Travelling to Sri Lanka for the first time? Then you may have questions. How is the traffic and how hot is it there? Is it safe to travel there and which vaccinations do you actually need? In this article, we list everything you need to know for a visit to Sri Lanka.
1. Travelling to Sri Lanka
The fastest way to reach Sri Lanka is by plane. The largest international airport is Bandaranaike International Airport, on the west coast, half an hour's drive from Colombo. Other international airports can be found in the north, east and south.
2. Passports and Visas
You need a passport that is valid for at least another six months during your entire stay in Sri Lanka. You also need a tourist visa, which you can easily apply for online. Since the pandemic, travellers are required to take out COVID insurance and submit a health declaration before departure.
3. Vaccinations and medical preparations
Before you travel to Sri Lanka, it is good to visit your doctor and check whether your vaccinations are still up to date. Which vaccinations are mandatory or not can differ per country, so check the advice of your government in time.
Pack a small first aid kit in your luggage and make sure it contains a good disinfectant. Medication against traveller's diarrhea is also not a luxury. Finally, it is best to bring wet wipes and disinfecting alcohol gel, because hygiene is not equally good everywhere.
4. Travelling in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has an extensive network of buses and trains. You actually get everywhere by bus. But public transport is not always punctual and is often packed. Air conditioning is not always provided. If you want a seat when you want to cover a long distance by bus, it is best to go to the starting point of your bus, where you can ask where and when exactly the bus leaves for your destination. Often the buses don't really stop, they just slow down and you have to hop on and off when they are still running. If that's a bit scary, see how the locals do it and just do the same.
In cities and at tourist attractions you can usually take a tuk-tuk. Tuktuks are a cheap and fast way to cover short distances but are less suitable for long distances. Moreover, there is often only room for two, a maximum of three people without luggage.
You can rent a car at most airports, but not every driver's license is valid in Sri Lanka. You may need to provide additional paperwork to drive in the country. Moreover, the traffic is quite chaotic there, so you have to have the courage to drive there.
If you prefer not to drive yourself, you can arrange a driver with a car for your trip. You can find a list of approved drivers and companies on the Sri Lanka Tourism website. Ayubowan Travel & Tours is a good choice.
If you move through traffic as a pedestrian, it is best to do so with confidence. Follow the traffic rules and be careful. If motorbikes or tuk-tuks arrive, don't hesitate, just keep walking. Hesitation creates confusion and accidents happen.
5. The climate
Sri Lanka is located in South Asia, below India. The island has a warm and humid climate, with two rainy seasons. The southwest of the island has a rainy season in May and June, and the northeast between October and December. During the rainy season, it is still warm and sunny, but you can regularly expect a heavy shower or even a wonderful tropical thunderstorm.
Because Sri Lanka is fairly close to the equator, there are no major seasonal differences. The sun rises between six and six in the morning all year round and sets between six and six in the evening every day. Those sunsets also go pretty fast and can be fantastically colourful. Especially when a storm just blows over.
Many wild animals live in this tropical climate. From the small Asian elephants, leopards and millions of tropical birds to beautiful sea turtles and whales and dolphins. You can see many of these animals during safaris or with a bit of luck even on the road. In the temples and jungle live small monkeys, which look quite cute, but can be aggressive. Don't give them anything to eat.
6. Ayubowan – hospitality in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan hospitality is something special. It is cordial and warm and sincere. When you meet someone from Sri Lanka, they often press their palms together in front of their chest and say ayubowan. With that gesture, people wish each other a long and healthy life. If you'd like to answer that greeting, just do the same.
Tourism is a large part of Sri Lanka's income. Yet the Sri Lankan hospitality remains very genuine. People are interested in you and want to know how you are doing. It is rarely a scene for tourists.
7. Spicy curries and watalappan
Eating out in Sri Lanka is always a party. You will have dozens of varieties of curries and rice on your plate – with vegetables, meat, fish or shrimp. Often you get some side dishes with it, such as vegetables in tampura and papadums. To lick fingers and thumbs.
After the main course, you often get something sweet to finish your meal. Fresh fruit, sorbets or pastries. Be sure to taste watalappan, a local coconut and cinnamon dessert. Wonderfully sweet and sticky.
Sri Lankan cuisine is not only tasty but also quite healthy. Be careful when you put a large bite of curry in your mouth: some are quite spicy. If you are not used to eating spicy food, it is best to taste a bite first.
8. Visiting Temples and Ruins
The history of Sri Lanka goes back more than 2600 years. Kings and rulers built fortresses, city-states and kingdoms that fell into ruins one by one. You can visit this cultural heritage, often protected by UNESCO.
Different historical sites charge two entrance fees. Locals are often allowed to enter temples and historical sites for a small fee or even for free, while tourists have to pay a higher amount. That feels a bit strange in the otherwise cheap country, but your contribution helps the maintenance of the heritage and that is only positive.
To visit temples or ruins with temples, you have to dress appropriately. That is, your shorts and skirts should reach below the knee and cover your shoulders. You invariably enter temples without shoes and, in some cases, the men have to bare the torso.
In some temples, people pose as guardians of your shoes. It is customary to pay them a small amount to get your shoes back.
9. All about money
The national currency of Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan Rupee. At the time of writing, 1 euro is approximately equal to 370 LKR. The exchange rate can sometimes fluctuate, so always check before departure.
You can pay with your bank card or credit card in many places, but that usually costs you transaction costs. It is better to withdraw some money and pay cash. You are not required to tip people, but tips are welcomed. Wages are often very low in Sri Lanka, a tip is a nice addition. Especially when people do you a favour, or when you take a picture of them, you should give them some money.
10. Security in Sri Lanka
In recent years, Sri Lanka has suffered from attacks, natural disasters, the pandemic and now even the war between Russia and Ukraine. That makes life a lot more expensive. That is why Sri Lanka is regularly in the news because the people there protest against the high cost of living.
Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is a very safe country to travel. After all, the protests that are there are not aimed at tourists at all. Tourists are welcomed with open arms. So you can travel to and through Sri Lanka with peace of mind.
Of course, you do need a little common sense. Petty crime is always possible in the big cities, just like you can experience it in all major cities in the world. Watch your belongings and don't flaunt expensive things. Keep some change in your pockets so that you don't have to pull out your entire wallet when you have to pay something.
Are you a woman travelling alone? You can usually do that safely in Sri Lanka, although a little vigilance can't hurt. It is best to be more careful after sunset. Avoid places that are poorly lit and do not get into a tuk-tuk or car alone.
11. From hotel to homestay: everything about the accommodation
From high-end hotels to simple homestays, there is a whole range of accommodations in every price range in Sri Lanka. Moreover, even high-end hotels have reasonable prices by Western standards. So you can treat yourself to a nice hotel once in a while.
The Jetwing Hotels chain has quality hotels all over Sri Lanka, and Fox Resorts can be found in both Jaffna and Kandy. If you are looking for something more exclusive, you can visit Karpaha Sands or the Maalu Maalu Resort & Spa.
If you don't plan to travel around, but would like to explore the area from one place, a holiday home or Airbnb is for you. The beautiful Silverlane Beach House, in the south, is a must.
To use the electricity network in Sri Lanka, you need a world plug. Most major hotels have built-in world plugs, but it never hurts to have one in your pocket.
The electricity network is sometimes a bit shaky and that means that sometimes blackouts can occur. Sometimes these only last a few minutes, but it can also take several hours before the electricity is back. Large hotels and guest houses usually have a generator and provide you with electricity again quickly. If you are staying in a small accommodation, it is not a bad idea to keep a power bank on hand.
14. Go with the flow
Travel sometimes requires some flexibility, especially when you're visiting a country for the first time. Try to relax and don't get too attached to your travel plans. Sometimes you have to change your plan because something unforeseen happens. That's not bad at all. Just stay calm and think for a while. You know more than you think.