Backpacking Sri Lanka: 25 Things I Wish I Knew

Discover essential tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, from budgeting to hidden gems and cultural insights.

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Sri Lanka, an island nation located in the Indian Ocean, offers a unique and diverse experience for backpackers. From its rich cultural heritage to its stunning landscapes and friendly locals, Sri Lanka is a hidden gem that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. I spent four weeks backpacking through this incredible country and discovered some valuable insights along the way. In this comprehensive guide, I’ll share 25 things I wish I knew before embarking on my backpacking adventure in Sri Lanka.

1. Backpacking Sri Lanka on a Budget

Sri Lanka is a budget-friendly destination for backpackers. From affordable accommodation to cheap public transport and delicious street food, your money goes a long way in this vibrant country. While luxury options are available, you can comfortably explore Sri Lanka on a tight budget.

2. Hiriketiya Is the Best Place for Backpacking Sri Lanka

Hiriketiya Beach, a small cove in the southern part of Sri Lanka, is a hidden gem. This charming spot offers a relaxed atmosphere, ideal for unwinding after a day of surfing or exploration. The sunsets over the Indian Ocean are breathtaking, and it’s quickly becoming a must-visit destination for backpackers.

3. Additional Locations for Your Sri Lanka Backpacker Route

While Hiriketiya is a standout destination, Sri Lanka has much more to offer. Consider including these places in your backpacking itinerary:

  • Ella: Famous for its picturesque train journey from Kandy, Ella is a backpacker hotspot. It boasts stunning hiking trails, like Ella Rock and Little Adams Peak, and offers a vibrant nightlife.
  • Sigiriya: In the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is known for the iconic Lion Rock. Don’t miss hiking Pidurangala Rock for panoramic views of Lion Rock in the distance.
  • Trincomalee: Located in the northeast, Trincomalee features pristine beaches with calm, clear waters. It’s a lesser-visited part of the country, making it perfect for those seeking a quieter escape.
  • Weligama: Nestled between the surf breaks of Midigama and the popular hotspot of Mirissa, Weligama is a bustling town with budget-friendly options. It’s an excellent place to meet other backpackers and enjoy the surf.

4. Two Weeks Isn’t Enough Time to Backpack Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a diverse and relatively large country, so rushing through it in two weeks won’t do it justice. To fully appreciate the beauty, culture, and activities, consider spending at least four weeks backpacking in Sri Lanka. This extended timeframe allows you to explore various regions at a more relaxed pace.

5. The Food Is Amazing (and Cheap)

Sri Lankan cuisine is a delightful surprise for many travelers. From kottu roti to coconut curries, devilled chicken, string hoppers, and dhal curries, the food is a highlight of any Sri Lanka trip. Best of all, it’s affordable, making it a perfect choice for budget travelers.

6. Don’t Have Everything Pre-Booked

While planning is essential, leaving room for flexibility in your itinerary is equally important when backpacking in Sri Lanka. You may meet fellow travelers and decide to change your plans, fall in love with a destination, or find that the weather affects your schedule. Therefore, it’s advisable to book accommodation only a day or two before your arrival at each destination. This way, you have the freedom to adapt your journey as you go.

7. Safety in Sri Lanka for Backpackers

Sri Lanka is generally a safe destination for backpackers. While there have been reports of petty theft, it’s essential to exercise the same caution you would in any other country. As a female traveler, I felt safe throughout my journey. Sri Lanka has also increased its security measures after the 2019 Easter bombings, making it an even safer place to visit.

8. You’ll Need Travel Insurance

Travel insurance is a must for any backpacking adventure, especially in a place as diverse as Sri Lanka. It can provide peace of mind and financial protection in case of emergencies, lost luggage, or unexpected events. Ensure your insurance covers activities such as surfing and hiking. World Nomads is a reliable option for comprehensive travel insurance.

9. Don’t Expect a Party Like Thailand or Bali

If you’re expecting wild parties and full moon festivals, Sri Lanka may not be the ideal destination. While places like Ella and Mirissa offer some nightlife and social opportunities, the country is not known for its party scene. However, there are bars and local beers available throughout the country for those who want a more laid-back experience.

10. Hostels Are Watering Holes for Sri Lanka Backpackers

Backpacker hostels in Sri Lanka are great places to meet fellow travelers and share experiences. These hostels are typically found in popular destinations and provide a vibrant social atmosphere. They are perfect for solo travelers looking to connect with like-minded adventurers.

11. Stay in Homestays as Well

Staying in homestays, also known as guesthouses, is a unique way to immerse yourself in the local culture. These accommodations not only offer budget-friendly options but also a chance to connect with Sri Lankan families. The experience is often more authentic and memorable than staying in a hostel or hotel.

12. Public Transport Will Become Your New Best Friend

One of the advantages of backpacking in Sri Lanka is the affordable and extensive public transport system. From tuk-tuks and public buses to trains, it’s a cost-effective way to explore the country. It also allows you to interact with locals and experience Sri Lanka from a different perspective.

13. The Famous Sri Lanka Trains

Sri Lanka is famous for its scenic train journeys, particularly along the west and south coasts. The routes take you through lush forests, tea plantations, and beautiful beaches. Opt for third-class carriages to enjoy the best views and a more authentic experience.

14. Using Public Buses

Public buses operate throughout the country and are an economical way to get around. However, be prepared for crowded and sometimes uncomfortable rides. Some routes may involve frequent stops and detours, making travel times longer. In such cases, consider carpooling or hiring a private driver for more convenience.

15. Tuk Tuks Are the Way to Go

Tuk-tuks are a popular mode of transportation in Sri Lanka. You can easily hail one using the Pick Me app, which is similar to Uber but for tuk-tuks. Alternatively, ask locals for a tuk-tuk service. Ensure you agree on the price before starting your journey.

16. Scooters Aren’t Too Popular with Backpackers

Scooters are not as common in Sri Lanka as in other Asian countries. While you can rent scooters for short-term exploration, it’s not a prevalent mode of transport for backpackers. A driver’s license and passport are typically required for scooter rentals.

17. Sri Lanka Backpacking Budget Breakdown

Backpacking in Sri Lanka can be affordable, with daily expenses ranging from $25 to $40 per person. This budget covers accommodation, food, transportation, and some activities. However, additional costs may arise if you include more paid experiences or travel by private van.

18. You’ll Need to Get a Visa

All travelers to Sri Lanka must obtain a tourist visa, which costs $25 and can be applied for online. Ensure you apply at least a week before your travel date to allow for processing time. The online process is straightforward and convenient.

19. Watch the Weather as There Are Two Monsoon Seasons

Sri Lanka experiences two monsoon seasons, affecting different parts of the country at various times. Be aware of these seasons when planning your trip. The southwest province has a monsoon from April to August, while the northeast province experiences a monsoon from October to January. The dry seasons vary, so plan accordingly to make the most of your visit.

20. Pack for Every Season

Sri Lanka’s climate can vary dramatically from one region to another, and you might encounter multiple seasons in a single week. Coastal areas are generally hot, while the hill country can be much cooler. Be prepared with versatile clothing that suits various weather conditions.

21. Colombo Is Chaotic

The capital city, Colombo, is bustling and chaotic, which may not appeal to all travelers. If you seek a more serene and picturesque experience, head outside the city, where you’ll find the true beauty of Sri Lanka.

22. Tipping Isn’t Required but You Should Do It Anyway

While tipping is not a strong cultural norm in Sri Lanka, it’s appreciated, especially when you receive good service. Leaving a 10% tip can make a significant difference to local service providers and their families.

23. Buy a SIM Card

While many accommodations offer free Wi-Fi, it’s common to experience connectivity issues. To ensure you have reliable internet access for research, navigation, and communication, purchase a local SIM card. You can do this at the airport upon arrival for convenience.

24. There Are Lots of Free Things to Do in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka offers a wealth of free activities for budget-conscious travelers. Hiking trails, ancient temples, historic sites, and stunning waterfalls are just a few of the cost-free experiences you can enjoy during your backpacking journey.

25. Sri Lanka Backpacking Bucket List

Sri Lanka boasts an array of incredible experiences that should be on every backpacker’s bucket list. Some highlights include the Kandy to Ella train journey, tea plantation visits in Nuwara Eliya, the famous Nine Arches Bridge, learning to surf, savoring local cuisine, and hiking iconic peaks like Pidurangala Rock in Sigiriya or Ella Rock in Ella.