Sri Lanka essentials – some top travel tips

Based on my own experiences I’m sharing some practical tips for travelling to Sri Lanka including what to take, how to get around, and how much it’s going to cost you.

  1. Do I need a visa to visit Sri Lanka?

You will need a visa to travel to Sri Lanka but it’s very straightforward to obtain electronically. You’ll also need to make sure your passport is valid for 6 months. It’s possible to get a visa on arrival (which is what I did), although it’s recommended that you get one before you travel to avoid delays, which you can do here: http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/

Tourists visas are normally issued for a maximum period of 30 days. For more information for UK citizens, including advice for staying healthy while you travel, you should always check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.

  1. What should I pack for Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is hot all year round and depending when you travel it may also be quite wet. The sun is extremely strong as you’re right on the equator so make sure you have everything you need to protect yourself from the strong sun. A hat is a good idea, but if you’re not a hat person (I’m not) then an umbrella is a good way of keeping yourself covered when you’re in an exposed area. It also doubles as an actual umbrella for those unpredictable showers.

I also recommend taking a loose, light shirt to put on to cover your arms and shoulders- yes it’ll be a bit warmer and sweatier, but it’s hard to keep on top of sunscreen application when you’re trying to enjoy yourself and I for one really hate to be greasy all day – this is great alternative.

In hot humid countries I always favour wearing my gym gear as the fabric is engineered for sweat-wicking so you don’t feel like you have sweat soaked clothes clinging to you all day. It also packs up small, washes easily, doesn’t crease and is stretchy and comfortable. People usually recommend that you wear loose cotton clothes in hot countries, but I always find that when you’re sweating a lot you end up feeling constantly damp. It’s not the most glamorous way to dress, but I’m off enjoying my adventures and don’t especially care what I look like!

And don’t forget mosquitoes which are omnipresent in Sri Lanka, I used a mosquito spray with 50% DEET. Nearly everywhere you stay will either supply mosquito nets or have air conditioning meaning you don’t need one. I took one with me but never used it- you could probably do without if you have a big enough supply of repellent.

Other must haves include:

  • A torch (some areas can be badly lit and it’s sometimes dark inside temples)
  • Binoculars (for safari and for looking at the diner details of temples and other ruins)
  • A small backpack for sightseeing
  • A rash vest to protect you from the sun when you’re swimming
  • Flip flops (easy to take on and off when visiting temples)
  • Some disposable ponchos, easy to carry and great all over protection for sudden downpours
  • Sunscreen, mosquito repellent and aloe vera – take plenty as you’ll struggle to restock in many parts of Sri Lanka
  • A hat, sunglasses and umbrella
  • A local sim card from the airport (you can relax about which bus you may or may not be on when you can GPS locate yourself on Google maps!)
  1. How long should I stay in Sri Lanka?

This entirely depends on how much you want to see and what you want to do. It’s a small island but a lot of the transport is quite slow so it takes some time to move from place to place. You can speed this up by hiring a driving but this is obviously more expensive and you miss some great experiences on buses and trains.

There are plenty of ways of constructing great itineraries for any length of stay. I’d recommend 2 to 3 weeks if you want to do a really comprehensive tour of the island with some relaxation built in, but you can equally have a great time there for just a week if you are realistic about the ground you’d be able to cover and focused about what you want to see.

  1. How can I get around Sri Lanka?

Public transport is cheap, easy and regular. Buses tend to get less regular after 6pm and the trains can be infrequent for longer journeys, but this is nothing some up front planning won’t address.

Because everyone uses the bus, there are plenty of people able to help you find the right one, so you don’t need to worry too much about how you’ll get to your next destination- chances are you will.

If you want to travel first class on the train then you typically need to book ahead as these tickets do sell out in advance. You can do this in person at the station up to 30 days before travel, or a quick Google will give you the relevant telephone contact for the line you wish to travel on.

Second class travel is perfectly ok, sometimes it can be crowded and sweaty but it’s all part of the experience and with the windows and doors open you get a nice breeze which means the heat is far from unbearable. The same goes for the bus.

Check out the website The Man in Seat Sixty-One for up to date train times and lots of other useful travel information.

  1. What should I eat in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lankan food is great and very varied. Take the opportunity to try as much as you can, as it’s not always the easiest to find when you get home.

Short eats

‘Short eats’ are Sri Lankan snacks that are available on trains, buses and pretty much everywhere else. These are usually deep fried snacks made from lentils, tinned fish and lots of spices. Ulundhu Vadai are little donut shaped deep fried lentil snacks mixed with spices. Fish cutlet is a round, breaded deep fried ball of potato and tinned fish mixed with spices. Enjoy these with a nice fresh king coconut- delicious.

Hoppers

Hoppers are another Sri Lankan staple, usually served at breakfast. They come in different varieties; plain hoppers are little bowl shaped crepe-like pancakes made from rice flour for dipping into sambol and dhal. Sometimes they come with an egg cooked into the hopper which is, you guessed it, an egg hopper! You also get ‘string hoppers’ which are batches of rice flour find noodles shaped into a hopper shape. These are delicious with coconut sambol. Don’t shy away from Sri Lankan breakfast in favour of Western staples, you’re missing out big time.

Curry

Far more interesting and varied than is suggested by me lumping everything together under the title ‘curry’, but my personal favourites include Sri Lankan chicken curry, pumpkin curry and cucumber curry. Take any opportunity you get to have a selection of small curries with rice when you’re eating out or in a guest house, which gives you the best chance to try as much as possible. A good dhal is hard to beat and luckily it’s served with most dishes in Sri Lanka.

Kottu Roti

Literally ‘chopped roti’ mixed with various combinations of meat, prawns, egg and vegetables. This is a street food staple and in cities and towns across Sri Lank you hear the characteristic sound of chefs chopping the roti on a griddle. I tried it for the first time in Mirissa Beach at No. 1 Dewmini Roti Shop and it did not disappoint.

  1. How much do things cost in Sri Lanka?

The exchange rate at the moment is around 190 Sri Lankan Rupees to the Pound (or about 150 to the Dollar or 160 to the Euro). As with many destinations, you can pay whatever you like for accommodation. Sri Lanka is rapidly developing a luxury market, especially beach resorts, so you can easily pay £200 – £300 a night for the best accommodation. However, most guest houses will be around £15 – £20 a night. There are also plenty of options in between those prices points so Sri Lanka is a destination which suits most budgets.

Public transport costs are negligible and private driver costs vary but will be around £50 per day, which is obviously relatively better value when you’re not on your own.

Food varies depending where you eat, but I rarely paid more than £10 for a meal, and often it was far less.

Entry fees to archaeological sites will probably be your biggest expensive with many charging around £20.

My whole trip, which was not designed to be a budget holiday, came to about £1000 total for two weeks. For two people, you could probably do it for £750 each.

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