In the Indian Ocean just south of India, Sri Lanka is an island known for its natural beauty. Sri Lanka has stunning beaches all along its coastline, great wildlife and biodiversity, tea plantations, orchards, temples, monuments, and a cultural heritage dating back several millennia. Its cultural landscape includes the (mostly Buddhist) Sinhala and the (mostly Hindu) Tamil ethnic groups, with substantial Muslim and Christian communities.
Sri Lanka is divided into 9 administrative provinces:
|Central Province (Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Sigiriya, Dambulla)|
Known as the "hill country" after its mountainous terrain. Also known as a tea-growing region.
|Northern Province (Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Vanni, Mannar)|
Home to a majority of the country's Tamil-speaking population. It is being rebuilt after being ravaged by nearly three decades of war.
|North Central Province (Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa)|
The ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka dating back over 2500 years. Rich in history, the area is known as the cultural triangle.
|Eastern Province (Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Arugam Bay)|
Home to a rare natural harbour in Trincomalee and miles of sandy beaches. A surfers' paradise.
|North Western Province (Kurunegala, Puttalam, Chilaw)|
Coconut plantations, dolphin-watching, salt production
|Sabaragamuwa (Ratnapura, Kegalle)|
Gem-mining capital of Sri Lanka.
|Southern Province (Galle, Weligama, Matara, Tangalle, Unawatuna, Hambantota, Yala National Park)|
Beach resorts galore.
|Uva (Badulla, Haputale, Bandarawela)|
Highlands. Tea, tea and more tea
|Western Province (Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, Beruwela, Colombo, Gampaha, Negombo)|
The capital and the commuter belt.
- 1 Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte (Sinhalese: ශ්රී ජයවර්ධනපුර කෝට්ටේ; Tamil: ஶ்ரீ ஜெயவர்த்தனபுர கோட்டை) — also known as Kotte, new capital of Sri Lanka
- 2 Anuradhapura (Sinhalese: අනුරාධපුරය; Tamil: அனுராதபுரம்) — ruins of ancient capitals (partially restored). UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 3 Batticaloa (Sinhalese: මඩකලපුව; Tamil: மட்டக்களப்பு) — called land of singing fish. Beautiful shallow beaches, paddy fields, historical places.
- 4 Colombo (Sinhalese: කොළඹ; Tamil: கொழும்பு) — commercial capital and the largest city of Sri Lanka. Hotels, cafés, restaurants, night clubs and shopping.
- 5 Galle (Sinhalese: ගාල්ල; Tamil: காலி) — famous Dutch fort. Host city of the Galle Literary Festival. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 6 Jaffna (Sinhalese: යාපනය; Tamil: யாழ்ப்பாணம்) — northern capital. On display is the rich heritage of the Tamil-speaking community.
- 7 Kandy (Sinhalese: මහනුවර; Tamil: கண்டி) — spiritual heart of the country, home to a tooth of the Buddha. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 8 Negombo (Sinhalese: මීගමුව; Tamil: நீர்கொழும்பு) — beautiful landscape and great blue oceans.
- 9 Nuwara Eliya (Sinhalese: නුවර එළිය; Tamil: நுவரேலியா) — cool weather, Victorian architecture, top hats, tails and fascinators on race days.
- 1 Arugam Bay (Sinhalese: ආරුගම් බොක්ක; Tamil: அறுகம் குடா) – southeast-coast beach town with several top surfing spots
- 2 Dambulla (Sinhalese: දඹුල්ල; Tamil: தம்புள்ளை) – A city of historic importance with fabulous hotels, close to Sigiriya. Both UNESCO World Heritage Sites
- 3 Horton Plains (Sinhalese: හෝර්ටන් තැන්න ජාතික වනෝද්යානය; Tamil: ஓட்டன் சமவெளி) – A cloud forest in the central highlands with many endangered fauna and flora and endless hikes
- 4 Kitulgala (Sinhalese: කිතුල්ගල; Tamil: கித்துள்கலை) – known for pristine nature & adventure seekers and white-water rafting - 4 hours from Colombo
- 5 Mirissa (Sinhalese: මිරිස්ස) – beach village on the south coast close to Matara with two good surfing spots
- 6 Pasikudah (Sinhalese: පාසිකුඩා; Tamil: பாசிக்குடா) – famous beach resort in Sri Lanka's east region with white beaches and upscale hotels
- 7 Sinharaja Forest Reserve (Sinhalese: සිංහරාජ වනාන්තරය; Tamil: சிங்கராஜா வனம்) – A UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 8 Unawatuna (Sinhalese: උණවටුන) – beach resort on the south coast very close to Galle
- 9 Yala National Park (Sinahalese: යාල ජාතික වනෝද්යානය; Tamil: யால தேசிய வனம்) – wildlife safari
|Capital||Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte|
|Currency||Sri Lankan rupee (LKR)|
|Population||21.4 million (2017)|
|Electricity||230 volt / 50 hertz (AC power plugs and sockets: British and related types, BS 546, BS 1363)|
|Time zone||UTC+05:30, Asia/Colombo|
|Emergencies||119 (police), 110 (emergency medical services, fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
Sri Lanka has more than 2,500 years of continuous written history by means of the Mahawansha, and was also mentioned in several ancient Indian texts. One of the most famous is the Ramayana, in which the island, which was referred to as Lanka, was the island fortress of the king Ravana, who captured the wife of Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. Legend has it that Hanuman the monkey flew over to Lanka and destroyed the capital by setting it on fire, while Rama and his remaining troops later crossed over from the mainland by building a land bridge across the sea.
The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka in the late 6th century BC, probably from northern India (the most likely candidates being Bengal or Maharashtra). Buddhism came to the island from the middle of the 3rd century BC, and a great civilization developed in cities like Anuradhapura (kingdom from c. 200 BCE to c. 1000 CE) and Polonnaruwa (c. 1070 to 1200). The oldest of Buddhist monuments date to the Anuradhapura period. It was a period where Sri Lanka traded with other civilisations in Asia and Europe, including the Roman Empire. Most notably Sri Lanka exported cinnamon to the rest of the Old World. Other later famous kingdoms are the Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Gampola, Kandy and Jaffna Kingdoms.
Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in 1796, and became a crown colony in 1815.
With the capture of India, during the rule of king Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe (ශ්රී වික්රම රාජසිංහ), there were tense arguments between the king and his subjects, which provided the British a chance to invade the Kandyan Kingdom and gain power over the country. After capturing power, the British governance made a new set of laws and turned Ceylon (as the island was called in those days) a colonial territory. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; its name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972.
Sri Lanka was engulfed in a bitter civil war for thirty years between the government and the Tamil Tigers, who were fighting for an independent state for the Tamil-speaking minority. The war cost lives of many Tamil, Sinhala and foreign ethnic groups and destroyed many parts of the country, leaving them in ruins. The war ended in May 2009 with victory for the Sri Lankan government, but the consequences persist, and heavy emigration is still slowing Sri Lanka's population growth.
After 2009, the Sri Lankan economy recovered from the ruins of the civil war under the administration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family. However, the government heavily relied on foreign debts to develop the country. With a combination of anti-fertilizer policy that slumped agriculture production, unbalanced economic structure and long running economic mismanagement, the Sri Lankan economy was devastated by an economic crisis that was intensified since 2022.
Since Sri Lanka is a tropical country, you can expect the rain anytime of the year in most parts. However, there are two major rainy seasons:
- The North-East monsoon, October to January. True to the name, this drenches the north and east, so stay on the west or southern coast to avoid it. The central hill country is also at its sunniest between January and March, although October and November can be very wet.
- The South-West monsoon (May to July). The reverse of the above, this is a good time to visit the north and the east.
Being an island, the climate of Sri Lanka changes dramatically from one part of the country to another. For example, at Nuwara Eliya, in the hills of Central Sri Lanka, has a temperature around -5 to 20°C throughout the year, whereas Hambantota, in the dry zone, has a temperature consistently around 30-35°C.
In general, Sri Lanka also has very hot temperatures all year long, which is why most Sri Lankan men wear sarongs while Sri Lankan women dress lightly with a long dress.
Religion in Sri Lanka is largely divided along ethnic lines, with the Sinhalese majority being almost entirely Buddhist, while the Tamil minority is mostly Hindu, but with significant Christian and Muslim minorities.
Mostly low, flat to rolling plain; mountains in south-central interior.
- Highest point: Pidurutalagala, 2,524m.
- Second highest peak: Kirigalpoththa (Horton Plains) 2,388m.
- Third highest peak: Thotupola Kanda (Horton Plains) 2,357m.
Nationals of most countries can apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) online, except for nationals of Maldives, Seychelles and Singapore, who do not need to get an ETA. It allows a stay in the country for 30 days and is valid for six months. Application should be lodged in advance before entering the country and shall be done online. After this, the applicant will receive an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) which should be presented at the port of entry in Sri Lanka and exchanged for a tourist visa. Visa charges are US$20 for SAARC countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan) and US$50 for others (2022). ETA is supposed to be ready in 2 days, though in practice they can be issued in only 10-20 minutes after the payment is received. Transit visas for up to 48 hours are issued free.
Alternatively, a tourist visa can be obtained without getting a prearranged ETA right at the Bandaranaike International Airport (at a visa desk in the arrival zone before customs) for US$60. Therefore, online visa is not a pre-condition to board a flight/vessel to Sri Lanka.
Important: immigration authorities at Colombo airport are very demanding with respect to the accuracy of the passport number on your electronic travel authorization obtained online. A single digit mistake is taken as a reason to force you to buy a new visa and refer you to some obscure government office in Colombo for refunds of your online payments. Be careful about 1 vs. I and zero vs. O. The number should exactly match the machine-readable section of your passport, and not anything else (for example, Russian passports have a non-alphanumeric number sign that should be completely excluded).
Extensions can be made at the Department of Immigration, +94 11 532–9000; M-F 09:00-16:30, "Suhurupaya", Sri Subhuthipura Road, Battaramulla.
A visa extension gives you an additional 2 months in the country beyond the initial 30-day entry visa (so in total, you can stay in the country for 3 months). You can apply any time from immediately after entering the country until the expiry of your visa. An additional 3-month extension is possible (so in total, 6 months), but you must again pay the extension fee plus another Rs10,000. Extensions beyond this are at the discretion of the department, and incur a Rs15,000 fee plus the extension fee. See above for fees for the first 90-day extension.
The department sets the cost in US dollars, but you pay in Sri Lankan rupees. To process the extension, the immigration office requires your passport and an onward ticket. Your proposed stay in Sri Lanka must end at least two months before the expiry date of your passport.
The immigration office begins processing visa extensions Monday through Friday a bit before 08:30 in the morning. However, a worker usually starts to give out queue numbers and forms some time between 07:00 and 07:30, so arrive early to be among the first processed.
Based on several extensions done in summer 2015, total time is about 2.5 hours if you arrive by 07:00: get ticket around 07:15, submit documents at 08:30, make payment at 09:00, get passport back around 09:30. If you arrive at 08:30, the room usually has started to fill and it could be around 3-4 hours. Arriving after 09:30, it'll be full and total time can be at least 4 hours. Arriving after 11:30 is usually not worth it, because the payment counter closes at 14:30; if they haven't finished the pre-processing necessary to get you to the payment stage before 14:30, you'll have to return the next day.
Agents can do the visa extension for you: they take your passport and documents, wait in line, pay the fees, etc., then return the passport to you. Larger tour groups often use these agents for extensions. The agents know the system: they arrive early and get the first queue numbers. Because of this, being behind one local agent representing a group of 25 foreigners needing extensions could make your wait time significantly longer. Best advice as an independent traveller is to get your queue number before the local agents: arrive before 07:00, immediately stand waiting at the wooden desk which is on the left just after the entrance, and don't let the agents cut in front of you.
The first and the biggest Sri Lankan airport is Colombo-Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB IATA), the journey to Colombo (35 km) will take about an hour by taxi. Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (Hambantota International Airport, HRI IATA), in the southern part of the country, is 250 km away from Colombo but isn't served with regular flights.
Sri Lankan Airlines is the flag carrier, operating flights from cities throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. SriLankan Air also flies to nearby destinations such as Chennai, Trivandrum, Mumbai, Delhi, Cochin, Bangalore and the Maldives. If you have to transit here for 8-24 hours between Sri Lankan Airlines flights, the airline will provide free transit accommodation and meal vouchers (as of Feb 2023 the accommodation is the Full Moon Hotel nearby). This is subject to some conditions, and you need to contact the airline to request it at least 48 hours in advance. Free transit accommodation will not be provided if not booked beforehand.
Emirates Airlines connects many major European cities and others worldwide to Colombo with several flights daily from Dubai and Singapore to Colombo. The airline operates 777-300ER widebody aircraft on these routes.
FlyDubai Airlines connects Dubai to Colombo.
The budget airline Air Asia operates from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Colombo, Sri Lanka. It provides cheap flight for visitors from South East Asia as well as those who are visiting South Asia and then heading to South-East Asia (or vice-versa).
Oman Air has announced flights to Colombo via Muscat and Male, they seem to have special prices for their new destinations' start (Frankfurt, Munich, Paris, Male, Colombo)
Other airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Batik Air, Thai International Airways, Cathay Pacific, Saudi Arabian, Condor (Germany), Spicejet (India) and JetAirFly (Belgium) operate to Colombo-Bandaranaike from their respective home bases.
There are no direct flights that reach Sri Lanka from cities outside Asia, the Middle East and Europe. From the American West Coast, the distance is almost half the globe. Depending on your preferences and how much spare time you have, you can consider a stopover in Europe, SE Asia/E Asia or Melbourne or take a non-stop flight over the North Pole to New Delhi or Mumbai from Chicago, Newark, New York City (JFK), or Toronto. In many cases, this may be the fastest route, but check if an Indian transit visa is required. Another fast and easy idea is to use Middle Eastern airlines from the US with stopovers in either Qatar, Bahrain, or the UAE (no transit visa required). For example, the Dubai-based Emirates offers daily flights from SFO, LAX, Houston (IAH), and Toronto (YYZ) with a very short stopover before the short flight to Colombo. Emirates Airlines offer non-stop service to Colombo two to three times daily from Dubai. SriLankan Airlines is part of the Oneworld alliance which allows through ticketing with American Airlines, and several Asian, European, and Middle Eastern airlines.
The Tuticorin (India)—Colombo passenger ferry service has been suspended indefinitely. Despite occasional statements by Indian and Sri Lankan politicians that they would like to see the ferry restored once improved port services in both countries have been built, there are still no plans for the service to recommence (as of October 2021).
According to the customs office in Tuticorin it is illegal for a cargo ship to transport passengers from the Tuticorin Port to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is rapidly expanding its infrastructure and public transport services, making independent travel easier over time. However, many roads are still thoroughly potholed and at times terrifying due to local driving traditions. Together with occasional massive crowds (especially on holidays), often lacking luggage space and occasional harassment of women travelling alone, buses may not seem like the most appealing way of travel for some. Yet, they offer great opportunities for interaction with locals, are cheap, plentiful and come in different qualities.
Sri Lankan Airlines operates seaplane service to destinations such as Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Galle and elsewhere. This is perfect for photography trips because you can get a bird's eye view of the island and takes less time to get to a destination than using the road. Also the seaplanes land on picturesque lakes and tanks around the island.
Aero Lanka operates domestic flights between Colombo City Airport - Ratmalana, Jaffna and Trincomalee
- Cinnamon Air (air taxi), No 11, York Street, Colombo 01, ☏ . A Domestic Airline offering daily scheduled flights from Bandaranaike International Airport to Sri Lanka's most popular destinations.
- FitsAir — Jaffna, Trincomalee. Charter: Ampara, Anuradhapura, Batticaloa, Hambantota-Mattala, Hambantota-Weerawila, Hingurakgoda, Kalutara, Koggala, Sigiriya, Vavuniya
- Helitours — Ampara, Anuradhapura, Batticaloa, Hambantota-Mattala, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Trincomalee, Vavuniya.
- Millennium Airlines — Charter: Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Kalutara, Koggala, Minneriya, Sigiriya, Trincomalee.
For those on a budget buses are everywhere. As a foreigner you maybe be overcharged, simply ask for a ticket to your destination to get the correct fare. They're sometimes crowded and uncomfortable, but they get you around for almost nothing; it costs about a dollar to get half-way across the island. If you're planning on splashing out, AC buses run most routes for twice the price, which offer air-conditioning and a guaranteed seat. However, they're still uncomfortable. Bus stations are confusing places, especially the big ones, but almost everyone will be delighted to practise their English and help you. Also, when travelling by bus, it is local etiquette in most buses to provide or give up the very front passenger seats to members of the clergy such as monks or priests if they are present.
If you're on a very tight budget, the standard public buses (CTB) lack air-con and are regularly pretty overcrowded, but they're dirt-cheap for western standards and run everywhere all the time. Private buses charge about double but are still cheap and often do have air-conditioning and often guaranteed seats. Your best bet is to inform upon arrival in a destination about your way out, and if possible secure a seat already. In all cases, arrive early and preferably travel light. If you're carrying a lot of luggage, you might have to purchase a seat for your backpack if you don't want to keep it on your lap or under your feet.
Sri Lanka has an extensive railway system serving all major towns and cities in the island except for the North. The railway system in Sri Lanka is picturesque when entering the hill country because of the winding tracks along the mountains especially on the Badullu-Nanu Oya line. Make sure, if you can, to sit on the right side of the train, as it offers the better view. Travel by train is itself a journey to remember, be it travelling to Central Sri Lanka or travelling on the coastal line is just amazing. The Hill train to Badulla is an amazing journey. Preferably choose the express trains, and try to get a reservation beforehand, if you can. There are special Observation cars for tourists to take in the scenery. Trains can be slower than buses, depending if you are on a line that offers an express train or not, but more comfortable and even less expensive than buses.
You can look up train schedules on the official website[dead link] of Sri Lanka Railways. This site will only give you results for direct connections between stations. There is a slightly more user-friendly website that will give you fares and distances. Tourists should consider taking the train where possible, as it is reasonably comfortable and very cheap. A popular journey, Colombo to Ella by train is only SLR 490 (US$ 2.50) in 2nd class!
There are three classes of railway cars, although 1st and 2nd class are only available on some Intercity and Express trains. Travelling 3rd class is not as bad as it may sound. Often the difference between 3rd and 2nd class is only a missing armrest between seats. Intercity and Express trains have reserved cars which can be booked online in advance on 12Go Asia website.
Trains are sometimes crowded, especially in the morning and late afternoon. Also, observation car seats for the lines popular with tourists (like the Colombo-Kandy line) are often booked out several days in advance in the high season. So whenever possible you should get a reservation beforehand: see Sri Lanka Railways[dead link] and Train travel in Sri Lanka for more information.
Privately owned train services such as Exporail (which ist suspended as of 2023) and Rajadhani Express (which is suspended as of 2018) operate air-conditioned and serviced first-class railway cars to major destinations daily. While this is costlier than travelling by air-conditioned bus, it is much cheaper than hiring a car and offers facilities such as online reservations, friendly on-board services, spacious seating, on-board meals and wireless internet.
Trains offer good alternatives when they are available, and the standard trains are only slightly more expensive than the private buses, if at all. One of the advantages is that 1st and 2nd class train tickets can be reserved several days in advance. Sri Lankan Railways has a useful website in English. There are also more expensive private trains with 1st class wagons and good service to some of the destinations. These obviously come at higher prices, but are still a reasonable and convenient option for travellers on a mid-range or higher budget, with a trip from Colombo to Kandy costing around Rs1700.
The most common mode of transport in Sri Lanka is via a three-wheeled automobile appropriately referred to as a three-wheeler (tri-Shaw). Also known as tuk-tuks (commonly referred as they're called in Thailand) from the noise of their motors. These operate in a manner similar to taxis, and in many situations are a convenient and highly cost-efficient way to get around. Safety is a concern however, as none of them have seat belts and they are open to the sides. They are NOT permitted at Colombo-Bandaranaike International Airport, so don't let a tuk-tuk driver talk you into hiring him on your departure.
Three-wheelers are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. On any given street, you'll hardly have to wait more than a couple of minutes without one going by that you can wave down. If you're travelling with luggage, there are slightly larger three-wheelers with more space for your bags that you can look for. While it may be the most novel way to get around, it may not be the most cost efficient in every situation. Public transport is cheaper by far, and most three-wheel drivers tend to over price foreigners. So, never agree to the first estimate. The best price you can get is about Rs50-75 per km for short journeys and about Rs30-50 for long journeys (more than 15 km). If you do come across a metered tri-shaw make sure the meter is switched on. Taxis are slightly more expensive but surely a lot safer. Having said that, you probably have not experienced everything Sri Lanka has to offer until you travel in one.
You can also rent a tuk-tuk from various companies. Some of these companies offer more services than others. For example, some companies offer help with licencing, free repairs, unlimited kms, and tuk-tuk features such as bluetooth speakers, an esky, lockable storage, and 24 hour phone support. Do your research.
Rented cars usually turn out cheaper than three-wheelers, are less prone to road accidents, and are recommended by most hotels. Rented cars generally come with their own drivers. Often the automobile itself is free but the driver will charge a fee for his services. Some drivers and guides are government-licensed; some are extremely knowledgeable and multilingual, specialising in historical and cultural knowledge, and environmental/natural history for your visits to the ancient sites and the natural reserves.
Of course, if you're not on a budget and especially if you're pressed for time, renting a car with driver for the whole or part of the journey can be a convenient way to follow your itinerary, and will in some cases allow you to see two sites on one day. Daily rates vary between Rs5000 and 10,000 per day excluding fuel, depending on the kind of car you want and whether you book via a hotel or travel agency that will take a commission.
You can also rent a car without a driver but you will need to bring your international driving license and get it validated by the Automobile Association of Sri Lanka to be able to drive on your own. You can opt to pay an agency to do this for you in advance. Otherwise, you must do it in Colombo, and it will take a day. You will find international car hire agencies in Colombo Airport and some local companies in Negombo's beach area.
Traffic is on the left. Some of the main roads are in good condition, but other roads are still narrow and bumpy, especially in the interior. Cyclists, pedestrians and animals are among the cars on the roads. Be prepared for traffic jams. Local driving habits are very different from those in the West and traffic is dangerous. Risky accidents occur constantly and traffic fatality rates are high.
Tour operators are happy to get you a van and a driver who will take you all over the island but beware, the roads are bumpy and slow. If you book off-the-cuff when you arrive, ask to be shown on a map where you are going before agreeing to any 'tour' of the island and research before you arrive so that you have a clear idea of where you might like to travel. Senseless backtracking to lengthen the trip and increase the cost is a real danger, as is a driver's wish to take you on unwanted shopping expeditions in an effort to gain commission. Travel websites specialising in Sri Lanka are easily found and have greatly increased the choice that is readily available to independent travellers seeking tailor-made tours. The best of them will produce clearly-stated travel itineraries and some are flexible enough to make late changes to itineraries. Ask to see their booking conditions and anti-fraud policies.
Taxis are a better way of getting around Colombo than three wheelers as, due to the metering, they often turn out to be cheaper. Rates are about US$0.55 and they have full day packages (approx 8 hours and 80km) for around US$40. They will also take you outstation for around US$0.30-0.35 per km with no waiting charges. You can also set up your own itinerary and travel around that way as opposed to whatever the tour operator tells you. Transportation companies such as Uber are also available in the country, It is advised to transport in a taxi which has a specific company tagline.
Sinhala, spoken by the majority Sinhalese, and Tamil, spoken by the minority Tamil and Muslim groups, are Sri Lanka's two official languages. English is commonly used in most cities, especially Colombo, Kandy and Galle, and by government and tourism officials. But while most of the people in Colombo can speak English, don't expect everyone, everywhere to be able to speak it fluently. In the beach and tourist areas you will have no problem with English. Most people in rural villages, however, cannot speak any English, beyond a few simple words.
- Sinhala language The greeting in Sinhala is āyubōvan. It means "May you live longer"; 'Thank you' is sthūthiyi and "how are you" is kohomədə.
- Tamil language: The greeting in Tamil is vanakkam; 'Thank you' is nandri.
Sinhala writing is much more curved than Tamil. After a while, you'll learn how to distinguish between the two.
Given the history of sectarian tensions, language is a sensitive issue in Sri Lanka, and some Tamils may find it offensive to be addressed in Sinhala.
Admission fees for foreigners to many of the tourist sites in Sri Lanka are up to ten times those for locals.
Temple of the sacred tooth relic (Dhaladha Maligawa) is a historical structure built around the 16th century to treasure the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha. It was built as a palace for the kings of Sri Lanka. which was later turned into a temple. This structure has been reconstructed many time after demolition, including by a terrorist attack during the 1983-2009 civil war.
Some popular sights in Sri Lanka are:
- Lagoons such as Mannar and Jaffna, alongside marshes in these areas.
- 1 Sinharaja Forest Reserve, ☏ . Daily 6AM-6PM. Largest rainforest in Sri Lanka, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Extremely diverse fauna and flora. It is home to almost all the endemic species of birds in Sri Lanka.
- Beautiful villages which look like England in Nuwara Eliya. There are many tea estates and Hakgala gardens too.
- The beaches of Unawatuna, Galle, Weligama, Bentota and northern areas.
- 2 Whale watching in Mirissa, ☏ . Noon–11:30PM. Perfect place to spot a few whales and enjoy the Indian Ocean. This would add a little bit of adventure and wildlife for your trip/stay in Sri Lanka. You can also explore all kinds of aquatic creatures besides whales, Such as sea turtles and maybe even a sighting of dolphins if you are fortunate.
- 3Yala National Park, Hambantota, ☏ . 6AM onwards. Yala national park is a very large animal sanctuary in Sri Lanka. When you go to the Southern part of the country, it is a must-see place. There are a wide range of animals that roam around the park, including the rare Sri Lankan Leopards. If you are lucky enough, you would be able to spot them near a watering hole.
- The unexplored Sri Lanka in Jaffna and the islands in the Northern Province (Delft).
- See Negombo's beaches, all sandy and blue.
- The ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa (not temples)
- Chilaw sandpits (great place for bird watching)
- Pinnawala elephant orphanage
With a recorded history of more than 2,500 years, Sri Lanka has a rich cultural and natural heritage and its World Heritage Sites are among the absolute highlights in the country. With eight recognized entries, Sri Lanka has the second most listed World Heritage Sites in South Asia (only India, with 30, has more). The vast Central Highlands (including three highland parks: Horton Plains National Park, Knuckles Mountain Range and the Peak Wilderness Protected Area) were inscribed in 2010. Other than these, Sri Lanka has identified two prospective World Heritage Sites: Seruwila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara and Seruwila to Sri Pada (Sacred Foot Print Shrine), an ancient pilgrim route along the Mahaweli river in Sri Lanka.
- See also: Sacred sites of the Indian sub-continent
From November to April you can surf on the western and southern coast. Best place for the beginners is Weligama on the southern coast.
From April to September you can kitesurf at the eastern coast. The best place for the beginners is Kalpitiya (Sethawadi and Kappaladi lagoons), where you can find kite schools and the best conditions in Asia.
White water rafting
White water rafting is done in tropical rain forests, where the rowers, use an inflatable raft which is sent down small waterfalls. Places like kitulgala are famous for this outdoor activity.
Off the coral a sanctuary near Hikkaduwa is a popular spot to see turtles.
Horton Plains National Park offers a nice hiking opportunity to the spectacular view at World's End.
There are over 400 bird species in Sri Lanka, and over 30 of them are endemic. Bird watching is an excellent activity to take on during a visit to the island. The only requirement would be a binocular and a field guide which you can easily purchase from local bookshops and Plazas (When buying field guides, publications of Ceylon bird club and FOGSL (Field ornithology group Sri Lanka) are highly recommended.)
The best place for birdwatching is Kumana National Park, which is known for the existence of a large number of vagrants and migrants. Places like Mannar and Chilaw are filled with migratory birds (mostly waders) during migrating seasons. If you want to see birds from deep forests, the best place for that is the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the home to almost all the endemic birds of Sri Lanka. Another good place is Bundala National Park near Yala National Park.
This can be done from Mirissa with many companies providing whale watching tours from the harbour.
Sri Lanka has a history of over 2500 years and many ancient ruins can be seen around the country... if you like archaeology, sightseeing might be a great choice. The suggested places are in the Central Province, places such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are the most famous for sightseeing.
Exchange rates for Sri Lankan rupee
As of May 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The currency is the Sri Lankan rupee, denoted by the symbol "රු" or "Rs" (ISO code: LKR). There are coins for 1 rupee (old version is big and silver, new version is a much smaller with a little change in design), 2 rupees (silver), and 5 rupees (gold and silver). Banknotes range from Rs 20 to Rs 5000. Coins that are more than a few years old are typically in quite bad condition. Banknotes that are ripped, painted, scribbled or written upon are not accepted in stores. Wet and balled up bank notes are not accepted as well. Be alert when accepting change you will come to know that our money is in good condition as the slightest tear or ink stain might mean that they are worthless.
Sri Lankan bank notes have telltale anti-forgery markings that travellers should familiarise themselves with. These include a watermark on the left hand side, raised threads of the left and right edges of the note, and a shiny hologram strip down the middle of the note.
Credit cards and ATMs, banking services
ATMs are in many places (especially at bank branches) in the cities and suburbs, less so in the countryside. Be careful of using credit cards, as fraud is on the rise in Sri Lanka. You can withdraw from debit cards too (Cirrus, Maestro, Visa Electron, etc.) where the logos are displayed. Mostly your card will be replaced by your bank once you go back to your country. Not every ATM accepts international cards, try Commercial Bank they accept international cards but charge Rs 400. A better option is Peoples Bank, withdraw up to Rs 100,000 with no fee. You can't send money by Western Union or Money Gram from Sri Lanka abroad. One can only receive money via international money transfer while in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is a little more expensive than Southeast Asia for accommodation. However, food is comparable: local street food costs around €1, a meal in a local restaurant, €2-5, and a bottle of the local Lion beer is €1. All across the country there are simple accommodations, hostels and homestays. The prices vary depending on the equipment at €10-20. On the coast many small boutique hotels opened up in the last years with prices of €20-30 per night in a double room. For more comfort expect to pay more than €40.
Colombo is the shopping capital, with a many malls and plazas selling items of both modern and cultural origins. Rural areas tend to sell handicrafts of Sri Lanka. For reed, cane, cotton, paper, leather, wood, clay, metal, and gemstones have been transformed in an array of batiks, toys, curios and jewellery, hand made treasures. When out in the more rural areas, you will encounter shops selling low-quality but cheap toys, hats, sunglasses. Counterfeit sunglasses may look good but may not protect your eyes from UV light like the real thing. Many packaged goods show the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) on the package. This includes taxes. Retailers are not supposed to charge more than this. Though this rule is adhered to at most places, at tourist destinations or remote places, you may be charged more.
- See also: South Asian cuisine
Sri Lanka and South Indian food share a lot in common, and many local restaurants describe their menus as Sri Lankan & South Indian. There are a number of regional variations, though, the different types of hopper, devilled prawns, cuttlefish, chicken, etc., and the common fiery addition to any curry, pol sambol made of grated coconut, red chilli powder and lime juice.
Sri Lankan food is generally spicy, but you can always ask for less spicy options if you prefer. Sri Lankans eat with their right hands - this isn't a major problem, because every eatery can provide cutlery if you can't eat otherwise. But try the Sri Lankan way (tips of fingers only!); it's harder than it looks but strangely liberating.
Food is generally very cheap, with a cheap meal costing about a US dollar. The most expensive tourist-orientated places seldom charge more than US$10. The staple food of Sri Lankans is rice and curry - a massive mound of rice surrounded by various curries and delicacies. If you want to eat a cheap lunch you can follow the Sri Lankan crowds and duck into any of a million small cafes, confusingly called 'hotels'. These normally sell a rice and curry packet, as well as 'short eats', a collection of spicy rolls. This is ideal for backpackers and those who want to get past the touristy hotels selling burnt chicken and chips - you're charged by how much you eat, and unless you're absolutely ravenous it probably won't cost over a US dollar.
If you are taking road trips outside Colombo, there are endless options for places to stop on the road for lunch. Rest houses and hotels along major roads throughout Sri Lanka have good restaurants that offer both Sri Lankan and Western menus. If you are less adventurous, you can easily get good sandwiches and soups at these restaurants. These places have excellent rice and curry plates, and you will be served many different types of curries over an extremely generous portion of rice. These meals are extremely delicious and will leave you full and happy at the end of the meal. Eating is definitely a memorable experience in Sri Lanka.
Kottu (Kothu) Roti (a medley of chopped roti, vegetables and your choice of meat) is a must-have for anyone - tourist or otherwise - in Sri Lanka. It is uniquely Sri Lankan and tastes best when made fresh by street vendors. However, several kottu roti restaurants have been closed down due to their use of stale and old roti, which made some patrons sick. Use caution, and even better, talk with the locals to figure out where the best kottu roti restaurants are.
Other foods that you should try include String Hoppers, Hoppers, Pittu and Kiribath.
There are many upscale restaurants to choose from in the city of Colombo. There are several fine dining restaurants at the 5-star hotels which offer both local and international cuisine. These establishments are found largely in western Colombo (along Galle Road), though more are around Colombo and other major cities.
Fast-food outlets such as KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Subway and Burger King can be found in major cities.
In Sri Lanka, tap water is not considered safe to drink. However, if you are using bottled water (1 litre for Rs130-140 in January 2023) always make sure the SLS (Sri Lanka Standard Institute) label is present. Also in some parts of the country you'll find hard water due to the high presence of lime in the soil.
Fresh milk, due to the climate, spoils easily, and so is often very expensive. Powdered milk, however, is safe and is often substituted.
Thambili the juice from king coconut, is very refreshing. It's sold at the side of streets throughout the island, you know it's clean as the coconut is cut open in front of you and it's cheaper than bottled drinks at about Rs30/- each. Soft drinks are available almost everywhere, normally in dusty-looking glass bottles. The local producer, Elephant, make a range of interesting drinks - try the ginger beer and cream soda. "Coca Cola" and "Pepsi" also available in large and small sizes (plastic bottles) including several local soft drink brands - all available at rapidly multiplying supermarkets all across the country and grocery shops.
The most common local beer is Lion Lager (Rs140 in "wine shops" or Rs200-300 in restaurants in March 2012). For something a bit different try Lion Stout. It is characterized by its high alcohol content, smooth, dense body and chocolate finish. Other brews include Three Coins, which is brewed by the Mt Lavinia hotel chain, allegedly to a Belgian recipe.
The traditional spirit is Arrack, which costs about US$4 for a bottle, and is often drunk with club soda. The quality can vary depending on how much you want to pay. However, widely recommended brand would be "Old Reserve" and worth paying US$7.50 for it.
Sale and public consumption of alcohol is forbidden on Poya Days, which generally fall on the date of the full moon, but occasionally it falls a day either side. If you really want to drink on these days, plan ahead.
Accommodation in Sri Lanka has been transformed. What would be recognized as the modern tourist industry began in the 1960s with traditional beach hotels built on the west coast which were aimed primarily at the package holiday crowd and traditional travel operators. But the past decade has brought a major change, with the growth of villas, boutique hotels, and independent properties offering a huge array of choice.
- Buddhist Studies and Pali Language. The universities of Peradeniya and Kelaniya[dead link] offer a variety of Buddhist studies and Pali language courses in English.
- Meditation. You may find monasteries and meditation centres that offer meditation courses (generally free of charge) in the Buddhist Publication Society guide.
- Mahamevnawa Meditation Monastery is a good place to learn true Buddhism.
- Dancing There are many foreign enthusiasts to learn Sri Lankan traditional dance under three categories which are Udarata, Pahatharata and Sabaragamu. And there are distinguished drumming for those categories.
Violent crime is not usually any more serious a problem for tourists in Sri Lanka than it is anywhere. There has been an increase in violent crimes involving tourists in the past few years, but it is still very rare. Tourists should exercise the same care and attention as they would at home.
An economic crisis has impacted Sri Lanka since 2020, which caused shortages of food, fuel, and medical services. Lengthy rolling blackouts are also occurring. However, the situation has mostly calmed and it is safe for tourists to return. It is recommended to comply with government orders and avoid participating in protests.
Sri Lanka's lengthy and bloody civil war was ended in 2009, when the government forces finally wiped out the Tamil Tigers. However, there might be land mines remaining, and the facilities in northern (and some parts of the east) cities and towns are war torn. These were the areas where the Tamils lived. The UN, NGOs and the Sri Lankan authorities are engaged in rapidly clearing landmines laid out by the warring parties and repairing damage done by the fighting. It's a long and difficult process. Should you encounter possible unexploded ordnances, dial 114 to report them to authorities.
In general, though, traffic accidents kill more people than terrorism, though terrorists linked to the Islamic State did perform a series of bombings in Colombo and elsewhere around the country killing hundreds of people on Easter 2019. It's quite safe to travel in Sri Lanka and many tourists from all over the world started to come to the country after the end of the civil war. You'll see many foreign tourists at the tourists sites, mostly Westerners. Locals will greet foreigners with a smile and are generally helpful. It is recommended to avoid going alone after dark. Pickpocketing on public transport is uncommon, but take precaution. Make sure that you avoid the places which are shacked up, some places sell drugs and it is important that you are safe from them.
Women safety and LGBTQ rights
In general it is comparatively safe to travel as a women alone in Sri Lanka, but conform with some rules for your own safety.
- Do not take public transportation late at night.
- In rural areas, try to avoid being on the street past nine and if you have to, cover your shoulders and knees.
- At the beach try to stay in groups or in crowded areas.
Under colonial-era laws which are still in place, homosexual activity between consenting adults are punishable by fines. LGBTQ travellers should exercise discretion.
Con artists and touts
Con artists and touts are a serious problem throughout all tourist areas. Using the services of a tout for accommodation, local travel, etc. will most likely increase the price. First time travellers to Sri Lanka may find themselves the victim of scams, however seasoned travellers to Sri Lanka are very rarely scammed and it is simple to avoid becoming a victim of scammers by taking precautions:
- Do not believe anyone who claims to be a professional (e.g., airline pilot), or in charge of a location (like a bus terminal) without proof.
- Scams involving gemstones are common. Do not buy with the intention of selling them in your home country for a profit.
- Be on guard for anybody trying to help you by giving you unsolicited directions or travel advice. Take any advice from taxi and auto drivers with a grain of salt, especially if they tell you the place you want to go to is closed, dangerous, non-existent, etc. If you are unsure, check a map.
- If you have been told your hotel is closed or full, give them a call. If you are a first time visitor to Sri Lanka, don't admit it as it will make you a target for the scam artists.
- Unless you absolutely have to, do not agree to hire the same driver for more than a day at a time. They are a dime a dozen at each city and the whole country is so small that you will not have trouble getting between towns via bus, train, tuk-tuk or another driver if you have to. Even though you agree on a daily or hourly rate, the drivers will all generally attempt to make more commission out of you by forcing you to visit one of their friends' businesses (e.g., spice, carving or gem shops). Calmly and firmly say you are not interested and if they continue to force you to go then find another driver - they are very common and you will have no problem finding another one.
- Vaccinations are recommended for Hepatitis A+B and Tetanus. Also, obtain the Typhus vaccination outside of tourist areas especially in the wet season. The CDC also recommends vaccination against Japanese encephalitis.
- Dengue fever: During the rainy season use mosquito repellent. When head and joint aches occur get a blood check. There is no vaccination yet.
- Malaria: since 2016 Sri Lanka is declared malaria free zone by WHO
- Yellow fever: Sri Lanka, like the rest of Asia is free from yellow fever, but a vaccination certificate is required from travellers over 1 year of age coming from infected areas.
- Visitors should avoid drinking water from the tap. Stick to bottled water for both drinking and tooth-brushing.
- Although snake bites are extremely rare among tourists (comparable to being struck by lightning), anyone bitten should seek prompt medical care. This is true even if the bite doesn't result in any pain and swelling. The National Emergency number is 119. In Colombo, dial either 119 or if you want an emergency ambulance - 110.
- There are tiny little flies that live in the sand (inland only, not on the beaches). Any contact with the dry sand usually results in bites and subsequent painful scratches.
Sri Lanka has many varieties of cultures and religions. The main religion is Buddhism. Sri Lanka, like many other countries, takes its religions seriously. Any scornful actions in the public may lead to arrest. Aside from Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Hinduism are also present in the country.
- Buddhism- Arrived in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century AD, now it is the most common religion in Sri Lanka, and is part of its 2000 years of history.
- Hinduism- this religion can be found scattered across the country, mainly among ethnic Tamils, in spite of the 26-year civil war. This religion adds many cultural features to the country.
- Islam- Arrived at the country via traders; now a common religion seen all across the country.
- Catholicism- A religion which arrived in Sri Lanka during the Portuguese invasions.
Religions contribute to the country's architecture. Sites such as temples, kovils and churches are known for structures based on religions of Sri Lanka.
There are several customs that, specially for Western travellers, would take a bit of getting used to.
- It is customary to remove shoes and wear respectful attire (i.e., no miniskirts, tank tops, short pants) when visiting temples. It is also the custom to remove shoes before entering a home, though this is not as strictly followed as in places such as Japan.
- Never touch or pat Buddhist monks, including younger monks and children who practice at a temple.
- Do not display tattoos that depict the Buddha. This can be regarded as highly insulting in Sri Lanka, even if acceptable in other Buddhist countries and regions. Arrest and deportation are realistic scenarios.
- Do not turn your back to a Buddha statue while within a reasonable distance. This includes posing for photos, where you should not make arm or body contact with the statue. It is advisable to photograph a Buddha statue with all persons facing towards it (as observing it), rather than posing alongside.
- Public nudity is illegal in Sri Lanka - nude/topless sunbathing and skinny dipping should be avoided, except in the private beach resorts which allow it.
- Although much latitude is given to tourists, it is more polite to use your right hand when handing money and small objects, etc... Of course you can use both hands for something big and/or heavy.
- Be respectful to monks/elderly/disabled. There's no particular etiquette for Westerners - just be polite. Always give them a seat on a crowded bus.
- It is highly controversial to discuss politics, particularly the Sinhalese/Tamil divide or the LTTE. The 26-year civil war which ended in 2009 saw thousands of attacks throughout the country, including suicide bombings and massacres which have killed scores of politicians and civilians on both sides alike.
- No photography of sensitive locations (inside and outside), and inside of shopping malls and tea factories (outside OK). Be especially careful in Fort, Colombo (except on the beach). If soldiers are guarding something, it probably shouldn't be photographed. Don't rely on signs alone, as sometimes they are old or missing. For example, one end of a bridge may have a "No Photography" sign, but not the other.
- Seemingly innocuous public displays of affection between lovers such as kissing and/or hugging may be culturally frowned upon as it is considered to be private behaviour but it is acceptable in functions and establishments designated for adults such as nightclubs, casinos and beach parties. Much lenience is given to foreigners and holding hands and public affection between parents and their children is not frowned upon.
- The poor must be respected. Many poverty-stricken individuals roam in the streets of main cities. Disrespecting them is not the right thing to do. But it is also important to not be caught by touts and con artists
The country code for Sri Lanka is 94. Remove the intercity prefix (0) before the area code when dialling internationally into the country (i.e., 0112 688 688 becomes +94 112 688 688) when dialling from abroad. The two next numbers after 94 represents the area code, they are different for every district for more information see Telephone numbers in Sri Lanka.
The use of GSM cellphones is widespread and the coverage is good.
Dialog and Mobitel are two operators that have sales offices at the airport inside the arrivals lounge. Dialog Mobile has the widest coverage in the country including rural areas and has the best quality GSM / 3G / HSPA +/4G network. Mobitel also has a 3G/HSPA+/4G network. All the mobile operators are having same call rates due to floor rate tariffs. Therefore, it is advisable to go to the network which offers you the best quality. All Mobile Operators offers cheap IDD Call rates.
When you are in dire need of internet connection, go to the nearest store (any store.) and ask for a 'Data Card'. After purchasing the card, dial the number on the back and do as advised.
If you want to surf internet, best way is to buy a HSPA dongle and a Mobile Broadband connection. Dialog Mobile, Mobitel, Hutch and Airtel offers prepaid Mobile Broadband services which can be activated and used immediately.
Buying a wifi router is really not necessary as it will be dysfunctional once you are out of the country. (Unless you are planning a long stay like 1-2 years.) Dialog is the Vodafone Roaming Network in Sri Lanka and offers the best range of Value added services for Roamers and the rates are cheaper. Airtel also provide cheap roaming rates specially to India.
Mobile phones are cheaper and widely available.