Are you looking for the ultimate guide to Sri Lanka?
Well, welcome to my blog but this is not it.
I never understand all these ultimate guides floating around cyberspace; I don’t even feel qualified enough to write a guide (never mind an ultimate guide) about the place where I grew up and were I am currently living, let alone a place I’ve only visited for three weeks.
I can’t write an ultimate guide to Sri Lanka but, I can compile the “Not the Ultimate Guide to Sri Lanka”; a post filled with things I’ve experienced and witnessed during my trip, general information and random observances.
This is going to be a long blog post though so if you want info on Sri Lanka but don’t have time to read it all now, why not pin it and save it for later?
In the “Not the Ultimate Guide to Sri Lanka” you will find the following information:
- Getting in
- Where to stay your first night in Sri Lanka?
- Getting a sim card and getting connected
- Transport from the airport
- Getting around in Sri Lanka (public transport)
- Itinerary and what to do where
- Leaving from the airport
I will also discuss miscellaneous information that might come in handy.
Not the Ultimate Guide to Sri Lanka
Most will qualify for a visa on arrival, but you can also apply and pay for one online – it is a simple process and you don’t have to fill in any paperwork upon arriving. A tourist visa with double entry for 30 days is $35 (great to have double entry if you want to visit the Maldives). Just print out your confirmation pre-trip and hand it over to the immigration officer with your passport.
Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport will most likely be your point of arrival and departure; the arrival side of the airport (before baggage claim) is lined with stores selling household (especially kitchen) goods and electronics (but no power plug adapters). After immigration, baggage claim and security there are a variety of ATMs, currency exchange places, cellular companies for sim cards and multiple taxi counters.
Where to stay your first night in Sri Lanka?
Colombo International airport is about 45-60 minutes from the capital city, depending on traffic and where you want to be in the capital. While most suggest staying away from the capital and heading straight for the beach, I suggest you do what you want to do. I opted to stay in the seaside village of Negombo – 15 minutes from the airport – for my first two nights. For my last night I stayed at the Hostel City Hub Colombo Airport and they offer free airport pick-up and drop-off service (at any hour) and they are 5 minutes from the airport (Katunayake area).
Getting a sim card and getting connected
As soon as you exit through security at the arrival hall you’ll see ATMs, taxi counters and multiple service providers offering different sim card packages for tourists. I bought Mobitel’s 8GB sim card for $15. They’ll make a copy of your passport, help you to put it in and Bob’s your uncle, you are connected.
But there’s something I learnt while using data in Sri Lanka: If you get 8GB data that means you can use 4GB during day time (9am to midnight) and 4GB during night time (midnight to 9am). If you run out of data you can just buy data from most stores to top it up (the same day time and night time rule applies).
Transport from the airport
If there is one thing that I don’t want to do after 24 hours of travelling then it is lugging a backpack around while trying to find my way around a new country in search of the cheapest transport option to my next destination; been there, done that and too sleepy to do it again.
To get from the airport to my first location I chose to use a taxi to Negombo; it was Rs 1450.
There is a public bus (nr. 187-E3) that runs from the airport’s car park to Colombo bus station for Rs 110 (you might be charged extra for your bags, but since this bus is not privately operated there should be no additional baggage charge).
You can also get into the city or Negombo by taking an Uber. I only used Uber upon my return to the airport and found it to be much (more than half) cheaper than airport taxis.
If your budget allows it you can also get a private car (great if you are not a solo traveller) to other cities and towns; i.e a private car to Kandy will be Rs 6000.
* Rs 1450 = R128 = $10.
* Rs 6000 = R515 = $40.
You will find a variety of accommodation options in Sri Lanka from dorms to home stays to hotels and fancy resorts. It is easy to get away with around Rs 2000 per night for a homestay where you have a private room with your own bathroom (inside the house or in the form of a bungalow or attached room outside the family’s home). Hostel accommodation is cheaper.
If you are booking online just keep in mind that some places don’t have government tax – and often city tax – included in the advertised price.
*Rs 2000 = R180 = $14.
Getting around in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s public buses go anywhere any time (almost) and even if there is no direct bus it is easy to break the journey in half and catch another bus to your destination. The red buses are government-owned while the white-and-blue buses are privately owned.
These buses are old but they still work and even though it is not very comfortable it is convenient and the best way to get from A to B; and on average (depending on the distance) it will cost between Rs 10 and Rs 50. Sri Lankans travel with almost no luggage; your bag will be stored next to the driver’s seat. The bus will make multiple stops along the way to drop people off or to take on more passengers; if you want to guarantee a seat for a long journey it is best to start from the bus terminal instead of just getting on next to the road. When you get on the bus someone will come to collect your money; simply tell him where you are going and pay for your ticket. These money-collectors tend to look after foreigners and will tell you when it is time to get off. Your journey will be a tight squeeze, there is no air-conditioning but you can open the windows and chances are 99% that the doors of the bus will be permanently open (that’s right, a 5-hour journey with open doors).
Do not even bother to find out about a time table (or even a bus number), buses run regularly; just pitch up at the station and start saying the name of your destination.
*Rs 10-50 = R1-5 = $0.07-40.
Air-conditioned Mini Bus
The air-conditioned mini bus is slightly more expensive than the public bus and you will have to pay for your bag as well. It will still be a tight squeeze but at least you will have cool air, a closed door and the journey might be a bit shorter because they don’t make as many stops. It is possible to get charged extra for your bag, expect an average journey to cost anything from Rs 180 to Rs 350.
*Rs 180-350 = R15-30 = $1-3.
There is a Galle-Colombo Express Bus (and vice versa); because this bus uses the highway it is around Rs 450.
*Rs 450 = R40 = $3.
The train is a very popular choice for tourists and locals, the bit from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya and from Nuwara Eliya to Ella is extremely scenic. There is also a train route that covers a section of the West Coast.
You have the following ticket options when travelling by train in Sri Lanka:
Unreserved second and third class: You can’t buy these tickets in advance and it is a race to the door to get a seat or just to get a good standing position. The fact that the tickets simply can’t sell out says it all.
Reserved first, second and third class: You can buy these tickets in advance. I highly recommend second or third class reserved tickets; you are guaranteed that you will have a seat and don’t have to join the marathon to get in the train. (Not all trains have reserved first and third class cars, but you’ll always find a second class car).
Reserved observation car: You can buy this in advance. It is an air-conditioned car that is at the front or back of the train and offers passengers views via windows in front of them, to their left and to their right.
Some tickets can be bought online via an agency (click here), but you should book this at least 3 days in advance.
For more train information, timetables and fares, visit Seat61 for the most comprehensive guide about train travel in Sri Lanka.
Tuk-tuks are a great to go around town and also to go from one town to another (for example from Dambulla to Polonnaruwa) if the distance is not too long. Tuk-tuks can be anything from Rs 200 for a short distance or Rs 1000 for a trip of a few hours to Rs 4000 to cover a longer distance. When you haggle the price down (especially if your tuk-tuk driver takes you on a sightseeing trip), please keep in mind that the driver is not only offering a service in terms of his vehicle and petrol, he is also offering his time while you gallivant around sights. Acknowledge that when you pay your driver.
Apparently there are metered tuk-tuks but I’ve never seen one.
You can also hire a tuk-tuk for the duration of your time in Sri Lanka and drive it yourself.
*Rs 200 = R17 = $1.3 | Rs 2000 = R176 = $14 | Rs 4000 = R340 = $26.
You can use Uber in the capital city and I’ve found that when taking an Uber vs a car (that a guest house or tour company organised), Uber will be much cheaper! Maybe it was just my luck. The have UberGo in Sri Lanka which is usually a small hatchback and cheaper than UberX.
There is Cinnamon Air.
It is expensive.
Walking and Cycling
Some towns can easily be explored by foot or by bicycle; some guesthouses will have bicycles that you can use free of charge or hire at a minimal cost.
Now remember… this itinerary is just a suggestion and after all, it is not the ultimate guide to Sri Lanka. Because of the distance and slow way of travelling between towns, I urge you to stay a minimum of two days in one place.
I am only recommending guesthouses/home stays I stayed at during my time in Sri Lanka.
Negombo is a seaside village close to the international airport, quite touristy but it is a good first stop to ease yourself into Sri Lanka.
What to do or see in Negombo: Get over your jet lag or… head to the beach, visit the Negombo Fish Market early in the morning, go to the Dutch Fort, Angurukaaramulla Temple, St. Mary’s Church, Dutch Canal, and if you take an organised tour you can cruise with a boat on the Dutch Canal.
Where to stay: Sage Fortress.
Dambulla, Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa – Cultural Triangle
Base yourself somewhere in the cultural triangle – Dambulla, Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa – to explore the cultural sights; if you don’t enjoy old historic sites then this might not be for you. Also, entrance fees to these sites are expensive and if you are on a budget you might want to add only a few sites to your itinerary.
What to do or see in the Cultural Triangle: Dambulla Cave Temple; Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Anuradhapura Sacred City, Polonnaruwa Sacred City, Mihintale, Ritigale.
Where to stay: Golden Rainbow Guesthouse (Dambulla).
An untouched mecca of white sand beaches and turquoise water in North Eastern Sri Lanka where signs of the civil war (1983-2009) are still visible.
What to do or see in Trincomalee: Go to the beaches, visit the temples, go to Pigeon Island and of course, go scuba diving and snorkeling.
*I did not go to Trincomalee, but if you are an ocean lover I recommend you add Trincomalee and maybe Arugam Bay to your itinerary.
Kandy is actually part of the cultural triangle but it is best to explore Kandy separately; the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and for Buddhists it is a sacred place of worship.
What to do or see in Kandy: Walk around Kandy Lake, go to the Temple of the Tooth, the International Buddhist museum and the Big Buddha, observe the street culture, visit the markets, go to the Royal Botanical Gardens, visit a tea factory, attend a traditional dance performance.
During my time in Kandy I rebelled against tourist attractions and only visited the Temple of the Tooth and the International Buddhist museum; the rest of my time was spent walking around the city and Kandy Lake plus enjoying good (real) coffee at Natural Coffee (in front of the Temple of the Tooth).
What not to do in Kandy: Close to Kandy is the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage; they offer elephant riding and if you read reviews you will quickly realise that it is just another example of animal exploitation for money-making purposes.
If you don’t have much time it is best to choose between Nuwara Eliya and Ella and don’t forget to take the train!
Nuwara Eliya is in the hills and the Little England of Sri Lanka with all the old English buildings, tea plantations and cooler climate.
What to do or see in Nuwara Eliya: Visit a tea factory, hike to a waterfall, go to the Hakgala Botanical Garden, walk around the tea plantations, Gregory Lake and go to World’s End in Horton Plains National Park.
Where to stay: Pedro View Holiday Bungalow (this was by far my best homestay in Sri Lanka thanks to the beautiful family who runs it and I stayed for four nights).
If you don’t have much time it is best to choose between Nuwara Eliya and Ella and don’t forget to take the train!
The scenic Ella is at a lower altitude compared to Nuwara Eliya yet still in the hills; the climate is cool at night but it can get very hot and humid midday. The town centre is rather touristy and gives the feeling of a mini-Ubud (Bali).
What to do or see in Ella: Go to Little Adam’s Peak for sunrise or do the more strenuous hike up to Adam’s Peak, wait for the train at Demodara nine arch bridge, hike up to Ella’s Rock, go to Ravana Waterfall for an icy cold dip and head out of town to Haputale to visit Lipton’s Seat (yes, the tea guy) for a spectacular view.
Where to stay: Samadhi Guest Inn Ella.
Tangalle or Mirissa
Head down to the beach! I ended up in Tangalle, known for its turtles and crazy waves (I won’t recommend all areas of the beach for swimming, the waves and streams and everything went in all directions). A more popular option is to go to Mirissa to enjoy the beach and all the activities on offer.
What to do or see in Mirissa: Whale watching, swimming, surfing, snorkeling and spending the whole day on the beach.
If you want to be left alone on a beach with only the company of crabs and a possible turtle sighting, go to Tangalle and stay at Peacock Family Stay.
Galle was the apple of my eye because of all the history and colonial architecture within the walls of the Dutch Fort and the vibrant and harmonious mix of people, cultures, religions and traditions.
What to do or see in Galle: Walk the fort walls and visit all the historic attractions, go on a tour with Fazal the Storyteller from the Royal Dutch Café, visit the markets, watch the sunset and cliff jumpers.
Where to stay: Jungle Coconut in Dalawella (if you prefer to be close to a beach) and Leynbaan Villa in Galle (just a few hundred meters from the lighthouse) if you want to experience Galle Fort in all its glory.
From Galle you can head back to Colombo and the airport or make another seaside stop along the way.
My itinerary for Sri Lanka looked like this…
Airport taxi to Negombo (2 nights), public bus to Dambulla (2 nights), air-conditioned bus to Kandy (3 nights), train to Nuwara Eliya (4 nights), train to Ella (2 nights), private car with other tourists to Tangalle (2 nights), bus to Unuwatuna (2 nights), tuk-tuk to Galle (1 night), express bus to Colombo, Uber to Katunayake, (half a night), Hostel’s airport shuttle to the airport.
*If you have enough time, add Jaffna, and other northern towns in Sri Lanka, to your itinerary. The north is not as developed as Sri Lanka due to the damage of the civil war.
Leaving from the Airport
The international airport is really not a comfortable one to stay at if your flight is at such a time that you can’t actually book accommodation for the night… take my word, rather pay a bit extra and book the accommodation (like the City Hub Colombo Airport).
First you have to go through a security check before you enter the airport.
Then there is only a small section with semi-comfortable chairs, one convenience store and one take-away shop.
You can’t enter the next section of the airport if the check-in of your flight is not open yet.
Only after you’ve checked-in and went through immigration, then you can get to a more comfortable area.
Book accommodation, trust me.
Nearly 3000 words later and I still solemnly swear that this is not the ultimate guide to Sri Lanka…
Will there ever be an end to this blog post?
Other important and random things to keep in mind when travelling to Sri Lanka
Every full moon is a public holiday in Sri Lanka; know the dates and plan your transport and accommodation accordingly as it can get very busy if it falls on a Friday or Monday.
Power Plug Adapters
Nearly every single convenience store will sell power plug adapters for around Rs 80-200. There is a 99.9% chance that your international power plug adapter won’t work as Sri Lanka’s plugs have two round pins at the bottom and a slightly thicker one at the top (yet not as thick as the South African power plugs). A lot of hotels already have these adapter plugs in the wall but not always .
*Rs 80-200 = R7-17 = $0.50-1.5.
Watch your step at the train station
The platforms at the station and the door of the train don’t usually match up and you might need to take a giant leap to get out or in which can be difficult if your bag is heavy.
It is best to travel with a backpack and not a trolley bag (especially if you plan to use public transport).
Good luck with finding good coffee in Sri Lanka. If you are in Kandy go to Natural Coffee and in Nuwara Eliya you can go to Hansa Coffee.
When taking a tuk-tuk
When you get to your new destination and plan to take a tuk-tuk from a bus station to your accommodation then there is a big possibility that the driver will pull over just before your guesthouse to tell you about the tours he is offering. Guesthouse owners can usually recommend a tuk-tuk driver and you might get a better deal through your accommodation.
Visiting the historical and UNESCO heritage sites in the cultural triangle is expensive and all tickets should be bought separately (no passes) and it is only valid for one day. This is the costs: Dambulla Cave Temple (free at the moment); Sigiriya Rock Fortress is $30, Anuradhapura Sacred City is $25, Polonnaruwa Sacred City is $25 and Temple of the Tooth is $10.
I chose to skip Anuradhapura and visited Polonnaruwa. I skipped climbing up Sigirya Rock and chose Pidurangala instead; a different rock where you get the same view as you would get from Sigirya Rock, but the cost is $2.
There is an old reclining Buddha at Pidurangala in a cave with old temple ruins; this hike is apparently more strenuous than Sigiriya because one moment you are climbing steps and the next moment you are manoeuvering over rocks to the top. They say that it should only be attempted if you are very fit – that is a lie – I am not fit and I did not die.
I also visited the Temple of the Tooth and with my ticket I had free entry into the International Buddhist Museum.
It’s a beautiful sight seeing the fishermen sitting on their sticks to get the catch of the day, but it is also fake (especially from Mirissa to Galle). Buses will pull up to these areas and tourists will take photos and often pose on the sticks as well, of course, the fishermen will have to get a tip for posing.
Unfortunately, there is nothing authentic about this tradition anymore; the fishermen realised that they can make more money from posing than from fishing.
There are no announcements in the train of where the train is stopping; it is not always easy to see the name of the station because a window or something might block your view. Google your location or ask around.
Sri Lanka is perfectly safe for travelling; weather you are travelling as a family, female, in a group or solo. As with any country, don’t walk alone at night and trust your instincts.
If someone wants to talk you out of going to Sri Lanka because of the civil war, please tell them that it is time to brush up on their history as the war ended in 2009.
Brace yourself for some spice! The average portion size is more than enough for one person and I had to ask for a takeaway multiple times.
Street food starts at Rs 20 while a meal in a local restaurant is Rs 150 and in a touristy restaurant it can easily go up to Rs 1000.
Don’t miss trying kottu, lamprias, seafood, curry (dhal, chicken, beetroot and everything), string hoppers and of course, all the tropical fruit that you can stomach.
*Rs 20 = R2 = $0.15 | Rs 150 = R13 = $1 | Rs 1000 = R86 = $7.
Some say you can get Malaria in Sri Lanka, others say you can’t; just make sure that you take good mosquito repellent (like Tabbard) because Sri Lankan mozzies don’t know their place.
If you have back problems you might have some more if you are sticking to budget accommodation. Some mattresses are rather thin and flimsy.
There is absolutely no language barrier (maybe if you go up north) but if you visit the towns which are frequented by tourists you will be more than okay.
With all the spicy food you’ll most likely get a runny tummy. In the case of severe injury or sickness, you’ll find hospitals in the larger towns, private medical clinics in Colombo as well as pharmacies. As always, avoid drinking tap water, and always have an antibacterial soap on hand; Hepatitis A and B is common in Sri Lanka. There are quite a number of mosquito-related diseases, so keep a good mosquito repellent ready at all times. If you are visiting forest areas (such as Sinharaja or Adam’s Peak) after rain, a leech might find its way to your legs for a bit of harmless sucking; it is best not to pull the leech off as bits can stay behind, rather help the leeches to drop off by using salt or flame, or, if you are really kind you can wait for them to continue sucking until they are full enough to fall off.
I’ve never encountered more smiles than the smiles I’ve received in Sri Lanka; a smile can really go a long way; smile back and be friendly. When I talked to the locals about how friendly they are so many have said, or rather asked, “Why are the Western people so serious? They don’t smile, they don’t greet…”
Dear Western People
Let’s smile okay?
Sri Lankans are sincere, caring and always willing to help.
Have you been to Sri Lanka? What did I miss? What other things can I add the Not the Ultimate Guide to Sri Lanka?
(P.S: If you’ve read right until the end – WOW – what a trooper! You just read 4165 words, go have a coffee! You deserve it).
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