Things I Have Learnt in Sri Lanka…

I have just left Sri Lanka. After spending 4 weeks travelling around, there are a few things I have discovered in this incredible country. I have noted down my best tips and things to know below…
*Disclaimer – these are all my own views based on my personal experiences. Please do not take this as a general for the whole country. Sri Lanka is an incredible place which I would recommend anyone to discover. If you had different experiences I would love to hear about it in the comments 🙂
1. Do NOT expect anything
If you have travelled around SE Asia before, or even any travelling before; you have certain expectations that you believe can be found anywhere in the world. Well, forget all of these. As Sri Lanka is a place like no other. I have been travelling for 4 years now, and I will be honest – I struggled the first week.
Even though I had never been before, I genuinely just thought that there would be gorgeous Saris, stunning jewelled shoes everywhere, and you would be able to get Mehndi Henna on every street corner ! How wrong I was. Maybe this is more of the Indian culture so could be different in the North of Sri Lanka, but here down in the middle & south of the country it took me 2 weeks to find my first Henna lady. I found a little place in Galle Fort offering the service, she let me pick my own design and she was an incredibly talented young girl. She only charged me 1000rs for the Henna, but I was so happy with her that I did tip another 200 and bought a bracelet too! It may seem a lot, but it just felt right, and she definitely deserved it.
2. Adapt Your Breakfast Needs
If like me, you can more or less eat anything and anywhere for lunch & dinner; but you need a good solid healthy breakfast to start your day – then you too will need to broaden your horizons. Don’t get me wrong, I cannot speak for every single town in Sri Lanka, because I did find some excellent places to eat, but generally, you can forget your hipster avo-poached egg-sourdough saga.
Sri Lankans are not early birds. Even local restaurants, you will find a few open in the morning for your classic Sri Lankan breakfast, but really not many. You will also notice a lot of places do not have set open times, its kind of a “just when we are ready to open” situation.
One place that I did find that was A-MAZ-ING; was a little place in Unawatuna Beach. Its called Hopstars. We just stumbled across it when we had just about given up on breakfast, yet again. It was hands-down the best French Toast I have ever had in my life. Ben had a smoothie bowl which again was so tasty.
  
 BUT!… I have been transformed !
I like to think of myself as an open-minded kind of person. And, as I would have to deal with this situation for the next 3-4 weeks I thought, why not, lets give this local breakfast a go! So we did. The first place we got the chance to try this was in the South-Western town of Ambalangoda. We were there for dinner the night before, and the owner was so lovely he told us about his family, his restaurant and the breakfast buffets they did. So we returned early the next morning before our next train journey, and boy! Was it good !!! We had hoppers (Sri Lankan pancakes shaped into a bowl made with rice flour and coconut milk), Dosai, milk rice, and a small helping of dhal, potato curry and brown rice. YUM! I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it. Normally at 6am I could never even think of eating this kind of thing, but I loved every single handful. And best of all, it keeps you filled up for a good few hours.
The only ‘problem’ with ordering a Sri Lankan breakfast is, in most places you will need to order a day in advance so they can prepare. You are most likely to find this matter in more touristy areas, as in the local villages this is what they eat so it will always be ready and on the menu. Also if you are in local villages the more probable option is that it will be a buffet anyway, and other delectables such as roti, hoppers, string hoppers will be available to order on the side.
3. The sun is a Killer
The sun. Is. Hot! A couple of years ago I visited the UAE and I was convinced that it was simply the hottest place I had ever been in my life, if not in the world. But well done Sri Lanka, you knock this right off the top spot! The intensity of the sun is so strong, and with most towns averaging a humidity of 80% days tend to get a bit sticky. I would say to really limit your sun exposure over here, you see the locals with umbrellas almost all of the time (these are the smart ones) and then you see the westerners who look like crab sticks – white on one side and red on the other! We all love to get a golden tan but it can seriously affect your health, so just beware of this. There are also plenty of water and juice stalls to keep you hydrated.
4. People of Sri Lanka are most probably the nicest people in the world
Just splashing about with the locals!
Wow. I have never met more warm and welcoming people, than the Sri Lankans! Sure, you will get your seedy touts trying to take you for every penny you have and a few market men who will get pissed off at you if you don’t buy something from them. But this is a very small percentage of the actual population. People of the guesthouses, local cooks and once you get a bit out of the town and meet the village people, you will see something completely different. Everybody is so happy to speak to you, to greet you and to welcome you into their country. The children are eager to speak the bit of English that they do know, the families willing to show you their life and offer you a tea. It’s a special experience and often makes you wonder about other countries (and I’m speaking more western here) when if you even smile at a passer-by the question on their face will be “what is wrong with them?”
5. You will not experience public transport like this ever in your life.
I speak a lot about public transport a little bit further down in the ‘personal space’ section, so I am not going to go too much into it here. What I will say is that is something that everybody needs to experience at least once in their lifetime. It will definitely make you see your own life back home differently, and appreciate the structure and routine of our own transport systems.
Some of the journeys that you take are breathtaking. I heard before coming here that the most famous train journey to take is the route from Colombo-Galle (or vice-versa), the train line is right on the coast and at some points you actually drive through some villas and cafés. It’s insane. But for me, the most beautiful journey we took was that from Kandy to Ella. Here you will drive through tea plantations, mountains at 1800m above sea level and cute villages with tea houses dotted around place. It is truly a sight to be seen. For all the time you are staring at this green haven, you can just about forget the many people behind you pushing you into the railing and the fact that you can’t feel your legs anymore.

 

 
 5.2 – And it will probably be the cheapest public transport you ever pay for.
The only problem with this is, we have been spoilt and now we find paying even $6 for a bus trip in Thailand expensive ! Haha. We travelled all over Sri Lanka, from one side of the country to the other, to the coast, to the cities, into the mountains and we never paid more than $3 each ! Ever. I think the cheapest trip we ever did was just like 4 stations down which cost 10c each. The best value trip we did I would say is catching a bus from Colombo down to Mirissa beach (around 155km) which came in at a whopping 180rs each ($1.20 !)
6. Accommodation will not be a treat
I am not a 5* person. I hate to stay in large hotels, I hate chain hotels and generic rooms. They lack so much character and are more times than not quite expensive and in my opinion not worth the money. Give me a small room in an old guesthouse with a big family and a garden and a DIY shower any day! Some of our best places we have stayed in have been in people’s homes, or huts, refurbished shops! After travelling around SE Asia mostly, you can get incredible value for your money when it comes to accommodation. In Sri Lanka, this is hard to find. The rooms are not overly expensive per say, but we found it difficult to pick places as we were so used to getting amazing rooms for a fraction of the price. I can honestly say one of the best places we stayed was in Ubud, Bali. It was a tiny guesthouse just off the main street, it was $8 (AUD I might add!) per night, the doors were wooden and decorated in carved art, the family brought us fruit everyday, we had our own little terrace outside our room where we could eat our breakfast in the morning watching the sunrise – oh did I mention that included breakfast?! – it was just amazing. And the only thing that was in our room was a bed, a window, a fan and a small bathroom with your basic shower over toilet and sink scenario. We need nothing else. We were spoilt, it was full of life, character and above all that famous Ubud charm.
So, we get to Sri Lanka…and the average price for a basic twin room with no aircon is around $25 AUD per night. What !? Yes I know it’s not that expensive, but then you get there to find literally no life in the room. I would be surprised if the bed sheets were even changed. We decided to try out a bit more pricer room to see the difference. We book a room for $40 per night. Let me tell you, there is no difference! Just aircon – which these days I do consider to be a luxury! No difference at all! If you want a good room in Sri Lanka, you must pay for it, I am talking $80 and up. I don’t mind budgeting for our accommodation, and staying in smaller, less clean places – because to be honest we rarely spend our time in the room. We are always out and about doing stuff. But, I do feel that the price should reflect this. In 4 weeks we never found a room we truly thought was good value for money unfortunately. I guess in a few years when there is more of a development there, it may change, but for now, be prepared for expensive accommodation.
7. If you have a sweet tooth, you will not be disappointed
Everywhere you go, there are cakes. There are biscuits. There is chocolate. Sugar sugar sugar. Everywhere !!! I cannot go too much into this is am really not a fan of sweet things. But if you are a candy goddess you will not have to go to long without a fix, seriously this stuff is everywhere. If like me you cannot handle it, the best tip I can give you is this: you need to specify NO SUGAR in absolutely everything you order. Even if you think it sounds ridiculous and that they would never put sugar in this, you are wrong. Specify, be clear and be wary, as if not you are about to get a serious hit.
8. Be prepared to wait. A LOT.
Here in Sri Lanka, time, does not exist. They take the term “laid back” to a whole new level. So make sure you have a lot of time on your hands, and try and take it in your stride. It will definitely get stressful from time to time – one time we spent 50 minutes in a bank just to change $200 !! They teller literally wrote down the unique number on each note, was counted by 3/4 different people, took it to 3 different stations in the bank, got the Rupee from a different location in the bank, there were a number of forms he and I had to fill out as part of ‘protocol’ oh my word I was more than ready to just storm out of there. It is always a long process to change currency in the banks over here, but I had never experienced this before. And it had gotten to the point where I was thinking “well I have waited this long it would be a waste to leave now” assuming it wouldn’t be much longer. But no. 50 MINUTES !! I said to Ben, thank god it was only $200 and not more!!!
Also, in restaurants be prepared for a bit of a wait too. Even for the simplest orders. We once waited 15 mins for a bottle of beer (which you need no prep for…just open it and bring it!) and another time 20 minutes for a tea. Which is fine, its how they do. They are not as organised as us when it comes to hospitality, so they don’t prepare as much as we do and most of the time your meals will not come out at the same time. A lot of restaurants also cook your meal fresh, so that is why it may take longer. We were never in a rush so this was fine for us, just bear it in mind 🙂
9. The food is incredible
This is the BEST local food I have ever experienced! There is literally so much choice, and more or less everything is vegetarian. You go to other countries and their local food include a lot of meat (e.g Thailand, Vietnam). Sri Lanka is so vegan / vegetarian friendly it is like a paradise not having to worry about what you can eat that evening. For the whole month we were there we just ate local foods. When you do travel all that way it is such a shame to just get a pizza or a toastie or something. There is also quite a bit of Indian influence, and we had the best Dosai ever in a local hotel in Nuwara Eliya. We first tried for dinner once we arrived and it was so good that we went back the next morning for breakfast and tried a different one, and then again for dinner ! Oh my goodness it is beautiful. I already miss the food !!
Dosai for breakfast in Nuwara Eliya
Down in the south a popular option is the combination of curries and rice. A lot of the smaller home cooking restaurants offer this, and sometimes some restaurants. But to be honest I would say avoid the larger restaurants as much as you can. Go to the smaller ones, support the locals and you will be rewarded with magnificent taste and huge portions. On average you will get 5 different curries and a large bowl of rice (this is usually enough for 2 people depending on the number of dishes), and the best thing is they change often due to seasonal veggies so you never know what you are going to get. But believe me you will not be disappointed. You are guaranteed to get a dhal in one of the dishes, and the rest can be anything from stir-fried aubergine to jackfruit curry !
One of the many rice & curry dishes we sampled
10. Say goodbye to your personal space
If you are claustrophobic or really depend on your personal bubble – Sri Lanka is not the place for you! I don’t have a major issue with space, however I hate being in a position where you are even slightly touching someone else, never mind being sat on or pushed! So this was a big deal for me, I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like in India! We have met so many people along the way, locals and travellers who say, Sri Lanka is just like India but not half as populated! What?! Sri Lanka for me is way too crowded and in places when you can’t even scratch your arm how is it possible to be more crowded!?! Let’s break it down:
Trains – if you have ever watched a youtube video of the madness at Colombo train station I guarantee you that this will be on a good day. In reality, there are thousands, literally thousands of locals pushing you, fighting to get onto the train as it is like the last train of their life! You will be pushed and pulled from all angles. The rule of ‘let people off before you get on’ is void here. So not only do you have the thousands rushing to get on, you also have the other side of the thousands who have just arrived on the train. Argh it’s crazy !!! Once you are on the train, you will then be stood like jelly babies in a packet – diagonal, sideways, upside down, bending in places you should never bend, never able to move your arms or legs. Imagine. For 6 hours.
Buses- so the buses take the term ‘hop-on-hop-off’ to a literal level. They will not stop for you and they are constantly in a rush. We never understood this as there are buses leaving every 15 minutes. After a local we had met told us that each driver was basically responsible for his own bus, so whatever fares he took on that journey went straight to him (we didn’t talk too much about the cuts & commissions etc.) but basically they were all racing to get the next passengers so they made the money. Makes a little bit more sense now but this is extremely hard when you have a 50L backpack with you trying to jump on a moving door that is about 10mm wide! Once you are on the bus, good luck getting a seat. In 4 weeks I never ever saw a bus less than fully seated and a few people standing. If you do manage to get a seat, enjoy the time you have. As as you get further into the journey you will have people literally leaning onto your head and others trying to sit on your knee. Again, there is no such thing as ‘full’. They will never stop letting people on, no matter what. One time I had to sit on the engine for 4 hours! To be fair it was pretty comfortable!
Yeah that’s right, just chillin’ on the engine !
 
People – most of the time the people are generally just trying to be nice. They are not trying to intimidate you or invade your personal space, it’s just that they don’t get that principle. They will come right up to your face and (for me and other short people!) lean right over you. You can take a step back but they too take a step with you. It does make you feel on edge, but just remain calm, don’t spend too much time there and if it does become too much just make it clear you are slightly uncomfortable.
On the other hand, you will get the slight few who are not trying to be friendly and if we are being honest down-right creepy. Touching, unfortunately does happen. It is never to the point where they will grab you and you have to fight them off (well I didn’t experience or hear of this), but more of just a brush against you with their hands. Again, just remain calm and strongly tell them that basically it’s not ok! As it’s really not….it will get super stressful but you can’t really just go shouting at them in the street unless obviously it goes further than a slight touch. Staring is a major issue as well. Honestly its crazy, like they have never seen a woman before. I know that we look different to them, but come on! I really struggled with this one and often asked Ben to cover me as it can get really intimidating.
All in all I had a fantastic time in this country, and we have already vowed to return so we can explore more. It is so much bigger than you first anticipate, and we still have so much to see. I am really looking forward to my next trip !
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