If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka, you can feel confident it’s a destination that will welcome you with open arms. Located just south of India, historic connections with Britain, The Netherlands and Portugal have given great character to this otherwise proud and independent corner of Asia.
We’ve compiled some top advice from a range of travel experts, which will not only make your journey and stay more enjoyable, but also give you a few shortcuts in making the most of your holiday on this magnificent island.
Know when to go
Sri Lanka’s tropical climate means that it’s a popular place to visit every month on the calendar. However, because it’s a tropical island nation, you might find that when holidaying through the rainy season in May and its surrounding months, there’s short showers that tend to pass quickly.
For that reason, many holidaymakers who are in the know choose to make their way to Sri Lanka in January and February, or even the preceding December. In Sri Lanka it’ll feel like summer so sunshine every day is guaranteed.
Bartering and bargaining
Your money goes pretty far when converted over into Sri Lankan Rupees. The country’s tourism trade is a very active one, so Sri Lankans these days are more than used to meeting people from all over the world. However, tourism is definitely seen as big business, and from local stores to tuk-tuk rides, everything is affordable, yet not necessarily set in stone as far as prices go.
That means you have the chance to haggle for a better deal. It’s expected here as part of the more rustic side of Sri Lanka’s economy, so you don’t run the risk of offending anybody.
Wobble your head to agree
In Sri Lanka, English is widely stood, but the gestures they make are a little more unique. One of those that often catches visitors out is the way that a Sri Lankan person will express agreement.
We’re all familiar with nodding our heads for a yes, yet it works a little differently here. When Sri Lankan people are saying yes, they wobble their heads in a way that looks like a no. Make sure you keep that in mind to prevent any confusion.
Make time for tea
We don’t just mean drinking it, but also looking into how it’s grown. Three valleys surrounding the city of Kandy are pretty prominent as far as tea growing goes, although Bogo Valley hosts the Ceylon Tea Trail. It’s an opportunity to meet local tea producers, understand their daily lives in growing and cultivating the tea Sri Lanka is famous for, and even take home a bag of the freshest tea around for yourself.
Avoid selfie sacrilege
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most religiously tolerant countries. Faiths from every corner of the globe have been woven into the fabric of this island, yet you ought to know a few details if you’re touring the temples. For instance, women are encouraged to cover their shoulders on sacred sites, and similarly guys should avoid shorts as well.
Another detail to keep in mind is that, as much as you might want a selfie with a statue of Buddha, it’s easily misconstrued as rude to do so. Taking that selfie would mean turning your back on the statue of Buddha, which is considered a mark of disrespect. Of course, face him for the photo and it’s all fair game.
Train travel is the way to go
One of the finest ways to see the sights in Sri Lanka is via its railway system. It’s recently been refurbished and renewed, and there are various ways of travelling from low-cost comfy seating to your own panoramic tourism carriage.
However you choose to take to the rails, you benefit in two ways. Firstly, fares are cheap, so you can tour the island with ease. Secondly, the scenery from your coach is stunning, with lush green rainforest valleys, tea plantations and ancient monuments rolling by your windows.
East versus west
How actively you want to engage with your fellow holidaymakers is entirely up to you when you visit Sri Lanka. The western side of the island, home to the capital of Colombo and plenty of resorts besides, is where the tourism industry is the most developed.
On the other hand, in the east, life is a little more rustic and the crowds are a little less prolific. As a result, many holidaymakers looking to see the true spirit of Sri Lanka while keeping their basic comforts intact head east. Both have their advantages, and Sri Lanka is a joy wherever you roam.
Make sure you try the food
Since it’s geographically a neighbour of India, you might assume that Sri Lanka’s food is pretty much just like India’s. However, in reality there are several differences, even in the flavours you’ll enjoy in the staple rice and curry meals here. One meal that’s becoming ever more popular worldwide is Sri Lanka’s hoppers, which are crispy coconut-milk pancakes shaped like a bowl, with a soft gooey middle at the base.
A love for cricket
Not everyone is a sports fan, which is perfectly OK. However, even though volleyball is seen as the national sport of Sri Lanka, cricket is the ball game they’re most internationally known for.
Not liking cricket is fine, but mentioning that to the locals might spark a few lively conversations you’d rather avoid. Either way, their passion for the game is admirable and watching them play can prove a relaxing afternoon in the sun.
Head off the beaten track
It’s not always about lazy days and tours of the old town in Sri Lanka. The rich natural beauty of the island has made it a real adventurer’s playground. In particular, the Kelani River has become a place where thrill-seekers come to play, with boat rafting trips and chances to rappel down cliff sides open to the daring.
If you prefer your feet on solid ground, a good hike through the dense undergrowth of Kitulgala is definitely recommended. Canyon walls, towering trees and a gaggle of cheeky monkeys here and there make it quite a journey.
Get around in style
It’s not all train rides and taxi cabs. If you know where to look, there are plenty of ways to get from A to B on your terms, avoiding the traffic while you do it.
Renting your own tuk-tuk to whizz around Sri Lanka’s roads in is a fun and funky way to see the sights, while the more showy side of the spectrum is a trip on a seaplane. Get from coast to coast by air and take in some majestic views while you do it.
Sri Lanka’s people are among the most friendly and hospitable in the world. The country has many nicknames, one of them being the Land of Smiling People, and for that reason you’re going to have no problem forming friendships.
A good way to do that is to simply voice your curiosity. Ask for the recipe of the meal you’re eating, or see if the staff at the train station will tell you about the history behind the colonial-style platform you’re standing on. There’s a lesson around every corner.
How you explore is up to you
Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has fantastic structure, yet you can make your holiday your own with little effort. One good example of how some holidaymakers make their trip to Sri Lanka on their own is found in visiting Sigiriya, a magnificent palace from antiquity perched atop an massive boulder.
Sigiriya welcomes visitors to enter its halls and tour its interior before ascending to savour the views from the peak. However, many holidaymakers escape the crowds and evade visitor fees by instead climbing nearby Pidurangala, which hosts a monastery more ancient than the palace at Sigiriya. It’s also cheaper to enter and offers truly breathtaking views.
Don’t be scared if you see people in the palm trees
If you chance a glance skywards while you’re walking among the coconut trees, you might find some cables linking them together. Those ropes form robust pathways for daring Sri Lankan people to traipse among the treetops.
You might think it’s a form of street performance, which has a rich history in Sri Lanka, yet it’s perfectly innocent. What you can see are toddy tappers, who stroll the treetops picking coconuts to make the local alcoholic speciality. Fermented coconut goes into each toddy, and those who brave the heights do a great job in bringing it to our beachside bars to enjoy.
Listen to the call of nature
Our natural urges often don’t think of our convenience when they come calling. If you’ve a need to use the restroom at an unexpected time, don’t be afraid to simply ask the nearest Sri Lankan person, even if it means knocking on the door of their house.
Sri Lanka has a law that makes it illegal for anyone to refuse someone seeking to use a bathroom. Although it might seem odd at first, you might just make some new friends this way.
Keep it clean
Each of Sri Lanka’s towns and cities are spick and span. They care massively for the upkeep of their communities here, so we’re sure we can trust you not to be careless with little or the like.
In fact, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how everyone does their part. When packing up shop for the night, market stall holders pluck up any paper or plastic they find on the roadside, even if it’s not in their immediate area. It’s part of the culture to keep the streets clean.
Smile for the camera
The fact you’re off to Sri Lanka at all guarantees your photo albums are shortly due for a big boost in awesomeness, but as you meet and greet the people, don’t be shy in asking for a snap or two.
It’s considered good manners to ask permission beforehand, and don’t be surprised if your impromptu models want to see how they’ve turned out on the screen right afterwards. Make sure you get everyone’s good side.
Making it right
Part of the etiquette of Sri Lanka is that meals are enjoyed by hand. More specifically, the right hand is always used, even when eating rice curries.
If you’re left-handed, that’s no problem, but you might want to explain to any locals you eat alongside that that’s the case in case they’re confused by your actions. The left hand is what’s used traditionally for personal hygiene in the bathroom here, so eating using your left hand could be misunderstood.
Seeing Ceylon everywhere
Try to remember that the name of Sri Lanka has only been adopted relatively recently. In fact, more seasoned travellers may even recall when the country was called Ceylon, a name that is kept until the 1970s.
On older public service buildings and in the names of certain companies, you might find Ceylon still being referenced. It’s simply a hallmark of days gone by.
Some hotels are that in name alone
We know a hotel as a place to stay the night, and Sri Lanka certainly has a fine range to choose from in that respect. However, in Sri Lanka you’ll find buildings everywhere that have signs declaring them as hotels, even if that’s not their line of trade. Everything from laundromats to bakeries could be called a hotel in the business name and would have no accommodation to offer you.
It’s certainly not a problem, but it could save you asking some funny questions in some awkward conversations later down the line if you keep that in mind.
With so much to enjoy in Sri Lanka, having an inside grasp of the finer points of your upcoming holiday could prove wise. Is there anything your travels have taught you that’s come as a surprise, in Sri Lanka or beyond?