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20 Things You Didn’t Know About Sri Lanka

We love Sri Lanka, its lush green jungles, its dramatic cliffs and rugged hinterlands, its sublime beaches and bustling city streets, all connected by scenic train rides and whizzing tuk-tuk tours. It’s a country that’s gone from a backpacker’s retreat to a mainstream tourism destination for a number of good reasons, and for your trip there, it’s always a good idea to know a little of the culture before the flight.

Sri Lanka’s rich history and traditions have given you plenty to learn on that front though, but don’t worry. We’ve put together a quick 20 facts to get the ball rolling for you. All you need to decide is when to take your trip.

Ceylon away with us

Those of you of a more distinguished age might already know this, but until as recently as 1972, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. The name is still used on some older public buildings in the country today, and stems back from the colonial era and beyond. Sri Lanka’s position on the globe made it a trading gateway between West and East that was adored by the Dutch and explorers from Portugal.

It’s not the only alternative name Sri Lanka’s ever had, either. Even today, it keeps such evocative nicknames as The Teardrop of India, due to the overall shape of a map of Sri Lanka.

Taste some tea

We all know and love Sri Lanka’s relationship with tea. Hopping on a train ride to wind through the country will give you huge fields of the plant being tended by attentive growers. It’s no surprise to learn that Sri Lanka is one of the biggest exporters of tea in the world.

What might surprise you is that it was actually coffee that was the original Sri Lankan cash crop. During the 1860s however, a nasty disease swept across the country’s coffee plants, wiping them out. From there, the colonial powers of the time introduced tea instead, and even now that Sri Lanka is a happily independent country, that love of growing tea has still remained.

The power of water

Sri Lanka’s inspiring natural beauty is definitely something the people here are proud of, and they’ve worked hard to keep those lush green landscapes in place across the island. However, Sri Lanka’s evolution over the decades into a modern country that stands proudly along any other in Asia has motivated its people to make ingenious use of their natural resources.

The fantastic waterfalls that cover Sri Lanka entice travellers time and again, yet they also provide massive amounts of hydroelectric power to the island. In fact, most of the electricity in Sri Lanka is produced this way, making the country almost as environmentally friendly as Iceland.

Fly it high

Every country has a flag, or at least that’s what Eddie Izzard will tell you. However, Sri Lanka is actually said to have one of the oldest flags in the world, extending back centuries. Furthermore, the flag is one of the only ones in the world recognised as representing multiple religions and faiths in one collective show of symbolism, which speaks massively on the sense of equality that Sri Lanka has always embodied. Its flag includes Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu motifs.

Having a ball

Sri Lanka is a country where they love a good game of cricket. Any fan of the sport will tell you that this country knows how to play and play well, but what many people don’t realise is that cricket isn’t actually Sri Lanka’s national sport. Instead, it is actually volleyball.

The spice of life

Love a cinnamon latte? It can’t just be us. Either way, that distinctive spice originated in Sri Lanka, and had brought the island to the attention of the world as far back as the times of Ancient Egypt. But although it was the spice of choice to many a Pharoah, Sri Lankan cinnamon is still popular today. Enough to make Sri Lanka solely responsible for 90% of the world’s entire supply.

Smart cookies all round

The interesting thing about Asia is that it’s so diverse, and that’s made for a huge range of cultures over the centuries. Some of those countries have historically committed to education in different ways than others, but in Sri Lanka’s case, it’s A+ and top marks for everyone. Year on year, the literacy rate among each gender here is always over 90%.

Milking the slang

Like any country, Sri Lanka has its fair share of slang and colloquialisms. English is widely understood here though, so you shouldn’t have any problems in making your intentions clear, but as with anywhere, picking up a phrase or two is a good way to connect with people. One of the best ones we’ve heard is ‘ella kiri’, which means ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’, yet actually directly translates as ‘cow milk’. As strange a way to voice approval as that might seem to you, bear in mind that a lot of our English phrases are pretty out there too if you think about it.

Candlelit pilgrimage

One of Buddhism’s most holy sites, the mountain known as Adam’s Peak, is right here in Sri Lanka. It’s said to be where the footsteps of Buddha were left behind, for those who follow Buddhism’s teachings to walk alongside. It’s traditional to climb to the top of the mountain by candlelight when you’re tracing those steps.

Drinking with Mother Nature

Like a tasty tipple? Sri Lanka has you covered, although its signature drink is a little different to the norm. Although the likes of France and Italy are famous for their wines, in Sri Lanka, arrack is the drink of choice. It’s made by fermenting rice, coconuts, fruits and sugarcanes, and it’s safe to say it has quite an impact. Enjoy responsibly…

It’s possible that all the dogs are related

While Sri Lankan communities lean toward the close-knit end of the spectrum, it’s a whole new kettle of fish when it comes to their canine companions. Expect to see friendly tan, white or brown pooches with perky pointy ears and a long, slender snouts. That might not sound too unremarkable, but when you consider just how many dog breeds you see every day back home without thinking, being somewhere with only one breed of dog is a bit of an eye-opener.

Rice is nice

Rice is had for breakfast, lunch and dinner here in Sri Lanka, mostly because it goes with everything. Rice and curry is the staple of every meal, but you’re not going to be left wanting if that’s not your thing. In fact, hoppers, which are like creamy coconut pancakes shaped like a bowl, are a Sri Lankan culinary invention that are finding fame across the world.

The ice cream vans are silent

Many holidaymakers sweating in the glorious heat of Sri Lanka have heard the twinkly melody we’ve come to associate with an imminent Mr Whippy, and followed that sound hungrily to the source. The kicker is that the only musical vehicles to be had here are mobile patisserie and bake-sale tuk-tuks, so try not to get fooled unless you’re really after a croissant. The good news is, ice cream vans are all over Sri Lanka. They just don’t make the quite literal song and dance about it that we’re familiar with at home.

Not every hotel sign makes for a hotel

A cultural quirk of Sri Lanka is that places like cafes, restaurants and bars adopt the word ‘hotel’ into their names, even if they don’t actually offer any lodgings. Reasons behind this are unclear, although if the locals are asked, they’ll often tell you that it simply became a trendy thing to do over the years. It’s something to keep in mind in case you accidentally walk into a bakery and ask to check in.

Cows outnumber cars up north

In Jaffna and other northern parts of Sri Lanka, cows are free to roam as they please, and that means they’ll quite cheerfully stroll about through the city centre at rush hour. Luckily, your holiday isn’t going to involve you driving that much, but it’s still amusing to see people in their cars honking their horns at cows who simply aren’t fazed in any way while they stand right there in the middle of the intersection.

Sri Lanka does well with gender equality

When you learn that in Sri Lanka, women traditionally serve the rest of their family a meal before tucking in for themselves, you might be concerned there’s an imbalance at play. In fact, the opposite is often true, especially in politics. Sri Lanka holds the distinctive of being the first country in the world to inaugurate a female Prime Minister. In 1960, Sirimavo Banadaranaike rose as the first woman to hold office as Prime Minister, and after that five-year tenure she rose again in 1970 and 1994 for a six-year span each time. In fact, female rulers were revered here even in antiquity.

Banknotes of all shapes and sizes

In Sri Lanka they use their own form of Rupee, which is divided down into 100 cents. That’s simple enough to remember, yet for many holidaymakers, what’s often surprising is how at first even notes of the same denomination seem to not match others of their kind. That’s because three different institutions have been responsible for printing Sri Lankan banknotes over the last century and a half, which makes the circulation of currency quite the jolly mish-mash.

Let your yes be yes

Sri Lankan’s people are a friendly lot, and you’ll know that for yourself as soon as you start meeting the locals. However, there’s one little cultural characteristic to bear in mind – when people in Sri Lanka agree with something or want to say yes, they do so with a slight waggle of their head that, to Europeans and other people, looks like they’re actually saying no. Keep this in mind to save yourself some confusion.

You can buy your new fridge at the airport

For some reason, the vast majority of Sri Lanka’s home appliance stores have set up shop at airports. While the precise logistics of negotiating a new chest freezer through customs remain somewhat beyond us, it’s definitely a quirk worth mentioning.

Smiles all round

When we say that this holiday destination has friendly locals, we mean it more than ever when referring to Sri Lanka. One of the island’s nicknames is the Nation of Smiling People, and almost everyone you meet is going to be facing even their most challenging days with a broad grin and an upbeat, kind word for you. In fact, before you know it, your taxi driver could be inviting you back for dinner with his wife and kids, or you could be bundled together with a troupe of young folks ready to take you to the best beach party the coast has ever seen.

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