My guide to backpacking in Sri Lanka

Long post alert!

A lot of people asked for my itinerary ever since I went backpacking in Sri Lanka in November 2017. I’ve answered questions on WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and Email. So finally I’ve decided to put pen to paper. I’m hoping this will help a lot of y’all to plan a trip to Sri Lanka, which you definitely must. I had a ball of a time in the country. Sri Lanka may be tiny but packs in a punch. From wildlife to blue beaches and tea plantations, ancient cultural monuments, hiking and water sports…there’s something for everybody.

Galle sea front

I’m keeping this post in a Q&A format based on all the questions I’ve been asked since my trip. I’ll try my best to keep this page updated as and when there is more information to add on topics I missed addressing. For convenience, I’ve added a table of contents, so you can directly jump to the section(s) of your concern.

Let’s start then 🙂

How come I chose Sri Lanka?

I desperately wanted a stamp on my passport, as the pages were blank ever since I returned from London in 2010. With the paltry income, I could only afford another Asian country. Two of my team mates had done Sri Lanka in the recent past, which played a BIG role to influence my decision. They came back with stories of scuba diving, surfing, clean beaches, awesome food, wildlife safaris and roughing it out on the road. I was sold!

Jaffna-backpacking in sri lanka

Sri Lankan country side

Sri Lanka visa-backpacking in sri lanka

How to apply for a Sri Lankan visa?

The Sri Lanka visa process is pretty straightforward. You have to get an electronic travel authorization (ETA) from their government website for 20$. The visa is processed in less than 24 hours. All you have to do is key in your passport details, port of entry, and address in Sri Lanka. I tentatively added a hotel in Unawatuna just for the sake of the visa, but later changed my city from Unawatuna to Hikkaduwa. Nobody really checks. My immigration was smooth, and I was out of the airport with a stamp in less than 30 minutes.

Are the flight tickets expensive?

Not really. The tickets are surprisingly cheap to Sri Lanka provided you book early. I found tickets to North East India more expensive than Sri Lanka. I booked my tickets 40 days prior for 17000 INR, which in fact is on the higher side. Folks who visited earlier paid 14000 INR for a return fare. I like travelling on a country’s national carrier, even if the cost is a little more. And Sri Lanka airlines really impressed me with it spacious seats, excellent food and top class service.

Sri Lankan airlines-backpacking in sri lanka

Sri Lanka’s national carrier

Jet Airways does direct flights to Sri Lanka while Air India, Indigo and Spice Jet do flights from Chennai. For the best fares, book at least 3 months prior. If you want to save more money and have the luxury of time, take the flight from Chennai to Colombo. One of my friends did that recently, and got an India-Sri Lanka ticket for 6000 INR one way.

I check airfares on multiple aggregator sites before booking and my favourites are Skyscanner, Kayak, Ease my trip and Make my trip.

Can I carry local currency? How much?

I stumped a little here.

Sri Lanka rupees-backpacking in sri lanka

The last 20 LKR, I brought home

Sri Lanka’s local currency is the Sri Lankan rupee which is half of Indian rupee. So typically our one rupee is their two rupees.

The law says that you can carry a minimum of 5000 Sri Lankan rupees when entering the country. However one of my colleagues entered Sri Lanka with 1 lakh LKR and nobody questioned. Even I entered the country with 38000 LKR and it was fine.

I also carried about 400 USD, in case I’d exhaust the Sri Lankan rupees, which I obviously did. Quite a few shops in Sri Lanka can exchange Indian rupees too, but I had read that the exchange rate for INR wasn’t great. Dollars fetched a better rate and could be exchanged literally anywhere. I mostly preferred exchanging at banks, except in Jaffna when it was a Sunday, and I ended up exchanging at a jewellery shop who in fact gave me a better rate than even banks.

It’s important to carry your passport when exchanging money.

Can you share your itinerary?

One size doesn’t fit all. I backpacked for 15 days so I covered almost the entire country except for the east coast. You may visit for lesser days or more, so pick and choose your cities accordingly. I mixed and matched my own itinerary based on my team mates’ feedback and added some of my own things to do, mostly in Northern Sri Lanka. Besides, if there was one city I was sure of visiting even before booking, it was Jaffna. Northern Sri Lanka is really untouched, and I was glad I added the northern region to my itinerary.

Here is the map with all the cities I covered over 15 days. You can either start from central or northern Sri Lanka and come down south, or start from the south and go up north. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to write a brief post on my experience in each of these cities and come back and update this page. So stay with me!

Please suggest places to stay in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is big on tourism. So the hotel and home-stay scene is great. You’ll never fall short of decent accommodation, although based on the season, the prices may vary. I booked my hotels from Hikkaduwa to Kandy only a week prior. In Anuradhapura, Mannar and Jaffna, I booked my hotel a couple of hours before check in.

Over the course of my trip, I stayed at lovely beach properties, guest houses, homestays, hostels, cottages, luxurious villas and even a lagoon house.

Here is the list of all the places I stayed at, with a two line review:

Day 1 and 2 | Hikkaduwa | Jasmine Garden Beach Guest House

A mid-range guest house with a brilliant location right on the Narigama beach, run by a Mother and her son

Day 3 and 4 | Welligama | Twenty-Two Welligambay

Boutique property right on the Welligama beach. The best sunsets I saw in Sri Lanka. Great stop to learn surfing for beginners. There is a small surf school just outside the property, from where I did my 2 hour crash course.

TwentyTwo WelligamBay-backpacking in sri lanka

Sunsets like these 😉

Day 5 | Tangalle | Catamaran Lagoon House

Sustainable property overlooking the Rekawa lagoon, self built by this really inspiring fisherman, Asira

Day 6 | Ella | Travel Rest Inn

Cheap and comfortable. Run by a local Sinhalese family. Decent for one night

Day 7 | Kandy | Kandy City Monkey Hostel

Cheap and okay hostel 25mins from the city center. The host Lata was very sweet

Day 8 and 9 | Habarana | The Other Corner

Luxurious individual cottages. A good base to cover the cultural triangle namely Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Mineriya or Kaudulla national park

Day 10 | Anuradhapura | Yoho Diamond Lake Tourist Rest

I got lucky with a steal deal on Booking.com for just 1400 LKR / 700 Indian rupees. Got me a soft comfortable bed, TV, Wifi, private shower, toiletries and a restaurant with a lake view

Day 11 | Mannar | Blue moon rest house

Not even remotely close to the best places I’ve stayed at. Very basic room for 600 INR without an attached toilet. But then the guest house scene in Mannar is not great, so you have limited options

Day 12 and Day 13 | Jaffna | D’Villa Guest house

Dillon, my host was the coolest of all. He loved hosting people, like it was his true calling. On arrival, he offered me a room in his brand new wing for the same price. Everything was spic and span, like I was the first guest of that room. He also rented me his Honda Activa for two days for 750 INR.

Day 14 | Negombo | Waterland

My last stop in SL and an excellent way to end the trip. Super luxurious villas overlooking the backwaters with Dutch canals

[Also read this post I wrote for some of the properties: When people make places]

Sites I use to book my hotels

For international hotels, I generally look up Agoda and Booking.com. Once I’ve narrowed down a property in my budget, I check the reviews on Tripadvisor before confirming my stay.

What is the best and cheapest way to travel around Sri Lanka?

Best and cheap often don’t go hand in hand. It’s subjective.

It’s cheap to travel in Sri Lanka, provided you don’t take a private cab for the whole journey. Besides that’s not fun either. Sri Lanka is a tourist country and private cabs are fuck expensive and one of the major expenditures you’ll have on this trip.

In my two weeks here, I never took a private cab, not even when I got out of the airport. Instead I hopped on the shuttle service from the airport to Colombo for 250 LKR.

Buses srilanka-backpacking in sri lanka

Local buses give you the feels

Provided you get an international driving permit from your home country, it’s easy to rent and ride a bike in Sri Lanka. You can also directly visit the Department of Motor Traffic in Colombo and get a 30 day driving permit for 1000 LKR. The entire exercise will take about 4-5 hours until you get the license, but I’d assume you’d be wasting a day, if you’re pressed for time. I did something different though. I rented a self drive tuk tuk for the first leg of my itinerary on the south west coast and central highlands. There is additional paperwork required for that and deserves a separate post, so stay tuned till I write that.

Kandy onwards, I switched from tuk tuk to buses, and believe me, I saved a lot here. The bus network is pretty good except Anuradhapura to Mannar, which looked close enough on the map but I ended up switching two buses. In Jaffna, I rented a Honda Activa from my local host to explore the town. Paid 750 INR for two days which I thought was cheap for India standards.

rent bike-backpacking in sri lanka

Exploring Jaffna on my Activa

I also took a train from Jaffna all the way to Gampaha which was the closest railhead to Negombo. It was a scenic train journey, but not as pretty as the route from Ella to Kandy, which people rave about as one of the best train journeys in the world.

Funnily, it helped that many Sri Lankans thought me to be a local from my facial features. The rickshaw driver in Negombo for example plied me to the airport for half price and so did the rickshaw in Anuradhapura. In Tangalle, when the cops pulled me over with my tuk tuk, they saw my papers and were surprised that I was a tourist.

Jaffna ttrain-backpacking in sri lanka

Taking the train from Jaffna towards Colombo fort railway station

How is the food?

I’ve already written an elaborate post on the food scene in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan cuisine is partially similar to India, except that their flavours are sharp and tangy. Couple of local must eats include Hoppers, Puttu, Kottu Roti, Short eats like vades and pastries and of course the Sri Lanka fish curry rice. Their local brew is called Lion beer. Look out for the Dutch influenced recipe Lampraise which has mutton pieces, chicken, egg, rice, brinjal, jackfruit and a fish ball thrown into a banana leaf and baked.

Read my post 20 dishes that summarized Sri Lankan cuisine for me

Sri Lankan fish curry rice-backpacking in sri lanka

Sri Lankan fish curry rice

Is it safe to travel alone in Sri Lanka? How are the people?

I did carry a pepper spray on this trip since I would be out for two weeks, and in the second leg of the journey I was alone. Sri Lankans are pretty liberal, sometimes shrewd and meaning business. For example, Indians would go the EXTRA mile to make sure they help you, a term we’ve coined Atithi Devi Bhava. Sri Lankans will probably not do that but nevertheless are very friendly and chilled out.

There were a couple of uncomfortable instances like, on the first day, when I was riding the tuk tuk, another tuk tuk followed us for a good 30 minutes and made passing comments. It was a bit scary, since we had only stepped in the country a few hours ago. In Hikkaduwa, some rickshaw folks made random comments when we passed by them. But you kinda expect such things from touristy towns, India does that too.

It’s worth mentioning that the farther I went from the capital, the warmer the people got. In Rekawa, my host Asira was a humble fisherman who whipped up a damn good Sri Lankan breakfast and took us for a free canoe ride in the lagoon. The night before, when we stopped for dinner at a family run restaurant near Tangalle beach, the owners fed us a hearty meal and shared very personal stories about love and loss, which made us uncomfortable as we were only strangers to them, but such were the people.

People of srilanka-backpacking in sri lanka

Asira, our host in Tangalle

My host in Kandy, Lata was a bundle of joy who loved Bollywood and Indians. In Mannar, the town was bloody empty and it spooked me since I was alone, but then a very sweet middle aged couple curiously approached me to ask what was I doing in this sleepy town and suggested tips to find my way around places. In Jaffna, when crossing an island, the local ferry man walked up to me and handed an umbrella when it randomly started raining.

And not to forget, we got a lot of surprised happy smiles whenever we stepped out with the tuk tuk. Sometimes it got awkward, mostly because I like to keep it low, but I think it was a rare sight to see two tourist girls riding a rickshaw in their country. We were stars, wherever we went!

Is it easy to get a local sim card to stay connected?

postcards from srilanka-backpacking in sri lanka

Postcards from Sri Lanka

Yes. Unlike India, it is easy to get a local sim card in Sri Lanka. I needed a local number to stay connected with my hosts and the folks from whom I rented the tuk tuk. So I bought a SIM at the Colombo airport. Airtel has excellent island wide connectivity. Dialog is another popular telecom network in the country. I picked an Airtel plan for 1000 LKR with 1GB data and 100 calling mins. On my second last day in SL, I exhausted the package but was happy to stay disconnected for the final few hours before leaving the country. It’s also easy to recharge your sim card as there are many pay as you go shops around the country.

What can I buy as souvenir?

Sri Lanka has the best quality tea and is among the top exporters in the world; so some tea souvenir for family and tea connoisseurs makes sense. My favourite was the Samahan herbal tea, which I bought in bulk loads to distribute. I love collecting fridge magnets so I bought one for the house. You can also buy the Jaffna curry powder. Sri Lanka is pretty famous for wooden masks, although I’m not sure how that would fit in as a souvenir. Figure it out!

I even bought a wooden tuk tuk show piece for the house, obviously!

Nuwara eliya tea gardens-backpacking in sri lanka

Lush tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya

When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka has a tropical climate much like India. Overall, it can be humid, except the central highlands where it is perpetually chilled. The country receives rains twice a year. From December to April, it is the rainy season on the North and North east coast. From May to September, it is the rainy season on the South and South west coast. June and November are inter seasonal months, which means it is raining throughout the country. Also it can rain randomly anytime in the central highlands, that is, Ella, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Habarana.

I visited Sri Lanka in November, and it rained every day, but nothing that stopped my movement or hampered my itinerary.

Nine arches bridge-backpacking in sri lanka

Nine Arches Bridge, Ella

How many days should I give Sri Lanka, with likely budget?

This really is subjective. I did Sri Lanka in 15 days which gave me ample time to explore the country at my own pace. A lot of people do SL in 6-7 days, but that is only enough to cover one particular region, two at most if you push yourself. The most popular belt is the south west and central region covering Negombo, Colombo, Galle, Mirissa, Ella, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Dambulla. If you have more days to spare, you can head north like Anuradhapura and Jaffna. The weather wasn’t great on the east coast when I was there, but if you happen to be in Sri Lanka between May and October, then head to the East coast. Trincomalee, Pigeon Island, Passikudah, Batticaloa, Arugam Bay have some of the best beaches in the country and it’s rather empty.

For a laid back 6-7 day trip, you can keep a budget of 40 thousand Indian Rupees. I managed to do my whole trip in 55 thousand Indian rupees.

Anuradhapura-backpacking in sri lanka

The ancient capital of Anuradhapura

My top 6 tips for you

  1. Carry your passport when visiting tourist attractions. As a SAARC country, Indians get a 50% discount on entry tickets to almost all monuments except Dambulla caves. Without this discount, I’d imagine sightseeing to be an expensive affair in Sri Lanka with ticket prices going up to 30$ per attraction.
  2. Do Buses. They are super cheap and you save a hell lot of money. But expect elbows to brush. Buses stuff passengers like chickens.
  3. If you can get yourself a cheap home-stay inside the Galle heritage town, nothing like it. We did a day trip to Galle and it was just about okay. I guess it’s one of the townships where staying is better than seeing
  4. We chose Welligama only to learn surfing and did a day trip to Mirissa, but I found Mirissa to be a lot more pleasant and tourist friendly. Welligama was on the quieter side.
  5. You don’t have to visit Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Choose one. I prefer people watching hence I stuck to Anuradhapura. If you want better stone monuments, then Polonnaruwa is your bet.
  6. When choosing a safari, if elephants are your priority, then skip Yala National Park as Yala is more famous for leopards and bird life. Udawawale National Park is among the best places to see elephants in the south and Minneriya National Park or Kaudulla National Park is best for elephants in the North.

Kaudulla national park-backpacking in sri lanka

Kaudulla National Park

I hope this guide helps you to plan a trip to Sri Lanka. Drop me a line if you have more questions and I’ll be happy to answer 🙂

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Edwina D'souza

Read write watch, 2 left hands and feet, recluse, gazer and occasionally suffer from wanderlust syndrome!!

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