Visiting Sri Lanka: Some hints, tips and general observations

As with all the countries we have visited so far, we have pulled together some tit bits of information that we have picked up along the way, in the hope that they are helpful to others planning a trip to Sri Lanka. We have already outlined some of the downsides of travelling in Sri Lanka in another post which can be found here, this is more general guidance.

As a general rule, Sri Lankans are very welcoming and accommodating people and, aside from perhaps dressing more conservatively, you can largely behave as you would at home. That being said, if you are unsure of whether or not something is acceptable, such as taking photographs at certain times, always err on the side of caution and just ask someone, they will happily help you out.


  • Standards of dress vary greatly across the country.
  • If you are in Ella or the more touristy beach places you are fine in shorts and t-shirts and swimsuits
  • In Jaffna and more rural areas women will want to keep their legs covered. Caro felt comfortable with her shoulders bare but carried a scarf with her just in case.
  • We were astonished by the number of female tourists we saw trying to enter temples in shorts and strappy tops, which just generates an uncomfortable situation when they have to be turned away. Always cover up to visit temples.
  • The one exception is men in Hindu temples, who will need to remove their tops before entering.

Food & Drink

  • Bakery Tuk Tuks – You will hear the familiar tinkle of Fur Elise or It’s A Small World playing incessantly as the bakery tuk tuks circle around their turf. They sell a vast variety of baked goods and also milk.
  • Sri Lanka is home to some absolutely marvellous synthetic biscuits, lemon puffs were a particular favourite.
  • Be prepared to eat a lot of carbohydrate, sugar and enormous meals in general
  • For some reason they fill the bottled water right to the very brim so you are guaranteed to spill it over your lap every time you open a new one
  • If you ask for tea with milk you will be presented with a cup of exceptionally milky sweet tea. After our first experience, we opted to just drink our tea black but if you do need milk either track down your own fresh stuff or ask for it on the side


  • Hardly anywhere takes card, so carry cash. Fortunately, ATMs are easy to find even in smaller towns and villages.
  • Absolutely no one has change so try and get smaller notes. This is particularly important with tuk tuk drivers.
  • When we arrived in Negombo, our hosts told us that many people would accept US dollars but this was not our experience. Granted we didn’t often ask, but bills were always presented in Sri Lankan Rupees and no suggestion of paying in USD was made


  • Trains are a great way to travel and an absolute must for any Sri Lanka trip, just be ready to push your way off when you reach your destination as people jump on the train in search of seats
  • Buses, oh buses, the absolute delight of Sri Lankan bus travel. Most of the buses are ancient Ashok Leyland but there are key differences between public and private buses.
    • The public buses are usually a rust red colour, have no fans or music and tiny seats, cost about 7 rupees a journey and stop EVERYWHERE.
    • Private buses are more decked out, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. They are often bright colours, have some kind of lurid decoration on them and a television blaring terrible Sri Lankan pop music or once, notably, a Sri Lankan soap opera. The seats tend to be bigger and they don’t make as many local stops so generally preferable for longer journeys. It will set you back anywhere between 35 and 200 rupees depending on how far you are going. Both options are fabulous and have their own delights.
    • Neither type of bus appears to have a maximum capacity.
    • There is also no particular timetable, the bus will stay at the station until it is full.
  • Tuk tuk travel is another must in Sri Lanka and has its charms. Tuk Tuk drivers generally swig out of recycled liquor bottles, which is a bit disturbing the first time you see it and we kept assuring each other that it must be water.
  • There also appears to be a real proclivity for Pirates Of the Caribbean in Sri Lanka because about 50% of the tuks tuks are decked out top to bottom, front to back with Johnny Depp.

Home/day to day life

  • Sri Lankans don’t tend to wear shoes inside their houses, as a common courtesy we took ours off as well or at the very least asked if we should remove them
  • There are doormats everywhere, when you step on or off the patio, outside your room, inside your room, next to the bed, outside and inside the bathroom door. Sri Lankans just really love doormats.
  • Some rooms have loads of sockets, some have none, some are British, Sri Lankan, European and some of no recognisable country. Just buy an adaptor
  • Don’t be surprised when you see swastikas everywhere, it means something different in Sri Lanka
  • Traditionally you aren’t supposed to use your left hand to shake hands, give or receive things or eat but we don’t think it’s widely observed as we noticed Sri Lankans using both hands
  • There are volleyball nets everywhere, even in the least likely places. There was one in the middle of Jaffna Fort.
  • You will notice that some people have bright red mouths and teeth and spit a lot. They are chewing Betel, which we found to be pretty gross but it is very popular
  • When booking accommodation, take the words “luxury” and “resort” with a very large pinch of salt

There you have it. Fortunately, in Sri Lanka you really don’t need to overthink things as it is such a welcoming country and if you do ever find yourself in a pickle, people will do their best to help you. It is an absolutely gorgeous country, with loads to offer and our key piece advice would be to travel around, get out of the key tourist spots and see as much of it as possible.

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