Sri Lanka | What you need to know before you visit
For many years, Sri Lanka has been high up on my bucket list. After experiencing the beauty and culture of Mauritius – where my father is from – at a young age, I was eager to venture to other places that might offer the same incredible diversity in both people and landscape. Reading travel articles and watching documentaries quickly turned Sri Lanka into this magical place I just had to visit, and while I didn’t have the time on my first trip to Asia, I knew I would soon be back. When we were leaving Australia, my boyfriend actually suggested the trip – he knew it was a dream of mine to travel here and he too wasn’t quite ready to return to a European winter after spending so much time in the sunshine down under. While I will be posting a LOT about this incredible country, the places we stayed and what we did while we were here – in this post I just want to focus on my first and lasting impressions of the country. This post will focus on all the things I wish I had known before arriving and what I have learned since being here – to save you time and any struggles during your own travels.
Now I do say this a lot in Asia, but never before have I felt it with every ounce of my being. Sri Lanka is home to the kindest, friendliest, warmest and most generous people I have ever had the pleasure of coming across. It really is a joy to travel here both as a couple and as a solo female traveller – I have never felt safer travelling in Asia and have yet to witness a single person even look at my belongings in a dodgy manner let alone actually try and pickpocket or cheat us in any way. The people are genuine and curious about us as travellers, in a way that hasn’t yet been ruined by large numbers of inconsiderate tourists. It’s a pure and very innocent culture who see a traveler and want to ask your name, your story and if they can help you, rather than seeing a way of making money. Every time we have arrived at a place we have been greeted warmly and treated like long-lost family. Every time we have caught public transport even the elderly have stood to offer their seats. Sri Lankans are proud of their hospitality, and even more so of their country – rightly so – and they are eager to share it with visitors by telling you the most beautiful spots. Take advantage of the beautiful nature of the people and see a side of Asia that has been lost in other more touristy areas such as South East Asia, this is a chance to connect with the locals in a different way.
I have been so amazed at the fantastic level of English across Sri Lanka – much better than any Asian country I have previously travelled to – it is easy to chat to most people across the country even in rural areas. Stop anywhere and you will be able to ask most people for directions, help with buses or even just have a chat about how their day is going. Do try and learn a bit of the language, I’ve learnt a few key phrases and I love seeing the locals’ faces light up when I speak Sri Lankan to them – especially when half of them think I look Sri Lankan. Even more amazing, travelling with a German boyfriend, we’ve been astonished at how many Sri Lankan’s speak great German (better than mine!) and are actually able to chat to us in German. Sri Lankan people are very quick and eager to learn, they will always try and pick up some knowledge or phrases from you to use later on.
The train system has really impressed me in Sri Lanka – all the trains we have caught have been on time and efficient which is more than I can say for back home in the UK. Book train tickets a few days ahead to book a first or second class ticket and have a reserved seat, or get them on the day to find a free for all but ride with the locals and get the real experience. We rode with he local from Negombo to Mirissa for 3-4 hours and had a great time – we stood most of the way but we were chatting with all the friendly people on the train and hanging out the door to take in the beautiful coastal views as the train rides right alongside the beach. We will be taking second class seats for the famous ride from Ella to Kandy to ensure we have a seat and a window for some great pics – but even this only cost us less than 400 rupees each for the seven hour ride through the mountains and tea fields.
The bus system throughout Sri Lanka is fantastic and has been my favourite form of transport. While the buses are a little terrifying to ride on at high speed along the highways and through the mountains, they are efficient and cheap. You can ride for several hours for just 100-200 rupees and most of the time you can get a seat. Always talk to the drivers/conductors as they are really friendly and helpful – they will tell you exactly how to get where you need to be, the quickest and best way, plus they’ll tell you when to get off and change buses.
We’ve only hired a scooter in Ella so far, but they had a standard price throughout town at 1,500 rupees per day, a bit steep but its a great quality scooter and it has been really lovely to have the freedom to ride around in the mountains to waterfalls, temples and tea fields all day. Amazing scenery for riding.
As anywhere in Asia, tuk-tuks can be a very efficient and cheap way to get around, you’ll find them all over Sri Lanka and the drivers are usually very helpful. However, as with anywhere in Asia, don’t get ripped off, always speak to a few before you agree a price. Be careful in certain areas such as Dambulla in the Cultural Triangle and Yala National Park, where we were pre-warned that we would be targeted by those trying to rip us off. We were asked 1,500 rupees for a ride that luckily only cost us 400 rupees because we went with a decent driver. Always walk away from the drivers who approach you as you climb off the bus – they are the ones who try to rip you off by putting pressure on you.
Stock up before you travel, if you’re going to need diarrhoea medicine or any other type of medicine that is commonplace in the UK/Australia but might be less easy to come by in Sri Lanka. The pharmacies are good but even with a good level of English, it can sometimes be hard to get your point across if you have a more intimate concern. Ladies – plan ahead – if you’re going to have your period while you are here then come prepared with tampons, moon cups or pads as you don’t get much choice here and tampons are considered a no-go.
Electricals & SIM cards
I’ve been quite surprised since being in Sri Lanka to find that most places have multi-sockets available to charge your electrical items. Many places have had English wall sockets as well as two different sized three-pin sockets available. If in doubt, pick up a universal adapter before you travel, especially if, like me, you have electrical items from all over the world with different plugs. If you’re planning to get a SIM card while you’re in the country – pick up a Dialog one for the best service throughout the country. There are plenty of great deals for tourists with data packages to keep you online – I bought the biggest one available for 1,000 rupees so I could hotspot using my laptop to work as I travelled and so far the signal has been great for that and navigation.
Prepare for an endless feast of rice, curry and roti. I’m at the point where I feel like I am turning into a roti, but I just can’t stop eating them! Make sure to try the lumpries – a mixture of curries served with rice in a banana leaf – how curry should be eaten. Eat with your hands if you’re brave enough! And dive into a Sri Lankan breakfast with string hoppers or a filled roti. There are plenty of vegetarian options for any travelling veggies and I can’t get enough of the dhals. The fish curries are amazing here and the seafood is great down south and in the east, with plenty of mullet, lobster and crab. The best food, as usual, is the street food at tiny stalls along the streets – don’t be put off at how rustic the stands are – boyfriend was a bit nervous at first but now he loves street food! Curd and honey is amazing – it’s buffalo milk based yoghurt served with a coconut honey that has nothing to do with bees, and everything to do with coconut trees.
For somewhere that is still drastically and refreshingly underdeveloped, Sri Lanka is very modern in their way of thinking regarding litter, preservation of the landscape and protection of animals. The countryside and cities are both so much cleaner than other Asian countries I have visited, and even the stray dogs and cats look much healthier and are much friendlier. As you travel around the country you will even notice signs warning to not damage the environment, not to litter or leave plastics lying around. In both Ella and Yala I have seen huge signs by wildlife protection authorities warning against hunting, or killing the animals or damaging the plants or trees. It really is lovely to see how the local people have a great respect for the land and preserving it that perhaps is missing in some other countries. However, you will find that much of the country looks like a building site – so many of the buildings are half finished especially in he up-and-coming areas such as Trincomalee and Mirissa.
Sri Lanka is a country with no end of amazing activities to indulge in – don’t think it’s just beaches and lazing around! Travellers who want to stay active can enjoy great surfing, snorkelling and diving in some beautiful spots, or for those who want to relax there are yoga and meditation retreats or spas. For those craving adventure and a peek at the incredible wildlife, there are safaris with wild leopards, bears and elephants both in the south and the north, or whale watching all around the coast. For those who love the great outdoors, there are no end of amazing hikes and climbs to do both up in the mountains or bushwalking through the jungle.In short, Sri Lanka is truly one of my favourite travel experiences – it was raw and wild and vibrant in ways I haven’t experienced before. The people were kind and so genuine, they welcomed us into their homes and as a part of their families. The landscape continually took our breath away, from the majesty of the mountains, to the energy of the jungle, out to where the ocean lapped against the shore. We were never bored and had to work hard to squeeze it all into what was a pretty action packed month. I’ve lived some of my wildest dreams during those four weeks and I saw the magic of Sri Lanka capture both of our hearts – now if the perfect opportunity to let it capture yours.
Have you been to Sri Lanka – or are you planning a trip soon? What do you image Sri Lanka will be like? Does anything put you off travelling to Sri Lanka?