After years of fantasizing about Sri Lanka, there was a lot riding on our visit. In fact, given our past experiences with heightened expectations, my repeated mantra on the flight over was “Don’t expect too much. Sri Lanka probably won’t be that great.” I was certain my hopes and dreams for the country would prove to be too much, my very desire to have Sri Lanka be as wonderful as I believed it would be would prove to be a jinx and we’d leave feeling vaguely deflated and rather disappointed.
I wanted to love Sri Lanka, but I secretly feared that we wouldn’t. I certainly never expected that the country would prove to be far better than anything we had ever dared to anticipate, something that would make the sumptuous and lush photos we had ogled in advance seem lackluster and bland in comparison. I never once predicted how hard we would fall for the country, as Sri Lanka swiftly catapulted itself near the top of our list of favorite countries we have visited on this journey.
In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why we loved Sri Lanka so much, and I’m a bit baffled when I think about why we worried we might not. Without question, its beaches are the most beautiful ones in this part of the world… and even when you stray from the beaches (no easy task), the verdant dense countryside, thick with jungle and tea fields and rice paddies, is an alluring emerald-green paradise. Rich bouquets of bright flowers blossom throughout the entire country, and the trees offer up the sweetest fruits you’ve ever tasted. Speaking of food: Oh the food! Sri Lankan cuisine is SO FLAVORFUL AND DELICIOUS, and with just the barest traces of similarity with Indian cuisine, it boasts an incredible range of dishes that are entirely unique and will delight your taste buds. The people are curious, warm, and incredibly welcoming to foreigners… for those who think of Sri Lanka as nothing more than a dangerous war-torn nation, the reality could not be further from the truth: we were always greeted with smiles and kindness and not for a single second did we ever feel ourselves in danger or our safety at risk. Despite the country’s tumultuous past, modern-day Sri Lanka is about as tranquil and placed as any place is likely to be. And on top of it all, it’s incredibly affordable too!
Without overstating it, Sri Lanka is perhaps as close to paradise as we mortal travelers are ever likely to get. Months after leaving, it continues to haunt our dreams and call to us across the oceans, and we know we will return to her again one day to bask in her loveliness. If you beat us to it, however, and would like a primer on this wonderful place, including tips & tricks on things from lodging to food, as well as a full budget break down on how much it costs to travel in Sri Lanka, then read on!
Sri Lanka has two official languages: Sinhala (which is generally spoken in the south) and Tamil (which is more largely spoken in the north). Unfortunately for most travelers, both of these languages also have their own scripts that employ a distinctly non-Roman alphabet, meaning signs and addresses will largely be illegible/incomprehensible.
Thankfully, perhaps by virtue of being a former British colony, many people in Sri Lanka speak plenty of English, certainly enough for you to ask directions, make yourself understood, and even strike up a conversation. When it came to traveling around the country, really any establishment or service that caters to tourists in any capacity will generally have signage in English/using the Roman alphabet; though many local stores only had signs (and, more troubling, addresses) in Sinhala or Tamil, we didn’t find it difficult to communicate anywhere in the country. As always, a few basic phrases in the local language is always appreciated: at least try to remember “thank you” (S: stooti; T: nandri) and “delicious” (S: hari rasai; T: ruseeyana)… it shouldn’t be too hard—if you’re anything like us, you’ll use them a lot!
Food & Dining
If, like us, you assumed Sri Lankan food was identical to Indian food, your visit to this country will be an incredible culinary eye-opener! Yes, Sri Lanka is the land of curries, but you don’t have to travel in Asia for very long to realize that the ingredients and flavors of a curry will vary dramatically from region to region.
If you land in Sri Lanka dreaming of tomatoey tikka masala and fluffy naans served alongside buttery kormas, you will be disappointed as these are decidedly (northern) Indian dishes; it is claimed that Sri Lankan food is more similar to southern Indian fare, but to our palates, Sri Lankan food tastes uniquely its own and unlike any sub-continental Indian food we had ever tried. I personally found the flavors of Sri Lankan cooking far more reminiscent of the west Indian dishes that my Trinidadian grandmother (by way of India!) cooked for me growing up. Even the few dishes we were familiar with, like the protein-rich lentil soup-cum-gravy, dhal, that is served with every meal and we had eaten more than our fair share of prior to our visit was different: much creamier. Sri Lankan dhal is thickened with coconut milk (a staple in most dishes) and is absolutely lush. I’ve never been a fan of the dish previously, but the Sri Lankan variety I couldn’t get enough of.
One of the most popular meals in Sri Lanka is rice & curry. To those not in the know, this probably sounds alarmingly nondescript and also a bit boring, but rest assured that for every restaurant serving up rice & curry, there is a different version of this dish. Rice & curry is really just a catch-all name to refer to a set meal in which fluffy white rice is served with a variety of side dishes; if you’re from the American south and are familiar with the concept of a “meat & three” (one meat and three sides that all change daily, for you northerners), this is essentially the Sri Lankan version. Not every dish will be “curried” in the way you may be used to it, but will generally feature a single protein or vegetable that is then stewed, sautéed or fried with a bunch of spices. Generally one of the dishes will be dhal, but other popular vegetable curries feature beetroot, jackfruit, eggplant, green beans; popular proteins are crab, fish, and chicken. Rice and curry is routinely accompanied by some kind of sambal (a spiced condiment; coconut is a very popular version) as well as papadums, crispy dhal crackers. You will never walk away from this meal anything other than stuffed and you will probably never eat the same version twice. Rice & curry is a very popular dish that is offered pretty much anywhere that serves food and is very good value for money; if someone asks you if you want rice & curry, the answer is always yes!
If you’re feeling snackish but aren’t starving or are pressed for time, then Sri Lankan short eats will be your best friend. Unless you stumble across a place around lunchtime that has a rice & curry buffet where everything is all prepared, you can expect your meals to take quite a bit of time to prepare. Short eats, on the other hand, are widely available and are great to grab & go. Common short eats are rotis stuffed with potato, egg, or some kind of protein—traditionally wrapped to form a triangular shape, Sri Lankan rotis are essentially, a chewier, non-fried samosa. You will also see things like “egg rolls”, “fish rolls”, etc., which are essentially tubular versions of rotis, though they may also be breaded and fried. Short eats are EXTREMELY cheap and very filling to boot; two or three make for a hearty meal that should set you back less than $1US.
Finally, as an island, and a tropical one at that, Sri Lanka boasts excellent seafood and wonderful fruits. Truthfully, the fruits we had in Sri Lanka were probably the best iterations we have had anywhere in the world; I’m pretty sure Sri Lankan bananas have spoiled us for all other varieties. Tiny and sweet, they make the bigger ones from back home seem mealy and flavorless. We also found ourselves enjoying papaya, something that has never happened before in our lives. Everywhere else we have found papaya pretty to look at, but otherwise bland and tasteless; Sri Lankan papaya was a revelation, sweet with a rich floral muskiness. We also splurged several times on some amazing fresh seafood platters—I didn’t think we’d find a version of crab that I liked as much as chili crab in Singapore, but Sri Lankan crab curry, and the incredible seafood platter we had in Arugam Bay (yes, I’m still talking about it!) easily matched it.
If you’re interested in a comprehensive list of specific foods to seek out while in Sri Lanka, check out this list compiled by Migration Mark.
One last note for vegetarians & vegans: Although we don’t travel with dietary restrictions, it was our impression that Sri Lanka would be a very easy country to eat your way through as a vegetarian, and even as a vegan. Given a rather large Buddhist population, vegetarian options are always on offer, and meatless versions of rice & curry and kotthu roti (a wok-fried dish in which chopped strips of roti are treated a bit like pasta) can always be found. There will always be vegetarian versions of short eats as well. I would say that about 70% of our meals were vegetarian in Sri Lanka, and we never once felt the lack of meat in any of them. So, if you’re a foodie who has been missing out because you don’t eat animal products, get thee to Sri Lanka stat!
Sri Lanka may not attract as many travelers as it deserves, but it still has a whole range of lodging to cater to practically any travel style. From intimate and budget-friendly homestays and family-run guesthouses to high-end swanky resorts, Sri Lanka seems to have something for everyone. The only thing missing on the accommodation scene seems to be hostels with dorm lodging—these can be found in cities like Colombo and Galle, but are conspicuously absent in most other destinations. Sri Lanka doesn’t have much of a backpacking scene, which probably plays some part in this dearth of youth-oriented lodging, but truthfully, in most places you can rent a private room or bungalow for little more than you would pay for a bed in a dorm anyway.
Although we had read mixed reports regarding the quality of Sri Lanka’s budget lodging, we were uniformly content with every place we stayed during our visit. Sometimes rooms were a bit dated or spartanly furnished, but they were always clean and comfortable. Most places offered hot water (though it is always worth confirming), and there is generally the option for air conditioning too, though you will always pay extra for this. WiFi is also touch and go—it’s not hard to find places that offer it, but it is not ubiquitous and once or twice, we stayed places that didn’t provide it.
Budget Travel Tip: If you like an a/c room but not the price, ask whether they’ll rent it to you as fan only at a discount. In most cases, they will!
Our favorite stays in the country were generally the smaller guesthouses and we wished we had done a few more homestays. We found our homestay through AirBnB, which is certainly worth perusing if you visit. A Google search of the cities you plan to visit along with the word “homestay” may turn up other options as well, and if city has a tourism office, they may have information on homestays too.
Sri Lanka has an extensive public transport network, so even if you don’t rent your own tuk-tuk, you should be able to use buses and trains to get pretty much anywhere you need to go. Of course, getting off the beaten path may be a little more difficult and you won’t have the same freedom that your own set of wheels will allow, but independent travelers should be able to get around the country with fairly little hassle. And by all accounts, both buses and trains are extremely affordable verging on dirt cheap. We only took two public buses to get to Negombo on our very first day in the country, and although they were very vintage and took us an age to get us where we needed to go, they were adequate to our needs and certainly very cheap.
Of course, for those with a more adventurous spirit, many rental agencies in Negombo will allow you to rent motorcycles and a few even offer tuk-tuk rentals. If you are interested in renting either, make sure you have an international driver’s license with the correct endorsements for driving a motorbike (one that allows you to drive a car will likely not be sufficient) and are comfortable with the rules of the Asian road (such as they are). For more details on renting a tuk-tuk, check out our post detailing our experiences.
To get around town and perhaps even for nearby daytrips, tuk-tuks are generally the way to go. I don’t believe that tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka have meters, so be prepared to haggle HARD before you set off on your journey, not when you arrive.
Compared to its nearby neighbors, India and Nepal, Sri Lanka will definitely hit your travel budget a bit harder. Although the country is very affordable compared to most of the world and still what we would consider very affordable, you may find that certain things are not quite as cheap as you expected. In particular, lodging and attractions can eat up your budget if you are not cautious—it is possible to find affordable lodging (and we made a concerted effort to do just that), but compared to food and transport, the prices may seem slightly inflated at times (in this sense, the country is a bit like the Philippines). Not all attractions will break the bank, but if you plan to take in a wildlife safari, or visit any of the “Cultural Triangle” attractions, know that those don’t come cheap, with each one ranging from $25-$45US per person!
The local currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee (not the same as the Indian or Nepali rupee!), which is denoted as LKR; generally speaking, this is the only currency you will use in the country and all prices should be quoted in LKR. For the most part, we had no problems withdrawing money from ATMs, though in one small town on the east coast, we were not able to access our funds from one of the banks in town so had to run across the street and use the ATM at another of the banks. This was one of the few times on our travels where this happened, so it is worth always carrying a little buffer with you in case you should find yourself somewhere where your card does not work. This is especially important since Sri Lanka is very much a cash country—I don’t think we used our credit card once!
Connectivity & Communication
Given its location (in the middle of the Indian Ocean!) we didn’t anticipate internet and connectivity to be all that great in Sri Lanka. However, while the internet generally wasn’t blazing fast and coverage could be spotty, on the whole, we found it pretty easy (and affordable) to remain connected in Sri Lanka. Most hotels offered free WiFi, even in remote towns that few tourists seem to visit, and on the off-chance they didn’t, we had no issues supplementing with a 3G plan we picked up at the airport.
We picked up a Dialog Sim Card for 1800LKR (~$13US), which gave us a bunch of minutes and texts (which we barely used) as well as 5GB of data, good for 30 days. We were able to tether the 3G to our laptops when we weren’t able to access WiFi, and found that coverage was quite robust everywhere we traveled. It is possible that cheaper packages might be available at stores rather than the airport kiosk, but we appreciated the convenience that was provided and the fact that the person we spoke to was knowledgeable and able to set everything up for us, so didn’t mind potentially paying a little bit extra.
Sri Lanka By the Numbers
Total Number of Days Spent in Sri Lanka: 24
Places Visited: Negombo, Ambalangoda, Galle, Mirissa, Matara, Tangalle, Tissa, Ella, Arugam Bay, Kalkudah, Kandy
Total Number of Cities Visited: 11
Average Daily Cost, per person: $28.99 USD
Projected Daily Budget, per person: We didn’t have a budget pre-determined for Sri Lanka as we didn’t originally plan on visiting. However, if we went with our overall trip budget of $50/person then we were $22 (per person!) under budget!
Cost of flight from Bangkok, Thailand to Colombo: $140.01 USD per person ($280.02 US total)
Cost of 30-day visa: $30US per person, applied for in advance online.
Other Notable Expenses: None.
Total Sri Lanka costs per person: $865.88US
A Note On Daily Costs: In our daily costs, we have separated out the cost of our flight into the country. We did this because we believe that including the price of getting into or out of a country results in a figure that does not accurately reflect our actual day-to-day costs. Moreover, not everyone will choose to enter the country in the same way or from the same departure point as we did, so we include the price we paid separately for your edification. We believe our Lodging, Food, Transportation, Attractions, and Miscellaneous Shopping costs are reasonable estimates that may be informative for other like-minded travelers; however, we believe the cost of our transportation into any country is best considered a separate lump sum expenditure, and we will continue to treat it as such.
(Also, the Miscellaneous Shopping category is one that many travelers fail to include, which we believe is shortsighted and misleading. Although it is true that on an extended trip you are unlikely to spend money on extravagant souvenirs, other unexpected but necessary expenses will crop up such as replacing toiletries and other daily necessities, or purchasing gear and helpful items that you may have forgotten or find you require. Although these costs are rarely extreme, (though they sometimes are!) it would be an oversight not to include them in your long-term travel budget. At some point on the road you will find yourself buying shampoo and deodorant… we hope!)
Accommodation: Before arriving in Sri Lanka, a quick perusal of our Lonely Planet guidebook and chatting with some other travelers about lodging in the country had us nervous. By all accounts, it was apparently impossible to find anywhere acceptable to sleep for less than $15US/person per night.
Happily, we found this to be far from true once we were actually in the country. Sri Lanka is relatively untouched when it comes to tourism and there is no obvious backpacker culture here for the most part (a few towns here and there certainly ooze a laid-back, hippie vibe and cater to surfers, which is almost the same thing, right?), and apart from Colombo and Galle, you’re not really going to see hostels with dorm rooms on offer. While it is absolutely possible to splash out on luxury accommodation, for those of us who are budget-conscious, there are still plenty of guesthouses and homestays to help keep costs down.
The most money we ever spent on lodging during our time in Sri Lanka was $11.50US per person per night, but truthfully, we were just as happy with the places where we paid $5US. Most places we stayed had hot water and generally offered WiFi, too. Because most lodging has a restaurant on the premises, it’s not uncommon to find places willing to bundle in free breakfast as well. We only stayed in one place with air conditioning, because generally you will pay more for that; given that we visited approaching the hot season, it is do-able to survive with just a fan.
For more information on the specific places we stayed during our time in Sri Lanka, check out our Lodgings page.
Food: I’m pretty sure that during our 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, we were never once hungry. In fact, I think we may have actually gained a few pounds because not only was the local food delicious, it was also cheap and portions were generous.
Once again we had read that it could be difficult to find restaurants since, apparently, most Sri Lankans eat at home. However, every place we visited always had a few places that served food, and we never had to look very hard to at least find places that served the ubiquitous “eat and run” food, short eats. These are, without a doubt, your cheapest option, as a potato or egg roti (essentially a samosa) is incredibly filling (two can easily make a meal) and, even with tourist inflation, never cost more than 25¢. We had more than a few lunches where the two of us ate for less than $2US.
Still, if you’re willing to stretch your budget a little more and aren’t fixated on simply consuming the cheapest food possible, you won’t be sorry. We often ate for about $3US per person at our guesthouses and other restaurants, and would get a mountain of rice, crispy parathas, sambal, fruit and about three curries for that price. Additionally, although seafood will generally be the most expensive thing on a menu, compared to the rest of the world, it’s still remarkably affordable: check out our Arugam Bay post for details on the best seafood platter we have EVER had that only set us back $6US per person. Well worth the splurge each and every time!
Transportation: For most travelers to Sri Lanka, Transportation will be one of the lowest costs. The country is known for having a reliable and extremely affordable train network, and the buses are also supposed to be dirt cheap too.
I can’t verify any of that, however, because we rented our own tuk-tuk and drove ourselves around the country. At $11US per person per day (because, you gotta put fuel in those things on top of the daily rental fee!), this was our major splurge while in the country… which, when you think about it, really isn’t so bad. We probably could have cut each person’s daily average down by about $9US if we had stuck to public transport, but having our own tuk-tuk definitely ranks up there with our “pricey but priceless” experiences.
Attractions: Sri Lanka is filled with incredible attractions, from historic temples, to verdant tea plantations, to some of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to tourist pricing; rest assured that if a place has an admission fee, you will pay more than locals in Sri Lanka. Sometimes the price increase means you’ll pay $2 or $3 to visit a temple, but in the case of the country’s big ticket items (like Sigiriya), you will have to fork over anywhere from $25-$30. These are extreme examples and there are plenty of attractions around the country that won’t destroy your budget, but I won’t lie and say that the price of attractions in Sri Lanka wasn’t, at times, a deterrent. Everyone will have to make their own choice, but we decided in the end that we couldn’t stomach the exorbitant tourist prices that the “cultural triangle” attractions would nail us with.
Instead, we stuck to visiting some of the smaller temples and also enjoying the country’s natural beauty, the latter of which was entirely free. Seriously you guys, the beaches in Sri Lanka are so beautiful, they could probably get away charging admission for them… but thankfully they don’t! For us, our big attraction splurge was our leopard safari at Yala national park; coming in at $46US per person (including tip), it wasn’t exactly cheap for Sri Lanka, but compared to wildlife safaris elsewhere in the world, we suspect it was a steal.
Highs & Lows
Best splurge: Without a doubt, renting our own set of (three) wheels and driving ourselves around the country in a tuk-tuk! King Tuk, there was no finer mechanical steed than you! (Steph & Tony); Runner-Up: Our three days of amazing food, premium bath products, and utter decadence at Villa Templeberg in Galle.
Worst splurge: We splurged on various things here and there during our time in Sri Lanka, but none of it seemed to be a bad investment. If forced, maybe we’d say the food in Negombo, which generally caters to westerners and is therefore overpriced and generally not that great. Couldn’t do much about it, but we’d certainly consider the money we spent on food there the poorest value for money.
Best surprise: How clean the country was, especially the beaches! It may not be sparkling like Japan or Singapore, but on the whole, we would say Sri Lanka was cleaner than, say, Paris or Lisbon. Also, we still can’t get over how incredible the food was. We really were expecting it to be just like Indian food, but it was really quite different but no less delicious. (Steph & Tony)
Worst surprise: Tourist pricing. I guess this wasn’t really a surprise because we were prepared for it, but it was still really annoying when we would visit places where we were charged an admission fee, only to then be asked to make additional donations to the complex AND to unasked-for guides. (Steph); How diligent the police were about traffic laws, speeding, and international drivers licenses. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in principle, but compared to the rest of Asia, it certainly felt like they considered us targets of opportunity for easy bribe money. Thank goodness we had all of our papers in order! (Tony)
Favorite meal: This is so impossible to choose. The incredible masala-spiced seafood platter from Why Not in Arugam Bay? The amazing crab curry our homestay hosts in Ambalangoda cooked us? The incredible vegetarian feast we cooked with Trixie at Villa Templeberg? Everything the owners of our guesthouse in Mirissa cooked for us? It was ALL SO GOOD. (Steph & Tony)
Least favorite meal: The squid platter I ordered in Negombo was pretty pathetic and very much felt like everything on the plate had come out of a bag. Compared to the other incredible seafood we enjoyed in Sri Lanka, it was such a let down. (Steph); I really enjoyed our stay at Little Cottage in Ella, and Mummy generally was a very good cook… but the very first dinner which was essentially just a big bowl of macaroni with onion was not the best. (Tony)
Best memories: Have we mentioned that we drove a tuk-tuk around the country? Because that’s pretty hard to top! But apart from that: all the amazing feasts we had, our wonderful homestay in Ambalangoda; the many friendly locals who waved and cheered us on when they saw us puttering down the road in King Tuk; getting a hands-on cooking lesson from Trixie, the Villa Templeberg head cook; lazing around on Mirissa’s beautiful beaches; exploring the ornate temples around the southern coast; the seafood platter at Why Not in Arugam Bay; wandering through the tea plantations in the magical hill country of Ella; frolicking in the waves on the beautiful beaches of Kalkudah along with some local police officers; visiting Kandy during the Vesak Day festivities.
Hidden gem: Sri Lanka gets so few tourists that most of the country feels like it s a hidden gem. However, if we had to pick one location that many people either overlook or don’t give its due, then that would have to be Tissa. It’s a popular staging ground for leopard safaris in the nearby Yala National Park, however most people dismiss the city itself as being nothing more than that. Nothing could be further from the truth as Tissa is lush and green, and has some of the most beautiful country side—from lakes to rice paddies—to delight and calm you. Definitely head this way for a safari, but book an extra few days to just relax in Tissa.
Best Lessons Learned: We already knew this, but our tuk-tuk adventure in Sri Lanka was a great reminder that although it’s nice to keep an eye on our budget, rarely does traveling as cheaply as possible lead to the best memories and experiences. If there’s something we really want to do, it’s probably worth splurging, especially if it’s in the name of adventure. Renting King Tuk certainly bumped our budget up a bit, but the memories we have as a result are truly priceless. I know we connected to and uncovered a side of Sri Lanka that we would not have if we had been taking buses and trains; we just really love the freedom that comes from having our own set of wheels, and we also really do enjoy making it off the tourist trail—it doesn’t generally have the same level of amenities and getting there can be a hassle, but generally the people we meet along the way make the journey well worth the effort.
If we could do it all over again?
If we had any regrets about our time in Sri Lanka, it is only that we didn’t have enough time to see more of the country: three weeks really just wasn’t enough for such a beautiful place!
That said, we did our best to cram in as many spots as we could and wound up like every place we visited for one reason or another. We loved the freedom afforded to us by the tuk-tuk, although this also meant we did feel pressure to keep moving and exploring even if we might have otherwise stayed put in one place for a little bit longer. We also didn’t get the chance to take a train ride, which we will certainly have to make a priority on our next visit. Because we will absolutely be back again some day! We would happily revisit every place we stopped in on this trip, but on our next visit, we would definitely like to explore the north, perhaps even making it to Jaffna. We would still like to visit World’s End, maybe take in some of the cultural triangle (inflated admission prices and all), and perhaps even tackle Adam’s Peak.
Next time we visit, we’d like to try to connect with more people through CouchSurfing and would love to do even more homestays. We loved all of the moments when we got to bob along to the rhythm of Sri Lankan life and caught a glimpse of the island’s family and home life too. Sri Lankan hosts are so warm and welcoming, getting to feel like we were part of the family just added another incredible layer to our experiences.