Sri Lanka is a stunning and diverse country and to help prepare you for you visit we’ve come up with the following guide which we hope you find useful:
Health and safety…
Medicines and medical care
Do speak with your GP to ensure relevant inoculations are up to date. Hepatitis A and B and Typhoid are the three most commonly recommended.
Malaria is very rare – some say non-existent – in Sri Lanka, though Dengue fever, also spread by mosquitos, is more common. We’ve never been inclined to take malaria pills but obvious precautions against mosquito bites are sensible. Do bring anti-mosquito spray and use it often.
Standard advice re. sunscreen and plenty of water to drink obviously applies!
In case of any medical emergencies your hotel or lodge will be best placed to help.
Our experience of dealing with hospitals in Sri Lanka is extremely positive. The main private hospitals will offer quick and not-too expensive access to well qualified specialists.
There’s really no risk to travellers with regard to the, now much-concluded, civil war. Indeed, many continued to visit at its peak and did so in blissful ignorance of what was going on in other parts of the country.
The Government has now relaxed restrictions on foreigners travelling to Jaffna in the north, really the epicenter of the conflict. While there’s no risk to personal safety it’s wise to be mindful of the sensitivities around what was a bloody and hugely damaging period.
Sri Lanka, of course, has a good number of snakes but it’s hugely unlikely you’ll see one – unless you go looking! Of slightly more concern are the monkeys that will surround some of the tourist spots. Best advice is to not openly carry any biscuits or other foods when at these places. Monkeys can be tempted to grab them and even small scratches may require medical treatment. If you are heading on safari obviously there are dangerous animals that you may encounter and we highly recommend that you listen carefully to your safari guide and pay utmost respect to the wildlife and its conservation.
The Sri Lankan rupee has strengthened a fair bit against sterling in the last 12 months. At time of writing (late 2016) you’ll get around 180 rupees for every pound. For those coming from the UK, it has been better but it has been worse.
It’s not possible (as far as we’re aware) to exchange pounds for rupees in the UK, but there’s little need to do so.
You’ll see a good number of bureaux de change, all vying for your attention, when you come through immigration at Colombo airport. Alternatively, you can simply withdraw cash from the ATMs, either there, or across the island. The vast majority accept UK cards for cash withdrawals (People’s Bank being one of the only ones we’ve found that doesn’t). With the inevitable fees included it is generally a slightly better bet to use the bureaux de change. The difference is minimal, though.
All accommodation, of course, will be paid for and you may well be on half-board or full-board basis at some places. You may need to pay for drinks or extra meals, though, and while the vast majority of our partner hotels and lodges will take card payments, it’s sensible to have some cash with you.
Bear in mind that some ATMs will dispense a stack of 5,000 rupee notes; nice to have but pretty useless for Tuk Tuks or street-food sellers, who rarely have much change.
The practice of tipping each and every chap who lends a hand, in whatever way, no longer really exists. Don’t feel obliged to open your wallet for every bag carrier at each hotel. Equally, almost every restaurant and bar will add a 10% service charge so, unless you were really happy with the service offered, you shouldn’t feel pressured to add anything on top of the bill.
The same can be said for the hotels you’ll stay at. A lot of our clients do like to offer extra trips at the smaller places. When they ask us we suggest that the equivalent of £5-10 (around 1,000-2000 rupees) a day would be very gratefully received. The same amount, if he’s been with you for the duration of your trip, would be appropriate for your driver, if you feel he’s gone beyond the call of duty!
Staying in touch…
As is the case the world over, hotels tend to offer very good wi-fi now. None of those that we work with will ask you to pay for it. Sri Lanka also has remarkably good mobile phone coverage – much better than in some parts of the UK.
Alternatively, you may want to use your own phone. You can cheaply buy SIM cards that offer calls and data, if you wish to regularly check emails. Traditional or Micro-SIMs are readily available. We would recommend Dialog as offering the best mobile coverage across the island. Bear in mind your phone will have to be unlocked to use a Sri Lankan SIM.
We highly recommend booking one of our experienced English speaking drivers and air-conditioning vehicles in advance of your trip. You may want to make additional trips that had not been pre-planned, though. All the hotels and lodges that we work with will be more than happy to help arrange additional cars and drivers if needed.
Tuk Tuks, of course, are a cheaper option, and suitable for shorter journeys. For anything over 40 minutes, a car (or van) is probably advisable. If you know exactly where you’re headed then do try and agree a price in advance. If not, then allow around 150 rupees for every five minutes of the journey. You’ll inevitably pay a little more than locals but haggling all day long isn’t worth the effort.
Metered Tuk Tuks – occasionally available in Colombo – are always cheapest.
You’ll quickly realise how many buses charge around the island. They are, in fact, quite a menace and we’d suggest you avoid them. Trains are a better option and can offer great views across otherwise unseen country.
Train journeys are also a great way to get around and a different experience. Degrees of comfort vary considerably from one carriage to the next and many need booking in advance. We’re happy to help organise these as part of your trip.
Food and drink…
You may well come across blogs or articles singing high praises of Sri Lankan food and all the wonderful restaurants on offer. Just wandering about, you might find the reality a little different.
The restaurant scene in Colombo is now pretty strong and Galle Fort boasts a nice selection of little eateries. Kandy remains rather barren on the restaurant front.
Of course, eating local Sri Lankan curries is part of the charm of visiting the country. Traditionally, curries here are hotter than those in India but most will be cooled down somewhat for foreign visitors.
Every Sri Lankan town will have its own fruit and vegetable market and some are definitely worth exploring, if only for the sights and smells. The Central Market, just off Market Street in Kandy, is a classic example.
Few towns offer anything much smarter but Colombo now has a growing number of small boutiques. The likes of the Paradise Road collection cater for those after interiors inspiration and Odel is a good bet for fashion-related buys.
The Galle Fort is teeming with independent stores selling very trendy things – a lot of them are spin-offs from funky little hotels. A favourite spot of ours is ‘Stick No Bills’ on Church Street, selling vintage posters and cards.
For presents to take home we’re yet to find a place better than Barefoot. It has two large stores, one on Galle Road in Colombo and one inside the Galle Fort as well as a smaller boutique inside the aforementioned Dutch Hospital. It sells all manner of colourful things – clothes, materials, books, toys, bags. It’s all great stuff.
Sri Lanka, of course, has a great gem industry and you’ll see a range of stores, from small boutiques to huge multi-storey emporiums. Our most trusted is Tiesh, which has large outlets in Kandy and Colombo.
The spice gardens are also a traditional tourist attraction, selling a huge range of oils and ayurvedic medicines. We’re open-minded and will let you make your own judgment on their merits!
When it comes to gems and spices, remember that each local guy taking you to his ‘friend’s shop’ will be earning a considerable commission on any sale. If the advice is good and you’re happy with the price, that’s great.
Language and culture…
Sri Lanka is, in most parts, a passionately Buddhist country. The majority of the country (some 70%) practices Theravada Buddhism and many see Sri Lanka as the heartland of the religion – much like Jerusalem is for Judaism, or Mecca for Islam.
Of course, there is a strong Hindu (Tamil) population, largely in the north and in the hills in the centre, and the island’s Muslim population has grown rapidly (supposedly to around 10% of the country) in recent years. There is a small minority Christian population.
Fairly obvious considerations apply with regard to dress. At temples you may be checked and will be required to wear clothes that cover shoulders and legs. Away from the beach and the pool it’s courteous to avoid anything too racy.
The country’s strong religious practice can have some impact on visitors. On Poya days, holidays celebrated each month at the full moon, no shops or bars will (legally) serve alcohol. Similar restrictions apply on a number of other religious holidays. Do check local calendars if you’re planning a big celebration during your time here.
The Buddhist majority speak Sinhalese, with Tamil being the second official language. For non-speakers the two are practically indistinguishable.
In the island’s more touristy parts and in most of Colombo, there’s a fair degree of English spoken. Campaigns post-Independence to promote a single national language, at the expense of English teaching in schools, however, have left a large percentage of the population with next to no English.
Wishing you a wonderful trip and if you need any further information please do contact us [email protected]