Everyone you ask about Sri Lanka says the same thing.
It’s like India but, a bit cleaner, a bit nicer and a bit more expensive.
Having visited Sri Lanka now I can see why they say it. That pretty much sums it up perfectly.
Transport in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a small island, relatively. It doesn’t have the huge distances and gruelling journeys that India has. Practically anywhere in Sri Lanka is accessible from anywhere else in under 12 hours.
Local buses are the cheapest way to get about. Bus stops exist in large towns but in rural areas you can just thrust out a hand and the bus will stop. Tickets are purchased on board from the conductor.
As long as you know how to correctly pronounce your destination, the conductor will tell you when to get off.
Seats are hard, upright and a little uncomfortable but providing you arrive at your destination before about 11am, the temperature inside is bearable. Services usually run very early so you can make long journeys work with a 4am start.
Our 5 hour bus journey from Matara to Ella left at 5.40am and cost us £1.06 each. The same journey in a taxi would cost around £60.
Trains as you might expect are a lot shorter than the huge snaking monsters in India. Tickets can be purchased in advance on some services but only for first class carriages.
Prices are still low and cattle class fills up so quickly it’s worth the extra pennies to have a reserved seat.
Our journey from Colombo to Galle took around 2.5 hours and cost us £4.50 each.
The route hardly arced away from the beach by more than about 50 meters the whole time, so the scenery was great. I remarked on this later to a local friend and he told me a very sad story about the train. The train is a popular commuter route in the early morning when it overflows with passengers. During the infamous tsunami of 2004 the train was hit full on by the first gigantic wave. 1000 souls perished. I have no real idea why but this struck me as particularly awful. Trains feel so big, powerful and secure. I simply couldn’t ever imagine being swept away and drowning inside one. Very sad.
Accommodation in Sri Lanka
Accommodation is pretty much like India, just a little bit more expensive. Standard doubles with ensuite bathrooms range from about £8 – £15 on the budget end. Air conditioning usually adds around £2 – £3. For a two week vacation I’d certainly splurge on AC. What we found however is that if you stick to fan rooms only, even when it’s hot, your body starts to adapt. After a few nights you get used to it and it becomes comfortable. Last time we had AC we had to turn it off at night. It was just too cold after sleeping in stuffy fan rooms for weeks on end.
Worth mentioning though is the atmosphere at budget places in Sri Lanka.
Most places we’ve stayed have had common areas and balconies. They are much more suited to relaxing and meeting other travellers than their counterparts in India.
Wi-Fi is better than in India too. Most guesthouses, hotels and restaurants offer it free. Speeds are usable for most stuff like email and backing up photos to the cloud.
We also purchased a local sim card for our phone. Sim cards only cost £1 to buy but data is more expensive.
Like sausages in the supermarket back home, there never seems to be a package for the amount you want. You always have to buy more than you need.
There is also a weird tariff setup whereby each package has a day-time and night-time allowance. Night-time runs from 12am to 8am so unless you’re a real night owl, you won’t be able to use it up. All packages are bundled with night-time data. You can’t say you don’t want it, to save cash. All packages also expire after 30 days regardless of whether or not you’ve used your data allowance.
We paid £7.50 for 15GB daytime and 10GB night time data allowance for 30 days. We also bought a top-up scratch card for voice calls. This cost 5p. We’ve made about 6 calls so far to local numbers and it’s still going strong.
Food in Sri Lanka
Food, predictably is a bit more expensive than in India and not quite as good. From what I’ve seen so far most Sri Lankans must eat at home.
The vast majority of restaurants are tourist traps with western foods at UK prices.
Unlike India however, Salad is available. Kidneys rejoice. 🙂
You can save some cash by choosing from the local menu but not much. A simple meal of rice and curry will set you back around £2.50 each plus drinks. Dhal Vadas (a popular ping pong ball size snack made from Dhal and herbs) costs around £2 for 3 in most tourist restaurants. This may sound cheap but if you can wake up early, the same vadas that supply the restaurants can be purchased from the bakers for 10p each.
There is a clear separation between what locals pay and what tourists pay when it comes to eating out.
Navi and I have switched to eating two meals per day here. We buy Vadas and Vegetable Rotis from the bakers in the morning for 75p total. Then we splurge in a tourist restaurant in the evening, sometimes spending up to £15.
Large 650ml beers are £1.75. Alcohol culture is quite relaxed in Sri Lanka. Most restaurants serve alcohol and no-one minds if you bring back some beers and drink them on the balcony of your hotel.
Beaches and Mountains of Sri Lanka
The beaches are stunning. Sri Lanka has been closed to tourism since the early 80’s due to the civil war and it shows.
Most of the beach towns have a real undiscovered feel.
You won’t find a McDonalds or a KFC anywhere outside of the capital. Larger beach towns are just ramshackle collections of huts and restaurants with the occasional 5 star hotel dotted around. Smaller towns are just dirt tracks with locals lazing around in hammocks under coconut thatch.
On the Eastern coast the land drops away rapidly from the beach causing huge waves and creating a surfers paradise. The giant crashing waves are hypnotic to watch but quite dangerous if you’re not paying attention.
You can boogie board and swim safely for the most part, but we always try to stay within 10 meters of the shore.
Even at this distance, waist deep you can feel the undertow tugging hard at your ankles pulling you towards oblivion. The waters command respect here, but they are of an order of magnitude prettier than anything Goa has to offer.
The interior of the country is dominated by the imposing Knuckles mountain range. The area was recognised as a World Heritage site in 2010. There are 19 peaks over 1000 meters, the tallest of which tops out at over 2500 meters.
It’s a hikers dream, but you need to wake up early to avoid the clouds and get the best views.
The hill towns themselves still enjoy tropical temperatures for the most part, although blankets are needed at night. Travel is slower in the hills and small distances can take much longer than you expect. We always use a guide for trekking and tried to allow extra time for bus and taxi journeys.
Budget for Backpacking in Sri Lanka
Our joint daily expenditure without really trying was £35. We stayed at clean mid to low budget accommodation with ensuite bathrooms. Occasionally we enjoyed air conditioning but found that we rarely needed it. We ate a mix of local and western cuisine in a range of establishments, some of which were equivalent to the UK in price and standards. We also drank local beers and took buses and trains as opposed to taxis.
When we needed to reign in our spending a bit we ate only simple food and spent time relaxing and walking around the local area. This lowered our daily budget significantly to around £22 and was not difficult to sustain for a few days at a time.
Backpacking in Sri Lanka
All in all Sri Lanka is a fantastic destination for people on every budget. It’s small enough that it can be fully experienced on a two week vacation yet diverse enough to suit slower budget travellers like us. Development is happening fast though, especially on the nicer beaches. Like Thailand, Sri Lanka is waking up to the fact that it has something that tourists want. Old ways and traditional crafts are rapidly surrendering to much more lucrative trades centred on tourism. If getting away from the crowds and experiencing local cultures is your thing – don’t leave it too long before visiting Sri Lanka.
Me? I like a bit of both worlds. Tourism brings with it many benefits. I’m already looking forward to returning to beautiful Sri Lanka in a few years’ time to see how she’s evolving.