Sri Lanka Guide: Everything you need to know before you go!
On this page you'll find everything you need to know for your trip to Sri Lanka - travel planning, getting around, rules of conduct, food, safety and much more!
Sri Lanka is an absolutely wonderful country and should be right at the top of your “I’ve-always-wanted-to-go-there” list.
Not only tourism, but just about everything else is developing fast in Sri Lanka.
In this post, we’ve summarized everything you need to know before and during your Sri Lanka trip to provide you with a comprehensive guide.
Of course we also give you our personal tips for your time in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka travel planning: Is Sri Lanka the right destination for you?
Who is Sri Lanka perfect for as a destination?
Sri Lanka is a destination for all age groups. While we were traveling, we met couples of all ages, many 50+ travelers in groups, and also families with small children. Now and again we also encountered people traveling alone or young travelers in group tours.
Sri Lanka really offers something for everyone. The country is great for a beach holiday, has first-rate hiking opportunities, and many cultural highlights. The east and the south also have excellent surfing areas.
If you’re traveling solo, it probably isn’t as easy to connect with other travelers as in Thailand or other typical backpacking countries.
There are a few backpacker hostels in some of the cities, but in the highlands you’re more likely to stay at small guest houses with 2 to 3 rooms or at hotels. If that isn’t a problem for you, then Sri Lanka is a great country to travel on your own.
But there are some caveats for women traveling alone in Sri Lanka. Generally it shouldn’t be a problem to travel the country on your own as a woman, but there are some areas where it isn’t particularly pleasant. If you don’t have any experience traveling solo, Sri Lanka might not be the best place to start.
Especially in Colombo, it was really uncomfortable for Jenny being stared at by men in a very discomfiting way, and she was wearing long pants and a T-shirt the whole time.
In other parts of the country, e.g. in the east, in the highlands, and in the south of the country, Jenny felt a lot more comfortable and the people approached her with a completely different attitude there.
Of course you’ll find annoyingly persistent salespeople all over the country, and you’re always certain to draw curious (but not unpleasant) looks wherever you go.
Our travel tips for women traveling alone in Sri Lanka
Avoid staying in Colombo if you can. There’s no real reason to stay in the city anyway, so you won’t be missing out.
Try to sit next to women on buses. Just smile and point at the seat next to her and she’ll understand why you want to sit there and will budge up.
Never tell people you’re single. Lonely Planet even recommends wearing a fake wedding band and always having a photo of a friend you can pass off as your boyfriend.
Unless you’re at the beach, you shouldn’t wear anything too revealing. Jenny generally wore a T-shirt and long thin pants. In the north of the island, it’s even recommended to go swimming in a T-shirt and shorts.
The best time to travel to Sri Lanka
There is no best time to travel to Sri Lanka. That’s good because it means you can travel to Sri Lanka all year round. But it also means that it’ll be raining in some parts of the island no matter when you go.
In a nutshell, you should avoid the east coast from November to March and concentrate on the north, the highlands, and the west and south coasts.
From April to October, the west and south coasts of Sri Lanka are rather unpleasant and rainy. So you should concentrate on the north and the east from in the months from April to November.
Planning your trip to Sri Lanka – How much time should you schedule?
You should schedule an absolute minimum of 10 days for Sri Lanka, or ideally 3 weeks. We spent 5 weeks on the island and could have easily added another 5 weeks. It never gets boring there, there’s just so much to see and do.
If you want to see all the important sights in the shortest time possible, it’ll take you about 10 days.
But then you really have to travel from place to place every single day and will only have just enough time to check off the sights and move on.
If you want to see the most important sights without rushing through and then spend a few relaxing days at the beach, you should schedule about 3 weeks.
Of course that depends a bit whether you want to hire a private driver to take you from place to place or you want to use public transport (bus, train). The distances in Sri Lanka aren’t usually very long, but you should still plan a lot of time for traveling between your stops.
Sights and attractions in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a small country with an incredible variety of sights and attractions. The highlights can be roughly divided into four categories: Cultural attractions, stunning landscapes, wild animals, and fantastic beaches.
The main cultural attractions in Sri Lanka are clustered in the cultural triangle in the center of the country. The old royal cities of Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Kandy have great historic buildings and temples to offer.
There are two other highlights in the center of the triangle, the Dambulla cave temples and the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. All in all, the cultural triangle features a total of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you mustn’t miss.
South of the cultural triangle lie the Sri Lankan highlands. The train ride from Kandy to Ella is a great way to cross the highlands and let the landscape slowly pass you by.
In Nuwara Eliya and Ella, you can go on hikes through the highlands and discover the tea plantations.
Popular hiking destinations include Adam’s Peak, the Horton Plains with the World’s End, and Little Adam’s Peak.
Sri Lanka also has an incredibly diverse wildlife. You can spot wild leopards in Yala National Park.
There are elephants in Udawalawe National Park in the south or in Wasgamuwa National Park near Dambulla. We even saw wild elephants around there although we didn’t visit the national park.
Off the coasts of Trincomalee in the east and Mirissa in the south, you can also watch whales and dolphins.
And then of course, there are the beaches. Whether on the north, east, west, or south coast – everywhere in Sri Lanka there are fantastic sandy beaches inviting you to go bathing, surfing, diving, or just kick back and relax.
The only thing you shouldn’t expect in Sri Lanka are interesting cities. Most towns consist of a busy main street, which form the center of social life, and quieter, much less lively side streets.
The only city really worth seeing is Galle in the southwest of the island, which has a very special flair thanks to its old fort.
Travel preparations: What to consider before your trip to Sri Lanka
Getting there: The best way to get to Sri Lanka
This should be obvious – flying of course. Sri Lankan Airways offer direct flights from London and various connections with a change in the Arab region.
We always use Skyscanner to search for the cheapest connection.
We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo with Air Asia. That way, Sri Lanka is easy to integrate into a tour of Southeast Asia.
A general tip about booking flights: The cheapest fares are usually available about 3 months or 3-4 weeks before your departure. Of course there are exceptions to the rule.
Flight prices vary greatly. You may be lucky enough to find a flight for around 400 euros, but if you find a flight for 500 to 600 euros, then that’s still a pretty OK deal.
Getting from the airport to Colombo or your destination in Sri Lanka.
The airport is about 40 minutes north of Colombo. To get from the airport to Colombo, you can choose between a taxi, a private driver, or a public bus.
Depending on your negotiation skills, a taxi to downtown Colombo costs around 20 euros.
The public bus is much cheaper: It only costs 100 LKR (about 0.60 euros) to get to the center of Colombo. The bus stop is located behind the left exit.
If you want to get from the airport to your destination as quickly as possible, we recommend hiring a private driver.
You can hire one before your trip so he can pick you up at the airport. That way, you won’t have to haggle for the price with a taxi driver or squeeze into a full bus to Colombo.
Our recommendation if you aren’t a backpacker on a tight budget: Book the airport service via rent-a-guide. Booking is uncomplicated, the price is fair, and you can rest assured that everything will work out.
Entry requirements for Sri Lanka
You’ll need a passport with a validity of at least six months beyond the end of the trip in order to enter the country. Each child also needs their own travel documents (child passport).
You also have to apply for a visa online before your journey. Just visit the website www.eta.gov.lk and fill out the form there. A 30-day tourist visa costs 35 US dollars.
If you can’t apply for the visa online for some reason then you can also do so at the airport. We would advise against it though because you’ll have to wait forever to get it.
What should you look out for when filling out the visa form?
Make sure that all your details are correct and you don’t make any mistakes, especially when entering your passport number (make sure you don’t mix up the letter O and the number 0).
Make sure you provide the correct purpose for your travel.
Once you’ve applied for the visa online and filled out the forms, you’ll receive an e-mail confirmation within a few days. You should print it out and present it when you enter the country.
You also may be asked for proof of a return flight booking, so you should bring along a copy of your return flight ticket.
Extending a Sri Lankan visa
If 30 days aren’t enough for you, you can extend your visa at the Department of Immigration and Emigration in Colombo. Make sure to get there in the early hours of the morning.
Important note! Some posts on the topic recommend bribery as an option, but we don’t like the idea of bribing someone to speed up the visa extension process.
This only promotes an unhealthy development of tourism. We were there at 7:45 am, filled out all the necessary forms and left again after about 2 hours with extension stamps in our passports. We didn’t need to slip anyone money to get it done.
Sri Lanka packing list: What should you pack?
You can read exactly what we took on our trip in our list of what to pack for Southeast Asia. We list the entire contents of our backpacks there.
There were really only two essentials that we didn’t think to pack: An umbrella (we just bought it there) and a raincoat (we bought two cheap plastic rain ponchos).
It rained a lot in the highlands. If you’re not prepared for it you’ll be drenched half the time. That gets old pretty quickly.
We also generally recommend bringing a Pacsafe. It’s a portable steel-reinforced bag that you can attach to solid objects (bed, cabinet, pipe…) and fasten it onto them with a lock. We use it every day and wouldn’t have been able to do without in Sri Lanka. Click here to take a closer look at the Pacsafe.
Apart from that, it’s important to note that Sri Lanka isn’t exclusively Buddhist – there are many Muslims and Hindus, and they’re not too keen on overly revealing clothing.
So if you want to behave respectfully, wear a pair of pants that go past the knee line (shorts are totally fine in coastal towns though) and T-shirts with sleeves covering your shoulders.
If you – as a woman – travel to the east or the north, you might want to consider packing bathing shorts (boardshorts).
We saw a lot of tourists in normal bathing suits while we were in Trincomalee and Uppuveli in the east of the island, but the local women go swimming in full gear (some even wear jeans).
Ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves to what extent they want to cater to religious sensibilities.
The best guidebook for Sri Lanka
There are quite a few guidebooks for Sri Lanka. Since the country has been developing rapidly since the end of the civil war, you should make sure to travel with an up-to-date guidebook. Information from 2013 is already outdated in 2015.
We traveled with the latest English-language Lonely Planet (published in January 2015) and were very happy with it.
The guidebook divides Sri Lanka into the east, west, north, highlands, and south, which is really helpful for travel planning.
We can’t comment on the accommodation information because we preferred to rely on booking.com for that. But what really helped us a lot was the information on getting from A to B.
Vaccinations and travel health kit for Sri Lanka
You should make sure to take care of vaccinations for your trip to Sri Lanka as early as possible.
In addition to the standard vaccinations for Europe, i.e. tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough (plus measles, mumps, rubella), we also had the following vaccinations:
Hepatitis A and B is definitely very important
Japanese encephalitis: The transmission risk in Sri Lanka is low and mainly limited to rural areas. This vaccination is especially recommended for longer trips.
Rabies: There are a lot of stray dogs in Sri Lanka. Since rabies is almost always fatal if left untreated, we strongly recommend this vaccination. We often felt a bit unsafe around ‘wild’ dogs and monkeys in Sri Lanka and were glad we’d been vaccinated. Getting a rabies vaccination isn’t all that simple. If you want more information, visit the website of your local tropical institute.
Typhoid: This vaccination is especially recommended for longer trips.
Please ask your doctor for more information and check the travel advisories issued by your foreign office.
Mosquito protection in Sri Lanka
There is no vaccination against malaria and dengue fever. Sri Lanka, like many other Asian countries, has a major problem with dengue mosquitoes. These mosquitoes are mainly found in cities and unlike malaria-carrying mosquitoes, they’re also active during the day.
We strongly advise applying mosquito repellent throughout the day, sleeping under mosquito nets, and having a malaria standby treatment on hand for emergencies.
You can buy mosquito repellent locally. It’s a lot cheaper than in Europe and much better adapted to local mosquitoes.
Mosquito lotion is available in Sri Lankan pharmacies (pro tip: The one with the pink-colored lid worked very well for us).
If you get bitten, it’s always great to have mosquito bite relief. We brought one along, and although we were skeptical at first, we were pleasantly surprised.
Necessary drugs for Sri Lanka
Almost every town in Sri Lanka has a pharmacy that’s usually even relatively well stocked.
Nevertheless, we’d advise bringing some things from home. Not all local pharmacies have everything in stock and a lack of English language skills often makes it hard to get the right drugs.
If in doubt, you’ll often just be given painkillers for everything, or even antibiotics.
Something you should always have is a remedy for diarrhea and/or stomach problems. You can get Imodium Multi-Symptom Relief in Sri Lanka, but charcoal tablets are much more suitable.
If you have stomach cramps, you can also try Buscopan.
Of course, you can also be on the safe side and take the complete package, e.g. a malaria standby treatment. That isn’t absolutely necessary for a trip to Sri Lanka.
But if you want to travel around Asia or Southeast Asia for a longer period of time, then we recommend taking a look at our travel health kit in our list of what to pack for Southeast Asia. You’ll find all the drugs there that we brought for several months in Asia.
Where to stay in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, you can stay at expensive Ayurveda hotels, well-known hotel chains, or cheap guest houses. There’s a wide range to choose from, but it can get pretty crowded in the main travel season from December to April.
Especially in the places close to typical sights, almost every family has at least one guest room, usually even several. We generally booked our all our accommodations the day before on booking.com and fared well with it.
What you need to know for your stay in Sri Lanka
Getting around in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is only about the size of Bavaria, but it’ll take you a lot longer than in Bavaria to travel the same number of kilometers in Sri Lanka.
For the last few years, the country has been putting a lot of work into building new roads, but you should still plan enough time for getting around in Sri Lanka.
Traveling by bus in Sri Lanka
Buses are the most widespread form of transportation in Sri Lanka. Even the most remote places have bus connections going there. It’s not always obvious at first glance where a bus is going exactly. But at least there’s always a sign with the two termini.
To find the right bus, just go to the local bus station and tell someone where you want to go. That person will point you to the right bus.
Smaller towns generally only have a small bus stop by the side of the road. There you should definitely find out which direction your destination is in ahead of time so you can stand on the right side of the road.
Just wave at an approaching bus to stop it and ask the driver if he’s heading to where you want to go.
Bus service in Sri Lanka is very regular. There are buses almost every 5 minutes on some routes. And even the most remote destinations often have buses going there every 30 minutes.
Tickets for buses are a real bargain. Even multi-hour trips rarely cost more than one euro. You can buy your ticket right on the bus. Every bus has a conductor who goes through the bus selling tickets to passengers.
Seats on public buses are very tight. Most buses have two seats on the left and three seats on the right. That means the seats are really narrow and for people over 5′ 10″ leg room can get more than just a bit cramped.
Bus drivers are the kings of the streets in Sri Lanka. If you can’t get a seat, then you’ll get a free workout with your bus ride. Because you’ll need to hold on tight during fast-paced overtaking and braking maneuvers.
Some bus drivers are real psychopaths and we were always happy when the ride was over.
For journeys of over two hours we’d make sure to travel by train or to hire a private driver. There’s much more room there and you can take a toilet break when you need one.
Some routes are also served by some more comfortable AC buses with air-conditioning and a little more space.
However, they’re much less common, so you should check at your guest house first to see if there’s a bus like this going to your next destination.
Traveling by train in Sri Lanka
Taking the train is a great way to discover Sri Lanka while you get from A to B. The train route between Kandy and Ella is an absolute MUST-DO for every traveler, but the train is a great option for traveling to other parts of the island too.
Train tickets are also very cheap. The train from Aluthgama to Galle, for example, only cost us 100 LKR per person, which is about 60 cents (travel time: 1 hour).
Many trains have a 2nd and a 3rd class, and some trains also have a 1st class.
The second class is absolutely sufficient and much more comfortable compared to the bus. But the 3rd class can be a real experience and you’ll probably stand out like a sore thumb. The comfort level here is much lower than in 2nd class and it isn’t unlikely that you won’t find a free seat here.
For most routes, you can just buy a ticket at the station before departure. For some very popular routes however (e.g. from Kandy to Ella), you should purchase tickets as early as possible because the trains fill up quickly.
Always make sure to hold on to the ticket until the end because you have to show it when you arrive at your destination.
Traveling by tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka
Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous on Sri Lanka’s streets. There probably isn’t a family in Sri Lanka where somebody doesn’t own a tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks are the ideal means of transport for shorter distances.
Tuk-tuks in Colombo officially come with a taximeter, but we never met anyone who actually drove with the meter on. That means you have to negotiate the price for a trip with the driver beforehand. 50 LKR per kilometer is a good rule of thumb, but many drivers will demand a lot more.
Of course you can also go on full-day tuk-tuk tours. For example, we drove around with the paterfamilias of our guest house in Dambulla for a whole day and he showed us Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya (or moreover the alternative: Pidurangala), monitor lizards, and wild elephants.
We paid 4,500 LKR (about 30 euros) for the tour. Not including the admission fees for the sights of course.
Domestic flights in Sri Lanka
Flying is not very common in Sri Lanka, after all the country isn’t that big. But some small airlines, e.g. Cinnamon Air, offer domestic flights. But the prices are usually pretty steep.
Helitours is a good and cheap alternative. Helitours belongs to the Sri Lankan Air Force and operates some domestic flights that are open to civilian passengers. Helitours currently offers flights from Colombo-Ratmalana Airport to Trincomalee and Jaffna.
Tickets are cheap and can be purchased at short notice. We flew from Colombo to Trincomalee with Helitours and paid about 30 euros per person for the flight. The company uses modern Chinese propeller planes and there’s even a small snack box on board for every passenger.
You can book flights online up until 48 hours before the flight date on the Helitours website.
If you want to book at even shorter notice, you have to go to the Helitours office in Colombo in person. But call ahead first to make sure there are seats left on that flight. You can find the contact information for Helitours here.
Traveling in Sri Lanka with a private driver
A car with a driver is the most luxurious, but also the most expensive way to explore Sri Lanka.
We wouldn’t recommend attempting to drive yourself. Sri Lankan traffic and driving isn’t for the faint of heart. If you aren’t an absolute adrenaline junkie, then you should leave the driving to a professional.
For example, we paid 11,000 LKR (about 75 euros) for a six-hour trip from Ella to Unawatuna with a private driver and five passengers.
If you want a driver for several days, you should expect to pay about 50 euros per day including gas. Many places provide free room and board for the driver.
Money and currency in Sri Lanka
The official currency in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan rupee. 1 euros is worth about 150 LKR (as of November 2015).
There should be at least one ATM in every town, where you can withdraw money. ATMs usually don’t accept regular debit cards, so you’ll most likely have to use a credit card for withdrawals.
Our tip: You can save a lot of money abroad with the right credit card. Only a few credit cards offer free withdrawal and payment.
Travel expenses – How much money do you need in Sri Lanka?
Of course you can travel in great luxury and spend a lot of money if you want. But you don’t have to.
On our trip to Sri Lanka, we spent almost exactly 60 euros per day for the two of us. We didn’t stay at the cheapest accommodations, always ate a lot, and paid some pretty expensive admission fees.
If you economize, you can certainly travel for less. But if you’d like your accommodation to be a little more luxurious, you should budget a little more.
Some prices in Sri Lanka as a guideline:
Simple double room without air conditioning: 10-15 euros
Simple double room without air conditioning: 20-30 euros
Dining at a local restaurant: 1-2 euros
Dining at a tourist restaurant: 5-6 euros
One beer (0.65 liters): 2-3 euros
A coconut at the side of the road: 0.30 – 0.50 euros
A bus or train ride (1-2 hours): 1 euro
A tuk-tuk ride (5 km): 2 euros
Admission to one of the famous sights or national parks: 30 euros
Do you tip in Sri Lanka?
Everyone in Sri Lanka generally expects a tip. Especially in the restaurant business, wages are extremely low so most people live off of tips.
In restaurants it’s customary to leave waiters a 10% tip. Some restaurants add a service charge of 10%, but it’s doubtful if this money ever ends up in the employees’ pockets.
Maids, porters, guides, and drivers also expect a tip. Maids get about 20 LKR per day, or 100 LKR per week. Hotel porters usually expect about 20-40 LKR per bag. Drivers and guides expect a tip of about 3-5 euros per day.
Please tip, but don’t go overboard!
Eating and drinking in Sri Lanka
Food in Sri Lanka is very varied and delicious. The cuisine is comparable to Indian cuisine, but only to a certain extent.
You shouldn’t be afraid to try everything! Sri Lankans eat a lot of spicy food, but nowhere near as spicy as in Thailand or India. If you don’t like spicy food, you should tell them before every order.
The best food was at small stalls that didn’t even look all that inviting from the outside. Go where the locals eat and you will experience a true feast for the palate.
And there’s good news for vegetarians: It’s easy to go without meat in Sri Lanka. Many dishes are exclusively vegetable-based and they’re all delicious without fail.
Popular dishes in Sri Lanka
The national dish is rice and curry. But it has very little to do with the kind of curry that you may be familiar with from Thai cuisine.
A rice and curry dish consists of a huge mound of rice and many small curries that are served alongside in small bowls or scooped onto the plate with a large ladle.
Depending on the restaurant that you can get between three and ten different curries. One of the curries is usually chicken or fish, and the others are usually vegetarian.
Another specialty is kottu. It consists of a roti, a thin piece of bread, cut into strips and then served with vegetables, fish, or meat and usually relatively spicy.
Hoppers are another national dish. They’re little pancakes fried in a small pan giving them their characteristic rounded shape.
Hoppers are often served with an egg – they’re called egg hoppers.
And then there are string hoppers. If you order a string hopper, you’ll get a pancake made of lots of smaller rice noodles. Hoppers are served with a number of sides and are commonly eaten for breakfast.
Drinks in Sri Lanka
When you’re in Sri Lanka, you have to try the famous king coconuts. They’re sold at the side of the road for just a few cents, cut open with a machete, and then you drink them with a straw.
King coconuts from Sri Lanka are said to be the best in the world.
Sri Lanka ist also a paradise for fresh fruit juices. Pineapple, mango, passion fruit, melon, papaya – everything your heart desires.
Lion Beer is the most popular beer brand in the country and is available wherever you go. It’s served in large 0.65-liter bottles and doesn’t taste bad at all.
Internet and phone calls in Sri Lanka
The Internet in Sri Lanka was surprisingly good. Of course there were some exceptions and some accommodations where the Internet didn’t work properly, but all in all, the connection was perfectly fine for simple work, publishing blog posts, or looking something up.
If you want mobile Internet, we recommend buying a local SIM card at the airport in Colombo. Every mobile carrier in Sri Lanka has a small booth in the arrivals hall (after you’ve picked up your luggage).
We recommend Dialog because it has the best coverage in our experience. Just walk up to the provider’s booth and tell them you’d like to buy an Internet package (we had 5 GB).
Make sure they don’t sell you a tourist SIM card because their main purpose is calling home rather than surfing the net.
The staff will make a copy of your passport and set up the SIM card directly in your phone. You should also ask them to write down the name of the package so you can top up the card if need be.
A SIM card including 5 GB of data costs approx. 8 euros. That gives you access to the Internet wherever you are, and if you have to, you can also use your cellphone as a hotspot.
You can buy top-up cards at almost every convenience store and you can top up your credit for very little money (about 1 euro per GB depending on the provider).
Safety tips for Sri Lanka
Ever since the civil war ended in March 2009, there’s been no political unrest or terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, the military and police presence is still relatively pervasive in all parts of the country, and you’ll often see one or two soldiers with automatic weapons guarding important political or military buildings. But that’s a sight you’ll quickly get used to.
It’s no problem to travel to every part of the country nowadays. Most of the mines in the north and parts of the east of the country have been cleared since the end of the civil war. But there are still ongoing mine-clearing campaigns in both parts of the country.
Don’t worry though, these areas are clearly marked as restricted and are only accessible to the military.
You should take note of the following for your trip to Sri Lanka:
Photos of military installations or buildings are forbidden, which includes railway stations.
Don’t be surprised if you have to go through security checks on your journey, and if you do, just follow the instructions of the military to the letter. But that never happened to us.
Especially in the east of the country in and between the towns Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Arugam Bay, you may come across military checkpoints where buses or trains have to stop. So make sure to bring ID wherever you go. That never happened to us either though.
You should never travel to the hinterland alone (especially in the east and the north) and ignore signs reading “No Entry” or suchlike. There are still some mines scattered in these regions.
Always make sure to dress appropriately, especially in temples and at religious sites.
Break-ins and thefts are said to be on the rise. Protect your valuables, e.g. as we did using a Pacsafe (brilliant thing!). Only really expensive hotels have safes in the rooms. We never had any bad experiences ourselves and didn’t hear of any robberies or burglaries from other travelers we met. But still, better to be safe than sorry.
Communicating with locals
Let’s start with an important fact: When Sri Lankans shake their heads, they aren’t expressing refusal or displeasure. We admit it sounds a bit weird, but Sri Lankans ‘wiggle’ with their head to express agreement.
Now let’s get to some basic facts about communicating in Sri Lanka:
There are two official languages, Sinhala and Tamil. If you ask a Sri Lankan how to say an English word in their national language, they’ll probably ask you: in Tamil or Sinhalese? So you’ll always have to remember the words in two languages.
You can look up the most important words in Sinhalese here:
Hello – hallo
Good morning – subha udhasanak
Good afternoon – subha dhavalak
Good evening – subha sandhavak
Yes – ou
No – nehe
Please – karunakarala
Thank you – istuti
Excuse me – samavena
Goodbye – gihilla ennam (answer: “gihin ennam”)
One – eka
Two – deka
Three – tuna
Four – hatara
Five – paha
Six – haya
Seven – hata
Eight – aṭa
Nine – navaya
Ten – dahaya
If you want to know some more words or want to listen to the pronunciation for each word, then take a look at this page.
We were actually really amazed at how good the English of young Sri Lankans is. Young children in particular speak really excellent English. But when it comes to the older generation, communication is much more difficult.
Sri Lankan salesmanship is often hard to bear and it can be hard not to lose your cool and tell people in no uncertain terms that you don’t want their merchandise. But you should always try to stay calm and answer with a friendly “No, thank you. I don’t need anything”.
To be honest, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between good intentions and pure salesmanship. But you shouldn’t just assume a money-making motive behind every kind gesture.
Our tip: Try to use some common sense when Sri Lankans approach you and offer to ‘help’ you.
General rules of conduct in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a very easygoing country for traveling. But there are still a few things you should look out for during your trip:
When visiting religious sites: Always remove any headgear, take off your shoes, and keep your shoulders and knees covered.
You’ve been invited by a family? Leave your shoes at the front door. Small gifts are always welcome (but are don’t expect exuberant displays of gratitude).
Usually you also take off your shoes before entering your hotel room. Of course that also applies when someone shows you a room.
Locals use their hands to eat rice and curry, but tourists are usually given a fork and spoon. Make sure you always use your right hand to eat. The left hand is considered impure.
If you hand something to someone, you should also always use your right hand.
Never let the soles of your feet face other people or Buddha statues. Feet are also considered to be impure.
Taking pictures in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a dream for every photographer. There’s a great photo opportunity around every corner – colorfully dressed people, wild animals, historical temples, beautiful landscapes.
Buying photography equipment beyond a few memory cards isn’t that easy in Sri Lanka. So you shouldn’t forget anything at home.
If you don’t want to carry around countless lenses, a travel zoom is really helpful for Sri Lanka. Our Tamron 16-300 mm lens really served us well in Sri Lanka.
Posing in front of Buddha statues is an absolute no-go. This is regarded as a sign of great disrespect and is even subject to severe penalties. You’ll be lucky if you just have to delete your photos. In particular egregious cases of disrespect, you might even be deported.
Sri Lankan people are often very happy to have their picture taken. Obviously you should always ask for permission first – a smile or a quick nod should do the trick.
Animal welfare in Sri Lanka
Riding elephants, marveling at cobras, watching whales, and holding cute baby turtles in your hands. That all sounds wonderful at first. But please think twice about it. Animal welfare isn’t a great priority in Sri Lanka.
As great as it may be to ride elephants or hold baby turtles in your hands, we’d beg you not to do it!
The elephants aren’t kept in suitable conditions, are often abused, and their true purpose in life certainly isn’t to carry tourists around. Please don’t ride elephants! Not just in Sri Lanka, but anywhere!
Read here why riding elephants is animal cruelty and what you can do to help.
There are some turtle sanctuaries in Sri Lanka where you can see and touch small, cute turtle babies. That sounds really tempting and the sanctuaries claim that turtle eggs are safer there than at the beach. That may be true, but it isn’t that simple.
After the turtles hatch in the basins at the sanctuaries, tourists can release them into the ocean for a fee.
The problem is that the baby turtles that hatch on the beach still have food reserves from the egg. The babies need it for the 3 days it takes them to swim out into the open sea. That gives them the chance to quickly escape their natural predators laying in wait for them at the coast.
But turtle babies that hatch in sanctuary basins quickly use up these reserves and have none left when they’re released into the sea, so they only have a tiny chance of survival.
Sadly, many whale-watching tours aren’t very animal-friendly either. In many cases, the boats get too close and inflict severe stress on the whales.
We can recommend a whale tour provider in Mirissa, Raja and the Whales, where you can book a tour without a guilty conscience.
At popular tourist attractions, e.g. Galle Fort, you’ll encounter street artists who’ll want to show you their cobra or their monkey. Again, please don’t support this form of animal cruelty.
As a general rule, we’d like to ask you to think about it first before you pay for animals as a tourist attraction.
One of our lovely readers also drew our attention to the Dog Care Clinic near Unawatuna, so we want to tell you a bit about it.
Earlier on, we already mentioned the many stray dogs and how important it is to be vaccinated against rabies. But now we’d like to talk about the dogs themselves. Many of the millions of street dogs in Sri Lanka have a very sad life, aren’t treated well be the locals, and are afflicted with often-fatal diseases, as well as parasites and malnutrition.
Near Unawatuna (Galle) there’s a Dog Care Clinic that was founded during the civil war and after the tsunami by a German woman named Marina Möbius.
The clinic is open 365 days a year and for the most part offers free castrations, vaccinations, and treatment. More than 50,000 dogs have already been neutered, and more than 500,000 dogs have been vaccinated against rabies.
Thanks to the clinic’s efforts, no rabies cases have been registered here for more than two years. So there’s no need to be afraid of touching dogs in this region. Of course you should still be careful.
Sick and weak dogs are taken to the clinic and nursed back to health. Marina also supports lots of poor and old people with her clinic. She pays for almost 80 percent of the clinic’s operating costs out of her own pocket. The rest comes from donations, mainly from German-speaking countries.
If you want to get involved in animal welfare in Sri Lanka, this is a great place to start, and if you find a sick or injured dog in this region, then please contact the clinic.
Do you have tips for Sri Lanka too?
Then let us know or leave a comment. We’re looking forward to it!
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