Formerly known as Ceylon, the island nation of Sri Lanka is an intriguing blend of tea plantations, ancient cities and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, golden beaches, abundant wildlife, hill stations and temples. The people of Sri Lanka are very warm and welcoming, and it’s relatively easy to get around. This country has a rich culture and plenty of British, Portuguese and Dutch influences.
Sri Lanka reminds Cherry of Bali 15 years ago, with lovely boutique style accommodation and divine restaurants already steadily increasing. Let’s hope that its’ beauty and appeal won’t be ruined by the tourists that are sure to descend in the coming years.
Best Time To Go
This is a more complicated question than you would think! The driest (and best) seasons in Sri Lanka are from December to March for the west coast, the south coast and the Hill Country, and from April to September for the ancient cities region and the east coast.
December to March is the busiest tourist season, with Christmas and New Year often having very limited accommodation options. There’s always good beach weather somewhere in Sri Lanka, but picking the right spot can be tricky at times. Even if you are visiting in the low season, it doesn’t rain all the time, so you can still get out and about sightseeing.
Colombo is the hub for shopping, and although the stores worth visiting are somewhat spread out, grab a driver and take the trip to discover unique art, jewellery, fabrics, homewares and fashion. Paradise Road in Colombo is the place to go for homewares and souvenirs.
The cuisine of Sri Lanka is the most interesting in all South East Asia. Due to the close proximity to South India, there are definite Indian influences, but there are also strong references to the country’s colonial past.
Colombo is a frenetic madhouse and the gateway to the many jewels of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately if you’re heading to Sri Lanka, you’ll have to experience Colombo, so our advice is to take a deep breath, relax, and embrace the craziness and enjoy the delights it has to offer. The capital has some of the best dining and shopping on offer in the country.
This colourful bazaar is chaotic, colourful and energetic. Watch out for the barrow boys who will take you out if you’re not watching where you’re going. Each street is dedicated to a particular trade, so 1st Cross Street is full of electrical goods and hardware, Front Street is laden with suitcases, bags and shoes, Keyzer Street is for fabrics. You get the idea. The quality of the goods here aren’t great, but the atmosphere is, so it’s worth the trip.
For a bit of an adventure, and to pick up some fresh fruit and vegies, head to the market at Colpetty Junction in Colombo 3.
Isipathanaramaya Buddhist Temple
More like a museum, this beautiful temple is filled with antiquities and Buddhist statues. Paintings, carvings and a baby elephant in serene surroundings.
Send half a day pottering around the galleries and learn about Geoffrey Bawa and the influence he has had on architecture in Sri Lanka. Barefoot is a lovely gallery with a courtyard and café.
Two hours north of Colombo (depending on traffic!) you can go whitewater rafting by kayak or raft, rock climbing and mountain biking. Tours will include return transfers out of Colombo.
Yala National Park
About 300 kms south of Colombo lies Yala National Park. This park has the highest concentration of leopard in the world. There’s also abundant birdlife, elephants, sloth bears, civets, fishing cats and water buffalos. You can stay at the park, and accommodation such as the Yala Safari Game Lodge offers a good location to base yourself for a couple of days.
Sri Lanka’s lush inland Hill Country is home to emerald peaks speckled with flashes of colour from the tea-pickers’ bright saris. This is home to the Ceylon planters, whose extravagant lifestyle left the legacy of beautiful golf courses, polo fields and racecourses. The town of Kandy itself is nothing to write home about, but the lake is lovely and there are plenty of great sights in the areas nearby.
This area is fabulous for cycling, trekking and whitewater rafting. For the truly energetic you can climb Adam’s Peak. Or, if you like to take things at a more leisurely pace, sit back and relax at one of the many tea estates, elegantly sipping a cup of tea on the verandah.
These brilliantly customed dancers show off traditional Sinhalese culture by performing stylised dances with a backdrop of throbbing drums.
Temple of the Tooth
This temple is home to one of Buddhism’s most important relics – a tooth of the Buddha. This temple was bombed in 1998 and security here is still tight.
Victoria Golf and Country Club
18 hole course with a beautiful B&B, Clingendael, housed on the grounds.
There are four Kandyan devales to the gods who are followers of Buddha. Three of these are found close to the Temple of the Tooth.
The Malwatte Maha Vihara is across the lake from the Temple of the Tooth, while the Asgiriya Maha Vihara is off Wariyapola Sri Sumanga Mawatha, northwest of the town centre. It has a large reclining Buddha image.
For a wonderful insight into the history of tea plantations in the area. Housed in a restored tea factory 4kms south of Kandy.
Located in the heart of the island of Sri Lanka, the Cultural Triangle includes the 2000 year old ancient cities of Anuradapura, the rock fortress of Sigiriya, rock temple caves at Dambulla, Ritigale and its ancient monastery, the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa, the beautiful lake of Kandalama and the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Mihntale. If you have a driver and car you can see all of the sights in two or three days, but there are some fantastic little hotels along the way, so why not stay a little longer?
Despite the fact that the religious ruins here are over 1000 years old, this UNESCO World Heritage Site still attracts thousands of pilgrims. This was the centre of Sinhalese power in the day. The ancient city is centred around a sacred Bodhi tree.
Major attractions of this city include the largest and best preserved cave temple complex of Sri Lanka, and the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium, famous for being built in just 167 days. The city also boasts to have the largest rose quartz mountain range in South Asia, and the Iron Wood Forest, or Namal Uyana. Beware the bats.
Ruins, ruins and more ruins, set near an ancient reservoir. Beautiful reclining and standing Buddhas abound. As do cheeky monkeys.
Sigiriya (Lion’s rock) is an ancient rock fortress and palace ruin, surrounded by the remains of an extensive network of gardens, reservoirs, and other structures. The Rock Fortress is considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. The rock fortress of is visible for miles from all directions and the complex consists of the rock, two wide moats, where crocodiles were introduced in ancient times and three ramparts. The moats and walls that surround the lower palace are a sight to behold. Only climb the rock if you’re feeling very fit and healthy – it’s a 3 hour return walk. We recommend doing it in style in a helicopter or balloon ride.
The Kandalama lake, believed to have been constructed during the latter stage of the kingdom, is one of many tanks that form an intricate network of tanks, canals and irrigation channels which provide water to the farm regions.
Being an island, you’re spoilt for choice for beach locations. But Sri Lanka adds another dimension to a trip to the beach with historic beachside towns and luxury abodes.
The west coast is the most touristy, and the most developed. Negombo and Bentota offer the best accommodation and dining options. Bentota is home to 5 ancient temples and a beautiful stretch of sand. Negombo is home to a Dutch fort and an esplanade that is popular for casual cricket games. Negombo has a strong fishing industry and the area has plenty of luxury accommodation and nightlife.
The south coast offers boutique accommodation, history, temples, wildlife parks and beautiful beaches. Tangalle and Galle offer a myriad of things to do. Galle is particularly worth a visit with its famous Galle Fort. Tangalle has a turtle-watching bay just east of town. This is a fairly low-key town, but there are lots of natural attractions close by such as a blowhole, shrines and rock temples.
The east coast has had a chequered history, being devastated by the civil war with many civilian casualties and being the worst hit by the 2004 tsunami. It is being rebuilt into a potential tourist hotspot, but we would probably recommend sticking with the west and south coasts for the next couple of years. If you’re into surfing, Arugam Bay is set up for tourists and a good spot, or Trincolmalle/Passakudah are great for snorkelling, diving and water sports.
Tips & Tricks
Tuk tuks are readily available for short trips, but make sure you negotiate a price before you start the journey. For longer trips opt for a car and driver. The roads and traffic are pretty horrendous, and Sri Lankans can drive like lunatics. Whatever you do, don’t attempt to self-drive!
Always take your hotel’s business card with you to make sure you find your way home.
Although distances between the major cities aren’t huge, travelling by road can take some time due to traffic and road conditions. So always allow more time than you would expect. There are limited options for commercial flights between cities, however you can readily book helicopter transfers and sea planes in some regions.
You will need to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorisation before leaving Australia. This can be done online at www.eta.gov.lk Visas are currently AUD$30 per person. Requirements often change, so make sure you check with the relevant authorities, or ask your Cherry consultant to assist you.
The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee. Cash is king here, so stock up when you can. You’ll find ATMs in all major towns and credit cards are accepted in most places frequented by tourists, supermarkets and department stores. Please note that the Sri Lankan Rupee is a ‘closed’ currency. This means you can’t stock up in Australia before you leave. It also means you can’t change it back to AUD once you leave Sri Lanka. So you need to get your currency over there, and change it back before you leave. There are 3 banks in the arrivals hall in Colombo Airport. Try to stick to banks and ATMs, rather than currency exchanges, as you’ll tend to get a bad deal with these operators.
English is widely spoken throughout Sri Lanka, but only around 30% of the population are fluent. The official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. These are particularly tongue-tying languages and the locals will find your attempts at speaking them hilarious, but they will appreciate the effort.
Some helpful words and phrases:
Hello/good day: Ayubowan
Delicious: Hari rasai
Very expensive: Hari ganan
Stick to bottled drinking water and steer clear of the tap version. Always brush your teeth with bottled water.
The Australian Government recommends not travelling to the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, which includes Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Kilinochichi and Jaffna Districts/ Post-conflict security forces activity is ongoing in the area, especially demining. Marked and unmarked minefields and unexploded ordnance are widespread in some areas.
Dengue fever outbreaks have been reported in the Colombo area, and it is recommended to use tropical strength insect repellent at all times. Malaria has also been reported in areas outside Colombo.
Be aware of petty crime such as bag snatching and pick-pocketing – use common sense in protecting your belongings. Although it is safe for female single travellers, it may be more comfortable to travel with an organised tour group. All foreigners will be stared at by the locals, but they are just interested in you – they are not generally up to mischief.
Make sure you have full medical travel insurance – this is not the country to be poorly. Minor ailments are treatable, but anything past minor you’ll need to head on out of there. The main centres have reasonably good hospitals.
If you want to avoid spending much of your trip in the smallest room in the house, make sure vegetables and fruit are washed with purified water or peeled where possible. Beware of ice cream that is sold in the street or anywhere it might have been melted and refrozen. Undercooked meat, particularly in the form of mince, should be avoided.
The main religions of Sri Lanka are Buddhism and Hinduism which both have large influences on political, cultural, and social life. Buddhism 70%; Hinduism 12%; Islam 9%; Christianity 7%
Not ‘losing face’ is important to Sri Lankans, so you will often receive vague or roundabout answers rather than saying ‘no’. Many Sri Lankan women will prefer not to make physical contact with a male outside their family, so always wait to see if a female extends her hand first.
Hotels and swanky establishments tend to charge a service fee, but it’s still always nice to leave a little something. If there’s no service fee added, leaving a tip of around 10% is good form. Drivers expect around 500 Rupees a day.
Shops and Restaurants
Shops are generally open 10am to 8 or 10pm on Monday to Saturday. High end restaurants will accept credit cards, but generally check beforehand or have cash with you.
A special thanks to Cecilia Jensen from Sri Journeys for her contribution to the content on this page.