Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is in Southern Asia. It is an island country in the Indian Ocean, south of India.



Tropical monsoon; northeast monsoon (December to March) only affects east coast; southwest monsoon (June to October) affects mostly the west coast and mountains.


Mostly low, flat to rolling plain; mountains in south-central interior.

Highest point: Pidurutalagala 2,524 m


The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced beginning in about the mid-3rd century B.C. and a great civilization developed at such cities as Anuradhapura (kingdom from c. 200 B.C. to c. 1000 A.D.) and Polonnaruwa (c. 1070 to 1200).

Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in 1796 and became a crown colony in 1802. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; the name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972.

Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted in violence in the mid-1980s, killing over 70,000. After a shaky ceasefire between 2001 and 2008, open warfare erupted again, with the Tamil Tigers finally surrendering in 2009. It remains to be seen whether winning the war can be parlayed into lasting peace as well.


The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced beginning in about the mid-3rd century B.C. and a great civilization developed at such cities as Anuradhapura (kingdom from c. 200 B.C. to c. 1000 A.D.) and Polonnaruwa (c. 1070 to 1200).

Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in 1796 and became a crown colony in 1802. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; the name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972.

Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted in violence in the mid-1980s, killing over 70,000. After a shaky ceasefire between 2001 and 2008, open warfare erupted again, with the Tamil Tigers finally surrendering in 2009. It remains to be seen whether winning the war can be parlayed into lasting peace as well.


Tropical monsoon; northeast monsoon (December to March) only affects east coast; southwest monsoon (June to October) affects mostly the west coast and mountains.



  • Central

  • North Central

  • Northern

  • North Western

  • Sabaragamuwa

  • Southern

  • Uva

  • Western


Sri Lanka has many cities and towns. Below is a selection of the most important to travelers.

  • Colombo - the largest city, close to the capital Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte.

  • Galle - a home for a Dutch fort, and a a gathering point for travelers from the nearby beach resort villages

  • Kandy - the spiritual heart of the country, home to a tooth of the Buddha

  • Nuwara Elya

  • Haputale - small place on top of a mountain range.

  • Trincomalee

  • Anuradhapura - ruins of ancient capitals (partially restored)

  • Polannaruwa - ruins of ancient capitals (partially restored)

  • Kurunegala

  • Ratnapura

  • Jaffna - Northern Capital

Other destinations

  • Sigiriya

  • Dambulla

  • Yala National Park

  • Adam's Peak

  • Horton's Plains and World's End

  • Sinharaja Rainforest

See also: Sacred sites of the Indian sub-continent

Getting there

By plane

SriLankan Airlines (flight code UL) is the national flagship carrier operating to and from Colombo-Bandaranayake International Airport (ICAO : VCBI, IATA : CMB) . Flights are available from cities throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. SriLankan Air also flies to the nearby destinations such as Goa, Chennai, Trivandrum and the Maldives.

Qatar Airways has become a popular choice from Europe to Sri Lanka by 2008, and the Indian carrier Kingfisher Airlines started operations on the Bangalore-Colmbo route in early 2009, enabling easy links to Sri Lanka via India. Kingfisher Airlines has ceased the operation of direct flight from Bangalore to Colombo. Now Kingfisher fliers have to fly through Chennai.

Mihin Lanka , Sri Lanka's first (and only) low-cost airline started operating in 2007. They fly to Dubai in United Arab Emirates and Tiruchirapalli and Buddhagaya in India.

Other airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, Saudi Arabian, LTU (Germany), and Edelweiss Air (Switzerland) operate to Colombo-Bandaranayake from their respective home bases.

From USA/Canada

There are no direct flights that reach Sri Lanka from cities outside Asia, the Middle East and Europe. From the American West Coast, the distance is almost half the globe. Depending on your preferences, and how much spare time you have, you can consider a stopover in Europe or SE Asia or take a non-stop flight over the North Pole to New Delhi or Mumbai from Atlanta, Chicago, Newark, New York City, or San Francisco. In many cases, this may be the fastest route, but check if an Indian transit visa is required.

By ship

You can take Indian Shipping lines cargo and passenger ship from Trivandrum cheaper than the planes. Sri Lanka port authority has information.

Traveling around


The most common mode of transport in Sri Lanka is via a three-wheeled automobile appropriately referred to as a three-wheeler (Tri-Shaw). Also known as Tuk-Tuks from the noise of their motors. These operate in a manner similar to taxis, and is a highly cost-efficient way to get around. However, three-wheelers have been linked to many illegal and criminal activities, including an assasination attempt on a foreign ambassador, in the recent past.

It is good to avoid Three Wheelers if you can. They are not cheap even for the Sri Lankan (it is a common misconception that Three Wheelers are cheap). A radio taxi (car) is metered (insist on the meter!). Metered taxis are always cheaper than the 'negotiated' ones. If you are there for over a month you may be able to hire a private car/van with a driver for about US$350 (2008) plus fuel-costs for a month. Considering that you may be spending over US$30 per day on Taxis this might be a better option, especially if you are touring with friends and can split the 'tab'.

By car

Rented cars usually turn out cheaper than three-wheelers, and are less prone to road accidents--and are recommended by most hotels.

Rented cars often come with their own drivers. Often the automobile itself is free, whereas the driver will charge a fee for his services. Some drivers/guides are government-licensed; some are extremely knowledgeable and multi-lingual, specializing in historical and cultural knowledge, and environment/natural history for your visits to the ancient sites and the natural reserves.

Tour operators

Tour Operators are happy to get you a van and a driver who will take you all over the island but beware, the roads are bumpy and slow. If you book off-the-cuff when you arrive, ask to be shown on a map where you are going before agreeing to any 'tour' of the island and research before you arrive so that you have a clear idea of where you might like to travel. Senseless backtracking to lengthen the trip and increase the cost is a real danger, as is a driver's wish to take you on unwanted shopping expeditions in an effort to gain commission. Travel websites specialising in Sri Lanka are easily found and have greatly increased the choice that is readily available to independent travellers seeking tailor-made tours. The best of them will produce clearly-stated travel itineraries and some are flexible enough to make late changes to itineraries. Ask to see their Booking Conditions and anti-fraud policies.

Taxi companies

Taxis are a better way of getting around Colombo than three wheelers as, due to the metering, they often turn out to be cheaper. Rates are about USD0.55 and they have full day packages (approx 8 hours and 80km) for around USD 40.

They will also take you outstation for around USD 0.30-0.35 per km with no waiting charges. You can also set up your own itenary and travel around that way as opposed to whatever the tour operator tells you.

By bus

For those on a budget buses are everywhere. They're ridiculously crowded and massively uncomfortable, but they get you around for almost nothing; it costs about a dollar to get half-way across the island. If you're planning on splashing out, AC buses run most routes for twice the price, which offer air-conditioning and a guaranteed seat. However, they're still uncomfortable. Bus stations are confusing places, especially the big ones, but almost everyone will be delighted to practice their English and help you. Also, when travelling by bus, it is local etiquette in most buses to provide or give up the very front passenger seats to members of the clergy such as monks or priests if they are present.

By train

(see warning in the stay safe section) Trains also run in some places - these can be slower than buses, depending if you are on a line that offers an express train or not, but more comfortable and picturesque and even less expensive than buses.

Sri Lanka has an extensive railway system serving all major towns and cities in the island except for the North. There are special Observation cars for tourists that like to take in the scenery.

The Railway system in Sri Lanka is very picturesque when entering the hill country because of the winding tracks along the mountains especially on the Badullu-Nanu Oya line. Make sure, if you can, to sit on the right side of the train, as it offers the better view.

Certain trains like the intercity to Kandy have to be booked in advance as they do get sold out. See and for more details.

By plane

Sri Lankan Airlines operates small Seaplane service to destinations such as Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Galle and many more locations. This is perfect for Photography trips because you can get a bird's eye view of the island and takes less time to get to a destination than using the road. Also the seaplanes land on picturesque lakes and tanks around the island.

Aero Lanka operates domestic flights between Colombo-Ratmalana, Jaffna and Trincomalee


Sri Lanka and South Indian food share a lot in common, and many local restaurants will describe their menus as Sri Lankan & South Indian. There are a number of regional variations though, the different types of hopper, devilled prawns/cuttlefish/chicken/etc. and the common fiery addition to any curry, pol sambol made of grated coconut, red chilli powder and lime juice.

The food is very cheap generally, with a cheap meal costing about a dollar. The most expensive, tourist-orientated places seldom charge more than ten dollars. The staple food of Sri Lankans is rice and curry - a massive mound of rice surrounded by various curries and delicacies. If you want to eat a cheap lunch you can follow the Sri Lankan crowds and duck into any of a million small cafes, confusingly called 'Hotels'. These normally sell a rice and curry packet, as well as 'short eats', a collection of spicy rolls. This is ideal for backpackers and those who want to get past the touristy hotels selling burnt chicken and chips - you're charged by how much you eat, and unless you're absolutely ravenous it probably won't cost over a dollar.

Kottu (Kothu) Roti (a medley of chopped roti, vegetables and your choice of meat) is a must-have for anyone - tourist or otherwise - in Sri Lanka. It is uniquely Sri Lankan and tastes best when made fresh by street vendors.

Note that Sri Lankans eat with their right hands - this isn't a major problem, because everywhere will be able to provide cutlery if you can't eat otherwise. But try the Sri Lankan way (tips of fingers only!), it's harder than it looks but strangely liberating.

There are many upscale restaurants to choose from in the city of Colombo. There are several fine dining restaurants at the 5 star hotels which offer both Local and International cuisine. These establishments are found largely in western Colombo (along Galle Road), though more are located around Colombo and other major cities.

Fast-food outlets such as KFC, Pizza Hut etc. can be found in Colombo and Kandy.


Water is not always healthy for unseasoned travelers, and so it is recommended that either purifying tablets or bottled water be used whenever possible. Fresh milk, due to the climate, spoils easily, and so is often very expensive. Powdered milk, however, is safe and is often substituted.

Thambli the juice from King Coconut, is very refreshing. It's sold at the side of streets throughout the island, you know it's clean as the coconut is cut open in front of you and it's cheaper than bottled drinks at about R20/- each.

Soft drinks are available almost everywhere, normally in dusty-looking glass bottles. The local producer, Elephant, make a range of interesting drinks - try the ginger beer and cream soda.

"Coca Cola" and "Pepsi" also available in large and small sizes (plastic bottles) including several local soft drink brands - all available at rapidly multiplying supermarkets all across the country and grocery shops.

The most common local beer is Lion Lager. For something a bit different try Lion Stout. It is characterized by it's tar-like oiliness of body and chocolate finish. Other brews include Three Coins, which is brewed by the Mt Lavinia hotel chain, allegedly to a Belgian recipe.

The traditional spirit is Arrack, which costs about 4 USD for a bottle, and is often drunk with ginger beer. The quality can vary depending on how much you want to pay. However, widely recommended brand would be "Old Reserve" and worth paying 7.5 USD for it.


Sri Lanka accommodation has been transformed in recent years. What would be recognised as the modern tourist industry began in the 1960s with traditional beach hotels built on the west coast which were aimed primarily at the package holiday crowd and traditional travel operators. But the past decade has brought a major change, with the growth of villas, boutique hotels, and small independent and individualistic properties offering a huge array of choice.


The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee. The exchange rates are approximately 117Rs/ USD, 160Rs/ EUR or 186Rs/GBP There are coins for 25 and 50 cents (bronze), 1 rupee (old version is big and silver, new version is small and gold,) 2 rupees (silver,) and 5 rupees (gold,) as well as banknotes ranging from 10- 2000 rupees. Coins that are more than a few years old are typically in quite bad condition.

Handicrafts Of Sri Lanka. For reed, cane, cotton, paper, leather, wood, clay, metal, and gemstones have been transformed and re-expressed in a array of batiks, toys, curios and jewelery, all exquisite hand made treasures.

Credit cards and ATMs

ATMs are located in many places (specially at bank branches) in the cities and suburbs, less so in the countryside.

You can withdraw from debit cards too (Cirrus, Maestro, Visa Electron etc) where the logos are displayed - so no need to carry wads of US dollars when entering the country.


The majority of Sri Lankans speak Sinhala, with Tamil as the second language. English is commonly used in most cities, especially Colombo, Kandy and Galle and by government and tourism officials. Don't expect everyone, everywhere to be able to speak it fluently. In the beach and tourist areas you will have no problem with English. Most people in rural villages however cannot speak any English, beyond a few simple words.

  • Sinhala Language The greeting in Sinhala is "ayubowan", pronounced "aybohan" It means "May you live longer"; 'Thank you' is "Bohoma istuti, pronounced "bohame stutti" and "how are you" is "kohomada", pronounced "Ko homede""

  • Tamil Language: The greeting in Tamil is "Vanakkam"; 'Thank you' is "Nanri"

  • Sri Lankan Muslim: If you meet a Muslim it is polite to say "Assalamu Aliakum" (Arabic); and Thank You "Jazakallahu Khaira "جزاك الله خيرا"" (arabic)

Sinhala writing is much more curved than Tamil. After a while, you'll learn how to distinguish between the two.


There are several customs that (for Westerners) take a bit of getting used to.

  • It is customary to remove shoes and wear respectful attire (i.e. no miniskirts, tank tops, short pants etc.) when visiting temples. It is also the custom to remove shoes before entering a home, though this is not as strictly followed as in places such as Japan.

  • Never touch or pat the top of the head of Buddhist monks, including children who practice at a temple.

  • Do not turn your back to (or be alongside) a Buddha statue when within a reasonable distance (observe what others are doing). This includes posing for photos. It's OK to photograph a statue, but all persons should be facing it.

  • Public nudity is illegal in Sri Lanka - nude/topless sunbathing and skinny dipping should be avoided except in the private beach resorts which allow it.

  • Although much latitude is given to tourists, it is more polite to use your right hand when shaking hands, handing money and small objects, etc. Of course you can use both hands for something big and/or heavy.

  • Be respectful to monks. There's no particular etiquette for Westerners - just be polite. Always give them a seat on a crowded bus (unless you're disabled or very elderly).

  • No photography of sensitive locations (inside and outside), and inside of shopping malls and tea factories (outside OK). Be especially careful in Fort, Colombo (except on the beach). If soldiers are guarding something, it probably shouldn't be photographed. Don't rely on signs alone, as sometimes they are old or missing. For example, one end of a bridge may have a "No Photography" sign, but not the other.

  • Seemingly innocuous public displays of affection between lovers such as kissing and/or hugging may be culturally frowned upon as it is considered to be private behaviour but it is acceptable in functions and establishments designated for adults such as nightclubs, casinos and beach parties. Much lenience is given to foreigners and holding hands and public affection between parents and their children is not frowned upon.

Stay healthy

  • Vaccination are recommended for Hepatitis A+B, Polio, and Tetanus. Also, the Typhus vaccination outside of tourist areas especially in the wet season.

  • Dengue fever: During the rainy season use mosquito repellent. When head and joint aches occur get a blood check. There is no vaccination yet.

  • Malaria : Gampaha (e.g. Negombo), Colombo, Kalutara, Galle, and Nuwara Eliya districts are considered malaria free, as is the city (but not the entire district) of Kandy. Elsewhere, malaria exists and is most likely in Anuradhapura. In the dry season, using DEET repellent for a mid-day road or train trip to Kandy (including visits to the Peradeniya Gardens) or Nuwara Eliya should suffice. Risk increases after sunset. Malaria prophylaxis (anti-malarials) are warranted for trips to the north (especially Anuradhapura), east, and southeast (however some types are not available locally, and it may not be as effective as what you could obtain back home.)

  • Yellow fever: A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travelers over 1 year of age coming from infected areas.


Sri Lanka's lengthy and bloody civil war seems to come to an end in May 2009, when the Sri Lankan army finally defeated the rebel group Tamil Tigers. It is still way too early to assess if the broader conflict between the hinduistic tamil minority and the buddhist sinhalese majority will now be settled in the political arena. The northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka are likely to remain under strict military control for a considerable time. Some areas may contain land mines, and the facilities in cities and towns are war torn.

Bombings and assassinations were a firm part of the Tigers' repertoire, and there is heavy security in all sensitive locations. While the separatists have never targeted tourists and none have ever been killed, a few have been wounded by terrorist actions. In general, though, traffic accidents should be a greater concern than terrorism.

Violent crime is not a serious problem for tourists in Sri Lanka. As in most tourist locations, beware of pickpockets, and don't leave valuables unguarded. Women should not be alone at night on the beach or streets. There has been a slight increase in violent crimes involving tourists in the past few years, but it is still very rare.

Con artists and touts are a serious problem throughout all tourist areas. Using the services of a tout for accommodation, local travel, etc. will most likely increase the price. First time travelers to Sri Lanka may find themselves the victim of scams, however seasoned travelers to Sri Lanka are very rarely scammed and it is simple to avoid becoming a victim of scammers by taking precautions:

  • Do not believe anyone who claims to be a professional (e.g. airline pilot), or in charge of a location (like a bus terminal) without proof.

  • Scams involving gemstones are common. Do not buy with the intention of selling them in your home country for a profit.

  • Be on guard for anybody trying to help you by giving you unsolicited directions or travel advice. Take any advice from taxi and auto drivers with a grain of salt, especially if they tell you the place you want to go to is closed, dangerous, non-existent etc. If you are unsure, check a map.

  • Don't engage in business with people who have to actively approach you for business. If people have to approach or make overtures to you for business without you seeking them on your own volition then they shouldn't be considered for business dealings.

  • If you have been told your hotel is closed or full, give them a call. If you are a first time visitor to Sri Lanka, don't admit it as it will make you a target for the scam artists.

Also, beware of single males who wish you to accompany them after a religious service. First, ask other members if the person is honest and reliable. Dishonest Sri Lankans (mostly male) are very adept at talking tourists out of their money, and generally prefer this method over violence. They frequent the Galle Face Road area surrounding the tourist hotels, Galle Face Hotel and the Holiday Inn. Their "modus operandi" is to tell you upfront that they don't want anything from you, only to talk. There may be an auspicious day occurring in Sri Lanka and they will use this to coerce you to accompany them to a temple or church. They will wine, dine, and pay for everything, and then, after two days, will begin to extort money from you. This does not happen commonly, but there have been a few cases - so beware.

Although snake bites are extremely rare among tourists (comparable to being struck by lightning), anyone bitten should seek prompt medical care. This is true even if the bite doesn't result in any pain and swelling. The National Emergency number is 119. In Colombo, dial either 119 or if you want an emergency ambulance - 110.


Buddhist Studies and Pali Language Universities of Peradeniya and Kelaniya offer variety of Buddhist Studies and Pali Language courses in English.

Meditation You may find monasteries and meditation centers that offer meditation courses (generally free of charge) in the Buddhist Publication Society guide: Lanka_monasteries_2008_jan.pdf

Mahamevnawa Meditation Monastery is a good place to learn true buddhism.

The country code for Sri Lanka is 94. Remove the '0' from a Sri Lankan number beginning with '0' (ie 0112 688 688 becomes 94 112 688 688) when dialling from abroad.

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(Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, but Colombo is the commercial capital)
Sinhala (official and national language) 74%, Tamil (official and national language) 18%, other 8%
note: English is commonly used in government and is spoken competently by about 10% of the population
- Sri Lankan rupee (LKR)
Areatotal: 65,610 km2
water: 870 km2
land: 64,740 km2
Electricity230V/50Hz (British BS 1363 type plug is most common with fewer (older) installations of BS 546, the circular plug used in India, being present).
Population20,064,776 (July 2006 est.)
ReligionBuddhist 70%, Hindu 15%, Christian 8%, Muslim 8% (1999)