Traveling in Sri Lanka: 15 Practical Tips

Sri Lanka is the perfect destination for a trip filled with culture, nature, and adventure. You’ll find that traveling through Sri Lanka feels very authentic, immersing you in a completely different world. The culture is vastly different from home, and various things work just a bit differently than you might be used to. That’s why it’s always good to start your journey well-prepared when visiting a distant destination. This way, you can make the most of it and hopefully avoid any unpleasant surprises. We’ve visited Sri Lanka multiple times and have compiled 15 practical tips and handy insights for you. This will help you get the most out of your trip to Sri Lanka!

#1 Sri Lanka is a country in development

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, but when traveling through it, it’s important to keep the recent history of the country in mind. From 1983 to 2009, there was a civil war between the Tamils and Sinhalese, resulting in over 70,000 casualties in 26 years of conflict. Afterward, tourism slowly picked up, along with the economy. However, subsequent crises, such as those following the 2019 bombings that deterred tourists and then the COVID-19 pandemic, weakened the economy. Sri Lanka is thus a country in development, facing various challenges that travelers may encounter, such as stray dogs, power outages, and waste incineration. Despite these challenges, which are typical of a developing country, traveling through Sri Lanka is remarkably beautiful. The welcoming population is thrilled that their country is being visited again, and the richness of nature will surely surprise you.

#2 This is the best time to visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a warm and tropical climate. Throughout the year, it’s warm everywhere on the island except in the highlands in destinations such as Nuwara Eliya and Ella. Especially at night, it can get quite chilly there, so pack some warm clothes. The best time to visit Sri Lanka isn’t straightforward because there are two alternating monsoon seasons on different parts of the island. Below, you’ll find more information on this.

Weather in Sri Lanka from May to September

Between May and September, you have a high chance of sunny weather in the north and east of Sri Lanka. In the south, west, and inland areas, you’re more likely to encounter rain due to the Yala monsoon, also known as the southwest monsoon. Since many popular destinations are in these regions, it’s best to plan your trip to Sri Lanka outside of these months. If that’s not possible, don’t immediately rule out Sri Lanka. During these months, it’s guaranteed to rain more often, but there’s also a significant chance of sunny days. Usually, the rain falls in the morning or evening and is often short-lived.

Weather in Sri Lanka from October to April

Between October and April, you have the best chance of good weather in the south, west, and inland areas of Sri Lanka. In the north and east, the Maha monsoon is active, also known as the northeast monsoon. The north and east of Sri Lanka have fewer popular destinations, except for Arugam Bay. Especially in the months of November, December, and January, most shops and restaurants in Arugam Bay are closed because fewer people travel here during this period.

#3 Yes and No Nodding Works Differently in Sri Lanka

In both India and Sri Lanka, people nod their heads differently. They have a certain way of bobbling their heads that we don’t quite understand. The ‘yes’ nodding looks a lot like our way of ‘no’ nodding, so it can sometimes be confusing. Finding the communication challenging? Then ask a local about the exact differences and how to best distinguish between yes and no.

#4 They Drive on the Left Side of the Road in Sri Lanka

Adjusting to driving on the left side of the road can take some getting used to when you’ve just arrived in Sri Lanka. Pay extra attention to this when crossing the road. Additionally, traffic in Sri Lanka is very chaotic with lots of honking and daring overtaking maneuvers. From scooters and tuk-tuks to local buses, every road user overtakes each other, even on a single-lane road. They use their horn to signal that they are passing you. Planning to drive a scooter, tuk-tuk, or car yourself? Take it easy and stay alert. Even if you’re a good driver, the danger mainly lies in other road users.

#5 Power Cuts are a Common Occurrence

Especially when it’s raining heavily, you can expect power outages frequently in Sri Lanka. Sometimes it’s fixed within ten minutes, and other times it lasts an entire day. The more expensive hotels and restaurants have generators, so you never run out of power, but in a cheaper guesthouse, you might have no electricity for a part of the day or even a full day. Therefore, it’s wise to always fully charge all your devices and bring a power bank when traveling.

Tip: You can purchase an eSIM for Sri Lanka before your trip. Activate this digital SIM card just before departure, and you can immediately use mobile internet in Sri Lanka upon arrival.

#6 Unique Accommodation Experiences in Sri Lanka

During your travels in Sri Lanka, you’ll stay in many different accommodations. It’s fun to plan at least one extra special overnight stay during your trip. A unique accommodation can make your trip even more special. You turn a practical part of your journey into an extra highlight. We’ve searched for the 10 most unique accommodations in Sri Lanka in various price ranges. Think of an incredible treehouse in the jungle or an idyllic bungalow amidst palm trees on the beach.

#7 You Can Have Lunch for $1 at the Bakeries

Throughout Sri Lanka, you’ll find bakeries selling the tastiest sandwiches for very little money. The sweet rolls often contain jam, and the savory rolls are filled with ingredients like chicken, vegetables, and egg with some strong spices. Especially the vegetable roti, chicken puff, and sausage bun are recommended. When you hear Beethoven’s famous song (Für Elise) echoing through the streets, the mobile bakery is approaching. This is a tuk-tuk full of delicious fresh rolls, and you’ll see them driving around every morning and afternoon. They should have those everywhere, right? Unfortunately, we don’t have tips on how to get this song out of your head after your trip.

#8 The Outlet Trick

When you arrive in Sri Lanka for the first time and immediately want to charge your phone, you’ll likely not have much success. The outlet opening is blocked, and ideally, you’d need a universal adapter for this. However, you can easily use the outlets without a universal adapter. There’s a trick: insert a pen into the top hole and simultaneously plug your charger into the bottom two holes. That might sound like a foolish action, but believe us, it won’t do any harm because there’s no power in the top hole. By inserting a pen into the top hole, you remove the protection from the bottom two holes. So you don’t need to bring universal adapters to Sri Lanka.

#9 How Bus Travel Works in Sri Lanka

Traveling by bus in Sri Lanka is an amazing experience. You can easily cover your entire journey using public transportation, but if not, you should at least take one ride on a local bus. How does it work with buses in Sri Lanka? Simple: you go to the bus station and get on the right bus, or you can flag down the bus when you see it passing by. The buses often display the final destination, but you can always double-check by asking the driver. When you want to get off, you press one of the buttons on the ceiling or ask the bus conductor if you can alight. You’ll mainly see traditional buses in Sri Lanka. These are tin cans on wheels with lots of bells and whistles. Also, these buses can really move. The red buses belong to the government and are the cheapest but least comfortable. The white and blue buses are slightly more expensive but have more comfortable seats.

You don’t need to buy a ticket in advance. The bus conductor comes around in the bus for payment. So, make sure you have cash with you. The buses almost always play loud Sri Lankan music, and all the doors and windows are open. An authentic travel experience indeed! Fortunately, the distances in Sri Lanka are not huge, and you usually don’t spend much more than three hours at a stretch on the bus. However, a noise-canceling headphone can be a good addition.

Tip: Between some destinations, there are also comfortable minibusses with air conditioning. These buses cost a little more, but you are assured of your own seat, and they often take less time than the local buses. In our destination articles, you can read how to travel between destinations.

#10 Easily Book a Taxi via Uber or Pick Me

The Sri Lankan version of Uber is Pick Me. Both Uber and Pick Me operate in Sri Lanka, allowing you to book affordable car, tuk-tuk, or scooter rides. However, the availability of these services varies by destination. In some coastal areas, it’s harder to get an Uber or Pick Me. The local tuk-tuk drivers don’t accept these cheap drivers there. Sometimes they are even threatened. You’ll notice when the app struggles to find a driver for you, and then it’s better to use regular taxi or tuk-tuk drivers.

#11 Always Carry Some Toilet Paper in Your Bag

There’s hardly ever toilet paper in public toilets in Sri Lanka. Having standard toilet paper in your bag can be very handy.

#12 Dress Appropriately in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan women often dress modestly, covering up to their knees and shoulders. If you, as a Western woman, walk around in a small top and shorts, you attract attention on the streets. In Sri Lankan culture, this is akin to someone doing groceries in a bikini in the West. However, this is much less of an issue when you’re at a beach destination like Mirissa or Hiriketiya; there, you can walk around with shorts or lie on the beach in your bikini just fine. If you’re in a less touristy area or traveling by public transport, it’s more appropriate to dress more conservatively.

In temples, both men and women should cover their shoulders and knees. You must always remove your shoes when entering a temple complex. It’s handy to pack a pair of socks in your bag because the tiles around the temples can get quite hot from the sun.

Also good to know: You should never take a selfie or photo where you’re posing with your back to Buddha. This is considered extremely disrespectful. A photo where you’re facing Buddha is fine. Additionally, you should never touch Buddha’s head because this is the holiest part of the body.

#13 These are the Tastiest Dishes of Sri Lanka

We love Sri Lankan food! Besides being super cheap, it’s also incredibly delicious. You can somewhat compare it to Indian cuisine but with a slight twist. Here are some dishes you definitely should try when you’re in Sri Lanka:

Rice & Curry – This dish is almost on every menu in local restaurants. You often get at least 6 bowls with different kinds of dishes. This usually includes vegetarian curries, dahl, coconut sambol, papadum, and rice. You can choose to have fish or chicken with it.
Roti – This is a kind of filled pancake that can be topped with both savory and sweet fillings. The roti banana and Nutella and the roti chicken with cheese are recommended. Our absolute favorite is the vegetable roti with potato, beans, and spicy herbs. This roti is folded into a triangle and is sold on every street corner in Sri Lanka. A delicious snack that’s often quite spicy.
Kottu – This dish can be somewhat compared to a plate of noodles. Instead of noodles, they use the dough of roti which they chop into small pieces. They cook it with vegetables, chicken, egg, or fish. Delicious for both lunch and dinner.
Hawaiian coconut cookies – Okay, this isn’t a dish, but these cookies are so tasty that we can’t leave them out. They sell Hawaiian coconut cookies in the yellow packaging in almost every supermarket. These are simple but tasty cookies that are ideal for a long bus ride.

#14 Consider the Busy Pilgrimage Season and Monthly Festivals

Every full moon is Poya, a holiday for the Buddhist people. On these days, most Sri Lankans are off and go on pilgrimages to temples, among other activities. It’s a beautiful sight to see the local people all dressed in white, offering colored flowers for blessings. Temples and religious sites are extra crowded on these days. Also, some hikes to viewpoints can be crowded as well. Always check on which day the next full moon falls and what your plans are for that day. It’s especially remarkable at temples when many people make offerings, but we’d like to spare you from being stuck in a crowd of people during your hike to a viewpoint. In December and January, many Sri Lankans are on vacation, making religious sites and public transport busier.

#15 Sri Lanka Is Very Easy to Explore Independently

You don’t need to go to Sri Lanka with a tour company. It’s a very easy and safe country to travel through independently. We’ve been there several times and share all the tips you need to make your own round trip. To make it easy for you, we’ve mapped out the ideal travel route through Sri Lanka and written a separate article about each destination. These articles describe how to get there, what there is to do, and provide tips for the best restaurants and accommodations. We’ve also created a list of our favorite spots in Sri Lanka. So, you can easily plan your trip to Sri Lanka yourself. Have fun!