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 (like Australia), 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: Quick Reference Guide
|Cash or credit?||Credit card in big cities / restaurants / hotels
Cash for everywhere else
|Currency||Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR or Rs)|
|Daily budget||$35-50AUD ($25 – 40USD) per person|
|Festive days / holidays||Duruthu – January Full Moon
Vesak Day – May
Poson Festival – June
Deepavali – October or November
Full Moon Poya (several throughout the year) – the sale of alcoholic beverages, meats and fish are prohibited
Check out the full list of Sri Lankan Public Holidays
|Languages (official)||Sinhala, Tamil & English (English is very widely spoken)|
|Must-see / must-do||Hike to Adam’s Peak in Ella
Visit one of the ancient cities in the Cultural Triangle
See the largest gathering of Asian elephants in Minneriya
|Tap water||Avoid drinking the tap water. Bring a reusable bottle with a purifier or Lifestraw.|
|Tipping etiquette||Not expected & at your discretion.
Restaurants: round up or tip at discretion.
Private drivers should be tipped. Tour guides may ask.
Donation if visiting temples that don’t charge.
|Traditions / customs / respect||Overt public display of affection is frowned upon
Eat & shake with your right hand
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
|Toilets & toilet paper||Seated toilets – toilet paper can be flushed
Hose (or bum gun) for washing your booty
|Weather||Coastal and lowland areas: average daytime temperatures of 26–30°C (expect mid 30°C at the hottest part of the day)
Hill country: average temperatures of 18–22°C or lower as you get higher
Humidity is high (60-80% average)
December to March: best time to visit the west and south coasts and hill country
April/May to September: best time to visit the east coast
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 (approx $2) 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 500Rs) as change is difficult to come by outside of hotels and big stores.
Daily Budget for Sri Lanka
Overall, I’d recommend a budget of around $35-50AUD ($25 – 40USD) 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 rupees
- 1.5L Bottle of water – 70 rupees
- Average price for private room for 2 – 2,000 rupees
- Train from Colombo Fort to Galle – 180 rupees
- Bus from Tangalle to Ella – 220 rupees
- Train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya (reserved seating, second class) – 600 rupees
- Beer – 500 rupees
- Western lunch in Ella (burger & drink) – 1,150 rupees
- Sri Lankan lunch for 2 – 680 rupees
- Tourist ticket for Polonnaruwa – 3,350 rupees
- Safari tour through Kaudulla National Park (to see elephants) – 4,000 rupees
- Pidurangala Rock – 500 rupees
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!
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 rupees 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.
Eating 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 foods you should try are:
- Fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry)
- Kottu – 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.
Alcohol in Sri Lanka
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.
Must See Places 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.
- Ella – offers a nice break from the humidity and heat being higher up in altitude. A must see is Ella Rock – a moderate day hike that will lead you up to stunning views over all of Ella.
When you love the view but don't want to fall to your death. Haha. I've mostly overcome my fear of heights (although, I still have am ild look of terror on my face here) thanks to travelling. Has travelling helped you overcome in phobias? This was taken at the end of my hike to Ella Rock. Although it was steep and tiring, the reward is a view over all of Ella. Still can't get over our diverse and picturesque Sri Lanka is. • • • • #explorersclub #livetoexplore #adventureoften #roadtrippin #riyets #srilanka2017 #srilankatrip #southernprovince #tangalle #asiatravels #travelasia #srilankatourism #ilovesrilanka #ceylon
- Nuwara Eliya – an underrated destination in Sri Lanka with waterfalls and tea plantations.
- The Cultural Triangle – I didn’t have enough time (or money) to see all of the ancient cities in the cultural triangle so I only visited Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s second oldest kingdom that was first declared the capital city by King Vijayabahu I, who defeated Chola invaders in 1070 to reunite the country once more under a local leader.
- 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 it’s cost ($30USD), I decided to skip it and hiked up Pidurangala Rock for 500 rupees ($3USD) instead. Here, you get the view of Sigiriya. Anyone keen on history and ancient cities should definitely see Sigiriya.
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:
- 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) if you’re planning on taking public transport
Exploring Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka's second oldest ancient kingdom. My top tips for exploring any area with temples are: 1) Wear thongs (flip flops) so that you can slip them on and off quickly as you explore. 2) Bring socks to avoid burning your feet if you know it's not shaded. 3) Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees (out of respect and to avoid being denied entry). — Do you have any tips for exploring ancient kingdoms and temples?
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.
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.
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.
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 sarrong 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.
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