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A Complete guide for planning a trip to Sri Lanka

Taprobane to the ancient Greek geographers, Serendib to the Arabs, Ceylon to the European mapmakers; Sri Lanka the paradise island lies in the Indian ocean. Separated by India from the “ Palk Strait”, the “pearl of the Indian Ocean” has a maximum length of 432 Km and a maximum width of 224Km. Though it is still called “ Ceylon” occasionally for trade purposes, the island officially became known to the world as Sri Lanka in the year 1972.

The roots of Sri Lanka can be traced back to the 6th century BCE. The distinctive civilization of Sri Lanka can be characterized by 2 factors: the preservation of “ Theravada Buddhism, and the development of the very sophisticated system of irrigation in the dry regions of the country. The country was further enriched with influences of Hinduism and Islam. In 2008 Sri Lanka was the third most religious country in the world according to a “ Gallup poll”. The country has three major ethnic groups – the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. The Sinhalese constitute the majority in the southern, western, central and north central parts of the country. The Tamils are comprised of two groups: the Sri Lankan Tamils ( long settled descendants from south-east India) and the Indian Tamils (recent immigrants from southeastern India). While the foremost concentration of Sri Lankan Tamils lives in the Jaffna Peninsula and towards the northern lowland districts; the Indian Tamils, the vast majority of whom are plantation workers, live in the large numbers in the higher areas of the central highlands. The main Muslim population lives in areas such as Colombo, Kandy, Puttalam, and Gampaha. The Muslims form a small but important segment of the urban and suburban population. Among the other ethnic and religious distinctions we have the Burghers ( a community with mixed European descent), the Parsis (Immigrants from western India) and the Veddas ( they are regarded as the aboriginal inhabitants of the country) all of them combined for a total less than 1 percent of the population.

Planning your trip to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is often called a tropical paradise, with the vegetation of the coastal belt being described as lush and dramatic, and the mountains in the central area of the country being described as spectacular. Planning a trip to Sri Lanka can be a very time consuming and tiring process because Sri Lanka as a holiday destination has so much to offer, whether its a tropical sandy beach vacation, a wildlife safari, an alluring adventure tour, a wedding or a honeymoon tour or a tour of the mystical ancient ruin dominating the Northcentral plains. Though Sri Lanka is a very tiny country, when compared to the rest of the world; it has basically an option to anything of your choosing. For example with miles and miles of wide sandy beaches it is a little tough to select where you want to go as many beaches would vie for your attention: the south-west coast of Sri Lanka, though a little crowded is famous for its coral reefs in close proximity to shores which is ideal for snorkeling, but the South and East beaches provide you with a more remote and secluded beach. The options provided in this beautiful country is endless, from Forts and Lighthouses, which used to house some of the greatest conquers in the world (e.g. “Galle Dutch Fort” and “Fort Fredrick” built by the Portuguese), to Caves to uncover and explore, cruises on sailboats, trekking tea estate trails and rural routes with abundant nature and water streams, hot air ballooning, to visiting the ancient civilizations of Sri Lanka “the Veddhas”, Whale and Dolphin watching, Hiking, Beach stays, wildlife Safaris, visiting Cultural triangle ( and UNESCO World Heritage Sight), above water, underwater you name it Sri Lanka has it all. The key to a proper exploration of all these destinations lies in the hands of a well thought out itinerary which will make the difference between having the best experiences and an okay experience. A well customized and thought out Itinerary will guarantee you getting exactly what you want out of your tour to Sri Lanka and is crucial to avoid the unexpected.

Where to Visit?

In terms of where to visit in Sri Lanka, it depends on what sort of excursions you have planned out for your tour. Colombo, as the capital of Sri Lanka it is a modern city filled with Five Star rated and prestigious hotels, restaurants, al fresco cafes, shopping and every form of transport from taxis to buses to “Tuk- Tuks”. Colombo provides a seaside promenade, “ the Galle Face Green” where cricket matches are played out among the city folk; also it provides us with the traditional Bazaar “ Pettah”, you are guranteed to have colorful retail experience. It also house’s the Fort, just off the north end of Galle Road, once a Dutch and British colonial stronghold but now the home of many government residencies and offices. Nuwara Eliya, “ Sri Lanka’s cool hill country”, situated among tea plantations at an elevation of 1990 meters, “the hill country” provides a welcome antidote to the heat of the beaches and the low- lying plains. Nuwara Eliya is one of the most attractive towns in Sri Lanka and was built by English tea growers. It is home to the best golf course in the country as well as the impressive Hakkgala botanical Gardens. Kandy, “ the last bastion of the Sinhala Kings” boasts a magnificent past and is home to an attractive man-made lake in the scenic hill country. It is also the site of Sri Lanka’s greatest annual Spectacle, “the Esala Perahera festival” set in July and August; Thousands of locals from all parts of the country flock the courtyard of the “Dalada Maligawa Temple" to witness Hundreds of Colorfully dressed Elephants parading through the streets in honor of the Sacred relic guarded inside. Sri Lanka also boasts many of the most beautiful national parks in the world, “Udawalawe National Park” and “ Yala National Park”. With Highlands and national parks, beaches, and Colonial towns, there's plenty more to discover.

How to Budget?

When compared with the other developing countries in the region, the islands rich mineral and agricultural resources and its surrounding beautiful sea; results in Sri Lanka’s economic potential being very high. Tea, Rubber, and Coconuts being the principal crops found in Sri Lanka source about 50% its export earnings. Daily costs of living can vary according to location and standard. Budget daily costs would add up to around 30 to 40 USD for a simple guesthouse( 20 USD) with Local Rice and Curry Meals and bus fare costs depending on how much you travel. Midrange daily costs would be around 70 to 100 USD for a double room in a good rest house with meals at a hotel/restaurant and you can hire bikes, ride trains and use a car and driver. Top end Daily costs would be 250 USD upwards with a top end hotel accommodation and meals from top-end places and a daily use of a car and driver. Credit cards are accepted at most midrange and all top-end hotels, but ATMs are always available in cities and large towns. Entrance ticket prices will vary depending on the location and so will Local/ Onsite Guide prices it is advisable to agree to a fee before you set out. Although 10% service charge is added to food and accommodation bills. Usually, standard tipping amount is 10% for drivers, also 10% in cash in restaurants and bars beyond the service charge. Room Cleaners up to LKR 100 per day, Bag Carriers/ Porters LKR 50 per bag, and LKR 30 for shoe minders at temples.

Seasons

Sri Lanka’s tropical location ensures perennially high temperatures. Being a year-round destination with two monsoon seasons, you can always be surprised by the weather in Sri Lanka. Rainfall is the conspicuous factor in the seasonal variations of the climate of Sri Lanka. However, it is very rare that the weather will be so dramatic that it will stand in the way of your holiday. The Monsoon Seasons are from May – June which is the Southwest Monsoon season, and from October – January which is the North East Monsoon. The best time to visit the entire country is from January – April and Mid July to September. The Beach season is from January – April in the South and form May – July to the east. The best times to see wildlife is from December – April, at Bundala National Park ( Birds) and in the South coast ( Whales); November – April at Kalpitiya ( Dolphin Watching); and from July – September at the cultural triangle (gathering of elephants) and Yala and Wilpattu ( Leopards). January through March is a fantastic time to travel across the whole country, as the temperatures will be lovely and warm. With beaches on the south and west coasts is dry, hot and sunny and the hill country is cooler. April is the driest and hottest month of the year, but it's a great month to head to the beach, but make sure you avoid the hottest hours of the day ( 11 Am – 3 Pm) when sightseeing during April. The Southwest monsoon blows through may and June but as the name suggests is only affects the south-west quarter of the country, but it is the more gentle of the two monsoons, with mainly short showers which clear up quite quickly. July is known as the “ Inter-Monsoon Season”, with temperatures remaining high across the whole country, all in all, a great period to travel. The Northeast Monsoon blows in October and November and it is the heavier of the two monsoons, unlike the south-west Monsoon, this one affects the whole county and it is highly unpredictable – it can be stronger, light or sometimes it never comes at all. December is a great month to travel; If the monsoon winds down. The rains will have helped thicken out the lush green landscapes making the rural parts of Sri Lanka very beautiful.

What to Pack?

Packing for Sri Lanka is really dependent on the locations and excursions you'll be covering, also in terms of weather and in terms of appropriate / expected clothing. A key point to note is a trip where you’ll be traveling on foot a lot of the time, don’t over pack. If you plan on traveling by bus or train in Sri Lanka don't use massive suitcases, there is limited luggage space and you may have to pay for an extra seat for your bag. It is also advisable that all medicines, toiletries, batteries and photographic supplies should be purchased at home because brands available will be expensive or might be of a different quality. Shorts and a T-Shirt will suffice most of the time but bathing suits and bikinis are never proper off tourist beaches. Up in the hills, the temperatures can drop much lower than in the other areas so it is essential that you bring a few warmer items. It is also useful to notice that in the hills women dress more traditionally, so it is often good to reflect that in your outfits as well. Dress modestly at Religious sites. You should remove your shoes and hats when entering temples; legs and shoulders need to be covered. Larger hotels insist on Long attire for men during dinner ( No shorts ); Ladies can come in dresses, skirts or long shorts but beach or swimwear is not allowed. It is advisable that you carry with you a mosquito repellent, Camera, Hat, Map of the country, and an extra bag for your daily travel and also a Guidebook.

Recommended Itineraries?

When recommending itineraries to explore Sri Lanka it comes to your personal taste or what sort of excursion you want on your tour. Some basic itinerary which people normally use would be.An itinerary exploring the northern region of Sri Lanka, the difference from the rest of the country is very visible as the region has always been more close to southern India. It also provides an opportunity to explore an area emerging from over 20 years of isolation and civil war. A Route you can cover for this itinerary is from BIA to Kalpitiya to Wilpattu National Park to Jaffna to Rathmalana to BIA. The town of Jaffna, being the main attraction of this itinerary will fascinate you with its absorbing mixture of colonial charm and vibrant Tamil culture. If you want an itinerary to explore the untamed version of Sri Lanka an excellent itinerary would be from BIA to Kandy to Kandalama to Dambulla to Sigiriya to Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Colombo to BIA.Sri Lanka boasts one of the highest rates of biological endemism in the world, with five major national parks and many wildlife sanctuaries this itinerary will cover a definite untamed wild Sri Lanka. With over 3000 years of history, Sri Lanka is home to some of the worlds most ancient cities. An itinerary from BIA to Kandy to Kandalama to Dambulla to Sigiriya to Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Colombo to BIA will cover the remnants of these once glorious cities. May it be windsurfing, Water skiing, Scuba diving or just a lazing around to get a perfect tan Sri Lanks will offer some of the best palm-fringed coastlines in the world. A Beach holiday in Sri Lanka is something you will cherish for the rest of your life. An Itinerary covering a some of Sri Lanka's best beaches could be from BIA to Negombo to Hikkaduwa to Mirrisa to BIA.

Visa and Customs Process

It is a must that you have your passport with you at all times. To enter Sri Lanka you should have a valid visa. Transit Visas are good for 48 hours and are free of charge but thirty day Visitor visas cost around USD25 to USD 40, depending on your nationality( SAARC countries tend to be cheaper.Also, note that if the visa is for kids who are under 12 years there is no Visa fee. You can visit Sri Lanka's electronic visa website to apply for a visa (http://www.eta.gov.lk/). You can also obtain the visa via Sri Lankan embassies abroad and there is also an on arrival visa counter available at Bandaranaike international airport. It is advisable that you obtain your visa beforehand though because else you will have to not only pay a higher fee but have to stay in queue till your visa is approved. Please note That Sri Lankan customs do not allow importation Narcotic substances. You are only allowed to bring 1.5 liters of Liquor, 2 bottles of wine; and only a small quantity of souvenirs and perfumes not exceeding the value of 250 USD. The importing of Personal equipment like Laptops and Cameras are allowed but must be declared on arrival.

Currency

The official unit of Sri Lankan currency is known as the “ Sri Lankan Rupee”, and it is divided into 100 Cents. The notes are denominated in to 10,20,50,100,500,1000,2000 and 5000. Coins are denominated in 5, 10,25 and 50 cents and one, two, five and 10 rupees. Foreign currency can be exchanged at the Bandaranaike international airport, International and Local Banks and many main hotels and authorized exchangers found all over the city. Visitors should declare the amount they are bringing in to the country at customs if the amount is more than USD 10,000. It is important to remember if you go to the “money changers” in Colombo, you will receive a better rate of exchange than at banks. Also when you change money, remember to break down larger notes into small notes and coins since most vendors will not have change for big notes. Also, it is very helpful to have a few extra coins in case you are traveling by bus or planning to go street shopping. 1 USD – 153 LKR.

Transportation

When it comes to transport in Sri Lanka, many towns are small enough to navigate through around on foot, but in larger towns, people usually get around using buses, taxis, and three- wheelers. Transportation is mainly based on the road network which is centered in Sri Lanka’s Capital, Colombo. Most of the Sri Lankan roads are in good condition but some roads in rural areas are not up to standards.Both National transportation services and private transportation services operate within the island. There are two types of Buses Government owned and privately owned, and both go to most places including villages outside main towns. Metered taxies are also available to the public in Colombo, you can order taxis to be dispatched to mobile applications such as “Uber” and “Pick me”. Another most commonly used form of transport is tuk-tuks or Three Wheelers. They are available around every corner and as a rule of thumb, a three-wheeler should cost no more than LKR 50 per kilometer. You should also keep in mind that Three Wheelers and taxis which wait outside tourist sights and hotels expect higher than usual fares, walking a few hundred meters is guranteed to get you a better deal. Airports, Harbors, and waterways are also available but not commonly used by the public. Helicopter rides and Sea Planes are famous for tourist but are usually pretty pricey, most helicopter rides last about 1 or 2 hours and are perfect if you want to admire the beautiful scenery in Sri Lanka. Some useful pointers to ear in mind are that domestic flights in Sri Lanka are quite limited, traveling on public transport offers you a choice between trains and buses, though both are cheap, trains can often get crowded but it is nothing compared to the huge number of passengers which will squash into ordinary buses. Public transport gets very crowded around public holidays and nearest weekends and it's advisable to try and avoid them. Many Car rentals are available for cheap prices, and most hotels provide this facility with or without a driver depending on your preference. It is also advisable to book a vehicle beforehand to avoid the haggle searching for one after reaching Sri Lanka.

Accomodations

You’ll be spoilt for the array of Sri Lankan Accommodation options available. The island is blessed with impressive hotels in Stunning locations. Ranging from Semi Luxury to Super luxury, Business hotels are usually situated in the heart of Colombo city. Sri Lanka also has some of the most beautiful Boutique hotels and villas in the world, most Boutique hotels and villas are colonial homes which have been refurbished into Luxurious modern hotels. The soothing ambiance and the excellent architectural design is guaranteed to make it a magical getaway into paradise. Bungalows offer charming retreats which offer private accommodation for tourists. Ceylon also offers Heritage Bungalows which are ancient homes which have been remade and modernized, they are available for short stays offering comfortable accommodation and meal options. Guesthouses which are approved by the Sri Lankan tourist board maintain a very good standard of accommodation and is a great place for a quick meal or brief rest during a long journey. Rented apartments, Rented homes, Homestay Units, Heritage homes, Tourism Resorts you name it Sri Lanka offers the best.

Day to Day tips

It is always crucial to have day to day tips when touring an unknown country. Here are some which we think is a must know. It always helps to fill out your disembarkation form before getting into line at immigration, since it is a small airport the clearance process is not too complicated, filling the form out beforehand is guaranteed to save you time. As is the case with most foreign countries, it is best to drink bottled mineral water, and it is always cheaper to buy from local shops than at hotels. Remember to always ask permission before taking photographs of people, it is also crucial to know that you are not allowed to have your picture taken with your back against Lord Buddha. Bring your own supply of Sun Protection Cream.Do not miss out on shopping opportunities, Sri Lanka is known for its beautiful fabrics such as silk and Batik.

Culture and Etiqutte

Sri Lankans enjoy a unique, artistic and humble lifestyle. Traditional forms of art, dance and music fuse to form the Culture and values of Sri Lanka, Nourished by Buddhism and then also influenced by South Indian traditions the culture of Sri Lanka has a mystifying diversity and is unique to the country. The customs and traditions are deeply ingrained within Sri Lankan society and are passed on from generation to generation. In Buddhism, the traditional greeting is with clasped calms, a head nod followed by the words “ Ayubowan”, which translates to “ May you live long”. In Tamil, the greeting is “ Vanakkam” and the Muslim greets people by saying “Aassalamu Alaikum”. Sri Lanka has three forms of traditional dances: Kandyan Dancing, Sabaragamuwa dancing, and Low Country dancing. They are performed at cultural and religious events at villages, temples, and homes. The traditional attire of men is the “ Sarong” and for women, it is the “Osari or Sari”.Sri Lankans are also strong believers of horoscopes and stars, horoscopes are used to pick auspicious dates for weddings and events such as opening a business or building a house.Note that there are many vendors who are trained in the art of horoscope reading in Sri Lanka, and it is a very popular thing among tourists, though of course, it is for a minor fee. It is also very common to hear the chanting of “Pirith”, a Buddhist ritual. They chant sutras, which are religious principles sung in rhythm. Traditional medicine is also something which has been transferred down from generation to generation, ancient Sri Lankans developed a healthcare system to cater to the needs of the people, while most medicines were derived from herbs, fruits, and vegetables they are very effective.

Food and Drinks

Sri Lankan Cuisine is unique and exotic, foods in Sri Lanka can be either very hot or mild or it can be a combination of the two. The cuisine can differ significantly from one region to another region. The Culinary Delicacies of Sri Lanka is very aromatic and healthy. One of the best things about Sri Lankan cuisine is that the same dish is made in a lot of variations. Despite the presence of fast-food establishments, the average Sri Lanka still prepares and eats traditional dishes for everyday consumption. While Dishes made from the north region of Sri Lanka has distinct south Indian flavors, Dishes made in the south region are known for their food having a variety of flavors as well as being spicy, hot or mild. As a staple, rice is consumed with an assortment of colorful curries ( Eggplant, Potato, Green Banana, Chicken, and fish) that range in potency from mild to very spicy. Spices and Coconut milk are always generally used to make Sri Lankan Cuisine. Sri Lankan food is considered to be among some of the world spiciest, in fact, tourist hotels prepare most Sri Lankan foods to favor the foreign palate. Sri Lankan beverages are mainly tea, herbal drinks and fresh juices made from lime, avocado, and papaya. Tea and coffee are a common day to day refreshment and is served in houses when guests arrive. Arrack ( Sri Lankan Whiskey) and Toddy are famous liquors among Sri Lankans.

Internet and 3G coverage

Most Tourists think that the wireless connection at the guest house there staying in would be sufficient for their tour but in a day an age where social media is a top priority it is highly recommended that you get a 3g connection upon your arrival to Sri Lanka. Not only will you have the option of sharing your photos with your friends and family immediately, if you are ever in a pickle and lost for directions it's always helpful to have Internet on your phone. Coverage in Sri Lanka is fairly good, you can expect 3G service in every city and town. Even along the coast, you will have a fairly decent connection but please note towards the mountains the connection might drop at some locations to a slow 2G. Unlike some countries purchasing a sim is a simple process, you just have to provide your passport When you arrive at BIA, you will find an outlet near the baggage claim area of each of the 5 coverages available in Sri Lanka. Please note that Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat, Hutch and Airtel, the 5 network operators all have separate tourist packages available for purchase. Plans are relatively cheap and you can always top up from any retail stores located island wide.

Shopping

Shopping in Sri Lanka can take various forms; from negotiating with a handicraft seller on the street or while sunbathing, to buying essentials from traditional village stores called “Kades”, to checking out latest international fashions in a luxurious shopping center in Colombo. Sri Lanka offers a wide range of shopping items: Gems, Batik, Tea, Handloom fabrics, Leather products, antiques, jewelry, and ceramics are very famous among tourists. Galle, Colombo, Bentota, Beruwala, Kandy, and Negombo are some of the many locations where you can spend hours and hours uncovering things to buy. It is important to note that Sri Lanka has the widest variety of precious stones among the worlds gem producing countries.