Our budget backpacking guide to Sri Lanka: routes, the best time to visit, an itinerary, tips and tricks, how to get around and how to stay safe
Sri Lanka has had, to put it mildly, a rocky few years. However, even the current economic crisis and a fractious relationship between locals and the government can’t stop tourists from heading to the island for its wonderful beaches, stunning weather, ancient history, and delicious food influenced by its many cultures. Indeed, tourism is one of Sri Lanka’s most consistent sources of income: local people are encouraging visitors to contribute to the local economy, and many are still happy to do so.
The best time to visit
If you’re looking to spend your time on the beach, December — April is when you should aim for. The south and west of the country experience warm, dry days and nights, but the northern and eastern regions can experience monsoons.
Going earlier in the year, September/October to April, is the best all-round bet, with fewer tourists. This also means you can go hiking in the hills, with the weather cooler but still generally dry.
If you really want to avoid the crowds, May — August is the time. The north and east of the country, with their relaxed resorts and excellent surfing, are the places to be during this time.
No matter what time of year you go, however, there will be something going on. If it’s not a festival, it’ll be a week on the beach; if it’s not hiking season, it might be a full moon over a forest temple.
How much will my trip cost?
Hotel or hostel accommodation for one person will set you back in the region of Rs.3,500 (Sri Lankan rupees), just under 10 US dollars per night. It normally drops ever so slightly if you’re traveling in a pair, with Rs.6,900 ($19.20) for a double-occupancy room.
Set aside around $4-5 a day for food and $2 for local transportation. The two-hour-thirty-minute train journey from Colombo to Kandy costs around Rs.350 (just under a dollar), with the longer, six-and-a-half-hour ride from Colombo to Jaffna, in the north, costing Rs.700, or $2.
Taking this all into account, an average week in Sri Lanka for two people should come to around Rs. 94,000, or just a touch over $260. You might add to this by hiring a car and driver (around $50 a day, covering fuel, salary, road tolls and insurance), and we’ll look at that a bit more below.
A typical 14-day itinerary
There’s so much to see and do, you’ll have to work out where your priorities lie before you go. However, we can say that there are a couple of touchpoints that you really should note, such as wildlife, history, beaches, culture, and getting to know the locals.
So how about this for a two-week holiday?…
Starting with a couple of days around Jaffna Peninsula, sail out to the surrounding islands, and head south a while to explore Anuradhapura, one of the world’s oldest cities, and the site of Buddhist temples dating back almost two thousand years. Pop your hiking boots on and climb the sacred mountain of Mihintale, or take a Jeep safari through Wilpattu National Park, looking out for elephants, buffalo, leopards, monitor lizards and pythons.
The center of the island is simply known as Hill Country, so spend some days exploring the forested mountains, where waterfalls crash and tea plantations cover the hillsides. Visit one to meet the locals, learn about the tea trade, and try some local infusions.
Finally, board the train via the beautiful mountain village of Ella, and head south to Galle, a town founded by Portuguese colonists, expanded and fortified by the Dutch, and surrounded by curving beaches and quiet, relaxing lagoons. That gives you a final day or two to chill out and remember all the things you’ve done and seen… pretty nice, eh?
How to get around
In the cities and towns, tuk-tuks are the easiest combination of efficiency and price. For longer distances, the lack of internal flights means it’s ground transport pretty much all the way, and buses, although cheap, are often slow or delayed. That’s all part of the experience, though; no one goes to Sri Lanka for a sleek, smart transport system!
Having said that, since 2009, an effort has been made to smarten up the country’s infrastructure. New, modern highways are being built, and locomotives and rolling stock are being upgraded, meaning the journeys between destinations can be stunning. Indeed, the nine spectacular hours between Kandy and Ella made it onto our list of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.
If that’s not really your thing, you can also hire a car and driver for individual trips, one-day hires, or longer — ten days, say. If you’re with the same driver for a longer time, you’ll get to know each other, with the driver acting as a guide for interesting places to go, and local things to eat, see and do. Even if you feel like spending a couple of days in the same place, the system is usually flexible enough that you can simply agree between you on a date to resume your trip. This way, you’ll be able to agree on fixed dates and prices that all parties are happy with.
As discussed above, the car and driver option will add a chunk of expense to your trip: approximately $50 per day, plus hotel accommodation (although some hotels offer free stays for drivers if they’re with tourists). Try one of the trusted websites such as Sri Lanka Car and Driver Hire to read reviews from previous customers and find a driver, vehicle and price that suits you.
General travel advice
Recently, there have been a number of protests in cities such as Colombo and Kandy as the country faces an economic crisis. Calls for change amid shortages of food, fuel and medicine, as well as power cuts in some areas, have prompted citizens to take to the streets in protest. Reports of police using tear gas and on peaceful protestors has prompted some governments, the UK and US among them, to dissuade their citizens from traveling.
Nevertheless, locals are still encouraging tourists to come, noting that tourism is one reliable source of income for the country. Reports vary, but with protests mainly focused on the larger cities, many travelers have reported nothing out of the ordinary as they head for the mountains, the temples and the beaches.
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