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23 things you should know about Sri Lanka before you go
Sri Lanka is in the warm seas off the southern tip of India. It is known for its peaceful Buddhist culture, friendly people, and easygoing way of life, even though it has had some rough times in the past.
If you want to have an easy trip to this island in the Indian Ocean, you should learn a few things first. Sri Lanka is very different from one another for such a small country. The beaches are smashed by waves, and the land rises up to national parks with forests, plains with temples, and mountains covered in jungle. Plus, you’re never too far from a beach.
Most tourists start their trip on the coast and then head inland to see tea gardens, old cities, and national parks. However, Sri Lanka’s busy public transportation system and cultural sensitivity can make it hard for newcomers to get around. This list has some things you should know before you go to Sri Lanka to help you.
- Get a ticket ahead of time
First, find out what the most recent Sri Lankan visa rules are. Most people from certain countries need to get an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) before they can travel. Luckily, they’re not hard to get.
- Double-check your trip shots
It gets very hot in Sri Lanka, so make sure you have all of your travel photos up-to-date before you go. Diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and polio shots are all recommended for Sri Lanka. People who plan to stay for a long time might also want to get vaccinated against typhoid and rabies. Rabies is rarely deadly, but dogs, cats, and monkeys in Sri Lanka can spread it.
- Plan your trip around the rainy season
The southwest monsoon hits the south and west coasts of Sri Lanka from May to September. It brings heavy rain and rough seas to those areas, but the northern and eastern parts of the island are nice and dry. Between November and March, the northeast monsoon hits Sri Lanka. The south and west are the best places to be during this time, while the north and east get rain.
During the rainy season, Sri Lanka’s rain is very unpredictable. You can expect short, heavy rainstorms followed by long, hot, sunny periods. Going to different parts of Sri Lanka during their wet “off-seasons” is worth it because fewer people are there and hotel prices are much lower.
- You can’t buy alcohol on holy holidays and days with a full moon.
Sri Lanka has a lot of bank holidays. Almost half of them are poya days, which celebrate the full moon, which is a happy event in Sri Lankan Buddhism. Poya days are all dry days, which means that shops, restaurants, and bars don’t sell booze. You can still use the minibar in your hotel room, though. There is also a ban on alcohol at holy events like the Buddhist festival of Vesak in May.
- Bring cash with you; the Sri Lankan rupee is the currency.
Get rupees when you get to Sri Lanka, not before. Also, don’t change more than you need. Not many places accept Sri Lankan rupees as a payment method. There are a lot of ATMs in the country. If you can, use Bank of Ceylon ATMs because they don’t charge a fee. Card machines are popular in restaurants, hotels, and shops that cater to tourists.
Whenever you can, try to save smaller denomination notes. For example, take out LKR5900 instead of LKR6000. To pay for tuk-tuk rides, buy things from shops and markets, and leave tips, you’ll need small bills. Having dollars, euros, or British pounds on you is also a good idea, since all of these are generally accepted in tourist areas.
- Be honest with yourself about how much you can get done.
Traveling around Sri Lanka takes a lot longer than you might think because the roads are curvy and there aren’t many that go through the middle of the island. Traffic also has to deal with a number of hazards, such as roads that aren’t well maintained and animals like buffalo, cows, stray dogs, and even elephants that walk freely. Don’t rush if you care about the place. It will take you at least a month to drive around the island, stopping at national parks, old towns, and tea plantations in the interior.
Sri Lanka’s expressway network is getting better, so it’s now pretty easy to get from Colombo to southern places like Galle, Matara, and Tangalla by car. The Hill Country takes the most time to get around because the roads are narrow and windy. Instead of driving, you might want to take the train.
- Remember to bring the right gear for Sri Lanka’s back roads and holy places
Sri Lanka has mountains that are over 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) high. The hills are cooler than the coast. When it gets cooler at night or early in the morning, like from December to March, bring a light sweater. Bring a sarong with you as well. You can use it as a beach blanket or towel, as a wrap or skirt to cover your shoulders or knees when you go to temples, and as an extra layer of warmth on air-conditioned buses or for safari jeep drives before dawn.
- Make plans ahead of time for the trains in the hill country
Sri Lanka Railways is in charge of running the nation’s trains. The Main Line, which goes east from Colombo through the island’s highest mountains, cloud forests, and tea estates, is one of the most beautiful lines. People from all over the world love to travel this route, especially the part between Kandy and Ella.
To be sure of a seat, buy tickets early for either first class with air conditioning or second class with fan cooling. You can do this at a stop or online at a site like seerendipitytours.com. The tickets go on sale 10 days before the event and quickly sell out.
- Swimwear is only for the beach
Most Sri Lankans are very religious and don’t like to mix with other people. Swimming clothes are fine for the beach but not for going out in town. On any beach in Sri Lanka, you are not allowed to be naked or wear no clothes.
- Don’t show love or act up in public.
It’s not cool to show love in public, be loud or rude, or lose your temper in public (remember this when you’re haggling—you should never be angry during the process).
- When you go to temples, dress with respect.
Wear clothes that cover your legs, upper arms, and shoulders when you go to religious places. Before going into a Buddhist or Hindu temple or mosque, even if it’s just a wreck, take off your shoes and hat. You can wear socks, and you’ll need them on really hot, sunny days.
In Jaffna and the north, where the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu culture is stronger, tourists are less popular. When you go to a Hindu temple, follow local customs and ask permission before entering, as some places don’t let non-Hindus in. Men must also take off their shirts and enter some churches bare-chested. For example, the huge Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna does this.
- Treat pictures of Buddha with respect
Images of the Buddha are very important to Sri Lankan Buddhists, and they should always be treated with care. People have been kicked out of Sri Lanka for wearing clothes with “disrespectful” Buddha images on them, so don’t wear clothes with Buddha images on them and cover up any Buddhist-themed tattoos you have. The same rules apply to statues: you should never take selfies with a Buddha statue and you should never turn your back on a Buddha picture.
- Be careful when you take pictures
Always ask people for permission before taking a picture of them. Keep in mind that you might be asked to pay to take pictures of the famous stilt fishermen at Koggala. Real stilt fishermen are hard to find these days. In churches and near military sites, flash photography is not allowed. At some Hindu sites, taking pictures may not be allowed at all. When taking pictures in a temple, be careful not to stand with your back to a Buddha figure.
- Eat with your right hand
Sri Lankans usually eat with their right hand. They use the tips of their fingers to roll rice and curry into small balls, and they use their thumb to gently push the food into their mouths. If you are asked to go to a local home for a meal, you may be told to try this. But for your own safety, always wash your hands first. Do not eat or shake hands with your left hand because that hand is used for less clean things like personal hygiene.
- It is normal to tip
People in Sri Lanka always leave tips, and a lot of food workers depend on the extra money it brings in. If a restaurant or hotel doesn’t automatically add a 10% tip, use this as a guide for how much to tip places that don’t.
- Make room for wildlife
A British reporter was killed in 2017 when a crocodile grabbed him in a bay close to Arugam Bay. Attacks like this don’t happen very often, but they do, so be careful in rivers and lakes. There aren’t any dangerous sharks in Sri Lanka, but there are deadly snakes that live in wet areas of land like paddy fields.
Watch out for elephants on the roads that lead to national parks and when you walk or drive in the hills. Stay away from it and be ready to back away if you see one. If you feed a wild elephant, it will learn to associate people with food and become hostile.
- Follow normal safety rules.
When it comes to small crimes, Sri Lanka is one of the safest places in Asia. Tourists are rarely hurt physically, and theft and scams happen rarely but do happen sometimes. Wear a money belt and use the safe at your hotel as a safety measure.
Women travelers should not go anywhere alone at night, especially on public transportation, and should be careful when going alone on empty beaches. Because of Sri Lanka’s conservative society, wearing long sleeves and dresses is considered polite and will make you less likely to be harassed.
- Don’t drink water from the tap
In theory, Sri Lankan tap water could be used to brush your teeth, but we don’t suggest it, and it’s not even safe to drink. There is a lot of bottled water available, and better hotels give their guests clean water to drink. Check that the seal is still on the bottle and look for the Sri Lanka standards approval mark if you do decide to buy bottled water. Always throw away empty bottles in the right way. It’s better to fill up your own water bottle from a big bottle than to buy a lot of small plastic bottles.
- Watch out for scams and thieves
People who want to cheat or trick tourists out of money are busy in Galle Fort, Kandy, and Colombo’s Galle Face Green. If someone sells you gems on the street, they are probably fakes made from colored glass that look real. Also, be wary of shops that try to sell you gems to “sell at a profit back home.” Don’t trust agents, even if they come to you first. Instead, get information from official tourist offices and straight from operators.
Keep your cash and other valuables out of sight on crowded buses and trains, as well as when you’re walking around places like Colombo’s Pettah market district that are full of people. Tuk-tuk drivers frequently charge tourists too much. To avoid this, ask drivers to use the meter (and take another tuk-tuk if they refuse), or use Uber or the local app PickMe to book a ride.
- Take care of yourself against bugs
Sri Lankans worry a lot about their health because of mosquito bites. Malaria is no longer a problem, but mosquitoes can still spread the painful dengue fever, which can have major side effects. Dengue can’t be vaccinated against, and treatment can only make symptoms worse. Utilize strong bug spray with a lot of DEET, sleep under a mosquito net, and cover up at dawn and dusk to prevent mosquito bites.
- Stay safe on the roads in Sri Lanka
One of the most dangerous things for tourists to see in Sri Lanka is the traffic. Motorcycle and truck accidents happen all the time, and bus accidents, which often involve people, are also a problem. Overtaking too quickly, carrying too much, and stopping quickly to pick up people on the side of the road are all common reasons for accidents.
Private bus drivers are more likely to be careless than SLTB (government-run) bus drivers. Don’t expect cars to stop at crosswalks, and be careful if you walk next to a road in Sri Lanka; sidewalks aren’t common there.
- Don’t forget how big the ocean is
Sri Lanka’s beaches may look beautiful, but there aren’t many lifeguards, and strong currents can be dangerous, especially during the rainy season. It’s very normal for tourists to drown, and it’s the second most common cause of death after car accidents. Before swimming in water you don’t know, ask someone in the area for help.
- There is a chance of natural disasters
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 35,000 people and destroyed many coastal places. Sri Lanka was one of the countries most badly hit by it. Early warning systems have been put in place in big cities and resorts but not in rural or remote areas. Be on the lookout for signs of earthquakes and tsunamis.
Sri Lanka’s most common natural tragedy is flooding in certain areas during the southwest and northeast monsoons. This can lead to landslides in highland areas. It is also easy for tropical storms and droughts to hit Sri Lanka. Save the country’s Disaster Management Center website as a favorite for up-to-date weather alerts and news on the situation.