Reflecting Sri Lanka’s position close to the equator, average temperatures remain fairly constant year round. The main factors shaping local weather are altitude and the two monsoons.
Entering Sri Lanka you are allowed to bring in 1.5 litres of spirits and two bottles of wine. You’re not allowed to bring cartons of duty-free cigarettes into Sri Lanka, although it’s unlikely you’ll be stopped at customs and searched. If you are caught “smuggling”, your cartons will be confiscated and you’ll be fined Rs.6000. There are no duty-free cigarettes on sale at the airport on arrival, either.
Leaving Sri Lanka you are permitted to export up to 10kg of tea duty-free. In theory, you’re not allowed to take out more than Rs.250 in cash, though this is rarely checked. If you want to export antiques – defined as anything more than fifty years old – you will need authorization from the Archeological Department depending on exactly what it is you want to export. The export of any coral, shells or other protected marine products is prohibited; taking out flora, fauna or animal parts is also prohibited.
Sri Lanka’s electricity runs at 230–240V, 50 cycles A/C. Round, three-pin sockets are the norm, though you’ll also sometimes find square three-pin sockets, especially in more upmarket hotels; adaptors are cheap and widely available. Power cuts, once frequent, are now much less common, while most top-end places have their own generators.
For police assistance in an emergency, call 119 in Colombo or 118 anywhere else on the island. The emergency number for Emergency Medical Services is 110.
Citizens of all countries apart from the Maldives and Singapore require a visa, or “ETA” (Electronic Travel Authorization) to visit Sri Lanka. Visas can be obtained online in advance ateta.gov.lk or on arrival at the airport. The visa (prices are charged in $) is valid for thirty days and for two entries and currently costs $30 if bought online ($20 for citizens of SAARC countries) or $40 if bought on arrival. It's also possible to get a 90-day tourist visa either in person or by post from your nearest embassy or consulate. You'll also need to contact your local embassy/consulate if you require a business visa. Your passport must be valid for six months after the date of your arrival. Entry requirements are always subject to change, so always check with your local embassy/consulate for the most up-to-date information before travel.
Foreign embassies and consulates are virtually all based in Colombo.
There is little understanding of gay issues in Sri Lanka – gays and lesbians are generally stigmatized and homosexuality is technically illegal (although no one has been arrested since 1950), so discretion is advised, and the whole scene remains rather secretive. Equal Groundis a good first port of call for information about the local scene, while Utopia Asiahas further links, as well as listings of gay-friendly accommodation and general travel information.
It’s essential to take out insurance before travelling to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or early curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Sri Lanka this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting, windsurfing and trekking. Many policies can be chopped and changed to exclude coverage you don’t need – for example, sickness and accident benefits can often be excluded or included at will. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
Virtually every guesthouse and hotel in the country has wi-fi, as do many restaurants and cafés (although connections are often erratic). The rise of wi-fi means that there are fewer internet cafés than there used to be, although much larger tourist centres have at least one or two places. If you have a laptop and need to be constantly connected, all Sri Lanka’s telecom providers offer various mobile broadband packages.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Sri Lanka, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Most guesthouses and hotels offer a laundry service. Washing usually takes 24 hours and usually costs around Rs.75 for a shirt or blouse and Rs.100 or more for a pair of trousers or a light dress. There are no public coin-operated launderettes anywhere on the island.
Postal services from Sri Lanka Post are fairly reliable, at least if you stick to airmail, which takes three to four days to reach the UK and US. Surface mail is about half to one-third the cost of airmail but is horribly slow and offers lots of potential for things to get lost or damaged in transit. Parcels heavier than 20kg have to be sent by EMS Speed Post. If you want to send a parcel home from Sri Lanka, you must take the contents unwrapped to the post office so that they can be inspected before wrapping (all larger post offices have counters selling glue, string and wrapping paper). EMS Speed Post is slightly faster (and more expensive) than airmail.
There are several good maps of Sri Lanka. The best and most detailed is the Rough Guide Sri Lanka Map (1:500,000); it’s also printed on indestructible waterproof paper so it won’t disintegrate in the tropics and can even be used as an emergency monsoon shelter, at a pinch. Otherwise, the entire island is covered by a series of 92 1:50,000 maps – detailed, but somewhat dated. These are only available from the Survey Dept on Kirulla Rd, Havelock Town, Colombo 5 (Mon–Fri 10am–3.30pm); you’ll need to show your passport to get in. In Colombo, Arjuna’s A–Z Street Guide is generally useful, if not always totally accurate.
The Sri Lankan currency is the rupee (abbreviated variously as R., R/ or R/- and Rs.). Coins come in denominations of Rs.1, 2, 5 and 10. Notes come in denominations of Rs.10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000. Try to avoid accepting particularly dirty, torn or disreputable-looking notes, and break big notes and stock up on change whenever you can – don’t expect to be able to pay for a Rs.50 cup of tea with a Rs.5000 note.
You can check current exchange rates atxe.com. Top-end hotels always give their prices either in US dollars or (occasionally) in euros, though you’ll be expected to pay in rupees, with the bill converted at the current bank exchange rate. Many other tourist services are also often priced in dollars – anything from entrance tickets at archeological sites to tours, balloon trips or diving courses – though, again, payment will be expected in rupees.
Sri Lanka is well supplied with banks. The six main chains (most larger towns will have a branch of at least three or four of these) are the Bank of Ceylon, Hatton National Bank, Sampath Bank, Commercial Bank, People’s Bank and Seylan Bank. All are open Monday to Friday from 8 or 9am in the morning until 2 or 3pm in the afternoon, and all shut at weekends. Exchange rates for foreign currency, whether travellers’ cheques, cash or making withdrawals by credit or debit card, are fairly uniform; you may get fractionally better rates if you shop around, but you won’t make any dramatic savings. If you need to change money outside banking hours, head to the nearest top-end hotel – most change cash or travellers’ cheques, though at rates that are up to ten percent poorer than bank rates. Failing this, you could try at local guesthouses or shops – the more tourist-oriented the place you’re in, the better your chances, though you’ll probably have to accept poor rates. All towns of any consequence now have at least one bank ATM that accepts foreign debit and credit cards; details are given throughout the Guide. ATMs at the Commercial Bank (which accept both Visa and MasterCard) are usually the most reliable, followed by those at the Hatton National Bank.
You might also want to carry some cash with you for emergencies. US dollars, euros, pounds sterling and Australian dollars are all widely recognized and easily changed. New Zealand or Canadian dollars might occasionally cause problems, but are generally accepted in most banks.
Most businesses, including banks and government offices, work a standard five-day working week from Monday to Friday 9/9.30am to 5/5.30pm. Major post offices generally operate longer hours (typically 7am–9pm), and stay open on Saturdays as well. Many museums shut on Fridays, while Hindu temples stay shut until around 4pm to 5pm, when they open for the evening puja. Buddhist temples, by contrast, generally stay open from dawn until dusk, or later.
Phoning home from Sri Lanka is straightforward, and relatively inexpensive, although if you’re planning a long trip and are likely to be making a lot of calls, using your own mobile is probably the most cost-effective option. Ask your service provider whether your handset will work abroad and what the call costs are. Most UK, Australian and New Zealand mobiles use GSM, which works well in Sri Lanka, but US mobiles (apart from tri-band phones) won’t work.
While some foreign mobile providers have reciprocal arrangements with local operators and offer surprisingly cheap rates using your existing SIM card – you might like to check tariffs before you travel – it’s generally cheaper to replace the SIM card in your phone with a new SIM from a Sri Lankan company (assuming your phone isn’t locked). This will give you a Sri Lankan phone number and you will be charged domestic rates. SIM cards can be picked up for a low amount from the myriad phone shops; these places also sell chargers and adaptors for Sri Lankan sockets, and cards with which you can top up your airtime (or look for any shop displaying the relevant sticker). The main operators are Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat, Airtel and Hutch. You can get a mobile signal pretty much everywhere on the island apart from a few remote rural locations, most notably Kudawa, in Sinharaja.
Without a mobile, the easiest way to make a call is to go to one of the island’s innumerable communications bureaux, little offices offering phone, fax and photocopying services, and sometimes email as well (look out for signs advertising IDD calls); there will usually be at least a couple on the main street of even the smallest town. You make your call, either from a private cubicle or from a phone at the counter, and then pay the bill at the end. Some places have phones with built-in LCD timers so you can see exactly how long you’ve been on the line for; in other places they just use a stop-watch.
There are very few public payphones in Sri Lanka. If you can’t get to a communications bureau, you could possibly phone from your hotel room, though this is expensive.
To call home from Sri Lanka, dial the international access code (00), then the country code (UK 44; US & Canada1; Ireland 353; Australia 61; New Zealand 64; South Africa 27), then the area code and subscriber number. Note that the initial zero is omitted from the area code when dialling the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand from abroad.
To call Sri Lanka from abroad, dial your international access code then the country code for Sri Lanka (94), then the area code, minus the initial zero, then the subscriber number.
Most Sri Lankans love having their photo taken – though it’s obviously polite to ask. A few of the island’s more photogenic inhabitants might expect to be paid to be photographed, particularly stilt fishermen, when you can find them, and (occasionally) tea pickers in the highlands. You’re not allowed to pose for photographs with Buddha images (standing with your back to the image), and photography is also generally not permitted inside Hindu temples. In addition, note that flash photography can damage old murals; if you’re asked not to take flash photos, don’t. And of course photographing soldiers or military installations is asking for trouble.
Sri Lanka is 5 hours 30 minutes ahead of GMT; it doesn’t follow Daylight Savings Time.
Considering the importance of tourism to the national economy, there are surprisingly few sources of official tourist information either in Sri Lanka itself or abroad. For detailed information about specific areas, the best sources are the independent tour operators and staff at hotels and guesthouses.
In addition to a number of magazines that feature listings and articles of local interest, the free monthly Travel Lanka, available from the tourist office in Colombo, contains listings of accommodation, shops, services and transport in the capital and across the island.
Good online sources of information include the Sri Lanka Tourist Board’s site.
Awareness of the needs of disabled people remains extremely low in Sri Lanka, and there’s virtually no provision for disabled travellers. Few hotels, restaurants or tourist sites are wheelchair-accessible, although there are plenty of one-storey guesthouses that might be usable – though more by accident than design. Public transport is enough of a challenge for able-bodied passengers, and completely useless for wheelchair users, so you’ll need your own vehicle and a driver who is sympathetic to your needs – and even then the lack of specially adapted vehicles can make getting in and out difficult.
Pavements – where they exist – are generally uneven, full of potholes and protected by high kerbs, while the anarchic traffic presents obvious dangers to those with only limited mobility.
There are all sorts of voluntary work projects in Sri Lanka – anything from teaching football to mucking out elephants – and a quick trawl on the internet will turn up dozens of possibilities. Note, however, that although volunteering is richly rewarding, it demands a real commitment of time and energy, and most placements cost at least as much as you’d expect to pay on an equivalent-length backpacking holiday on the island, and sometimes rather more.
Sri Lanka has an extensive English-language media, including numerous newspapers and radio stations, though journalistic standards are not especially high, thanks at least partly to heavy-handed state control exercised over large sections of the media. Numerous journalists were threatened, abducted or even murdered during the final phase of the civil war, and government repression of outspoken media critics remains a reality of the current regime, leading to the largely tame press you see today.
There are also several good, independent online resources for Sri Lankan news. The Colombo Telegraph, run by a group of expatriate journalists, is particularly good, while the BBC has a huge searchable archive of stories dating back to around 1997, while BBC Sinhala offers a dedicated portal for breaking Sri Lankan news.
Sri Lanka has a good spread of English-language newspapers, including three dailies, The Island, the Daily Mirror and the Daily News, and Sunday papers, the Sunday Observer and the Sunday Times, the last is particularly known for its outspoken criticism of the government, which led to the killing of its editor, Lasantha Wickramatunga, in 2009. The Daily News and Sunday Observer are both owned by the government and are little better than feeble, fifth-rate propaganda. Standards are higher in the independent papers, though all devote the majority of their coverage to domestic politics and cricket and tend to be generally cautious in criticism of the government, for obvious reasons.
There are also a fair number of English-language magazines available. The long-running Explore Sri Lanka has decent, tourist-oriented articles about all aspects of the island, while it’s also worth looking out for back copies of the excellent (though now sadly defunct) Travel Sri Lanka. The business-focussed LMD also sometimes runs interesting general features on the island. Hi!! magazine – Sri Lanka’s answer to Hello! – is essential reading for anyone seeking an insight into the Colombo cocktail-party circuit.
There are a surprising number of English-language radio stations in Sri Lanka, although reception can be hit and miss outside Colombo and most stations broadcast on a confusing variety of frequencies in different parts of the island. Most stations churn out a predictable diet of mainstream Western pop, sometimes presented by hilariously inept DJs. The main broadcasters include Yes FM, Lite FM, plus Gold FM, which dishes up retro-pop and easy listening. One Sinhala-language station that you might end up hearing a lot of (especially if you’re travelling around by bus) is Shree FM (99.0 and other frequencies; w shree.fm), beloved of bus drivers all over the island and offering a toe-curling diet of Sinhala pop interspersed by terrible adverts. For a more interesting selection of local music, try Sirasa FM.
You’re not likely to spend much time watching Sri Lankan television. There are three state-run channels (Rupavahini, Channel Eye and ITN), which broadcast almost entirely in Sinhala and Tamil, plus various local satellite TV channels which offer a small selection of English-language programming – though this is a fairly deadly mixture of shopping programmes, children’s shows, pop music, soaps and the occasional duff film. Rooms in most top-end (and some mid-range) hotels have satellite TV, usually offering international news programmes from the BBC and/or CNN along with various channels from the India-based Star TV, including movies and sports.
Sri Lankan cinema has a long history, although it continues to struggle to escape the huge shadow cast by the film industry in neighbouring India; the increasingly wide availability of television poses another challenge. The first Sinhala-language Sri Lankan film was Kadawunu Poronduwa (Broken Promise), premiered in 1947, although the first truly Sinhalese film is generally considered to be Lester James Peries’ Rekawa (Line of Destiny), of 1956, which broke with the Indian all-singing all-dancing model and attempted a realistic portrayal of Sri Lankan life. Peries went on to score further triumphs with films like Gamperaliya (Changing Village), based on a novel by Martin Wickramasinghe, and served as a role model for a new generation of Sri Lankan directors. Modern Sri Lankan filmmakers have tended to focus on themes connected with the country’s civil war, most famously in Prasanna Vithanage’s Death on a Full Moon Day (1997), which portrays a blind and naive father who refuses to accept the death of his soldier son. At present, about a hundred films are released each year in Sri Lankan cinemas, with offerings in English, Tamil, Sinhala and Hindi. Sri Lankan-made films are almost exclusively in Sinhala, apart from a few in Tamil.
There are only a very modest number of cinemas on the island, concentrated largely in Colombo. A couple show recent Hollywood blockbusters in English; others specialize in Tamil, Hindi and Sinhala releases, and are easily spotted by their huge advertising hoardings showing rakish, moustachioed heroes clutching nubile heroines. Tickets for all movies cost around a dollar. You might also catch screenings of more highbrow Sri Lankan movies at cultural centres in Colombo and Kandy.
Sri Lankans love children, and travelling with kids more or less guarantees you a warm welcome wherever you go. Locals will always do whatever they can to help or entertain – there’s certainly no need to worry about disapproving stares if your baby starts crying or your toddler starts monkeying around, even in quite posh establishments.
Having said that, travelling with babies may prove stressful. Powdered milk is fairly widely available, but disposable nappies and baby food are rare, while things like baby-sitting services, nursery day-care, changing facilities, high chairs and microwaves for sterilizing bottles are largely unheard of; car seats will also probably have to be brought from home. Breast-feeding in public, however discreet, is also not something that Sri Lankan women usually do, while prams are virtually useless, since there are no decent pavements to push them on – the common sight of mothers burdened with a tiny baby on one arm and a small child in the other scrambling on and off packed buses or fighting their way across busy roads is one of Sri Lanka’s more stomach-churning sights. The heat, and the associated dangers of dehydration, are another concern, not to mention the risks of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
Older children will get a lot out of a visit to the island. Sri Lanka’s beaches are likely to provide the main attraction, with endless swathes of golden sand to muck around on and warm waters to splash about in – though you should always check local swimming conditions carefully and guard carefully against the very real possibility of sunburn and dehydration. Beaches apart, a visit to any of the national parks is also likely to stimulate budding zoologists; Yala, where there’s a good chance of sighting crocodiles, peacocks, flamingoes and other wildlife, is a particularly good choice. Activity sports, such as banana boating or kayaking at Bentota, may also appeal, while the island’s varied forms of transport – whether a tuktuk ride, a train trip through the hill country or a boat cruise along one of the island’s rivers or lagoons – should also keep little ones entertained. Energetic kids with a head for heights might also enjoy the challenge of clambering up Sigiriya and its rickety iron staircases. And if you’ve exhausted all the preceding possibilities, you can always go shopping: there are plenty of fun handicrafts to be had, with gruesome masks, painted elephants and wooden toys aplenty – if you’re in Colombo, don’t leave without bagging a colourful cuddly stuffed-toy animal from the Barefoot.