Sri LankaTravel

Sri Lanka Backpacking Tips: Super Duper Comprehensive Travel Guide!

sri-lanka-backpacking-tipsIf you're like these two, Sri Lanka will be among the favorite places you've ever visited (especially if you read our tips)

Thinking about traveling to Sri Lanka? Wondering where to go, what to eat, and what to do to have an unforgettable experience? Then read the following Sri Lanka backpacking tips.

Sri Lanka Backpacking Tips Content:

Is Sri Lanka Right For You?

Prepare Yourself for Sri Lanka

Where to Go

Where to Sleep

What, Where, and How (!) to Eat

How to Get Around


Is Sri Lanka Right For You?

Before continuing through all the Sri Lanka backpacking tips, check that you fit in with the following criteria:

The Ideal Sri Lanka Traveler:

  • A couple or two friends (or three small people who’d fit in a tuk-tuk and could share a bed!)
  • Have 2 to 4 weeks
  • Low-budget and low-maintenance
  • Looking to get away from the comforts of mass tourism
  • Ok with changing towns and hotels regularly and spending lots of time on buses and trains
  • People for whom safety is a concern while traveling. Solo female or inexperienced travelers, for example. And if you’re experienced and/or not too concerned with safety, Sri Lanka is obviously still a good fit.

Don’t Travel to Sri Lanka If…

Stop reading these Sri Lanka backpacking tips and buy flights elsewhere if any of the following applies to you:

  • Hate being hot and sticky
  • Looking for an idyllic beach vacation
  • Uncomfortable eating at really local-looking places
  • Looking for parties
  • A solo traveller hoping to meet other people on the road
  • Looking for a trip of culinary adventure
  • A private person not interested in strangers incessantly approaching you for a friendly chat
  • The type of person that gets really annoyed when your orders get messed up at a restaurant
  • A clean freak
  • Cannot stand mosquitos

Prepare Yourself For Sri Lanka

Now that you’ve determined Sri Lanka’s the place for you, mentally and physically prepare yourself with the following Sri Lanka backpacking tips we wish we’d been given before we left.

Vital Tips

  • Pack light (see our post on packing for more info)
  • Get a SIM card upon arrival. It’s super cheap ($10 for 5GB and essentially unlimited local calling) and being able to call a guesthouse for bus tips, use Google maps to help a lost tuk-tuk driver, or find a place to stay will make your trip much easier.

Biggest Negative Surprises 

  • Difficulty to find the right transport. We wasted a lot of time and got frustrated due to this.
  • Difficulty to communicate when ordering food. Pointing and eating is an adventure, but it can also lead to undesired surprises and missing out on better food opportunities.
  • Less booze. Alcohol is only sold at designated stores and is expensive compared to everything else.
  • Mosquitos. They were bad at times.
drinking in sri lanka
Speaking of alcohol, don’t drink the stuff on the right! Kim is smiling because she hasn’t tasted it yet.

Biggest Positive Surprises

  • The unrelenting friendliness of the people. Nowhere in the 60+ countries we’ve been have we ever experienced friendlier people.
  • Even less tourists than we had imagined. We mostly had the place to ourselves.
  • Very cheap prices. We never got over it. Live like a king.
  • No stomach problems. This despite eating anything and everything. We even drank the local water.
  • Cleanliness. Sri Lanka and its people were very clean. There were no foul smells, no over-abundant litter, and no unsanitary eating establishments.
    sri lanka beach
    No other tourists around for miles!

Weather Notes

This will only be useful for people traveling around early June, when we went there. And keep in mind that this is coming from very heat-tolerant people (I’ve lived years in Panama, and Kim in Dubai):

  • The rain in the South and West Coasts wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d been warned. It did sprinkle in Mirissa and we had an impressive downpour once in Colombo, but in no way did the rain negatively affect our travels.
  • The heat in the South and West Coasts was at times almost unbearable at midday. We had to occasionally seek refuge behind the fans or air conditioning of stores or cafes.
  • Other than the South and West Coasts, the weather was perfect. No rain, not too hot nor too cold. Every day we’d just wear shorts and a t-shirt and would cool down with a fresh fruit smoothie or dip into the ocean.

Where to Go

Top Sri Lanka Backpacking Travel Destinations:

In order from best to worst, this is the list of where we visited while in Sri Lanka.

  1. Ella – Upper Ravana Falls and Ella Rock hike
  2. Trincomalee – Trinco beach, exploring via scooter, talking with locals
  3. Haputale – Lipton’s Seat and tea factory
  4. Yala safari – Tissa itself was nothing to write home about, but the safari was worth it
  5. Galle – Neat for a quick visit. Nothing unforgettable
  6. Nuwara Eliya – Didn’t go to the World’s End, but I can’t imagine it’s better than Lipton’s Seat, especially considering the difference in price, $20 vs. $0.80
  7. Colombo – Pettah, Galle Face Green, Mount Lavinia. Not comparable in interest and attractions to other large Asian cities
  8. Mirissa – Maybe outside of the monsoon season it’s nicer or more fun, but it struck me as not particularly authentic and friendly compared to the rest of Sri Lanka
  9. Kandy – Nothing bad about it; it’s just that there’s so much more to see elsewhere

Where, What, and How (!) to Eat

While it was definitely not a negative, Sri Lankan food wasn’t as good or varied as the chow in other places in Asia. Nor was it, surprisingly enough, as spicy as we had hoped.

What to Eat

Our favorites were:

  • Breakfast: String hoppers (Sri Lankan rice noodle patties), roti, sambol and dhal
  • Lunch & Dinner: Koththu roti, which to me was sort of a Sri Lankan version of Pad Thai with chopped vegetables, meat, and roti, was one of my favorites
  • Non-alcoholic drink: Mango and avocado mix fresh fruit juice, always being sure to ask for no or little sugar. Also, coconut water with lime and a touch of sugar.
  • Alcoholic drink: Arrack with EGB (ginger beer) and touch of soda.
  • Dessert: Chocolate coconut roti. I will never forget the amazing one they made for me in Ella.
sri lanka backpacking tips best food
Chocolate coconut roti. Chris dreams about it to this day.

Where to Eat

The food at the guesthouses was generally better but twice the price of local “hotels” (as they call restaurants in Sri Lanka). I’d recommend eating in at smaller towns like Haputale where local options are more limited and your guesthouse is likely to be farther away from restaurants, and opting for the experience of eating out in bigger cities where there is more choice.

How to Eat

Whatever and wherever you eat, eat like the locals: with your fingers.

utensil free eating sri lanka
Kim’s eating hands-free style, but you can and should use your hands.

Where to Stay

How to Pick a Place to Stay

Our strategy, which worked very well, was to use blogs and TripAdvisor to pre-select a place or two before arrival at each stop. We’d then call them upon arrival to negotiate prices via phone and see if they’d pick us up from the bus/train station for free (or cover the tuk-tuk). Being the off-season, availability was not an issue whatsoever.  This may not work in the high season.

We always went with fan rooms and never had any issues with the heat at night as long as the fan was at full blast.

Where We Stayed (and Where We’d Stay Next Time):

Ranked in order of preference are the places we stayed at, plus some recommendations on where we wish we had stayed instead:

  1. Mount View, Ella
    • Would stay there again in a heartbeat
  2. White Home, Haputale
    • Though perfectly fine, we would try ABC next time. We heard first hand it was nice and it is much more conveniently located.
  3. Golden Beach Cottages, Trinco
  4. Elephant Camp, Tissamaharama
    • Would probably stay there again. It was pleasant and no better options jumped out.
  5. Heavens Homestay, Kandy
    • Would go somewhere closer to town
  6. Blue Seas Guesthouse, Mount Lavinia, Colombo
    • We would try somewhere else with a more friendly and available local manager.
  7. Surf View Hotel, Mirissa
    • Not great and had a major mosquito problem, but cheap and well located. Would look elsewhere, but we didn’t see any obvious alternatives)

How to Get Around:

Transport was often the biggest challenge of our trip, so you are advised to carefully read this collection of Sri Lanka backpacking tips relating to transportation!

Directions

  • If going to a specific address in Sri Lanka, be sure to get physical points of reference (e.g. a couple blocks past the Hilton Hotel in Colombo 5) as well as the actual address. We were only given the address for a wedding ceremony we went to, which led to a wild and stressful shit-show of a tuk-tuk adventure around Colombo looking for the place. An alternative is to have the phone number of a local at the place you’re looking to go to.
  • When trying to figure out which bus to get on, always ensure at least two completely separate Sri Lankans confirm it’s the one you want before boarding. One will point you the wrong way due to a misunderstanding, so save yourself by double checking with someone else.

Train & Bus

  • When the timings are reasonably convenient and it is an option, always go for the train. Take second class and only pay extra for a reservation if they recommend you do so at the station. While trains may at times be slower than buses, the added comfort of having more space and not be wildly swerving, braking, and accelerating is beyond a doubt worth it.
  • As a rule of thumb, plan for 2mins for every Kilometer of bus and train travel you plan
  • When getting buses between Galle (or Matara) and Colombo, make sure to ask for the expressway bus. Don’t accept any “direct” bus. The expressway bus is very fast; the “direct” bus was the worst of our entire trip.
  • If you don’t manage to get a first class ticket on the overnight train back to Colombo, the overnight bus is a worthy plan B. It may not be quite as comfortable but it is much faster (5hr45min vs. 10hrs) and cheaper.
sri lanka traveling by train
The trains in Sri Lanka are not high speed. But they’re an experience!

Scooter

  • As long as you have the confidence to take part in Sri Lankan-style driving, renting a scooter in Trinco is a must do. Not only does it allow you to get way more done with your day than you would otherwise, it is also cheaper than the alternative of tuk-tuking around.

Flying

  • Domestic flights: If you’re short on time or long on money, check out helitours.lk for reasonably cheap flights within Sri Lanka. Flights from Colombo to Trinco were only 4600 rupees (about $33) one way, which is an attractive option compared to an 8-10hour bus or train ride.
  • The bus from Colombo Fort to the airport is cheap, and easy. If you have the time, there’s no reason not to take it.
  • If you have a long travel ahead, showering at the Colombo international airport is recommended. At $15 USD, it’s closer to Western prices, but it’s worth it for the added comfort to you and your neighbors on the plane of being fresh and clean.

More Sri Lanka Backpacking Tips

Read our daily journal to get inspiration and tips for your own unforgettable journey

Chris Blachut
Chris' proudest moment was when his grandma said he's the weirdest of her dozens of grandchildren. He likes different stuff, cheap stuff, sports, nachos, and Kim. He has no job but makes money.

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