36 Tips for travelling in Sri Lanka

I have been slowly putting together this list of tips that might help if you decide to travel to Sri Lanka any time soon. I hope it is useful. Feel free to ask questions in the comments or add your own tips and I will keep this list updated as much as I can.

  1. People speak English so you are not going to suffer terribly and if you go down south you will find people in the tourist trade speaking French and German as well so you will be fine. It is worth learning some of the Sinhala slang though.
  2. Always have some cash on you because while you can use a card anywhere across the island, there will be some instances (such as tuk-tuk/trishaw rides) when you need to pay by cash. You can also download an app called PickMe to order a trishaw to your door.
  3. A good rule of thumb to remember is that at the moment, one hundred Sri Lankan rupees is around about 70 US cents or 1 Australian dollar and 5 cents. So 100 rupees is roughly a dollar. If global interest rates go up we will have to see what transpires.
  4. The fairer skinned you are and the more obviously foreign you are, the more likely that you will be charged the tourist rate rather than the local one at various tourist attractions. Just go with it rather than argue.
  5. Always take a meter taxi which is a tricycle rickshaw that operates with a meter and be wary of taking one too late after dark when it will be much better to call a “588” which is slang for an actual cab (called surprisingly Kangaroo Cabs which makes no sense really) because you dial 2588588 to book one. There is also 259592 for Budget Cabs.
  6. If you can, stay with a friend who is a Sri Lankan citizen and can show you around. And also give you free room and food.
  7. That being said, try to go stay at a five star hotel at least for one night because it will change your understanding of what service is.
  8.  Do not attempt to drive in Sri Lanka but do not fear for your life if others are driving you. You will survive.
  9. Katta sambol is meant to be taken in tiny amounts. Don’t put more than a teaspoon on your plate. This is a prank often played on the unsuspecting tourist.
  10. Things you should buy in Sri Lanka because they are cheaper here include: electronic goods, designer and non-designer clothing and gems or jewellery. Also books.
  11. Get a local SIM and number for your phone – it will work out cheaper than roaming. Sometimes Customs will give you one free when you land.
  12. Be prepared to drink a lot of water and carry a bottle wherever you go.
  13. Temples and other places require you to be fully covered so jeans and a T-shirt are your best bet. You will be asked to go barefoot in certain places so wear sandals or something you can take off easily.

    (c) Marisa Wikramanayake
  14. Take pictures but ask permission and don’t take pictures of military installations and buildings and definitely ask permission before photographing statues of the Buddha.563533_10151899485580368_1354738483_n
  15. If you have tattoos of the Buddha and other religious iconography keep them covered all the time or risk being deported. It is viewed as being disrespectful. Generally other tattoos are usually ok provided they don’t depict naked women. I have one that no one has batted an eyelid at yet.
  16. If you come here be prepared to eat the food and to eat a lot of it. Having favourites is fine but people do expect you to try the local cuisine and will try to feed you.
  17. To see a beach you will have to go to either Galle Face in Colombo or head along the coast and day trip through or stay at a hotel but it is generally worth it.

    Kalutara beach (c) Marisa Wikramanayake
  18. If it is a full moon, everything will be shut as it will be a public holiday. Depending on where you are, you may still be able to get alcohol and/or meat. If you are in a hotel you will be fine.
  19. Traffic is a fact of life. Plan ahead and make appointments with people that give you about an hour to drive half an hour’s worth of distance.
  20. When visiting people, take a gift. If there are men in the household, then a bottle of Glenfiddich scotch is required otherwise a good box of chocolates should suffice.
  21. You will have drinks and snacks before dinner is served at any dinner party you go to and the snacks will  usually be something called mixture which is a spicy snack mix. You can drink non-alcoholic beverages if you wish to.
  22. If someone approaches you at a dinner party during the pre-dinner drinks phase with a glass of water on the tray and goes up to everyone with it, just hold your hands out and upright, palms facing the tray and lightly touch its edge. This is just the host’s way of welcoming you to start dinner. It’s like the equivalent of the dinner bell or gong. Not everyone will do this so it depends on your host.

    As old as the hills by Dhammika Heenpella via Flickr
    As old as the hills by Dhammika Heenpella via Flickr
  23. Some people will bow with their palms pressed together in prayer mode to other people at social events, not just in the usual Ayubowan greeting but actually almost curtsying while doing so. You don’t need to do this – this is just a very traditional way of greeting your elder relatives in very old families whose family trees resemble forests. I have family friends I have known all my life who do this and I still can’t work out the relationship especially Sinhala has separate words for designating each relative not just by how they are related to you directly but on which parent’s side and whether they were older or younger in a set of siblings and all that. I don’t know how people keep track: I grew up with just “Aunt/Uncle/Cousin” as options.
  24. Speaking of relatives, Sri Lankans call anyone older than them by a few generations “Aunty” or “Uncle” and if they want to be polite to someone who is older than by just a few years or would not take well to “Aunty/Uncle” they say “Aiyya” (older brother) or “Akki” (older sister) and for those younger than them it is “Nangi” (younger sister) or “Malli” (younger brother). They will use these words alone or after the person’s first name aka “Marisa Akki/Marisa Nangi” and on occasion “Marisa Aunty”. If they don’t know the person at all or want to acknowledge them as their betters or just be a bit polite and formal it is “Madame/Nona” or “Mahathaya/Sir”. And this is the informal slang version of Sinhala – it gets more tongue twister like when you get more formal.
  25. Put your hands together in prayer mode and bob your head downwards quickly and back up again when you meet a priest of any religion – I find it to be a nice universal gesture when you aren’t sure of protocol but you want them to be certain that you acknowledge their position and have that respect for them as a person.
  26. “Machan” means “mate/bro/dude” and is usually used by Sri Lankan males unless you meet an unapologetic Sri Lankan female like me who occasionally uses it to refer to women too.
  27. Mosquito coil by Jo Naylor via Flickr
    Mosquito coil by Jo Naylor via Flickr

    So to get rid of mosquitos we don’t use spray, we have things called mosquito coils that actually are coils that you directly light and keep next to your bed and burn down over night releasing a vapour that repels/presumably kills mosquitos if they come near you. There are also the electric versions that are little burners and plug into the wall socket and take little tiny mosquito mats. The material and chemicals are toxic if ingested so wash your hands after handling them. Mosquito netting is also useful and this is what that hook over the bed is for.

  28. It will also be hot at night on occasion as well as hot during the day – deal with it. It is always humid – drink a lot of water.
  29. There will and should alway be a tea break at three or four ‘o’ clock in the afternoon with the inclusion of various short eats and baked pastry goods both savoury and sweet. Does it sound like a high tea? It’s probably where it came from though actual high teas are also taking off like crazy and Sri Lankans will spend a lot to go to hotels and have high tea and basically eat everything sweet, savoury, spicy and sour at the buffet spread which also has meal sized versions of various foods. Incidentally the best high teas are at the Mount Lavinia Hotel on the Terrace and the Galle Face Hotel because the sea breeze is wonderful – you are welcome.
  30. Take one bus ride somewhere in the city just so you can appreciate your own public transport back home and how efficient and safe and molestation free it is.
  31. Take the train to everywhere you can go by train because the ride and the views will be worth it.
  32. Everyone is late for everything in Sri Lanka and usually traffic is blamed whether it is the cause or not.
  33. Colombo now has a one way system, relatively newly adopted and everyone will complain bitterly about it.
  34. Shopping is a major hobby so be fully prepared to be whisked off by people to see must see destinations such as ODEL, FashionBug and other department stores and boutiques.
  35. Public displays of affection are usually not on. Hand holding may be on occasion acceptable. If you are a same sex couple keep it as private and under wraps as possible – tell the people you trust. It’s taking a while for all of society to come around to this idea though the younger generation within the capital is generally more open minded. There is a PRIDE movement and there are some openly gay local celebrities but they wield some power, status and fame and often entertain people so just be cautious about who you tell.
  36. People will ask you where your town is or what country you are from – people will ask you all sorts of nosy questions. To them it is polite to inquire. Basically they usually want to know what your hometown is.
  37. At dinner parties, people may get separated by gender with the men talking about politics and cricket and the women discussing gossip, fashion and the cost of things including where to find good help these days. This may seem odd but this is what happens. Sometimes if their adult aged children are there, they may sit separately as well or they might create yet another group termed “the kids” with “kids” ranging from about 8 to 38.

And I asked my sister if she had any tips and she had this to say:

[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#ffffff” text=”#4fdb80″ width=”500px” align=”right” size=”1″ quote=”Take a moment when you first arrive to breathe. Take a couple of deep breaths and relax. Then go in with an open mind. It’ll help with the culture shock. Smile and be friendly. Be mindful of dodgy places. Go and see interesting sounding places and things but dont treat them as an Englishman post-colonisation and exoticise them. Don’t go and buy a cute elephant toy from a handicraft store just cos you think it is traditional and ‘screams’ Sri Lankan. Instead take pictures, interesting pictures, pictures that mean something to you, and if you must buy something, get something useful – that way your story will be more interesting later when you tell people how you got it AND they will see a more useful side to the country rather than a constantly exoticised culture. Just cos you’re overseas doesnt mean you should act differently. Be you. Don’t go overboard and try to immerse yourself in what is touted as a ‘real cultural experience’ or some such shit. Meet people, do things with them. Be a normal human being and that way you get to find out the real culture for yourself. Travelling is about experiencing new environments and learning first-hand about new things. Not taking overpriced tours and posing next to kitsch dolled up natives. Be cool.” cite=”Anushka Wikramanayake” parallax=”on” direction=”right”]


  • Anushka

    Course you have to do the standard things: eat a lamprais, eat some Green Cabin chocolate cake (ma thinks very little of this cake), eat kotthu from Pilawoos, eat a Fab eclair, buy and eat a king coconut from the dude on the side of the road (try near the Open University on the Nawala side), eat some crab curry, eat some milk toffee… OK, this has gotten a bit carried away. Basically, eat the food. Food is good for you.

  • Alice Teacake

    Wow! You got this covered! Haven’t visited Sri Lanka yet but it’s totally on my list! Looking forward to experiencing this country very much so I’ve bookmarked your tips. The best thing you’ve got here? There’s a tea break in the afternoon!

    • Marisa

      Oh wow! I am so glad I inspired you to bookmark it! I talk about my time here as well in a few other posts so I hope you get to read that when you have time. And thank you! I will post a glossary of terms as well soon.

  • Sarah

    Gosh: if I visit Sri Lanka, I am taking this list with me after I dye my hair and apply bronzer, so I get the cheaper rates. Very informative list that I m sure lots of 1st time visitors would never know.

  • julielaundis

    What an awesome comprehensive list! Sri Lanka is on my list for the future so I will go ahead and pin your post. If I can make a suggestion, I think it would be great to add a couple more pictures to your post (especially vertical pictures that can be pinned easily). That way the large blocks of text will be broken up a but more when reading on a mobile device.

  • Expat and the City

    I would LOVE to visit Sri Lanka. My teacher friend is going there for her winter vacation (whereas I’m heading to the Philippines). But these tips will help me when its’ my time to head to beautiful Sri Lanka ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks!

    • Marisa

      I am glad you liked it! When will she be here? If I am here I am happy to show her around or give her some tips and contacts if required.

  • karyn181

    Thanks for this list, this will be really useful if I ever get the chance to go to Sri Lanka! I must say, I like the sound of afternoon tea every day. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Marisa

      As do I except it may not be good for your health in the end! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I am glad you found it useful. Please let me know what else you would like to see in the future.

  • Kinga

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been thinking whether or not to go to Sri Lanka this year, since more and more travel bloggers have covered it on their blogs and it seems to be a great place for solo travel. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Marisa

      Since the war is over it definitely can be a great place for solo travel. Please let me know if you are planning to visit.

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