Trip made in December 2016

Introduction

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.

General Tips

Sri Lanka requires a tourist visa. There’s multiple options with different costs, so I have a list below.

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
Options for tourist visa if you’re a SAARC country citizen:

  • 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
Visas for children under 12 years of age is free regardless of nationality.

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).
There’s a lot of variation in accommodations in the different places, so please see each of the Accommodations sections. That being said, there are a few general rules of thumbs that you may want to follow. Firstly, regardless of where you stay at, make sure the first place you stay at has a western toilet, and toiletries (shampoo, soap, body lotion, and, if available, conditioner). You’re going to need to grab the extra roll of toilet paper (TP) that this hotel’s room has, along with 1 – 2 sets of toiletries. The extra roll of TP is for if/when you need to use the restroom while sightseeing, and the toiletries are because some places (like Mirissa) don’t have hotels that are more like guest houses (or at best equivalent to 2-star hotels in the west).

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 best way to get to Sri Lanka is flying into Colombo (CMB).
Car is the best mode of transportation in Sri Lanka. Despite the car being the best method of getting around, it takes quite some time to get from place to place. This is because the highway network isn’t extensive and the best routes between places are single lane roads, sometimes shared by motorbikes and other slow vehicles. When you’re planning your trip to Sri Lanka, don’t forget to take this travel time into account in addition to my suggested number of days to spend in a place.

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.
Food costs about what you’d expect to pay in the west. Options with respect to dietary restrictions are somewhat limited. First off, since this is a Hindu-influenced Buddhist country, you’ll be able to get chicken and seafood (shrimp and fish) everywhere, but pork and beef are more difficult to come by.

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.
Places close to sea level in Sri Lanka are hot all year, though the heat is more tolerable in the winter (25-31C, or 77-86F). I went in December, and the only place where I had a problem with heat was Galle, where it felt more sticky and humid. Places situated in higher elevations, like Kandy and Nuwara Eliya are much cooler, at 18-25C, or 64-77F.
Sri Lanka is cash-based nearly everywhere, including at some hotels. ATMs that take foreign ATM cards can also be difficult to find. Even when they are available, cash withdrawal limits are lower USD 200, though the limits vary with the local banks (some were USD 50, while the maximum that we found was USD 200).

Also, be aware that some ATMs give you receipts with the charged fees, while others don’t.
Most of the health and safety warnings for Sri Lanka are the general warnings that I’d mention for most places. Firstly, keep hydrated and wear sunscreen. Even if you go in winter, it’s warm enough to dehydrate and sunburn. Use hand sanitizer. Consume properly foods cooked foods.

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).
I’m making a special note about internet because it was a bit of an issue for me. I normally use T-Mobile USA’s free international data and text roaming when I’m traveling internationally. This had served me well in all the countries where it’s available (all but Bosnia and Vietnam in 2015), but in Sri Lanka, the service was non-existent nearly everywhere outside of Colombo. Where the data service worked, it was dial-up slow. It’s not strictly an issue with T-Mobile or the local partner company. All the local carriers become spotty, especially outside the major towns and in the mountains. I suppose a SIM card would have given me a bit of better coverage, but I personally don’t think it’s worth the hassle of obtaining a SIM card, which can be cumbersome and time-consuming in some places, and then have to deal with installing it in my phone (which is more difficult than it should be).
Toilets: Although western toilets aren’t that scarce in Sri Lanka, they’re also not as prevalent as you may hope for, especially in the rural areas (such as on the way between the cities). There are still places that use the squatting toilets, so be prepared for that. Even where there may be western toilets, there’s not always toilet paper or soap, so take a roll of TP with you from your hotel when you’re sightseeing, as well as soap and/or hand sanitizer.

Places to Visit

Approximately 1-1.5 days to see:

  • 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
Approximately 1 full day + travel time to see the Sigiriya Citadel, Lion Rock, and Museum. (This is one site.)
Approximately 1 day + travel time to see:

  • Maligawa Temple (Temple of the Tooth)
  • Lanktilaka and Gadaladeniya Buddhist Temples
  • The Royal Botanical Garden and Royal Palace Park
Approximately 1-2 days + travel time to see:

  • Tea factory
  • Nuwara Eliya town
  • Adam’s Peak and Little Adam’s Peak
Approximately 1 day + travel time for:

Game drive (2 options: night before + early morning OR morning of + afternoon)
Approximately 1 day to see + travel time to see:

  • Parrot Rock
  • Whale Watching Tour
  • Beach
Add more time if you want to spend time at the beach.
Approximately 1 day + travel time to see:

  • Galle Fort and Lighthouse
  • Galle Hospital
  • Beach
  • Japanese Peace Temple/Rumassala
  • Boardwalk and City Center
Approximately half-day (based on research) + extra-long travel time.

An ancient capital of Sri Lanka and center of Theravada Buddhism.

 

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