You may want to book the flight tickets at least 2 months in advance to get a good deal. If you have a lot of time, I think you do not need much of planning. However, if you are backpacking in a limited time then you need to at least have a rough travel route and be aware of places you need to skip. I think 22-25 days would be perfect for covering the entire country but if you have fewer days in hand then you need to know what places you can skip based on your interest. Lonely planet book suggests several places and everything may not be necessarily of your interest. For me, I had a Lonely planet book in hand and had seen pictures of all attractions on internet. I skipped the east coast and national parks with safaris. But if you like surfing, then east coast might interest you and if you like wildlife then the national parks and the safaris might interest you. I also skipped the dolphin and blue whale viewing tours in Mirrisa. My lonely planet book, a map of Sri Lanka and my flight tickets is all I had in hand when I started my trip.
I did not book any accommodation before arriving. In most of the towns there is no shortage of guest houses. Lonely planet guide gives you a starting point but if you enquire with locals then you are bound to find out places that might be cheaper than the ones suggested in the book. A descent room is not very expensive. It can vary from Lrs 1500 to Lrs 3000 depending on the town. Hostels are not very common in small towns. You must try Clock inn at Kandy or Colombo and Colombo has another option called Cityrest inn. There are also a few in the south western coast near Galle. Most of them are homestay run by locals and will have limited rooms. You could use websites to book if you are someone who does not want room hunting to be adventurous. If you choose to stay in Ohiya to visit Horton Plains, then there are not much options. I highly recommend booking Hill Safari eco lodge which is located at a wonderful location. You may want to book in advance here. A major tip is that it always helps to share the room with co-travellers, so make friends during your journey. Some suggestions -
Anuradhapura - French Garden or London Palace. (Lrs 2000 to 3000)
Jaffna - Theressa inn or Saras. (Lrs 2500 to 3000)
Dambulla - Lots of them near Golden temple. (Lrs 2000)
Kandy - Clock Inn Hostel. (Los 1700 for dorm)
Ohiya - Hill Safari Eco Lodge. (Lrs 5000)
Ella - Lal’s un-named guest house (Contact# -> +94 766013778) or Sita’s heaven. (Lrs 3000)
Galle - If you do not find hotels inside the fort then there are a few in the town near KFC. (Lrs 2000)
Colombo - Cityrest Inn Hostel. (Lrs 2800 for dorm with breakfast)
First thing to do after landing -
Money exchange - Only Dollars or Euros are exchanged here. For sure not Indian rupees. So please carry some Dollars. But really, if your ATM card works then you do not even need Dollars but for safety. It is also advisable to carry amount needed for two or three days at a time as there are enough ATM’s everywhere except in Ohiya and Horton Plains.
SIM card - Dialogue is the network you are looking for that has the best coverage in SL. You could buy tourist plans that is available at the Airport which was priced Lrs 1000 but I chose to buy outside the airport, in the town. For Lrs 300 I got a SIM, Data and Currency. For international calls you could always use the wifi from the place you are staying at or use WhatsApp call through Dialogue data.
Traveling in Sri Lanka -
Buses are the best mode of transport in SL. The towns are well connected by road. Buses are fast too. There are two types of buses - Red buses run by the Government and the white coloured, striped buses which are private. The bus stations for these types are usually common or adjacent to one another. Though the price is the same in both, the red buses are faster and more reliable. Private buses wait a lot for customers to fill in and also some of the conductors cheat you or misguide you by telling that there is no direct bus to the destination you want and you must drive to their destination to get some connecting buses.
Trains are good for long journeys. I particularly enjoyed my journey from Anuradhapura to Jaffna and the one from Ella to Ohiya. It also gives you access to the remote regions in hill country.
Tuk-Tuk’s are the best rides around a town or city. Colombo alone has meter system but at other places you must negotiate the price before booking.
In places like Jaffna, Ella or the South, you can hire a scooter and ride by yourselves. It saves a lot of time. The scooter rent start from somewhere around Lrs 1000 to 1500 per day. If you plan to go on long rides around the place where you are staying then that is the best option.
In places like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa you could also hire a bicycle for a day Lrs 200-400. It is the best way to see these historic places that are scattered across the town.
For those who like fish this is a heaven. There is also all kinds of meat. Being a vegetarian myself, I concentrated more on the Veg options. There are no pure veg restaurants except in Jaffna. But most of the restaurants have Vegetarian options. Iddiyapam (Spring Hoppers), Aapam (hoppers), Pancakes, Bread and dal for breakfast; A rice with few veg curries for breakfast, Lunch and dinner. All tourist places have oriental and occidental food as well. There are several bakeries too where you could pack some buns or puffs while traveling. Tea is available everywhere. They are normally made very sweet so if you do not like sugar in your tea then you may want to specify that while ordering. Don’t miss the Meekiri, a delicacy specially seen being sold near Matara.
Dialogue network is very good and fast. I had no issues anywhere in the country except at Hill resort Eco lodge which is situated midst the mountains and I am glad I had no network there. Wifi is available in almost every descent homestay or guest house you are in.
Culture and People -
Sri Lankan people are extremely polite and kind; specially to the tourists. Upon knowing that I am an Indian, they would always welcome me to their country and share with me, a brotherly feeling. They have great regard for Indians. Even otherwise, they are very kind to the tourists as many heavily rely on tourism. Some tuk-tuk driver or people acting as guide may offer help but upon refusing they leave. In general, the locals are very well mannered. They are religious and they follow the traffic rules diligently. I would walk deserted streets of Galle or Jaffna very late in the night and I found it to be extremely safe. I would say it is a safe place for solo travellers and perhaps also for women travellers. In the temples, it is advisable to wear White clothes as a sign of respect. It is required to cover the knees while entering an Buddhist temple.
What to buy -
Ceylon tea, Ceylon tea and more of them. As much as you can. They are great! There is a variety of them. Visit a Tea factory at Ella or Nuwara Elliya to learn the differences. That would help you with the purchases. If you are interested in artefacts then you must checkout some of the painted masks at Amabalangoda. Oh yes and cinnamon! If you don’t mind spending then gem stones are popular in Kandy or other big towns or cities. For inexpensive but truly impressive rock cut Buddha idols, I would recommend Anuradhapura. Bring home some souvenirs as they shall remain as a memory for a long time!
Entry Fee -
Almost every Buddhist temple, Historical monuments have an entry fee for foreigners. Horton plains and other natural heritage sites have huge fee for non-citizens. Places like Anuradhapura and Poluawanrur have passes available for Lrs 3500 available at the museums. Indians get 50% discount on entry fee upon showing the passport for representing SAARC country. Even though the amount may add up not to a huge, it is sometimes frustrating to pay every now and then. Some travellers on tight budget skip a lot of places because of heavy fee.
Here is how I spent - Indian Rs 20,000 on Flight and Indian Rs 54,000 was my total expense in SL for 17 days. It was distributed thus -
My Route -
BIA Airport -> Negombo ->Kalpitiya -> Anuradhapura -> Mihintale -> Aukuna -> Anuradhapura -> Jaffna -> Nagadip Island -> Keeramalai-> Point Pedro -> Jaffna -> Mannar -> Talaimannar-> Anuradhapura -> Dambulla -> Sigiriya -> Polonnaruwa -> Dambulla -> Kandy -> Adam's Peak -> Ella -> Budurugala -> Ella -> Ohiya -> Horton Plains -> Ohiya -> Galle -> Amablangoda -> Brief Gardens -> Galle -> Colombo -> BIA Airport.
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