I have wanted to travel to Sri Lanka ever since I was doing my MBA. Probably because that was the only exotic place my budget would allow. 3 years later we finally made an impromptu plan to visit the country for new year’s last year (2017). Booked our tickets a month before the trip and left it to fate for everything else J
Let me begin by saying, if you thought the country is only about tea plantations and gorgeous beaches, you were wrong. It is about so much more than that – the tropical fruits, the temples, the people, the train journeys! No wonder it has become one of the top places to celebrate New year’s in! However, there are a few things we need to keep in mind to make full use of our time in the Sri Lanka and leave all worries behind. This article is going to be exactly about those tips and tricks!
Tip #1 – Carry Cash!
Bigger restaurants and hotels will accept cards here, but it is still a very cash dependent country. Many local shops selling local snacks and water bottles would accept only cash. It might also be cheaper for you to withdraw cash from an ATM and not swipe your card everywhere, because there is usually a fixed fee on every transaction. I found it cheapest to withdraw the maximum cash that an ATM would allow using my US Debit card (you can use an Indian card too) and then pay cash everywhere. Each transaction would charge a fee of 300 – 500 LKR. Money exchange counters are readily available in all banks in all the cities, so you could also get your dollar or pound bills converted easily and at a very competitive rate. Or you could do so at the Colombo airport when you land, for more convenience. The rate would be 3-4% higher, but hey! Better than roaming around the city trying to find a money exchange, right?
Tip #2 – Master the Sign Language!
Language is a bit of a barrier in the country. Only a select few know English well enough to be able to understand you well enough to give you the right road directions. Well, the sooner you master your sign language, the better off you will be here! If you are lucky, you will find an English speaking Chauffeur. But even then, be prepared to talk slowly and increase your patience level. Because they will act like they have understood what you had to say, and then end up taking you to the wrong place! It can get frustrating at times, but these are the little somethings which make a vacation memorable, right?
Tip #3 – Buy a sim at airport
Let’s be real. Most of us are updating their Snapchats and Instagram stories real time when traveling. And we have all gotten used to Whatsapp calling back home so much that life seems incomplete without that app on our smartphones. So stay connected and get yourself a SIM card right at the Colombo airport when you land. They are not at all expensive. Both Mobitel and Dialog are good ones. I paid 1,300 LKR for 200 minutes of India calling and 8 GB of data (only 4 GB during the day time and 4 GB after 12 AM). Totally helped me stay connected on my Instagram and gain 200 followers over the 9 day trip! :D Did you even visit the place if you did not post a good picture from there?
Tip #4 – Carry Toilet Paper and Use Bottled Water
Most public toilets (even the one at Colombo Airport!) are not super well maintained, and there is a good chance that they are out of toilet paper. Well hygiene comes first, so feel free to carry your own Toilet seat sanitizer, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, anything that you deem necessary for your personal hygiene.
Bottled water is cheap and easily available as well. No reason not to buy them! Sri Lanka is also and humid country. I went in December end, and even then found myself sweating in most places during the day time. So can I also take this opportunity to request everyone to carry water stay well hydrated please? Well, if you think a bottle would weigh you down, the good news is, King Coconut is available everywhere! Have one every time you are thirsty. It is healthy and oh so refreshing!
Tip #5 – Eat like the Locals!
Visiting the country from India, I imagined that the food here would be nothing unique. I was pleasantly surprised to realize otherwise. Yes they use spices, just like we Indians, but yet each of their dishes had so much more to offer than just that. I would say it has a very distinct Malay influence in majority of their dishes. One fascinating thing, they can make any sort of dish with coconuts! Coconut sambal, a spicy grated coconut dish, to coconut roti, which is a typical Sri Lankan coconut bread, there is not one dish I did not enjoy! Some must tries – coconut roti, prawn curry and rice, Kothu (chopped roti with vegetables and meat), Sri Lankan rolls, and Kabul roti.
Tip #6 – Take the Train!
Sri Lanka has a very good and really cheap train service. Just to give you an example, our train journey from Kandy to Ella (7 hours) cost us just LKR 210, which is less than $2! First class tickets are slightly more expensive, but still relatively very cheap! Be prepared however, to fight for a seat in 2nd class, especially in the super popular routes like trains to Ella, Nuwara Eliya and between Kandy and Colombo.
Well, they have buses in many routes too. I did not take the bus when there, but did not look like they have luggage space in buses. They are super cheap as well, but if traveling with a lot of luggage, I would recommend to avoid. Instead, go for the cabs and cars which are usually chauffeur driven! It is one luxury you should allow yourself, especially if you are from the West, because we all know how expensive it can get to hire a chauffeur there! Approximate cost would be around $50 per day with a daily cap at 150km. For each extra kilometer, you might have to pay a little extra. I paid 0.3 USD per Kilometer. If you pre-book through travel agents, you might get a slightly higher rate, but you should never argue for anything above $65 a day. However, it is easy to hire a taxi/cab once you land from one of the city travel agents to save a few bucks!
Train Crossing the Nine Arches Bridge at Demodara, Ella, Sri Lanka - What a grand sight!
Tip #7 – Focus on Tropical Fruits!
Well, if you are one of those fussy healthy eaters whose major regret when traveling is all the junk food that comes with it, guess what, you are in luck in Sri Lanka. The country knows its fruits well, and don’t miss a chance to flaunt it. Be it for breakfast, or with coconut roti, or as dessert after the main meals. You will find some nice, sweet and juicy fruits around you always. If not on your plate, then on the displays in the local shops! Oh and their bananas, not sure what is unique about them, but they are the small ones and taste so different and so much more flavorful compared to the big ones we usually get in India! I literally wanted to get a couple dozens back home. Too bad they are perishable L
Tip #8 – Always Bargain with the Tuktuks!
Well, there is no Uber in Sri Lanka outside Colombo, as of the time I am penning this article down. So Tuktuks are your best friend if you want to travel short distances. Good news is they are very easily available. The bad news is, they might quote an unreasonable price from you in the beginning. I would say as a general rule, try to bring him down to LKR 200 for short distances like a 10 min and 3 Km ride, and LKR 500 to slightly longer distances like a 25 min and 7-8 Km ride. Even though this also might seem steep to a lot of us, I personally was not able to get a better deal than this. But hey, worth a shot if you are a better bargain-er than me! J
Tip #9 – Try local snacks
I don’t know about you, but for me, in addition to local food, scanning the super markets at any new place I visit has become a tradition, and a hobby. I feel like that is how you discover some new and exciting local snacks! And what are vacations if you don’t indulge yourself a bit?
One of the most interesting things I found in the Sri Lankan super markets is Ginger cookies. Fell in love with them so hard that I got home a few packets of them. They are sweet yet spicy. And while I have had ginger cookies in India, they were definitely not this yummy, or this cheap! Some other things to try are their savory snacks and namkeens, most of which are super spicy. They have a lot of jiggery based products too. Oh and don’t even think of buying the western snacks there, like Lays Chips, because they are super expensive in the country. Sri Lanka sure knows how to promote their local goods. I am not complaining J
For some reason, orange based snacks seemed to be all over the place in the country as well. From orange based chocolates to orange bits in their cookies. I love the citrus smell of oranges, so needless to say, I felt as if in paradise!
Tip #10 – Don’t pay extra for Online Visa
By now, you may have already figured that traveling to Sri Lanka needs an online Visa only. When I was trying to search for the website to apply for Visa, instead of the official website, this other travel website popped up first which was charging me an additional fee. I was a little taken aback, did my research and got to know it is a travel agent. They have probably marketed themselves well, and hence their site comes before the official website on Google. It cannot be taken down because it is not a fraudulent website. But they charge extra for making your Visa, which is not really needed. Because it is the same form you are filling up!
But now you know, so be a smart traveler like me, okay?
The official website you should be booking from - http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/
The travel website you should NOT be booking from - https://www.etavisa-srilanka.org/
Thank me later!