Sri Lanka. Empty beaches and crowded cities. Terraced tea plantations and wild jungles. Elephants and leopards, whales and monkeys, friendly people and incredible food. Ignored by travellers during two decades of civil conflict, tourism is only now starting to reappear on this teardrop-shaped island off the bottom of India.
While package tours are popular,they’re far from the only way to see the best of what the country has to offer. I spent three weeks travelling independently around the southern and central parts of the island by bus, train and tuk-tuk, and the experience put Sri Lanka firmly near the top of my list of favourite destinations.
If you’re considering budget travel in Sri Lanka, here’s what you need to know.
Note: this post is long and detailed! I’ve broken it down into several sections, which you can skip to using the links below.
First things first: Sri Lanka isn’t a super-cheap destination in the same way as India, Nepal or most of South East Asia. Accommodation and food are more expensive than neighbouring countries, and the entrance fee to major attractions for foreigners is disproportionately high.
Expect a daily budget of $30-$50 per person on accommodation, food, drinks and transport. That cost is based on staying in guesthouses and homestays, and eating at local restaurants or your accommodation. Hostels aren’t all that common outside the cities, but when you can find them, you’ll save a few dollars if you’re travelling alone.
If you decide to take in most of the main sights, you could easily spend the same amount again on entrance fees and tours. In the end, the high cost of attractions put me off visiting many of them — I was travelling alone for much of my time in Sri Lanka, and without being able to split costs, anything that was going to require hiring a driver or guide was out of reach. Luckily, many of the best parts of the country, food, beaches and people in particular, cost little or nothing to experience.
Sri Lankan keeps the visa process simple. The Sri Lanka Electronic Travel Authorisation site isn’t the most attractive in the world, but it works well.
Unless you come from one of a small number of nearby countries, you’ll pay $30 USD for a 30 day double-entry visa. The site accepts credit cards, and you’ll receive a confirmation email within 24 hours with the details you need. If you want to be particularly organised, feel free to print it out – I didn’t, and although I’d saved the email on my phone, nobody asked to see it.
Two day transit visas are free if you’re just passing through, and longer visas are available if you need them. It’s also possible to extend a tourist visa within the country, if, say, you happen to fall madly in love with Sri Lanka and can’t bear the thought of leaving.
The currency in Sri Lanka is the rupee (LKR), which at the time I travelled was worth around 130 to the US dollar. ATMs are common throughout the country, although on one occasion I did need to take a tuk-tuk to the next town five kilometres down the road to find one.
All of the ATMs I tried accepted international cards, with only a small fee (around 50c). Withdrawal limits vary significantly by bank, so if the machine you’re using won’t give you enough money in a single transaction, just find another that does.
As far as budget travellers are concerned, Sri Lanka is primarily a cash economy – don’t expect to find credit card facilities in guesthouses or local restaurants. Small bills are always appreciated, and many vendors won’t be able to make change if you hand them a 5000 rupee note.
Like most visitors, I arrived in Sri Lanka via Bandaranaike International Airport around 35km from Colombo. Getting through immigration and luggage reclaim was a painless experience, and the terminal was clean and reasonably modern.
Getting local currency was straightforward, with the staff of several foreign exchange booths vying for attention as soon as I left the baggage area. They offered a surprisingly competitive rate, but there are also a number of ATMs nearby if you’d prefer to withdraw money instead.
I picked up a local SIM card before leaving the terminal, and then headed out to brave the morning heat and taxi drivers. Due to the captive market and distance from Colombo, private transport options from the airport are expensive for budget travellers unless they’re in a group. You’re looking at around 2500 LKR (~$19) for a taxi into Colombo, and 1500 LKR ($12) for a seat in a shared minivan.
Local buses into the city cost 150 LKR (~$1.20) – there isn’t an airport stop, but there should be a free shuttle to the bus station. Luggage space will be at a premium, so don’t expect to get on with large suitcases. You’ll be able to ask an airport official where to catch the shuttle from (and if it’s running).
Since I was taking the train down to Galle the same day, I needed to get to Colombo Fort station. While there is a train service that runs there directly from the airport, it only operates twice a day. The schedule is much more regular from Katunayaka South station, less than ten minutes from the airport in a tuk-tuk.
I couldn’t find a driver who would charge less than 250 LKR (~$2) per person for the journey, but if you’re in less of a hurry and a better negotiator than me, you should be able to pay less. From there, the third class train into Colombo cost around 25 LKR (20c), took about 75 minutes to get to Fort station, and ran at least once an hour. It’s hard to think of a better introduction to Sri Lanka – you’ll likely be the only foreigner on the train as it wends through the countryside and Colombo suburbs.
Sri Lanka has two official languages, Sinhala and Tamil, and you’ll see their gloriously looping forms on signs everywhere. English is also quite widely spoken and usually found anywhere visitors are expected to be. Bus destination boards, road signs, many shops and even advertising billboards often include an English translation. Communicating with locals was rarely an issue.
Before arriving in Sri Lanka, I’d been concerned about the cost of accommodation based on what I found online. As it turned out, my concern was only somewhat justified – mostly because in August, it was rarely hot enough for lack of air conditioning to be a problem. Opting for rooms without a/c bought the price down, and I found anywhere near the ocean had a fan and enough breeze to keep things cool.
On average, I paid $20-30/night for a clean private room with hot water and (usually) breakfast. If I’d had my own transport, I could have reduced this a bit – there were some good options outside the centre of many towns. Since I didn’t want to have to take a tuk-tuk or walk 30+ minutes in the midday sun every time I went anywhere, however, I generally stayed close to the action.
I often booked a room the day before arriving somewhere new, just so I could ignore the crowd of “helpers” that meet every bus, but it’s definitely possible to turn up and negotiate instead. Doing so usually yielded a good result – just be prepared to spend some time tracking down a place that works for you, and don’t be afraid to negotiate.
Stay in at least one or two homestays during your time in Sri Lanka – they tend to be smaller than guesthouses, often with only a couple of rooms for guests , and entirely family-run. Breakfasts will almost always be included, and you’ll often be able to have dinner with the family for a few dollars as well. Take up the offer if it’s extended – the food will be even better than in local restaurants.
Ahh, the food. I’ll freely admit I didn’t know much about Sri Lankan cuisine before arriving, naively assuming it’d be similar to that in India. While the basic components of many dishes were familiar — rice, curries, papadums and roti — that’s about where the similarities end.
I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as well (or as much) as I did during my time in Sri Lanka. Other travellers have spoken of getting sick of the ubiquitous “rice and curry”, but god knows I never did. The simple name hides the fact that despite eating this dish at least 30 times during my trip, I was never served the same meal twice.
Consisting of a large plate of rice and anywhere between four and a dozen different curries in little bowls, there’d usually be a meat option – salted fish or chicken being most common – along with some fluffy dahl, but after that it was hard to predict. I had fruit and vegetable curries of almost every flavour – potato, pumpkin, beans, jackfruit, beetroot, eggplant and many others I couldn’t identify. The only similarity was that they were all damn delicious. Every. Single. One.
Breakfasts varied, too, but my favourite was string hoppers. Resembling noodles and made from rice flour, the actual hoppers were pretty bland – but adding a healthy spoonful of the coconut or onion sambal that came with it made some kind of life-changing culinary explosion go off in my mouth. I wasn’t as excited by egg hoppers (a thin fried pancake with an egg in the middle) or the sweet, sticky roti pancakes. What I did learn, though, is that there are at least a million different ways to use a coconut at breakfast time.
I won’t go into detail about everything I put in my mouth in Sri Lanka (not in this post, at least), but there’s no way I couldn’t mention kottu roti. You’ll likely hear the distinctive metallic chopping sound of its preparation long before you order it – a beacon for hungry passers by. Shredded pieces of roti bread mixed with spices and vegetables, seafood or meat, chopped up, stir fried, and served with a hot, spicy sauce. It’s pretty much the perfect street food, and goes down perfectly with a cold bottle of Lion beer. Say, for example.
It’s the spices, though, that will always remind me of Sri Lanka. Cumin was ever-present, but my uneducated nose and taste buds struggled to identify the complex mixtures after that. Coriander, turmeric, cinnamon and undoubtedly many more. Chilli, both ground and chopped, always made an appearance – I like hot food, and rarely found a meal that was too much to handle, but if you’re not a fan of chillies you’ll want to mention that when you order.
Food prices varied widely depending on where I chose to eat. It wasn’t unusual to see prices as high as 1200 LKR (~$10) for rice and curry in the most tourist-friendly parts of town, but following the locals yielded better food for a dollar or two. As always, look for the crowded restaurants and street stalls, and don’t worry about the state of the furniture – it’s the popularity and fast turnover that keeps you happy and healthy, not the presence of a tablecloth.
Many well-heeled visitors to Sri Lanka hire a car and driver for their stay, but if you’re a budget traveller and not in too much of a hurry, there’s really no need.
The rail system dates back to colonial times, and is extremely slow – but it’s also cheap, reliable and wends through some spectacular countryside. There are first class air-conditioned carriages on a few routes, but they quickly fill up with tour groups. If you’d prefer to save money and spend your journey chatting to locals instead, buy a second class ticket – the breeze blowing in through the open windows and doors cools all but the most crowded trains.
Many shorter routes only have a third class option, which is basic but fine. You’ll also be able to take much better photos from the cheaper carriages, especially if you’re happy to hang out the door to do so.
Some trains on the popular Colombo to Badulla route include a fancy, privately-operated carriage that can be booked online, but tickets for the government-run carriages need to be purchased at a station. Advance tickets go on sale ten days before departure, but you may not be able to buy them from the smaller stations – I was advised to go to Matara or Galle when trying to book a ticket in Weligama, for example.
The trip from Ella to Kandy is widely regarded as one of the most scenic rail trips in the world, and has the popularity to match. Every ticket for the famous observation car was sold out for the next ten days, so I booked the last second class seat for a train leaving three days later. Long story short: if you’re planning to take that train journey (and you should, because it’s amazing), book your outbound ticket from Ella as early as possible.
Unfortunately, the train lines don’t run everywhere in the country, so at some point you’ll end up on a bus. These are far more plentiful, and will get you close to anywhere you want to go. They’re as cheap as the train, often more crowded and will always involve plenty of time on the wrong side of the road.
Most buses will have limited space for your luggage, either beside the driver or sometimes in the back. Sri Lankans seem to travel light around their own country, so as long as there aren’t many other foreigners on your bus you’ll find somewhere to stow a backpack or small suitcase. Failing that, you may be able to buy an extra ticket and put it on the seat beside you, or resign yourself to having it in your lap for a few hours.
Timetables do exist, but as buses leave when full they’re more of a guideline than a rule. The easiest option is to ask your guesthouse owner how often buses run to your next destination, then turn up at the station with time to spare and ask around. Random strangers are usually incredibly happy to help out the lost-looking foreigner, and will often do everything from pointing you to the right place to stand to keeping an eye out for the bus for you, waving it down, explaining to the driver where you’re trying to go, and helping you with your luggage.
Even if you’ve been told you’ll need to change somewhere, it’s always worth asking if there is a direct bus to your destination – sometimes they only run once or twice a day, if they exist at all, but you never know. Keep a collection of small notes and coins handy to pay for your ticket. Expect to pay as little as 30 LKR for a short journey between neighbouring towns, and 200-300 LKR for a trip that takes several hours.
If you don’t want to hire a car and driver, but dealing with long days on public transport doesn’t sound appealing, there are a few other options. I met a French couple who had hired a small car and driven around much of the country with it – they said it was nerve-wracking most of the time, but the freedom and flexibility made it worth the occasional scream.
I also ran into a British couple who had just finished a multi-week motorbike trip. They’d rented a 250cc bike that was appropriate for getting well off the main roads, but scooters are also available if that’s more your style.
And, of course, there are auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks). These take the place of taxis in much of the country, and you’ll see them everywhere. While many of the tuk-tuks look much the same, every driver is different. They’re not all out to scam you, but many do love to overcharge foreigners – I was told by a guesthouse owner in Mirissa that the going rate for tourists was double the local price.
You can always bargain, and will usually get a cheaper price when you do, but be very clear about where you’re going and what the final price will be. You may even want to write the address and price on a piece of paper to show your driver for their agreement – and to use as evidence if you still end up having an argument at the end of the trip.
Finally, if you love the sound of a tuk-tuk but not the idea of haggling with drivers all the time, you can rent one to drive around the country yourself. Some fellow travel bloggers did just this earlier in the year, and put the idea in my head for my next trip to Sri Lanka. Because, seriously, how amazing does it sound?
I found Sri Lankans to be some of the warmest, friendliest and most helpful people I’ve ever met. Strangers on a train or bus would strike up a conversation within a minute. If I was travelling alone, restaurant staff would want to know if I had a girlfriend. If Lauren was with me, they’d ask when we were getting married.
I barely had a chance to look lost before someone would approach to see if I needed help. If they didn’t speak English, they’d call a friend who did and get them to translate. Kids, families, old men and women would break into smiles when I wandered past, and it was almost impossible to walk more than a block without someone calling out a greeting.
In some parts of the world this kind of interaction with locals seems a little forced, but in Sri Lanka it rarely did. There seemed to be a genuine interest in talking to visitors, finding out what they thought of the country and what had bought them to Sri Lanka.
The only real exceptions were tuk-tuk drivers, but that’s fairly common anywhere in the world. Even then, I had a couple of great experiences, including a guy in Galle who serenaded us with Bob Marley songs as we zipped through the streets in his bright pink rickshaw, and the driver in Mirrisa who, when he heard I was interested in renting a tuk-tuk of my own, insisted we swap seats so I could get some practice ahead of time.
As I’m not a woman, it’s hard for me to gauge what travelling as a solo female is really like. However, although Lauren and I travelled together for most of her time in the country, she did spend 24 hours on her own as she made her way back to Colombo to fly out for a couple of weeks back home. She had quite a different experience to when she was with me, and I quote it in full below:
I felt incredibly safe in Sri Lanka with Dave by my side but sadly didn’t feel the same when venturing out alone. While wandering around by myself, I noticed stares from 90% of the local men I passed, and the majority of them would try and strike up a conversation with me. This didn’t happen when I was with Dave, when I was mostly ignored. It was a huge difference and one that greatly unsettled me.
I took a solo train journey, where I was sat by the window, and at each train station we passed, the local men on the platform would see me and gather by my window, staring. Not saying anything, not doing anything, just relentlessly staring. A huge crowd! It spooked me so much that I stopped using public transport alone and went with taxis instead for the rest of my time in the country.
So, it’s tricky. I can’t say it’s unsafe for solo female travellers when nothing bad happened to me. Nobody even attempted anything untoward. But the stares? They left me uncomfortable and feeling vulnerable.
Yes, cricket. That odd sport played by Britain and its former colonies. The only game that can last for five full days and still end up in a draw. If you’re from a cricket-playing country, you’ll have immediate common ground with any Sri Lankan male old enough to hold a bat. If you know the slightest thing about the sport, you’ve pretty much made a friend for life.
My time in Sri Lanka happened to coincide with a cricket tour by the Pakistani team and I ended up being in Galle for the first four days of a match. In an inspired move by the authorities, ground entry was free, meaning I could just turn up to lie on the grass and watch the game for a few hours each day, coming and going as I pleased. Vendors walked past with spiced peanuts, ice-cream, cold drinks and a random selection of fried goods, and there was always a group nearby to share the twists and turns of the match with.
Blissed out in the sunshine, listening to the sound of bat, ball and an assortment of out-of-tune instruments, I was about as happy as I’ve ever been on my travels. Best of all, Sri Lanka won in the dying minutes of the final session. Perfect.
Wi-Fi was available in all of the places I stayed, as well as many restaurants, bars and cafes. Speeds varied much more than I expected, from an astonishing 17Mbps connection at a guesthouse on the beach near Tangalle, to some that were too slow to load a web page. Typical speeds were around 3Mbps download and half that for uploads, which were fast enough for anything I needed to do online.
Note that Colombo Airport doesn’t officially provide free wi-fi, but there is a coffee shop in the transit area that offers a glacially slow connection if you buy their overpriced beverages.
I wrote an entire post about the process of buying and using a SIM card in Sri Lanka, but in brief, prices were reasonable, coverage was good and 3G speeds were quite quick.
Power, too, wasn’t a problem. Over the course of three weeks I experienced two blackouts, once for a couple of hours after a huge storm in Ella, and the other for a few minutes in Tangalle.
Despite its small size, Sri Lanka experiences very diverse weather. The island has two distinctive monsoon seasons, one in the southwest and one in the north and east. I visited the southern coast during the monsoon, but despite being prepared to change my plans if the weather was causing problems, there was no need. While there were some heavy downpours overnight and some afternoons, they didn’t stop me from doing anything I’d planned.
Temperatures on the coast were hot and relatively humid, although sea breezes made a big difference. In the highlands, temperatures were somewhat lower during the day and much cooler overnight, with fog and rain not uncommon in the afternoon in Ella.
Pack sunscreen, a hat, walking shoes and a rain jacket, and you’ll be fine pretty much everywhere!
Sri Lanka is renowned for its glorious beaches, and I made a point to visit several along the southern coast.
After only planning to spend one night in Galle, the gorgeous old colonial buildings and cricket match I mentioned forced me to return for another few days. Galle Fort, the UNESCO-listed part of town, was by far the most touristed place I visited in Sri Lanka, and it had food and accommodation prices to match.
I spent most of my time in the city exploring the old town, wandering along the walls and admiring the restored buildings. When I wasn’t sightseeing I was watching cricket, either from inside the ground or atop the ramparts. If there isn’t a game on (or you’re a bit strange and don’t love cricket…), you only need a couple of nights in town to see the best parts before leaving for somewhere a little more budget friendly.
I’d highly recommend eating outside the walls of the fort, both for the cost savings and the quality of the food. I found a little place between the train and bus stations that offered fish, rice and curries for 200 LKR ($1.50) that were plentiful, delicious and not toned down for foreigners. There wasn’t much English spoken, but pointing and smiling worked just fine.
This was one of the few places I stayed that had air-conditioning, but it wasn’t really necessary. The wi-fi was fast, the owner was friendly and it was in a great location. All in all, I liked it a lot – although it was expensive by Sri Lankan standards, it was good value for Galle. We paid 4500 LKR ($35) as a walk-in rate.
A little further along the south coast lies Mirissa, a laid-back little coastal town. We spent most of our days on the long, narrow strip of beach, watching the surf endlessly crash onto the sand. The waves were impressive during monsoon season, and more than a few minutes in the ocean left me feeling like I’d been put through a spin cycle.
The big tourist draw in Mirissa is whale watching, but it wasn’t really the right time of year to see them when I was there. Prices seemed reasonable enough at around 6500 LKR ($50) for a half day excursion, but I amused myself by wandering round the harbour chatting to fishermen instead.
There weren’t all that many dining options, but it wasn’t hard to find a couple of decent places. Most lunches consisted of a beer, rice and curry on the sand at Central Beach Inn, while we ate dinner at the Dewmini Roti Shop, a great little place a few minutes off the main road.
I spent the remainder of my time in Sri Lanka travelling solo, starting with three nights just east of Tangalle. There wasn’t much to the town itself, but the beach was remarkable – miles of almost empty sand, broken up only by the occasional hotel or shack of a seafood restaurant. The surf was even heavier than in Mirissa, if that’s possible, so I observed it from the safety of my towel.
There was little else to do without taking a tuk-tuk back into town, so I whiled away my days reading, snoozing in the hammock and trying to digest the enormous meals that came out of the guesthouse kitchen.
The food at the guesthouse seemed a little expensive, especially given breakfast wasn’t included in the room rate, but it was uniformly excellent. I also ate at the hotel restaurant next door a couple of times, which had a slightly better view and slightly worse food.
Two weeks after leaving the coast to head inland, I returned for my last few nights in Sri Lanka. Negombo is the closest stretch of coast to the airport, and felt like it – prices were generally higher, restaurant food was generally worse, tourists were more plentiful and touts more persistent than elsewhere in the country.
The beach, though, was impressive – long, wide and empty, at least at the northern end of town where I spent most of my time. Locals played football and cricket in the evening, with only complete darkness ending those simple pleasures.
I did manage to find a great little rice and curry restaurant on the main road, half the price and twice as good as anything else I’d walked past on that long strip of crappy souvenir shops and over-enthusiastic travel agents. It says something about the lack of decent alternatives that despite the restaurant being a half hour walk from my guesthouse, I went back again for lunch the next day.
Even though the highlands are under 100km from the coast, they feel like a different country. Towering mountains, green jungles, misty valleys, cooler temperatures… and tea plantations as far as the eye can see. If you stick to the coast, you’re only getting part of the Sri Lankan experience.
The small hill town of Ella wasn’t quite what I expected. There’s not much to it, several guesthouses, restaurants and convenience stores spread along a chaotic main street full of wandering tourists, creaky buses and barking street dogs. Fortunately, I found a homestay a few minutes away down a side street that was much more peaceful, giving me the chance to enjoy what everyone really goes there for – the stunning countryside.
Although I’d only planned to stay a couple of days, I ended up extending to five – I loved my homestay and the cool, fresh air, and was in no hurry to leave. Other than working my way through my Kindle when the rain rolled in every afternoon, I spent one morning hiking up Little Adam’s Peak, and another walking a few kilometres back down the road to a waterfall I’d passed on the way in. Both were well worth the effort, but I’d suggest starting early to avoid the heat.
There were a few good food options in town, with delicious cheap fish kottu roti at the Ella Curd Shop, and higher-end options with a great view at AK Ristoro.
Note that there’s no website or online booking option for Bloom Rose Inn, but there is a Facebook page.
Despite being the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, I wasn’t overly excited by Kandy – it seemed busy and noisy, with surprisingly lousy food options. Walking around the lake was mildly interesting, but the main highlight for me was the Botanical Garden.
It was easy to get to by local bus, and I spent several hours wandering around admiring the diverse trees, plants, monkeys, snake charmer and, in one memorable encounter, a scorpion. As with most other attractions in Sri Lanka it was relatively expensive for foreigners, at 1100 LKR ($8.50).
The mountain fortress at Sigiriya is arguably Sri Lanka’s most well-known attraction, and I couldn’t leave the country without having climbed it. While it’s possible to visit on a day trip from nearby towns and cities, I chose to stay in Sigiriya village – a good choice, as it made it much easier to be at the ticket office at the 7am opening time and avoid almost all of the other visitors.
I’d very highly recommend doing the same – I actually ended up at the summit of Sigiriya Rock entirely alone for 20 minutes, a magical experience as I gazed out over the surrounding landscape. The longer I spent there, the more people showed up, and by late morning I was passing large tour groups on my way back down. Despite the ridiculously high cost for foreigners (3300 LKR, or $30 USD), it’s worth making the trip to Sigiriya – give yourself at least half a day, so you can explore the side trails and small museum as well.
Note that hornets can be a problem on the final climb to the summit – they nest in cracks in the rock, and you’re very exposed as you climb up the metal staircase beside them. While a shelter and protective clothing are provided if you need them, I’d suggest taking a jacket and long pants with you as well. I ended up having to delay my descent from the top for half an hour due to hornet activity, but didn’t get stung.
In the end, I decided to stay an extra two nights rather than move to nearby Dambulla, which seemed like a good choice – it was much more peaceful in Sigiriya!
I ended up just taking a day trip into Dambulla to visit the cave temples and Golden Buddha, which were more impressive than expected despite the crowds. Were they worth the 1500 LKR ($11.50) entry fee? That’s debatable, but if you’re in the area anywhere, they’re probably worth the money and sweaty 10-15 minute climb from the entrance.
Don’t forget to pay for a ticket as you enter the complex – you can’t pay at the top where the caves are, and won’t appreciate the climb back down and up again to do so.
Do you have any other questions about budget travel in Sri Lanka? Leave them in the comments!