This post provides basic travel information for Sri Lanka. It’s devided in following sections:
- Moving around: personal driver, car rental & public transport
- Food & drinks
- People & money
Make sure to read our other posts about Sri Lanka as well:
In August this year Air Serbia offered cheap tickets to Sri Lanka, Colombo from Berlin – around 450EUR for a roundtrip, with dates available from September through December. Without much thinking we decided to spend 2.5 weeks of September on that beautiful island.
Sri Lanka is a big island with multiple attractions spread across the entire country. In order to see as much as possible you need to choose your means of transportation on the island wisely.
This is a very popular option for tourist who don’t have much time and would like to make the most of their trip. Hiring a car with a driver is often cheaper than regular car rental. It costs around 50$ day and covers everything: car, driver, fuel, driver’s accommodation and food. Due to our tight schedule we decided to go with that option for the first 6 days of our trip. Basing on our experience here are some pros and cons of personal driver:
- Flexible journey plan
- No upfront booking required for accommodation – driver advises hotels on the way
- Knowledgeable driver often advises the journey plan and attractions to see (or skip)
- No time wasted looking for the way
- No risk in driving car on busy roads (often in bad shape)
- Easy and relaxed travelling
- Usually very safe
- Drivers suggest restaurants and hotels that are often overpriced or very touristic. They have some interests in that – share in profits, better overnight or meals, supporting friends
- This way of travelling can be less joyful for some people, as they may feel it’s too easy/touristic
- Make sure that you book a car with unlimited mileage, so there are no unpleasant surprises.
- Search for a reliable, English speaking driver in internet basing on travelers recommendation.
Renting a car on Sri Lanka is a flexible way to travel but you have to remember about some important facts. Traffic in Sri Lanka is nothing like in USA or Europe. People are not bound to the road rules that much 😉 You can expect very little appreciation for signs or lanes. The essential feature of any vehicle is the horn! Use it frequently, so other drivers are aware of your location. In bigger cities you will be surrounded by tuk-tuks (3-wheel taxis) and motorbikes all the time. Roads are often in bad shape – 2 roads that look similar on the map can vary drastically. There are very little highways, but the few that exist are all new and safe to drive. Travelling 100km can take up to several hours, depending on the road type and traffic conditions. Oh, and they drive on the left-hand side of the road!
Anyway, all the above did not scare us off and we rented a car for the 3 last days of our journey. After the first shock caused by intense and chaotic traffic in Colombo we got used to the driving style and started enjoying it. Especially the horning! It was more expensive than hiring a driver with a car, but even more flexible (and more fun!). If booked early you can get much better deals. The gas is very cheap, around 1$/liter.
- Make sure to choose a car with unlimited mileage or at least a high allowance. Otherwise you will have to pay for excess kilometers
- Check your car carefully before renting – they are often in bad shape
- Rent a car with automatic gearbox
If you have more time or little money you can use public transport. We travelled by train from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy and it was a lot of fun (read more in attractions section). Train tickets were very cheap but the train itself was rather slow.
We did not have a chance to ride a bus, but there is a lot of them on roads and they seem to go quite frequently, so you don’t have to wait long at the bus stop. Be aware that bus drivers drive like crazy, overtaking on narrow roads with high speed etc. While driving a car I had to stop a lot to let them through on my lane, otherwise we’d crash.
On short distances the best option to commute are tuk-tuks i.e. 3-wheel taxis. Just remember to negotiate the price upfront!
Sri Lanka is a quite touristic country with a large variety of accommodation offerings, especially around popular attractions. The price for a basic hotel room with a fan, private bathroom and a fridge starts from around 20$/room, breakfast included. Even cheaper option would be private rooms offered by locals, which you can find directly from the street or by asking your tuk-tuk driver.
Except the first night we didn’t book any hotels on our route. Instead, we relied on our driver’s advice. This wasn’t the best idea, as hotels recommended by the driver were always a bit more expensive i.e. around 40$/night.
The most expensive accommodation we had was in Kalpitiya, where we stayed for 7 days for kitesurfing after travelling across the country. We had a private bungalow with a bathroom and a broken AC for 100EUR/night. The high price is caused by the fact that in that neighborhood there are not many hotels with direct lagoon access, which is important for kitesurfers. Most of kite schools in this area also offer cheaper accommodation in dorms.
Food & drinks
The Sri Lankan food is delicious and usually relatively cheap. The price of course depends where you order it. In a fancy restaurant (again – recommended by the driver) the main meal costs around 12$, which is a lot for that island. For a very good, fresh seafood in a beach restaurant (full fish, prawns, crabs, lobster) you will pay 5-8$.
If you are brave enough you can also try some street food – we did that several times without any repercussions. We always tried to select a place that looked popular among locals. Such local meal, prepared freshly after ordering, costs 1.5$ 🙂
Breakfast & desserts
In all hotels breakfast is exactly the same: eggs cooked to your liking, toasts & fruits (pineapple, banana & papaya). In Kalpitiya we also got some pancakes. When choosing your eggs we recommend to ask for a Sri Lankan omelet! All Sri Lankan desserts were much too sweet for our taste. However, we recommend fresh fruits, which you can get everywhere for very little money: bananas, pineapples, passion fruits, papayas, coconuts and many, many more!
Drinks & Alcohol
The must-try beverage on Sri Lanka is of course the world-famous Ceylon tea, which comes in multiple types and flavors: black/green/white, whole/broken leaf, silver/golden tips … You can get easily lost in terminology and variety. It’s probably not possible to try them all 😉
On the other hand the coffee in hotels is usually awful. But who would drink coffee if there is so much good, strong tea around!
Alcohol can be purchased at so called “Wine stores” with no problems. We recommend to start tasting with their national liquor – coconut Arak. To be honest we didn’t like it that much when drank straight, but it was quite good with tonic. For beer fans the choice is small – the most popular brand (and the only one we could find) is “Lion”, which comes as Lager or Stout. The 600ml bottle costs around 1.5$.
- Many Sri Lankan dishes are very spicy!
People & money
Sri Lankan people are usually very friendly and open. However, you can be sure that if someone approaches you and starts a conversation it means that eventually they will try to sell you something. The standard set of questions is:
“Hello, where do you come from?” -> “For how long in Sri Lanka?” -> “Do you need a guide/taxi/room/…?”.
You better just accept it, otherwise you may get quickly annoyed.
When negotiating prices for services remember that they expect tips for everything: helping carrying luggage for 10 meters, finding a lotus flower for you, showing directions etc. If a service has a fixed price expect to reserve some more for tips. A good example is a visit to the farm house (see more in attractions section). The entire tour costs 2000LKR, everything included. However, you will get there by a carriage (tip for “driver”), visit the farm house (tips for ladies living in there) and come back by tuk-tuk (tip for the driver). And your 2000LKR turns into 3500LKR very quickly…
Different category are children, who smile to each tourist and sometimes try to chat. They enjoy it a lot because they can practice their English. They are also usually very keen to pose for pictures or take pictures with you with their phones. This part we enjoyed more, as there were no strings attached and no business tried to be made.
- Before coming to Sri Lanka we were warned about thefts. Some of our friends got robbed on the street, some lost their belonging from their hotel. We never felt threatened during the entire trip. However, make sure that you have your money, credit cards and passport safely stored.
- For hotels and taxi you can usually pay both in LKR and USD.
- Best exchange rate for USD is offered at the airport.