Sri Lanka is a beautiful, exotic island full of ancient culture, breathtaking scenery, wildlife, and smiling faces. For a country with such a recently violent history, the island is actually home to some of the friendliest people out there. Located in the Indian Ocean, just off the southern coast of India, Sri Lanka is neither quite like India nor Asia, leaving it in somewhat of a curious middle ground as far as geography, features, culture, landscape, and customs. You might already assume that some places here don’t serve beef (12 percent of the island’s population is Hindu), but here are some not so obvious things I wish I had known before I arrived in Colombo.
- DON’T SKIP COLOMBO:
It would be easy to take advantage of all the information out there that tells you to skip over Colombo, but there is actually a lot to this multi-layered city. Like all capital cities, Colombo is a bustling town with a lot of traffic; on the surface it seems to be all there is to it. But if you slow down, open your eyes and look beyond the cars and tuk-tuks, you’ll see something beautiful. A city of contrast, Colombo is a product of Sri Lanka’s colonial history. Around Pettah and Galle Face Green the architecture is a nod to the colonial past with Buddist and Hindu temples rubbing shoulders with Christian churches. For some peace among the frenetic pace, head to Galle Face Green and play some cricket with locals; or to Beira Lake and take in the tranquility.
2. ALWAYS BE RESPECTFUL OF THE POLITICAL PAST
The civil war may be over, but it only ended a few years ago. While things are safe now, you should definitely be aware of the past and show respect when talking to locals. While it’s totally cool to ask locals generic questions about their lives and families, I probably wouldn’t bring up or get involved in any type of political conversation. It’s still a delicate subject and, unless you’re a scholar on Sri Lankan politics and policy, it’s best to stick to the simple stuff. More than 70,000 people lost their lives in the civil war, so chances are pretty high that the locals you’ll meet either lost family or know someone who did.
3. IT IS SAFE TO TRAVEL HERE
There is a huge misconception out there about how safe Sri Lanka is, and I get it. Call it civil war or terrorism (your word choice will depend on which side of local politics you sit on), it raged for 26 years, and killed more than 70,000 people. Since the war’s end, the Sri Lankan people have been rebuilding their country and tourism has boomed. The aim is to make tourism their biggest industry by 2020, and with more and more people visiting this little gem it won’t stay like this forever.
4. TOURISM IS STILL DEVELOPING
Tourism is booming. Sri Lanka has more visitors each year, and the numbers keep growing. While this is actually a great thing, you can get around the country without seeing another tourist for a few days; it also means that outside of the major tourist hubs of Colombo, Kandy and the more popular southern beaches places might not exactly be tourism ready. Don’t expect to order your lunch and have it arrive in the next 20 minutes. Or even be the correct food for that matter. Communication can be difficult, especially if English is not your language. English is fairly widely spoken, but in more rural areas tuk-tuk drivers and back street vendors may not understand what you need. Transport can be difficult away from hotels, and where there might be a hotel does not necessarily guarantee plenty of activities. It’s not super convenient to pick up things you might have forgotten at home, like power converters or even shampoo once you’re outside of Colombo. If you’re a five-star luxury lover, you’ll be disappointed in a lot of hotels on offer, don’t expect the same standard as you would get at home. At the moment, Sri Lanka demands patience. But don’t wait. Go now, while she is still finding her feet. You’ll be richly rewarded.
5. IT’S NOT BACKPACKER CHEAP
Sri Lanka isn’t like Thailand or Vietnam, those two have been well established on the backpacker trail for years now and the sheer volume of tourists banging down the door makes for cheap options for backpackers. Add to that the fact that a lot of the island’s goods are imported, taxes hike up the cost of drinks and some foods. That said, you can always find a cheap place to eat if you’re happy to eat curry for three meals a day. ATMs can be hard to find outside major towns like Kandy and Colombo, so make sure you always have plenty of cash on you – hidden of course!
6. YOU HAVE AMAZING WILDLIFE SPOTTING CHANCES
I know, you might not have immediately thought of safari when you think of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s varied landscapes make it a perfect spot to spot some of the world’s biggest and most fascinating animals we usually only connect to Africa. In fact, Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park in the south has the highest concentration of leopards in Asia, while Minneriya National Park, located near Dambulla, is where a yearly elephant gathering takes place. Elephant are literally everywhere; I fell asleep on our bus and woke up stuck in traffic with an elephant staring through the window at me. On the southern coast, Mirissa shows off an annual production of blue whales meandering through. Hiking through Horton Plains you have the potential to spot several species of monkey and colourful birds hanging out of the trees.
7. THE LANDSCAPES ARE MASSIVELY INSTAGRAMMABLE
I don’t know if you caught it, but if you checked out my Instagram anytime while I was in Sri Lanka you’ll know that the country if beyond stunning. The rolling greens hills of tea plantations, Horton Plains and the end of the world, the sandy stretches of the beaches in the south – I can’t pick one highlight.
8. YOU’LL NEVER BE MADE TO FEEL MORE WELCOME
My tour guide told me, “You come to Sri Lanka for the first time as a stranger, but you leave as family. And now you always have somewhere to call home.” This is just about the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me while I have been travelling, and the best part was that he truly meant it. I’ve been back at home in Australia now for just about a month, but I’ve already had a few emails from him and the other friends I made while I was away. I thought Africa was a friendly continent, but Sri Lanka takes that cake.