There is something totally alluring about the Asian continent that is attractive to travellers with a sense of adventure and curiosity. India’s reputation for occasionally being unsafe and over whelming, alongside Nepal’s reputation as being the place for extreme outdoor enthusiasts makes Sri Lanka the safe haven in between those contrasting countries.
The small island of Sri Lanka, located off the south coast of India is packed full of surprises and an excellent choice of travel destination. Here’s everything you need to know for your Sri Lanka travel experience.
5 Reasons Sri Lanka Should Be on Your Travel List
To kick off your complete Sri Lanka travel guide here is a wonderfully surprising list of what you will experience within one tiny Island.
The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation has superbly created two game parks .Udawalawe National park and Yala are both large expanses of land where safari animals live in their natural environment. At Udawalawe National Park you can spot elephants, leopard, water buffalo and alligators living together on an whopping 308 km stretch of land. Yala National Park covers 9778 km of land and has a reputation for being the place to see leopards more so than Udawalawe.
The parks have been carefully managed to ensure the best tourism and animal welfare combination has been applied, making for a world class wildlife experience.
There’s no shortage of lush green land in Sri Lanka and hiking or day walks are plentiful. Horton Plains National Park is located in the centre of the country and covers 31 km of land . The famous Adams Peak and World’s End hikes run through the park as accessible and enjoyable ways to take advantage of the spectacular countryside.
Ella is a small village nestled in the Sri Lanka hill district and features numerous day walks or visits to thriving tea plantations. What makes the natural world so delightful in Sri Lanka is that the lush environments have been lovingly nurtured while enabling accessibility for explorers.
Beach Life, Surf Life
White sandy beaches and warm oceans of turquoise blue are not necessarily unique, but in Sri Lanka you don’t have some of the seaside burdens commonly found in other destinations.
Restaurants and hostels line the sand in the evening creating atmosphere. There are plenty of surf schools offering affordable and professional lessons, and world class surf breaks for those more advanced riders.
You won’t find pesky hawkers trying to sell you nick-nacks or disturb your peace. The South Coast has plenty of beach towns and surf breaks to offer; the challenge will be deciding which ones to enjoy!
Kind Natured Sri Lankan Locals
Some countries instantly give you a vibe of dishonesty or ill intent, but in Sri Lanka you won’t get even a whiff of that. The locals are gentle, calm, smiling, happy people who enjoy casual conversations with tourists without it being for the purpose of personal gain. You’ll find yourself exchanging pleasant conversation with local people who genuinely want to wish you a pleasant trip; that’s certainly not something that can be said for all countries.
During one holiday it’s possible to visit historical ruins, soak up Buddhist culture, witness enchanting wildlife, surf world class breaks, snorkel through underwater marine life, hike through lush green vegetation, and ride scenic trains through spectacular landscapes. Sri Lanka offers a wide variety of possibilities in a relatively small land area.
Your Sri Lanka Itinerary
The truth is Sri Lanka has many unmissable places to visit but the good news is that with it being such a small country, it’s completely possible to experience many places in a small amount of time. Here are the places that absolutely need to be on your Sri Lanka Itinerary.
What was once a fortress perched high above the ground for the purpose of preventing ambush to one gutsy bigomyst, has become a modern day wonder.
Rock is located in Sri Lanka’s northern countryside, and stands out as a lonely rock protruding from the earth in a fascinatingly eye catching form. Tourist tickets are around USD$25 providing entry to a museum and access to climb the rock itself. While climbing the precarious steel staircase for around 1km vertical is not for the faint hearted, the destination is well worth the effort.
At the top of Sigiriya rock you’ll receive a spectacular 360 degree view of lush green Sri Lankan bush for as far as the eye can see. The ruins are fascinating too, depicting King Kasyapa’s castle where gladiator style activities once took place. Visiting Sigiriya rock will take around a half day, and if you stay at Aaliyah Resort and Spa after your visit you can enjoy an infinity pool that features the rock in the horizon- a must stay for every Sri Lanka itinerary, be it a romantic escape or solo adventure.
Ella is an absolute highlight and no Sri Lanka itinerary can possibly miss this place. A small village located in the centre of Sri Lanka’s hill district, Ella is a more than just a base for hiking opportunities.
The intimate size and culture of the village makes it a place travellers could easily relax for up to a week, with the feeling of peaceful remoteness. From Ella village walks to Ella Gap for sun set and Little Adam’s Peak for sunrise are ‘must do’s’ but the real charm can be found sipping a beer on the balcony of a guest house featuring family style hospitality. Ella Country House is the perfect place to stay; cheap accommodation with the privilege of waking up to bright pink sunrise cross Ella Gap form your bed and wild monkeys sharing your balcony.
Udawalawe National Park
Too many countries find it acceptable to exploit animals in captivity for the sake of a few tourist dollars, but Sri Lanka has mastered game parks in a way that could put many countries to shame. Udawalawe National Park is home to the highest density of wild Asian elephants, wandering a massive 300 kilometres of wild land freely. Tourist entry is via jeep purchased with driver at the park entrance, and includes a spotter for around 15USD$ a half day . You’ll experience wild elephants, water buffalo, alligators, mongoose, and on a good day spotted leopard or jaguar. Read your complete Udawalawe National Park guide here.
Like many beach towns Mirissa caters for tourists . There’s a small village of local shops, souvenirs and street food but the beach itself is quite different to most tourist beaches.
Mirissa beach is less than 1km f sandy beach with clear blue ocean of Luke warm temperatures to swim in, and down the western end you’ll find a popular surf break. Here travellers can surf, swim, and relax all at one destination without the hassle of hawkers. Seafood restaurants line the sand, and some beach bars have a lively night scene for those looking to let their hair down, but somehow by the same token Mirissa manages to stay clean, and surprisingly peaceful. Arguably the best beach for a Sri Lanka Itinerary.
For surfers Mirissa is a good base for ease to it’s own reef break, and many others not too far away. Here is your complete Sri Lanka surf guide.
Horton Plains National Park
38km of protected land directly in the centre of Sri Lanka, Horton Plains National Park is home to the famous Adams Peak Pilgrimage hike.
De conditioned roads can make access difficult but once you arrive you’ll be treated to wild animal life, lush bush land, and an area that is lovingly cared for. If Adams Peak is too crowded for your liking, a short hike to World’s End and Bakers Fall will take less than two hours and give spectacular views of the plains.
Not all Sri Lanka Itinerary’s will have the luxury of being off the beaten track in the heart of their nature, but if that sounds like you, don’t miss a trip to Horton Plains National Park.
This isn’t the place to visit if you want anything other than romance and surf or yoga lessons. The resort is absolutely stunning and set right on the beach front. You’ll do nothing but relax and spend romantic evenings in wall-less rooms with the sound of the waves. The staff are chilled, there is yoga daily, and you’ll be living the life of luxury. But for your Sri Lanka itinerary this is a must do if you are travelling with your loved one, but not if you are a solo roamer looking to make friends.
Getting Around Sri Lanka
Getting around in Sri Lanka is free, easy, and a lot of fun but you need to plan ahead; there are plenty of areas where transport isn’t readily available. In major destinations like Colombo there are tuk-tuks freely roaming and only too easy to pick up a tourist but that’s not the case everywhere. Getting around Sri Lanka can be done a few ways; buying a driver to escort you wherever you want to go, tuk-tuks in the major cities like Colombo and Kandy, or chicken bus. Each come with pro’s and con’s, and we believe the number one way to get around is by driving yourself, but you decided how getting around Sri Lanka best serves you.
These are what other destinations call rick-shaws; effectively a powered motorbike type vehicle with a carriage on the back. Sri Lanka’s ride them around popular destinations and swing by offering a ride to any they see walking. In Sri Lanka these are safe in that we have not hear anyone be robbed from them or taken to places they didn’t want to be. Tuk-tuks are fun, exciting, cheap and are a true Sri Lankan experience.
For your Sri Lanka itinerary tuk-yuks are a good option for getting around places like Kandy, Colombo, Hikaduwa, or Tangalla but if you are going from region to region they won’t get you that far; you’ll need another option.
Paid Driver and Vehicle
This is probably the most common way for tourists to get around Sri Lanka. Compared to Western countries this is a cheap and affordable way to experience the county. Drivers are professional, cars are quality, new and well looked after and you can travel between regions easily. If you are planning to visit the places on our Sri Lanka Itinerary then this is one of the best options.
This is the name given to the local buses, and for good reason too. A chicken bus is largely a sardine tin missile booming at full speed down main roads. They are cheap and have regular departures but are far from safe.
You won’t get robbed or bothered on a chicken bus but you might not make it safely to your destination. Chicken bus drivers receive more income when they reach more destinations. That means they are on a time schedule. While there are not many road rules in Sri Lanka one think is for sure, the buses do not stop for anything; get out of their way and do it fast.
During our travels we not only saw many near misses and read stories of crashes, but we also spoke with a British lady who had returned to Sri Lanka for the court hearing of the bus that hit her car head on killing her husband instantly. We also saw a couple of buses go past us with vomiting heads out the window. This definitely not the way you want to travel around Sri Lanka, no matter how nomadic you are.
Rental Car and Self Driving
We chose this options for the joy of choosing when and where we wanted to travel. Renting a car to drive yourself is our number one option for getting around in Sri Lanka and below is everything you need to know about self driving in this amazing country.
First thing’s first; you’re not mad. If you’ve been discussing the idea of driving around Sri Lanka, you’ve probably – like we were – been met with shock reactions, confused faces, and words of caring discouragement. Familiar with such reactions, we went on an amazing three week Sri Lankan road trip, taking in all the best sights, and plenty which would have otherwise been missed from the window of a passing train.
There’s no doubt Sri Lanka roads are chaotic in some places, and full attention needs to be applied in more ways than one. The positives associated with road tripping far outweigh the negatives, and with a bit of a heads up on how to make the experience somewhat safer, and more enjoyable, you’ll – like us – have a cracking road trip.
Get An International license. No jokes. You need it.
Once you’ve paid your fee and done the international license paperwork in your own country, you then need to do the same thing in Colombo, before you start driving. Don’t worry though, AA Ceylon office (Colombo) is amusement 101, and actually a cool insight into the Sri Lankan “corporate” world.
Like stepping back in time, to the early 90’s the main office is home to that prehistoric, yet familiar “tap tap tap” sound of a typewriters. Forms are issued for completion atop an old wooden school desk which has a cleverly sellotaped Biro attached to avoid theft. It’s a quick and comical process after which you’re legal to drive in Sri Lanka.
During three separate occasions we were pulled over by police at random, for license and car insurance checks, so recommend you don’t avoid getting the international license. Unlike other countries, being pulled over by the police was a warm and friendly experience. They seemed to take pride in informing us exactly how many kilometers to our next destination, and in all cases cheerfully wishes us well. It seems they are simply enforcing driving protocol without being in any way corrupt.
Europcar Is the Big Brand In This Country
Prepaying and pre booking the hire car before arrival to Sri Lanka was met with frustration. On arrival no one knew of the arrangement (which in true Sri Lankan style was cheerfully rectified wot hour fuss), but I can’t help but think the entire situation would have been much easier if we had booked with Europcar: the countries number 1 hire company.
Mark Your Route Before You Start Driving.
Not a joke, irrespective of how obvious this sounds but the minute you begin driving you won’t have even a second to glimpse down to your phone or map: 100% focus will be on the road ( the next few tips will explain why).
We used google maps to show using a blue line, the direction of how to get from where we were, to where we wanted to be. Because there was no wifi while driving, we’d get the blue line on the map when we woke up and had wifi at the hotel, then as we drove were conscious not to close the app, as that would close the map that wouldn’t have wifi to re route. This tool was an absolute gem because the physical map we had purchased turned out not to be entirely accurate or up to date, leading us up some very dubious tracks.
Busses Get Priority. No Exception.
“A bus hit us head on killing our two in the front. Going back for the court case a year later was a complete waste of time”. I wasn’t suprised to hear a story like this while chatting to other travellers; the buses are out of control.
They are built like giant steel missiles, and make a straight bee line, from A to B. With no exaggeration whatsoever, they go straight, they go fast, and they do not move for traffic. The expectation is that traffic moves for them.
Let me paint the scene for you. You’re driving on the left hand side, behind a car which is also sharing a single lane with a tuk-tuk, and coming toward you in the other lane is a car, with pedestrians walking on the road edge, and fast approaching behind them is a bus. Standard practice is that the bus takes the middle line, moving at high speed between all other vehicles, and everyone else is forced to find space toward the road side, out of its way.
That’s all fine, but if you lose focus for a split second, you could easily find yourself either head on with a bus, or knocking down a pedestrian on the road edge. It’s tricky business by any stretch of the imagination.
Beware Of The Petrol Pump Guy. They’re Not All Honest.
Often in Sri Lanka there’s a guy on the pump to assist you in filling your vehicle. On one particular time the man first asked us to agree verbally that there was already a sum showing on the pump. We agreed that it was showing, assuming that this was to be deducted from the amount we paid as it was not petrol we would receive. Instead, however, an argument broke out when we declined to pay for the total amount, which included petrol we didn’t receive. Looking back, I think he had created a tidy tip for himself; a practice we hadn’t had at any other petrol station.
Merge Like A Zip
It’s a popular sign on western roads indicating that you create a single file line by filing systematically one after the other. No Sri Lanka it’s more a case of inch yourself into any gap possible, gradually. Two lanes doesn’t mean only two cars, and if you hold back. You’ll miss out.
Toot To Get People Out The Way
It’s common place that instead of waiting for a clear lane to pass someone, you give a little toot of the horn (a short, light toot) which tells other drivers to merge to the left and make space for you to pass.
Crazy Speed Signs
Don’t freak out when you see three different speeds on speed signs. There are separate speeds enforced for each of car, bus, or tuk-tuk.
If you’re planning to surf Sri Lanka we’ve got your Sri Lanka surf guide here.