Everything You Need to Know About Traveling in Sri Lanka

Originally Published on Half a World Away by Katie Milne

Since getting back from Sri Lanka last week, I have been inundated with messages from friends in Australia and back in the UK asking for recommendations and tips. Before I begin my Sri Lanka spam series of posts, I thought it would be best to start with the basics for those currently planning their trip to this beautiful country.

The best airport to fly in and out of is Colombo airport, also known as Bandaranaike International Airport or Katunayake International Airport. The airport is actually closer to the beachside town Negombo (20 minutes), not Colombo city (40 to 60 minutes), so that’s worth thinking about when you decide on a route. Both are accessible and easy to get to whatever you choose to do.

For my Aussie friends, most airlines will fly to Colombo with one stop, usually Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Hong Kong. I flew with AirAsia on the outbound flight and with Srilankan airlines and Malaysia Air on the way back—AirAsia is great for budget trips; however, I fully recommend flying with SriLankan or Malaysia if possible. As expected, the flight was much better (and no delays!). If you’re flying from the UK, consider the big Middle Eastern airlines such as Qatar and Etihad. To give you an idea of flight costs, from Australia, $600 to $800 tends to be quite reasonable depending on the time of year and airline. From the UK, friends have mentioned flight costs starting from £400.

Expect to eat a lot of curries. Rice and curry is the local dish—note that I say rice first; this is because this is the main part of the meal, not the curry. Sri Lankan food is much spicier than Vietnam or Malaysia, and probably on par with, if not hotter than, Thai food. There tends to be a lot of options for vegetarians and lots and lots of fish and seafood. Rotti shops are also on every street corner and they are amazing! There are thin pancakes with lots of delicious fillings that can be enjoyed sweet or savory at any time of the day (or night). If local food is not for you, there are plenty of Western restaurants, even some pretty good burger joints in Hikkaduwa on the South Coast (post to come).

Things to Do
The thing I enjoyed the most about Sri Lanka was the diversity of the country—you could travel from the inland towns and in three hours be sunbathing on a beach. Sri Lanka really has it all: trekking in hill country, whale-watching in Mirissa, safaris in Yala, culture in Sigiriya and partying in Hikkaduwa, and that’s just scratching the surface.

There are two popular national parks in Sri Lanka: Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park. Both are further south in island; however, Udawalawe is more accessible from Ella or the west coast and Yala more accessible from Tangalle or the east coast. I heard Yala was more touristy and, due to our route, we visited Udawalawe. I really enjoyed it and we saw lots of elephants in their natural habitat. You can go to the Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary closer to Colombo; however, I had read that the elephants were still in chains and didn’t want to make that mistake again.

I’d say that accommodation in Sri Lanka is generally a mix of hotels, resorts and guesthouses. We had quite a hard time finding hostels in ‘Lanka—there really aren’t much compared to Southeast Asia; however, there is one chain called Hangover Hostels (Colombo & Mirissa) and the City Hostels in Colombo and Kandy. There are a few other independent ones if you look hard enough, too. Guesthouses are a good way to go, for as little as $23 USD (£15) you can get a cheap clean double room, and it’s a good way to experience home-cooked Sri Lankan food! The best ones we stayed at were Mansala Guesthouse in Udawalawe and Extremehost Guesthouse in Mirissa.

I found Sri Lanka a be little more expensive than other Asian countries to which I’ve been, but this might be because I didn’t have as tight of a budget this time around. Here’s a very rough rundown of costs—these can differ from place to place and whether you eat, sleep or drink in or away from the main areas.
Bottled water: 80-120 rupees
Guesthouses: 3,000-10,000 rupees (depending on the season)
Hotels and resorts: 8,000+ rupees
Rottis: 80-500 rupees
Rice and curry: 200-1,500 rupees (depending on where you eat)
Lion beer: 300-800 for a big bottle
Cocktail: 500-1,000 (depending on where you go)
Western meal: 800-2,000 rupees
Tuk tuk: 100-500 for a short ride or 500-1,500 for longer distances
Local bus: 100-400 rupees
Government trains: 100-500 rupees
Private trains: 1,000-2,000 rupees

I’ll be posting an article with more information on public transportation and getting around Sri Lanka, but it’s generally quite easy to get around. You have the chance to travel with a private driver or mix it up and travel like the locals on the buses and trains. Sri Lanka has some of the most scenic train journeys in the world, which I recommend doing at least once—probably the Kandy-Badulla route. I found The Man in Seat 61 so helpful when we were trying to figure out what trains to take.

The People
Sri Lankans are the friendliest people I have ever come across! We never felt in danger or that locals were out to scam us. They were so friendly and helpful! Have a chat with one of the local tuk tuk drivers; they have some great stories to tell!

I hope that gives you a good start to help you book your trip! Please feel free to get in touch below if you have other questions; otherwise, keep an eye out for my next few posts on Sri Lanka.

For more, head on over to Half a World Away!

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