Sri Lanka is a strange and beautiful country, and despite the Civil war that only ended in 2009, it is becoming a highly recognised tourist destination. The best way to describe Sri Lanka is a fusion of South East Asia and India. A beautiful blend of culture, landscape, geography and customs. I was a little bit nervous visiting beforehand, but I really had no reason to be, although I did plenty of research, I think it would have been handy if I knew a few things before leaving.
- It’s expensive for Asia
Having already been to Vietnam and Thailand, I have had a taste of value for money. In terms of western life, cost within the majority of Sri Lanka is and still remains cheaper than we can ever understand. An average meal in the UK equates to maybe £20 per head if you are reasonable. Sri Lankan Tourist traps will have you paying around half that. It is wise, to avoid the flashing lights and go for the slightly darker restaurant. Food quality will increase and you will get a real taste of local cuisine. A good tip, is to look at the type of people dining. If you see a lot of locals, chances are the food is going to be considerably cheaper and taste more genuine.
There is also a little bit of ‘us’ and ‘them’, a lot of places will raise the prices because you are a tourist, especially temples and historical monuments. Be sure to barter and never settle for the first offer. This goes with food, travel and especially Tuk Tuk drivers. It’s amazing what walking away from someone and refusing their first offer will get you. We have been known to save more than half of the original price, just because they initially tried to take us for fools.
- Wild life and orphanages
There is an abundance of National Parks with elephants, crocodiles, reptiles and amazing bird life. Having visited Minneriya National Park and Wilpattu a recommendation comes very highly. We were able to see stunning close ups of females, babies and bulls. The sound alone from a fully grown bull elephant is something to behold. With the National Parks you have to hire a Jeep along with your entrance fee. As a solo person it can be a bit on the pricey side, but costs still remain reasonable.
Minneriya National Park was about 4,000 rupees for 3 foreigners and our guide/taxi driver, plus 5,000 for the Jeep rental. We were extremely lucky to see so many elephants within the 2 hour drive through the park
Wilpattu National Park is less touristy and infinitely larger park in comparison to Minneriya. Subsequently the wildlife varies a lot more, but over a larger space. Unfortunately we missed any sightings of bears, leopards, buffalo or elephants. But the drive and landscape is beautiful. The entrance fee was a little more at 3,000 rupees each plus 5,000 rupees again for the Jeep Hire.
It is a downside to national parks that you can’t guarantee any sightings, animals go where they like to go! But I recommend and coerce you not to visit places like the elephant orphanage. Places like this are contrived and mainly to attract tourists, you will often find elephants chained up and mistreated, beaten into submission. Elephants are peaceful animals, but are without a doubt powerful wild animals and do not naturally approach or allow feeding and humans to ride on them.
- No seal no deal.
As a rule of thumb, avoid tap water. It is like this is most southeast asian countries, but don’t be fooled. Purchase only bottled water with a plastic seal on the top, and check for tampered bottles. I, myself have not come across any, but better to be safe than sorry.
- Friendliest people you will meet.
Sri Lankan locals are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met on my travels. Even more so if you venture off the tourist trails into more rural towns. Western people are not overly common to Sri Lanka yet, and as such you are very unusual and welcome. I have very fond memories of kind people and excitable children shouting hi and bye as we were passing through. We spent one of our last days with fisherman, and it was my favourite experience of the entire trip. (link) And because Sri Lanka is a fairly safe country you don’t have too much to worry about.
- Public transport is your best bet. (Read more about transport)
Public transport is a mixture of fast, dangerous fun. Whether getting a bus, taxi, or tuk tuk on the road, you will instantly notice the chaotic system in place. After a few days of clinging onto your seat you will start to laugh and just accept that it is how it is. Exercise the same amount of caution you would when traveling in any unfamiliar area but explore all of the transports. I would recommend not paying for taxi’s, they are excessive and most of the time you arrive just as quickly by bus for pennies in comparison. And definitely look both ways when you cross the busy roads as overtaking is a given in any circumstance!
- Eat with your hands
Right across Asia, the left hand is considered the hand you use for ‘unsavoury’ functions like wiping your bottom or cleaning your feet. The right hand is to greet people, and eat! Try not to mix up the two, otherwise you might accidentally start offending people around you.