Thinking of visiting Sri Lanka?
Here is our experience of the the beautiful country with some tips to help you during your stay.
1. Visa Requirements
We are both British citizens so for us we needed to pay $35 each for the ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization). We did this a week or so before we left the UK and this can easily be done online. If you forget to fill in the ETA online you can do it at the airport although this will incur an extra charge, so you may as well be prepared and do it before you leave to save you hassle and money.
2. Getting from the airport to Colombo
Like most international airports around the world the city centre is actually a fair distance away. There are many options to get from the airport to the city, we chose the number 187 bus. This cost us RS110 (50p) each, which is pretty good for a bus ride, but don’t expect luxury comfort. There is also an extra charge if you store your luggage in the bus compartment. The bus was very dark inside and didn’t have clear windows, but we were pretty tired so took the time to just sleep. You have many other options like taxi, tuk tuk and shared mini buses. Uber also works here in Colombo and in the surrounding areas.
3. Tuk Tuk scams
Once we arrived in Colombo city centre, fresh off the bus we were hassled by many tuk tuk drivers, as we had a lot of luggage we felt a taxi would be more appropriate for us to get to our first apartment. The apartment was only 10 minutes away, yet we had drivers quoting us anywhere between 2000-3500RS claiming this is local price… this is similar to British taxi prices…
Something we found out and used was both the Uber app only works in Colombo, but there is also an app called PickMeUp which is a taxi and tuk tuk hailing app for Sri Lanka, this worked in many towns, and the cost per KM is around 45RS so that 10 minute trip (4km) should of only cost 180RS. At the bus station we were told by the drivers that there are no taxis here and they can take us to one, what this actually means is they will drive you to a random location and get their friend to drive you in their car, again charging you a lot of money. Most drivers will always try and charge a little extra if you look like a tourist, but some drivers will just go too high and this seems to work with newly arrived tourists.
4. Amenities in rooms
We planned our route and accommodation before we left the UK and tried to pick rooms with access to washers for no extra charge, or breakfast included. What we soon found out is that many places we booked actually charged extra for both or certain amenities didn’t exist, we booked a room that had a washing machine, the owner said yes you can wash your clothes and gave me a bucket… Now I have no issue with hand washing my clothes but when a listing clearly states something is at the property, it can be annoying to find it was a lie. So be prepared and ask questions before you book if you are really expecting something to be there. This goes for Wifi, as we are working while we travel around we needed good wifi, some hosts will say they have good wifi, when in fact they have terribly bad wifi. So always read reviews and see what past guests have said.
5. Take the train
One of the best ways to travel around the county is by train, there is a great website about train travel The Man in seat 61.
Train travel is very cheap we have paid less than £2 for a 4 hour train ride for the both of us in 2nd class. The towns along the coast are generally well connected by train, we took the train and stopped at a number of areas along the main Colombo- Matara route and stayed for a couple of nights at each place. Our route on the train looked like this
So we went to the end train station, Matara on the route and then back to Colombo and over to Kandy. We preferred trains so avoided the bus route journey that some travellers do between Matara and Ella. This was mainly because of luggage and Sassi’s knee issue.
Another reason for train travel is to admire the beautiful scenery, Colombo to Matara train route goes along the coast, so if you sit on the correct side of the train you can see marvelous beaches and waves crashing against rocks, although it isn’t pretty the whole way so be be prepared for a mix of views. Colombo to Kandy takes you inland with some stunning views as you travel across many hills.
Trains are mostly old and not the cleanest, people will rush into the train to get a seat as soon as it arrives so be prepared especially if you have lots of luggage. If you end up getting on a train part way through its route you might not get a seat. We recommend going from Maradana train station if you want to go down south as most trains start here and you have a higher chance of getting a seat compared to Fort station. Mirissa is a common tourist spot but the station is far from the town, and there aren’t many transport options to get from the station to the beach.
Trains tend to have many food and drink sellers wandering up and down the carriages, these tends to be mainly Sri Lankan snacks.
6. See the elephants
Sri Lanka is well known for having elephants, so a great place to see wild elephants in a national park is Udawalawe, which is about 2.5 hours drive from Matara. Getting to Udawalawe requires either taking a taxi, there are many drivers who will take you for a fixed price. We opted for the cheap bus route, Matara to Embilipitiya 2.5 hours on a crowded bus cost around 250RS (£1.25) then take the bus from Embilipitiya to Udawalawe 100RS (50p) takes about 35 minutes. Once you are in Udwalawe you can find a tuk tuk to take you to your accommodation.
Most people travel here for the safari tours, so this town is heavily focused on the national park. To take the safari you need to hire a Jeep usually 3500RS (£17) but can be negotiated, we paid 2500RS (£12) from the owner of the accommodation we stayed at. If you find more people to share the Jeep with, the price can be split between each person. Entrance to the park was just under 7000RS (£34) for two people. There are two options for times, 5:30am and 2:30pm, the best time is 2:30pm as mainly people think the morning is best so it tends to get too busy and the animals hide away from the Jeeps. The actual safari is pretty awesome although very bumpy, so if you struggle with car sickness it might be a good idea to take a travel sickness tablet. We were able to see elephants, crocodiles, peacocks, water buffalo, foxes, many types of birds. Elephants are the main highlight of the safari and many can be seen wandering around the park.
For 500RS (£2.50) you can visit the elephant transit home, there isn’t much to do in Udawalawe so this help pass the time if you have a spare 30 minutes and want to watch baby elephants being fed.
7. Friendly people of Sri Lanka
The people we have come across have been very friendly and helpful, although there have been the odd few that have tried to scam us and hassle us too much. Overall we have enjoyed the hospitality of the people we have stayed with, giving us lifts, helping us get around, cooking lovely meals. We met people connected to churches in Sri Lanka and they have given us tips, taken us out for food, and given us lifts to places we have needed to get to. Many owners of the properties we stayed in have given us advice on how much a tuk tuk should charge us for getting around the town. So if you decide to go then speak to the locals, we have had many chats with people along the road.
8. Expect to eat a lot of rice
Now this seems to be quite common in most Asian countries, but just to remind you that rice is one of the main staples of food in Sri Lanka. In the big cities you can find anything from burgers to Italian to various different Asian foods, but once you venture out into the smaller areas you tend to get less choice. So we spent most of the first two weeks eating only chicken curry and rice or noodles. The food is really cheap and we were eating meals together for less than £2 on some days. Breakfast tends to be some sort of curry with hoppers and noodles. So we ate a lot of rice and spicy food all day everyday. The food is nice but sometimes it is nice to get some variety in so we did sneak in some pizza and burgers towards the end of our time in Sri Lanka. Try to keep snacks with you or if you find a shop buy some snacks just in case, as we stayed on the outside of most tourist areas, shops tend to be quite limited.
9. Admire the beauty of the beaches
Sri Lanka has gorgeous beaches, along the south of the island you will come across some pretty places to sunbathe and have a dip in the sea. We travelled during the off peak season which was September, this meant we mostly had less crowds and other tourists to bump into. The downside of travelling in September that it isn’t very safe swimming in the ocean, due to the strong waves.
Beaches we went to:
Bentota was very empty, in fact it was just us and one other couple for the majority of our time spent there. It is a long beach with a few hotels dotted along the coast.
Galle has a great surfers beach where you can learn to surf, the beach is called Beach Bonavista and has many beach bars where they allow you to sit on the beach chairs for free, although they expect you to buy something either drinks or surf lessons.
Mirissa is very nice but full of tourists even during off peak season, but this means that there are many places to eat along the beach.
Matara hidden beach, thanks to the owner of the apartment we stayed in. This was a very beautiful place to be with no one else around, and a lovely place to watch turtles swimming.
Dehiwala is near Colombo, but it still has a nice beach and you are able to see the city as you look along the coast. The downside is the amount of litter washed up on the beach, as it is so close to the city and a lot more busier it seems to be dirtier in places. If you are in the area then it makes for a nice place to wander along plus there are many shops and restaurants nearby.
10. Drink some TEA
Tea is very big in Sri Lanka, in fact they grow tea! There are many tea plantations in the country and you can go see how tea is made. We stopped by the Ceylon tea museum in Kandy, it was pretty interesting to find out how tea is made as we never knew that the different variations of tea comes from the same plant, it all depends on what height the tea is grown, and how it is processed after it is picked. The tour also includes tea tasting, so if you like tea then this is a great country to visit.
11. Power plugs
It seems like the country can’t decide on which plugs to use, in some places you will see three different plug outlets to choose from, the typical 3 pin UK style plug, a round three pin plug and then a large round three pin plug. There is a trick to using the small round pin plug, if you use a pencil or non metal object you can press the top plug hole in and this will allow for a two pin euro style plug to be plugged in. Many places tend to have an adapter, as the electronics seem to use a mix of the choices here.
12. Noisy places
Expect to hear lots of noise, we didn’t stay in hotels or resorts, we stayed in apartments and not always in the main tourist areas. Being woken up by trains, or cars beeping were pretty common, and also the Muslim call to prayer at 5am. There seems to be lots of things that will disturb your sleep. One place we stayed had music playing full volume for near to 10 hours everyday. People even your hosts will also talk outside of your room or your apartment really loudly from 6am onward and not really care that you are trying to sleep.
Above all else enjoy your time, Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with lovely people.
Check out some of our blogs about our travel around Sri Lanka.