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23 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Sri Lanka
Despite its tumultuous recent history, Sri Lanka is defined by its mild Buddhist culture, friendly people, and laid-back way of life in tropical waters off the southern tip of India.
When it comes to enjoying a simple journey to this Indian Ocean island, a little knowledge goes a long way. Sri Lanka is a very diverse country for such a small country. Surf-pounded coastlines give way to forested national parks, temple-studded plains, and jungle-covered hills, with the added benefit of being only a short distance from a beach.
Most visitors begin on the coast and travel inland to tea gardens, ancient cities, and national parks, but newcomers may find it difficult to navigate Sri Lanka’s frantic public transportation system and cultural sensitivities. To assist you, here are some things you should know before traveling to Sri Lanka.
- Apply for a visa ahead of time.
Check the most recent visa requirements for Sri Lanka as a first step. Most nations require an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) prior to travel, but they are not difficult to obtain.
- Examine your travel vaccines.
Because Sri Lanka is a tropical country, be sure you have all of your travel immunizations up to date. Diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and polio immunizations are recommended for Sri Lanka. Long-term visitors may also consider getting vaccinated against typhoid and rabies (while rabies is uncommon, it can be fatal, and it is spread by dogs, cats, and monkeys in Sri Lanka).
- Plan your Sri Lanka journey around the monsoons.
Between May and September, the southwest monsoon pummeled the south and west coasts of Sri Lanka, bringing plenty of rain and turbulent waves, while the northern and eastern regions of the country remained lovely and dry. When the northeast monsoon strikes Sri Lanka between November and March, the south and west are at their best, and the showers impact the northern and eastern regions of the island.
In truth, monsoon rainfall in Sri Lanka is irregular, with short, violent downpours interspersed with lengthy, scorching sunny periods. Traveling to various locations of Sri Lanka during their rainy “off-seasons” has numerous benefits: visitor numbers decline and accommodation rates fall dramatically.
- No alcohol is sold on full moon days or during religious festivals.
Sri Lanka has a large number of bank holidays, over half of which are poya days, which mark the advent of the full moon, which is considered an auspicious occurrence in Sri Lankan Buddhism. Alcohol is not sold in shops, restaurants, or bars on poya days (but you can still access your hotel room’s minibar). Other religious celebrations, such as the Buddhist holiday of Vesak in May, are likewise prohibited from serving alcohol.
- Bring cash: the Sri Lankan rupee is the official currency.
Stock up on rupees when you arrive in Sri Lanka, not before, and only change what you need. Outside of Sri Lanka, it is difficult to exchange Sri Lankan rupees. ATMs are widely available throughout the country; however, Bank of Ceylon ATMs are preferred because they do not charge a fee. Card readers are often used in larger hotels, restaurants, and tourist-oriented enterprises.
Whenever possible, try to accumulate a cache of lesser denomination notes (for example, withdraw LKR5900 rather than LKR6000). You’ll need tiny cash to pay for tuk-tuks, purchase items from local shops and marketplaces, and tip. Carrying some cash in dollars, euros, or pounds sterling is also recommended, as these currencies are generally accepted in tourist regions.
- Be realistic about your ability to cover the ground.
Traveling around Sri Lanka takes a surprising amount of time due to the meandering paths and limited number of roads that cross the island’s interior. Traffic must also avoid risks such as poorly maintained roads and roving wildlife (buffaloes, cows, feral dogs, and even elephants). Don’t rush if you want to give the island justice. A month is required to complete a circle of the island, with excursions to national parks, ancient cities, and tea plantations inland.
Road travel from Colombo to southern towns like Galle, Matara, and Tangalla is relatively quick because of Sri Lanka’s expanding expressway network. The Hill Country of Sri Lanka is the most time-consuming region to navigate due to its twisty, crowded roads (consider utilizing trains instead).
- Prepare for the hills and sacred sites of Sri Lanka.
The mountains of Sri Lanka reach elevations of nearly 2,000m (6,560ft), and temperatures in the highlands are lower than on the coast. Bring a light sweater for chilly nights and early mornings (especially between December and March). Bring a sarong, which may be used as a beach blanket or towel, a shawl or skirt to cover your shoulders or knees when visiting temples, and a warm layer for riding on air-conditioned buses or pre-dawn safari vehicle drives.
- Make a reservation for the hill country trains.
Sri Lanka Railways operates the country’s trains, including services on the magnificent Main Line, which runs east from Colombo through the island’s tallest mountains, cloud forests, and tea fields. It’s a beautiful route that’s popular with both visitors and residents, especially the segment between Kandy and Ella.
Book tickets in air-conditioned first class or fan-cooled second class in advance to ensure a seat, either in person at stations or online through sites like seerendipitours.com. Tickets go on sale 10 days before the event and sell out rapidly.
- Swimwear is only appropriate for the beach.
Sri Lankans, for the most part, are socially conservative and intensely religious. Swimwear is appropriate for the beach, but not for walking around town. Going naked or topless on any Sri Lankan beach is strictly prohibited.
- Avoid public displays of affection and disruptive behavior.
Public displays of affection, loud or arrogant behavior, and losing your temper in public are all frowned upon (keep this in mind when bartering – this should never be an angry procedure).
- When visiting temples, dress respectfully.
Wear attire that covers the legs, upper arms, and shoulders when visiting sacred locations. Even if the site is a historic ruin, remove your shoes and hat before entering any Buddhist or Hindu temple or mosque. Socks are permitted (and will be required on blazing hot, sunny days).
Tourists are scarcer in Jaffna and the north, where a distinct Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu culture prevails. When visiting Hindu temples, follow local customs and ask for permission before entering, as non-Hindus are not permitted to access some sanctuaries. Some temples, such as Jaffna’s enormous Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, also demand men to remove their shirts and enter bare-chested.
- Pay homage to Buddha pictures.
Sri Lankan Buddhists take images of the Buddha very seriously, and they should be treated with care at all times. People have been deported from Sri Lanka for wearing apparel with “disrespectful” Buddha pictures; thus, avoid wearing clothing with Buddha motifs and hide any tattoos with Buddhist iconography. The same prohibitions apply to statues: posing for selfies with a Buddha statue, as well as turning your back on a Buddha picture, is strictly prohibited.
- Use caution when taking images.
Always obtain permission before photographing individuals. Please keep in mind that if you picture the famed stilt fishermen in Koggala, you may be requested to pay (genuine stilt fishermen are a scarce breed nowadays). Flash photography is not permitted in temples (or in the proximity of military installations), and photography may be prohibited outright at some Hindu locations. If you’re photographing temples, make sure you’re not standing with your back to a Buddha statue.
- Eat with your right hand.
Sri Lankans traditionally eat with their right hand, mixing rice and curries into small balls with the tips of their fingers and delicately pushing the food into their mouths with their thumb. If you are invited by a local family for dinner, you may be urged to do this, but always wash your hands beforehand for hygienic reasons. Avoid eating with your left hand because it is utilized for less sanitary chores, such as personal ablutions.
15. Tipping is customary.
Tipping is a way of life in Sri Lanka, and many restaurant employees rely on the extra money it offers. Most larger hotels and restaurants automatically include a 10% tip; use this as a reference for how much to tip at establishments that don’t.
- Make room for wildlife
In a lagoon close to Arugam Bay, a crocodile seized a British journalist in 2017, killing him. Such assaults are uncommon, but they do occur, so be cautious in rivers and lagoons. In Sri Lanka, dangerous sharks are not an issue, but deadly snakes can be found in wet places on land, such as rice fields.
Keep an eye out for elephants on highways going to national parks, as well as while hiking or driving in the hills. Keep your distance and be prepared to back away if you spot one. Never feed a wild elephant; doing so teaches elephants to identify humans with food and causes them to become hostile.
- Adhere to standard safety precautions.
When it comes to petty crime, Sri Lanka is one of the safest countries in Asia. Tourist violence is extremely infrequent, and theft and robberies are unusual, though they do occur on occasion. Wear a money belt and use the hotel safe as a precaution.
Female visitors should avoid traveling alone at night, especially on public transportation, and should exercise caution when walking alone on deserted beaches. Long sleeves and dresses are culturally suitable in Sri Lanka and will lessen the likelihood of harassment.
- Never drink tap water.
The tap water in Sri Lanka might technically be used to brush your teeth, but we don’t encourage it, and it’s certainly not safe to drink. Bottled water is widely available, and better hotels supply clean drinking water to their customers. When purchasing bottled water, make sure the seal is unbroken and seek out the Sri Lanka standards certification logo. Empty bottles should always be disposed of safely; filling your own drinking water bottle from a large bottle is preferable to purchasing a large number of small plastic bottles.
- Be wary of pickpockets and cons.
Scammers are active in Galle Fort, Kandy, and Colombo’s Galle Face Green, looking for tourists to defraud or charm. Never buy gems hawked on the street; they are virtually always convincing fakes made of colored glass, and be wary of any shop offering you jewels to “sell at a profit back home.” Seek information from official tourist offices and directly from operators rather than relying on middlemen, especially if they come to you.
Keep your money and valuables out of sight when traveling on packed trains and buses, as well as when touring crowded streets like Colombo’s Pettah market district. Tuk-tuk drivers have a reputation of overcharging visitors; request that they use the meter (and take another tuk-tuk if they refuse), or order a ride via Uber or the local app, PickMe.
- Protect yourself from mosquitoes.
Mosquito bites are one of the most serious public health issues in Sri Lanka. Although malaria has been eradicated, mosquitos can transmit devastating dengue fever, a painful sickness with fatal consequences. Dengue has no vaccines and treatment can only alleviate symptoms. Cover up at dawn and dusk, sleep under a mosquito net, and use a powerful repellent with high amounts of DEET (diethyltoluamide).
- Drive carefully in Sri Lanka.
One of the most serious threats to travelers visiting Sri Lanka is traffic. Motorcycle and truck accidents are widespread, as are bus collisions, which frequently involve pedestrians. Dangerous overtaking, overloading, and pulling in unexpectedly to pick up passengers on the roadside are all common causes of accidents.
Private bus drivers are more risky than their government-run, SLTB counterparts. Expect automobiles to pass through pedestrian crossings, and have your wits about you when strolling alongside any road (sidewalks are uncommon in Sri Lanka).
22. Never, ever underestimate the ocean.
Although the beaches of Sri Lanka are beautiful, there are few lifeguards, and strong currents can be dangerous (especially during the monsoon season). Many beaches have severe drop-offs, and drowning is the second leading cause of death among tourists, behind car accidents. Before swimming in strange waters, seek local guidance.
23. Natural calamities pose a threat.
Sri Lanka was one of the countries hardest hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 35,000 people and destroyed several coastal areas. Following the disaster, early warning systems were installed in large cities and resorts, but not in rural or remote locations, so be on the lookout for signals of earthquakes and tsunamis.
Localized flooding during the southwest and northeast monsoons, which can create landslides in highland areas, is the most common natural disaster in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is also subject to tropical cyclones and dry spells. Bookmark the country’s Disaster Management Center website for the most up-to-date weather alerts and situation bulletins.