13 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Sri Lanka

Buddha statues

Sri Lanka is a beautiful, exotic destination full of culture, nature, wildlife, and smiling faces. For a country with such a violent (and recently so, at that) history, the island is actually home to some of the friendliest people out there. Located between India and southeast Asia, Sri Lanka is neither quite like India nor Asia, leaving it in somewhat of a curious middle ground as far as geography, features, culture, landscape, and customs. You might already assume that some places here don’t serve beef (12 percent of the island’s population is Hindu), but in our list of 13 things you should know before travel to Sri Lanka, we’ve included 12 other facts about the destination that you probably don’t know. Read on so you do.

 1. It’s safe to travel here.

There’s a big misconception about how safe (or unsafe) Sri Lanka is for travelers. Fair enough; between 1983 and 2009, Sri Lanka was riddled with a brutal civil war, causing most tourists to stay away. However, since the war’s end, Sri Lanka has been steadily rebuilding its tourism, and more and more visitors enter this gorgeous country each year — and leave absolutely loving it! But, as with any destination, take the necessary measures to ensure safety. Exercise the same amount of caution you would when traveling in any unfamiliar area — and definitely look both ways when you cross the busy roads.

2. Be respectful of the political past.

The war may be over, but it only ended a few years ago. While things are safe, you should definitely be aware of the past and thus respectful of the situation. While it’s totally cool to ask locals generic questions about their lives, families, et cetera, we’d advise against bringing up or getting involved in any type of political conversation. It’s still a delicate subject and, unless you’re a scholar on Sri Lankan politics and policy, it’s best to stick to the simple stuff.

3. Tourism is still developing.

Sri Lanka’s biggest tourist boom is happening right now,which means that outside of the bustling capital city of Colombo, some areas may not seem exactly tourist-ready. The roads are narrow and often unpaved save the main road in town, there’s not much English spoken outside of the tourism realm (e.g., it may be difficult to communicate with back street vendors or even some tuk tuk drivers), there’s not too much to do outside of the hotels in these areas, and it’s not as convenient to just pick up something if you’ve forgotten it — like water, shampoo, or a quick snack. However, for some true explorers and adventurers, this is part of the draw — there’s always something rewarding about experiencing a place before it blows up and globalizes.

4. It can be expensive.

Unlike other well-connected places in southern Asia like Vietnam or Thailand that actually are cheap (like backpacker cheap), Sri Lanka can make for an expensive visit depending on what you do. A lot of goods on the island are imported, which particularly hikes up the price of imported liquors and certain foods. However, the more expensive restaurants tend to be at high-end resorts, so stick to delectable curries and local Lion lager for a very budget-friendly meal. Similarly, skip staying at some of the upscale hotels that charge upwards of $300/night for a more quaint property (we love the Kandy Samadhi Centre Hotel). Also, you’re going to need cash to pay for most things, so be sure to have plenty on hand.

(Remember from our 20 Most Important Travel Tips, always use the ATM machine — not currency exchanges — to grab your local currency.)

5. You might need a special driver’s license to rent a car.

Another hurdle of traveling to Sri Lanka (that’s actually kind of a life-saver) is that some foreign drivers need a special license to rent a car here. Unlike almost everywhere else in the world, you can’t just hop into a car for a self-guided holiday. You’ll need a valid license from your home country in addition to a valid International Driving Permit. Make sure the IDP has Sri Lanka listed as one of the valid countries. Just a note: This isn’t Anytown, USA; the rules of the road in Sri Lanka are strict and the traffic can be hectic, so even if you have an IDP, you may want to think twice about getting behind the wheel.

6. Most tours are done with a private driver.

Because of the stressful driving conditions and need for an IDP, most tourists find it easiest to hire a driver while they are in Sri Lanka. It’s not as white glove as it sounds, though. Hired drivers are part of tour agencies and function as your personal tour guides, too. Taking one of these tours is a fantastic way to see the country; reputable companies will tailor-make your trip, offer alternatives to well-trodden itineraries, and give you the lowdown (in good English) about where you are at any given time. It’s not uncommon for the drivers and guests to become great friends during the tours. The only downside is that most of them are booked for private groups so if you are trying to socialize, you may be out of luck.

7. Sri Lankan tour guides love to practice their English with tourists.

Don’t be alarmed if your tour guide is quite chatty. Most likely he or she is excited for a chance to practice English with a native speaker. This is especially true for tour guide newbies who rattle off standardized ESL questions about your name, where you are from, your family, and what type of schooling you have under your belt. Don’t be offended as these are common questions for Sri Lankans and not meant to make anyone uncomfortable. If you’ve got a guide that speaks English well, don’t be afraid to make (appropriate) jokes; Sri Lankans love to laugh!

8. The locals are some of the friendliest people in the world.

Loving to laugh definitely fits this bunch as they are also often seen smiling. We’ve found that the locals here are some of the friendliest people on the planet, always willing to go an extra mile to help out. Most Sri Lankans genuinely want you to have a great time, if for nothing else than the hopes you will bring more tourism to their country by word of mouth. If you find that someone goes out of his or her way for you, make sure you say thank you — and a cash tip never hurts either. They locals are very appreciative.

9. The quality of the food varies drastically, but local specialties can be delicious.

Man, do we love us some Sri Lankan specialities; egg hoppers, fresh crab curry, and coconut sambal — don’t even get us started. There is no shortage of Sri Lankan food in Sri Lanka (although quality varies drastically), but if you are on the prowl for more “exotic” dishes here (i.e. your American staples like burgers and pasta), you may have trouble finding a plate that lives up to your western standards. Again, ingredients for many of these dishes are expensive, hard to come by, and — because of the far lengths they must travel to reach the island — usually highly processed versions of what we find at home.

10. Hygiene and cleanliness is not eve close to Western standards.

One thing to consider, especially for those who (like us) are bold eaters when abroad, is the health standards of Sri Lanka. Given that Sri Lanka is still adjusting to its higher influx of tourists, it’s unsurprising that many of the country’s kitchens are lax on sanitary practices, particularly when compared to western standards. No wonder the CDC recommends getting the Hepatitis A vaccination before you go.

During our visit, we even had an owner of a hotel tell us horror stories from his own kitchen. It’s just habit; it’s just how it is there. You’ll see that many tourist-aimed restaurants have signs boasting that their kitchens are up to European standards, so if you’re squeamish about where your food is being prepared, it’s probably better to skip the stalls and grab a bite in a bonafide, sit-down restaurant.

11. Drinking and driving is not as strictly regulated.

So, in the same vein of different standards, and hitting back on the clogged and crazy streets of Sri Lanka, keep your eyes peeled because your tuk tuk driver might definitely be tuk tuk-ing under the influence. We can’t tell you the number of times we hailed a tuk tuk from the side of the road only to have them pull up with glassy, bloodshot eyes, and a bottle of liquor or wine riding shotgun. We would politely decline service and keep waving them down until we found one that at least looked sober. There’s also a popular combination of plants that some locals chew that can result in a high. This being said, not every driver is riding high, but choose carefully and don’t be afraid to turn down a ride if you feel unsure about the driver’s sobriety.

12. Don’t drink the tap water.

Anyone who has done some research should already know that you can’t drink the tap water in Sri Lanka — though ice from hotels and tourist bars is usually fine. Instead, grab bottle after bottle of the country’s reverse osmosis water, but make sure to check the expiration date before you pop the cap. Also note that, depending on how sensitive your tummy is, you may or may not want to settle for a salad since the greens could have been rinsed in tap water.

13. You have great chances of seeing wildlife.

When you think of Sri Lanka, your mind may not immediately go to wildlife — but it should. Sri Lanka’s varied landscapes make it a perfect spot to spot some of the world’s biggest and most fascinating animals we usually only connect to Africa. In fact, Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park in the south has the highest concentration of leopards in Asia, while Minneriya National Park, located near Dambulla, is where a yearly gathering of elephants, aptly known as “The Gathering”, takes place. During this, you can peep hundreds of elephants — including adorable babies and Tuskers — hanging out by the park’s main lake. Tourists flock to the southern tip of Mirissa seasonally as well, hoping to spot dolphins and whales. You’ll also find different species of monkeys and colorful birds hanging around in the towns.