Unless you are shopping at a fixed-price shop, you must bargain. Generally, if someone quotes you a price, halve it. The seller will come down about halfway to your price, and the last price will be a little higher than half the original price. Try and keep a sense of perspective. Chances are you’re arguing over less than US$1.
Dangers & Annoyances
With the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka does not present any extraordinary concerns about safe travel.
- Travellers with Buddha tattoos or images of the deity on clothing have been denied entry into the country or arrested and deported.
- Also show respect to any statue or other representation of Buddha.
Government Travel Advice
Government advisories are often so general that they seem intended to provide bureaucratic cover for the government should trouble occur. However, the following sites also have useful tips:
- Australia: www.smartraveller.gov.au
- Canada: http://travel.gc.ca
- Germany: www.auswaertiges-amt.de/DE/Laenderinformationen/01-Reisewarnungen-Liste_node.html
- Japan: www.mofa.go.jp/region/index
- Netherlands: www.government.nl/topics/travelling-abroad
- New Zealand: www.safetravel.govt.nz
- UK: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice
- US: https://travel.state.gov
An International Student ID Card is not widely recognised in Sri Lanka.
The electric current is 230V, 50 cycles. Plugs come in a bewildering range of variations. Besides the primary plug type, which is similar to Indian plugs, you may well find US-, EU- and British-style plugs in your room.
Adaptors are readily available at markets, supermarkets and tourist shops for under Rs 500.
Embassies & Consulates
It’s important to realise the limits of what your embassy can do if you’re in trouble. Generally speaking, their hands are tied if you’ve broken Sri Lankan law. In real emergencies you might get some assistance, but only if all other channels have been exhausted. Embassies can recommend hospitals, doctors and dentists.
Unless otherwise indicated, the following embassies are in Colombo:
Emergency & Important Numbers
All regions have a three-digit area code followed by a six- or seven-digit number. Mobile numbers usually begin with 07 or 08 and have up to 12 digits.
|International access code||00|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Immigration at Bandaranaike International Airport is straightforward.
Sri Lanka has the usual list of prohibited imports, including drugs, weapons, fresh fruit and anything remotely pornographic.
- 0.25L of perfume
- 1.5L of alcohol.
There are duty-free shops in the arrivals area before you reach baggage claim at the airport. Besides booze, they include appliances like blenders and refrigerators.
Sri Lanka Customs has full details on its website (www.customs.gov.lk).
You must have your passport with you at all times in Sri Lanka. Before leaving home, check that it will be valid for at least six months after you plan to leave Sri Lanka.
Transit visas good for 48 hours are free. Thirty-day visitor visas cost US$25 to US$100, depending on your nationality. Apply in advance online (www.eta.gov.lk).
Obtaining a Visa
Before visiting Sri Lanka, do the following to get a 30-day visa:
- Visit the Sri Lanka electronic visa website (www.eta.gov.lk) several days before arriving.
- Follow the online application process and pay with a credit or debit card.
- Once approved, print out the visa confirmation.
You can also obtain visas at Sri Lankan embassies abroad and there is a counter at Bandaranaike International Airport for people who arrive without a visa, although you’ll have to wait with the other visa-less masses (which can take several hours) and pay a higher fee: US$40.
You can renew a 30-day tourist visa twice, for 30 days each time. Contact the Department of Immigration and Emigration. Extensions are not hard to get but require jumping through some bureaucratic hoops and downloading some forms. To complete the process in one day, arrive to the office by 10am and expect it to take at least four hours.
Sri Lanka is an easy place to navigate if you remember a few key points.
- Temple footwear Remove shoes and hats at temples. Socks are OK for walking scorching pavements.
- Clothing Cover shoulders, arms and legs at temples as directed.
- Buddha statues Never pose beside or in front of a statue (ie with your back to it), as this is considered disrespectful.
- Buddha images Displaying body art or wearing clothing that includes an image of the Buddha can get you arrested and deported.
- Photography Ask permission before photographing people. A few business-oriented folk like the stilt fishermen at Koggala will ask for payment.
- Beach attire Nude and topless sunbathing are not allowed on beaches.
- Modesty Overt displays of affection are frowned upon.
- Avoid left hands These are considered unclean. Use both hands or just your right.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Sri Lanka and the subject is little discussed publicly. No one has been convicted for over 60 years, but it pays to be discreet. There is no legislation to protect LGBT people from harassment, but the situation is changing slowly, and Colombo has a low-key scene. You can be more open in cosmopolitan areas like Col 1, Col 3 and Col 7.
Equal Ground is a Colombo-based organisation that supports gay and lesbian rights, sponsors pride events, offers counselling services and has useful online resources.
Unless you are definitely sure that your health coverage at home will cover you in Sri Lanka, you should take out travel insurance – bring a copy of the policy as evidence that you’re covered.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Wi-fi in guesthouses and hotels is the norm. Mobile data is reasonably quick (at least 3G speeds) in larger towns and all cities. You may get no signal in rural areas.
Sri Lanka’s legal system is a complex, almost arcane mix of British, Roman-Dutch and national law. The legal system tends to move slowly, and even a visit to a police station to report a small theft can involve much time-consuming filling out of forms. The tourist police in major towns and tourist hot spots should be your first point of contact in the case of minor matters such as theft.
Drug use, mainly locally grown marijuana, but also imported heroin and methamphetamine, occurs in tourist centres such as Hikkaduwa, Negombo and Unawatuna. Dabbling is perilous; you can expect to end up in jail if you’re caught using anything illegal and your home government may be unable to help beyond putting you in touch with a local lawyer.
Digital maps – online and in apps by Apple, Bing and Google – are mostly up-to-date but beware of errors, especially in the North where on-the-ground conditions may not have made it to the the digital world.
- Digital Two worthwhile sources: www.hirunews.lk is a good digest of news; www.yamu.lk has excellent features and restaurant reviews.
- Newspapers Sri Lanka has several daily newspapers in English. Try a few to find your favourite.
- TV Government-run stations dominate the radio and TV broadcast channels. Midrange and more expensive hotels usually have satellite TV with international networks.
ATMs available in cities and large towns. Credit cards accepted at most midrange and all top-end hotels.
ATMs are easily found in towns and cities of any size. ATMs often issue Rs 5000 notes. Try to break a few as soon as possible as small vendors may not accept large notes: you can usually do this inside the bank that operates the ATM.
Any bank or exchange bureau will change major currencies in cash, including US dollars, euros and British pounds. Change rupees back into hard currency at the airport (before security, there are no exchange counters after) prior to leaving, as even nearby countries may not exchange Sri Lankan currency.
MasterCard and Visa are the most commonly accepted credit cards. Cards are generally accepted at most midrange and all top-end hotels and restaurants.
The Sri Lankan currency is the rupee (Rs), which is divided into 100 cents; pricing in cents is rare. Rupee coins come in denominations of one, two, five and 10 rupees. Notes come in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 rupees.
|New Zealand||NZ$1||Rs 105|
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
Money changers can be found in Colombo and major tourist centres. Their rates are competitive, but choose carefully, as money-exchange scams abound. Stick to banks or reputable offices, such as those at the airport. ATMs are safer and more reliable.
Although a 10% service charge is added to food and accommodation bills, this usually goes straight to the owner rather than the worker.
- Restaurants and bars 10% in cash to servers beyond the 'service charge'
- Drivers 10%
- Room cleaners Up to Rs 100 per day
- Bag carriers/porters Rs 50 per bag
- Shoe minders at temples Rs 30
- Guides Varies greatly; agree to a fee before you set out
Apart from tourist areas, much is closed on Sunday.
Bars Usually close by midnight, last call is often a sobering 11pm.
Restaurants and cafes 7am to 9pm daily, later in areas popular with travellers
Shops 10am to 7pm Monday to Friday, 10am to 3pm Saturday
Shops and services catering to visitors 9am to 8pm
- Most Sri Lankans love getting their picture taken, but it’s common courtesy to ask permission. A few business-oriented folk, such as the stilt fishermen at Koggala or the mahouts at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, will ask for payment.
- It’s forbidden to film or photograph dams, airports, road blocks or anything associated with the military.
- Never pose beside or in front of a statue of the Buddha (ie with your back to it), as this is considered extremely disrespectful.
- Flash photography can damage age-old frescoes and murals, so respect the restrictions at places like Dambulla and Sigiriya.
Sri Lanka Post (www.slpost.gov.lk) has offices in most towns and cities. Service to the outside world is slow.
With four major religions, Sri Lanka has a lot of public holidays; also, all poya (full moon) days are public holidays and much is closed.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Tamil Thai Pongal Day 14 January, Hindu harvest festival
Independence Day 4 February
Good Friday March/April
Sinhala and Tamil New Year 14 April
Labour Day 1 May
Id ul-Fitr Marks the end of Ramadan. Date varies with the lunar calendar: falls 14 June 2018, 4 June 2019
Christmas Day 25 December
- Smoking Not common in Sri Lanka. Smoking is outlawed on buses and trains and in public places. Bars and restaurants are legally required to have separate smoking and nonsmoking sections, although these often merge.
Taxes & Refunds
The VAT (value added tax) in Sri Lanka is 15%. It may or may not be already included in the prices of goods and services. Make certain you don't pay it twice. There is no tourist refund scheme for VAT.
Mobile phone coverage in Sri Lanka is widespread and cheap.
All regions have a three-digit area code followed by a six- or seven-digit number. Mobile numbers usually begin with 07 or 08 and have up to 12 digits.
|Sri Lanka country code||+94|
|International access code||+00|
Local SIM cards are cheap for unlocked phones.
Mobile coverage across Sri Lanka is good in built-up areas and cheap. You can get a SIM card that has data and voice credit for as low as Rs 700 with a domestic call cost of Rs 2 per minute.
The main mobile companies have booths in the arrivals area of Bandaranaike International Airport; compare prices as there are wide variations in rates. Major providers include the following:
Sri Lanka Standard Time (GMT/UTC + 5½ hours) is the same as India Standard Time. There is no summer/daylight savings time.
Sri Lankan time, being 30 minutes off the top of the hour used in much of the world, bedevils many a traveller. Sri Lanka is 4½ hours behind Australian EST and 10½ hours ahead of American EST.
- All top-end and midrange accommodation has sit-down flush toilets.
- Only budget places that don’t get a lot of tourists have squat toilets and lack toilet paper.
- Public toilets are scarce (and are usually grim when they exist, although some have attendants).
- Use restaurants, hotels and attractions like tea-plantation visitor centres.
Sri Lanka Tourist Board The Colombo main office has useful glossy brochures and maps.
Elsewhere, tourist offices are uncommon.
Travel with Children
Like a good rice and curry, Sri Lanka offers a dazzling array of choices. This is obviously not a first-world country, so the child who expects a packaged Disneyland experience won’t be happy, but the love of Sri Lankans for children helps compensate for bumps along the way.
Best Regions for Kids
- The West
It’s beaches all along this sandy coast. There are all manner of child-friendly resorts where you can relax and maybe build a castle or two. Overall, this is probably the most child-friendly area.
- The South
More beaches, lots of water-based activities and in the east there are elephants.
- The Hill Country
Many of the attractions here are more adult orientated, but the mild temperatures are a good respite from the heat elsewhere. Tea plantations and trains are an unbeatable day out.
- The Ancient Cities
Ancient temples, forts, ruins, jungles and elephants. Hello, Indiana Jones!
- The East
Outside of surfing high season (May to October), the surf on these beautiful beaches can be mild. Kids love the snorkelling at Pigeon Island National Park.
Sri Lanka for Kids
Sri Lankans have a special affinity for children, and visitors travelling with children will find the young ones are sure-fire icebreakers.
Sri Lanka is an easy-going place for children, even if it lacks kid-targeted sights such as amusement parks and similar attractions. The beaches, historical sites, national parks with elephants can all fascinate and entertain kids. However, the lack of special facilities means that kids will benefit from the same sense of adventure in exploring the country that serves adults well.
With preparation and mindfulness of a few things while in country, travel with children in Sri Lanka can be great fun.
There aren’t many attractions dedicated solely to children in Sri Lanka, but there are a lot of sights they’ll love.
- Uda Walawe One of the best national parks for wildlife-spotting safaris.
- Elephant Transit Home Not far from Uda Walawe, this is a well-regarded halfway house for injured and orphaned elephants.
- Minneriya A national park renowned for its herds of elephants.
- Pigeon Island National Park Off beautiful Nilaveli beach, this island has great snorkeling that kids love.
- Turtle hatcheries On the west coast, these are popular.
- Unawatuna Fringing reefs mean the beach here is safe and shallow for little ones.
- Polonnaruwa Kids can run themselves silly at the vast and car-free ancient heritage sites such as this one, with its very cool ruins.
- Three-wheelers Buzzing, blowing and completely unlike a ride anyplace else, these ubiquitous transport options are good for a thrill.
- Hill Country Train Rides Kids will love hanging out the doors of chugging trains (and giving their parents heart attacks!).
- Sri Lankan hotels and guesthouses often have triple and family rooms, plus extra beds can be supplied on demand.
- Baby beds are in short supply.
- Don't expect to find 'kids clubs' or the like, which are common in first-world luxury resorts.
What to Pack
- Bring an extra mosquito net, as hotels rarely have spares if you get an extra bed.
- Bring sunscreen and children’s mosquito repellent with you; you won’t find it in Sri Lanka.
- Entertainment for long car rides, especially video downloads, as trying to download in Sri Lanka can take a long time.
- For very young children, either a backpack or some other form of carrier. Prams are tough going on uneven or nonexistent footpaths.
- Car seats are uncommon; if you want to use one, bring it from home.
- For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
- Buy pharmaceutical supplies, imported baby food and disposable nappies/diapers at Cargills Food City and Keells supermarkets throughout the country.
- Nappie/diaper sizes run small in Sri Lanka.
- Breastfeeding in public is accepted, but parents will struggle to find dedicated baby-changing rooms. It’s not a major problem, as it’s acceptable for toddlers to be naked in public.
- Rabies and animal-borne parasites are present in Sri Lanka, so keep children away from stray animals, including cats, dogs and monkeys.
- Bring kid-friendly snacks for car and train trips in case vendor offerings don't suit young tastes.
Eating with Kids
- Sri Lankan hospitality means that people will go to any length to please young and finicky eaters, and most places offer at least a few Western-style dishes, though child-specific menus are rare.
- To ease children into Sri Lankan food, try a breakfast of pittu. The combination of coconut and rice will be kind to their palates. Also try hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes), especially the string variety, or nice and mild rotti flatbreads with a filling.
- The profusion of fresh and exciting fruit varieties means that everybody will find something they like, even if it's never been tried before.
- Highchairs (in restaurants) are uncommon.
Travellers with Disabilities
Sri Lanka is a challenge for travellers with disabilities, but the ever-obliging Sri Lankans are always ready to assist. If you have restricted mobility, you may find it difficult, if not impossible, to get around on public transport, as buses and trains don’t have facilities for wheelchairs. Moving around towns and cities can also be difficult for those in a wheelchair and for the visually impaired because of the continual roadworks and frequently poor roads; don’t expect many smooth footpaths. The chaotic nature of Sri Lankan traffic is also a potentially dangerous challenge. A car and driver is your best transport option. If possible, travel with a strong, able-bodied person.
Apart from some top-end hotels, accommodation is not geared for wheelchairs. However, many places can provide disabled travellers with rooms and bathrooms that are accessible without stairs.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
There are fewer volunteer opportunities available now than there were in the years after the 2004 tsunami. Still, for people with time – and especially expertise – there are some ways you can be actively involved in helping others.
Lonely Planet cannot vouch for organisations that we do not work with directly, so you should always carry out your own research to make sure that any volunteer placements are ethical and beneficial to local people. Organisations offering placements include the following:
International Volunteer HQ Organises a wide range of volunteer experiences, including teaching, medical care and temple renovation. Based in New Zealand, it runs programs in and around Kandy.
Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society Offers paid volunteer roles for people interested in wildlife data collection and teaching opportunities.
Volunteer Sri Lanka Can arrange short-term volunteer positions, especially for teachers but also for unskilled positions.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures The metric system is used.
- Some Sri Lankans still express distance in yards and miles. The term lakh is often used in place of ‘100,000’. The number 10 million may be referred to as koatiya or koti.
Women travelling alone may experience uncomfortable levels of male attention. Outside Colombo, it is a good idea to cover your legs and shoulders, though you’ll be stared at no matter what you wear. Tight tops are a bad idea. And away from the popular tourist beaches of the South, East and West, consider swimming in a T-shirt and shorts.
In Colombo and popular tourist areas you can relax the dress code. ‘Are you married?’ could be the snappy conversation starter you hear most often, so if you are single consider wearing a fake wedding ring and carrying a few pics of your imaginary partner back home.
Women travelling alone may be hassled while walking around day and night, or while exploring isolated places. Physical harassment (grabbing and groping) can occur anywhere. Single women may be followed, so try to be connected with larger groups of people. There have also been cases of solo women being attacked by guides at heritage sites; again, don’t go alone.
However, travelling in Sri Lanka is not one long hassle. Unpleasant incidents are the exception, not the rule. But remember there are many social environments that are almost exclusively male in character – local bars, for example.
Stock up on tampons as they can be very hard to find.
Bus & Train Travel
Women travelling solo will find buses and trains trying at times. In Colombo ordinary buses are so packed that sometimes it’s impossible to avoid bodily contact with other passengers. Stray hands on crowded buses and trains happen; this is something that local women are also subjected to. Change your seat or sit with a local woman. If you gesture to a local woman to sit next to you, she’ll understand.
Women travelling solo should avoid night trains.
Sri Lanka is not a place to seek work, even in tourist places such as beach cafes or dive shops. The only foreigners who normally work in the country are hired for specific roles by companies ready to deal with a significant bureaucratic process.