Ready to head to Sri Lanka? These travel tips should help make your getaway the best it can be.
Distilled from the collective anecdotes of our destination experts – most of which are best saved for the inevitable paperback – these words of travel advice are all the product of personal experiences and lessons learnt while travelling and living in Sri Lanka.
We regularly revise and update these tips and tidbits to ensure that this page is a timely and relevant guide for your time in paradise. If you have any further questions beyond what’s listed here, please do get in touch.
Learn the lingo
Sri Lanka has three official languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English.
There is a large degree of regional crossover but, as a rule of thumb, Sinhala is the dominant language in the south, west and central regions, while Tamil is the language of the north and east.
Conversational English is widely spoken, while a small but significant proportion of Sri Lankans speak English as a first language.
ayubowan – welcome/may you live long (largely reserved for formal occasions and cabin crew)
sthuthi – thanks (not really used in everyday speech – ‘please’ and ‘thanks’ will do just fine!)
machang – mate (term of endearment between men)
kohomada? – how are you? (as a friendly greeting)
hondai – good (as a response)
kamak nae – no problem
kiyeda? – how much?
kiyetada? – at what time?
kelin yanna – go straight (directions)
dakunata – to the right
vamata – to the left
vanakkam – hello (used both formally and informally)
nandri – thanks (commonly used)
machaan – origin of Sinhala word ‘machang’. Literal meaning is brother-in-law, but it can be used for close friends
eppadi sugam? – how are you?
parava illai – not bad, no problem, never mind
evvalavu? – how much?
ettana manikku? – at what time?
nera – straight (directions)
idam – left
valam – right
Sri Lankan English
As with any regional dialect – be it Scouse or Scottish – Sri Lankan English has its own quirks, eccentricities and turns of phrase, a few of which are listed below. These aren’t ‘wrong’ or ‘bad English’, but the island’s own take on a language that’s always been moulded by those who use it.
How? – greeting, like ‘how are you?’
What to do? – used in exasperation, like ‘what can you do?’
Go and come – go somewhere and return, usually on the same day
Paining – as in, ‘my head is paining’
Outstation – out of Colombo
Down south – on the south coast, around Galle
Colour light – traffic light
Bus halt – bus stop
Aiyo! – exclamation, like ‘oh no!’
After long time – used when you see someone after what is often not such a long time
Batchmate – classmate
Staying – living, as in ‘where are you staying now?’
Short eats/bites – snacks
(Bloody) buggers – people
Put – make, as in ‘put a call’
Get down from – get off, as in ‘get off the bus’
Actually… – universal start to any sentence
….no? – universal end to most questions
When to visit
Sri Lanka is an incredible destination to visit all year round, but temperature, rainfall and sea conditions do vary considerably depending on the time of year.
Temperatures hit their sticky peak in April and May, with ‘feels-like’ figures sometimes topping 40°C. If you don’t fancy exploring in a sauna, you might like to adjust your plans to suit.
Heavy monsoon rains routinely arrive in June/July and October/November, though this has varied in recent years. Rain is not uncommon outside of these months, either – and when it rains, it really rains: flash flooding is frequent and many urban areas grind to a halt as puddles become little lakes. Staying dry is tricky in such circumstances and, as one of us found to our soggy regret, even the battened-down back seat of a three-wheeler isn’t fully protected from the spray of a passing SUV.
If you want clear skies and crystal seas for your visit to Sri Lanka, then, you’ll need to time your visit and route accordingly. Check the location of your hotel and the relevant season before booking to avoid the disappointment of unexpected weather – though there’s no cosier feeling than curling up with a coffee and a book on a terrace, watching palm trees sway in the sideways rain.
Each of our hotel listings includes a recommendation of the best time to visit, but as a rough guide:
For the South & South West coast, the season is November to March.
For the East Coast & Hill Country, the season is May to September.
If you’re not discouraged by a bit of dampness, visiting in the off-season can be a great decision. Many hotels remain open outside of their high season, offering competitive deals and – if you’re lucky – you might find you’ve got the place all to yourself.
Things to bring
Unless you’re addicted to extra mature cheddar, affordable red wine and Dairy Milk chocolate, you’ll find that almost everything you need during your getaway is available on the island.
The notable exception, in our experience, is tampons: there are sanitary pads aplenty in the supermarkets, but you won’t find tampons for sale – so do stock up before you travel.
Toiletries in general can be substantially more expensive than in Europe, too. Sun cream, for example, is really quite pricey, while deodorant also carries quite the mark-up. That said, most of the essentials – including medication – are readily available at supermarkets and pharmacies.
Packing a plug adapter? Most places use UK three-pin plugs, with a smattering of two- and three-pin European sockets thrown in just to keep things interesting.
There are always many ways to achieve the same result in Sri Lanka – and that’s very much the case when it comes to travelling. By road alone you can take a three-wheeler, bike, car, minibus, government bus, private bus or A/C bus. Then you have the option of trains or, if you’re feeling flush, planes.
In truth, whichever mode of transport you decide works best for your journey, it’s almost guaranteed to be an experience in itself. Plenty has been written about the beauty of the Colombo to Ella train ride, but there are countless delights beyond that – from encountering elephants on the road to Poḷonnaruwa, to enjoying what one of us believes to be the most picturesque highway in the world (the stretch between Colombo and Galle).
A note on timings: transport in Sri Lanka rarely runs to time. Road journeys routinely take 25% longer than Google Maps predicts. Trains, thanks to ageing stock and a one-up-one-down system, are reliably late. Buses? Anybody’s guess. Just go with it and don’t put anything concrete on your calendar for the day you travel.
Train travel is an absolute highlight of any visit to Sri Lanka. Sure, you might be squashed in a doorway between a businessman, three school kids and a man selling spicy pineapple chunks from a big pink bucket, but it doesn’t get more authentic than devouring delicious prawn wade wrapped in a discarded sheet of school homework. And, no, we’ve never been sick from eating train snacks.
Train tickets are available for purchase in person at train stations across Sri Lanka up to 30 days before the date of travel. On popular routes, these can and do sell out – quickly. Some admirable efforts at modernising the booking process have been made but these remain in their infancy. Either go to the station yourself, or book through a travel agent or online third-party (which naturally carries a substantial commission). You’ll find train times here.
First-class – if your chosen train features it – will generally mean air-conditioning, a reserved seat and plenty of space. Second/third-class tickets can be reserved on certain routes, but will more often need to be bought on the day of travel. If (and it’s a big if) you get a seat, these are generally comfortable, if a little tired, and the best pew is the one by the window, for breeze and views.
At peak times and on popular routes (notably the coastal train that runs between Colombo and Galle), you’re more likely to find yourself in a carriage with standing room only, so be prepared to squeeze if you’ve got bags. Your reward, if within distance of an open door, is an unforgettable ride: palm trees brushing the carriage, cricket bats drying beside the track, passersby waving from their windows and even the chance of a tan.
Known locally as trishaws or three-wheelers, these ubiquitous vehicles are often the simplest answer to short-distance travel. Found islandwide, they can tackle all sorts of terrain, take a surprising amount of luggage (including surfboards) and – with a push – conquer the steepest of Sri Lankan slopes.
Within Colombo, trishaws are generally fitted with meters that calculate the fare based on time and distance. Just be sure to check the meter is switched on and working when you hop in, to avoid any price disagreement at the end.
Alas, meters aren’t found beyond Colombo’s limits, so you’ll need to get your haggle on outside of the city. Absolutely always agree a price before starting a ride, otherwise the price will spiral.
Meters usually calculate at a rate of rs.50/km, but there’s almost no chance of getting that price in a non-metered tuk. Instead, check the length of your journey on Google Maps and use that number as a base, then bargain gently.
Friendly haggling is part of the fun, but don’t push too hard. If the price is too high, walk away.
A smile goes a long way and, while no-one wants to be ripped off, a few £ or $ either way can make a considerable difference to the earnings that your driver takes home at the end of the day. Oh, and the phrase ‘local price’ means precisely the opposite.
In any case, the trishaw you’ve flagged might well be your only option, especially in the evening and in rural areas. You can often get a better bargain by agreeing a two-way journey and many drivers will be happy to wait while you have dinner/explore a tea factory/climb Sigiriya – or come back at an appointed time.
Train delayed or bus not coming? Taking a long-distance trishaw can be quite the experience if you’re not in a rush – even if the seat vibrations leave you in need of a deep tissue massage. A few firms in Sri Lanka are now offering trishaw rental to tourists, too, if you’re feeling brave.
Be sure to keep an eye out for the fantastic stickers and decals that adorn almost every tuk in Sri Lanka – from the faces of Bob Marley and Jack Sparrow to wonderful nonsense phrases. Our personal favourite? “Win without basting.”
For absolute ease, hiring a car with a driver is the way to go. It’s a simple and relatively affordable option (compared to taxi costs in other countries), either for a single journey or a set number of days – and your driver will often act as a guide as you go.
Note that you’ll be expected to pay for the driver’s meals while on your journey, and their accommodation if travelling for multiple days. Many hotels offer drivers’ accommodation if you contact them in advance, though do confirm the quality of this beforehand, as it can sometimes be pretty dismal. We recommend TravelBeingdom for a reliable, reasonably priced service.
Within Colombo and in the Galle area, Uber – and PickMe, its local equivalent – provide an easy and competitively priced on-demand option for short and medium distance journeys. These are especially useful for getting to/from the airport. You can take inter-city rides out of the city, too, though availability varies day to day.
You can rent a car and drive yourself in Sri Lanka. Several reputable firms offer reasonable rates and good quality vehicles.
Be aware, though, that driving in Sri Lanka is not for the faint of heart: road markings are routinely ignored (two painted lanes become four in reality), over- and undertaking is a constant occurrence, mirror usage is optional, trishaws will go for every gap in the traffic – even if you don’t think there is one – and the horn is a more useful tool than the brake pedal.
Willing to brave it? You’ll need to get a temporary licence from the Department of Motor Traffic or have an International Driving Permit endorsed by the Automobile Association of Ceylon.
Scooters and motorbikes are a popular form of personal transport, both in cities and rural areas. Zippy, easy to park and great for darting through traffic, what they lack in luggage space and rain protection they make up for in manoeuvrability – and it’s not uncommon to see a whole family squashed onto a single saddle.
It is possible to rent a scooter as a tourist and this is particularly common around the surf spots of the south coast, where the roads are a little more open. Be aware, though, that the same warnings about traffic and driving standards apply here. If you’ve never ridden before, this might not be the best place to learn: foreigners have been severely injured while riding in Sri Lanka. Be wary of large vehicles (particularly buses), watch out for dogs running into the road and always wear a helmet.
The blaring, belching buses that barrel along every one of Sri Lanka’s asphalt arteries are as much a part of its narrative as rice packets and corruption. Almost always found careening around corners, these cramped carriages keep the country moving, ferrying passengers at breakneck speeds from the farthest corners, along mountain roads and into the heart of the city.
Ancient machines almost universally built by Ashok Leyland, they hurtle around with little regard for traffic laws, speed limits or the comfort of those they contain – and they do so for hours and hours. Red ones are government-owned, while the blue and white buses are private, which means they’re competing for fares. Cue fearful speeds and passengers often packed in like Maldive fish.
Sound bad? It’s not for everyone, but the bus is arguably your best bet for a truly unique travel experience in Sri Lanka. Half the fun is finding your way. Locating the bus stand, then the correct bus, is a task best completed with the aid of a helpful Sri Lankan – of which you’ll usually find plenty at the stand. Once you’re on, expect loud music, a long ride and smiles aplenty.
Most buses out of Colombo leave from Fort station (adjacent to the railway station of the same name). That’s also where you’ll find smaller minivans running the same routes in marginally shorter times.
Heading to the south coast? Go to the multi-modal transport centre in Kottawa for the highway bus – air-conditioned, modern coaches that drive relatively sensibly and get you to Galle or Matara in just a couple of hours.
Keen to cut the cross-country travel time? Flying is an option within Sri Lanka, if you’re feeling flush – or fearless.
Cinnamon Air offers an ‘air taxi’ service, with daily flights covering a range of routes that include all of the major tourist destinations – and many more off the beaten track. You can also charter a private service. Click here for more information.
HeliTours, on the other hand, is run by the Sri Lankan Air Force and lets you hitch a ride on a military plane for a surprisingly reasonable fee – provided you’re happy to sign an ‘indemnity form’ before you hop on board. You’ll find the timetable and rates by clicking here.
Island life offers charms and strengths aplenty, but timekeeping isn’t chief among them. Sri Lankans – like many islanders across the world – are often late. We’ve had students stroll into classes 5 minutes from the end, dinner guests arrive 90 minutes later than expected and delivery drivers turn up two days, three hours and seven minutes after the allotted time.
The secret, of course, is to embrace it. Don’t come to Sri Lanka with one eye on the clock. If you have meetings or appointments, allow extra time – and don’t expect much to run to schedule. Take a cue from the Lankans, who exercise saintly levels of patience – whether in the immigration queue, at the bus stand or sitting at an empty table, an hour after ordering.
Oh, and when you miss the train because it arrived on time and departed early for the first time in three months, smiling is the only answer. As the country’s own Tourism Promotion Bureau puts it: so Sri Lanka.
No amount of writing – and certainly not a few small paragraphs here – can truly capture the vibrant diversity of Sri Lanka and its people. A melting pot of religion, language, caste and culture (with all the complexities and tensions to match), Sri Lanka has layers that can take a lifetime to peel back, let alone understand.
That said, besides experiencing Sri Lanka in person, books are absolutely the best way to go deeper into all of its glorious idiosyncrasies.
You won’t see many Sri Lankans reading books on buses or trains – even with a 98% literacy rate – but there is burgeoning body of literary work that explores the country’s past, present and future.
Through fact, fiction and the fascinating middle ground between the two, writers of myriad backgrounds have tackled all manner of topics – from the cricket addiction that afflicts swathes of the population, to the ethnic tensions that fuelled a deadly, decades-long civil war, to truly amazing racism. Want a few suggestions to get your started? Here’s our recommended reading list.
The Head Wobble
Fantastically infuriating yet remarkably indispensable, you’ll encounter this gentle tilt-and-roll of the head and neck wherever you go in Sri Lanka.
Many things to many people, it’s the ultimate communication utility tool. Yes, no, OK, maybe, not in a million years: the ‘head wobble’, like the industrious Lankans, can do it all.
Rolling like the waves of the Indian Ocean, there’s hidden inflection to the repeated inclination that takes years to decipher and, in truth, sometimes you’ve just got to go with it.
Tourist: Can you come back at 10am?
Saman (Trishaw driver): *head wobble*
Tourist: It’s OK?
Saman: *head wobble*
Tourist: So you’ll come at 10am?
Saman: *head wobble*
Tourist: And you know the place?
Saman: *vigorous head wobble*
Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. But he’ll get you there, even if he stops three times to ask for directions and lists every English cricketer he knows along the way.
Spend a fortnight in Sri Lanka and you’re guaranteed to meet a street dog. Almost universally friendly, these fluffy friends are of no fixed abode – but they’re not strays. Instead, they generally have a patch – and pals – within a village or area. They’ll usually be known to locals, intrigued by newcomers and love howling at the bread van (a converted trishaw stacked with loaves, which announces its arrival with a warbling tune audible at 1000 paces). Note that rabies is very rare but tics can be common.
Some estimates suggest that there are more than 2 million street dogs in Sri Lanka. In general, they live in happy harmony with humans and animals, but things don’t always go to plan. Some fall ill, while others get hit on the road. Misconceptions also mean that some Sri Lankans have an intense fear of dogs, which can lead to mistreatment in the name of safety. Our local hound, for example, is blind in one eye because someone threw a stone to keep him away.
There is very little animal protection legislation in Sri Lanka and it falls largely to private parties and charities to care for and protect street dogs who are ill or injured. These organisations do incredible work treating disease and injuries, and rescuing those that can’t remain in their present area, for whatever reason. To find out more, check out WeCare, Embark and the Dog Care Clinic.
Sri Lanka is veritably bursting with wild things – and not just its cricket fans after a T20 win. Besides street dogs, you’ll find cats aplenty, as well as few less cuddly creatures – including crows, rats and cockroaches.
Elephants are top of many people’s wish lists when they visit the island. It’s far better to see one in the wild than in captivity, so head to one of the country’s many national parks – but do your research before selecting: Yala is a popular choice but can become overcrowded by off-roaders.
Herds of elephants migrate between Minneriya and Kaudulla during the year – pick the right park at the right time and you’ll be in for a treat. Get lucky and you might see a few on the road, too: the route to Polonnaruwa is a popular crossing point, while the stretch that runs past Udawalawe is a good spot for a sighting.
Sri Lanka is also home to a vast number of bird species, from peacocks and kingfishers to all sorts of rare, bright and beautiful breeds.
Going coastal? Seeing a turtle is something special – the shallows of Polhena beach are good for this – while whale-watching is an option, though the sea can get quite choppy and there are question marks over sustainability. Some companies offer aerial whale-watching experiences, too.
As for creatures to steer clear of, monitor lizards frequent undergrowth and their tails can seriously whip (and they’ve been known to eat small creatures). Monkeys can be a noisy nuisance, but will rarely come too close. Spiders and snakes reside in jungle regions; few are deadly, but they’re best avoided all the same. Crocodiles are present in certain rivers and lakes – it goes without saying: if you see one, don’t take a dip.
As befits an island that takes things at its own pace, Sri Lanka has more public holidays than almost any country in the world – more than 25 every year. Whether religious or mercantile, shops and businesses are likely to be closed on these days.
The most notable are monthly Poya (Full Moon) Days, on which supermarkets, liquor stores and restaurants are banned from selling alcohol – and drinking publicly is not permitted. Do buy a bottle the day beforehand if you fancy a moonlight tipple, but you’ll likely to have to enjoy it in the privacy of your own terrace.
Things also slow down around Sinhala and Tamil New Year, usually in mid-April, so do your research if travelling at that time of year!
Note: many shops and cafes take Mondays as their closing day, rather than Sundays.
On the topic of alcohol, you’ll find no shortage of watering holes in Sri Lanka – from the swish rooftop spots of Colombo to the breezy beach bars of the south coast.
Lion Lager is the local beer, while arrack – made from sap that’s tapped from coconut trees, then fermented – is a Sri Lankan spirit with, well, spirit. Cocktails are popular, too, while wine carries a relatively high price tag.
Restaurants and hotels need a liquor licence to be able to serve alcoholic drinks. These can be difficult and costly to obtain, so many places opt not to. Instead, it’s very common for hotels and eateries to allow guests to bring their own alcohol, with no corkage charge. If you’re keen for a sundowner, be sure to check your hotel’s policy – otherwise it might be watermelon juice until morning.
Filtered water is absolutely fine to drink and a much better alternative to buying water in plastic bottles. Some companies also sell water in glass bottles, which is a good middle ground.
Got an appetite? Good: you’ll eat well in Sri Lanka. Portions are generous and the food both varied and delicious. From strings and egg hoppers to kotthu and the classic rice and curry, culinary treats abound on the island.
Western fare can be found in most parts, but keep it local for the best grub going. Simple eateries known as kades or ‘hotels’ will serve you authentic cuisine in straightforward surroundings. If you don’t do well with spicy food, most bigger restaurants will happily make your dish milder.
Fresh seafood is a real treat by the coast, while you’re almost guaranteed to be given at least one king coconut – thambili – during your time on the island. Snacks served from small stalls and on public transport are, in our experience, usually delicious and shouldn’t make you sick.
It’s very easy to be vegetarian in Sri Lanka, with curry dishes usually served in separate bowls. Likewise, coconut milk is a common component and eggs can be avoided, which makes life simpler for vegans.
Sri Lanka has a big problem with plastic pollution. Several organisations are trying to change this through education, clean-up campaigns and novel plastic alternatives.
While you’re in Sri Lanka, please support their efforts by refusing plastic straws and avoiding plastic water bottles, which are frequently offered at small cafés and restaurants. If you’re buying groceries at a market or supermarket, try to take your own reusable bags, rather than using multiple plastic ones.
You’ll find that most hotels, cafés, supermarkets and businesses in Colombo and Galle will take international credit cards, but it’s best to have rupees (LKR) to hand for transactions in smaller towns and villages, when buying from small shops/restaurants and when playing for transport.
Note that a rs.5,000 note (equivalent to approx. £25) will almost never be accepted by three-wheeler drivers, on buses or in small cafes. Request small notes from a money changer (500s, 100s and 50s) or visit the bank to ask for larger notes to be broken into small change. It’ll be worth the effort when you pop into a tea shop, hail a ride or want to leave a small tip!
Whether as a family, a backpacker, a surfer or a couple, Sri Lanka is generally a very safe place to visit. Sri Lankans are, in the main, honest, kind and friendly towards foreigners. Theft is rare, as are muggings. The worst thing you are likely to experience is being over-charged for a trishaw fare.
However, there is still a risk. Women in particular can experience unwanted attention and sexual assault is not unheard of. Take care when travelling as a solo female or as a female group, especially after dark and in rural areas.
Sri Lankans are inherently inquisitive. Questions such as “where are you from?” and “are you married?” are par for the course, and these are usually well meaning. If you feel uncomfortable, though, be polite but firm and direct. If you are particularly unsettled, consider seeking assistance from someone nearby – people will generally be happy to intervene and the mere act of involving another party is usually enough to dispel a difficult situation.
Take care on the roads. Buses and SUVs in particular drive quickly and will not always stop just because you are crossing. Roads can become treacherous in the rain, especially the southern expressway – so take care as both a pedestrian and an occupant.
If you are swimming, be alert to rip tides. Do not swim where the water looks rough and, if in doubt, check with your hotel. The Indian Ocean is beautiful, but people have been swept away in Sri Lanka and it’s always better not to take the risk.
Health risks: Dengue Fever
Sri Lanka is malaria-free. The most potent health risk (other than perhaps sunburn) is dengue fever. Transmitted by infected Aedes mosquitos (distinguished from other mosquitoes by their black & white stripy legs), dengue can cause serious illness.
At the very least it’s an unpleasant way to ruin a holiday, at worst it can put you in hospital for days – and can be potentially life-threatening, especially for children.
Prevention is the best course of action. Bring plenty of insect repellent, use mosquito nets if available and light a coil, if possible – especially in the early evening, when the mosquitoes are most active.
You can find more information on dengue here.
Healthcare provision in the big cities – Colombo, Kandy and Galle – is generally good, with a range of public and private hospitals and clinics available. Options are slimmer in more rural areas and for any serious issues you would usually be taken to the nearest large town or city.
If you are admitted to hospital, you will generally have the option of staying on a ward or in a private room. Usually your travel insurance provider will advise what you are covered for.
While standards of cleanliness might be lower than what you are used to, hospitals are well-equipped to deal with illnesses such as dengue.
There is no state ambulance service in Sri Lanka. Private services do exist in urban areas, though these often have a tricky time getting through traffic. Sometimes a tuk-tuk is the best option in an emergency.
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, with Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities. Visitors to places of worship will usually be asked to cover their shoulders and knees. This is often the case for both men and women. Carry a scarf in your bag if visiting the Ancient Cities or other cultural sites.
You’ll find men in Sri Lanka generally wear shorts, jeans or a sarong, with a shirt or t-shirt. Women will usually wear jeans or mid-to-long skirts. Sri Lankans are largely tolerant of and kind towards foreigners, but we would recommend avoiding strappy/low-cut tops and short shorts when outside of your hotel, out of respect.
Female travellers may also find an increase in unwanted attention if wearing shorter or low-cut clothing. This is frustrating anywhere, but dressing with this in mind is a simple way to avoid potential hassle and harassment.
The same goes for journeys between the beach and your hotel. As a general rule, if you’re not on the sand, both men and women should be appropriately covered.