Trip made in December 2016
Sri Lanka is known for a few things: Ceylon tea, wildlife, and being deeply Buddhist. What is not as well-known about Sri Lanka is that the country has been shaped not only by its proximity to India (and the religions that came from there, namely Buddhism), but also from colonial rule from the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British, which is apparent from the building architecture around cities like Colombo and Galle.
I want to make a note here about Sri Lanka’s sunsets so that it doesn’t get buried with all the other information. Every day that I was in Sri Lanka, I saw some of the best sunsets. I didn’t take a picture every evening, but I did take a couple one night while I was in tea country (and I did very little post-processing on the two pictures). You can judge for yourself, but I would say it rivals the sunsets that I saw in Greece and Barbados, and set too high of a bar for the sunsets in Myanmar, where I flew to after Sri Lanka. To be perfectly honest, the sunsets in Myanmar were disappointing because Sri Lanka set the bar so high. Anyway, do take time to appreciate at least one sunset while you’re there.
Options for tourist visas for citizens of non-SAARC countries (outside of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation):
- Transit Visa with Single Entry (up to 2 days): Free
- Online Application or submitting to consulate/embassy: USD 35
- Visa on arrival (voa): USD 40
- Transit Visa with Single Entry (up to 2 days): Free
- Online Application or submitting to consulate/embassy: USD 20
- Visa on arrival (voa): USD 25
You’ll likely know if you’re a citizen of a SAARC country citizen, but as an FYI, the countries in this list are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (obviously doesn't require a visa).
Secondly, although there are a lot of extremely inexpensive hotels, don’t go too cheap. The cheapest hotels tend not to have hot water (or enough of it). The caveat with this rule is that you need to see if it’s relatively cheap. In other words, you need to see whether it’s cheap relative to the standards and the amenities that you’re looking for. Anyway, if you’re fine with cold water showers (colder than “room temperature”, and certainly colder than the outside air temperature), then feel free to ignore this advice.
Also, take the phrase “resort and spa” with a grain of salt. While there are some excellent “Resort and Spa” hotels in Sri Lanka, some places have a big variation in the standards, like within Sigiriya, or worse, in Mirissa where all of the hotels are “resorts”.
The most practical manner to get around is to hire a private car driven by a licensed tour guide (who speaks your language) for the time that you’re there instead of renting your own vehicle. The chauffeuring tour guide helps in two ways: this person knows the best sites and the way to them, and they alleviate any language barrier issues, which is common in much of Sri Lanka. Additionally, they know how to drive there; many of the local drivers drive terribly, and it can get scary to drive on the mountainous roads.
You can book one ahead of time, but you can find plenty of decent chauffeuring tour guides once you reach Colombo. Generally speaking, this should cost around USD 400 for 6 days and includes the price of the car, which the chauffeuring tour guide provides. I say “should” because my trip didn’t use a chauffeuring tour guide, contrary to what was booked (#see review here).
Regardless of when you hire the driver, verify that he (the driver is probably going to be a man) is experienced, has a tour guide license, AND speaks your preferred language. Without all three of these qualifications, your driver will likely get super lost or skip over sites worth seeing and/or not provide explanations when he should be.
Vegetarian options are difficult to come by unless you opt for “Chinese” cuisine though it was really just Chinese inspired noodles or Indochinese cuisine. For a deeply religious Hindu-inspired Buddhist country, I found that odd. A lot of restaurants that cater to western tastes may also have western foods available, like sandwiches or pizza. I didn’t try any of them, and I didn’t see other restaurant patrons eating them, so I can’t say how they look or taste. This variety is usually limited to hotel restaurants.
For anything outside of those variations, like some food allergies or being a Celiac, you might have a somewhat difficult time outside of the major cities.
Sri Lankan Cuisine
I prefer trying different types of cuisines, but typical Sri Lankan cuisine was not great. I’m not sure I can adequately explain why, but here’s my attempt. Firstly, no matter where I went, it seemed like there were only 2 types of curries – a yellow curry and a brown curry. Both of those curries were used for any non-vegetarian dish (chicken, shrimp, and fish), and they don’t really go well with any of the three. The yellow curry was basically dal (Indian lentil soup), and the brown curry was basically sambar (south Indian lentil soup). The weirdest part for me, as a fan of Indian cuisine (both north and south), was that the dal and the sambar tasted, well…not like dal and sambar. Additionally, the rice was really hard. I don’t think it was a problem in their preparation since the rice was hard everywhere. Rather, it seemed that the hardness was a property of the locally grown rice.
That being said, I did have wonderful tasting Sri Lankan cuisine at my hotel in Galle (see the review here), but their preparation was unusual to what’s done locally, at least in the restaurants we ate at.
Also, be aware that some ATMs give you receipts with the charged fees, while others don’t.
I think most places use filtered water (not tap water), but if you want to be extra cautious, order bottled water (it’s inexpensive anyway).
Also, to avoid any digestive issues that can ensue with travel anywhere (such as traveler’s diarrhea), I’d recommend eating the local yogurt. This is especially helpful in countries that use spices that you may not be used to, or in larger quantities than your stomach might handle. Also, if you’re prone to traveler’s diarrhea or are really adventurous with food, take Imodium or a prescription of Cipro with you. (Honestly, I wouldn’t worry too much about bad food).
Places to Visit
- Independence Memorial Hall
- Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre (outside)
- Sri Lanka Planetarium (outside)
- Viharamahadevi Park
- National Museum of Colombo
- Gangaramaya Temple
- Beira Lake
- Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, aka Red Mosque
- Galle Face (Green)
- Pettah Floating Market
- Old Parliament Building
- Colombo Fort Clock Tower
- Lucia’s Cathedral
- Wolvendaal Church
- Colombo Town Hall
- Sugathadasa Stadium
- Maligawa Temple (Temple of the Tooth)
- Lanktilaka and Gadaladeniya Buddhist Temples
- The Royal Botanical Garden and Royal Palace Park
- Tea factory
- Nuwara Eliya town
- Adam’s Peak and Little Adam’s Peak
Game drive (2 options: night before + early morning OR morning of + afternoon)
- Parrot Rock
- Whale Watching Tour
- Galle Fort and Lighthouse
- Galle Hospital
- Japanese Peace Temple/Rumassala
- Boardwalk and City Center
An ancient capital of Sri Lanka and center of Theravada Buddhism.