A Backpackers Guide to Sri Lanka: The Good, the Bad and the Weird

Gaz and I were lucky to have booked our flight from London to Indonesia with Sri Lanka Airlines, who were lovely enough to let us stop off in Sri Lanka (for a month!) before catching our second flight. Plus, our amazing flight attendants Anushka and Nicole (below) took us for a night out in the capital (Colombo) when we arrived, so you could say we got off to a great start! In total, we spent a month backpacking around Sri Lanka, and loved every second, so here’s our guide to the good, the bad, and the weird!

The Good

Friendly people and high levels of hospitality

If you enjoy feeling like a celebrity every time you leave the house, you’ll love Sri Lanka (it also helps if you have dreadlocks as Bob Marley is pretty much a national hero). The people are incredibly friendly, they’ll stop you in the street to find out where you’re from, where you’re going, what you think of their country, etc, and it usually ends in an invitation back to their house for dinner. On a few occasions, being tired, hot, and sweaty, we weren’t really up for an in-depth conversation and so made our excuses and left, but most of the time we would take the time to stop and chat.

The level of hospitality is above any I’ve experienced around the world. If you’re traveling on a fairly tight budget, like us, you’ll spend most of your time in guesthouses during your stay in Sri Lanka. There’s barely a dorm or bunk bed on site, we only managed to find two hostels during our travels, one in Mount Lavinia and one in Unawatuna. The most common type of accommodation is the humble guesthouse, locally owned and often run by the entire family, all of whom will be at the door to greet you with beaming smiles. There’s something comforting about a family-run business, we experienced high standards, personal service, and great home cooking.

Food

If I say ‘curry’, you probably think ‘India’ but you’d be a fool to overlook Sri Lanka as one of the best curry-making nations in the world. Not only are they absolutely delicious, but a vegetable curry, which usually comes with rice, poppadoms, dhal, and various other sides like green beans or pickles, will set you back about £1.50 in most local restaurants.

Beaches

Unawatuna Beach was voted ‘Best Beach’ by the Discovery Channel and ‘Best Tropical Beach’ by the founder of the Rough Guide, Mark Ellingham, and although we’ve rated Unawatuna as our No.1 destination in Sri Lanka, this is just one fabulous beach of many. You can travel along the south coast stopping at every town or village and each time you’ll find another gorgeous beach, some are practically deserted, while others are dotted with sun loungers and beat to the sound of the Bob Marley.

And we know what comes hand in hand with beautiful beaches… you can find almost every water sport you could wish for, including diving, surfing, kite-surfing, wakeboarding, jet skiing, snorkeling, kayaking… You name it, it’s there! You just need to plan it according to the time of year and location, but usually, you can find somewhere on the island to get stuck into your favorite sport.

Scenery and Wildlife

Sri Lanka has one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world. You can find everything from elephants and leopards in the national parks to manta rays and whale sharks in the ocean. My personal preference was to dive with the mantas, unfortunately, we were visiting slap bang in the middle of the diving switch over, when the dive shops in the north of the island close and move to the south after the monsoon season. (High season in the south begins in November.) We tried our luck anyway, but visibility was poor and the current was strong so we didn’t see much, just a white spotted sting ray. However, if we’d stayed in Sri Lanka a few more weeks (end of October) the diving conditions would have been much better and the chances of seeing a manta would have been fairly high.

Cost

Everything is cheap, but not so cheap that standards are low. In actual fact, I was very pleasantly surprised with the standard of everything. Our budget accommodation was well maintained with private bathrooms, some with ac, reasonably comfortable beds, mossie nets, etc. On average we spent around £15 per night on accommodation for both of us, and this price often included breakfast.

On the whole, food is cheap, as long as you eat like the locals. Curries (mentioned above) are the best value for money, freshly blended juices and smoothies are also set at a reasonable price (£1-£1.50) But be careful, if you order a cheese and tomato sandwich it could set you back around £4!

Transport is inexpensive, the buses and trains are extremely cheap but are warned, you might not have a seat, which is pretty tedious if you’re on a four-hour journey! Tuk-tuks are everywhere, they’re a breezy comfortable way to travel and it’s the only door-to-door service.

Connectivity

HSDPA 3.5g universal dongle Sri Lanka is extremely well-connected. 3G was available just about everywhere we traveled, which meant, we could use the internet on our phones and set up WiFi hotspots. We also used our dongle so we had internet on our laptops at all times. Pretty crucial when you’re trying to work and play all at the same time. Topping up is relatively simple, we chose Dialog because we were told it was the best telecoms company in the country. Simply head into any shop with the Dialog logo (they’re everywhere) and buy a top-up card, a 500MB data card will cost you a mere 50p. We highly recommend purchasing a 3.5g Universal Dongle before you leave home, the upload/download speed is awesome for 3G and has been a lifesaver for us many times.

The Bad

Seasonality

Before we arrived we hadn’t realized that we would be traveling in the low season. And we never really understood why. The monsoon season was over, which meant there were bright blue skies every day and temperatures were perfect, at around 30 degrees on the coast and 25 degrees in the hills. But we were told by many different people that high season starts in November and runs through to February. The positive to this was that we didn’t have to book anywhere in advance, there was always space in our chosen guesthouse, on a train (in 1st Class), etc. But we felt the atmosphere would have benefited from a few more people, often we were the only people in the guesthouse (despite picking the most popular accommodation according to Trip Advisor or The Rough Guide) And, it’s sad that such an amazing country only gets visited for four months of the year. We often pondered how the locals survived where their businesses relied on tourism alone.

It’s undiscovered

Although you’ll bump into other travelers along the way, Sri Lanka is largely undiscovered by the backpacker crowd. Therefore, there’s no set route, and with lots of sites to see some people tend to zig-zag all over the place, which kicked up a few issues…

Sometimes we felt these places were wasted. We’d found a gorgeous beach, with activities, cool bars playing awesome music… and we were the only ones there. After traveling through Central America where the backpacker route is well established (but not overrun) we sometimes felt a little flat and that Sri Lanka deserves a more bubbling scene. Obviously, it’s hard to make sure the balance is kept, and it doesn’t get mauled by tourists, we certainly don’t want this to be the next Koh Phangan.

It meant we had to spend a lot of time researching where to stay, how to get there, what to do, where to eat, etc. It’s not very clear until you actually arrive in the city or town, so we often spent an hour or more researching each day to make are we had an enjoyable experience in the next location. This ate into our work time and although we love to research, it’s useful when you can chat with other travelers and get tips about where they’ve been. Unfortunately, these opportunities were few and far between.

Wifi

Most of the guesthouses offer free WiFi, but we found that in most of the places we stayed it wasn’t working, or it was terribly slow. This may have been our bad luck, but we think it was usually down to the fact they were using 3G (i.e. a dongle plugged into their router) which will suffice for checking emails but try downloading or uploading and you’re on your own. If you need the internet for work purposes I highly recommend you set yourself up with dialog data SIM cards, without these we’d have been unable to fulfill our commitments in most of the locations.

And…The Weird

Upgrading to air-con

When booking accommodation you’ll quickly realize that a room with air conditioning can cost you three or four times as much as the same room without it. This is a weird pricing phenomenon that we found throughout the whole country and I have no idea why. I understand air con can be expensive to run but quadrupling the price seems a little overboard, so my advice is to acclimatize quickly, look for spacious rooms with a decent fan and let the sea provide you with some natural a/c.

Curry for breakfast

It was a great novelty at first but I have to say, after three weeks I was missing my usual bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fiber. Eating curry for breakfast feels like a very unhealthy way to start the day so I often skipped breakfast and filled up on fruit smoothies instead.

I have to say, that we absolutely loved Sri Lanka and we can’t wait to return, let’s hope we can rate Indonesia and The Philippines as highly as this beautiful island 🙂

Written By

Param Dass

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