Sri Lanka is a magical place to visit, full of beautiful beaches, ancient wonders, friendly locals, amazing food, wonderful culture and all on an incredibly low budget. The small island nation offers so much to see and do for its modest size which makes it easy and affordable to travel around. Mix this together and you have a backpackers heaven just made for exploration and an epic adventure for both the first time backpacker and the more seasoned travellers alike. Here is our ultimate guide for backpacking Sri Lanka!
Travelling to Sri Lanka
First things first, you have to get to Sri Lanka! Being an island you will have to fly in. Although there are smaller airports dotted around major towns and cities around the country, the country’s only main airport is in the capital of Colombo and will be likely your only option for international flights. However, Colombo is well connected via the country’s railways and bus routes so getting to other areas of the country is relatively easy, especially if you are heading down the coast first or towards Kandy on your Backpacking Sri Lanka adventure!
Visa requirements for Sri Lanka
Getting into Sri Lanka is easy and straightforward. Most visitors are required to complete an ETA online before travel which costs around $35 and allows a stay of up to 30 days. Visas for longer are available for an increased price. For most travellers visas on arrival are possible if you fail to organise it before, however, you will likely be queuing for much longer at the border and will pay slightly more. Visitors from some countries also need to show proof of onward travel, however it is advisable that you bring some along (even if it’s fake!). You should also have 6 months validity on your passport from your arrival date.
Accommodation for backpacking Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is well set up for backpacking, however hostels are still relatively new in Sri Lanka with only some of the major places of interests having a few to choose from. Mt. Lavinia on the outskirts of Colombo by the coast is one such area with a few great and modern hostels on offer. However, Sri Lanka as a whole is very cheap and affordable with guest houses being the go to option for backpackers where you will more than likely be able to get a private room for a great price. It is possible to pay as little as £2 a night for a bed in a dorm but we averaged around £5-10 a night which makes it east to afford backpacking Sri Lanka.
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Travelling around Sri Lanka
Travelling around Sri Lanka on public transport can be broken down into two main sections for longer trips, train and bus travel.
A well serviced and frequent train line runs from Colombo right around the west coast of the country as well as through the middle. The trains are exceptionally cheap and a real experience, many of them travel at a leisurely pace through some of the country’s most scenic landscapes, the train from Ella to Kandy is one of the most amazing in the world and costs hardly anything. Most of the trains don’t need to be booked in advance and it is possible to just turn up and buy a ticket on the day, though for Ella to Kandy many do book a day before due to its popularity.
For other places not served by the trains there are local buses to take. These are a little more uncomfortable than travelling via train and often will be busy, cramped and loud. However, as backpackers this is all part of the experience! A bonus is that the buses are even cheaper than the trains and often more regular too.
For those wanting more comfortable and reliable transport to some of the harder to reach places in Sri Lanka many choose to book private cars. These are often quoted in USD and are much more expensive than the trains or buses, but still much cheaper than you would expect to pay in the west for a similar service. However for most backpackers this option is out of budget.
For short trips around town Tuk Tuks are a great option. They cost much more than a local bus but are still well within budget for backpackers. However you must be sure to check the price before and if possible know your route so to avoid being scammed.
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Budget and money in Sri Lanka
The currency in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan Rupee, abbreviated to LKR. The exchange rate at the time of publishing is $1 = 170 LKR / £1 = 200 LKR. Cash machines are in abundance in most towns and cities and we never had any issue finding one when travelling extensively around the country. Most banks will charge a small withdrawal fee even if your bank doesn’t however banks often offer much better exchange rates than you would get exchanging cash.
Sri Lanka primarily is a very cheap and affordable country where your money will go far and wide. It is an ideal country for backpacking and budget travel with accommodation, public transport and food costing very little and is comparable with South East Asia for budget. However, some of the entrance fees for the big tourist attractions such as Sigiriya are comparatively expensive and can easily use up a full day’s budget which as a backpacker can be a little frustrating, however on balance the low cost of backpacking Sri Lanka in general makes up for this.
An average day might set you back between $25- $35 for a couple, for example:
* Bed in a dorm $5 / cheap double room $10
* Meal in a local cheap restaurant $2 / meal in a mid range restaurant $5
* 8 hour train from Ella to Kandy 3rd class $2.50 / first class $5.00
* Sigiriya entrance price: $30
Best times to visit when backpacking Sri Lanka
Like most countries in Asia and the sub continent Sri Lanka is affected by wet and dry seasons. However unlike places like Thailand that have a very defined line between the two seasons that covers the entire country, Sri Lanka’s weather is rather more complex for such a small country as it is effected by two different monsoon seasons as well as having very diverse landscapes making planning your backpacking Sri Lanka adventure even more important.
The South-Western monsoon season is between May and September with the dry season being from December to March. The North-Eastern monsoon season is between October and January and the dry season here is May to September. From October to November is is also common for rain to occur across the entire island. December to Mid April is considered the best time to travel and is also the peak season. The coast around Galle can be incredibly hot and humid where as the central highlands are often much milder and a great place to escape the heat for both visitors and locals alike!
We travelled through February and experienced great weather, on the coast is was very hot and sunny and in the central part of the country is was mild, warm and sunny too with a touch of cloud on a couple of days only.
Food in Sri Lanka
The food in Sri Lanka has to be some of our favourite from our travels with it resembling South Indian cuisine but with its own unique flavours and styles. Eating out locally in small shacks, restaurants and street food stalls we ate for almost nothing and never got ill. As vegetarians too we also ran into no real difficulties and were able to try and wide selection of local dishes.
Some of our favourite foods we tried here were the classic street food stable of Kottu Roti. Our go to snack whilst travelling on the amazing trains of Dhal Balls. The incredible potato and dhal curries we became addicted to and of course Polos, or Green jackfruit curry, something similar to what we ate a lot of in the Padangs of Indonesia.
Best places to visit when backpacking Sri Lanka
* Colombo and Mt Lavinia: The capital is busy and bustling but a true experience of the real and uncensored Sri Lanka. Just down the tracks and on the outskirts of the city the sleepy backpacker hub of Mt Lavinia offers great beaches for its proximity to such a large city and is the perfect place to explore the capital region from.
* Galle: The Dutch colonial fort surrounded by pristine waters is a great place to experience some of the unique history of Sri Lanka. The enclosed city is like stepping back in time with its charming crumbling colonial aesthetic and laid back but happening atmosphere.
* Western Coastal region: Unawatuna/ Koggala/ Mirissa: The region onwards from Galle towards the bottom end of Sri Lanka is a beach lovers paradise. Long perfect white sandy beaches with clear aqua surf gently lapping against the shoreline is irresistible! Here you can see the famous stick fishermen, go dolphin watching, surfing or just take the opportunity to relax!
* Udawalawe National Park and Yala National Park: Sri Lanka is home to some incredible wildlife and these national parks are the best place to spot them. You are almost certainly guaranteed to spot wild elephants on safari here as well as having the opportunity to see Leopards in these beautiful locations.
* Ella and the tea plantation region: The central highlands of Sri Lanka offer up a completely different landscape to the other areas of the country. The amazing mountain of Adam’s Peak is a hikers dream and the tea lined hills of Ella and the surrounding villages offer a magical landscape the explore.
* Ella to Kandy train: This 8 hour journey through some of the most stunning landscapes in Sri Lanka is one of the highlights of our trip to Sri Lanka. Hanging out of the doors as the old colonial era trains chug slowly through tea plantations and tiny villages is an unforgettable Sri Lankan experience!
* Kandy: Another impressive and historic colonial city, Kandy is some to some beautiful architecture as well as the sacred temple of the tooth, said to be home to a piece of tooth belonging to Buddha himself!
* Sigiriya: If there is one place to shell out on the expensive entrance fee then it is the magical citadel of Lion Rock in the central region of the country. This amazing and almost bizarre column of rock seems to appear from nowhere and was home to the one time king of Sri Lanka back in the 5th century.
General tips for backpacking Sri Lanka
* Don’t rush it. Sri Lanka might be a small country with some amazing transport but don’t expect to get anywhere fast. The infrastructure here is ageing and trains only cover certain sections of the country with rickety local buses covering the rest through winding roads! But these journeys are part of the unique charm of travelling around Sri Lanka, especially on the trains. Give yourself enough time, break long journeys up and enjoy the slow pace of travel when backpacking Sri Lanka.
* Covering up in Sri Lanka isn’t a big deal as long as you are modest and respectful. Wearing shorts and a vest around town isn’t likely to bat an eyelid. When you visit temples you should be sure to cover your shoulders and bring something to cover your legs in your bag just in case. We were ok visiting Sigiriya in shorts and rented out sarongs to visit the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy without issue.
* The people of Sri Lanka are friendly and welcoming and often up for a chat, especially on buses and trains. Sinhala, Tamil and English are all official languages of Sri Lanka and most people are conversational in English which makes communicating easy and backpacking Sri Lanka ideal for first timers.
* Be sure to take in all the diversity that makes Sri Lanka amazing. The beaches along the western coast of the country might be an amazing magnet for most holiday makers heading to this incredible island, and rightly so, however there is much more to Sri Lanka. From the stunning light blue waves to the lush green tea plantations, the roaming elephants of the National Parks and the mind blowing history and culture, there is so much to see for such a small place!
Have you been backpacking Sri Lanka, what are your tips?
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