Once locked in a devastating civil war, Sri Lanka has recently come out from the shadows as one of South Asia’s best undiscovered travel destinations. With the fighting having ended just over 10 years ago, the country has worked hard since then to build up their tourism industry.
But it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to want to visit Sri Lanka because the alluring beaches, abundant wildlife, big surf, and welcoming people are enough of a lure. With eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the small island, there is plenty to do as travelers can visit ancient sites and temples. But with a unique culture that doesn’t quite match that of India or Asia, Sri Lanka is a place that holds the key to its own identity.
සාදරයෙන් පිළිගනිමු – Welcome to Sri Lanka
Unlike most countries in the world, Sri Lanka technically has two capitals. Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte is the official capital of the country, but it is located within the other capital, Colombo. Rather, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte is a suburb of Colombo and acts as the administrative capital. While Colombo acts as the economic and legislative capital of Sri Lanka. The split of the two capitals was devised so that there would be less congestion in the city and so that one area wouldn’t take the stress of large congregations of people. For most tourists, they want to visit the large capital area of Colombo to view the historical architecture mixed with modernity.
Culture and Language
While Sri Lanka struggled with its own civil war from 1983-2009, the island has had a long history with various periods of colonization. The country’s pre-history began with evidence of human life on the island as far back as 35,000 years ago. Since then, ancient kingdoms have ruled over the area before the Portuguese and Dutch claimed the area.
The Portuguese were first to colonize Sri Lanka in the 16th century, before the Dutch took over control in the 17th century. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the British took control. Under British rule, a caste system and democracy were introduced. For the British during World War II, Sri Lanka was an important geographical point for them to hold off the Japanese. After the war, Ceylon (the country’s old name) became independent in 1948.
However, it would take a further 24 years before the country officially became a Democratic Socialist Republic. Now, the government and cabinet operate out of the first capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte.
But the country has also gone through recent hardship as the Sri Lankan government worked to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who wanted their own independent state. This recent war divided the upper northern area from the rest of the country and caused mass causalities. With such devastating history ending so recently, it is still a sensitive subject for most people and one that visitors should refrain from discussing.
But while it’s better to be sensitive towards the past, Sri Lankan people have overcome a difficult history and kept a smile on their face. With happy attitudes, people in Sri Lanka are very friendly towards visitors and are always eager to lend a helping hand. In fact, aside from the natural beauty of the landscape, Sri Lankan people help drive up tourism in their country as word spreads and the great experiences travelers have in Sri Lanka with the local people.
While English is spoken by a small percentage of the population, visitors should expect to have to communicate through gesture more often than not. Only about 23% of the population speak English. Instead, the two official languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhala and Tamil. Sinhalese people are the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, while Tamil is still popular due to immigrants from India. But you will most likely hear Sinhala spoken as 75% of the population are native speakers.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Sri Lanka, you will need to obtain either a tourist visa or Electronic Travel Authorization prior to your arrival to the country. You can apply for a tourist visa with the Sri Lankan Embassy, but the easiest way would be to apply online for the ETA.
Sri Lanka has a government website where you can apply for their ETA online and pay the fee. The fee will depend on what tourist visa you apply for online. A single-entry ETA or tourist visa that is valid for 30 days will cost $20 US dollars. While an ETA with multiple entries for up to 90 days will cost $30 US dollars. If you wait to apply for a tourist visa upon arrival, it will cost you $25 US dollars. However, it is not recommended that you wait as they may deny you entry for not having the appropriate documents or you may experience significant delays as they work to process you at the border.
However, when you apply online for an ETA, you will need to have proof of travel and have your official documents ready. The application will ask you for proof of a round trip ticket and proof of sufficient funds for the duration of your stay. You may not engage in any employment status during your time in Sri Lanka or be paid for any services. You can pay the application fee by credit card.
You will also need to have a US passport that is valid for 6 months past your date of departure from Sri Lanka. You need one blank page in your passport to receive your entry stamp. You should also be up to date on all your vaccinations and have a current Yellow Fever vaccination if you are traveling from an affected country. Finally, any foreign currency totaling $15,000 US dollars or more must be declared upon entry. You may not leave Sri Lanka without declaring foreign currency over $5,000 US dollars.
While it is crucial that you obtain valid entry into the country as the first step towards your vacation, you should also consider your spending budget for the duration of your stay in Sri Lanka. But due to the islands smaller size, it is relatively affordable to travel in Sri Lanka. The most important parts of your budget will be airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Sri Lanka is far away from the United States, which makes for long travel and expensive ticket prices. Most tickets will start at about $1,000 US dollars and increasing or decreasing depending on various factors. More affordable tickets may drop the price to about $600 US dollars, if an airline is having a special deal. But the price will increase if you choose to fly in a premium class.
The time of year that you fly will also change the price. The tourist high season in Sri Lanka runs from December to May, with August also being a peak travel month. It is during these months that travel will be more expensive due to the increase in demand. However, the longer you wait to buy a ticket can also make it more expensive. So, don’t sit and wait around because you usually won’t find a better price if you wait too long.
While plane tickets are always the number one cost on your budget because you need to get to your destination, the next most important consideration is your accommodation while you are in the country. The good news is that hostels are extremely affordable in Sri Lanka with most costing between $6-$14 US dollars per night. In some places, you can even get a private double room for as little as $10 US dollars a night.
If hostels are not your preferred accommodation, you can also choose to stay at a guest house or nice hotel. Most mid-range accommodation locations will cost $20-$50 US dollars per night. While the cost is not quite as minimal as a backpacker’s budget, it is still affordable for most travelers and you will get a little more luxury without having to spend a fortune. If you do want to stay in luxury locations, there are resorts that will cost hundreds of US dollars per night.
Once you’ve decided on where to stay, another portion of your budget will have to go to food and drink. Sri Lanka is known for their street food and for having a mix of cultures influences their dishes and flavors. Local fruit like coconut and jackfruit are used in many dishes, while the island lifestyle also means that seafood is abundant.
Some of the dishes that people love in Sri Lanka are fish ambul thiyal, which is a sour fish curry that is often served with rice. Kottu roti is the country’s take on a hamburger with which the buns are made of a crispy bread. Chicken curry is another staple that has strong spices like fennel and cardamom to add a kick of flavor. Appa is a Sri Lankan pankcake that can be made to be either sweet or savory.
The good news for budget travelers is that you can eat like a royal without spending a lot of money. Most street food dishes in Sri Lanka cost less than $2 US dollars per piece. If you grow tired of street food or just want to try something new, some restaurants are also affordable with prices that range from $6-$16 US dollars per person. A really nice restaurant or something that is more tourist will likely cost more than $17 US dollars for a meal.
For travelers who would also like to head out and enjoy the nightlife, drinks are mostly affordable. Bottles can be bought for $2-$3 US dollars, while some places may have more Western prices if they are in touristy areas. For cocktails in big tourist spots, you should expect to pay up to $8 US dollars per drink.
It is also a nice gesture to give hotel attendants and servers a small tip. Tipping is important to Sri Lankan culture and most people will leave about a 10% tip.
Overall, Sri Lanka is an affordable place to travel. Backpackers can survive off of as little as $30-$50 US dollars per day, while a more moderate budget would have you spending about $100 US dollars per day. Anyone who spend over $100 US dollars per day in Sri Lanka will likely be on a luxury vacation.
How to Get Around
Sri Lanka is a relatively small island, which means that it is easy to travel because the distances between tourist destinations are rather short. But even though the country is small, it can still be a frustrating experience traveling in Sri Lanka. The roads are often in rough condition, which also means that it takes a lot of time to travel. The domestic flight system is also almost non-existent, which means that you will have to travel on the ground.
Buses and trains are the best way to get around Sri Lanka by using public transportation. Buses can be slow but will be very affordable with tickets costing about $1 US dollar per journey. A faster way to travel that is more popular and still affordable is to take a train. Trains are extremely affordable with second class tickets costing less than $5 US dollars per trip. Tourist cars are more expensive with a ticket costing about $6 US dollars per ride. While first class is the nicest way to travel, second class is a good way to save a few dollars and still avoid the overcrowding of third class.
However, some people choose to hire a private car and driver for their time in the country. This is a more expensive way to travel with a small car costing about $50 US dollars per day. A large group would need to rent a van, which would cost about $200 US dollars per day. But for the increase in price, you get the convenience of reliable and safe travel. Most people choose not to rent their own car because it is a hassle.
In Sri Lanka, you need to have a special driver’s license approved before you are allowed to drive in the country. Most tourists do not want to take the time to obtain a Sri Lankan driver’s license and would rather pay for a private car and driver.
For getting around a city, tuk tuks and taxis are the way to go. Also called rickshaws, this is an affordable way to travel with one-kilometer costing just over $1 US dollar. For longer distances, taxis are the most affordable with one-kilometer costing about $0.15 US cents.
Finally, in many tourist areas, it is safe to walk around. Walking is a great way to experience the local lifestyle and save money. However, as with any destination in the world, you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings closeby.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While most people will fly into Colombo and visit the capitals, there are plenty of other exciting cities in Sri Lanka. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Sri Lanka.
Colombo has rapidly grown to become the center of the country’s hustle and bustle, as it holds both political capital district and commercial hub. While there are now modern buildings like skyscrapers, colonial architecture still stands. The unique blend makes Colombo so attrative to tourists. But with plenty to do, you can easily spend your time dining at restaurants, learning at museums, shopping for gifts, and exploring the clubs.
Once the capital of Sri Lanka in the days of ancient empires, Kandy is still filled with ancient relics and colonial-era architecture. The ornate buildings are supported by colorful houses, which makes the area beautiful and stunning. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth is one of the most important sites for Buddhism in the world and it dates back to the 16th century. Every year, the Esala Perahera also draws in tourists who wish to experience the local culture.
Located on the Southwest Coast, this seaside town is lined. With mosques, colonial mansions, museums, and an old fort that is crumbling to shambles. The area is one of the country’s most important because it displays so many different periods of time. Amongst the historical sites, you can also peruse the cafes, boutiques, and galleries for a fun day.
Once a battlefield for the British, Dutch, and Portuguese who wanted control of the nearby plantations, this area is famous for their canals, fort, and beaches. The tropical climate is a warm welcome to tourists and the nearby location to Colombo makes for a perfect day trip out of the capital.
For the water sport adventurists, Hikkaduwa is known for having great waves for surfing and diving. The area has become more touristy in recent years and is home to one of the country’s best maritime parks. With a peaceful vibe, tourists are eager to relax and then energize for a day of adventure.
Ella is located in the popular Hill Country that has recently seen a mega boom in tourism. But the area was made famous for the tea plantations, though most tourists are now eager to simply explore the nearby temples. Ella Rock is a great vantage point to view the valley and you can stop by one of the temples to connect with your inner spirituality.
Trincomalee is a diverse area where you can see history come to life in the temples, Fort Fredrick, and cliffside waterfront. The area was once of great importance for the colonial empires, but now it has become a mega tourist hotspot. The natural harbor and bay also add to the stunning beauty and lead to a stunning shoreline.
Points of Interest
While most people will go to the cities to explore, there are also plenty of points of interest that can satisfy your hunger for adventure.
Nine Arch Bridge
Located just outside of Ella, the Nine Arch Bridge gives you the best view of the area and its tea fields. While you can’t go on the bridge, you can go to a nearby lookout and watch as trains pass along the Demodara Loop. The bridge is most famous for being constructed without the use of steel and has several gorgeous arches.
Mihintale is important to Sri Lanka because it is said to be the place where Buddhism was introduced to the country by a monk named Mahinda. The monk met with King Devanampiyatissa and together they brought the Buddhist religion to the people. Here, the large rock is a pilgrimage for people who climb to the top.
Every year in July or August, there are two weeks of celebration dedicated to the Hindu gods. The celebration has elephants, performers, musicians, acrobats, and firebreathers as the main attractions. But you don’t have to be Hindu to take part and many people from all over the world join in the celebrations.
Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe National Park is the place to go if you want to see the elephants. Here, visitors are blessed with having frequent elephant sightings, which also makes it the most popular park in the country. But elephants aren’t all, and you may also catch a glimpse of water buffalo, crocodiles, monkeys, and peacocks. With large mountain range standing as the dramatic backdrop, it is also a great place for photographers.
Yala National Park
While elephants are famous in Udawalawe National Park, in Yala, the leopards rule. It is here that your chances of seeing a leopard are high and the main attraction. But like Udawalawe, they aren’t the only animals. You can also catch a glimpse of elephants, crocodiles, and sloth bears, all of which are protected in the area. A visitor center is also a great place to find information about the area.
Sigiriya Rock Fort
The Sigiriya Rock Fort is one of the most impressive sights in Sri Lanka because it sits on a flat plateau, 200 meters above the ground. With steep stairs that lead up to the fort, you can climb to get a view inside its walls and of the surrounding area. There are also ancient relics within the fort that hint at a time long forgotten.
Get Out and Go
Sri Lanka is like a rare gem that only some travelers will experience. But for those who do, they get to escape to a pristine landscape that is still relatively untouched. For this reason, many people are flocking to Sri Lanka now to experience its authenticity before it gets even more crowded.