Knowing what to wear in Sri Lanka will save you a lot of hassle when actually visiting.
The country is gorgeous and it has something to offer to any kind of traveler. Whether you are looking for a beach retreat; for unique culture; for challenging hikes or for a fantastic mix of all, you are bound to find it in Sri Lanka. But – especially in the latest scenario – you need to know what to pack for Sri Lanka, or you’ll find yourself stuck not knowing what to wear and especially not finding places where to get what you need.
But worry not! In this post, I highlight what to wear in Sri Lanka and provide an essential Sri Lanka packing list. This guide is perfect for those who are traveling independently, but also suitable for those on a guided tour of Sri Lanka. Before getting to the juicy bits of what you should pack for Sri Lanka and what to wear in Sri Lanka, I will go through a few things you should consider when deciding what to bring and what to leave home.
Remember that it rains a lot in Sri Lanka!
What To Wear Sri Lanka – 7 Things To Consider Before Packing
It rains a lot
There are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka, sometimes so heavy that they cause flooding and casualties, as it happened in 2018. In other words, it rains a lot. After all, the country wouldn’t be so lush and green were it not for all that rain. The driest season is between December and March, but even then places like the Hill Country will have very high chances of rain.
Rain is something you need to keep in mind when deciding what to pack for Sri Lanka, because despite your best efforts you’ll end up being caught in the rain every now and then. This means you will need to pack an umbrella, a poncho and some rain gear.
It’s always hot
Sri Lanka is one of the hottest countries you’ll ever visit. It’s not just the temperatures that are hot: the humidity is incredibly high, and even when it will just be 29 degrees Celsius, you will feel the air heavy and you’ll be dragging your feet around, desperate for a breath of fresh air. In order to fight the heat, I recommend wearing cotton or linen clothes that are 100% perspirant and that you can easily wash in the sink every day.
Light, cotton or breath through fabrics are what to wear in Sri Lanka.
But not in Nuwara Eliya
I have just said that Sri Lanka is impossibly hot. But as with everything, there is an exception. Nuwara Eliya, also known as Little England, is always chilly. This lovely city in the heart of the Hill Country and famous for the many tea plantations is located at more than 1800 meters above sea level, which means that the air is always cool (if not plain cold at night). Add to this a good daily dose or rain, and you will see why – if you are planning to visit – you need to pack some warmer clothes.
There are some beautiful beaches
If you are a beach bum or if you like surfing, you’ll be in for a treat. There are some gorgeous beaches in Sri Lanka – long, sandy, lined with palm trees and with clear waters and consistent waves. It would be a pity not to go to the beach at least once, so make sure to keep this in mind when deciding what to pack for Sri Lanka.
If the locals are dressed modestly, you should do the same
Modest clothing is the way to go
The majority of people in Sri Lanka are Buddhist and there are a lot of temples scattered around the country. Some of them are major tourist attractions; others are lesser known but equally beautiful and interesting to visit. You should hit at least a couple of them. One thing to consider, then, is that modest clothing is required: you will have to cover your shoulders and knees any time you visit a holy site.
In fact, I suggest to dress modestly all the time, unless hitting a beach.
Think about your activities
Are you planning a yoga retreat? Are you only hitting the beaches? Will you visit all the cultural sites? Are you doing a safari? Do you intend to do some hiking? Or are you doing a mix of all of the above? Keep these things in mind when planning what to wear in Sri Lanka.
My suggestions about what to bring to Sri Lanka will be based on a mixture of activities and things to do.
Make sure to read my post “Where To Do A Safari In Sri Lanka.”
Consider your transportation options
Will you be hiring a private driver, renting your own tuk tuk, or rely on public transportation? This will make a big difference when deciding what to pack for Sri Lanka and even what to wear in Sri Lanka. If you are using public transportation, modest clothing is even more recommended, and you need to pack as light as possible as the buses and trains get packed and it will be a pain trying to get on with a huge suitcase. Consider traveling with a small backpack!
Continue reading to for an essential packing list.
What To Wear In Sri Lanka – All The Essential Items You Should Be Adding To Your Sri Lanka Packing List
For your trip to Sri Lanka, I recommend traveling with a backpack rather than a suitcase. You will be getting on and off the bus; on and off the train; and up and down stairs in hotels and guest houses where there are no elevators – so you will want something that is easy to carry. Try to go for as small as possible. I used a 65 liters backpack when I traveled to Sri Lanka, and carried 10 kg of weight, but I could have gone lighter
Whichever backpack you pick, make sure that it comes with a rain cover – remember that you’ll often be caught in the rain in Sri Lanka.
These are the best backpacks in the range of 60 to 70 liters:
Fore more information on how to pick a backpack, head over to my post “All The Useful Backpacking Essentials For Long Term Travel.”
Picking a good daypack is essential. You will need it to carry your important items (phone, camera, documents and laptop or iPad if you take one with you) when you move from one place to the other; and on a daily basis to carry whatever you may need while you are out exploring. Make sure it fits comfortably whether you wear it in front of you, or on your back.
These are some good daypacks for your trip to Sri Lanka:
Packing cubes can help you keep your stuff organized inside a backpack, even when you are unorganized. I’d also recommend taking some dry bags to store your electronics – your camera, cables and whatever else you don’t want to get wet.
If your trip to Sri Lanka will involve a bit of everything, you need to pack a bit of everything when it comes to shoes. In general, comfortable shoes are what to wear in Sri Lanka.
This is a list of shoes that should go in your Sri Lanka packing list.
- Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX – if you plan to hit the trails, you can’t go without hiking shoes.
- A pair of flip flops – perfect to wear when it rains.
- Alternatively, a pair of good walking sandals will do – you need something that dries quickly and that has a good grip even in wet conditions.
- A pair of good walking shoes such as Tropicfeel – these will be your every day shoes, which you will wear to explore cities, villages, to bike around and to visit temples.
Make sure to bring a light scarf and a rain jacket
The first thing to keep in mind when packing for your trip to Sri Lanka is that unless you are going to the beach, you really have to dress modestly. This definitely applies when visiting temples and holy sites, but it also applies when exploring cities and other places. As a rule of thumb, I recommend following the local style.
Since you won’t see people in Sri Lanka wearing shorts, mini-skirts and tank tops, the same applies to you. Cover your shoulder and knees: modest clothing is what to wear in Sri Lanka.
Another thing to consider is that it will be hot most of the time, but it rains a lot. And if you visit Nuwara Eliya or hike Adam’s Peak, you will need some warmer clothes.
If you want to look pretty and at the same time comfortable and modest, Kuhl clothes are perfect. They are good for hiking, stylish, comfortable, easy to wash and just as easy to dry.
This is a list of what to pack for Sri Lanka:
- 3 pairs of pants. Take a pair of hiking pants, a pair of comfortable cotton or linen pants, and a pair of light jeans or everyday use pants. My go to pants are Kuhl Cliffside Convertible for hiking; Kuhl Cabo pants for everyday use; and Freeflex Move for something extra comfortable.
- A pair of shorts for your days at the beach. I love Kuhl Horizn shorts.
- A combination of 4 t-shirts, one of them long sleeves. Go for 100% cotton for the summer ones. My favorite are the Kuhl Sora t-shirt, and the Kuhl Wunderer shirt. For short sleeves I recommend the Kuhl Kyra and Kuhl Sora.
- A large comfortable t-shirt to use as a pajama.
- A sweater or a micro fleece are essetial when visiting colder places. I use the Kuhl Lea Pullover and if I want something extra warm I take my Kuhl Alska.
- 6 pairs of comfortable underwear and the same amount of socks. You may want to bring a pair of hiking socks too.
- A sports bra and a normal one.
- A rain jacket or a poncho – it’s what to wear in Sri Lanka when it rains. I use Kuhl Airstorm rain jacket – it’s comfortable enough to wear layers underneath, in case it gets cold.
- A light scarf – you can use it when it is cold, or to cover your shoulders in holy sites.
- A swimsuit, in case you go to the beach or the pool.
- A pretty dress. I am a fan of Kuhl as they are comfortable, easy to wear and with the right accessories they can become very smart. My favorite is the Kyra dress.
Your Sri Lanka packing list should include any personal care items you may need during the trip. Make sure to bring good toiletry bag like this one, which you can hang and with multiple pockets to store all your toiletries. Other than the obvious, remember to pack:
Make sure to carry any prescription drugs you have to take on a regular basis, and bring a small first aid kit that should include:
- basic pain relief medicines such as paracetamol.
- imodium or any other diarrhea medication.
- bandaids and other bandages.
- antiseptic wipes and cream.
- cortizone cream.
Pack a swimsuit for those beach or pool days
You’ll have plenty of photo opportunities in Sri Lanka, so make sure to carry at least some basic camera gear. I can’t tell you what to pack for Sri Lanka in terms of camera stuff, but I can tell you what I took – keep in mind I love photography though!
If you aren’t into photography as much as I am, you can take a good compact mirrorless camera. A smartphone with a good camera sometimes does wonders too!
Other tech items
Other items to pack for Sri Lanka are:
- A smartphone – make sure it is unlocked, so you can buy a local sim card.
- A power bank – to charge your phone on the go.
- A universal plug adapter – there are two different plug sockets in Sri Lanka, so universal is the way to go.
- A kindle – if you are a fan of reading.
- A lock – in case you stay at a hostel.
Other important stuff
Other things you should consider taking to Sri Lanka are:
By all means, make sure to get a good travel insurance for your trip to Sri Lanka. If you are still wondering whether you need it, check out my post “Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.” Otherwise, you can get a good travel insurance here.
Do you have any other tips on what to wear in Sri Lanka?
Further readings about Sri Lanka
Make sure to read my other posts about Sri Lanka:
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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.”
Taking in the views in Pidurangala
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 in Sri Lanka are incredibly friendly
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.”
Sri Lanka has some gorgeous beaches
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 posts “9 Fabulous Things To Do In Mirissa Sri Lanka, And One Not To” and “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.”
When traveling to Sri Lanka, you’ll be visiting several Buddhist temples
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.”
For more about Ella, read my posts “A Complete Guide To Visiting Nine Arch Bridge,” “A Complete Guide To Hiking Little Adam’s Peak” and “A Very Useful Guide To Ella Sri Lanka.”
Gorgeous waterfalls are everywhere in Sri Lanka
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!
When backpacking Sri Lanka, make sure to visit the markets!
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.
All this food for less than $3 USD!
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.
Luxury is more than affordable in Sri Lanka
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.
Traveling by train is the way to go in Sri Lanka
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.
Make sure to enjoy a gorgeous sunset
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?
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