The ‘Emerald Island‘ is a great destination for everyone from tourists to backpackers. While the accommodation is a bit more expensive than other South East Asian countries, the food and transportation is still very cheap. Wonderful sights, amazing beaches, delicious local specialties, friendly people in a laid back culture.
We spent 2 months in Sri Lanka traveling around – while working online – with two longer stops: one in Trincomalee and the other in Mirissa.
Here are the places we visited and our tips, recommendations.
Colombo – Kandy – Dalhousie / Adams’s Peak – Dambullah / Sigiriya Rock – Trincomalee – Jaffna – Anuradhapura – Mirissa – Galle
You will more than likely to land at Colombo International Airport. Colombo city centre is a 45mins away by taxi, costs 20$. With tuktuk it’s about 15$. If you are after a long intl. flight it is clever to stay in Negombo, a small town closer to the airport. You can even start your trip from there (get on the train, rent a car or a tuktuk). You don’t necessarily have to go to the capital (there is nothing there), unless you want to extend the visa.
Try to avoid buses unless you love crowd, heat and loud hindi-pop music. Night buses are basically non-existent. Forget about the ones in Vietnam or Cambodia with ‘laying seats’. We took only once a night bus from Trincomalee to Colombo. 2am departure, getting to Colombo 8am, worst journey ever.
The best way to cover longer distances. Cheap and quite comfortable. Forget about roughing it by taking 3rd class – it is definitely a no go. 2nd class is good, you will have a seat, fan and don’t worry about buying food in advance. Vendors will come with snacks and drinks at every stop.
Rent a scooter:
1500 RS petrol is very cheap. Great for short distances to discover the region. No deposit needed, no special licence.
Rent a tuk-tuk:
Yes it is possible! Great way to get around and transport your backpacks as well.
Rent a car:
The most expensive option with obvious advantages. The traffic is not too bad and the major roads are in perfect condition. You can find better deals for the entire length of your stay, probably you can negotiate a better price once you are there.
Average prices start from 1500RS/room/night. For this price expect clean but basic rooms. Attached bathroom, cold shower and fan. If you go through booking.com or any other booking sites the price will be higher than if you just show up. What we did is just booked for 1night and if we liked the place we stayed for lower price. Sometimes we just got off the bus, got a tuktuk and went around asking for prices and rooms. If you stay more nights you can get discount usually.
Important note: The prices vary depending on the season. During high-season prices can be easily double or triple. Also if there is a festival like the spectacular Perahera in Kandy or in Anuradhapura expect much higher prices and crowded trains. You will need a booking in advance!
Extension of Visa
It is a full-day program with long waiting hours but in theory you will have the extension on the same day. You have to go to the Immigration Centre in Colombo in the morning, expect crowd and chaos. Fill in forms, wait, pay and wait again. Some officers offer you the option of shorter process if you pay the, cash in hand. We did. We paid 2000 RS extra (cash in hand) and the extensions were done in 3hrs. Others were still waiting when we left. 2months extension costs 30$
The golden rule for staying low on the budget is to eat like the locals. Many small restaurants that might look dodgy for the squeamish, offer delicious and clean food. Don’t get fooled by the name ‘hotel’ it will still be just a local restaurant. Must try hoppers, kottu, roti, curry and devilled fish, seafood, fresh tropical juices and other tasty local food. Another great thing about Sri Lanka is that everything is locally grown so it’s easy to stay healthy with all fresh fruits and veggies.
A great thing about Sri Lanka is that prices are mostly set and shown on food’s packagings, so you don’t need to negotiate prices for a bar of chocolate or a bottle of water.
During the 2 months we did not once have the feeling that people were trying to rip us off. There are different prices for locals and for tourists of course but it is normal in Asia.
Do negotiate tuktuk prices in advance.
Coconut: 50 LKR
Fried rice: 120 LKR
Kottu: 200 LKR
Almost everywhere there is entrance fee for tourists. Even if you are visiting the smallest temple you’ll be charged 100-200RS or you will be asked for donations. The major sites like Sigiriya will cost you more (30$).
Internet and Electricity
There is very good WiFi in every hotel, even at budget places. Fast and reliable. Power cuts rarely happen. If you need to have Internet for work (like us) you can also get a SIM Card with internet package and use 3G. There is signal everywhere. 5GB data costs 5$
Things to do and see
Not much to do and see here. The city itself is much less hassle than other Asian big capital cities. Tourists usually stay in Kalpitiya. Many high end hotels are located in this region. We stayed in Seaview Hotel on two different occasions. It’s clean and the location is good. End of June we payed 1500 RS/night for a double room with fan. Same room costed 3800 RS in August as the prices go up when the season starts.
We also checked out the Backpacker Hotel. They offer a very small room with shared bathroom for the same price. Seaview is good value for money.
2.5 hours away from Colombo, it is a spectacular train ride that costs 190LKR. Kandy is a nice, small town (old capital) with cooler and much more bearable climate in lush green, jungle environment. If you want to get away from the heat of Colombo it is a great option.
The Tooth Temple (entrance 2000 LKR) is located here, it definitely worths visiting. We stayed a bit further out of the centre at a nice guesthouse called Hill View. Spacious, clean rooms and nice view to the hillside.
Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
Located 1 hour drive from from Kandy. You can rent a scooter or do a day trip by tuktuk. A day trip with tuktuk (+driver) costs 2500 LKR. Entrance to the orphanage 2500 LKR.
It is not really an orphanage where elephants are roaming freely but more of a tourist attraction. The first part of the show where people can feed baby elephants, than you can see a bigger herd and go quite close to them. The best part is the last when they go bathing down to the river. Some of them are chained and the ‘mahouts’ are always around otherwise they would go in the jungle probably.
It was nice to see these wonderful creatures in their natural environment even if for a short time.
The nearest village where you can start to climb the peak is called Dalhouise. We booked a room in advance, stayed 1night and changed cause we found a perfect little place called Daddy’s Guesthouse. If you want to save on food don’t take their set menu offer. Cheap local restaurant called Greenview run by Samanthe is much cheaper.
We were there in off season, that means less tourists but bad weather. The climb takes 3-4 hours. We did it the traditional way: started at 2:30am to get to the peak by sunrise. Which we did however due to the fog and rain we did not see anything. Plus it was freezing cold, raining and we had no dry clothes.
Good advice: take a dry t-shirt, you will be sweaty.. Up there monks are living and selling hot tea/coffee. The trek is doable even in poring rain. There is a proper concrete path but take a raincoat.
Dambullah & Sigiriya
Sigiriya is the main attraction of Sri Lanka. It is a must see if when visiting this country, but it is a bit overpriced. (30$/person). The site can’t be compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and even Angkor is cheaper than this place.
We ended up staying over 3 weeks in this small town on the eastern shore of the island. We found the perfect accommodation for digital nomads. We negotiated the price for a longer term stay (1500rs) in a hotel on Trinco beach with a shared balcony. The hotel manager, Mohan, is a cool young Tamil fellow who is super friendly and really helpful for informations related to the area.
Great things about this town that we can mention are definitely the dolphin watching and swimming in the crystal clear ocean. There is a beautiful Hindu temple on a hill from which you can enjoy an amazing view of the ocean.
My highlights (Dragan), were definitely the local fishermen that were net fishing in front of our balcony, I spent countless hours every morning photographing them. There was another benefit of having those guys as friends, I was buying freshly caught fish from them directly as they removed it from the net for 1.5/2$ (plus they were cleaning it for us). My highlight (Edit) was the little hotel we stayed. It was filled with like-minded friendly people that we had some great conversation with. Also the food in the local little restaurants were amazing, serving the most delicious authentic food such as kottu and hopper.
Our last stop before we left for India. Simply amazing beach. Mirissa is more touristic than Trincomalee but still you can find your private piece of paradise. We negotiated a prise for accommodation for 1100rs in a hotel with big garden 50m from the beach. Along the beach there were bars/restaurants where fresh fish was offered.
We were there off season so we had a rough ocean, which I actually liked cause I was able to try surfing. A must do when you are in Mirissa is to go on a whale-watching tour. It was a bumpy ride but totally worth it. We saw a pod of orcas which was truly humbling.
Mirissa is definitely a place to visit.
Here are more photos from our trip: