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*I spent 10 days in Sri Lanka in July 2013 and I had a wonderful time! In this blog post, I am going to give you an overview of the country, and provide travel tips and recommendations for things like culture, attractions, food, nightlife and more. Everything you read is based off my own experiences.
Sri Lanka is a great place on planet earth.
It’s greener than almost anywhere you can imagine, is home to some incredible wildlife, has some of the friendliest people and is extremely affordable. They don’t call it “the hidden treasure of Asia” for no reason.
Rather than writing about a specific city in Sri Lanka, I decided to talk about the country as a whole- because most travelers go there to explore many parts of this small tropical island. I only had 10 days to adventure around, but I feel like I accomplished everything that I wanted.
Everything in Sri Lanka sort of…just..goes.
It seems like there is ZERO law enforcement, despite frequently seeing cops on the streets. Driving in general is a complete mess. Everyone is very aggressive and obsessively honks their horn, even if they are just passing by a car. On nearly every road, you’ll find a variety of bicycles, motorbikes, Tuk Tuks (3 wheeled taxis), cars and buses all driving in the same lanes. I was always very cautious when I was riding in a tuk tuk, because it felt like we were about to get demolished by a truck. Another thing that took me a minute to get used to is that people drive on the left side of the road (in opposition to the U.S.)
Public transportation is quite the experience.
I underestimated how long trains and buses would take, so give yourself some extra time for traveling around. I’ve never seen so many people packed into a single train and/or bus in my life. People literally hang out the sides of fast moving trains like no big deal. At least they get to take in the fresh breeze, because air conditioning is hard to come by in Sri Lanka!
Alright, let’s dive into some quick facts:
– Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR)
– Language: 2 official languages: Sinhala and Tamil
– Population: 20 million
– Sri Lanka is in the shape of a teardrop off the South Eastern coast of India
– Cricket is the most popular sport and is played everywhere
– Its nickname is the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”
– It is the World’s largest tea exporter
– Over 80% of the population practices Buddhism
– The national flag is said to be one of the oldest in the world
– Over 6,000 elephants live on the island
Culture & People
Sri Lankans are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, hands down.
People literally go out of their way to greet with you a smile and a “Good Morning.” Most of them speak (or at least understand) some English, so they always were helpful for any questions that I had.
I never felt uncomfortable in any situation, even when I was completely surrounded by Sri Lankans on the train. Most of them will ask you for money in any scenario, but you can literally give them 20 rupee (15 cents) and they will be happy. They just need money to buy clothes and food, because many of the people are homeless.
I got a kick out of the way that Sri Lankan’s dress themselves. Guys wear polos or button downs for their top layer (despite it being really hot outside). And for their bottom layer, many of them wear a Sarong, which is a long cloth they wrap around their waste like a towel. Sarongs are usually plaid or have printed designs on them. It’s kind of funny because you’ll see many men wearing a plaid button down with a plaid Sarong. What an amazing look!
Most Sri Lankan women wear these things called a Sari, or Kandyan Sari, which are very colorful ‘drapes’ that look really cool on their bodies. A sari is typically wrapped around the waist with one end draped over the women’s shoulders. Finally, don’t be surprised when you see many poor men and women not wearing shoes when they are outside. A good pair of shoes isn’t easy to come by.
I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and make some new local friends! Click this link to learn the Top 10 Sinhala Words to keep in your back pocket 😉
What to Do?
If you are pressed for time and can only visit one city, then GO TO KANDY. It’s a city in the south central part of Sri Lanka, and it was my favorite place in the country.
Why go to Kandy?
It is the 2nd largest city in Sri Lanka, behind the capital city Colombo. The city lies in the middle of the Sri Lankan hills, in the midst of tropical plantations, mainly tea. Kandy is also home to the Temple of the Golden Tooth (shown in pic), which is one of the most sacred places in the Buddhism world. My friend and I hired a private driver for $40 (USD) per day, and he literally drove us around from place to place for 8 hours. He even waited for us at each destination. It was awesome. Within the 8 hours, we went to a tea plantation, a spice garden, we rode elephants, and he also drove us to the top of the mountain where the huge Buddha statue is. It was one of the best days of my life!
The second must-do while in Sri Lanka is hike Adams Peak (Sri Pada). The mountain is about 3-4 hours by train from Colombo. It’s famous for holding Buddha’s footprint in Buddhism traditions.
Christian and Islamic traditions assert that it is the footprint of Adam left when first setting foot on Earth after having been cast out of paradise, giving it the name “Adam’s Peak.” Let me assure you that this hike is NOT easy. It’s over 5,000 steps in total, and it takes about 6 hours from start to finish. You must wake up at 2AM to begin, so you can see the sunrise in the morning! It was one of the coolest moments of my life- to overlook all of Sri Lanka while the sun was rising. It’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment to make it up there, and something I’ll never forget.
Next thing you have to do is GO TO THE BEACH!
Sri Lanka undoubtedly has some of the nicest beaches that I’ve ever seen. I spent most of my time on Hikkaduwa Beach, which is on the south west coast of Sri Lanka. Despite being packed with European and Russian tourists, this place is like heaven on earth. It has beautiful golden sandy beaches with perfect temperature ocean water. Many nice resorts are lined up along the coast, offering a cheap stay, excellent food and fun bars.
The snorkeling, scuba diving, and surfing are all magnificent around the coasts of Sri Lanka. Locals will come by and try to sell you fresh coconuts, pineapples and aloe vera massages on the beach. There is one area in Hikkaduwa Beach where giant 4 foot sea turtles swim up to your feet! I was able to feed them an also ride the back of their shell underwater for a few minutes.
The sunsets are spectacular over the Indian Ocean. You just can’t go wrong!
Check out my list of 10 Amazing Things to do in Kandy!
Sri Lankan Food is like Indian food with a twist.
As a matter of fact, Sri Lankan food is quite unique because of their locally grown herbs and spices. Instead of naan (traditional South Asian over baked flatbread), they have Rotti which is more flavorful in my opinion! Rice is served with nearly every meal, along with variations of spicy curry and veggies. Dhal curry is the most common curry and it is delicious.
Chicken and Pork are the most common meats you’ll find in restaurants. Sri Lanka is world renowned for its spices, and my favorite spice is their chili peppers (amazing if you like spicy foods!) I put it on everything. They also sell very fresh fruit and fruit juices on the sides of the road, like bananas, papayas, mango, and coconut. All the food is SO cheap and tasty!
If you want to learn more about the best local foods, then please check out my post on 6 Sri Lankan Foods to Try.
Just as you might expect, Sri Lanka isn’t really known for its nightlife.
The country is so poor that most people can’t even afford to buy a drink at a bar. Most of the tourists don’t come here to party- they go to experience the magnificent culture, hang out on the beach, and get a taste of nature instead.
However, that was all in the past.
In recent years, there has been a surge of people trying to get their drink on in Sri Lanka. In Colombo (the capital city), there is an area with several nightclubs and bars, catering to young adults. The pub culture has also recently been introduced, with an assortment of fun pubs with extremely cheap drinks.
If you don’t want to party in Colombo, then many of the beach towns come alive at night. Specificlly, Hikkaduwa Beach and Mirissa Beach. Despite being packed with European tourists, the scene is pretty damn fun. I had a great time bar hopping on Hikkaduwa Beach. The bars are a bit more chill and low key (so don’t expect any nightclubs), but it’s super easy to meet people. Drinks are more expensive on these beaches because of the tourists.