Now that it’s taken its pride of place as one of my favourite countries in the world, I thought it’s time to sit down and write a backpacking Sri Lanka guide for anyone else thinking of visiting. This is my 20th article about Sri Lanka (!!!) following four separate trips over the past two years and I’m excited to share my Sri Lanka travel tips with you all.
For a list of best places to visit, this article will help and alternatively if you’re just looking for help on itinerary planning, this 2 week guide should help. If I think of any more goof travel tips, I’ll be sure to add them to the article.
VIDEO: Where To Go Backpacking in Sri Lanka
30 Backpacking Sri Lanka Travel Tips
1. Apply for your visa online
Sri Lanka travel tip number 1 involves being prepared for your Backpacking Sri Lanka trip and ensuring that you have already applied for your Sri Lankan visa before arriving. Visa regulations for Sri Lanka change depending on what country you come from, for example being from Ireland I simply had to fill out an ETA online on the official government site, pay $20 for a single entry and got my visa approval email within an hour.
You should apply a few days or even a week before you depart, just to be safe. The visa requirement policy for Sri Lanka is actually really good, with *most* countries in the world entitled to apply for an online visa before arrival. See the visa map below, from Wikipedia. The yellow shows countries which can apply online.
2. Bring mosquito spray
While the World Health Organization declared Sri Lanka Malaria-free back in 2016, there are still a lot of mosquitos to be found, especially in the rainy season. If you’re prone to getting mosquito bites and they just love your sweet, sweet blood, I highly recommend bringing some strong mosquito repellant with you or they will drive you crazy ad you’ll have some very restless nights sleep.
While there might not be Malaria, mosquitos can also carry and spread other nasty diseases such as Dengue Fever which will most definitely land you in the hospital and ruin your Sri Lanka travels!
3. Bring decent hiking shoes
Last year Sri Lanka won an award for being the “Best Adventure Travel Destination in Asia” beating out competition from Nepal, Thailand and other more popular travel destinations. Backpacking Sri Lanka is perfect for those with a love of adventure and the great outdoors, with incredible hiking routes, waterfalls to explore, jungles to trek through and once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experiences. Doing all these in flip-flops or sandals is definitely not recommended.
Even short hikes, like climbing Pidurangala (see video below) need decent trainers or hiking boots as there’s a lot of scrambling over rocks to get to the top.
4. It can rain. A lot.
With beautifully green and super lush destinations like Bali and Sri Lanka, you have to remember that they wouldn’t be as beautiful without all the rain they’re blessed with! It can be frustrating if you’ve escaped an Irish or American winter for a little sunshine only to be greeted with 10 days of torrential rain showers, but it’s really not that bad. While it DOES rain a lot, and when it does rain the heavens open up, it really only lasts for a few hours and then dries up with sun coming out to play.
It’s best to be prepared for rain and bring an umbrella, a light rain jacket (because boy oh boy is it STILL really hot even when it rains) and just throw on some flip-flops or decent sandals so you’re shoes don’t get ruined traipsing through puddles!
5. Consider hiring a driver
If you’re on a budget, then taking local buses and trains is probably your best option. but having traveled to Sri Lanka four times now, and explored the remote north, secret beaches down south, hidden waterfalls in the highlands and the deserted beaches of the East, I honestly think hiring a driver is the best way to go – especially if you can share the costs between a few people.
While there’s a train the whole way along the coast, up to Jaffna and from Colombo to Kandy to Ella – it’s difficult to go see the main sites (Sigiriya, Adams Peak, Yala National Park) or some of the more hidden gems like quiet beaches, smaller wildlife reserves, well-known waterfalls without a driver. You can hire a driver in the local destination, or jump in a tuk-tuk, but the fees add up fast and it’s not as easy or convenient as having your own driver.
My Mum and I paid $300 to hire a driver for 7 days and it made our lives so much easier. He brought us all over the country and sorted out all his own food and accommodation nearby to where we were staying. It’s advisable to tip at the end, but how much is up to you.
6. Buy a local sim
This is something I wish I had done on day one instead of day 5!! You can buy a local sim with up to 15GB of data for about $5 and it will make your travels in Sri Lanka SO MUCH EASIER! There are booths in the airport after arrivals or else you can just stop at any small phone store in Colombo before setting off on your adventures.
7. Eat where the locals eat
While the food in the big hotels is decent and isn’t outrageously expensive considering the quality and huge choice of dishes, hotel buffets get boring real fast. We also found that the local food, in roadside stalls, small “mama and papa” style restaurants in towns and villages were much tastier than the hotel buffets. The food is cooked on the spot, made with love and using traditional Sri Lankan recipes.
You can taste the flavors much more and you’ll get to taste things you won’t find in hotels such as; Kottu Roti, Fish Ambul Thiyal, Jackfruit curry and small snacks like Paratha bread, vegetable bhajis and of course fresh King Coconuts for less than a $1!
8. Don’t try the spicy peppers!
If you end up getting offered a teeny, tiny spicy pepper to try, to see how “brave” you are, back away!! A Sri Lankan offered me one on my first trip to Sri Lanka, and me being me, bit half the pepper off and started chewing it. Soon after smoke started coming out my ears, my stomach started churning and I honestly thought the chilli was burning a hole through my stomach. I LOVE spicy food but that was some sort of torture. I still flinch at the thought of the pain and discomfort it brought me for days after!
9. Skip the spice garden tour
A lot of organized tours, and even the Tourism Board in my case try to bring you to these super touristy and super lame spice gardens. You can waste up to 2 hours of your precious day here, as some pushy guide tells you the history of every plant and then eventually tries to sell you every herb and spice under the sun.
In one place they offered “free massages” but nothing in life is free and I was NOT liking the way they were enjoying rubbing oil all over unsuspecting young visitors. STAY AWAY.
10. Plan more time than needed
If Google Maps tells you its two hours to get from Colombo to Dambulla, it will probably take three. If Google Maps tells you some obscure waterfall is 2 hours away, it could take 5! Roads in Sri Lanka are notoriously bad, full of potholes, overrun with tuk-tuks and stray animals and sometimes a 20km journey can take well over an hour.
When you look at the map and start planning your ideal Sri Lanka itinerary, ignore the journey times given and plan for way more time than you think is needed. It’s also nice to factor in some downtime at your hotel pool, as traveling is tiring, it can get very hot and humid and sometimes all you want to do is chill!
11. Think twice about local buses
While the local buses are by far the cheapest way to get around (as little as $1 for a 2-hour journey!) they are also probably the slowest and most uncomfortable way of travelling. For example, there’s a bus from the airport to Colombo, thinking it would be a short ride, and the bus must have stopped over 20 times taking over two hours to get into Colombo!!
The buses are also very overcrowded and if you don’t get a seat you could end up standing for a few hours to reach your destination – with no air conditioning and sharing standing space with other hot and sweaty backpackers and locals!
12. Get out of Colombo
I’m honestly not a huge fan of Colombo. I think, and I’m sure the Sri Lankans reading this will hate me, Colombo has to be the most boring capital city in Asia. There is no magic to it. There’s not a lot to see and its only saving grace is that its home to some sick rooftop bars with infinity pools and possibly one of the best places in Sri Lanka to watch the sunset.
13. Pick your wildlife experience carefully
There are certain wildlife experiences in Sri Lanka that any ethical travel should stay far away from. Elephant orphanages, turtle hatcheries that let you hold the turtles and any wildlife experience where you can touch, hold or get too close to the animals is a big no-no!
You should also be careful of illegal guides or tour operators that act inappropriately such as driving dangerously (this happened to us on my last trip) through the park or getting much to close to the elephants.
Stick to the big National Parks like Yala National Park, Minneriya or Kaudulla if you want to see elephants or leopards in the wild, and always book with a recommending safari company. Don’t worry, it won’t break the bank with trips costing as little as $30 per person.
14. Book train tickets in advance
Trains are one of the best ways to experience the country but we got caught out a few times because we didn’t buy our tickets early enough! When catching the Kandy to Ella train from Nuwara Eliya, we went down to the station 30 minutes before the departure time of the 11am train to find out it was already fully booked and because it was special reserved seats only train, there was no way we could get on even if we were willing to stand the whole way!
The same happened when getting the train from Galle back to Colombo – 2 of the trains were fully booked and the next train didn’t depart for 3 hours so we ended up just hiring a driver from the train station. You can book tickets a few weeks in advance online, or buy some tickets at the train station the day you arrive – even if you don’t plan on taking the train for another few days.
Most local trains will let you on with a last-minute bought ticket no problem, but be prepared to stand or sit down on the ground for most of the journey!
15. Get up early
The weather in Sri Lanka is pretty much the same all year round – hot and humid every day! I found the earlier I got up, the better the day I had. Waking up for sunrise and doing a sunrise hike or even just going to the beach or a nearby lake, was the perfect way to start each day.
The light is so beautiful in the morning, perfect for photography, and the sun is low in the sky so it’s a nice time for hiking without getting burnt alive! Also, as there is not much of a nightlife scene anywhere in Sri Lanka, you will find yourself going to bed early and thus waking up early should be a breeze.
16. Never miss a sunset
Just as you should (try) to never miss a sunrise, I also recommend you never miss a sunset! Take note, this is one of the best Sri Lanka travel tips you will read today: Sri Lankan sunsets are OUT OF THIS WORLD and even when it looks like its going to be a bad sunset, the sky suddenly lights up, changing from red to orange to pink and purple. No matter where in the country you are, no matter what you’re doing or how tired you’re feeling, get outside and witness each and every sunset – ideally from a nice vantage point!
17. Learn the local language
On my first trip to Sri Lanka, I only learned about 1 or 2 words and I felt so guilty leaving the country having made no effort whatsoever. Since then, I’ve slowly been building up my vocabulary and can now have basic conversations with people, order food and drinks and ask how much things cost in markets and pay. I will be making a video really soon teaching people how to say the basic phrases, but it’s really is easy to learn.
Maybe download a free language learning app – the locals you meet will be ecstatic if you speak to them in Singhalese!
18. Always have small change
Many small stores, tuk-tuk drivers and even local buses never seem to have change so you’ll have a lot of trouble paying with large notes – and might even get scammed out of your change by drivers saying that “don’t have any”. Sometimes you have to fight for your change, by suggesting to stop off at a shop to make a small purchase to break a large note – but it’s better to try to keep smaller notes on you at all times.
19. No suitcases – pack light!
Suitcases will NOT be your friend in Sri Lanka. There are many steps, often no elevators in site and lugging a heavy suitcase on and off buses and trains will be a nightmare. I suggest a lightweight backpack and try to pack as light as possible – remember its a hot, tropical country so you really won’t need too many clothes!
20. Beware for extra costs (taxes, tips)
In Sri Lanka, especially in the larger hotels, extra tax (as much as 25%!!) will always be added to your bill. For example, if you book a $100 hotel on Booking.com, when you arrive in the hotel and may your bill, suddenly it’s like $120 because of added taxes! This can add up fast and get very annoying when you’re trying to budget so keep it in mind!
While you don’t have to tip, it is recommended, and some places will add on a service charge to the bill at the end so again the amount will be a lot more than you budgeted for.
21. Stay in hostels
Hostels are a great was of backpacking Sri Lanka as they are cheap and an easy way to make friends to continue your travels with. Backpacking in Sri Lanka still isn’t as common as other Asian countries and can be a little trickier, so making travel friends to make the journey easier is a good idea.
There aren’t too many hostels to be found, but year on year more and more are opening and the standard is definitely getting higher. The best ones can be found on the south coast and in the surfing mecca of Arugam Bay.
22. Bring a bottle with a filter
You can’t drink the tap water in Sri Lanka and buying plastic bottles, in addition to being awful for the environment, will also add up fast. I recommend buying a “Water To Go” reusable bottle with filter – I’ve had mine for a few months now and couldn’t live without it!
23. Research when to go
Before planning your backpacking trip around Sri Lanka, do a little research on the best time to go. For example, certain seasons are better than others for wildlife and whale watching.
If you’re keen to see Leopards, don’t come in October as they close the main area of Yala National Park for over a month. If you want to see waterfalls in their full force, then the rainy season is best – although the rain will not be a welcome site if all you’re interested in is beaches!
24. Try out Airbnb
Airbnb is a great way to travel around Sri Lanka. I only used it for the first time in Sri Lanka on my most recent trip, and I think we might have found one of the nicest beach front villas in the country! There are gorgeous places listed for as little as $20 or $30 a night, with the price rising into the $100’s for some insanely gorgeous houses by the beach and in the jungle.
You can cook your own food, or even get a chef to come in and cook for you (yes, we did this once!) and it’s so nice to have your own space to chill out in.
25.Be careful of leeches
Oh my god, this is one of those Sri Lanka travel tips you’re going to want to remember!! If travelling to Sri Lanka during rainy season, you need to watch out for leeches. Even the name makes me squirm and jogs back memories I do NOT ever want to recall. If hiking through jungle, near waterfalls, or across mountains with long gras…there WILL BE LEECHES.
You need to wear long pants and hiking boots and bring a bottle of water mixed with salt to get them off. if you find leeches stuck to you, trying to burrow into your skin (especially between your toes..where I found them) you need to use a sharp object to get them off, trying to ensure you get the whole leech and it hasn’t left it’s (three!!) jaws in your skin. I’ll say no more…you’ve been warned!!
26. Respect religious sites
There have been a lot of cases on the news lately where tourists in Sri Lanka have been caught disrespecting religious sites. At best you’ll get deported and banned from the country, at worst you’ll end up in prison. Say NO to Buddha tattoos, never take a photo with your back to Buddha, don’t do yoga poses are “moon” at sacred sites. Be sure to cover up, take off your shoes and listen to your guide or locals on what proper etiquette is.
27. Hotels are restaurants
Don’t ask me why but in Sri Lanka they call small roadside restaurants “hotels”. They are not hotels, and do not have cheap accommodation. They are just small, super cheap eateries with rice and curries on offer, while you sit on a small plastic chair with a group of locals. Confusing, right?!
28. Plug sockets are mixed
Many places have the same plug sockets as England and Ireland (3 rectangular pin plug) while some others take the 3 round pin plugs. Its best to bring an adapter so you don’t get caught with nowhere to charge your suff.
28. Buy travel insurance
This is a travel tip I give to all my readers in all my posts, and Sri Lanka is no different. Please please PLEASE get yourself a decent travel insurance policy before going overseas! You never know when you could get sick or injured, and medical bills can add up real fast!
29. Luxury doesn’t mean expensive
One of the best things about Sri Lanka is that it’s a super cheap country to travel around. Even the best 5-star hotels in the country, the ones with the insane views and enormous infinity pools, will not break the bank. Some start from as little as $50 a night – the exact price for a dorm bed in a hostel back in Ireland!
If you’re getting tired of hostels and budget accommodation, check out some of my favorite luxury hotels here.
30. Bring scarves to cover up
Many religious and sacred cultural sites require women to cover the shoulders and knees and for men to cover their knees. It’s best to keep 1 or 2 scarves with you at all times so you can cover your shoulders with one and wrap the other around your waist to cover your knees.