Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean’s jewel shaped country exceeded my expectations and I cannot wait to go back. Sri Lanka is an easy country to travel with English being spoken widely and public transport easy to navigate and access. However, if you’re expecting a super cheap Asian destination, you’re in for a surprise. Although Sri Lanka is certainly a cheaper destination than many western countries, it’s definitely not on the same scale as Laos or Vietnam. If you’re backpacking Sri Lanka, this is everything you should know before you visit to avoid getting scammed and overspending and any tips and tricks I picked up along the way.
- Backpacking Sri Lanka
- Top Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
- Accommodation in Sri Lanka
- Best time to travel Sri Lanka
- Backpacking Sri Lanka Budget
- Currency, cash & ATMs
- Eating & Drinking in Sri Lanka
- Festivals and Events in Sri Lanka
- Flights to Sri Lanka
- How to Get Around
- Responsible Backpacking in Sri Lanka
- Tipping in Sri Lanka
- Safety and Female Travellers
- Scams to avoid
- Things we LOVE about Sri Lanka
- Things we don’t
- What to Pack for Sri Lanka
- Visa for Sri Lanka
- SIM cards & Wifi in Sri Lanka
Backpacking Sri Lanka
Top Places to Visit in Sri Lanka
Any of the beaches along the coast.
I only spent time in Mirissa and Tangalle (which I would highly recommend) but given that Sri Lanka is an island, you’re pretty safe going to any of the beaches. Most of the popular surfing beaches are along the east coast but bear in mind that the best time to travel to this region is from April to September.
Ella was my favourite place in Sri Lanka with wonderful opportunities for self-guided hikes. You get a nice break from the humidity in heat being higher up in altitude. Hiking up to see Ella Rock is an absolute must but make sure you go early before the fog comes through.
The weather will change fairly drastically but mornings are safest for a clear sky. The hike is moderate and features some steep uphill sections that will make you want to curse every cheeseburger you’ve ever eaten. So yeah, a reasonable level of fitness will help.
Nuwara Eliya is such an underrated destination in Sri Lanka which makes it one of the best off the beaten paths destinations. The area is part of the hill country and is surrounded by refreshing waterfalls and tea plantations. You can go on a tour of a tea plantation for free, learn about the origins of Ceylon tea and try some samples.
We did a tuk-tuk of the area for 2,500 Rs (~15 USD) for 2 people and highly recommend doing the same.
The Cultural Triangle
The northern plains in Sri Lanka traditionally referred to as Rajarata or “The King’s Land”, served as the main hub of early Sinhalese civilization. The Cultural Triangle features the oldest ancient cities and kingdoms in Sri Lanka with ruins, ancient monuments and abandoned cities. The popular ancient cities to visit are Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.
The ancient cities can easily be visited alone without a tour guide given the sights all have signage with enough information to satisfy any history nerd. If you aren’t someone who is really into this, one or two ancient cities will suffice. Bear in mind that there is an entry fee for each area:
- Anuradhapura: $25 USD
- Polonnaruwa: $25 USD
- Sigiriya: $30 USD
Pidurangala Rock or Sigiriya
If you have the time and money, I would highly recommend going to both. I wouldn’t have loved to see Sigiriya but given its cost ($30 USD), I decided to skip it and hiked up Pidurangala Rock for 500 Rs (~$3 USD) instead. Here, you get the view of Sigiriya as well as the entire surrounding area.
Check out this 2-week itinerary for Sri Lanka to help you plan.
Accommodation in Sri Lanka
In Colombo, I stayed in Bunkyard Hostels which is by far, one of the best hostels I’ve ever been in. For a bed in a 6-bed dorm, I paid 1,600 Rs (~9.50 USD) which was the most I spent on accommodation in Sri Lanka but worth it. I had a good chat with one of the owners who is passionate about his country and gave me some great tips on where to go and what to see.
Outside of Colombo, I found that guesthouses were the best options for accommodation. I found that guesthouses were the best options for accommodation and used Booking.com to book most of our accommodation. In Galle, I didn’t book and just walked around the area to ask for prices – I found this to be more time consuming and not much cheaper than Booking.com.
If you’re keen on sticking to hostels, I recommend using Hostelworld.
Best time to travel Sri Lanka
The weather in Sri Lanka is dictated by two monsoon seasons which actually means the best time to travel Sri Lanka is all year around. In coastal and lowland areas, the average daytime temperatures of 26–30°C (expect mid 30°C at the hottest part of the day). In hill country, the average temperatures are 18–22°C or lower as you get higher. Humidity is high (60-80% average).
However, because there are two monsoon seasons, the best time to travel one part of the country is not the best time to travel the other. December to March is the best time to visit the west and south coasts (Galle and Mirissa for example) and hill country (e.g. Ella).
April/May to September is the best time to visit the east coast (e.g. Arugam Bay).
Temperatures remain fairly constant all year round.
Backpacking Sri Lanka Budget
Overall, I’d recommend a daily budget of around 4,300 – 6,900 Rs (~$25 – 40 USD) per day if you’re backpacking Sri Lanka (depending on how much splurging you want to do). Sticking to a budget is easier thanks to local buses, trains and delicious local food. Avoid overpriced western restaurants (that aren’t that good anyway) and save your money to pay for certain activities and passes (e.g. Sigiriya) that are expensive.
I spent a total of $500AUD (~350 USD) which included a few splurge meals (like Ministry of Crab), some purchases and massages. I could have spent less by staying in dorms every night, sticking to only cheap local food and keep activities to a minimum but I wanted to make the most of my time there so didn’t skimp out too much. I would say that this is a good budget for middle-class backpacking – on the cheap but still comfortable. Everything is also cheaper outside of Colombo so don’t spend too much time here if you don’t want to break the bank.
Here are some prices for a better idea of general costs:
- Airport Uber to Colombo – 1,800 Rs (~11 USD)
- 1.5L Bottle of water – 70 rupees (~0.50 USD)
- Average price for a private room for 2 – 2,000 rupees (~12 USD)
- Train from Colombo Fort to Galle – 180 rupees (~1 USD)
- Bus from Tangalle to Ella – 220 rupees (~1.30 USD)
- Train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya (reserved seating, second class) – 600 rupees (~3.50 USD)
- Beer – 500 rupees (~3 USD)
- Western lunch in Ella (burger & drink) – 1,150 rupees (~7 USD)
- Sri Lankan lunch for 2 – 680 rupees (~4 USD)
- Tourist ticket for Polonnaruwa – 3,350 rupees (~20 USD)
- Safari tour through Kaudulla National Park – 4,000 rupees (~23 USD)
- Pidurangala Rock – 500 rupees (~3 USD)
Currency, cash & ATMs
Sri Lanka’s currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR or Rs). At the time of writing, the exchange rate is:
1AUD ≈ 122 rupees
1USD ≈ 154 rupees
1EUR ≈ 188 rupees
Although credit cards are widely accepted in Sri Lanka, you’ll still need to keep cash on you (especially for buying food from small local vendors, shopping at local markets and for tuk-tuks). Avoid exchanging Rs ahead of time and opt for withdrawing cash at ATMs (they are widely available).
ATM operators usually charge around 200 to 300 rupees (~1-2 USD) and have a transaction limit of between 40,000 and 60,000 rupees ($300 – 500AUD / $260 – $400USD). Note that your local bank may also charge you additional withdrawal fees. If you’re in Australia, CitiBank’s Plus Account has no account fees and doesn’t charge foreign ATM transaction fees.
TIP: keep plenty of lower denomination notes (20 to 500 Rs) as change is difficult to come by outside of hotels and big stores.
Eating & Drinking in Sri Lanka
If you’re a foodie, you are in for a treat. Sri Lankan food is delicious and cheap! Outside of the major cities, you won’t find many non-Sri Lankan or non-Indian food options that are good or budget-friendly. Stick to local food, try eating with your hands and don’t forget to ask if the food is spicy! Some delicious Sri Lankan dishes you must try are:
- Fish ambul thiyal: sour fish curry
- Kottu: chopped up flatbread mixed in with other ingredients. When you hear the clanking of metal, you’ll know that Kottu is nearby.
- Parippu: dhal curry
- Hoppers: similar to a pancake made with rice flour and coconut milk
- String hoppers: similar to vermicelli noddles to be eaten with curries
- Wambatu moju: eggplant/brinjals pickle
- Pol sambol: coconut relish – seriously one of the best things I’ve ever had.
If you do get a little tired of the local food, a couple of Western (but pricey) restaurants that are good are Zephyr in Mirissa and Ministry of Crab in Colombo.
Outside of Colombo, you won’t find many places to pull all-night ragers. There isn’t a big drinking or nightlife culture in Sri Lanka so you’ll find that most places will close fairly early. Alcohol is available from supermarkets in larger towns and from stores in the smaller towns, although don’t expect it to be widely available everywhere.
The sale of alcohol is prohibited on full-moon (poya) days.
Festivals and Events in Sri Lanka
Sinhala and Tamil New Year: Sinhala and Tamil New Year is celebrated by most Sri Lankans on the 13th or 14th of April each year, marking the end of the harvest season and spring. The whole island celebrates so it’s impossible to escape the festive atmosphere with people wearing their best new clothes, exchanging sweets with neighbours and taking part in games and activities in the streets.
Deepavali: Deepavali (or Diwali) is a Hindu festival of lights and is one of the most popular festivals of Hinduism. In Sri Lanka, it is celebrated by the Tamil community and includes many traditional aspects such as fireworks, food, family and fun. Deepavali is usually celebrated between mid-October and mid-November.
Kandy Esala Perahera: Also known as the Festival of the Tooth, this is an annual Buddhist celebration held on the full moon day in July or August in Kandy to pay homage to one of the only two survival scared tooth relic of Gautama Buddha.
Flights to Sri Lanka
Air Asia is a great option for booking flights throughout Asia and for flights to Sri Lanka. For a return flight from Perth to Colombo via Kuala Lumpur, I paid $418AUD (no luggage).
Skyscanner is a great website for comparing different airlines and flight options. I have found that prices offered on Skyscanner through the third party sites are sometimes cheaper than going to an airline’s website directly.
Tip: Cheaper flights do often mean weird flight times and long transit periods so I bring along my 2-in-1 travel pillow and a sarong and just sleep on the airport floor or in the ‘cinema’ of KLIA2 with two seats pushed together. That backpacker life, amiright?
Tip: I always search for individual and connecting flights to compare prices. For example, I searched one flight from PER to KUL and then a second flight from KUL to CMB and then compared this to the price of booking the return flight. It worked out to be the same price so I just booked it as a return a flight.
How to Get Around
Though travelling through Sri Lanka is fairly easy, taking public trains and buses can be a little stressful and chaotic – all part of the adventure! More often than not, I found myself standing for hours on end in overcrowded buses and trains packed like a Tetris puzzle to the point that people would hang off the edges.
It was sweaty, humid and a little frustrating at times but I would choose to travel no other way. The verdurous landscapes are worth it and the opportunities to chat with locals surpasses my need for comfort.
If you’re backpacking Sri Lanka, I recommend you stick to:
- Uber – in Colombo. We took an Uber to and from the airport due the inconvenient bus times. If your flight in or out is during the day, taking the bus is a more budget-friendly option.
- Tuk-Tuks – tuk-tuks in Colombo have meters but many drivers don’t want to use them. Make sure you ask if the meter is being used before getting into the tuk-tuk. If you’re happy bartering a price, you may have to bargain with a few drivers before you get one that isn’t trying to rip you off. Outside of the main cities, tuk-tuks won’t have meters so you’ll have to rely on the negotiating skills.
- Trains – tickets must be purchased in person. If you’re taking the train to Galle from Colombo, you should go to Matara station rather than Colombo Fort if you want to get a seat. If you are taking the train between Ella and Kandy, the busier train is from Kandy so try and travel in the other direction if possible as you are more likely to get seats (it’s a loooong ride). Stick to second class trains (third class are the cheapest tickets and these really should be left to locals only. First class seats are often air-conditioned which means you can’t open the window and enjoy the fresh air and the wind in your hair.
- Local buses – pay for tickets on the bus. Be prepared to spend most of the time standing if you’re not getting on from the first stop.
If you want or can stretch your bank account, you can also get taxis or private drivers although public transport is definitely waaaay more fun!
TIP: Make sure you download offline maps before going to Sri Lanka if you won’t have a sim card with the internet.
We always travel with travel insurance in the event of any accidents or medical emergencies. It’s one of those things you don’t need until you do and if you don’t have it, it can cost you big time. Daniel recently contracted typhoid and all his medical bills added up to nearly $4,000. We didn’t pay a cent because our travel insurance covered it all. Get your insurance here now:
Responsible Backpacking in Sri Lanka
As guests in another country, we believe in doing our best to be responsible backpackers to not offend or insult people and to minimise any negative impact on locals and in the country. Our tips being a responsible backpacker in Sri Lanka are:
- Please don’t support poor animal tourism. Any organisation that allows you to ride an elephant is not there for the elephant’s wellbeing. Research carefully ahead of time and stick to seeing them in the wild.
- Avoid overt public displays of affection as it is frowned upon
- Eat and shake with your right hand (the left is for cleaning your butt)
- Never touch or pat the top of the head of Buddhist monks
- Do not turn your back to a Buddha statue (or have a photo taken with your back to one)
- Don’t wear attire which features Buddha or any other deity
- Book first or second class train tickets only. If tourists buy up all of the cheapest tickets, locals are left paying for the more expensive classes.
- Bring a reusable bottle and a SteriPEN or Lifestraw to reduce plastic waste.
Tipping in Sri Lanka
In general, tipping is not expected and is at your discretion. At restaurants, you usually round up and leave the change otherwise can tip as you like.
Private drivers, however, should be tipped and this is expected. Drivers don’t hesitate to ask you for a tip either. Tour guides may ask for a tip but again, this is at your discretion.
If you are visiting a temple that doesn’t charge an entry fee, you should leave a small donation.
Safety and Female Travellers
Sri Lanka is an extremely safe country to travel. I travelled with a female friend and never once felt in danger or threatened. If anything, locals were always concerned for us, warning us and telling us to be careful with our bags. The only time I felt creeped out was on the beach when I walked past a man masturbating as he looked out into the ocean. So weird.
In general, both males and females are quite conservative in the way they dress so anything exposing limbs will make you stand out. Shorts and singlets are hardly seen outside of popular tourist beach towns so should be avoided. At a minimum, you should opt for long pants or skirt and a t-shirt.
Scams to avoid
- Tuk-tuk: never get into a tuk-tuk without first negotiating a price. Tuk-tuk drivers will always give you an inflated price expecting you to haggle this down. Once you’ve agreed on a price, do not pay until you have arrived at your destination. If you are making a return trip and the driver demands payment, only pay half. Always carry change as drivers will often say they don’t have any to give you.
- Non-metered taxis: super common scam all through Asia where drivers refuse to turn on the meter. This scam is easily avoided as long as you make it clear you will not board unless the meter is switched on. If the driver refuses, tell them to move along and find another.
- Fake gemstones scam: we had a few tuk-tuk drivers also offer to take us to these gemstone stores that sell “authentic” gems at a heavily discounted price. These, however, will not be real and you will be buying fake goods which are worthless. If you want to buy gems in Sri Lanka, buy them from a reputable and licensed jewellery strore.
Things we LOVE about Sri Lanka
- Delicious food – the food is seriously SO SO good. If you haven’t tried Sri Lankan cuisine before, you are missing out.
- The people! Oh, the people. I know you can’t just generalise a population but from day 1, I met so many friendly and hospitable people who were keen for a chat. I’ve been in countries where trains get squishy (Japan for example) but people don’t often interact with one another. On the train from Colombo to Galle, I met a few locals who shared a bit about themselves and asked me questions about Australia. We were huddled in the doorway and they would tell me about some of the places we were passing and were always telling me to be careful not to fall out.
- Epic train journeys – certainly some of the best in the world. They are slow and travel through the mountains, showcasing some lush pastures along the way. The most popular ride is that between Ella and Kandy. You can buy tickets a couple of days in advance from the station so make sure you buy the tickets as soon as arrive in Kandy or Ella to get seats.
- The landscapes and the hikes are unreal, especially up in hill country. I particularly enjoyed hiking around all of Ella – to Ella rock and Nine Arch Bridge. Just keep in mind that the hikes at altitude can mean that fog will wash over and obstruct your view of, well, everything. So get hiking early before the weather turns to sh*te.
- Tropical fruits – go nuts, it’s all so cheap!
Things we don’t
- Pollution in the big cities. We were originally planning on staying in Kandy for the day but quickly escaped as soon as the train arrived because the pollution and the crowds were pretty bad. I was stoked to get to Ella and enjoy breathing fresh, clean air.
- Foreigner prices for many attractions. The entrance tickets/day passes to places are in general very expensive compared to everywhere else in Asia (such as Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia).
- Places with poor animal tourism. Please avoid any place that chains or rides elephants – even if they call it an “orphanage” or “sanctuary”. Stick to seeing them in the wild.
What to Pack for Sri Lanka
Given the humidity and the generally warm climate, bring clothing that will wick sweat and is fast drying (the weather can turn on you pretty quickly). Places at higher altitude (like Nuwara Eliya and Ella) can get cold during the day so bring an extra layer.
Some must-bring items are:
- Water bottle with filter
- Thongs / Flip flops / Sandals that are easy to get on and off for when you are visiting temples
- Tops that cover shoulders
- Any bottoms that cover the knees
- Hat and sunscreen
- Sneakers or hiking shoes if you’re planning on hiking
- A backpack (rather than suitcase) to make it easy to get around. The Farpoint 40L backpack can be taken on as carryon and is versatile enough for backpacking any destination.
Visa for Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka issues an ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) for short visits of 30 days to Sri Lanka. The ETA available to citizens of most countries and you apply through the official Sri Lankan ETA website. As an Australian, the ETA cost me $35USD for a double-entry visa valid for 30 days. After submitting my application, I received my ETA approval notice within 15 minutes.
To submit your ETA application, you will need to provide the following details:
- Personal details
- Passport details (number, issue & expiry dates)
- Intended arrival date & purpose for visit
- Contact details & address in Sri Lanka (we booked 1 night in a hostel and used this address).
If you want to stay in Sri Lanka longer, the ETA website advises:
A visitor wishing to stay more than 30 days in Sri Lanka, may apply for an extension. The Short Visit visa may be extended up to 90 days from the date of arrival at the first instance and further 90 days at the second instance.
Tip: Bring a copy of your ETA approval notice with you to Sri Lanka in case this is requested.
SIM cards & Wifi in Sri Lanka
Although wifi is available in most places, it’s unreliable and pretty slow. So, if you need to keep in contact or stay online, a sim card is an affordable option. There are different stalls selling sim cards in the arrivals terminal at the airport. Pricing wise, they are all more or less the same. We tried Mobitel and Dialog and found that Dialog had better and more widespread coverage for the entire time we were there.
The tourist plan costs Rs.1,299 ($11AUD / $9USD) and comes with the sim card, 9GB of data, Rs.600 for international calls and SMS and Rs.350 for local calls and SMS.
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