The Ultimate Guide to Sri Lanka

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Originally Published on Aqua & Ink by Katrina Luder

Sri Lanka is a small island with a lot to offer. From animal safari’s to surfing, beaches to temples, there really is a lot to fill your time. The island’s size makes it super easy to travel and you can visit many different places in a short space of time. I found the wildlife in Sri Lanka so stunning and felt that the people were some of the most amazing I’ve ever met. Don’t be put off by the cultural differences, just respect their upbringing and try not to have too much on show if you’re not on the beach.

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Getting Around
For the first half of my Sri Lanka trip, I had a personal driver, mostly based on a family friend’s recommendation and ‘the fear’ born from the Internet of solo women in bad situations. But I soon realized this was all a load of trollop, and having a driver was just expensive and ridiculous… It actually stopped me from seeing the culture in its natural habitat.

The public transport in Sri Lanka is fairly reliable for Asia, although don’t be expecting air conditioning or much space. It’s as authentic as you get and the Sri Lankan locals aren’t afraid to cram as many people in a small place as humanly possible. With this in mind, every trip is an actual adventure and I just love being in and amongst the locals like that.

With this being said, if you prefer an air-conditioned car and have the money to splurge… and you’re not overly fussed on culture, by all means, go ahead and get a driver. Just make sure you do your research and go with someone you can trust who wont take you to a load of shops where he’ll get commission, et cetera.

You absolutely must experience a train in Sri Lanka. You can hang out of the door, feeling the beautiful breeze on your face and take in the rich green vegetation and stunning scenery as you go. Sri Lanka’s train systems are known as some of the most beautiful rides in the world. The seats are comfy enough, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend most of your time sitting in the doorway anyway!

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Cultural Respect
Sri Lanka isn’t really like Thailand and Bali; you can’t just walk around the middle of a cultural town in just your hot pants and bikini top and not expect to get some glares. I do believe that the negative reviews you read on Google are reflective of people not respecting the cultural requirements of that area. The beach areas are totally accepting of beachwear, although don’t expect to see the locals showing much skin! But when you’re in the mountains, towns or cities, try to at least cover your knees and shoulders when you can. If you’re ever going into a temple (and there’s a ton of them!) you will absolutely need to cover both of these areas, so make sure to bring a sarong and a coverup if you’re not already wearing one.

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Cost of Living
There aren’t a huge amount of hostels in Sri Lanka, so if you’re looking for the absolute budget living, you will find yourself in perfectly comfortable yet basic guest houses. Sri Lanka’s tourism is largely based around the honeymoon traveler, so there are a lot of beautiful luxe hotels. But they also have beautiful basic accommodation, boutique hotels and a few hostels with dorm rooms.

Unfortunately, I went to Sri Lanka over a year ago, before the birth of Aqua + Ink, and I can’t for the life of me remember anywhere good to rest your head. If anyone has any recommendations, I’d love to hear from you! The cost of a guest house in Sri Lanka is a bit more expensive than the rest of Asia and you’re looking at around £10 (about $12 USD) per night.

Public transport is MEGA cheap; train and bus journeys cost about £1 (just over $1 USD) (correct from my trip in 2015), so it is absolutely the cheapest way to get around and won’t leave a giant hole in your pocket!

Alcohol is fairly cheap compared to the Western world, yet it isn’t as cheap as the likes of Vietnam and Cambodia. Alcohol isn’t widely consumed by locals (although there are still plenty of party animals) so the cost of it is higher.

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My Favorite Things to Do in Sri Lanka
Everything in Hikkaduwa
Hikkaduwa came at the exact right moment of my travels. I had been on the road for five months and been the ultimate YES-man. I needed somewhere after traveling the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka that would give me all the R+R I needed to set me back up for my next adventure. Hikkaduwa has so much to offer, from beach bars to cute eateries, to locals, great sea life to cracking parties, hotels to hostels. I went in February and the season was perfect for that side of the island. I heard that Aragum Bay (on the other side of the island) was in low season, so that’s why I chose Hikkaduwa.

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Make sure you go to Mambos Beach Party to dance the night away with the locals, which has some of the best music I heard along my travels… which isn’t really a huge claim, because I really didn’t hear anything other than EDM all over Asia. Snore!

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Why Not Guest House (which is the only almost-hostel we really found) provided me with great cheap meals, a prime location on the beach and pots of tea on tap. They have a ping pong table (winner winner!) and a cool tight rope out front, so you can test your patience on the beach! This is also where so many of the young Aussies were surfing from, so we made some pals quickly.

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I swam with giant sea turtles meters away from the shore, fed them seaweed every morning on the beach and even helped save the baby turtles by popping them into the water as they hatched.

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Whale Watching in Mirissa
Whilst the whale watching tours can be crowded, they’re also a great way to get up close and personal with one of the world’s largest animals. On my whale watching tour I saw six huge blue whales breach out of the ocean, so I really did get lucky. As previously mentioned, I went in February and I think this was prime whale watching season, so make sure you check the dates before you go!

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The Temple of the Tooth
The historical city of Kandy holds the sacred tooth relic in stunning architectural temple. It’s so beautiful to walk around and absorb the cultural aspect of Sri Lanka. Get yourself a traditional curry and roti in the town of Kandy afterwards, and eat it with your hands!

Train Ride From Ella to Kandy
The most amazing landscape in Sri Lanka is viewed when taking the train from Ella to Kandy. It’s so beautiful and full of solid green vegetation!

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Adam’s Peak, ELLA
A truly stunning mountain village that offers a lot in the sense of hiking. Be super adventurous and trek to the top of Adam’s Peak (primetime is as the sun is rising), or, alternatively, walk pleasantly through the tea fields to Little Adam’s Peak, which is a much easier climb but still has very rewarding views.

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Sigirya’s Rock
This stunning huge rock was a complete surprise to me. I went with the idea of just seeing the rock and had done very little research on what this thing actually was. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I could climb the rock and see the ruins of an old monastery that has been built on top. The views were insane and it was honestly one of the coolest set of stairs to climb.

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Pick Tea in Nura Eliya
The tea plantations in Sri Lanka are so beautiful. Lush green vegetation and enough tea to satisfy the Brit in me for a lifetime! I was able to wear a Sari and pick tea with the locals.

Afterwards, you get to enjoy a cup of tea in the stunning grounds whilst your tea is dried and rolled into a packet for you to take home! Perfect day!

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Eat Roti
Food in Sri Lanka can be a bit pricey sometimes so make sure you head somewhere local and eat roti and spicy curry with your hands. This was a totally new experience for me, and something that I actually really enjoyed… as weird as it was!

Visit a Local School
I was lucky enough to stay with a local family for a whole week and volunteer in a local school. This school was set up by the local church and was to help the local underprivileged kids. Obviously I took them Mars Bars because everyone needs a Mars Bar to light up their day!

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The Stilt Fishermen of Unawatuna
Well, I wish I’d read this before I went. The fishermen aren’t real. I know right, bummer! The sticks have no fishing lines on the end of them and they’re only there for show! You actually have to pay for a photo. Total tourist trap. But… It is still super pretty and I did pay for a photo anyway!

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