Sri Lanka has a very laid back way of life, with some idiosyncrasies that are helpful to know before visiting. Here are our top things to bear in mind before travelling to the island.
1. Learn how to speak “head-wobble”
Sometimes confusing for first-time visitors to Sri Lanka, this figure-of-eight flowing movement from your head to your shoulders is the ultimate communication tool. It can mean yes, no, maybe, thank you, no thank you, good, no good, I understand, I don’t understand and everything in between! Before you go, stand in front of the mirror and give it a try. You’ll find yourself using it in all manner of places! Whilst you’re there, remember to be patient if you’re in a situation where you need a definitive answer – smile, keep calm and explain the situation to your chauffeur guide.
2. You shouldn’t drink the tap water
Your system won’t be used to all the Sri Lankan bacteria in the pipes, so don’t drink it. If you book with a tour operator, like Experience Travel Group, a chauffeur guide will always have safe bottled-water ready for you in the car every day.
3. Be respectful of the political past
Sri Lankan people are some of the warmest, kindest and friendliest people you will meet. Politics doesn’t need to be off the agenda but we’d encourage you to be considerate of the different opinions, experiences and emotions Sri Lankan people will have when discussing this subject. The war is over, the country is safe for travel and people are open-minded and sociable – we would simply advise that you to be respectful of the turbulent political past.
4. Religion in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a multi-religious society, mainly made up of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. All these religions have profound historical and cultural foundations here and the rich heritage of faith has a lot to offer the visiting tourist in terms of ancient temples, sacred shrines, colourful festivals and spiritual practise. It’s important to be mindful of the serious role religion plays in many Sri Lankan people’s lives and make sure you’re showing respect in places of religious significance. Loosely cover your shoulders and knees when in a temple and remove your shoes (insider tip, take socks to protect your soles from hot stones!) Avoid public displays of affection at religious sites and try not to raise your voice.
5. Ask us about plug sockets
Sri Lanka’s power sockets are a bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole you can either use a “one-large-circular-pin-and-two-small-circular-pin” plug or a “two-circular-pin” plug. There are variations to this rule and some insider tips we can share with you, so feel free to ask.
6. Travelling second class on trains is way better than first class
If time permits, take a train ride in Sri Lanka. The scenery is jaw-dropping (particularly up in the hills) and it’s a popular mode of transport amongst locals, so you’ll get a really authentic experience. Most tourists opt for first-class tickets to ensure air-conditioning, but second-class is the superior choice in our opinion. The hill country is cooler due to its natural elevation, so you don’t really need air-conditioning. Plus there is little difference between first and second class in terms of seat comfort. In first class, the windows are welded shut but in second class, you can open the windows right up and take uninterrupted, panoramic photos that will make all your friends jealous. Perhaps what our travellers love most about travelling second class though is the chance to sit with local families and share tea and snacks. Upgrade your experience by downgrading your train ticket.
7. Restaurants are sometimes signed “hotel”
Easily confused! In particular, Muslim-owned restaurants are called hotels in Sri Lanka. These are great places to try some specialities like biriyani, and samosas.
8. Think carefully about buying spices
Sri Lanka is a spice heaven for foodies, and there are plenty of places to buy cinnamon, pepper and cardamom. You’ll struggle to find poor-quality spice in Sri Lanka, but it’s important to consider where you buy it. Supporting individual business and local village spice traders is a great way to support grassroots communities, and often larger spice markets will charge you prices that are above and beyond what is reasonable.
9. Your average cuppa in Sri Lanka is served sweet
Very sweet, in fact. If you’re grabbing a bite to eat in a local restaurant, expect your tea (chai) to pack a serious sugar-punch. For those in search of something a little lighter to the taste, there are plenty of romantic tea houses in the hills and Colombo that offer old-world colonial glamour served with a cup of high-quality leaf tea.
10. The roads are safe
Many roads around the island are of good quality these days thanks to the increase in visitor numbers. However, the main reason the roads are safe is due to speed limits which are routinely enforced and abided by. There can be some questionable over-taking and we’d certainly say standards are not the same as those in the UK – but could perhaps be compared with the roads in Italy.
Tipping is generally expected in Sri Lanka, but Sri Lankan people have a wonderful, laid-back attitude. Restaurants usually expect a tip on top of a bill, and a small gesture to bus-boys in hotels etc. are very gratefully received, and anything you can give when you receive good service will go a long way for the recipient. If you do decide to book with a tour operator like Experience Travel Group, do feel free to ask your chauffeur guide about amounts if you’re unsure. We’d also very much encourage you to tip your chauffeur guide if you feel you’ve received a good service – some people like to give a little every day but others prefer to give a larger tip at the end of the holiday.
If you’d like to talk to a Sri Lanka travel specialist about your potential holiday, do give us a call on 020 3627 7479 or email us here. You can see some examples of the kinds of trips we organise by looking at our Sri Lanka portfolio. All our trips are tailor-made though, so can be changed to suit your exact needs