Here are a handful of helpful tips for your visit to Sri Lanka – A beautiful island country found just Southeast of India.
Know that it is possible to make the 45km journey from the Colombo airport to the central bus station for only 100 rupees (currently $0.71 USD). Take the local bus, found toward the back of the airport parking lot.
When taking tuk-tuks or taxis, know approximately how far your destination is. A fair price is about 80-100 rupees per kilometer. If a metered tuk-tuk or taxi isn’t available, decide on a fixed price before getting inside. If the driver is being especially difficult, walk away. He’ll either bring down his price, or another tuk-tuk driver will approach you. There are always other tuk-tuks nearby and absolutely no need to settle.
When using the train system, please be aware that there are many online scams for railway prices. In reality, many times trains are quicker and cheaper than buses. A great website to use is slr.malindaprasad.com.
Make a mental note to purchase bottled water before taking the train. A 1500ML bottle should roughly cost 70 rupees, but on hot trains you will be charged over 100 rupees for much smaller, 500ML bottles.
I would also advise to buy any produce, food and snacks prior to boarding the train as well. Those trying to sell any baked goods, corn, and other foods and snacks on trains are prepping to toss these items in the garbage. Selling on trains is a last ditch effort to make a profit, by the time the food reaches this stage, it is generally several days old.
When you’re not sick, the bathrooms are totally manageable (see How to avoid sickness is SE Asia?). Everyone has heard about Asian bathrooms, the lack of toilet paper and dreaded holes in the floor. And although I’d say at least 50% of the time toilet paper is nowhere to be found, I’ve only seen one or two holes in the floor in Sri Lanka specifically, and I didn’t even have to use them.
What I hadn’t heard of were the sprayers, which for a westerner is a very different experience to be had! A dry bum is a happy bum, so if you come across that small comfort from home known as TP, make sure to unravel a wad and stuff it in your pack for later. I was more surprised by the absence of hot water. A few places have it, mainly in the cooler central region, but it’s considered an amenity, listed under “free WiFi” and “Kitchen.” To be honest, it’s not really needed in most areas of Sri Lanka, as the climate here is a hot one. Cool showers are a surprisingly nice way to start and end your day.
Getting to know the Critters
The windows here don’t have screens. So wherever you stay, count on sharing your room. You’ll most likely have a vast array of new roommates, including geckos, which I’ve learned to prefer over the slugs and snails, frogs, ants, and spiders, hermit crabs, earthworms, unnervingly large beetles, and of course the mosquitoes, all creeping and slithering and buzzing around as I sleep. Depending on the region, you may hear some clatter on the roof and think, “Clumsy burglars?” Well ya wouldn’t be far off! Just monkeys, probably checking out what you’ve got laying around outside.
Chances are you’ll also encounter a few water monitors. These dudes are commonly an impressive 4-6 feet long, and with the undeveloped tropical forest as the backdrop, can make you feel like you’re living in the Jurassic Era. There are bees the size of a grown man’s big toe, and although intimidating, they usually mind their own business. I’ve also watched the biggest bat I’ve ever seen in my life fly right past me! I had to google it – The Sri Lankan MegaBat or “Flying Fox” – very impressive! (Luckily this is one creature I have NOT had to share my room with).
And lastly, my least favorite – leaches. I had never seen a leach before this trip, so when I saw one moving across the road similar to an inchworm, I thought, “Well that’s unlike any inchworm I’ve ever seen!” Then I saw another on the floor of our hotel room, and it wasn’t until I pulled one off of my girlfriend’s back that I realized the more sinister truth about these creepy-crawlies. They weren’t inchworms at all! But hungry leaches! And a short freak out dance ensued.
A Few Randoms!
Watch out when you go dress shopping! We specifically asked for dresses, picked them out, and even had straps sewn on (as we didn’t pack strapless bras). Imagine our confusion when we were struggling to put them on and discovered that they weren’t dresses at all! But rompers with elastic bands around the knees!
Don’t buy weed on the beach. Undercover cops will bus’cho ass. It’s what they do.
Speaking of the beach, if you spend any time on the Sri Lankan coastline snorkeling will probably find its way onto your bucket list. Many recruiters will try to swindle you into renting a mask while you’re taking a lovely stroll along the beach. But be advised to buy instead of rent, as you’re likely to get charged triple the fair price. Furthermore, most rented masks leak, completely ruining an otherwise potentially awesome experience. Keep in mind that due to the tsunami in 2004, there are many areas with dead coral reefs. So unless you’re into the dead reef scene, do some research before handing over your rupees for a “Glass Bottom Boat” tour.
If you’re doing any attractions up in the mountains (ie: Adams Peak, Lipton’s Seat, Horton Plains, etc.), go early in the morning. The afternoon brings heavy fog, mist, and most likely rain. It will still be an accomplished feat – but without the view.
For my veggie lovers out there, when ordering a veggie pizza (even if it’s pictured on the menu with peppers, onions, and tomatoes) don’t be surprised if you get whatever is laying around in the kitchen. Mine arrived with shredded carrots and green beans, alongside fresh basil, oregano, and a garlic sauce. Hey, at least now when I’m asked about the most bizarre pizza I’ve ever had, I’ll be able to say, “Why, shredded carrot and green beans in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka, of course!”
And last but never least – Haggle, Haggle, Haggle!
This will be easier for some personalities than others. I personally enjoy the challenge and banter. It’s totally acceptable to haggle for clothes, tuk-tuk rides, and even food at street stalls. Don’t be afraid to say no and walk just a few meters to the next shop or taxi if you feel you are being overcharged.
As a foreigner you will get scammed; it’s inevitable. You’ll end up being quoted double or triple the fair price of just about everything and then watch as a local pays a fraction of the price you paid. Be aware of the current currency rates, and only have in your pocket or hand the amount you are willing to spend. The art of haggling will become a part of your daily life. This can be a fun game and doesn’t need to be stressful. Read more about haggling here!!