Sri Lanka backpacking guide
Ayubowan, Sri Lanka.
A tiny, idyllic tropical island plonked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, shaped like a jewel. And it is just that, an absolute gem of a place.
To be honest, backpacking Sri Lanka was never high on my travel. Not for any particular reason, but I simply hadn’t heard many stories about the country had to offer, nor had I come across anything that enticed me to knock any other countries from the top of my list.
I booked flights to Nepal and India, then decided to take a looksie at the world map, wondering where else I could go while I was at it. There was a little island an hours flight off the South East of India just chilling there, and I thought, why not? I done the quickest Google of my life and from the very minimal research I managed, I saw it was as cheap as anything, it had a few beaches, and some hills. Could be worth a squiz, right? Before I knew it I had booked a flight and was apparently going backpacking through Sri Lanka too.
The minute I booked my flight I swear all of a sudden information about Sri Lanka was coming out of every person and their dog’s ears. Instagram ads and random travel videos were popping up from god knows which tab open on my laptop. To top it off I then found out it was named ‘Lonely Planet’s Number One Country in the World of 2019.’ Clearly I had been living under some rock. From then on, I was beside myself with excitement to get exploring.
Before I knew it, I had arrived. It was hot, like really, really hot and sticky. There were beaches yes, some hills, sure, but oh my lord was it so much more! The empty beaches are long and white, dotted along the entire South Coast and sprawled with towering palm trees and some of the best surf spots you may ever find. Locals and tourists alike hang off the side of ‘The most beautiful scenic train ride in the world,’ as they chug through the gorgeous hill country that stretches as far as the eye can see, covered with green paddy fields and the most lush of jungles. Wild animals roam the streets, which isn’t surprising considering the number of surrounding National Parks. The highlands are gorgeous and misty, the villages as charming as ever, the ancient ruins intriguing, and the people as nice as can be. There is tea, tea and more tea. Tea to drink, tea to pick and learn about, and tiered tea plantations to wander. You will leave quite the tea connoisseur! What more could you want.
So, I’m here to tell you once and for all that you need to get yourself to Sri Lanka, like right now. It is indeed one of the most underrated countries to travel to and I highly recommend visiting at least once in your lifetime. Keep reading to hear all the ways how!
FUN FACT | Ever heard of the famous Ceylon Tea? Little did I know Ceylon was actually the former name of Sri Lanka!
Below is the two week loop I took while backpacking Sri Lanka. In no way did I plan this, I just completely went with the flow taking each day as it came. However, if you look to be a bit more organised then moi then this particular route showed me a good chunk of the highlights of this diverse country.
You could easy peasily add a few extra stops onto your trip. Arugam Bay, if you’re into surfing, Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa for ancient ruins, or a safari trip at one of the 22 National Parks. As I had just been on a safari in Nepal I decided not to do one in Sri Lanka, plus, that shit ain’t cheap. However, the wildlife in Sri Lanka is insane. Udawalawe is apparently one of the best places in the world for spotting elephants, rivalling the famous game drives in East Africa. Yala is all about the leopards!
Know before you go
‘AYUBOWAN’ – Hello
‘ISTUTI’ – Thank you
English is well spoken throughout the island of Sri Lanka, however learning a few basic phrases to help you communicate and be respectful to the locals while backpacking Sri Lanka, wouldn’t go a miss. Sinhala and Tamil are the two ethnic languages of Sri Lanka.
SRI LANKAN RUPEE – LKR
The national currency of Sri Lanka. The current exchange rate is 1NZD = 116LKR
TYPE D, M and G – 230v/50Hz
These are the power plugs used in Sri Lanka. I chopped and changed between the three as every new building was different. I even managed to use type C! Investing in a universal adaptor comes in handy in countries like this. Be prepared for power cuts on the daily and slow, sparse internet while backpacking Sri Lanka.
Where I travelled
I like to describe Colombo as a little brother to the mental cities of North India.
The booming capital of Sri Lanka is filled with a sky line of modern high rises, fifty million and one tuk tuks, it’s fair share of classy hotels, and historic temples dazzling away. The most fast paced and largest city you’ll find on the island, the sights of which can easily be explored in just one day!
Colombo is split up into zones, making it incredibly easy to find your way around. I mainly stuck to District 1- Fort and District 11- Pettah.
Get down to Pettah Market and lose yourself for a moment as you wander the streets of the old district, battling the hectic hoards of locals, loaded lorries ruthlessly navigating their way through the narrow alleyways, and only a handful of tourists battling the crowds.
On one street you’ll find stacks of shoes and clothing at bargain prices, the next street over are piles and piles of exotic fruit and fresh veggies, and the next a manic abundance of flimsy toys and cheap homewares. The unique smells, bizarre sounds and melting pot of intense colours, result in a rather large nugget of beautiful madness.
Eat your way through the tantalising, yet greasy, street food at the promenade of Galle Face Green in the Fort. From a mile away you’ll hear the aggressive chopping of traditional Sri Lankan Kottu, a mountain of shredded roti bread mixed together with meat/egg, vegetables and a whole lot of spices. Egg and string hoppers were a hit for me while backpacking Sri Lanka!
Prime time at the Green is at sunset, when people watching is the most outstanding. I sat on the steps for a good hour soaking up the sight of kids running wild on the wide open lawn, families setting up friendly games of cricket, and kites and bubbles flying along with the sea breeze. A calm little hang out spot.
Colombo is steeped with history, with many Hindu and Buddhist Temples scattered around the city showcasing the most real and raw side of Sri Lankan culture. The oldest Hindu Temple in the city, Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil, with all it’s bells and whistles was the most eye catching and vibrant of the lot.
For some reason many backpackers choose to skip Colombo all together and head straight to the relaxing mini beach town of Negombo. Instead, I decided to bite the bullet and ignore all advice, leaving pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the chaotic capital.
Just a train ride away through the jungle, you’ll find yourself in a completely different neck of the woods.
If you’ve heard anything about Sri Lanka, I damn well guarantee that you’ve seen photos or heard something along the lines of a humungous boulder that looks like it’s been plonked in the midst of the wild. This beast would be Sigiriya Rock, or more casually known as Lion Rock.
One of the countries most famous landmarks, an ancient stone and rock fortress that once upon a time thousands of years ago had a fully functioning Royal Palace on top, that was built by the King himself. The square shape rock is 200 metres high, has over 1200 steps to drag yourself up, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pretty impressive!
For my fellow friends backpacking Sri Lanka on a budget, if you want the real low down here, then my sneaky tip would be to not actually climb Lion Rock, but it’s next door pal, Pidurangala Rock. A gigantic rock formation created by volcanic activity. The entrance fee is over 1/11th of the hefty price of Lion Rock, sitting at a cool, bank breaking 4 whole NZD (500LKR), compared to the 45NZD (5200LKR) you pay to climb up Sigiriya Rock. You still get almost the exact same breath taking 360 views over the land, except the added bonus of looking out onto the insane Sigiriya Rock standing proud! Plus, only a small chunk of the people seem to head up here, which makes it more inviting.
Sunrise is the best time to get climbing, which ever rock you choose. Pidurangala is a fairly easy hike up a few rough stone steps, until you hit the whopping boulders at the very end that you have to make a sketchy jump for your life across. The fresh air, incredible layers of mountains in the distance, and pure, rugged surrounding nature, will make you feel on top of the world!
On your way back down admire the huge reclining Buddha built into the rock and take a peaceful break at the quaint temple near the entrance.
I caught a tuk tuk with a bunch of other travellers from my hostel to Pidurangala Rock in the early morning, then walked 45 minutes back down the road towards the town after the climb.
Sigiriya town itself has the most chilled out vibes and was one of my favourite places to relax in after travelling non stop through different countries. Both nights at sunset I spotted wild elephants roaming the land. No matter how many times I see an elephant, my heart seems to melt over and over again.
I feel like every new place you travel to in Sri Lanka, spell bounds you into a unique corner of the world.
After being crammed on a rusty old local bus from Sigiriya, holding on for dear life as we swung around the twisty roads through the jungle, I finally arrived at the gateway to the high country goodness.
Kandy is, I believe, the second largest city in Sri Lanka, surrounded by simply stunning mountains with a man made lake at the heart of it. Kandy Lake takes one hour to wander around and despite the road winding around it being as busy as a beaver, it’s actually pretty serene!
Being the culture capital of the country, devotees and tourists backpacking Sri Lanka flock here specifically to take a glimpse at the golden casket housing Buddha’s very own tooth. You’ll find this tooth inside the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, right on the lakes edge. Entry costs 1700LKR (15NZD).
If you have a spring in your step and are keen on a walk, the big Buddha Statue on the hill will reward you with a captivating panoramic snapshot over the sprawling city of Kandy. The Kandy Central Markets are also not too shabby, with the hustle and bustle that every good market should have, spilling out of the two storied building and onto the nearby sidewalks.
KANDY TO ELLA
Often referred to as ‘The most beautiful scenic train ride in the world,’ and to be quite honest, I cannot argue with that in the slightest.
You know when you were little, or heck even now, and you would peer out the window from the car and pretend you were in a music video? No, just me? Oh, well, this is exactly like that. A movie playing out right in front of your eyes.
The scenery is intoxicating. Seven hours riding through a picture perfect view of hazy valleys for miles, rolling hills so lush and wild, rows and rows of whimsical tea plantations, and dense forest in every hue of green known to man. Hanging out the side of the door in the warm breeze is a must, as you capture the vivid pops of brightly coloured sari’s worn by the cute families waving like crazy from their rail side villages, and the friendly train conductors cheekily smiling from the platform. Sri Lankan life so raw and simple.
For a true local experience I highly recommend travelling on a third class ticket for those backpacking Sri Lanka. At only 175LKR (1.50NZD) a pop, it’s an absolute steal, and for me at least, is all the comfort you need.
This train ride was one thing I had heard about before I travelled to Sri Lanka, and an experience I would quite literally not miss for the world. I’d heard that especially in peak season it can be ridiculously hard to buy a ticket or find a seat on board, so I was sure to get to the train station extra early! However, I must have lucked out because it was a breeze purchasing a ticket at the station on the day, no scraps were had nabbing a seat, and I was no way near as squished in as I had fully prepared myself for!
You can buy reserved tickets before hand, but take note the prices are MUCH higher.
Common commotion between travellers before getting on the train in Kandy was which bloody side of the train to sit on for the best views. I came to no conclusion before boarding as the verdict was so mixed, so I randomly sat on the left hand side heading to Ella. In my opinion, both sides looked equally as beautiful, with each getting their fair share of vast landscapes throughout the journey. So don’t stress, which side you sit on really isn’t a biggie, I promise!
All in all, if you’re travelling to Sri Lanka, for the love of god, don’t you dare miss this incredible train ride that may in fact blow your brains out.
Trains leave four times each day from Kandy at- 8.47am, 11.10am, 5.00pm and 3.30am.
Ella is a gorgeous wee village, hidden in the spectacular mountain ranges of Sri Lanka. As it is situated high, the temperature is cooler than the rest of the country, which you may have guessed, is an absolute treat. The town is a hot hit with tourists and with it’s laid back vibes, there is no wonder why.
If I could only recommend you one restaurant to visit while backpacking Sri Lanka, the ‘Matey Hut’ in Ella is without a doubt it. The customer service is as good as gold, and the array of curries are fresh, affordable, and brimming with flavour. The mango curry specifically, is a beaut. So damn good that I’m pretty sure I unapologetically ate here three days in a row.
Ella is known for some sweet little hikes. Ella Rock is a fave amongst those backpacking Sri Lanka, as well as Little Adam’s Peak. The latter is perfect to enjoy without needing to hike for hours and hours, and is suitable for everyone. You’ll wander up through the luscious green tea plantations, spotting heads popping up of the bad ass tea pickers, who are keeping the Sri Lankan tea industry alive. Despite the hustle and heat, they still manage a humbling hello and smile from ear to ear.
Roughly 45 minutes hike from the Ella town strip you’ll reach the peak of Little Adam’s, with unbeatable views over the stretching valleys and hills. From the base of the mountain top you can walk an extra 10 minutes to the very peak you’ll see out ahead, which is well worth it.
Heading back down from Little Adams Peak, follow the wooden signs leading you to the famously stunning Nine Arch Bridge. A 30 minute venture through the woods, down a few steep, rough dirt paths, and you’ll reach the most fine piece of colonial architecture secluded amongst the endless jungle of tea plantations and bamboo forests. If you want to capture the train hooning past in the blink of an eye, note down the train times from slr.malindaprasad.com, to save you melting away after a good couple of hours in the sweltering heat.
Walk across the 25 metre high train track and through the tunnel for the easiest walk back to Ella town.
If chasing waterfalls is your jam, then the raging Rawana Falls, a short 15 minutes drive from town is a goodie. Catch the local bus for a bargain 60LKR (.50NZD) per round trip.
The massive falls are located just off the roadside, an ideal spot to dip your feet and cool down in.
If you’re a bit of a beach babe, hit Mirissa up. After a week in the enchanting hill country I decided to head 5 hours by local bus to the deep south, in search of a different kind of wonderland.
The toffee coloured stretch of sand, clear blue water and mellow waves of Mirissa make for a relaxing, chilled out paradise.
The main strip is lined with market vendors selling juicy fruits, ripe king coconuts to quench your thirst, and quirky shops lavished with exotic souvenirs.
I had the time of my life staying with the most beautiful local family in their guest house. They were ridiculously accomodating, greeting me with tea and heavenly home made coconut pancakes. Adorable.
As you stroll the main beach check out the atmospheric restaurants and drinking hole happy hours for a beer or two before stopping at Parrot Rock. A teeny rock island chilling out in the sea, just off the shore. Depending on the tide, wade your way through the water and up the sketchy climb to the top of the rock. The panoramic views over the coastline and Indian Ocean are something else, let me tell you.
Pass the squad of rustic, multi coloured boats, take a breather on the enticing hammocks, and navigate around rugged little coves until you reach the popular Coconut Tree Hill. Thanks to Instagram, this hill has become all the rage. A rocky mound perched high overlooking the ocean, with endless lanky coconut trees swaying over head. Picture perfect and a great little spot to mellow out on and enjoy the sun setting.
‘Secret’ Beach, which funnily enough is not so secret anymore, is another ripper. Tucked away on the other side of the cliffs to the main beach, lays a secluded sanctuary with low hanging trees, pure rippling water and a barren sweep of sand. Absolute bliss on a lazy day. Locals have no problem letting you know how to get to this tricky spot, so just ask and you shall receive.
Mirissa is also popular for whale watching, known as one of the best in the world for spotting majestic blue whales!
Ever seen the iconic old school shots of traditional fisherman dressed in colourful sarongs, fishing from wooden poles in the ocean? This is a unique method of catching fish in Sri Lanka, known as stilt fishing. Except sadly, it’s no longer as genuine as it once was.
These days pretend fisherman hustle in crowds in coastline shacks all dressed the part, only rushing out with their fishing poles the minute a tourist arrives. Of course, asking for money before setting themselves up on top of the petta (cross bar) and casting their line out into the sea. I politely declined as it doesn’t seem authentic to me, and instead got talking with a young local guy who was proudly telling me all sorts of tales about his beautiful island country.
Nevertheless, it’s a cool spot to check out while backpacking Sri Lanka, whether you get the token shot or not!
Kogalla Beach is only a 35 minute bus ride from Mirissa, or 15 minutes from Unawatuna town down the main coastline road. An hour or two set aside is all you need to explore the area.
Dalawella Beach is a quick 5 minute drive from Unawatuna, or 45 minutes from Mirissa, making it a piece of cake to visit during the day, no matter which direction you’re travelling from.
Plonked right in front of Dream Cabana Guest House, is the oh so famous rope swing, attached to a curved palm tree effortlessly protruding out over the picturesque ocean. Chill out at this sweet little spot to grab a bite to eat and watch the lively rope swing in action.
The further you travel down the Southern coastline of Sri Lanka, the more untouched, tropical, turquoise coloured beauty you lay your eyes on. For a country so small, the contrast and diversity it oozes is out of this world.
The cosy village of Unawatuna was whole heartedly my favourite beach town I discovered while backpacking Sri Lanka. It’s young, independent crowd, relaxed traveller vibes, trendy cafes and cluster of thrifty shops filled with weird and wonderful trinkets, resulted in one wicked little town.
Relax, surf, drink, roam, learn to cook, be a yogi, or do what ever your heart desires. There’s not a hell of a lot this charming coastal town is missing.
For a glimpse back in time, head to the magical Dutch Fort in the sprightly city of Galle. The 18th century Dutch headquarters is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, framed by well preserved stone sea walls enclosing the Fort.
Far fetched from the rest of Sri Lanka, this historic hub throws a spanner into the works with it’s European history and architecture.
The best thing to do in Galle is to walk. Walk along the entire outskirt of the Fort along the stone walls, looking out on to the gentle waves of the ocean. Frolic along the beach taking in the breezy sea views, and stroll the upmarket rows of streets browsing at the fancy boutique stores, funky doors and antique vehicles. Not to mention the colonial old buildings, from quaint churches, historic hospitals, and that striking white lighthouse enhanced with effortless palm trees.
Galle Fort is a foodie hub, dishing up delicious Sri Lankan cuisine, to western food at the modern, quirky cafes dotted all around. All in all costing a pretty penny!
The goodness of Galle doesn’t stop and start there however. Venture outside the walls for a completely contrasting experience in the streets of the atmospheric city, passing the major bus stands and bustling local markets. For more affordable food options check out the array of street food and let your nostrils lead you to the sweet smell of the bakery style tuk tuks.
For my fellow kiwis backpacking Sri Lanka, the easiest way to obtain a Tourist Visa is by applying online. The visa costs 35USD (53NZD) allows double entry, and lasts 30 days.
It’s a straight forward process and once you have been approved and made the payment, go straight to the customs desk at the airport and get your passport stamped. It’s as easy at that!
For more information, check out eta.gov.lk.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
December- March are the warmest and driest months to visit the majority of Sri Lanka, including the West, South and Central hill country.
However, the island is affected by two seperate monsoons from the West to the East. So, if you’re heading to the East Coast then the best time to travel is April- September.
WHAT TO WEAR
Dress conservatively when visiting temples or a place of worship while backpacking Sri Lanka, meaning cover your shoulders and knees. You can buy a scarf once you’re there to throw over your shoulders or hair when needed. Otherwise you can pretty much wear what you usually would (as long as it’s not too skimpy!) Every place is slightly different so once you get the vibe of a place you’ll learn what you feel comfortable in and what’s appropriate to wear. My biggest tip would be to pack light! I only had one small carry on bag plus my daily back pack and it was my brightest idea yet. No one wants to lug around a ginormous, heavy bag in the heat. Sri Lankan can get filthy hot and sticky, so pack clothes that are loose fitting, light and airy.
WHERE TO STAY
Backpacker’s and guest houses! Backpacker’s are always a fun time, cheap and a great way to meet others backpacking Sri Lanka. I absolutely adored staying with local families in their home and learning about their culture and way of life. I used booking.com as I went- no deposit needed!
For the most part backpacking Sri Lanka is cheap and easy on the wallet.
1L WATER 60LKR (.50 NZD) ‘Aquatabs’ are handy to pop into reusable drink bottles- don’t drink the tap water!
MEAL 150-500LKR (1-4NZD) for Sri Lankan dishes. Western food is pricey and can cost over 1000LKR (9NZD)
DORM ROOM 800-1000LKR (7-9NZD)
TRANSPORT 60-600LKR (.50-5NZD)
Just like going anywhere it really depends what kind of traveller you are. You CAN get by travelling through Sri Lanka on a shoestring. Entry tickets into attractions were the most expensive thing.
You can find ATMs in major cities and larger towns, however be aware that you will more than likely have to try a few before you find one that works. Debit, credit and most travel cards are accepted and I found this the easiest and safest way to handle money in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has an extensive railway that covers a big part of the island. I had no problem buying train tickets at the station the day of.
Local buses are ridiculously affordable, flexible and frequent, but almost always jam packed. They are understandably not in the best of nick, and when flying around the windy roads they can get pretty uncomfortable. 90% of the time I stood most of the trip before managing to nab a seat. If you’re confused on whether you’re hopping on the correct bus, inform the helpful driver of your destination and they won’t let you get on if they aren’t going in the right direction. You can’t pre book tickets, so buy on board.
Tuk tuks rip around most towns and cities. Most of these suckers run on a meter in Sri Lanka, usually costing 40 LKR (.35NZD) per km. Avoid hopping on any that aren’t metered, you will more than likely get ripped off otherwise.
Travel with patience. Just like many Asian countries, public transport has a reputation for never being on time and is almost always delayed. However I still made it a rule to arrive at the train station especially, an hour before departure.
Pick Me A handy ‘Uber’ like app for fast and safe booking of taxis or tuk tuks. You are given an estimate fare price which saves you having to keep an eye on the meter!
Maps.me Saved my life so many times while backpacking Sri Lanka! Download live maps for each city while you’re in wifi, which can then be used offline when you’re out and about.
Unless you’ve been hiding on a deserted island, you would have heard the incredibly sad news of the horrific suicide bombings that hit Sri Lanka recently. You’re probably wondering, is it still safe?
Heartbreakingly, this happened while I was travelling through this beautiful country so I saw the impact of the terrorist attacks unfold first hand, and shake the entire country.
Immediately after these sad events, there was literally not a single person on the eerie streets beside police. A social media ban was placed for weeks after, curfews were on every night, and almost every other tourist seemed to flee the country quick smart. Naive or not, I was determined to not let it ruin my travel plans, and carried on. I truly believe things like this happen all around the world on a daily basis, and it unfortunately comes down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One positive was that I found myself gravitating towards and mingling with the locals more than I would have otherwise. Every Sri Lankan I came across made me feel super safe, which was re assuring. It saddened me to hear how anxious the locals were about how the events would affect their countries booming tourism, especially after recently getting to such a good place.
Long story short, Sri Lanka is still a safe and easy country to travel to alone, and a perfect family friendly destination!
To help you feel extra safe, purchase a mobile sim at the airport when you arrive into the Colombo Airport, to make it easy to keep in contact with loved ones. I chose Mobitel which I had no problems with. For 1600LKR (13NZD) I got 11gb of data (6gb in the day, 5gb at night) and more than enough calls and texts for the month.
Have your wits about you! Don’t go out alone late at night when possible and keep your belongings on you tight- a padlock will come in handy.
People will stare and ask you for photos left, right and centre. Remember, some people have never seen a westerner in their life and you may be their only chance!
My god will you get hassled, ALOT. Learn to say ‘no, thank you’ and keep on walking, or even ignore them when appropriate, as harsh as this may seem. Confidence will get you a long way.
Sri Lanka has some of the most friendly, welcoming people. If you ever need help or feel uneasy just ask and they will run to your side to stand up for you, I promise.
Travel with an open mind and open heart, embrace their culture and your experience will be a million times better!
If you need anymore tips on solo travel check out my dedicated blog post ‘Travelling solo for the first time? TIPS FOR SOLO TRAVEL NEWBIES’
Sri Lanka is a little beauty and I wouldn’t be surprised if it steals your heart forever, as it did mine.
Thanks for reading,
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