Sri Lanka remains one of my favourite countries I’ve visited yet. It’s stunningly beautiful with a mix of top-notch beaches, gorgeous scenery, chances to see a lot of wildlife, and great food. But there’s some dos and don’ts for visiting this captivating country.
While I’ve written about reasons to visit Sri Lanka before, as well as offering up some guides for visiting the areas I was fortunate enough to see on my trip, such as Mirissa, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, and the Cultural Triangle, I realised that there is still a lot to know about visiting this country. If you are thinking about visiting Sri Lanka, there’s a few do’s and don’ts I would recommend:
Don’t Ride an Elephant
I can’t give you first-hand experience of this as we stayed far away, but as you may be aware, the elephants used for riding at tourist locations throughout Asia are often mistreated. Plus, how would you feel having to slave away for tourists all day? Can’t be much fun. Please just don’t.
Do See Them in the Wild at Sri Lanka’s national parks
There are a few conservation parks in Sri Lanka where you can see large groups of elephants wandering, playing, and just being elephants! We chose Minneriya, where you can see one of the largest gatherings of Asian elephants. You really get a sense of their close family structures, watching the females minding misbehaving babies in large groups, while smaller groups of males challenged each other some distance away.
Do Cover Up
Going to one of Sri Lanka’s important Buddhist sites? Make sure your arms and legs are covered. I’d recommend taking a big pashmina and cardigan around with you or wearing some cotton trousers or a long skirt.
Elsewhere, know that the Sri Lankans do usually dress conservatively. For ladies, I’d recommend packing a few maxi dresses and skirts for sightseeing in towns or going out to dinner. Some light, loose trousers are also highly recommended – this isn’t the type of climate you can wear jeans.
Do take off your shoes
When visiting religious sites and temples or when entering someone’s home out of respect. Unless I was going over some rough terrain, I wore my sandals a lot just to make it easier taking them on and off.
Don’t Take Pictures Disrespectfully
Everything in Sri Lanka is so beautiful, you are going to want to take a lot of photos. But there are some rules you should abide by. Don’t pose for a photo in front of a Buddha statue – this is considered a criminal offence. In addition, don’t take photographs of military bases or government buildings, which can include a lot of buildings in the capital, Colombo.
Do Get Your Currency When You Arrive
Sri Lanka has a closed currency system, so you may be left wondering where to get your Sri Lankan Rupees. You can only get the local currency after you arrive. I just got some out at the ATM at the airport and there are ATMs throughout the country in urban areas. I would recommend withdrawing instead of exchanging as I got a much better exchange rate from my bank even with any charges. But check how much your bank charges ahead of time.
Update 2021: I use Wise normally when I travel so if you use this or another similar card, you can put Sri Lankan Rupees on it. Just make sure to get out plenty of cash at an ATM. Rarely will anywhere take card. We also had an issue with ATMs not letting us take out much but also charging 450 rupees (about $2/£1.6) per go.
Do Know the Right Prices
Sri Lanka is very safe to visit, but tourist scams do exist, and one of the most common is overcharging. This is particularly common for tuk-tuks. Ask the price for where you are going in advance, and if they won’t tell you, I’d suggest walking away.
Beware of places you are taken to on tours – the goods are likely to be more expensive than what you can find elsewhere. This can be especially true at some of the spice gardens, but don’t feel pressured to purchase something while on a tour. On my first trip we had a tour and while most of the stuff we did was amazing, there were these little pit stops I found so annoying. They take you to somewhere overpriced (a spice garden, a gem shop, a sari place) to try to get you to buy.
Do Try the Local Sri Lankan Food
Sri Lankan food is incredible and bursting with amazing flavours. Fresh seafood, warming curries, and other local favourites
A lot of hotels will cater to Western tastes, and one place even seemed befuddled when we wanted the Sri Lankan-style breakfast rather than a fry up. Yes, there were times when we were at hotels with buffets and scarfed down some waffles, but as much as you can, be adventurous and try the local food. There were a few dishes that I loved and recommend picking off a menu:
- Hoppers – basically a bowl-shaped savoury pancake usually served for breakfast
- Curries – the curries in Sri Lanka are really nice and have their own texture and flavour that sets them apart from Indian or Thai varieties. Many feature the country’s fresh seafood.
- Sambol – a traditional Sri Lankan condiment usually made with coconut, chilli, lime, garlic and onion
- Local fruit – Sri Lanka is full of exotic fresh fruit.
But do ask for curries mild if you aren’t used to the spice
I probably fall medium on the spice tolerance scale. I’m always adding chillis and hot sauce to my cooking and love a bit of heat, but there’s just a certain point where it feels like it’s burning my mouth too much and I can no longer taste the flavours. I hadn’t quite worked up my tolerance before Sri Lanka and did ask for my curries mild a few times. The first time I didn’t was brutal and I did struggle a bit to eat it (but it was still so tasty I tried my best!).
Don’t forget to look after your health
One great thing about visiting Sri Lanka is that it is a rarity in South East Asia – there are no cases of malaria. So you can cross that off your pre-travel checklist, but there are other immunisations you should make sure you are up to date on before travel. Make sure you plan ahead for this and get everything required. More information for Brits can be found here. Even though Sri Lanka has eradicated malaria, the mosquitoes are still an issue and you should make sure you protect against them with repellent.
As with many other countries in the region, the tap water isn’t safe to drink (and beware of ice in drinks) so drink bottled or invest in a life straw. While food hygiene was better here than Vietnam, take normal precautions for food safety.
Don’t Forget Your Visa
It is better to apply for your visa online before your visit and you must take it with you. Tourist visas are available for a maximum of 30 days.
Have you been to Sri Lanka? What would your top tips and dos and don’ts for Sri Lanka be? I’d love to hear them as I really want to plan another trip there soon!