Sri Lanka is an amazing country to go to on holiday. Here we look at important information about Sri Lanka you need to know before you land on the paradise island. In this Sri Lanka Travel Guide, we will go through the do’s and don’ts and more importantly, what to expect and how to best handle certain situations.
We visited touristy locations and we also travelled to the most remote parts of the country, including places that locals don’t travel to except for trade or family reasons. We stayed in mud huts, tree houses, 5-star hotels, and tents made using dried weaved coconut leaves.
TL; DR: Too Long Didn’t Read
There is a TL; DR summary under each heading.
Table of Contents
English is the major foreign language for Sri Lanka and is widely used almost as a second language. e.g. People usually speak one of the local languages (Sinhalese or Tamil) and English. Even in the most remote locations, there will be people who can speak English and people generally understand basic English even if they are not able to have a full conversation.
If someone doesn’t understand you, try speaking slowly and use alternative words and the most basic words. Whatever you do, don’t speak louder or shout.
While writing this, I remembered when my husband and I struggled to get a plaster in Palm Springs, USA, which caused a lot of confusion and got the attention of several people until we showed a photo on our phone to which they all said – “oooh you mean a BAND-AID”….
We can have Language barriers even when all parties are speaking the same language.
If you plan to stay for a long time, then forget everything we said and learn Tamil or Sinhalese depending on where you intend to spend most of your time.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Don’t bother with phrasebooks. People who don’t speak full sentences will still understand “Help”, “Thank you”, “Sorry”, “Water”, “Toilet”, “Hotel”, “Taxi”, “Car”, “Bus”, “Bike”, “Yes”, “No”, “Doctor”, “Pain”, “Hospital” etc.
16 essential travel tips when visiting Sri Lanka
Let’s get to the main part of the Sri Lanka travel guide.
1.) Mosquito repellent is a must and you should bring some with you
The best thing you can do is to bring plenty of mosquito repellent. The ones you find in Sri Lanka leave you smelling like a walking citronella tree.
No malaria in Sri Lanka
There is no malaria risk in Sri Lanka. The country was declared malaria-free by the World Health Organization in 2016
Dengue is probably worse
This is the biggest killer that’s transmitted by mosquitoes in Sri Lanka.
Another deadly disease carried by mosquitoes but less common now. You can get a vaccination for this. See the vaccinations section for more information
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: bring plenty of mosquito repellent.
2.) Money Exchange
It’s best to NOT exchange money before arriving. You will get ok rates at the airport. Don’t exchange all your money at once. Money exchanges (at large shopping centres), Banks and some of the bigger hotels will change your currency to Sri Lankan rupees at a very good rate.
You can also use credit and debit cards and use ATMs in many locations. We’ve found ATMs in remote locations throughout the country.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Don’t exchange all your money at the airport. Bring cash and cards. Don’t change money before arriving.
3.) Best to order a taxi over the phone than to take one from the street
You can use the PickMe app or Uber which is widely used for slightly longer journeys. (1+ KM). Using a credit card is advisable because most drivers don’t have enough change. (Links to these apps are at the bottom of the article, it’s best to install and have an account before you arrive).
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Get the apps at the bottom of this page before arriving.
4.) Tuk-Tuks are widely used, insist on using the meter or ..
Negotiate the price before you get in if there seems to be no other option.
In the big cities, you will be able to insist on using the meter as there will be many tuk-tuks. In smaller towns, you may need to negotiate the price.
My recommendation is to only go on tuk-tuks for the experience and order taxis using the apps (Uber or Pick Me App) for transport requirements.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide Tip: Although they are known as TukTuks in most countries, they are known as “Three-Wheelers” in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Use Tuk Tuks for fun, not for transport.
5.) It is rude to use your left hand for interacting with people
To receive money and pay for things always use your right hand. You should only use your right hand when eating (finger food), shaking hands or handing over cards, gifts or anything else with one hand.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Use your right hand whenever you interact with people with one hand.
6.) Careful with street food
Cooked food is generally safe to eat but it’s best to eat them while they are hot. When it comes to fruits, avoid fruits that have been cut open for a while.
Most street vendors will be happy to prepare a mongo fresh or pineapple. I insist on not having spices that they put on fruits when they are in liquid form.
It’s not the cooked food, but the sauces that could cause problems.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: When it comes to street food, fried food and fresh fruits are the safest to eat.
7.) Tea, Coffee, Juice – Drink Ceylon tea in Ceylon
Tea and Coffees by default served with milk and added sugar, make sure to specify if you don’t want milk or sugar in your drink. Fresh Juices – In most places are served with added sugar and salt.
Ceylon tea is a premium black tea. (Ceylon was the British colonial name for Sri Lanka). Sri Lanka is the fourth largest tea producer and the third largest tea exporter in the world.
If you find yourself in Kandy or Nuwara-Eliya then make sure to visit a tea factory. There are many tea factories and almost all of them are happy to show you around.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Try Ceylon tea without any milk and sugar so that you can taste it.
8.) Smiling is the third language and the smiles are genuine
If you are from a country and culture where smiling is considered to be friendly as most of my readers would be from, then you’ll find that most people are friendly and smiling all the time, similar to Thailand.
If you are from a culture where smiling at strangers or smiling for photographs is considered unusual or unhinged, then please be aware that people in Sri Lanka often smile and not smiling back would be considered rude.
Everyone smiles unless they are having a terrible day. And I mean everyone, including immigration officers, police and security personnel, random people etc.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Smile back when people smile.
It’s normal to stare at anything or anyone unusual here. They stare at men and women who look different. They’d also stare at locals if they see unusual equipment or if they see you filming or wearing unusual clothes etc.
If you confront them (as I’ve seen several rude and ignorant Youtubers who’ve done this), they will be perplexed as they don’t see anything wrong with stopping to look at what they consider to be fascinating.
If you are doing a semi-pro photo shoot outdoors (particularly outside of Colombo or Galle), it may be the most amusing thing they’ve seen in weeks. Do it for long enough and you’ll find mobile street food stalls creeping over too. It will be the same if it’s men or women, foreign or local, bikinis or sarees.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: People will stop and look at you, if you look interesting or if what you are doing is interesting. Embrace the attention or ignore it completely.
9.) People are often genuinely friendly and may treat you like a celebrity
This is a country where if you fall there will be a crowd that will try to help you up in an instant. If your car stalls, everyone around will volunteer to push your car.
In some areas where people don’t often see tourists, you may be treated like a visiting celebrity. People are happy to be photographed and often want to take photos with the visitor.
I didn’t want to be in selfies with people whom I’ve had no other interaction with. So, I refused to be in random selfies. It’s not rude to decline to be in their photographs. Just say “No thanks” and turn away.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Take photographs, people are interested in you and are often delighted when you take interest in them and what they do.
10.) Monkeys, Stray Dogs and other animals
Stray dogs and animals wandering around towns and villages are quite common in Sri Lanka. There are many stray dogs, cows and goats that walk about in towns and in some places, you will find monkeys too.
Interacting with monkeys can be risky as they can bite or scratch you, and they can carry the herpes B virus and rabies. If a person is bitten or scratched by a monkey, they should immediately call one of the emergency numbers found at the bottom of the article.
The same goes for dogs. You can get vaccinations for rabies before you arrive or you can get it soon after an interaction. But it will be fatal if you ignore it for days.
Rabies can be transmitted through saliva as well.
11.) Public Toilets – the jungle is a preferred option
Public toilets are generally terrible and you must have hand sanitiser at all times and always carry a pack of wipes/tissues with you.
Locations popular with tourists have better toilets. Good restaurants and hotel lobbies are also an option. As a tourist, public loos will be the worst thing you’d probably have to deal with. In most situations, the jungle is a preferred option compared to general public loos.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Hold until you can get to a place for tourists. Carry wipes and sanitise at all times.
Also, see my tip about street food for obvious reasons!
12.) Sunscreen and long sleeve clothing
I could make a Sri Lanka Travel Guide on what wear article but I’m going to keep this short.
Bring your own sunscreen when visiting Sri Lanka as the local selection isn’t amazing and is often more expensive due to import tax. Get the highest SPF factor and please buy reef-friendly sunscreen if you plan on swimming in the ocean.
I use and recommend Think Baby SPF 50. It’s Cruelty-Free, has No animal products, is Reef Friendly, and is powerful, yet gentle enough for pregnant moms and babies.
Order it on iHerb
Long sleeves and very thin cotton bottoms and a big hat
Long sleeve loose cotton clothing is most suitable. Sri Lanka is a conservative country and what you wear at the beach isn’t suitable for wearing when you are out and about in towns. Long sleeves are to protect you from the sun.
You can wear tank tops, shirts, t-shirts, shorts, high-heels, and flip-flops.
Visiting temples and sacred locations
You may have read other Sri Lanka travel guides about wearing particular clothes, but you can also rent both tops and a sarong if you happened to be wearing inappropriate clothes for visiting certain places. These are often located just outside of temples and will cost you a dollar.
So don’t worry about it if you are packing light. You will have to take off your shoes and socks when entering temples.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Bring sunscreen. Be sensible when it comes to clothing but don’t worry too much.
13.) Assumptions and standards
People are unaware of serious allergies.
Sometimes you need to double-check. e.g., Almond milk in Sri Lanka often means almond flavoured milk. We were able to avoid a situation because I was able to tell the difference from the smell alone. The English-speaking server at the particular flagship high-end local tea store didn’t know that almond milk was anything other than almond-flavoured milk. And yes, the menu said Almond Milk Tea.
Restaurants and bakers often treat their ingredients as trade secrets.
Pets in cages
People often have their pet dogs in small cages outside of their homes and don’t see that as animal abuse. These are things that will hopefully, change over time.
Sri Lankans in general will perform mental gymnastics to come up with reasons why it’s justifiable to charge tourists higher entrance fees.
I guess they are just being blunt and honest: “You are likely to have more money, so we charge you more”.
This is not unique to Sri Lanka, e.g., it’s the same if you visit the Taj Mahal in India. But as a country that depends on tourism, I’m surprised that Sri Lanka hasn’t come up with a different solution.
A less offensive option would be to have a standard price for “all” and come up with discounts for locals e.g., 90% off for Students & Parents, Military, Disabled, State pension, Government Employees etc. The result would be the same, but I’d be less annoyed about it.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Some places will charge foreigners extra for entry.
14.) So many holidays – every religion, every full moon
Once a month, on a full moon, Sri Lanka has a public holiday. Some shops and restaurants will be closed. All alcohol shops will be closed on full moon days. You can only find alcohol at places that cater mostly to tourists.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide tip: A list of holidays can be found here
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Just be mindful of holidays if you are organising your own itinerary.
15.) Be prepared for the weather
Dealing with the heat
When we arrived in Colombo, for the first couple of weeks the weather was so hot and extremely humid which for me was almost unbearable to cope with. I was questioning everything around me, how can people live and cope with this weather, go to school, work and get on with day-to-day life? And they do it so well. If I pop to the local shop and back, I would be drenched in sweat. It took a while to get used to the heat.
I’ve experienced hotter weather in Death Valley, California, but the heat with humidity is different (and worse unless you run out of water).
Rain and the monsoon season
It’s not what I thought. Yes, it rains every day with mainly short and sharp showers that tend to pass quite quickly.
I see it as being very therapeutic and relaxing which can be inconvenient when you need to travel.
In Colombo monsoon peaks between June and July.
Between May and September – Best to avoid Colombo & the West Coast
Bentota, Colombo, Negombo, Kalpitiya, Galle, Weligama, Mirissa, Tangalle, Yala National Park
Between October and January – Best to avoid the East Coast
Passekudah, Trincomalee, Arugam Bay, Batticaloa, Nilaveli, Kuchchaveli
November and December – Avoid The Cultural Triangle
Dambulla, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Minneriya National Park
Kandy & Tea Country – You can visit year-round
Kandy, Ella, Nuwara Eliya, Haputale, Hatton.
It can rain at any time here.
December to May – The best time for Adam’s Peak
The weather in Sri Lanka is always hot and humid. It’s best to keep yourself hydrated at all times. Safest to drink is bottled water or King coconut which can be found everywhere.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide Tip: Take a reusable straw with you. It’s better for the environment and sometimes more hygienic.
16.) Sims, data connections, WiFi
Dialog is the biggest mobile network provider and you can get a sim card from the airport. I highly recommend that you get one on arrival.
If you are on the Three network in the UK you can use data and call home without needing to do anything else. It should just work. You can’t, however, call Sri Lankan numbers with your plan without incurring fees.
I used Three UK for unlimited data and used Skype Out via data for cheap calls to Sri Lankan numbers when needed. WhatsApp was also very handy. It was cheap and convenient.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Check if your current plan includes cheap data roaming in Sri Lanka, if not get a sim at the Airport.
Your questions about Sri Lanka
Is it safe for tourists to travel to Sri Lanka?
Yes, Sri Lanka is a tourist-friendly country that relies on tourism. Standing out as a tourist will get your favourable attention in most situations.
What should you absolutely not do in Sri Lanka?
1.) Don’t bring your views of politics and religion into debates as a tourist. Sri Lanka is diverse in views and religion and that extends to extreme views held by some.
2.) Images of the Buddha as decoration (scarves, clothing, tattoos) are not acceptable. Keep these under wraps. When taking selfies or photos with Buddha statues, stand sideways so that your back isn’t facing the statue.
3.) Dress appropriately: What’s perfectly fine at the beach isn’t acceptable in the city no matter how hot it is.
4.) Drugs. Many drugs that are ok in other countries are illegal in Sri Lanka and carry harsh punishments. But worse, society and law enforcement look down on drug activity, so you won’t be treated kindly.
What are some of the most important things to bring to Sri Lanka?
1.) Mosquito repellent, unless you are happy with the basic very fragrant citronella versions found locally.
2.) Reef-friendly sunscreen that doesn’t make you look like a ghost. Also, a hat.
3.) Feminine hygiene products (Pads, Tampons etc) as what’s available locally are very basic.
What shouldn’t you do as a tourist in Sri Lanka?
You shouldn’t do anything other than being a tourist if you say you are a visitor. In other words, don’t be a missionary, a political activist, a journalist etc. Don’t join protests if there are any. Being a Youtuber or a Photographer is fine if your subject is related to travel, yoga, herbal medicine or wildlife etc but not if it’s investigative journalism.
What vaccinations should I take when visiting Sri Lanka
Consider: Diphtheria, Tetanus, Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B
Is it rude to use your left hand in Sri Lanka?
Yes. You should only use your right hand when eating (finger food), shaking hands or handing over money, cards, gifts or anything else with one hand.
What to do in emergencies in Sri Lanka
From a local phone or local sim
Ambulance, fire and rescue 110
Tourist police 1912 (dedicated to helping tourists)
Tourist police 0112382209
From a foreign roaming phone just use +94 first and omit the first 0 if there is one.
Should I always carry my passport in Sri Lanka?
YES. It’s best to carry your passport as it’s legally required to carry an ID with you. If there is a reason not to. e.g., if you are likely to get wet due to trekking or sporting activities then carry a photocopy of the passport along with the visa and keep photos of the passport and visa on your phone as well.
Is Sri Lanka safe for solo travellers?
Yes. Personal safety is fine. People are generally helpful and will come to your aid. Pickpockets and theft are common but muggings are rare. Best not to travel alone at night.
Vaccinations when visiting Sri Lanka
This travel guide to Sri Lanka won’t be complete without mentioning vaccinations that you should consider.
You should consider the following:
Diphtheria and Tetanus.
Also, Rabies (Hydrophobia in humans. Monkeys and stray dogs can carry this) Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.
Using cameras and filming equipment including drones
DSLRs and large lenses that go with them
Prosumer cameras are not a problem e.g. DSLRs, Mirrorless cameras, action cameras etc. Many tourists and local hobbyists use large cameras for wildlife photography, travel photography, YouTube-style video, and action cams for diving, surfing, kite surfing and trekking. No one will notice.
Large video cameras, boom mics, large lighting rigs with a tourist visa
If your equipment looks like what a news team would use, then this is where eyebrows will be raised and you may end up getting unwanted attention from authorities. Especially if you have professional tripods, boom mics etc.
Using drones is a little bit of a pain due to restrictions.
Please see the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka website for more information.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide tip: If you are filming for commercial purposes, it may be better to find a Sri Lankan media company to help with the process.
Emergencies | what to do and whom to call
Tourist that needs any help from the police while in Sri Lanka can dial 1912 or 0112421451
Doctors in Sri Lanka speak and understand English.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide tip: If you need to get to a hospital just stop any vehicle and say “Hospital” or “Doctor” if it’s not obvious that you need one.
Numbers to call in an emergency
From a local phone or local sim call:
- Police 119
- Ambulance, fire and rescue 110
- Tourist police 1912 (dedicated to helping tourists)
- Tourist police 0112382209
If you are calling using a foreign roaming phone, just use the country code for Sri Lanka +94 first and omit the first 0 if there is one.
e.g., +94112382209 for the tourist police.
Sri Lanka travel guide to hospitals both public and private
Public hospitals are free. Standards are highly inconsistent and can be anywhere between groundbreaking world-class to just 3rd world. Although technically tourists shouldn’t use these, tourists that use public hospitals for injuries are not charged (based on non-personal anecdotal evidence). Private hospitals are plentiful and are significantly cheaper than in most countries.
Travel insurance – Sri Lanka travel guide
You should get travel insurance regardless of which country you visit.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide tip: There is nothing particularly special about travel insurance for Sri Lanka
What I wore in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Travel Guide on what to wear…. Nothing particularly special. I wore gym clothes to the gym, beach wear to the beach. Mostly shorts, tees and hats when out and about. When visiting temples, I wore short sleeves with longer bottoms.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide tip: If you are in Colombo, look for a Brand called ODEL. They are a very high-quality clothing store.
Interesting places that we stayed in Sri Lanka
Not a problem in Colombo. Look for a brand called ODEL for quality clothing. Some of the clothes I bought on my first trip are still usable 7 years later!
Anything over 50 years is considered antique. Please check with customs before exporting.
Fruits and Vegetables
This is only applicable if you are living here or have particular requirements as we do.
Fruits and vegetables are very cheap compared to most countries. So many new things to try too.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide – Final thoughts
Hopefully, you found this Sri Lanka Travel Guide to be helpful, especially for first-time visitors. Sri Lanka is safe for tourists and very friendly as long as you are being sensible and aware of your surroundings, cultural differences and your belongings. Sri Lankans are very tolerant and understanding when it comes to tourists.
If you can think of anything I’ve missed in this Sri Lanka Travel Guide, then please leave a comment or get in touch with me.
Sri Lanka Travel Guide TL; DR: Enjoy your trip to Sri Lanka and make wonderful memories.
Sources and Resources
Taxi Apps in Sri Lanka
Pick me app (Uber alternative in Sri Lanka – English)
Getting Phone Connections in Sri Lanka
Three UK – Use data without roaming fees
Public Holidays in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka travel requirements
Landing Requirements to Sri Lanka for Travellers can be found here