Sri Lanka — a jewel–shaped country in the Indian Ocean — was an unexpected surprise. I loved every bit of it: the verdant landscape, the delicious food; the crumbling, overgrown ruins; the abundant wildlife; and (especially) the welcoming locals who took hospitality to the next level.
Traveling through the country is relatively easy, if just a little chaotic, with overcrowded buses moving along clogged roads where lanes are mere suggestions, and trains packed to the gills with people hanging off the edges (which actually is kind of fun). English is widely spoken, though, so once you get used the chaos, it isn’t too difficult to get around.
But there are a few things you should know before you visit to avoid getting scammed, overspending, and, like me, missing some of the scenic trains!
14 tips for successful Sri Lankan travel
- Water: You shouldn’t really drink the water in Sri Lanka, so bring a reusable water bottle with a purifier. It’s really hot, so to keep hydrated, you’d probably spend 300 rupees ($2 USD) per day on plastic bottles of water at 60 rupees ($0.40 USD) each. But a water bottle with a purifier costs just $20 USD (though my preferred brand Lifestraw is slightly more). Over the course of a two-week trip, that’s an $8 USD savings (and you help the environment too)!
- Food: Outside of the major cities of Colombo and Kandy, you won’t find many non-Sri Lankan or non-Indian food options. What you do find is a poor excuse for Western food that is overpriced and often a chain. Stick to the local food! It’s super delicious. I never knew much about Sri Lankan food before hand but now I’m hooked! Just eat it all! Balaji Dosai in Kandy; Ahinsa in Sigiriya; Upali’s in Colombo; Hot Hut in Nuwara Eliya; and the restaurants across from the bus station in Anuradhapura were some of my favorite.
- More about food: Food, besides being crazy good, is also really cheap in Sri Lanka! Local food costs about $1-3 USD per meal for simple dishes of dosas (a kind of pancake), kottu (a dish made of roti (flatbread), vegetables, egg and/or meat, and spices), rice, chicken, and everything in between. At restaurants with table service, you’ll pay closer to $5 USD.
- Alcohol: Don’t expect too many chances to drink alcohol. Outside the coastal tourist towns and the capital of Colombo, there isn’t much nightlife or opportunities to drink. While you can always crack a beer at your guesthouse, Sri Lanka isn’t home to a big drinking/nightlife culture. Expect your nights to be tame.
- Tuk-tuks: You can hire drivers cheaply. Any tuk-tuk driver will let you hire them for the day. Expect to pay around $20 USD for the day. Moreover, tuk-tuk drivers are pretty honest, except in Colombo, where they will try to scam and overcharge you. Elsewhere in the country, you’ll get a fair deal. There’s no need to try to bargain hard.
- Airport transfer: There is a train to the airport you can take from Colombo Fort. It’s the cheapest way to get there, at 30 rupees ($0.20 USD). A tuk-tuk ride is about 2,500 rupees ($17 USD), and buses to the airport cost 110 rupees ($0.75 USD) and leave about every 30 minutes from Colombo Central Bus Station or Mawatha Bus Station.
- Trains: Train travel, while often slower, are the cheapest way to get around. Some typical routes: Colombo to Jaffna is 150-445 rupees ($1-3 USD), Jaffna to Anuradhapura is 150-295 rupees ($1-2 USD), Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is 85-280 rupees ($0.60-1.90 USD), and Colombo to Galle is 150-295 rupees ($1-2 USD).
- Booking trains: If you are taking the scenic train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya or Ella (or vice versa) and want a seat, book it in advance through a travel agency, as tickets can’t be booked in person at the station unless it’s done four days before departure. You can always (and only) get a cramped second-class ticket (where you’ll learn the new meaning of a tight squeeze) on the day of departure. Many people will tell you to get to the station at 7am to buy a train ticket, but they don’t start selling them until 8am, so don’t listen to those people. Also, the concept of “sold out” doesn’t apply to “cattle class.”
- Sigiriya: If you are visiting Sigiriya, get there when it opens at 8am to avoid huge lines and crowds at the site. If you are there after 10am, the crowds are so overwhelming it’s not worth visiting. It takes an hour to walk up as it’s single-file all the way!
- Anuradhapura: If you are visiting Anuradhapura, tickets are $25 USD but are never checked unless you are entering the museum. (I also noticed Western tourists were the only ones ever asked to show a ticket at the museum.) Enter the site without paying by using the tiny road just southeast of the museum.
- Visiting temples: You’ll have to take your socks and shoes off before visiting temples, even if they are outdoors, so bring flip-flops to keep your socks clean!
- Hostels: Hostels are really basic (fan, mosquito net, electric shower) but at $4-6 USD per dorm bed, you can’t go wrong.
- Galle: Galle is only worth a day trip. Don’t stay over in the town. There is not much to do there at all.
- Accommodation: There are a lot of cheap accommodation throughout the country. You’ll usually get breakfast with your room too. Private rooms with with your own bathroom start at $10 USD per night. Add $5 if you want air conditioning.
Typical Costs in Sri Lanka
Overall, I would say you couldn’t need more than a budget of $30 – 40 USD per day. The country is very cheap, especially if you stick to delicious local or Indian cuisine (the food is so cheap there’s no reason to grocery shop and cook your own meals), avoid the overpriced Western style restaurants (local food tastes much better anyways), travel second class and on buses, and don’t go crazy with the accommodation. Ever though I was on a budget, I didn’t go as low as I could (dorms every night, only Sri Lankan food, minimal activities, etc) and still found it was hard to break the bank. The expensive days in which I took a tour or decided to try some fancy restaurant were balanced out on the other days I didn’t.
Here is a list of prices to help you get an idea of costs:
- Airport taxi – 2,500 rupees
- National Museum in Colombo – 600 rupees
- Train from Jaffna to Anuradhapura – 340 rupees
- Bottle of water – 60 rupees
- Bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla – 340 rupees
- Tuk-tuk from Dambulla to Sigiriya – 1,000 rupees
- Kottu chicken (and water) – 370 rupees
- Lunch 2 – 500 rupees
- Tuk-tuk – 200 rupees
- Bus from Dambulla to Kandy – 98 rupees
- Hostel in Kandy – 600 rupees
- Temple of the Tooth in Kandy – 1000 rupees
- Dosai dinner in Kandy – 200 rupees
- Train to Nuwara Eliya, second class – 160 rupees
- Beer – 500 rupees
- Bus to Tissamaharama (Tissa) – 240 rupees
- Bus to Galle – 307
- Western lunch in Galle (burger and fries) – 1,200 rupees
Some favorites: For accommodation, I really liked the Kandy Downtown Hostel; Palitha Home Stay in Sigiriya; and Galle Fort Hostel in Galle. For restaurants, besides the bulleted list above, I would also recommend the Ministry of Crab. It’s an expensive seafood restaurant in Colombo but it’s delicious! Sri Lankan crab is famous worldwide and they have gigantic ones. It’s not cheap but sometimes, you just have to treat yourself. While I didn’t go out much, if you find yourself in Kandy, the Slightly Chilled Bar is a popular meeting spot and has wonderful views of the city (and the sunset).
My Suggested Itineraries
Most travelers focus on the southern half of the country, with its hiking and beach towns. After decades of war, the north has a legacy of destruction that has yet to go away.
Though I originally had planned to explore only the south due to my limited time there (just two weeks), I was offered the opportunity to talk to a member of Parliament in Jaffna up north and learn about the Tamil war, so I rearranged my route thus:
Colombo – Jaffna – Anuradhapura – Sigiriya/Dambulla – Kandy – Nuwara Eliya –Tissamaharama (Tissa) – Galle – Colombo
I was glad I did. Seeing the north gave me an added perspective on a portion of the country without hordes of other tourists. In fact, in my time up north, I saw only four Westerners.
And though Sri Lanka may look like a small island, there is a lot to see and do there! More than I imagined. Anuradhapura and Sigiriya both have amazing ancient ruins. Kandy is filled with hiking treks, a big Buddhist temple, and a butterfly garden. Nuwara Eliya is known for its hiking, Tissa is the gateway to Yala National Park (which has elephants and leopards), and Galle is a beautiful old Dutch fort town.
Even though I covered a lot of ground in my two weeks, I still missed many places, including Ella (more hiking), Arugam Bay (beaches), and most of the southern coast (more beaches and nightlife). I raced through the country and crammed too much into such a short period of time. I wouldn’t recommend going at such a breakneck pace.
If I had to do it all over again, I would break Sri Lanka into two parts — the north/center and the south — and focus on one of those regions. There’s simply too much to do, and travel around the country is too slow to try to cover so much ground in a limited time.
If like me, you only have a couple of weeks, I would suggest just one of the following routes:
Colombo – Jaffna – Anuradhapura – Sigiriya – Kandy – Ella – Nuwara Eliya – Colombo
Colombo – Hikkaduwa – Galle – Mirissa – Tangalle – Tissa – Nuwara Eliya – Kandy – Colombo
(Note: This route is kind of quick too so if you’re pressed for time, you could cut out one of the beach cities.)
If you have a month, you could do both of these routes plus add in one or all of the coastal towns of Arugam Bay, Negombo, or Trincomalee.
One thing to know is that once you’ve done the major things in a city, there’s very little reason to stay. For example, Tissa is the gateway to Yala National Park. Tour operators run most tours in the early morning (a higher chance of seeing animals) so if you took one of those tours, you could be on a bus moving on to your next destination by lunch time. There’s really not much else in the town. The same could with Jaffna. Tick a few boxes and then move on. Galle is more a day trip from a nearby beach town than a place to spend a few days. There was so little to do there I just went back to Colombo instead of staying the night. Sigiriya and Dambulla can be done in two nights (though I added an extra night because I liked the family I was staying with). Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Kandy, Arugam Bay, Trincomalee – those places have more activities and are worth spending a longer time in.
Sri Lanka is an easy country to visit, and with a few tips, you can travel there with ease. This is a very budget-friendly country, even if you go nuts on the attractions and tours. I didn’t spend a lot of money, averaging just $35 USD per day. (Any expensive days will be balanced out with the cheap days where you just walk around, hike, or sit on the beach!)
Looking at the map of Sri Lanka, you might say, “Oh, it’s not that big. I bet I can cover a lot of ground in a short period if time.” You could, but you won’t “see” much. It will be too much of a blur.
Sri Lanka may be small but it packs a powerful punch. I loved it a lot. Take your time to see this land of jungles, waterfalls, monkeys, delicious food, and lovely people! I’m already planning my next trip back.