Ella, Sri Lanka

10 Tips for Travelling Sri Lanka…

Travelled in: August 2016

After 2 weeks in Japan over the Summer I knew I would be craving the beach, so we planned to fly from Osaka to Kuala Lumpur for a quick 2 day stop over then from there on to Colombo – Sri Lankas capital city.

I had been told Sri Lanka would be like a little India, but having not yet been to India I don’t know if that is true, however I was really surprised by Sri Lanka and how much this island has to offer. It is the perfect destination to travel if you want a beach and cultural holiday. Colombo the capital offers the hustle and bustle I imagine an Indian city would, there’s a lot going on and it’s an interesting city to experience, but not a whole lot of tourist attractions to check out…

Over on the east coast this area has only been opened up to tourists in recent years due to the civil war which ended in 2009, so this side of the country is still fairly under developed and a great beach destination, if you go south east you can even find some surf in Arugam Bay…

Central Sri Lanka is where you will find all of your cultural activities, safaris and rolling green hills packed with tea plantations, definitely a must visit if you are coming all the way to Sri Lanka…

Southern Sri Lanka is where to go for your touristy beach destinations, turtles and some historical sites…

Unfortunately I didn’t get time to go up to the North of Sri Lanka, so this means I’m going to have to go back at some point to venture up there…

I found researching Sri Lanka quite difficult as there wasn’t a whole lot of information or blogs to read about travelling there… I’m sure this will change soon as it is becoming a very popular travelers destination, so now is the perfect time to go before it gets too over saturated with tourists and over developed.

My Itinerary…

Colombo = 1 night
Uppuveli = 2 nights
Pasikudah = 2 nights
Habarana (with trips to the Culture Triangle & Minneriya national park) = 2 nights
Kandy = 2 nights
Ella = 2 nights
Mirissa = 2 nights
Hikkaduwa (with a day trip to Galle) = 1 night
Negombo = 2 nights

These are my top tips for travelling Sri Lanka…

1. Don’t stay in one place…

Sri Lanka as a country has so much to offer to tourists… if your making the effort to travel all the way there you should definitely make sure you attempt to see more than just one place on this island. In 16 days I managed to visit all of the above destinations and had a unique experience in each place, obviously my time in each town though was fairly limited, but I was so eager to see everything and I’m glad I managed to squeeze so much in and not feel too rushed, but if I were to do it again I would do some things differently, I would…

  • Spend some more time on the east coast and go down to Arugam Bay as I heard this was a great place to chill, surf and the best place on the island for nightlife.
  • Visit Nuwara Eliya, in between Kandy & Ella to go and see some of the best tea plantations in the country.
  • Skip Negombo all together, there’s nothing to do there and the beaches are not very nice… only go here if you are staying in a luxury resort such as Jetwing on the lagoon.
  • Check out Unawatuna instead of Hikkaduwa. I didn’t love Hikkaduwa or rate the beach very highly, it didn’t help that when we were there it was a ghost town as it was out of season.
  • Spend a few days checking out the north of the island.

2. Take public transport…

A lot of tourists in Sri Lanka assume the public transport would not be good enough to travel around the country on and generally hire a driver for the duration of their trip, who will act as a guide and drive them around from A to B. As Sri Lanka is fairly small it is easy to cover a lot of ground in a short time and the drivers can take you everywhere… Originally this was also my plan to get a driver and in a couple of instances on my trip I had to as the bus route was a bit too long winded for example between Uppuveli & Pasikudah and between Habarana and Kandy, however on shorter routes and even for getting around the famous cultural triangle I decided to use the public buses.

The public buses ended up being one of the highlights of my trip, which sounds a bit ridiculous, but they really are a lot of fun! Contrary to popular belief there was no livestock on the buses (that I experienced) so this isn’t something to be concerned about! The buses do get very busy, but this gives you a good opportunity to get up close and personal and make friends with the locals. They aren’t always air conditioned, but with the windows wide open and the driver speeding along at about 100mph you always get a bit of a breeze to keep you cool. Bhangra music will probably also be blaring so it almost feels like a bit of a party bus.

The price comparison between driver or public transport also means you save yourself a lot of money… For example we had a couple of quotes and for one day around the cultural triangle we got quoted about £50 for 2 people, doesn’t sound a huge amount, but if you compare to the 45p we spent travelling on the bus for the whole day that’s a cost saving of £35.55, which you then have to spend elsewhere on your trip. We found the buses really easy as you can just flag them down on the side of the road and they stop at all of the main tourist attractions and take the same time as a driver would as the bus drivers all seem to think they are on a race track…

Another alternative for cross country journeys is the “luxury bus service” Superline. We used this bus service on a couple of journeys when we traveled from Colombo to Trinco and also from Passikudah to the Cultural Triangle… each journey cost us £11 each, the buses are like coaches and have air-con and reclining seats. It was quite a good service, the only issue we had was that if you didn’t get on the bus at the start of its journey the drivers would sometimes forget to pick you up… we turned up at the bus stop on one of our trips and the bus was luckily stopping at a local cafe for an evening meal, when we said we were joining the bus the conductor was very confused… if they hadn’t of stopped for dinner we probably would still be waiting at that bus stop now…

3. Experience the worlds most scenic train ride between Kandy and Ella…

It’s written in all the blogs and travel guides that riding the Sri Lankan railway between Kandy and Ella is a must do… The journey has been rated as one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world and it really did not disappoint. We boarded the train at Kandy – check out the timetable here. As far as I am aware unless you are travelling first class you can only buy the tickets on day of travel from the train station, so make sure you get up early to get them if you need to travel on a specific day as they do sell out!

The journey to Ella takes roughly 7hrs, the trains do get quite busy, but we managed to get a seat about 2hrs in. Unfortunately on the day we did the trip for the first 3 hours of the journey the weather was torrential rail which impaired our views of the beautiful scenery, but luckily the further inland we got it started to clear up and the rolling green hills surrounded by tea plantations were revealed. We sat and hung our feet out of the trains door way, as the locals do, to capture the countryside beauty in all its glory! 7hrs is a long time to be on a train, but we got chatting to the people around us and it felt like we were there in no time… I would highly recommend this journey as a must do in Sri Lanka.

4. Go on safari…

There are 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, full of exotic wildlife and animals to go and see in their natural habitat. The most popular park is said to be Yala which is on the south east of the island, however we didn’t have time to fit a visit in here on our trip as unless you have a driver it was a bit of a pain to get to.

Instead we opted for Minneriya national park which is right next to the culture triangle. We went on a morning safari organised for us by our hotels manager… Our guide picked us up in his jeep at 6am and off we drove to Minneriya national park about 15 minutes from where we were staying. I think the whole trip cost around £40, there is a small fee for the ticket to enter the national park, plus the guides fees.

We were there in August which is the best time for a visit to Minneriya as it is the month of the elephant gathering so you are almost 100% guaranteed to see Elephants. August is mating season for the elephants and they can get quite protective over their babies… we had quite a scary/adrenaline rush experience where a male elephant charged at our jeep from out of the bushes, our guide managed to speed off and make a lot of noise to scare the elephant off which was incredibly lucky as elephants can run twice as fast as cars and have been known to do a lot of damage to the jeeps, and could have possibly done more damage to us… Other animals you can expect to see are Water Buffalo, numerous species of birds and possibly a Leopard or a Cheater.

5. Stick to Sri Lankan food…

Before I visited Sri Lanka I never classed curry as one of my favourite foods (with the exception of a thai green). I was quite worried about how I was going to eat curry every single day on my Sri Lankan trip, but I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the food. Sri Lankan curry’s are delicious, they are creamier than a Thai and less buttery than an Indian! They come with numerous side places of dhal and fresh salad, and the chef will always cook to the spice level you ask for.

Other foods I really enjoyed trying were:

Roti – Similar to a wrap, some come filled, some come plain to have with curry.

Kottu Rotti – A chopped up Roti served with veg, egg and meat.

Hoppers – These come in 2 forms. One is batter based similar to a pancake. The second is a String Hopper, which I wasn’t  a huge fan of, but these are made from steamed rice. Hoppers are typically eaten for breakfast.

I did order a couple of western style foods on the odd occasion and was in all honesty it was not great. Most of the western food I ordered was pretty poor and incredibly over priced, so it’s probably best to stick to the local cuisine for an incredibly tasty and a cheap meal. Try and stick to the restaurants where the locals are to avoid getting ripped off.

6. Buy your souvenirs from the local shops…

As with any tourist hot spot there are a million and one gift shops selling every souvenir you can think of from elephant key rings, beach view fridge magnets and more tea than you can drink in a lifetime! All of the shop owners telling you they are giving you a good price…

Make sure you shop around or haggle when doing your souvenir shopping as on more than one occasion we genuinely thought we were getting a good deal, but then went in to a local shop down the road and found exactly the same item for a quarter of the price we paid. Sri Lanka is a fairly poor country so of course the sellers want to get the highest price for their products, especially from tourists who have a higher budget. In most cases if the price is fair I don’t mind paying the increased tourist price, but I don’t like being ripped off and there are a lot of con-men purely trying to get your money. So the best thing to do is either haggle or shop around as you will probably find the same thing cheaper elsewhere.

7. Go to a tea plantation, but don’t buy their tea…

Being the worlds 4th largest producer of tea, for all tea lovers it will be in your interest to visit one of Sri Lankas many tea factories. Try to go to a working factory to get the best experience, but there are also a couple of cool ones that are not working such as the Kandy Ceylon Tea Museum… this is a great place to start and learn about where tea came from, how it is produced, the health benefits and you even get a free cuppa at the end of your visit. For tea plantation visits I have been told the best area is Nuwara Eliya, which I didn’t get time to stop at. Obviously all of these places will try and sell you their own produce, I would avoid buying directly from the source as you will pay 10x the price you can pay on the local market.

8. Dress appropriately…

The Sri Lankan population is made up of multiple religions, primarily Buddist and Hindu, however there are some Muslim and Christian regions. In towns and cities it is advised you cover your shoulders and knees. In Colombo I wore some long trousers with a vest and I did tend to attract a lot of attention especially from younger men, probably even more so due to being blonde.

When visiting the temples you will get turned away if you are not dressed appropriately – the best thing to do if you are wearing shorts or have your shoulders out is to take a sarong so you are able to cover up last minute. My boyfriend tried to get in to the temple of the tooth in Kandy with shorts and a T-shirt on and he was turned away so we had to go and buy him a traditional Sri Lankan skirt…

On the beaches and in the beach resorts it was acceptable to wear swimwear and skimpier clothing.

Generally for just walking around I found wearing shorts with a t-shirt that covered my shoulders was acceptable, but to be on the safe side always take something to cover up with if need be.

9. Make friends with the locals…

Being from the western world you will find that a lot of the local  Sri Lankan people are interested in speaking to you, finding out about your way of life, adding you on social media and even taking photos with you. Having once been a British colony almost everyone speaks English, even the older generations.

Up on Trinco/Uppuveli beach if you are there around 6pm you will see the local fisherman pulling in the days catch – they will almost always ask you to help them pulling it in if you walking by which is a great experience if you get the opportunity.

On the public bus’s the locals will definitely make conversation with you which is a great way to interact with the locals… there was one incident where I was travelling on the bus and a young couple with a baby decided to pass me the baby so they could take pictures of her and a British girl which was quite hilarious, but not the easiest thing holding a wriggling baby on a packed bus that is being driven by a crazy Sri Lankan driver.

We ended up making some great friends and contacts in Sri Lanka that we have on social media – you never know when you might need a friend in that part of the world again so embrace the locals as much as you can!

10. Watch out for the crows…

Everywhere you go in Sri Lanka you will notice there is a recurring theme between each town – the crows! They are everywhere and they are menacing… Watch out for your food if you are eating around them and be careful if you are walking underneath them as they wont hesitate to poo on you.


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