12 travel tips for Sri Lanka that you may not find in guide books

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The life saving king coconut

No matter how many guide books you read, there are always some recommendations or travel tips that you miss (or get missed). That’s generally not a bad thing, except when you’ve fried off the soles of your feet at a Sri Lankan temple. Why didn’t anyone warn me to bring socks! In this post, I’ll take you through some of the quirky, funny, painful, intriguing things we discovered about travel in Sri Lanka, and offer up tips that you may not find in a guide book.

Pack socks for visits to temples and cultural sites

When entering temples and cultural sites, it is respectful to remove shoes.  If you’re like us, from a northern country, where tender tootsies are wrapped in socks and slippers for most of the year, your feet will scream in pain from the searing heat. The grounds of the ancient temple ruins at Polonnaruwa are particularly hot. Mike missed out on the walk around the giant, dome-shaped shrine (in the photo above) because his feet couldn’t take it. It might look goofy wearing socks, but it does the trick.

Get acquainted with the king coconut 

Have I mentioned that it’s hot in Sri Lanka? We were there in April, the hottest month of the year. While we always consumed plenty of water, the king coconut was my saviour (check out my before/after expressions in the photos). The water in this orange-coloured coconut is rich in vitamins and minerals. It’s a delicious re-charging drink when the heat has zapped your energy.

Have a sweater handy for 1st class train travel

From boiling hot to meat-locker cold—it’s not a good thing. While I liked the peaceful compartment and the comfy reclining seats on our 1st class travel to and from Jaffna, I was frozen—the air conditioning was cranked to maximum. Before you throw your luggage on the rack, grab a sweater.

Don’t be afraid of 3rd class train travel

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Seats are a bit hard and tattered, but 3rd class is totally OK

While 2nd class may be the ideal way to go, 3rd class train compartments are perfectly acceptable, particularly for shorter trips. They are also dirt cheap. Our 1.25 hour trip from Ella to Haputale was 30 Rs. each ($0.17 US). For just a bit more money, you can reserve in a 3rd class carriage for a guaranteed seat.

Consider a train ride sampler  

Many visitors plan their entire trips around the very popular, 7-8 hour train ride from Kandy to Ella. I’ve never been good with too much time in cars, buses, trains; I get restless no matter how nice the scenery. We opted to take two short rides: from Ella to Haputale and from Haputale to Nuwara Eliya. If you don’t have the time or the inclination for the entire stretch, these rides are the perfect samplers. According to many sources, they’re also the prettiest sections. And, you’ll still get the opportunity to take that “hanging out the door” Instagram photo.

Don’t stress about finding drivers

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Ernest, our favourite driver.

Before leaving for Sri Lanka, my Canadian “book early to avoid disappointment” mindset had me worrying about finding drivers for a few segments of our trip. It turned out to be easy-peasy. All our guesthouses had contacts and secured good drivers for us with less than a day’s notice (they can do it even faster but we always inquired on our arrival). We only used drivers for day trips—pre-booking may be wise for consecutive, multi-day requirements.

Don’t forget a headlamp or torch

And then, all went black. While we were visiting, the state run power company was imposing daily power cuts as it could not meet demand during the long, hot drought period. Although a phone light works in a pinch, a strong headlamp is much better for avoiding obstacles on pitch-black, post-dinner walks back to your guesthouse (lesson learned after a bruised knee).

Read beyond “the best hosts ever” 

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This place in Sigirya gets A+ for hosts and all the other important stuff

It’s easy to be swayed by the “best host ever” claims on Booking.com and other sites. I took Maggie’s (monkeystale.ca) excellent advice to check out other important factors like location, availability of hot water and cleanliness. Basically, all homestays and guesthouses in Sri Lanka are amazing friendly and welcoming, it’s the other stuff that differentiates them.

Bring your appetite 

Food in Sri Lanka is delicious. From your basic curry and rice, to fresh seafood, to stuffed dosas, everyday was an eating adventure. In our experience, portions were generally huge. Some dishes, like kotthu—chopped rotti fried with veggies and/or egg, meat and cheese—are super filling. We eventually learned to order more sparingly but you certainly can’t tell from the photos.

Try sunset instead of sunrise

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Sigiriya Rock in the late afternoon

Sunrise, or at least early morning, is recommended for busy sites in Sri Lanka to avoid the crowds and fiercest heat. This is good advice, but isn’t always appealing to someone like me who enjoys easing into the day. We had great late afternoon/sunset experiences at the wildly popular Sigiriya and Dambulla. It doesn’t work at all times of the year, when afternoon clouds can obstruct views, but we had no such issues in late March/April.

Check your calendar for full moon

If you happen to be in Sri Lanka on a full moon day, head over to the nearest Buddhist temple to experience Poya—special days of prayer and devotion. Poya days are celebrated 12-13 times per year and are public holidays.  We first learned about Poya from Peta and Ben’s engaging posts (greenglobaltrek.com) and knew we wanted to experience this. Poya celebrations happen at all local temples, large and small, and visitors are welcome—just remember to dress modestly and take off your shoes.

Take time to appreciate the signs

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“Instructions for Tourists” sign at the Sigiriya entrance

Sri Lanka is filled with colourful, large, and often humorous signs for restaurants, hotels, attractions and other services. One of our favourites is at the entrance to Sigiriya Rock and pictorially relays all the hazards and do’s/don’ts at this site. We must have stood there for 15 minutes trying to interpret all the symbols…I’m still not sure about the handcuffs. Any ideas?

Next post I’ll get back to places we visited: Sigiriya, Dambulla, Jaffna and more.

Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , | 28 Comments

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28 thoughts on “12 travel tips for Sri Lanka that you may not find in guide books

  1. Those signs are hilarious! I took the handcuffs to mean “if you disobey any of these rules you will be arrested” but who knows…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for all this information and I love reading about your adventures. The sock tip is awesome 👍

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A very useful post Caroline. Sri Lanka may be sooner than we thought. Maybe.
    The food portions! OMG! We’ll know to order only one meal and share it, and still probably have too much.
    I’m puzzled by the sign for Sigiriya that seems to indicate it’s ok to fall down the stairs lol 🙂
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exciting Alison! I’ll look forward to hearing your plans (maybe).
      Yes, the portions are enormous. We found that especially in guesthouses and smaller restaurants, the hosts really want to please, which means copious amounts of food. I felt terrible having to leave food and explain that I simply couldn’t eat so much. When possible, I just wrapped it up for later.
      I’m still puzzled too!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I wish we had known about the full moon pujas before we went. We stumbled on it by accident but would have preferred to be at a better site. Great list!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Socks! Such a simple and brilliant tip!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve just spent way too much time thinking about the handcuff symbol! There’s no line through it, so it’s not an admonition to not do something, but … hmmm, what on earth could it mean? The other un-slash-marked items are all things that are there, so maybe it means that police are on-site? Loved your light-hearted but very helpful post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I was able to engage you in a bit of silliness. I guess they’ve had their issues at this site, and the sign would deter many of us from doing almost anything…The swarming bee symbol (and more signs on this further in the actual site) scared me the most.
      While I still have a bunch of places to write about on Sri Lanka, I needed a lighthearted break.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great tips! My favorite is ‘Don’t be afraid of 3rd class train travel’. It is the only way to go in my opinion. I see you did the reverse route (Ella to Nuwara Eliya) which is definitely the right direction to go; the more overnight stops, the better. Love your sunset picture with the monkeys ascending Sigiriya.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lisa. We really enjoyed our 3rd class travel and were lucky that we didn’t have a problem finding seats (I think travelling closer to midday helped). The overnight stops definitely worked for me. Although Ella, Haputale and Nuwara Eliya are not that distant from each other, I’m so glad we stayed in each of them. As you know, they are quite different from each other.
      I’ll get to writing about Sigiriya. Both the site and the monkeys that live there are incredible (you’ve probably seen many more monkeys in your travels; they continue to be a delightful novelty for me).

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post and fantastic tips, Caroline, I’ll definitely keep them in mind if we ever travel to Sri Lanka ( and I hope we will because those train rides look and sound fantastic!), especially about the signs and the food! Thanks for sharing and have a good day. Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I remember the second time I went to Sri Lanka, when we were in Anuradhapura, our guide who happened to be the owner of the guesthouse we stayed at in Kandy asked us to remove our shoes. It was a hot day, so we ended up tiptoeing our ways across ancient ponds and temples — the same custom applies in Myanmar.

    Caroline, this post brings back some great memories of my trips to Sri Lanka. Sigiriya still is one of my favorite places in the entire country for its history and view. Walking along the Mirror Wall always made me imagine how this place must have looked like during its heyday, what the dignitaries thought when they climbed to the top of this monolith to see the king, and how the palace dwellers lived.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I’m glad we weren’t the only people tiptoeing! My favourite section of Polonnaruwa (the Quadrangle) consists of a series of fascinating temples and ruins and only one has an intact roof that provides shade. I’m so glad I remembered my socks that day.
      I agree Bama, Sigiriya is totally amazing; it will be the subject of one of my upcoming posts. The route up to the top is quite the engineering feat. It is hard to believe that they could build a palace at the top of that massive rock in ancient times.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I have never seen such an elaborate tourist instruction 🙂 Did you figure out the meaning of all those signs? I wonder what the handcuffs mean haha. The first tip is particularly true for all religious sites in Asia (to reduce the heat and for the hygienic reason as well). Thanks for sharing this practical guide, Caroline!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sign is definitely the most elaborate set of instructions I’ve seen too. I’m still changing my mind on the meaning of a few of them. I love the no singing or playing instruments (go figure!). Hygiene is a good point…though the heat in Sri Lanka probably kills any pathogen (haha).

      Like

  11. Brian Foster

    Great advise. Would love it if you published a list for every destination you’ve been too. Handcuffs? Don’t jail those pesky monkeys perhaps.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Caroline, Great post, great tips. You make me want to run off to Sri Lanka straight away. Love, love the sign. Classic. I’m going to show the creatives in the design/art department at work. I think it says we’ll handcuff you if you do any of the things you shouldn’t do then give you to the elephants, crocodiles and mozzies to finish you off! Check out your Try Sunset paragraph. Don’t ever stop writing your posts. Louise

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much Louise! I love your interpretation; you are so funny. I was saying to another blogger that I might do a post just on the great signs…they really are brilliant. Can I hire you as my editor? It’s amazing how often I miss things even after reading over the post several times. Hope life is treating you well. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

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