Katie Heller from the Outrageously awesome travel blog Postcards from Yonder gives us a definitive ‘Beginners Guide to Sri Lanka’ from her experience travelling in the exotic land!
I went to Sri Lanka because Skyscanner told me to. Well, kind of. I was browsing flights from Malaysia, and expected the cheapest flights to go to Thailand or Vietnam or somewhere else on the Banana Pancake trail, but alas, there it was: Sri Lanka — for a whopping $60…! So, knowing jack shit about India’s tiny island neighbour, I nudged my boyfriend, and said ‘hey…let’s go.’
Of course, that spontaneity was very quickly followed by furious research into this mysterious country (I’m not actually that good at whimsy), but as I tried to plan our impulsive two week trip, it became clear that this portion of our travels would not be an extension of the ease we experienced while roaming around South East Asia. I read enough to realise that Sri Lanka simply lacks the backpacking infrastructure that many other countries have, and though I tried my darndest to prepare (seriously, I spent wayyyyy too much time on TripAdvisor forums), it turns out the internet doesn’t know everything. For all the hours I spent combing through information, our expectations were often shattered, which was frustrating, but also…. surprisingly, rewarding.
Indeed, in this here Age of the Internet, a place like Sri Lanka — where there aren’t 18 competing bus companies offering transport from Point A to Point B — forces you to get creative, stay flexible, and rely on the locals. Carpooling, rerouting, and going with the flow are necessary when it comes to budget travel in Sri Lanka, and though that might sound challenging to the impatient planning type (hey, that’s me!), it turns out it’s actually a recipe for old-fashioned fun. Like, stop-trying-to-book-everything-on-your-phone-and-see-the-world kind of fun — fun where you meet new people, see new places, and experience new things, without obsessively refreshing the best-reviewed anything.
But! While I obviously recommend enjoying the mostly analog travel-experience that is Sri Lanka, it will be massively helpful to get a few things straight before you go. Which is why I’ve put together notes on the basics — a field guide, if you will. So, if you’re going to consult anything before your trip, make it this. And then, put the computer down, and enjoy Sri Lanka.
A Beginners Guide To SRI LANKA
Hello, Sri Lanka!
Sri Lanka is a small country that sits to the south east of India, and as such, shares a lot of culture with South India. The people, the food, and the customs all look pretty similar, and barring and language and religion, Sri Lanka really does feel like a more relaxed, tiny India. You can see most of the country in well under a month, which makes it a great vacation destination, and you’ll find a myriad of activities as you meander your way through. Cultural sites, world-renowned surfing, leopard and elephant safaris, trekking, pristine beaches — it’s all there. And, though much of the country was inaccessible until recently due to it’s civil war, you have free range now to go pretty much anywhere you want.
Where to go:
There’s a fair amount to see in Sri Lanka, and because it’s small, you can get a lot done in a short amount of time. That doesn’t mean it’s all worth going to. Pick and choose your priorities…
You’ll arrive in Colombo, and though most will probably tell you to skip it — it’s big and ugly — it’s worth a day to stroll the coastline and get some delicious seafood.
After that, you have options:
For straight-up holiday-making — the south beaches (Unawatuna, Galle, Mirissa) are definitely the most developed part of the country, but also the most touristy/expensive. Fort Galle falls into this category, and while worth a visit, is much more about the German colonial culture than the Sri Lankan culture. It feels rich and fancy, where the rest of Sri lanka is…not. This area is also well-known for whale watching in the winter months.
For off-the-beachen’-path (bad pun, sorry) — Tangalle. Once you’re off the train route in the south, the beaches become less populated, quiet, and wild. It’s great for relaxing.
For surf & party — depending on the time of year, Arugam Bay — a beach town on the east cost — is great for surf, and one of the only places you’ll be able to party in Sri Lanka. Alcohol isn’t a popular past-time in this country, so if you just need to bro-out, head this way. Weligama on the south coast is good for surfing when Arugam Bay is not.
For safari — Udawalawe National Park is known for elephants and leopards. Beware that these are very different from the well-run operations you’d find in Africa, but if animals are your priority, animals you shall have.
For trekking — In and around Ella — Sri Lanka’s beautiful tea-country — is where all the good day-hikes and trekking can be found. Most notably, Adam’s peak. Ella definitely has a backpacker vibe, but is undeniably beautiful.
For History — the Cultural Triangle — composed of Sigiriya, Dambulla, and Anuradhapura — sits north central, and holds many famous buddhist temples. These towns are pretty boring otherwise, but if religious sites are your jam, you’ll be happy.
For Culture — Kandy is known as the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, and is a cute town full of important Sri Lankan sites. If you can visit Sri Lanka in August, their annual Perahera festival is here, where you’ll see the most grand parade of costumed elephants and dancers — one of the best traditional spectacles in the world.
For something different — Jaffna sits at the very north of Sri Lanka, and was off-limits until somewhat recently due to a decades-long civil war. I can’t speak directly to Jaffna, but from the people we spoke to, it’s sparse up there. It could be interesting to get some varied perspective, but it doesn’t sound terribly exciting.
How to get around:
Transportation can be tricky in Sri Lanka. Like I mentioned, tourism infrastructure in Sri Lanka is lacking, so while you’ll never be stranded, you’ll likely be using many forms of transportation along the way. Like…
Trains — The trains in Sri Lanka are iconic, and there are a few routes which are a tourist attraction in themselves (Kandy to Ella is the most famous). But they don’t go everywhere, and during festival times, it’s basically impossible to get a ticket. So, if you know your route, and can book ahead, it’s a worthy option. But if the train doesn’t work out, you’ve got two choices…
Buses – Ugh, the buses. Buses in Sri Lanka are frightening. Maybe the scariest I’ve experienced traveling Asia. But hey, I’m alive, and goddamn, it’s a cheap option. The problem is that there are very few tourist buses to speak of (and by that, I mean air-conditioned mini-buses), so local transport — sans A/C and overall safety — is your only budget choice. Do yourself a favor though, and pay for an extra seat for your luggage, which acts as a buffer zone as much as a shelf.
Private Car — A popular option in Sri Lanka involves hiring a private car for the entirety of your trip. You can organize these ahead of time or in Colombo. It’s a decent (albeit pricey) way to go if you are a family or in a group, but you can also always hire private cars as you go from place to place as needed.
Carpooling — As I mentioned, private cars can by pricey, so carpooling is a great way to get where you need efficiently and cheaply. And this is where Sri Lanka gets delightfully old school. There’s an actual site where people post their carpooling needs (http://srilankataxishare.com/), or if you’re in a town like Arugam Bay, local shops will allow you to post your needs on their community board. I seriously felt like I was back in high school organizing a trip with the cool kids that could drive, and fittingly, we made some great friends along the way when we did this.
Rickshaws — These guys will get you from place to place locally. Don’t forget to bargain that shit.
I read this before I went, but I’m not sure I believed it until I experienced it myself: food can take hours to make, and it’s why most places you go will ask you when exactly you want your meals. A far cry from quick street food, the cuisine in Sri Lanka is absurdly fresh (and delicious), which sometimes means it takes comically long to prepare. We once waited two hours for curry. And I’m not exaggerating.
Two customs that will instantly win you favour with the locals are the head wiggle and eating with your hands. The wiggle (shaking your head in the South Asia style) is a form of greeting and polite gesture. It will take a minute to get used to, but there is nothing quite like exchanging a wiggle with a local. Eating with your hands is another custom which seems odd at first, but will give you massive street cred. It’s also necessary if you want to enjoy some of the absolute BEST Sri Lankan dishes like String Hoppers, which are hard to eat with utensils.
While I’d hesitate to call Sri Lanka scammy, the locals are definitely pushy with their offerings. It can get pretty annoying after awhile, but just keep in mind that these people are incredibly kindhearted, so if you need to decline, stay polite. It’s a safe country, so you shouldn’t worry about anything escalating negatively.
As for the rest of Sri Lanka? I’ll leave it to you to put the computer down, and it figure out.