So you’ve found your way to the paradise island. Congratulations!
Here’s our guide for the newcomer to Sri Lanka. Whether you’re visiting for a holiday or relocating to live here as an expat, this guide is filled with essential information you need to know to settle in like an expert local.
Transport, Money, Internet, Phones, Attire and Holidays. Read on to find out our essential tips and tricks to setting into life in Sri Lanka.
Transport – getting in and getting around:
Unless you have a car arranged to collect you at the airport, most journeys will start with getting into Colombo.
There are frequent local shuttle buses, but I recommend booking a taxi – it’s relatively cheap and much more comfortable, especially if you find yourself arriving during peak hours. Both the PickMe and Uber apps can transfer you from the airport. It’s easy to book a car once you’re in the arrivals hall and the vehicle will usually arrive in 5-10 minutes. A typical trip from the airport to Colombo costs from Rs. 1,500 ($9.50).
Colombo Fort is the main train station and next to it is Pettah bus stand where you can get air conditioned and local buses to most destinations. There’s also plenty of tuk tuks in this area, although watch out for those quoting ridiculously high fares.
If you’re heading down to the South Coast, we’ve got all the info you need on how to get there in our in-depth guide to Sri Lanka’s South Coast.
Money – what to bring and how to spend it:
The currency of Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan Rupee (Rs.) At the time of writing in May 2018 Rs. 1000 is equivalent to USD $6.35 / GBP 4.65 / EUR 5.30.
As with many countries in South Asia and South East Asia, life in Sri Lanka can be lived very cheaply if you use public transport and eat where the locals do. This is no hardship as the local cuisine, centered around rice & curries, freshly made rotti, kottu and mountains of fruit, is simply delicious.
Fancy western style restaurants, high end shops and cocktail bars will be much more expensive. Alcohol particularly is at a premium compared to other locations like Thailand and Vietnam.
Although restaurants and shops on the tourist trail may accept US Dollars, for most places it is best to have your cash in Sri Lankan Rupees. There are foreign exchange money counters available at the airport arrivals hall and in all major towns.
Larger establishments will accept credit cards, typically Visa and Mastercard. American Express is not widely accepted yet. Smaller shops, cafes and hostels will only take cash. The good news is ATMs are widespread so you don’t need to travel with large amounts of cash. Most will charge a small fee for using an international card.
Getting connected – internet and phone options in Sri Lanka:
Sri Lanka has a great internet network and 4G is available across most of the island, especially in the tourist areas.
Whilst most cafes and restaurants offer wifi, it is normal for this to be limited to a certain period of time, so getting your own SIM is a must.
At the airport you can pick up a tourist sim or you can also buy one direct from the provides, just remember to take your ID along with you.
There are two main carriers: Dialog and Mobitel.
Etisalat is also a player. Their coverage is not as good as the others but they do offer unlimited internet packages for short periods, e.g. 7 days.
Call credit is purchased on a pre-paid basis and it’s easy to find small value scratch cards at most street stalls (look for the logo of your provider outside). Data can be topped up at data points, or by using existing call credit to purchase data packages via text.
Unlimited internet is not the norm here so you have to buy top up cards that last for 30 days. Packages are also split between day and night data. There are a range of options available. For example on Dialog: Rs. 199 ($1.25) gives you 1GB day and 1GB night data. Rs. 949 ($6) gives you 7GB day and 8GB night data. Large packages are available for those who need large amounts, so don’t worry digital nomads.
Clothing – what to wear:
In any country it’s important to be respectful of the local culture and traditions and Sri Lanka is no different.
Whilst sunbathing there is no problem with wearing bikini’s and swimming shorts, but once you leave the beach it’s important to cover up. Signs have even been put up in Aragum Bay at the start of this season to remind tourists to respect the culture and not walk around the street unless they’re properly dressed.
Sri Lanka still has a conservative culture and you will see the locals rarely show off bare skin beyond their forearms and lower legs. This is particularly true for women. If you dress in short skirts or backless / low cut tops expect to draw a lot of attention.
To visit any religious site, knees and shoulders should be covered up. It’s a great idea to keep a sarong or scarf with you to wrap around in case you come across an unexpected temple. Hats and shoes should also be removed before entering as a sign of respect.
What to carry with you – the essentials:
Keep these essentials with you in your bag wherever you are in Sri Lanka:-
- ID – it’s a good idea to carry with you a copy of your passport and visa. If not on paper, then on your phone. Police do conduct random stops to check documents. They will ask for your real passport but most will be okay to accept the copy as a substitute.
- Driving License – if you plan on hiring a scooter, make sure you carry your driving license. As above, often the police conduct spot checks on tourists on bikes, particularly in the evenings.
- Water – this country is hot! Do not underestimate how hot & dehydrating it can be. Bring a reusable bottle to keep water cold and help save Sri Lanka (and the world) from the mounting problem of plastic rubbish.
- Sarong or scarf. Perfect for visiting temples as a makeshift shoulder wrap / long skirt, this is also great to cover up in the hot sun.
Special Occasions – Poya Days and Bank Holidays
The four main religions in Sri Lanka are Buddhism, Hinduism Islam and Christianity. All are represented in the holiday calendar at some point in the year.
Every full moon (usually once a month) there is a public holiday in Sri Lanka. Called a Poya Day, on this day Buddhists will visit the temple and a significant amount of businesses will be closed.
On Poya days the sale of Alcohol is prohibited for the 24 hour period. This means that if the Poya day is on a Saturday, bars will stop serving at midnight on Friday.
In tourist spots it is still possible to be served alcohol in some bars and restaurants upon request. They may give it to you in secret, for example beer in a tea pot!
The public holidays remaining in 2018 are:
7 May – May Day
29 May – Poya day
15 June – Id Ul-Fitr
27 June – Poya day
27 July – Esala Poya day
22 August – Id Ul-Alha
25 August – Poya day
24 September – Poya day
24 October – Poya day
20 November – Milad un Nabi
22 November – Poya day
22 December – Poya day
25 December – Christmas day
For more information on the holidays in 2018, click here.
Now you’re set up with the essentials, it’s time to start travelling! Check out our essential guide to train travel to get you started.