is readily available to tourist and there are different types of transport for different budgets. If you are a backpacker then your cheapest options are buses and trains.
Hotels and booking agencies often escalate prices if they book your transport tickets in advance (Sometimes triple in price!)
Sometimes it’s worth considering paying a bit and booking your transport in advance to be comfortable or to make sure you have a booked seat, other times it’s not necessary.
Here is a breakdown of Sri Lanka Travel tips to consider when it comes to planning your mode of transport, we have broken them down into different categories with different Sri Lanka travel tips for each one.
Sri Lanka Bus survival guide
You don’t need to pre-book your ticket if you catching a public bus. Just arrive at the bus station on the day and get on the bus. The conductor will assist you if your bags need to be stored at the back of the bus.
Later he will come around, issue you a ticket and you can pay him directly. We recommend that you try to get to the bus station a little earlier to make sure you get a seat.
Locals are very willing to help, just show them the name where you are going and they will point you to the right bus.
Can you buy a bus ticket online?
Most travellers prefer to sleep in or don’t like dealing with all the communication barriers and worry about buying the right ticket.
Don’t worry, you can buy a bus ticket online but they are more expensive than just buying one on the day, so if you on a tight budget this option may not be for you.
What kind of busses are in Sri Lanka?
There are two main types of buses in Sri Lanka. The Central transport board buses (SLTB) are slower and stick to local routes.
Then there are private buses which are more comfortable for long distances.
There are a few long distance luxury aircon buses available too. Ask the locals for advice or routes of these busses if you are unsure.
We caught 1 aircon bus from Galle to Colombo and have to admit it was a pleasant change in comparison to the local red busses on a hot day.
What is it like catching a bus in Sri Lanka?
They often have very loud dramatic music videos paying from a T.V in front of the bus (they are very entertaining).
The only downside to catching buses is that they can get full and you may have to stand. (with no personal space what so ever) People are getting on and off all the time so you should eventually get a seat.
The front seats are reserved for Clergy. (which means a person of religion) If you in the front and a monk gets on the bus, you have to give up your seat until they get off. If you a lady then you won’t be allowed to sit next to them either,
A word of warning: Some of the bus drivers are crazy and road rules often seem non-existent in Sri Lanka. Many times we just had to close our eyes, pray and go with it.
All things considered, we enjoyed catching the bus, it was cheap and experience on its own, even with what felt like a few near death experiences encounters we enjoyed them on most days.
Catch one of the scenic trains
We caught two trains in Sri Lanka and both were completely different experiences.
If we can give you a very valuable tip it is to book a reserved seat first or second class online (which is often sold out a few weeks before) or in advance at the train station. If you can – BOOK IN ADVANCE.
Train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
We wanted to catch a train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya – the only problem is, so did every other tourist that was there in July.
The train comes from Colombo so it already had several passengers on when it gets to Kandy. We tried to get tickets the day before from the train station but all reserved tickets were sold out and all online reserved tickets had to be purchased in advance.
Soon we realised that there is no limit to the number of unreserved tickets that get sold to the public. We paid for a 2nd class which was really cheap but ended up in a 3rd class carriage due to all the chaos.
When the train arrived everyone just swarmed in through the open doors with their luggage to grab a seat as quickly as they could.
We were not lucky enough to get a seat right away and stood for about an hour. Eventually, after people started getting off at different stations we managed to grab two seats with our two backpacks and two more bags in toe! Again, personal space can be non-existent and if you don’t have any patience then this is not going to be a pleasant journey.
Train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella
The next day, despite the chaos of the day before, we decided to catch the 9.30am train to Ella. Again, we were unable to get tickets in advance to Ella so we got 2nd class unreserved seats and it was so overcrowded.
Every tourist was there to catch the “most scenic train ride in the world” Honestly, this was nothing like those awesome train videos we saw on YouTube or incredible train selfies on Instagram.
We didn’t get a seat and we were right by the open door which was great. However, it was near impossible to try to take a picture without our bags falling out the open door or getting in the way of other passengers.
We thought that we would be standing shoulder to shoulder for the whole four-hour journey… but then something incredible happened.
We were in the carriage next to the luggage compartment where goods are stored and dropped off at stations along the way. The conductor opened the small door after about half an hour and offered us a space in the goods compartment due to the train being so overcrowded. I think he must have felt sorry for us.
Our trip quickly turned around. In an instant we had the best seats sitting on the train, in front of the wide-open doors, sitting on a sack with the most incredible views passing by right in from of us.
We could open the side doors and got spectacular pictures. The route from Kandy to Ella is beautiful. We could see what the hype was about when we were away from the crowds.
Don’t get scammed by the Tuk Tuk’s
There are not many bad things about Sri Lanka but we have to admit the only thing we battled with in Sri Lanka was constantly negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers. Tuk Tuk’s are very convenient and you can find them everywhere but it is very important to negotiate a price beforehand.
They have to make a living, but when you pay 300 rupees for a tuk-tuk one way and for the exact same route back another tuk-tuk wants to charge you 1000 rupees, it gets a bit much.
We felt as if they were constantly trying to see how much money they could make off of tourist. This could all be avoided if there was a set rate per Km.
After doing some research we downloaded the Pick me app which is similar to Uber and gives you an estimated price before your ride, but it only worked once for us in Ella. Everywhere else the app would simply say “No vehicles available”.
In our month of using the TukTuk’s in Sri Lanka, we had both interesting and frustrating experiences. Sometimes we would show a driver on Google Maps where we were going, agree on a price and then halfway he would take a “shortcut” and get lost.
Tuk Tuk scams
Often we would reach our destination and the price would change drastically. Other times they would stop halfway or in the middle of nowhere and renegotiate the rate. Others would try to charge more because the road is in “bad condition” or “No, no, no sorry mam… Google maps are wrong”
This often made us reluctant to use and trust them. It’s a pity because you do get some good guys out there trying to make an honest living.
We have met some really genuine tuk-tuk drivers too that are down to earth, offering us great information and that are very reliable.
Explore everywhere you can on a bicycle
Bicycles in Sri Lanka are very common. In quieter areas along the coast, they are perfect for early morning exploration or late afternoon run around.
Avoid riding in the midday heat the humidity can really get to you. Explore all the little side roads and you will certainly find a few interesting photo ops off the beaten path. Most hotels or hostels hire them out to tourists for the day.
Hiring a Scooter in Sri Lanka
Do you need experience when riding a scooter in Sri Lanka?
The road rules in Sri Lanka can be a bit tricky so if you want to hire a scooter you need to have a little experience.
If you a first timer we do not recommend it in the busier cities. Alternatively, you can go on a private scooter day tour in Mirissa.
Do you need a licence to hire a scooter in Sri Lanka?
The internet had mixed reviews about licences so we asked a few locals and they all agreed that you will need an international drivers licence and valid bike licence to ensure you don’t face any unnecessary fines.
Make sure you wear a helmet and that you covered by your travel insurance just in case. We strongly recommend that you have your valid licences before hiring a scooter as your travel insurance may not cover you should you be in an accident.
How much is does it cost to hire a scooter in Sri Lanka?
Hiring a scooter cost more or less 1500 rupees a day. It is a great way to save money on transport and to explore places and catch up on some adventure travel at your own leisure.
Hiring a scooter in Sri Lanka? Here are some tips you need to know
We learnt two very valuable lessons; The first was that you are taking a very big risk by hiring a scooter in a busy area or city. The buses overtake on blind corners and everybody just seems to be rushing to get somewhere. In quieter places, it can an amazing experience. Check out the area you in for a day or two to see whether you will be comfortable.
The other lesson we learnt is to not hire a brand new scooter! The owners tend to be more sceptical and if you return it with a scratch and you will pay for it! The banged-up ones funny enough are still reliable and the owner will be more at ease.
In case you wondering, yes it is fairly safe to leave your helmets with your scooter. We put one in the compartment under the seat and the other over the handlebars. At some attractions like the Dambulla caves, local shops kept our helmets for us, warning us monkeys sometimes steal them.
8. Getting tipsy can be expensive
The prices of alcohol are crazy but it fluctuates depending on where in Sri Lanka you visit. Generally to have a few beers, shots or cocktails can wack up your bill really high.
A bottle of wine is especially expensive because it is imported. The local beer (Lion Lager) is reasonable but this too depends on where you are. We have paid more than double the price in the touristy bars along with the beach areas like Arugam bay.
Drinking on a budget in Sri Lanka
In the more cultural areas like Sigiriya, the restaurants are not allowed to serve alcohol. (Some still serve “holy water” or will bring you a beer in a teapot.) The trick to getting a bit tipsy on a budget is to find a wine store on Google maps or ask the locals. You will pay a third of the price. We paid up to 450 Rupees for a large can of Lion at a restaurant.
We could buy 8 of the same cans for a total of 1200 Rupees at a wine store. Some wine stores only sell beer but a few you will find a bottle of the local Arrack. Check if your room has a bar fridge to keep them cold but if you on a budget this is ideal.
9. EVERYTHING IN SRI LANKA HAS A PRICE
Sometimes you think people are genuinely being nice but sometimes it’s all about what you going to tip in the end. Don’t get me wrong, we felt like we could ask locals just about anything and they always willing to help with a smile. It’s just something to keep in mind while dealing with different people as we found sometimes tourist are taken advantage of.
Once we even had to tip a post office official once for finding us an empty used box. At times you can even use to your advantage. Everything has a price. If you need to ask the driver for help or make a quick stop for you, just a few rupees will do.
10. LOOKING FOR HOT WATER IN YOUR HOTEL?
Not all accommodations have hot water. Most higher end hotels and beach villas do have hot water. If you on a budget and like a warm shower you need to check with your accommodation first. It does get really humid, so a cold shower is very refreshing after you have been the sun all day. In some areas, a warm shower can be just as welcomed every now again.
11. PACK A JERSEY FOR HILL COUNTRY
This is one of those not so obvious Sri Lanka tips that we didn’t consider while packing. Hill country areas like Kandy, Ella and Nuwara Eliya can get very chilly at night. After spending 2 weeks between Trincomalee and Sigiriya we didn’t think that we needed a jacket.
Nuwara Eliya was freezing in July and we even put the heater on at night. Despite the tropical weather some areas still get chilly. Pack a jersey or jacket just in case even if you think it’s going to be warm.
12. WHAT ARE THE PACKING ESSENTIALS FOR SRI LANKA
After a week of travelling with four backpacks, we agreed that we had packed far too much stuff. Our bags were far to heavy to lug between buses, trains and planes.
We went to the local post office in Sigiriya and sent home a 6kg box via sea freight. It was cheap and arrived in South Africa in about 3 months. One of the first things we learnt during our travels is that there is a big difference between packing for 3 weeks or packing for a year.
You shouldn’t be packing more of everything because you away for longer but less of everything because you will be hauling bags on your backs for quite some time. Therefore you need to be as comfortable as possible.
What to pack for Sri Lanka
While packing remember there are many shops available with shampoos, deodorant and all your basic toiletries. It’s worthwhile investing in a small hanging toiletry kit that you can top it up while travelling. If you heading to the coast: summer dresses, shorts and costumes are a definite yes.
When catching public transport you will need some lightweight long cotton pants and a T-shirt. For temples, you need a shawl or scarf to cover up. If you planning to visit Ella and surrounding hill areas, you will need to pack a jersey or two!
13. IS IT NEGOTIABLE OR IS IT THE PRICE YOU PAY?
Shopping at the local markets is where you will find the most authentic Sri Lankan goodies to buy. If there is no price tag, it’s negotiable. Usually, if you are the first buyer you can get a bigger discount as it considered lucky. If the price is too high and you walk away they will call you back and try to negotiate again.
The local sellers we met are genuine people who are just trying to make a living. Know when to stop negotiating, remember they are people too with families to support.
Thought on money tips when negotiating: There is a clear difference between being overcharged and someone making a living.
14. SRI LANKAN FOOD IS A MUST
Sri Lankans love spices and their food roars with flavour. There were so many delicious and healthy food options and the coast offered really good seafood.
Don’t travel to Sri Lanka and only eat the food that you know, open your pallet and enjoy a new variety of flavours and spices. If you enjoy curry and rice then you won’t be disappointed.
If you heading to Ella then there is cool cooking and dining experience available that you should check out too!
Some of our favourite foods in Sri Lanka: Devilled chicken, coconut sambal, papadums, coconut roti, kottu roti, tiger prawns in Negombo and vegetable samoosa’s from the street vendors.
Tasty fruits to look out for include: Orange coconuts, wood apples, rambutan, green bananas and jackfruit.
15. DON’T LET THE MOZZIES CARRY YOU AWAY
Being in the tropical Sri Lankan climate comes with a few mosquitoes of all different shapes and sizes. If you want to get a good night sleep make sure you use the mosquito net (which most places will provide) and sleep in light colours with the fan on.
It is also advisable to apply citronella spray which is available at most corner shops. One or two nights we had a few bites but it was very manageable and mosquitoes were not really a problem since we followed precautions.
Dengue fever can be a risk in Sri Lanka, especially in the Western Region. Dengue fever is caused by a virus which is spread by the bite of two species of mosquitoes. It can cause high fevers and there have even been a few deaths. It is recommended that you rather be safe and follow proper precautions.
16. Want to get inspired? Watch this!
16. Tours to book before your trip:
We were blown away by the friendliness of the people and the sheer diverse beauty that Sri Lanka has to offer. Tourism is upcoming fast and growing on a daily basis so make sure you check out the island while it is still a traveller’s gem.
Have you been to Sri Lanka? What was the highlight of your trip and what travel tips Sri Lanka would you advise others? Let us know your thoughts and comments on this post below.
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