From leech repellents to table manners and tipple tips, our 10 things to know BEFORE traveling to Sri Lanka.
From the Buddhist temples and palaces of Kandy to the world’s largest gathering of Asian elephants, Sri Lanka will take your breath away. The tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, a potpourri of British colonial heritage, ancient monuments, exotic wildlife, and friendly locals, is slowly but surely becoming a vacation hotspot. But traveling offers countless opportunities for blunder, so preparation is key. Here are our 10 things to know before traveling to Sri Lanka.
Take Socks Everywhere
Sri Lanka is a warm country and walking around in socks is understandably not preferred. However, it’s a good idea to always carry a pair with you, as Buddhist and Hindu temples require the removal of footwear. While the stones at some sites, like Dambulla Cave Temples, are pleasantly cool, others are so hot you’re barely able to walk on them. A number of temples are also part of a larger areal and surrounded by sand, trees, or shrubs making the ground nicer to tread with foot protection.
Watch Those Suckers
If you plan on exploring the countryside, chances are leeches will lie in wait for you. They quickly attach to clothing as the innocent hiker walks by, then bite you through socks or wiggle into your shoes. A growing red stain on your clothing could be a first clue you’re under attack! While leech bites are relatively harmless and don’t spread disease, it’s an unpleasant experience, so buying repellent or leech socks might be the best purchase you’ll make before heading off to Sri Lanka.
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Eat Like a Local
Sri Lanka doesn’t have the largest restaurant out culture, and especially in more rural areas, restaurants are often shut for dinner time. Locals prefer to eat at home or go to cafes where they can get fast service and cheap food. They also love Chinese restaurants, found everywhere on the island, because the food is cheap and catered to Sri Lankan tastebuds. If you want to eat like a local, check out restaurants, cafes, and street stalls over lunchtime for traditional dishes like steamed rice and curry, sambols, and seafood.
Monkey See, Monkey Take
Monkeys can be seen everywhere in Sri Lanka. There are five different species, of which the graceful grey langur and the red-brownish tocque macaque are the most common. While quite shy in rural areas, the monkey groups hanging around temples and other tourist sites are anything but. In fact, if you don’t watch your food, they’ll snatch it right out of your hand. Ice cream, bananas, sandwiches – anything goes!
Dress for the Occasion
When packing for a sunny destination, it’s tempting to ditch those long dresses or pants. However, Sri Lanka is a conservative country, and short skirts and brief shorts are frowned upon. Furthermore, if your knees are not covered, you’ll be refused entry at religious sites. The easiest and cheapest solution is to buy a sarong, a large tube or length of fabric, which can be worn by both men and women. Sarongs are common in many parts of Asia, East Africa, and on Pacific islands, so the often colorful wrap might come in handy for future travels.
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Remember Your Table Manners
Although you’ll most likely be given knife and fork if recognized as a foreigner, few Sri Lankans use cutlery and pick up food with their hands instead. If you eat the traditional way, make sure to use the right hand only as the left is considered unclean, and don’t mess your fingers any further than the first knuckle. When passing objects to another person, the right hand or both hands should be used.
Take a Tuk Tuk
Motorized rickshaws, known as tuk-tuks, are an affordable way to get around. The three-wheelers can reach surprising speeds and offer a fun (if sometimes slightly nerve-wracking) experience. Tuk-tuks are generally not metered so you need to agree on a price before jumping in. Ask at your accommodation for the going rate per kilometer and feel free to barter if you’re not happy with the first offer. Having the correct change is a good idea, as some drivers may claim to have no change in the hope that you’ll let them keep it.
Travel Slowly (and Stay Alive)
A sure way to meet an untimely end is to attempt driving in Sri Lanka. Avoid at all cost! If you can afford it, hire a private driver (who usually also functions as a tour guide) or take a bus, tuk-tuk or train. Although infrastructure is improving, the roads are a sea of honking cars, take over maneuvers in oncoming traffic, narrow lanes, and the occasional wild animal on the tarmac. Distances take twice as long as anticipated from looking at the map as the speed limit on the open road is 70kmph (about 45mph), and in some areas like the Hill Country, you really don’t want to go any faster.
Streeeetch that Budget
While Sri Lanka is still considered a cheap destination by Western standards, prices are unquestionably on the rise. Larger shops like supermarkets have fixed costs, which sometimes are surprisingly on par with prices at home. Smaller shops and street vendors are open to bargaining, so it’s always worth a try to knock a few rupees off. An exception is the Laksala craft shops in the island’s major towns, which are government-run with set prices. Meals in hotels and resorts are very expensive compared with local food, so eating out will save you big bucks.
Buy Your Souvenirs Before You Get to the Airport
While Colombo International Airport has plenty of shops selling local textiles, beauty products, and crafts, prices here are more than double what they are outside of the airport. Don’t expect to spend your leftover rupees at Duty-Free, either, unless you’re in the market for some appliances. The various electronic goods stores are for the many Sri Lankans working abroad who can buy these items with a tax reduction upon returning home.