These Sri Lanka backpacking tips will give you a quick and easy introduction to where to go, what to eat, and what to do to have as extraordinary an experience as we had.
Is Sri Lanka Right For You?
Sri Lanka was honestly one of our favorite countries to explore, but not everyone will agree. Here’s the type of traveler who is most likely to have a blast backpacking in Sri Lanka.
- A couple or two friends (or three really small people who could fit in a tuk-tuk and share a bed).
- Have two to four weeks.
- Low-budget and, more importantly, low-maintenance.
- Looking to get away from the comforts and convenience of mass tourism.
- Ok with changing towns and hotels regularly and spending lots of time moving —slowly—on buses and trains.
- People for whom safety is a concern while traveling. 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…
You may want to cut your losses, stop reading these Sri Lanka backpacking tips, and buy flights somewhere like Tulum if you are:
- Unable to tolerate being hot and sticky 24/7
- Looking for an idyllic beach vacation
- Uncomfortable eating with your fingers at really local-looking places
- Looking to party hard
- A solo traveler hoping to meet other people on the road
- Looking for a trip of culinary adventure
- Scared of strangers who will incessantly approach you for a friendly chat
- The type of person that gets really annoyed when your orders get messed up at a restaurant
- Unable to stand mosquitos
Just Two Tips
- Don’t just pack light, pack right. “Pack light” is repeated so often online that it’s become a tired cliché, but for backpacking in Sri Lanka it applies more than maybe anywhere else we’ve been. This is especially true if you are planning to get around by bus, train, and tuk-tuk. Traveling with a big bag, or god forbid two bags, would be a sweaty, stressful nightmare. For a bare-bones packing list for guys (and girls that dress like guys?), check out Chris’ guide here.
- 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
- Difficulty to find the right transport. We wasted a lot of time and got frustrated due to this. Backpackers like us who like travel by the seat of their pants may want to consider avoiding this stress by planning their routes before leaving for the next destination.
- 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.
- The unrelenting friendliness of the people. Nowhere in the 60+ countries we’ve been have we ever experienced friendlier people.
- Even fewer tourists than we had imagined. We mostly had the place to ourselves. This is changing fast though. These days it seems you can’t go on Instagram without seeing the same photo of someone sticking their head out of a Sri Lankan train.
- Very cheap prices. We never got over it. Live like a king. Maybe even better, the locals never tried to charge us foreigner prices.
- 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.
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 (Chris lived for 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.
Top Sri Lanka Backpacking Destinations
Ranked from best to worst, here are the places we visited during our Sri Lanka backpacking trip. For all the detail on each, check out Chris’ daily journal of our trip:
- Ella – Upper Ravana Falls and Ella Rock hike.
- Trincomalee – Trinco beach, exploring via scooter, talking with locals.
- Haputale – Lipton’s Seat and tea factory.
- Yala safari – Tissa itself was nothing to write home about, but the safari was worth it.
- Galle – Neat for a quick visit. Nothing unforgettable.
- 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.
- Colombo – Pettah, Galle Face Green, Mount Lavinia. Not comparable in interest and attractions to other large Asian cities.
- 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.
- 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 elsewhere in Asia. Nor was it, surprisingly enough, as spicy as we had hoped (with the exception of one “deer” stew in Kandy that Kim couldn’t even smell and took every ounce of Chris’ sheer determination to finish).
What to Eat
Our favorite Sri Lankan foods were:
- Breakfast: String hoppers (Sri Lankan rice noodle patties), roti, sambol and dhal.
- Lunch & Dinner: Koththu roti, which was sort of a Sri Lankan version of Pad Thai with chopped vegetables, meat, and roti.
- 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 a touch of soda.
- Dessert: Chocolate coconut roti. I will never forget the amazing one they made for me in Ella.
Where to Eat
The food at the guesthouses was generally better than that of the local “hotels” (as they call restaurants in Sri Lanka), but it was about twice the price.
In smaller towns like Haputale, where local options are more limited and your guesthouse is likely to be farther away from restaurants, we recommend eating in. Go for the experience of dining out in bigger cities where there are more, better, and more convenient choices.
How to Eat
Whatever and wherever you eat, eat like the locals: with your fingers.
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 we got to each stop. Upon arrival, we’d then call them 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 would stay instead if we were to return:
- Mount View, Ella
- Would stay there again in a heartbeat
- 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.
- Golden Beach Cottages, Trinco
- We would try Dyke Rest next time. In our opinion, the beach it’s on (Trincomalee Beach) is nicer than Uppuveli and it’s much more conveniently located closer to town.
- Elephant Camp, Tissamaharama
- Would probably stay there again. It was pleasant and no better options jumped out.
- Heavens Homestay, Kandy
- Would go somewhere closer to town
- Blue Seas Guesthouse, Mount Lavinia, Colombo
- We would try somewhere else with a more friendly and available local manager.
- Surf View Hotel, Mirissa
- Not great and had a major mosquito problem, but cheap and well-located. We would look elsewhere, but we didn’t see any obvious alternatives, and realistically we’d skip Mirissa entirely.
How to Get Around
Transport was often the biggest challenge of our Sri Lanka backpacking experience, so you are advised to read these tips carefully:
- 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, so they can advise your driver.
- 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
- Always go for the train whenever it’s possible and the timings are convenient. Go 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, it’s worth it for the added comfort and to avoid being on a wildly swerving, braking, and accelerating bus.
- As a rule of thumb, plan for two minutes for every kilometer of bus and train travel.
- 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 not. It 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 (just under 6hr vs. 10hr) and cheaper.
- 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.
- 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 8-10 hour 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 US, 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 ideas for your own extraordinary journey.