Sri Lanka travel advice
Whilst many see Sri Lanka simply as a beach destination, head inland and you will be rewarded with a hidden world of reclining Buddhas, spice and tea plantations, Kandyan drummers and elephants.
All tours are accompanied by private chauffeur guides who are proud of their country’s remarkable history and who will be keen to help you get the most from your tour. As they also act as driver, you can learn a great deal about everyday life whilst on the road, take advantage of restaurant suggestions, or monitor the cricket score. All the vehicles are air-conditioned with saloon-style cars usually provided for couples and minivans for groups of friends or families.
The British-built train network is a wonderfully nostalgic and sedate way to travel, while the ‘tea plantation’ train between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya is highly recommended for its stunning hill scenery and ambience.
The past few years have seen numerous new hotels opening in Sri Lanka, with tea planters’ bungalows, private beach villas and small boutique hotels providing comfortable character accommodations. Many historical buildings including gentlemen’s clubs and private homes now take in guests, and a number of distinctive hotels and beach villas designed by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect, offer elegant and luxurious options.
For those interested in wildlife, we can suggest hotels where wonderful birds and the occasional elephant are likely to be seen.
As always, it is our first-hand experience which will help us to guide you in your choices.
The constitution now designates Sinhala, a language of Indo-Aryan origin spoken by the majority of the population, and Tamil as the official languages. English is widely spoken. Place names and signboards are in English and Sinhala, or English and Tamil, and sometimes all three.
Food & Drink
You will find a huge variety of dishes across Sri Lanka. Rice and curry - often fiery hot but usually quite mild in hotel restaurants - are the staple, but the term 'curry' conceals an enormous variety of subtle flavors. Coriander, chillies, mustard, cumin, pepper, cinnamon and garlic are just some of the common ingredients. Mallung, a dish prepared with grated coconut, shredded leaves, red onions and lime, is an alternative to try.
Hoppers, a snack unique to Sri Lanka, are similar to a pancake served with egg or honey and yoghurt. The country has a wide variety of tropical fruit throughout the year. Pineapples, papayas and bananas are particularly good.
Visitors should not drink the tap water. The local mineral water is safe to drink, but always check the seal. Alcoholic drinks are widely available, though imported wines and beers are very expensive. There are some good local varieties.
PLEASE NOTE THAT AROUND THE MAJOR FESTIVAL DAYS AND THE MONTHLY FULL MOON POYA THE GOVERNMENT MAY IMPOSE A BAN ON THE SALE OF ALCOHOLIC DRINKS. CONSUMPTION IS ALLOWED IN THE PRIVACY OF THE ROOM IF BOUGHT IN ADVANCE.
A local beer will normally cost from around Rs100. A dish in a local restaurant could cost anything from Rs150 and start from Rs1000 at the top end of the range. Prices increase considerably for imported foods, wine and in boutique and top end hotels.
Tipping for good service is standard practice. As a general rule we recommend tipping the following per couple: chauffeur guides Rs1000 (approximately $10) per day. On game drives park wildlife spotter RS500 (approx $4), jeep driver Rs500 (approx $5), naturalist Rs1000 per drive. Safari camp staff approx Rs2000 (approx $20 shared). Hotel porters Rs50-100 per bag. For elephant rides - mahout Rs500.00, assistant Rs250 and maybe Rs250 of fruit to feed the elephant. Boat crew Rs300 per hour.
A 10% service charge is sometimes added to restaurant bills but otherwise a similar tip is appreciated. (PLEASE NOTE THAT 17.25% TAXES MAY ALSO BE ADDED IF THIS HAS NOT ALREADY BEEN INCLUDED IN THE MENU PRICE.)
The Sri Lankan currency is rupees (Rs). Notes are in denominations of Rs2000, 1000, 500, 200, 100, 50, 20 and 10. The 500 and 100 notes are similar in colour. Coins are in denominations of Rs10, 5, 2 and 1; anything smaller has little use.
All Sri Lankan Rupees should be re-converted upon leaving Sri Lanka. Currency may only be changed at banks or at authorized money changers' and most larger hotels have a bureau de change. Avoid touts who hang around tourist spots offering good exchange rates, as these are invariably conmen. USD traveler's cheques are accepted. ATMs are available in larger towns. There are exchange booths in the airport where you can change your money immediately on arrival.
Social Conventions & Etiquette
Ayubowan (May you have long life), said with the hands folded upwards in front of the chest, is the traditional welcome greeting among the Sinhalese. Use your right hand for giving, taking, eating or shaking hands as the left is considered unclean.
Modest dress is appreciated even in formal situations: jeans, trousers or skirts at least knee-length are appropriate on the streets, and cleanliness is highly valued. Tight or scanty clothing and displays of intimacy in public can offend local sensibilities and will probably draw unwanted attention. In rural areas women do not shake hands with men. Nudity and topless bathing are prohibited and heavy fines can be imposed.
As shoes must be removed before entering temples, it is a good idea in hot weather to carry a spare pair of socks to protect against the heat of the stone floors. You may need to cover your head in Hindu temples but uncover it in Buddhist temples. Some places, like the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, do not allow visitors to enter wearing shorts.
Always ask before taking photographs and videos of people and don't pose in front of religious images and paintings. Photos within airports and of military installations and bridges are not permitted.
Our certified country specialists can advise on any safety concerns you may have. For current information, please refer to the State Department website.
When to go to Sri Lanka
You'll find temperature and rainfall information, together with a month-by-month guide on visiting, on our guide for when to go to Sri Lanka.
18½ hours (Washington DC to Colombo)