Essential Guide to Travelling Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been growing in popularity these recent years and it’s easy to see why…

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This guide is going to cover the basics to travelling.  The things you need to know/ wish you’d have known, to get from A to B.

Intro

-Arrival/ Departure

-Travelling Around

Packing

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Intro

I have been desperate to visit Sri Lanka since some of my friends worked there after we finished Uni in 2012 and with its increasing popularity in the last few years I was keen to go before it became too commercialised, like other areas of SE Asia.

With incredible history, beautiful scenery and stunning coastlines it’s easy to see why over three times more tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2016 compared to 2010 (statistical reports of Sri Lanka Tourism).  These figures likely have a lot to do with the ending of the civil war in 2009 between the government and the Tamil Tigers, lasting 26 years.

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Wild elephants at Yala National Park

Normally when travelling, I like to create the whole itinerary myself.  However, we had so many good recommendations for Sri Lanka we based a lot of our route on tips from friends and with a bit of improvisation, I now think we have it pretty much sorted.

We travelled in January and February, apparently peak season which we hadn’t realised until we got there.  At this time of year we were pretty much guaranteed sunshine in the centre and on the South coast, so based our trip around these areas.  This worked perfectly, as they’re the best!

I travelled with one friend, Becky (aka. Machine Mason).

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Becky ‘the machine’ Mason

Having travelled some of SE Asia together before, albeit 5 years ago, we were pretty sure we could survive three weeks in each others company!

One thing we did notice travelling here compared to other areas of Asia, was the majority of other travellers were couples.  There were a few groups and solo travellers here and there, as well as some other female duos but we felt exceptionally single! So lucky we had each other!

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Because of this, I would say it is potentially harder to travel around Sri Lanka easily on you own compared to other places if you’re not a confident solo traveller; unless on the coast, where you will find more of a backpacker vibe.

 

Arrival/ Departure

Getting to and from a place is equally as important as travelling around it.  You can get a Sri Lankan Visa (ETA) easily online.  I only sorted mine the night before, it cost $25 USD and came through immediately.  Then you just need to fill in an arrivals card when you get there.

The airport is fairly standard, it flies planes but don’t expect the full luxuries of an international airport.

Shopping is minimal and I had forgotten/ lost my memory card for my camera.  I was hoping to pick one up on arrival and although there are multiple electrical shops which sell everything from washing machines to toasters, they sadly don’t stock anything as practical as an SD card.  I managed to last my entire trip on only 16GB by constantly deleting photos – quite proud of this achievement!

The airports closest city is definitely Negombo and as an interesting town with Portuguese and Catholic influences, as well as a long stretch of beach, it is generally peoples first choice over Colombo.

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Negombo beach at sunset

Colombo itself is worth a visit but a day is enough.  It is further to the airport but the buses are good, taxis fairly reasonably priced or if you want something a little cheaper than a taxi, grab a metred tuk-tuk.  All of Colombo have these, don’t believe them if they say they can’t put it on a metre; just grab the next one passing.

If you want a tuk-tuk from the airport then you’d have to leave the airport enclosure and make your way towards the road to flag one down as they’re not allowed into the main pick-up/ drop-off area with all the cars.

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Seema Malaka in Colombo

When leaving, the airport has limited choices available for eating and drinking; all of which appear overpriced compared to Sri Lankan cuisine outside the airport.  My advise would be to eat before you go or grab some roti to take through with you which is far tastier and means you don’t need to pay a fortune.

Top Tips:

  • Bring any electricals you need and don’t expect to pick up anything on arrival.
  • Negombo is an easy place to stay when you arrive but still about a 20 minute drive away.  It is smaller and more picturesque than Colombo.
  • If travelling round Colombo, be sure to use metred tuk-tuks to get the best price.
  • On departure, eat before arriving at the airport or grab food to take through with you as the airport meals are basic and dear.

 

Travelling Around

We used various methods of transport on our trip.  It was so easy and I could not praise their transport system more highly, it’s great!  In fact, so good, the buses when direct don’t take that much longer than driving.

Also they drive on the left which keeps things simple for us Brits!

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Private Drivers

Our first week we had a lot of ground to cover in a short space of time, so following advice, we hired a driver.  Including drivers accommodation you can expect to pay about 9000LKR / day and this couldn’t be easier.  £20 each for us to be driven the distances we were, door to door; stopping wherever took our fancy, without the hassle of worrying about backpacks was an absolute bargain.

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Our amazing driver Palitha

Just to put this in perspective, I missed my train from Leeds to Manchester Airport (as I was still packing!) and my replacement ticket cost me £30.

It’s easy to arrange; we sorted ours 9.30pm the night before and he met us at 8am. Actually 8am as well, Sri Lankans it turns out are very good at keeping time and unlike most of SE Asia which runs on what I call ‘Laos time’, aka. 3 hours late, they were on the dot for everything.

That, and our driver Palitha was absolutely amazing.

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Every time he saw us he’d jump up and give a huge smile and double handed wave to welcome us.  So attentive – almost too much, we tried to explore a little on our own but he didn’t want us walking anywhere!

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Service stop

The other advantages to a driver beside stopping at beautiful services like this…

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..is if you’re anything like Becky it means you can sleep in comfort.  Trust me, this girl can sleep anywhere!

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Buses in Sri Lanka are great and doable if you have more time but if you want to see as much as possible, as quickly as possible, definitely get a driver around the centre.

Train

Our driver left us in the beautiful Nuwara Elyia (pronounced as one word), where we explored the tea plantations.  From here to Ella we caught the train.

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I’m sure most people, like me, have the train at the top of their Sri Lanka to-do list.  The stretch of train line from Kandy to Ella is one of the most beautiful in Sri Lanka and the World; travelling through tea plantations, forests and hill country.  You can either jump on at Kandy and go the whole stretch or midway as we did, at Nanu Oya (the closest station to Nuwara Elyia).

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Don’t feel that because you caught the train from Nanu Oya you’ve missed out on some of the scenery, in fact we drove to Nuwara Elyia and our approach via road, winding through tea estates was equally as breathtaking.

We even picked up a friendly police officer en-route!

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The trains are fantastic and the majority whilst we were there, were on time.  However, they can get full… very full!

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Our train from Nanu Oya to Ella

We hadn’t booked and when we tried to book a few days before, all the seats were sold out.  This is not uncommon, it turns out most trains are fully booked a month in advance.  We actually bumped into a tour guide who revealed he booked almost double the number of seats required just for his group to travel with a little more space.  Assuming these tourists book trips months- years in advance, it’s hardly surprising we couldn’t get a seat turning up at the counter 2 days before!

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Nanu Oya ticket office

I was also unaware that you could book online (in truth, I didn’t bother checking!) but was told by a Dutch couple it is possible and ‘seat 61′ [https://www.seat61.com/SriLanka.htm] is a great website for doing this.

If you are lucky enough to book a seat, firstly, congratulations!  Secondly, either 2nd or 3rd class would be my choice of travel.  They’re fairly comfortable and although 1st class has the luxury of air-con, this means the windows don’t open and you can’t get that wind-in-your-hair train feeling or those all important travel shots for instagram!

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Not that we managed to get any at all.. as we were packed like sardines for our journey.

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You can just about see the view if you stand of tiptoes for 5 hours!

At one stage the small area between the carriages about half a metre wide had 16 of us and a stack of precariously balance backpacks squashed together.  This is no exaggeration, Becky even had to scratch an itch on her nose using my shoulder as couldn’t release her arms! An insta train photo for us was out of the question.. or at least a less orthodox one.

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Our train was particularly busy as it was national independence day so everyone was travelling.  We wanted to catch the first train to arrive in Ella by lunch, however, this was one of the older Sri Lankan trains with less carriages and they travel slower; so we stood, very squashed, for 5 hours.  The advantage to this, is we got more stops to enjoy the journey to the full extent and with the national holiday locals in the next carriage were singing and playing music.

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If you don’t have a seat and are worried about this, check seat 61 as it tends to say which train is at what time and some of the later trains are the modern blue ones imported from China.  These trains are faster, about 2 hours for our stretch of the journey and they have more carriages, which means more space if you are standing.

The other option, if boarding at Nanu Oya and you want to have a higher chance of getting an unreserved seat, jump on at the station before as it will be quieter.  We did read about this and considered it but thought we would be OK being early.  Turns out you have to be early, some people arriving ‘on time’ couldn’t even get standing room on the train.   If you do try this, let me know how you get on!

Of course it’s not always as busy as when we travelled and I for one loved our experience and am glad it panned out as it did.  I am also beyond impressed at myself, and those that know me will appreciate this, but I made it nearly 6 hours without going to the toilet! That has to be a new PB.

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Galle Railway Station

Just to prove it is possible to actually get a seat we also caught the train from Galle up to the capital at Colombo Fort.  As this is a slightly quieter line and with more locals, we managed to buy our ticket on the morning and reserve a second class seat.

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The main advantage of a seat is you can actually enjoy the view instead of worrying about being pressed up against a stranger for hours.  Although the seat was wasted on Becky, who as usual promptly fell asleep and missed all the views.

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Platform at Galle

The views for this stretch of railway were fantastic and having basically missed the panorama on one of the most beautiful stretches in the World, this was some consolation.  Beaches and palm trees instead of tea plantations but equally stunning and at about £1 a ticket you can’t go wrong with the railways.

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Sunrise at the station

Buses

From Ella onward we took one taxi but otherwise used buses all the way to Galle.  The buses were so easy, you literally just hop on and off anywhere.  The technique is they slow a little, you shout at the conductor where you’re going and if they are too, the bus slams on its breaks.  They only stop just long enough for you to clamber up the steps and find some seated/ standing room for the journey.

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Going from bus stations is so simple and we generally found it easier on these occasions to get a seat but people are always on and off so it’s less of an issue than on the trains.

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The buses go pretty quickly and the blue/ white ones even play out music TV, generally Bhangra style and good fun.

The distances between the coastal towns are minimal and with the cost of the buses being so cheap (only 70LKR from Mirissa to Unawatuna) this is definitely preferable to drivers/ taxis, unless of course money is no object in which case you should get the bus anyway just for the fun of it!

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Tuk Tuk

The faithful tuk-tuk.  How they make me smile!

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I even saw an ice-cream tuk-tuk for the first time and thought they were the most amazing things ever!

The key with tuk-tuks is always haggle and like I said previously, if in Colombo, go on the metre.

Mopeds

The final mode of transport we considered were mopeds.  We had the idea last minute to hire bikes to get from Unawatuna to Galle but the morning we wanted to go they were all in use!  We’ve been caught out before in Sri Lanka by everyone else’s organisational skills, so if you want a bike, you’re best booking it at least the day before

Top Tips

  • If travelling to lots of places in a small amount of time definitely get a driver.
  • Book a seat on the train in advance, 2nd class gets you an open window.
  • If you haven’t booked and fancy a seat travelling from Nanu Oya to Ella try turning up the station before.
  • You can’t beat buses as a mode of transport along the coast.
  • If you want to hire a bike, don’t forget your drivers licence and don’t leave it until the day you want it.  Book a bike at least a day or two in advance to make sure you get one.

 

What you Need

So, what to pack?

Sri Lanka had a warm climate and minimal rain whilst we were there and I took what I would consider standard things for travelling SE Asia, some I needed, some I didn’t.

On top of the obvious packing list these were essential/ would have been useful:

Adaptors

We didn’t buy/ take any adaptors for non-UK sockets as believed Sri Lanka to use both UK and 3 circular pin plugs.  It’s true they use UK plugs in a lot of places but not all of them.  We ended up relying on portable battery chargers in between places with UK sockets, so it would have been good to have at least one 3 circular pin adaptor.

Shawl/ Maxi

Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country and like most others expect you to cover up when in temples.  I never went anywhere without my shawl to cover up shoulders or maxi skirt to slip on over a pair of shorts, you never know when you might need it – essential!

Leggings and Hoodie

Believe it or not I was actually cold some days and not just from air-con!  Hill country is a lot colder and although Ella you can just about get by with shorts and t shirts, Nuwara Elyia is much cooler.  I ended up wearing a jumper during the days, hoodie in the evening and even needed to sleep in my leggings!

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Horton Plains

Layers are also useful for some of the early morning hikes in hill country such as Hortons Plains and Adams Peak, if you’re waiting for sunrise on top of the mountain it gets cold.

Immodium/ Dioratlye/ Senna

I won’t say which of our party (or both) needed to resort to the medicine bag at some point but I am ashamed to say I have never not needed one, or all of the above at some stage whilst travelling (except perhaps Australia) .  I’ll leave you to come up with the details but don’t forget them! They save your life if you have a long days travelling ahead on public transport.

Trainers

Sri Lanka is amazing for hiking but all of the terrain in manageable in trainers.  I wore my trekking shoes (which are hideous but functional) but Becky wore trainers which were absolutely fine for all of our hikes, including Adam’s Peak.

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Adam’s Peak descent

 

Non-essential items, aka. I over-packed but don’t want to admit it:

Travel Pillow

I take this everywhere but sadly did not need it.  Unlike previous travelling there were no long overnight buses to get place to place and no extreme camping that required a pillow.

Torch

Again no camping but I thought we would need it for Adams Peak ascent.  This was not the case, candles and lit all the way.

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I hope this is useful to get your trip planned, it is the most incredible country so enjoy every minute.

Have a look at my ‘top tips’ for Sri Lanka for ideas to plan your route in more detail!  It combines our favourite things and our recommendations having made a few mistakes along the way.  If you’re going on a 10 day or two week trip I have some suggested itineraries so take a look and let me know what you think if you decide to follow them.

Happy travels x

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