We’re breaking away from our usual article format to bring you this personal post: an information packet on Sri Lanka by a local! This is guide I put together for 50+ family and friends from the US, Germany, and Australia traveling to my home of Sri Lanka for our wedding in January 2017. It contains everything you need to know when preparing for your trip to this paradise isle, from visas, to how to get around, to must-eats, to emergency numbers in Colombo. Happy adventures!
Here’s a throwback to when Christian visited Sri Lanka for the first time – 3 years ago!
Christian and I are extremely excited to welcome you to my beautiful paradise home!! Below are some frequently asked questions to help you prepare for your trip. Some of the following are extremely important so please take the time to read through it… I’ve had many foreign guests come down to Sri Lanka (Christian included) and go through things like intense sun burns and mosquito bites so it would be good to prepare for these in advance! 😉
You can obtain your visa online at http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/ for US$35 per person before your trip. Make sure you have a printed copy of your visa with you when you arrive.
Alternatively, you can also get your visa on arrival. Be aware though that December and January (and June through September) are “super-peak” travel seasons in Sri Lanka and you may have to stand in line for a while to get your visa on arrival. We suggest getting it in advance!
There are no special vaccinations you need to enter Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan rupee is used in Sri Lanka. Please be careful when changing money in Sri Lanka, as the rates are pretty terrible at the airport. We suggest you bring currency from abroad or pull out money at an ATM. We also encourage you bring a backup credit card.
Prices and bargaining
Food and shopping tend to be really
cheap affordable for Westerners in Sri Lanka. Please do bargain if you are trying to rent quadbikes/jet skies etc., or are buying anything without a marked price on it. People really try to rip off foreigners :/ (Sorry!) The price that you are initially offered WILL be marked up, usually double the price offered to a local.
Sri Lanka is a tropical country. There are mosquitos, and unfortunately apparently they tend to bite people like Christian more than me 😉 (There are studies to show that people who drink more beer tend to get bitten by mosquitoes more often…) You should be fine during the day, they tend to only bite you after 6pm (after sundown). Please bring mosquito repellent. Lots of it. And spray it on yourself as a safety measure if you will be at the beach/outside after 6pm. Sri Lanka is a malaria-free country and there is no Zika outbreak as of now, but you should always be careful… not to mention, mosquito bites are annoying and can swell out of control!
Please note that it is normal if you get a few bumps on your feet due to mosquito bites during the first few days. No need to panic 😉
Sunblock & tanning
Please bring sunblock, with SPF 20 or higher. Please note that due to Sri Lanka’s geographical location to the equator, the strongest sun is from 8 AM to around 2 PM. The sun is therefore strongest in the morning, so if you go to the pool etc. during this time, please use sunblock. I’ve had unfortunate incidents of friends sunbathing/going to the pool without sunblock in the morning and getting burnt so badly they couldn’t sit properly for a day at least. The Sri Lankan sun is strong, so you will burn if you don’t use sunblock at all times. Sundown is around 6pm, so you’re fine after that 😉
Colombo, Kandy, Dambulla etc. are extremely hot and humid, and you should bring your clothes accordingly. Anyone going to the tea-estates (Nuwara Eliya/Bandarawela/Hatton/Ella) should definitely bring a pull-over and jeans as there is a pretty big temperature drop within these areas, especially in December and January (we’ve had snow a few times in these areas!) It also rains regularly in these areas so please bring umbrellas, just in case.
If you are planning on hiking Adam’s Peak, do it during sunrise, and bring scarves in addition to your pull-over/jacket. It gets cold up there!
You can wear regular summer clothes in Colombo. Women don’t need to cover their shoulders or wear skirts below the knees etc…
…Unless you are going to a Buddhist/Hindu temple or church. We are very conservative when it comes to dress in religious places so men should wear T-shirts with sleeves and long pants, and women should wear long skirts/pants and tops that cover your shoulders when entering any religious location. People are encouraged to wear white/neutral colors when visiting Buddhist temples; you should pack at least one white T-shirt and white long skirt/pants in preparation for this trip, we will definitely take you to visit a Buddhist temple!
It is also customary to leave your shoes at the entrance to a Buddhist temple. You will have to go in barefoot. But don’t worry, there are bins where you can leave your shoes and collect them afterwards J
Men need to wear long pants/jeans to restaurants, clubs, and bars in the evening. You can wear light-colored pants etc., as long as they are long pants. Flip-flops/slippers are fine during the day, but shoes are required for entry into bars, clubs, and restaurants in the evening.
Driving, rental cars
Sri Lankans follow the British system: they drive on the left side of the road. The biggest culture shock you may have when you arrive in Sri Lanka is the terrible driving. Please don’t freak out, I’ve survived many years there 😉 We strongly discourage you renting a car and driving in any way. Metered-“tuk-tuks” are always available, wherever you go. Always get a tuk-tuk with a meter as they tend to rip off foreigners.
Renting cars on the island, while possible (look into Sixt), is rare, since there are plenty of more low-cost alternatives at hand.
Install the apps Uber and PickMe in your phones and use those to get around! Uber is ridiculously
cheap affordable in Sri Lanka for Westerners (I’ve never traveled for more than Rs. 900, which is roughly US$6 for 40 minutes or so), and it is always available within Colombo city limits. Uber is my preferred method of travel in Colombo.
If you are planning trips outside of Colombo, it is best to get a van/car beforehand for the duration of your trip. You can also take the train. You can also bike in certain areas. DO NOT BIKE IN COLOMBO. SERIOUSLY. Don’t even think about it. Buses can be sweaty, crowded, and the risk of getting pick-pocketed is high. Tuk-tuks, taxis, and walking is the way to go.
You can also go old-school and call a cab:
Kangaroo cabs: 0112588588 (nice cars, tend to be expensive)
Budget Taxi: 0117299299 (
cheap more affordable if you can get a hold of them!)
Sonic cabs: 0112816816 (minicars usually,
Sri Lanka is generally a safe country to travel around in. You don’t have to worry about getting mugged or robbed etc., as long as you stay smart e.g. close your bags when you leave your hotel room, don’t leave money/valuables lying around etc. We discourage people from taking the bus as people tend to pick-pocket you there (not to mention it is hot and smelly!!) Other than that, it is generally a safe, fun place to get around in J We are known for our hospitality as a nation so people are friendly, and don’t be afraid to ask for direction etc.!
“Beach boys” and beach vendors
Women may come across men or “beach boys” approaching them at beaches, trying to talk to you, telling you they can hire boats and take you on island tours etc. Be smart: it is perfectly acceptable to tell them directly that you are not interested and they should go away. Hotels usually ban these people on their beach properties anyway.
Along the same vein, there are female vendors selling dresses and beach cover ups etc. on beaches that may come up to you trying to sell their clothes. You should tell them firmly that you are not interested at all in what they have to sell. There are plenty of other better ways to help small, authentic businesses in Sri Lanka if you like e.g. buy art directly from the artists in Galle/Colombo and not from galleries, etc.
You can obtain SIM cards with phone plans in the Arrivals Hall at the airport. Dialog is the best company to go with (they have the best coverage by far). They usually give you around 3GB of data and 200 minutes of calling and texting for Rs. 500 (roughly US$3.33) but you can see their most up-to-date plans at the kiosks at the airport.
Shopping in Colombo
Check out Odel for souvenirs and general shopping needs. Odel is known by all in Colombo. The Arcade is also a Portuguese-style square filled with stores and restaurants for your perusal. If you are traveling out of Colombo, buy souvenirs directly from the people there, as they tend to be cheaper than buying souvenirs in Colombo.
We are known worldwide for our tea, and many people come to Sri Lanka to load up on tea. In Colombo: You can buy tea at Odel and at Crescat Boulevard (another shopping mall) for good prices if you go straight to the “Dilmah” store. Prices are marked in these stores. If you are taking a trip to the tea estates (Nuwara Eliya/Bandarawela/Ella/Hatton) try to get your tea directly from there!
Sri Lanka has some of the best food in the world (no, I’m not biased here!) Seriously. You have to try the following:
Kottu (THIS IS AMAZING). You have to try this.
Hoppers: There are regular ones and egg hoppers. Try the egg hoppers with some sambol.
String hoppers/indi appa
Milk Rice (no, not the German kind ;))
Mango: There are more than 70 different kinds of mangoes in Sri Lanka. They are divine. The more orange, the better, remember that when you buy them off street vendors. Also, keep in mind that you can always try a piece and walk away if you don’t like it! The mangos are one of the top reasons I love going home to Sri Lanka!
Food is extremely safe to be consumed at proper restaurants, bars etc. around the island. However, please be careful with street food. If your stomach is not used to it, you may get sick. I would just avoid it altogether unless you are really hell-bent on eating street food (and no, street food is not tastier than food at restaurants in Sri Lanka like in Thailand for example – food is usually amazing at a good restaurant ;))
Eating with your hands
Sri Lankans usually eat with their hands. It is perfectly fine for you not to, and use a fork and knife, but it may be fun for you to try to once or twice!
Sri Lankan food is spicy. Please be sure to say “not spicy” or “mild spicy” when you order food, anywhere. If you like spicy food, say “medium spicy.”
Water is generally safe to be consumed in Sri Lanka, but people tend to play it safe request filtered/bottled water. Please drink bottled/filtered water when traveling outside of Colombo.
For any medical emergencies, please contact the following hospitals:
Address: 3 Alfred Place, Colombo 3
Helpline: 1344 (Short code)│+94 (0)11 214 0000
Fax: +94 (0)11 2575302 | +94 (0)11 5516549
Accident & Emergency: +94 (0)11 2140645 | +94 (0)11 2140643
Consultations Appointment Desk: +94 (0)11 2140490
Information & Registration Desk: +94 (0)11 2140 575 | +94 (0)11 2140 576
Durdans Heart Centre
Cardiac Consultations Appointment Desk: +94 (0)11 2140 291
21 Kirimandala Mawatha, Colombo 5
578 Elvitigala Mawatha, Narahenpita, Colombo 5
We hope you find this information helpful and are so so looking forward to welcoming you to our paradise isle!!
*Pictures of resorts I’ve provided in this article are those I have visited myself and highly recommend. Article on where to stay and where to go in the island coming soon!
Have more questions about visiting the island? Feel free to comment below or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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