Sri Lanka is a must-see and a great getaway for solo travellers, couples and families alike. Popular destinations include: the stretch of coastline from Hikkaduwa to Galle, Unawatuna, Weligama and Mirissa, further east to Yala National Park, fascinating inland spots such as Sigiriya, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Adam’s Peak, and the former capital of Colombo. Before you head off on a holiday to Sri Lanka, do a bit of research and learn the do’s and don’ts. Read this to help you plan your trip!
Population: Around 21 million
Capital: Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte
Religion: Approximately 70% of Sri Lankans are Theravada Buddhists, and 11% are Hindu
Emergency numbers: 110 (ambulance/fire, Colombo), 119 (police)
- Sri Lanka became famous for tea only after its coffee fields were wiped out by leaf blight in the 1870s.
- The Sri Lankan flag is the only one in the world to recognise different religious groups. The yellow border and pipul leaves symbolise Buddhism, while the green and saffron bands represent Muslim and Hindu communities.
- The world’s first female prime minister was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka.
- A footprint found on the sacred mountain, Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), is believed by Buddhists to belong to Buddha, by Muslims to Adam, by Christians to St Thomas and by Hindus to Lord Shiva.
- Most of Sri Lanka’s electricity is powered by hydro-powered energy due to their many waterfalls.
- Cricket is the most popular sport but the national sport is volleyball.
The key dates
- Poya Days: These are Buddhist public holidays occurring every full moon day. Shops and businesses generally close for the day, and the sale of meat and alcohol is widely prohibited.
- 13-14 April: Sinhalese New Year. This major anniversary is celebrated not only by the Sinhalese people but by most Sri Lankans. Many workers return to their home villages where they set off firecrackers and partake in feasts.
The hot spots
Popular destinations include Colombo, Sigiriya, Unawatuna, Kandy, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Galle, Hikkaduwa, Nuwara Eliya, Adam’s Peak, and Yala National Park. Among the eight World Heritage Sites are the Golden Temple of Dambulla and the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.
Some itinerary ideas
- Go Coastal: Negombo – Colombo – Hikkaduwa – Galle – Mirissa
- Tea & Temples: Colombo – Kandy – Nuwara Eliya
- Cultural Triangle: Kandy – Sigiriya – Polonnaruwa – Anuradhapura
How to stay healthy
- Drink bottled or boiled water, or carbonated drinks. Avoid tap water, fountains and ice cubes.
- Street food can be delicious but it’s best to avoid uncooked food (especially shellfish) and ice cream vendors.
- The sun can be full-on in Sri Lanka: keep your fluids up! (No, not just beer.)
While you’re there, please don’t …
- Use your left hand when shaking hands, handing money and small objects, and so on. Happily, Sri Lankans are fairly forgiving of tourists when they mess this up!
- Take photos of guards, police or sensitive locations.
Before you go, read …
- Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje – a fictionalised account of the author’s return to his native Sri Lanka in the late 1970s.
- Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka – though you have to be mad about cricket to enjoy it, this Singapore-based Sri Lankan’s first novel is a stunner.
Before you go, watch …
- A Peck on the Cheek – a Tamil drama in which young Amudha learns she is adopted and sets out to find her biological mother.
- From Dust – a documentary that looks at the government’s response to a natural disaster, in this case, the Asian tsunami of 2004.
They said it
“The island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) is a small universe; it contains as many variations of culture, scenery and climate as some countries a dozen times its size.” – Sir Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction author and resident of Sri Lanka for over 50 years, from 1956 until his death in 2008
“Wisdom can be found travelling.” – Sri Lankan proverb
“It’s time for Sri Lankan to heal the wounds and unite without regard for religious and ethnic identity.” – Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations
Do I need a visa?
All visitors, with the exception of citizens of Singapore, Seychelles and the Maldives, will need a visa to enter Sri Lanka. You can get a short-stay visa online at eta.gov.lk/slvisa. Although it’s still possible to get a tourist visa on arrival, it’s recommended that you do this before you travel.
How long will it take me to get there?
4 hours from Singapore. Sri Lanka is 5.5 hours ahead of GMT and 2.5 hours behind Singapore.
What’s the money situation?
The official currency of Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan rupee (LKR). Most major banks will change US dollars, Euro and GBP. Visa and MasterCard are the commonly accepted credit cards at top end hotels and restaurants. There are ATMs in major cities but it’s best to have cash for small purchases or if you’re heading out of town.
When’s the best time to visit?
The best time to travel to the western and southern coasts and hill country is between December and March. May to September is regarded as prime time to see the eastern coastlines.
What’s the lingo?
The official languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhala and Tamil. English is widely spoken in the country.
Here are some Sinhalese phrases to get you started:
What is your name? Oya geh nàma monadha?
My name is __: Mageh nàma __
How much? Keeyah the?
Thank you: Bohomus isthuthi
No, thank you: Nah isthuti
Is there anything I should know about meeting the locals?
Try to greet people by saying “ayubowan”, with your hands pressed together at chest level. Light handshakes are common among the younger generation.
What’s a must-try dish?
Curry and rice; variations include beetroot, jackfruit, daal, fish, chicken and many others.
What should I buy as a souvenir?
Traditional wooden devil masks, tea, packets of spices, and also Ayurvedic beauty products.
Where to stay and things to do
A few suggestions from Expat Living readers and staff:
Visiting… Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains
“The tranquil Nuwara Eliya is located in one of the cooler parts of Sri Lanka. The blue waters of Lake Gregory Lake and the crisp air when the temperature dips call for pleasant evening strolls along with various boating options.
One of the most amazing parts of our trip was visiting Horton Plains National Park. We reached there early in the morning for a hike of around 9 or 10km. A leisurely walk may take up to four hours to complete the loop. Stop by the stunning vistas at the World’s End and continue to the sprawling waterfalls within the park before returning back. The scenery is amazing, and you may spot some wildlife along the way.
Another spot to visit near Nuwara Eliya is Sita Amman Temple, which has a forest on one side and a little stream running behind it. It’s believed to be where Sita (the wife of Lord Rama) was held captive.
Finally, with many tea estates around, be sure to schedule a tea factory visit before moving further on towards the small town of Ella.”
– Nikita, Indian
Visiting… the Knuckles Mountain Range
“Amal, the guide for my five-day hike in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountain Range, makes the morning announcement that we will be ‘walking to some waterfalls’. He has cunningly omitted one detail; we’re walking to the top of some waterfalls. So, while much of the day’s 20km is relatively easy, a few sections are close to vertical.
As if to confirm the greater challenge in store, we’re joined by a second guide, Raja, from a nearby village. He’s carrying a spray-bottle of antiseptic, which from time to time he squirts onto my walking shoes. This is to stave off the many leeches that have made their home in Knuckles. It mostly does the job, though one clever wriggler does find his way onto my leg, drinking his fill before I realise what’s happening. Leeches have 32 brains, by the way, which is presumably why I’ve been outsmarted.
The aforementioned waterfalls are a series of three separate cascades, each reached by a muddy scramble and ending in a swimmable waterhole. I wait until we’re at the highest of them before ditching my clothes and diving in. We then eat a lunch of sardine curry, and, thanks to the noise of pounding water and the stunning views of central Sri Lanka perhaps more than the curry, it’s a memorable moment.
Equally memorable is what awaits above the final waterfall. We ascend to a high, flat rock shelf known as a ‘cloud forest’ – and we are quite literally walking through a cloud. Eerie and exhilarating.
With clouds, of course, come rain, and if yesterday’s afternoon downpour measured a 6 on a scale of intensity, today’s is a 9. It hammers down, and by the time we return to our tents amidst the tea plantations, my boots are a pair of miniature swimming pools. But I’m having the time of my life.”
– Shamus, Australian
Visiting… Mount Lavinia
An afternoon spent on the private beach of the Mount Lavinia Hotel can be a pleasant diversion from Colombo – and you don’t even need to stay there. For around S$8, you can book a day pass as a non-hotel-guest. It’s getting there that’s the most fun, too: our tip is to take the 20-minute, 10-cent train ride from the old station at Fort, in the city. We’re not sure what’s more impressive: the coastal views, or the way the school kids hang athletically (and precariously) from the train’s open doors.
Read more in our Travel section!