Backpacking Sri Lanka is a lot of fun. This is a perfect country for those who enjoy this travel style, as it is usually budget friendly (with some exceptions) and – despite what one may think – it is quite easy to move around. I spent 3 full weeks traveling around the country and visited all the most famous tourist destinations there, as well as some off the beaten path places – and had a real blast!
In this post, I highlight all the things you should know before traveling to Sri Lanka.
For an essential guide to Sri Lanka, make sure to read my post “20 Fabulous Places To Visit In Sri Lanka.”
33 Things To Know Before Backpacking Sri Lanka
You need a visa
The first thing you need to do to set off backpacking Sri Lanka is making sure all your documents are in order. This means applying for a visa before traveling. Visa regulations for Sri Lanka vary depending on which country you are from. I am Italian, and I had to fill out an ETA online and pay for a single entry visa.
People from the US may need a different visa and pay a different fee. The best thing to do is getting a visa in advance and to hire the services of a company that is specialized in visa applications. I recommend using iVisa as they are fast and reliable. You can apply for your visa here.
And you’re better off getting a good travel insurance
If you have been following me for a while, you will know that I always recommend getting a good travel insurance, no matter where you are traveling to and for how long. Backpackers often seem to think they are invincible and they try to save here and there, including on insurance, but I will never endorse this behavior. You do need an insurance for backpacking Sri Lanka. You can get yours here.
Check out my post “Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”
You will need some vaccinations
Unless you already have them, you may need to get some vaccinations before backpacking Sri Lanka. Mind you – this is not a legal requirement but a recommendation. The recommended ones include Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid and Hepatitis A. Make sure to carry your yellow vaccination passport with you as you may be asked upon entering the country.
English is widely spoken
The official languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhalese and Tamil. However, English is widely spoken and people will always be glad to exchange a few words with you.
You should get a local sim card
One of the first things you should do upon arriving in Sri Lanka (in fact I did it as soon as I landed, at the airport) is getting a local SIM card. You will need a copy of your passport and it will take very little time to get your SIM activated. Data is very cheap and you can top up in one of the many kiosks around the country. I recommend using Dialog for good reception.
People are lovely
If there is one thing you’ll immediately notice about Sri Lanka is that people are genuine, nice and very kind. Women will always keep an eye out for female travelers; you will notice that they are ready to share tips and to help them out ie when getting on the bus or with useful information.
You’ll get caught in the rain, no matter what
Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, which means that it rains a lot. It wouldn’t be so lush and green otherwise. What this means in terms of traveling is that no matter how much planning you’ll do; no matter how carefully you’ll study where to go when, you’ll end up caught in the rain. For example, it rains pretty much every day in the Hill Country.
If you really aren’t a fan of rain, try to travel to Sri Lanka between December and March – that’s when it’s meant to be dry. The other side of the coin though is that the country will inevitably be more crowded and the prices higher.
The good news in any case is that rain usually starts in the afternoon and lasts for a couple of hours. Make sure to bring an umbrella, a poncho and a pair of flip flops to wear when it rains – or else your shoes will get impossibly wet.
It’s always hot
Sri Lanka is always hot. That means lots of sweating, being tired of the heat and sleepless nights unless you have a fan or good mosquito nets on the windows to let some air flow through your room. To be fair though, it’s not the temperatures that make it really unbearable – it’s the incredible humidity. To fight the heat, try to remain hydrated drinking lots of water or a refreshing lemonade, and eating lots of fresh fruit.
Except in Nuwara Eliya, where it’s always cold
Did I say it is always hot in Sri Lanka? Let me take that back. Nuwara Eliya, in the Hill Country, is always cold-ish. In fact, I am convinced that the nickname of Little England isn’t due to the Victorian style buildings left by the Brits, but to the fact that it rains a lot, just like in England. And since it is at over 1800 meters above sea level, it’s also cold. You will need a good jacket, proper shoes, socks and even a scarf when visiting.
To discover more about Nuwara Eliya, make sure to read my post “A Complete Guide To Nuwara Eliya.”
There are some amazing beaches
Trust the expert! One of the things I appreciated the most when I was backpacking Sri Lanka is the gorgeous beaches. Think long beaches of fine, white sand lined by a thick forest of palm trees, with clear waters and perfect waves for surfing; or small coves with tranquil, transparent sea. It’s perfect for a day of chilling in the sun.
And incredible wildlife
Few countries in Asia can count with the incredible amount of wildlife that Sri Lanka has. If you plan to go backpacking Sri Lanka, make sure to set part of your budget aside for a safari or for snorkeling and diving. I won’t deny the fact that a safari can be pricey by Sri Lanka standards, but it honestly is truly worth it.
There are several places in Sri Lanka where you can see animals – especially elephants, but also leopards and much more – in their natural environment. Yala is an obvious choice; Minneriya National Park is another excellent one. Gal Oya National Park is perfect if you want to get to a lesser visited part of the country. Read more about Gal Oya in this post.
Whichever place you travel to for a safari, make sure that the company you do a safari with runs in a completely responsible manner. Unfortunately there often are reports of jeeps speeding through the park; too many cars at a sighting (there are set limits of how many cars can be in one place at the same time); or cars getting too close to the animals.
For fabulous places to see marine life, check out my post “A Guide To What To See And Do In Trincomalee Sri Lanka.”
Make sure to also read my post “Where To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka.”
But the use of animals in tourist attractions is still a thing
Elephant rides, dancing monkeys and snake charming are still common practices in Sri Lanka, and you’ll often come across people riding elephants or a crowd of tourists looking at a dancing monkey show. These animals go through extreme suffering and torture during their training for the sake of entertaining tourists. Don’t be that person! If your tuk tuk driver offers to take you to an elephant safari, say a polite but firm no.
If you care to become a more responsible traveler, read my post “The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.”
Buddhism is the most followed religion
Sri Lanka is a melting pot of cultures and religions, with Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all leaving peacefully next to each other. However, the vast majority of the population is Buddhist, and this is reflected in the presence of an incredible number of Buddhist temples.
The most famous and beautiful temples can be found in Kandy, Dambulla and Anuradhapura. Make sure to visit at least a few of them when backpacking Sri Lanka. There are also some cool temples in Colombo (more on my post “13 Incredibly Cool Things To Do In Colombo).
Discover the nicest temples in Sri Lanka in my post “A Guide To The Most Unique Temples In Sri Lanka.” Make sure to also read my posts “A Great Guide To Anuradhapura” and “A Guide To The Things To Do In Sigiriya.”
The Hill Country is gorgeous
You shouldn’t miss on the Hill Country when visiting Sri Lanka! This is a region of forests, temples, tea plantations, scenic train rides, lush nature, parks, gorgeous views. The main city is Kandy, but if you are into hiking make sure you head to the lovely Ella, which has become the backpacker hub of Sri Lanka – for very good reasons.
For more information about Kandy, read my post “A Complete Guide To Kandy.”
It’s packed with beautiful waterfalls
I have lost count of how many beautiful waterfalls I have seen in Sri Lanka. The area around Nuwara Eliya is packed with gorgeous ones, but even off the beaten path places such Wellawaya have their own hidden gems. My favorite was Elle Wala waterfall, near Wellawaya. I got to enjoy it all by myself, with just the company of two lovely dogs who guided me there.
You have to visit Galle
Galle is easily the most beautiful city in Sri Lanka, and you really shouldn’t miss it. The city is a maze of beautiful cobbled alleys, well kept gardens, colonial buildings, ramparts facing the sea, an incredibly scenic lighthouse, a just as scenic clock tower, lovely boutiques and art galleries. And to top it off, here you’ll find some of the best restaurants in the country.
Find out more about Galle in my post “A Complete Guide To Galle.”
Tourist attractions are expensive
If there is one complaint I have about backpacking Sri Lanka that’s the price of tourist attractions. You’d imagine that in a country that is so cheap to visit access to sites and temples would also be a bargain, but in a way it is almost disproportionate to the average prices of the country. Tourists pay 100 times more to enter temples and tourist sites. Call that disproportionate! On the other hand, the sites are beautiful – so factor these costs in when budgeting for your trip.
Off the beaten path places are gorgeous
If there is one thing that I can recommend when it comes to backpacking Sri Lanka, is to get off the tourist route. Look for the hidden gems, get lost, find the small villages, the less explored places. They are gorgeous! If you are in the Hill Country, make sure to get out of Kandy to explore the surroundings. Go to Wellawaya, a bit further south than Ella, and you’ll be the only foreigner around. And instead of staying in Tangalle or Mirissa, opt to visit Dikwella or Nilwella for gorgeous beaches. The added bonus? Off the beaten path places are extremely budget friendly!
Markets are fun places to explore
I often begin exploring a place from the market – and it was no different in Sri Lanka. The minute I arrived in Kandy, I set off to visit the local market in search for local produce, and to get a bit of local action. Each city and village has its own market, so make sure to visit – even more so if you are looking for fresh fruits, vegetables or just want to browse around.
You should visit a tea plantation
Sri Lanka is one of the biggest producers and exporters of high quality tea. The Hill Country is packed with tea plantations – you can see them pretty much anywhere, even when on the bus or on the train. Make sure to visit at least one plantation to get a good idea of how tea is grown, picked, dried and brewed. You will also get to try some high quality tea and – needless to say – buy some to bring home. The best tea plantations can be found in the surroundings of Nuwara Eliya.
You should bring a water filter
Plastic is an issue in Asia, and Sri Lanka is no different. Since tap water is not safe to drink, I wholeheartedly recommend bringing your own water bottle with a filter so that you can refill and at the same time avoid creating more plastic waste. I am a fan of Lifestraw.
Food is cheap
Now, this is what I call backpackers’ heaven. Food in Sri Lanka is cheap, and depending on where you go, you can get a meal of rice and curry for as little as 100 Sri Lanka Rupees (that’s less than 60 cents). If you are staying at a local guest house, you can ask to have your meals there and for just 600 Rupees (less than $3.50 USD) you can have a meal of various courses that is enough for a family of four!
But beer is expensive
Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, with strict regulations and high taxation on alcoholic drinks. Women aren’t allowed to buy alcohol from an off license. I am not sure if that applies to female travelers as well as I only had beers at a couple of pubs when I was in Sri Lanka. This means that beer and alcohol in general can be quite expensive compared to the food, which as I said is very cheap instead.
Local beer can cost up to $2 for a bottle, and to be frank you may as well not have it, as it honestly isn’t the best in flavor and with the heat that warms it up in no time, you’d have to drink it super fast.
A few places in Sri Lanka do happy hour and you may be able to get a cheaper beer there. Ella, backpacking Sri Lanka heaven, is one of them – and (probably under request of tourists) beer is served icy cold.
It’s not a party destination
You’ll soon realize when backpacking Sri Lanka that this is not a party destination. You won’t find bars and pubs that stay open until late, and locals hanging around for a drink. If partying is what you want to do, opt to stay at popular backpackers’ hubs such as Mirissa, Unawatuna or Ella.
You’re better off staying in local guest houses
Good hostels can be found in Sri Lanka, but given that local guest houses are so cheap, comfortable and clean, you may as well opt to stay there and have a more local experience. The bonus is that you’ll be able to get meals for a real steal as well.
Although luxury resorts are more than affordable
While tourist attractions are expensive in Sri Lanka, luxury accommodation is not. If you budget carefully and plan to travel to Sri Lanka a bit off season, you may be able to treat yourself to a boutique or luxury hotel or villa for a few days. No better way to end your trip!
Buses actually work
Backpacking Sri Lanka is extremely easy thanks to a good public transportation system. Buses may be old and slow; they may be rickety and get incredibly crowded; but they are also very cheap and extremely reliable. Make sure to head to the bus station a bit in advance to secure a seat for your trip – and if you are a female traveler, you’ll be happy to know you can count on the help of local women who will gracefully save a seat for you.
But traveling by train is much better
The best way to travel around Sri Lanka, and especially across the Hill Country, is by train. Mind you, trains are incredibly old, slow and hardly ever punctual. But they are very cheap and the rides are as scenic as it gets – in fact, these are thought to be among the most scenic train rides in the world. You can get a ride for as cheap as 60 cents in second class – though you won’t have reserved seatings. If you want to travel a bit more comfortably, make sure to reserve your first class tickets in advance.
Tuk tuk are fun – but learn how to bargain
Tuk tuks are everywhere in Sri Lanka, and they will come in handy when you’ll be too tired to put up with a bus, or when the rain makes it annoying to walk. Make sure to always bargain the prices. Strike off a zero from whatever price the driver is suggesting and use that as leverage for bargaining.
Packing light is key
I always recommend packing light; but especially when backpacking Sri Lanka this is very important! You will be doing a lot of walking to get to your accommodation, often finding you have to go up a flight of stairs with no elevators in sight; you will be getting on and off the bus or on and off the train; and at times you will need to catch a tuk tuk and those really don’t have space for large backpacks and even less so for suitcases. Packing light is key!
Make sure to read my post “What To Wear In Sri Lanka.”
But bring hiking shoes
Hiking shoes are a must when backpacking Sri Lanka. The country is packed with good hiking trails, waterfalls, national parks and you will want to plan at least a couple of hikes. Flip flops or walking shoes are really not suitable for hiking. You want a pair of shoes that keep your feet dry, your ankles supported and your soles comfortable.
For a specific hiking packing list, make sure to read my post “The Perfect Hiking Packing List For A Long Distance Trek.”
You are better off dressing modestly
Sinhalese people are quite conservative in their dressing style. You won’t see them going around in shorts and tank tops, and for as hot as the country is, you should avoid it too. Wear lightweight cotton pants or skirts that cover your knees, and light cotton t-shirts covering your shoulders. Keep in mind that if you are visiting temples and holy sites modest clothing is required.
Sunsets are spectacular
Finally, one thing you should enjoy when backpacking Sri Lanka are the incredible sunsets. The ramparts of Galle are a perfect place to take in the views of the sun going down behind the ocean, but there are many other locations around the country where you can admire the sunset.
Have you been backpacking in Sri Lanka? What did you enjoy the most about it?