Expert Travel Tips for your Sri Lanka Holiday

Visas
Currency
Tipping
Healthcare
Drinking Water
Food & Drink
Clothing
Cameras & Photography
Drivers & Road Transport
Shopping
Language
Social Conventions & Etiquette

You can apply prior to your arrival in Sri Lanka by visiting the Sri Lankan Government website 

You can also apply for visa on arrival in Sri Lanka, although the visa fee is slightly higher.

Note: Please ensure that you apply for the visa at the official Government website, and not inadvertently through some agents whose websites may look official, and may appear above the Government website in an online search.

Sri Lanka’s currency is the rupee (denoted by the symbol Rs.), which is distinct from the Indian rupee.

Currency notes in regular circulation are in denominations of Rs.20, Rs.50, Rs.100, Rs.500, Rs.1000 & Rs.5000.

Coins are rarely encountered due to their low value.

As the Sri Lankan rupee is a partially controlled currency, you can usually only obtain it once you are in Sri Lanka. All ports of entry have ATMs and/or a 24-hour bank exchange counter immediately after Customs and Immigration. You can also exchange currency in most major hotels. Buying currency from a bank is time-consuming and only worth doing if converting a significant amount.

When converting foreign currency into Rupees, keep the receipts (encashment certificates) as these may come in handy when reconverting leftover currency at your departure airport.

Our recommendation is to exchange or buy £100-£200 at your port of arrival, including some notes of low denominations (Rs.20, Rs.50, Rs.100) for small purchases and tips. Both USD and GBP cash/travellers' cheques are accepted.

Credit Cards and ATMs

You can use credit cards for purchases at most shops, restaurants and hotels.

ATMs are easily available in major cities. When travelling beyond the big cities, having adequate cash as a backup is advisable. Allowing about £30 for daily small expenses is reasonable.

Tipping in local currency for good service is expected in Sri Lanka.

Tipping is entirely at your discretion; however, our general recommendations are (per couple):

  • Tour Guides around Rs.500 for a ½ day tour, or Rs.700-800 per day.
  • Accompanying chauffeur guide - Rs.1000 per day.
  • For a local driver – 10% of tariff or agreed fare.
  • In wildlife reserves:
    • A good English-speaking Naturalist – Rs.800-1000 per safari
    • Driver Rs.200 per safari
    • Government guide Rs.300-500 per safari depending on quality of service
    • If the same naturalist, guide or driver are accompanying you on multiple safari trips, you can tip at the end of the last safari, and round up or down based on your overall satisfaction.

Note: Some people naturally feel more generous while tipping on occasions when the safari was very successful (i.e., when wildlife sightings were good).

This is entirely at your discretion, but please be mindful that you reward good behaviour that resulted in the sightings (patience, knowledge and understanding of animal behaviour and movements, identification skills) rather than poor behaviour (driving around rashly to get to a spot where a sighting has been reported, getting too close to animals in order to get you a good view, making any kind of noise to make the animal look towards your camera etc.)

  • Hotel porters - Rs.20-50 per 20kg suitcase (or Rs.100 per suitcase in luxury hotels).
  • Restaurants & Room Service - 10% of bill if service charge hasn’t been added to the bill.
  • Where a communal Tip Box is provided in the hotel/homestay – 5%-10% of total bill based on quality of service.

We highly recommend tipping in local currency notes wherever possible, and only use US dollars or GBP as exceptions.

Please avoid personally handing out coins for tipping, as they are generally of very low monetary value, and offering them may be considered disrespectful.

If you simply wish to get rid of unwanted change, put them in charity boxes or tip boxes.

We advise consulting your GP for health precautions/vaccinations and malaria prophylactics.

While all commonly used medication is available in local pharmacies without prescription, we recommend you carry a small supply of basic medicines like paracetamol, ibuprofen, travel sickness tablets, anti-diarrhoea tablets, insect repellent and sun creams.  

If you are on regular prescription medication, please carry enough supplies to cover your holiday, and carry your prescription (or at least a photo of it on your mobile) in case you have to top up at a local pharmacy, or are asked for it at an airport during bag checks.

Protect yourself from sunburn by using sunscreens with a high sun protection factor (SPF), sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats. Use calamine lotion (available easily) for treating mild sunburn.

Please avoid drinking tap water. Almost all hotels will be able to provide UV-filtered/UV-treated water, which is a safe alternative to using bottled water if you wish to reduce single use plastic.

We recommend that you use Water-to-go bottles to fill up on your holiday. Using these handy bottles goes a long way in reducing single use plastic, while keeping you safely hydrated no matter where you are in the world.

When taking ice in drinks, check that it is made with UV-filtered water.

Sri Lankan cuisine is punchy and flavoursome. It is similar to Indian cuisines, but has a definite Sri Lankan twist. Most hotels catering to western tourists offer milder versions.

If you are not accustomed to spicy food, we recommend you eat moderately for the first few days to acclimatise. If a dish is spicier than you’d like, consuming plain yoghurt (more commonly called "curd") is more effective in soothing the palate than water or beer.

The term 'curry' covers an enormous variety of dishes flavoured with fresh coriander, mustard, cumin, coconut, pepper, cinnamon, ginger and garlic that are often eaten with rice.

Hoppers are a unique Sri Lankan snack, a type of savoury or sweet pancake.

Seafood is popular throughout the island.

Vegetarian and Vegan diets are very well catered to.

Freshly cut tropical fruits for dessert is a good choice in good hotels and restaurants. Tropical fruit lovers will enjoy the variety and fresh flavours of pineapples, papayas, melons and several other fruits.

If in doubt about eating previously cut and peeled fruit, fresh bananas are available everywhere as a safe option for soothing digestion, and oranges are great for keeping yourself hydrated on warm days.

Alcohol and non-vegetarian food may not be available or permitted to be consumed in public during religious festivals and the monthly full moon (Poya). Consumption may be allowed in your hotel room if ordered via room service, or if consuming alcohol bought in advance.

Most restaurants and hotels, including exclusive ones, do not insist on formal wear and smart casuals are acceptable.

During the day it is best to wear light, comfortable clothes with a pair of good walking shoes and socks. Loosely fitting light clothes that cover your limbs are better in warm weather as they provide protection from sunburn, and come in handy for adhering to regulations for visiting religious monuments and places of worship.

Sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat will also be useful.

At religious monuments/temples/mosques, sleeveless tops, shorts and short skirts are unlikely to be allowed. You will often be asked to remove your shoes, but it is perfectly acceptable to keep your socks on to protect from any dirt, or paving stones which often get uncomfortably hot.

Carry a pair of slippers for indoor use, as not all floors are carpeted.

In wildlife reserves, please wear neutral colours like khaki, green, beige or brown. During monsoons, leeches may be encountered while trekking or nature walks. It is advisable to carry leech socks and rain-gear if trekking during the monsoons.

Temperatures in the Hill Country can drop especially in the morning and evenings, so carry adequate warm clothing.

Morning safaris can get cold. Dressing up in layers is recommended. As the day progresses the temperatures rise quickly, and you can remove some layers.

Mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is strictly taboo in Sri Lanka.

Be aware of local sensibilities when posing directly in front of religious images. Posing with your back towards the deity or building may be frowned upon, and in some case, even be fined. Follow the lead of local tourists if possible, and adopt a sideways pose gazing towards the deity.  

Do not take pictures of people without asking permission. Photography within airports, of military installations, bridges and at "sensitive" border areas are not permitted.

Road conditions are generally good in the south and centre of Sri Lanka, although most roads are single carriageways reducing overtaking opportunities and journeys may take longer than the distance suggests.

Major roads are maintained well, though areas of the north and some remote national parks have poorer road conditions.

Our drivers are reliable, careful and trustworthy. They drive sensibly, leaving a bit of extra time for their journeys. They are trained to use discretion while using the horn.

All drivers carry a mobile phone, and if you wish to make a local call, they’ll be happy to let you use their phones. You should always obtain your driver’s mobile phone number, in case you need to contact him out of hours during the trip for any reason.

Some of our drivers also act as guides and have a good grasp of English, whereas others speak English adequately for assisting you on your journey and simple conversations.

All our vehicles are in good condition and air-conditioned with saloon-style cars usually provided for couples and minivans for groups of friends or families.

Drivers will occasionally stop enroute to confirm directions to your destination. This does not indicate a lack of knowledge, rather it is a practical necessity as new roads, hotels and routes are continuously developed.

We recommend downloading ‘offline’ maps for your holiday on your phone, if you wish to track your progress along the route.

Our drivers are given a daily allowance for board and lodging for each night of their journey. Some choose to stay in staff accommodation provided by the hotel you are staying in (often a bed in an onsite dormitory), and others prefer finding alternative accommodation nearby.

At the end of each day, it is good practice to discuss meet up times and plans for the next day with your driver, to incorporate any minor changes to the route and ensure there are no surprises or delays.

Every region of the Indian subcontinent is a shopper’s paradise. Fabrics, gemstones, carpets, linen, handicrafts, wood carvings, miniature paintings and much more. If you wish to make big or specific purchases, please talk to us, the tour leader or guides who can advise on where best to buy particular items, or provide a list of recommended shops which offer quality products.

You can also make small ad-hoc purchases at markets, practice your bargaining skills and have fun. Remember to bargain fairly, especially for handcrafted objects and paintings take a lot of skill and time to execute for an artisan who may be earning less than what an average tourist will spend on a holiday.  

Most retailers are happy to package and ship bulky purchases to your home address. When making expensive purchases, check if any import duties are payable on your return.

Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages. English is widely understood and spoken by people involved in tourism.

Right across the Indian subcontinent, from modern, confident Indian cities to remote Bhutanese villages, society and attitudes are changing. To those familiar with contemporary scenarios, many of the “Do’s and Don’ts” that fill up pages in fat guide books seem based on archaic assumptions or misinterpretations, or just written with such abundant caution so as to not upset the most sensitive of the orthodox locals.

Our view is that above all else, politeness, courtesy and common sense should guide your interactions. By and large, people across the subcontinent are generous, friendly and forgiving of a tourist’s faux-pas and unfamiliarity with local customs. One shouldn’t worry excessively if one accidentally used the wrong hand to hand over something to someone, asked for a fork in a restaurant where others were using their fingers to eat, forgot to sit cross-legged somewhere, or giggled at the wrong time.

Having said that, it makes sense to be aware of the main social and cultural scenarios where you may need to behave appropriately to conform wherever possible.

  • Greetings – It is uncommon for women to shake hands, but acceptable for you to do so if a lady offers her hand first. Traditional greetings across the subcontinent are with the hands folded upwards in front of the chest, accompanied optionally with the word ‘Namaste’ in India and Nepal, and ‘Ayubowan’ in Sri Lanka.

 

  • Clothing – Dressing modestly will avoid unwanted attention, upsetting local sensitivities, and being prevented from entering religious places. Vests, short skirts, tightly fitting tops are best avoided unless the day’s itinerary is fairly private.

 

  • Swimwear – Remember, swimwear is only for the beach. Nudity and topless bathing are prohibited and heavy fines can be imposed.

 

  • Visiting places of worship - Follow instructions regarding removal of shoes, dressing modestly (generally implying no bare shoulders, midriff, knees or calves), covering or uncovering your head, removing leather items (wallets, belts), direction of walking (mostly clockwise around Buddhist and Hindu structures) and restrictions on smoking, consuming alcohol and photography.

 

  • Mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is strictly taboo in Sri Lanka.

 

  • Giving alms in religious places - The giving of alms to holy men and the needy in the vicinity of religious places is accepted practice across the subcontinent. Sadly, what was an ancient act of nobility and piety is now tinged with exploitative begging, and harassment of tourists. There is no obligation to give, and giving to one inevitably attracts more seekers. Decline firmly and politely, or just walk away avoiding eye contact. If you find yourself in a situation which is making you uncomfortable, seek assistance from your guide.

 

  • Displays of affection – casual holding hands while walking on the beach or sightseeing is usually fine, but perhaps not so when in a place of worship. More overt acts of affection should probably wait till you are back in your hotel room.

 

  • Same-sex relations – follow the advice for hetero-sexual couples regarding displays of affection, with perhaps more caution in small towns and villages.

 

  • Conversations – Local people may seem overly inquisitive at times; some may ask what would be considered personal questions in the west. Be open-minded, maintain a sense of humour and deflect politely anything you really don’t wish to share.

 

  • Avoid political and religious debates, or making adverse comments on aspects of local life.

 

  • Begging – You may encounter adults and even children begging. Begging, and giving to beggars is discouraged by most local authorities. You have the right to refuse politely. It is almost always better to contribute to recognised charities working for the homeless and needy. Ask your guide about local charities if you are interested in helping.