There are many things I discovered about Sri Lanka during our holiday in January 2018. Things that I could never have found in a guidebook and that no travel blog would ever have told me about. Take for instance how incredibly cheap things are. We visited Sri Lanka for 25 days and spent a pittance. If money is your main concern and you are trying to do things on a budget then you can see exactly how much Sri Lanka cost in this post.
It’s incredibly easy to fly to Sri Lanka from the United States. We flew directly from JFK using Kuwait Airlines.
It was a long flight -17 hours, but a pleasant one (if there is such a thing).If you are flying from the UK then your flight will be about 12 hours. India, a short hop of just an hour. For some reason, I thought that being an island, Sri Lanka would be more difficult to get to, but I was wrong. It’s easy.
I am currently travelling around the world with my two kids, so I’m used to having things sprung on me but before I give you the 25 surprising things that you won’t find in any other Sri Lanka travel blog, let me share with you my first 3 hours in the country.
This post contains affiliate links. They cost you nothing but we make a small commission.
First 24 Hours in Sri Lanka. Things That Took me by Surprise:
Regardless of the fact that we arrived at Colombo airport at 3 am it was a hive of activity.
Even in the wee hours of the morning, Colombo airport operates at full speed. Don’t assume that because you are arriving in the middle of the night you will be left twiddling your thumbs waiting for things to open.
The first thing we did was to buy a sim card and some data. This was super cheap and easy to do. When you come out into the arrivals at Colombo, there are kiosks selling mobile phone top-up data sim cards etc. Go to the one on the far left. It has the best deals. I think it was about $12 for 5Gigs of daytime data and 5Gigs of nighttime data with 120 minutes of calls.
A sim card proved extremely useful and paid for itself within the first half an hour of landing in Sri Lanka. Take a look here at a Sri Lanka sim card deal.
I had spent the entire flight over from NYC worrying about the fact that we didn’t have a Sri Lankan rupee to our name, it proved difficult to buy them over the counter at any bank in the US so we only had NZD or USD.
Again, I imagined that we would be stranded. (I like to look on the bright side). As it turned out (as was the norm) I was worrying about nothing. The airport was littered with money exchange booths and they were all open – even in the middle of the night. The exchange kiosks will take any form of currency and give you Rupees in exchange.
Don’t panic that you haven’t got any Sri Lankan Rupees. As long as you have some foreign currency or a visa card you’ll be able to get cash on arrival in Colombo.
So, with a pocket full of cash and a hot sticky data package clinging to the phone we stepped out of the airport doors and into the moisture-laden air. I was both wary and excited. But mostly wary. This trip is the first time to Asia and with two teenagers, one who is 13, blonde and beautiful and attracts the attention of any man in a sarong. The other who is 16 and doesn’t look where he is going when he crosses the road as he’s too busy waving his phone in the air looking for a mobile signal.
The hotel that we had booked through Wotif was a 20km taxi ride away.
Uber is available in Colombo. Click to sign up for it straight away. They saved us a fortune while travelling in Sri Lanka and India but just make sure that if you want to go somewhere in advance, book it. We found that it was quite sporadic in Columbo. Using the Uber app is a good way to give you an idea of what the price should be.
We tried to book an Uber, but there was a 30-minute wait. Probably because it was 3 am. So, we decided to take a couple of tuk-tuks instead. With four of us – plus our rucksacks, we needed two. We had all intentions of travelling around the world lightly but when you are travelling with teenagers you need quite a lot of stuff.
Without bags, you can squeeze four people into one tuk-tuk but once you add luggage to that, you will need two. If you really want to have some fun, hire a private tuk-tuk and guide and get a three-hour tour- speeding through the little lanes of the city of Colombo!
Leaving Colombo Airport and Stepping Out into Sri Lanka
Ok. I won’t lie. I was slightly scared.
I imagined that we would step out of the airport and be immediately bombarded and hustled by tuk-tuk drivers and hotel touts all trying to scam me and rob me of my worldly belongings. Which, at that moment consisted of my miniature coco mademoiselle perfume (that I think has gone off anyway,) my iPhone, and the knickers that I got for Christmas. The ones I’m saving for best.
We found a tuk-tuk to take us to our hotel. We already had an idea of a fair price because we had seen what Uber would have charged us, so we knew that we weren’t going to get too ripped off. And remember, although a three-wheeler is going to be a bit more pricey it’s much more fun! For a 20km ride, the cost was 1000 Sri Lankan rupees which is about $7.
Sitting in the back of the tuk-tuk, oohing and ahhing at the stray dogs and the tooting of the many bikes, we were naive and oblivious to the what lay ahead of us.
When booking your accommodation in Sri Lanka look for guest houses or villas. Avoid anything with ‘resort’ in the title unless you are paying top prices at an all-inclusive, in which case you have probably used a travel agent. This was a handy tip from a local. A bit late now mate…
When we turned up at the hotel, it was a boarded-up wreck of a place located down a dodgy looking alleyway.The only resident appeared to be a scowling, manky looking cat with no tail and massive balls dangling to the floor. Not good. We had to think quickly and book a room. Thank god for the sim card. Thank god that there was wifi. Thank god I am a super calm woman. Mostly.
The kids were starting to panic, and there was lots of muttering from the two tuk-tuk drivers. They were probably discussing the audacity of a hotel who advertises on the internet, and then takes the money and proceeds to close up shop leaving the mother in law to board the place up.
Either that or they were discussing whether or not to have fish or chicken curry for their breakfast.
Within five minutes we had booked a hotel nearby. I used Agoda, they are super user-friendly. They are our go-to site for when we travel in Asia. Either them, or booking.com both are excellent hotel search engines. The thing I like about Agoda though is that you can easily phone them if there is a problem. The thing I like about Booking.com is you can cancel free of charge right up until a couple of days before you are due to check in. Perfect for people like me who can never make up their minds.
In this instance we used Agoda and at 4 am in the morning I could have kissed their little computer feet when they found me this fabulous guest house at such late notice. There I was, sitting in the back of a tuk-tuk in the middle of Colombo, sweating, trying to keep calm and refrain from screaming at the kids to stop asking me, “So, where are we going to sleep?”
We booked the guest house and were immediately sent a confirmation email with the telephone number of the owner. If you need somewhere to stay when you first arrive in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this place is just the ticket. Clean, friendly and cheap. Plus, the owner won’t mind if you turn up at four o’clock in the morning.Take a look at it here.
Always ring ahead to the guest house or hotel where you are staying in Sri Lanka. This seems to be the norm. That way you know they are expecting you and you won’t get any surprises once you turn up. The owners will more often than not come and collect you from wherever you are.
Ok. So, you get the picture of our first hour in Sri Lanka. Hot, sweaty, jet-lagged and slightly, ever so slightly, manic.
From there on in though I have been continuously surprised with the beautiful country that calls itself Sri Lanka. But rather than write an essay on every single thing that has delighted me, this is the list that I made.
25 Things That Surprised me in Sri Lanka.
- I didn’t expect the owner of our guest house to (a) answer his phone at four o’clock in the morning and (b) say he would meet us at his gates in twenty minutes. He didn’t even sound tired. Do people not sleep in Sri Lanka?
- Or that two hours later I would hear the tinkling of the Beethovens tune Fur Elise floating through the air into my jet-lagged ears. Being broadcast from the back of the local bakery tuk-tuk who drives up and down the streets selling freshly baked goods. A soothing, familiar sound that is present from 6 am every morning throughout the country.
- I didn’t expect the wife of the guest house to make us a huge, delicious Sri Lankan breakfast for just $3 per person the next morning. Sri Lanka is a bargain!
- But be warned, not one of the Guest Houses that we stayed in ever supplied towels. Bring your own travel towel. We use these ones and they are brilliant.
- Like any country, Sri Lanka has its own smell. The air is heavy and damp and laden with the smells of curry leaves and cinnamon mingled with the smoke from burning leaves rising from the ever-present small fires, each scent competing for airspace.
- But it is illegal for women to buy alcohol. Boo Hoo.
- So I was surprised that the owner of the guest house took my husband on the back of his motorbike down to the local shops to buy a bottle of costly imported French wine to drink with our evening meal. (Because after the ordeal of the night before we needed it.)
- Had I known that wine is non-existent in the local restaurants and supermarkets throughout Sri Lanka, I would have savoured that bottle of wine a little more. Heads up, wine is pricey and none of the restaurants seems to offer it. (Not the budget ones anyway).
- But then again, I didn’t expect to acquire a taste for beer so quickly. (I’m not fussy) The local brew is Lion beer, and it’s very smooth and tasty. After a long hot day on the beach, a large cold beer is just the ticket.
- I didn’t expect the tuk-tuk drivers to just drive away when I said no thank you to their enquiry of the ever-present question ‘Where you going?” They are all very lovely and not at all hassely. Not unlike the tuk-tuk drivers in India.
- And I didn’t expect it to be so easy to book the train journey from Colombo to Mirissa. Just queue up at window 7 and say four tickets to Matara, please. Job done. Or…
- That the men on the station were not, in fact, conspiring to rob and ravish my daughter and me. They were, in fact, more interested in asking us why New Zealand is 2nd in cricket, whether or not my son plays for the All Blacks Damn it. Maybe next time. Joking aside, you will feel very safe if you are a woman travelling in Sri Lanka.
- I didn’t expect that although you pay for 2nd class tickets for the train, there isn’t always a seat to be had. Just a heads up. Don’t go thinking that just because you paid for a seat you’ll get one. You will probably be on the floor like me. You’ll love it. It’s a fantastic opportunity to people watch and meet local people. Speaking of which…
- I never knew that families hung their washing to dry at the side of the railway tracks. In fact, they all seem to hang out there for a chinwag.
- Or that all the school girls – regardless of which part of Sri Lanka they are from – wear beautiful white dresses, white socks, black shoes and red ribbons in their hair. They look so lovely.
- That sunscreen is really expensive. Bring your own. And lot’s of it. It’s hot. We use this one. Its the only one that takes less than five seconds to rub in.
- I didn’t expect the man on the train from Colombo to Matara to give up his doorway to me saying that “This is the best side, you can see the sea.” What a gentleman.
- Or that you can buy a cold can of Coke, water or Fanta from the vendor who walks up and down the train. Perfect for the open doorway experience.
- That people carry umbrellas with them to protect themselves from the sun. Probably because they refuse to pay for extortionate sunscreen.
- Or that you can’t get tooth floss in Sri Lanka for love nor money. Bring some.
- That Marissa beach has two segments. To the right is where all the European drinkers are, to the left are all the yoga hippies. The left side is a lot nicer.
- That you can experience Colombo by tuk-tuk with a private guide for less than $40!
- That you are supposed to have a license to fly a drone. We travel with a Spark Drone and only got told off by the police once in Kandy. Be careful where you fly it.
- You will find the best and the cheapest by far fruit smoothies and the largest pot of green tea at the cafe on Marissa Beach. It’s called ‘Our World Wifi Cafe’. Don’t be put off by the name. Yes, they have wifi but they also have the amazing food and drinks.Check them out here on Trip Advisor.
- That when you get on a local bus in Sri Lanka (and you must!) There is a guy who acts as the conductor. He hangs out of the open door of the bus as it approaches you – waiting at the bus stop. Just shout out to him where you are headed and he will tell you if the bus is going that way.
- That the internet is just awful. Writing a travel blog in Sri Lanka is very challenging! But that’s okay because…
- I didn’t expect the air to be so warm and fragrant or for the swaying palm trees to be heavy with fruits.
- And lastly, I didn’t expect things to be so incredibly easy. The buses, the trains, the tuk-tuks, the accommodation. Everything. Really easy.
I have so much more to tell you about our time in Sri Lanka.
From the train journey, we went on to spend the night couch surfing with a local family. It was probably the best and the worst overnight experience for me – and certainly for my two teenagers – that we have ever encountered. You can read about our Couchsurfing experience here.
I will also tell you how we are living like kings for less than $25 per person per day and how you can too.
How we are staying in a beautiful guest house backing onto jungle, with a couple, who insist on feeding us every thirty minutes. If you haven’t already booked your accommodation in Sri Lanka, go to Mirissa. It’s stunning and friendly with loads of great restaurants.
Take a look at Little Mount Guest House if you need somewhere to stay. Although it may look a little more expensive than other places, it pays for itself ten times over just by the fact that you get a HUGE breakfast and the lady insists on packing you loads of food to take to the beach with you! For Sri Lanka, it’s also super clean too.
I’m afraid I can’t stay and chat any longer. I have to head off down to the Indian Ocean for a swim. Before ordering a pot of green tea and sitting under palm trees watching Sonny and Tess body surf the waves.
I hope this Sri Lanka travel blog has been of some use to you. Often, you just have to get out there and discover things for yourself.And Sri Lanka is the best place to do that because it’s so easy! When you come home, be sure to drop me a comment or if you think of anything you want to add to the list go ahead!
There are three things you will hear said a lot in Sri Lanka.
Where you going?
What your name?
But my favourite? ‘This. This is not a problem’.
Enjoy Sri Lanka!