Things to know when visiting Sri Lanka

visiting sri lanka

Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen but also one of the most annoying to visit. There is a lot of work involved in visiting Sri Lanka and a lot of things you should know before your trip so you have an idea of what to expect.

The food is spicy as hell

I like spicy food, but Sri Lankan food is on a whole other level of hot that’s a little hard to tolerate. Not only are the main dishes spicy, but so are the accompanying sauces, salads, and garnishes. It all has a delicious flavor but the spiciness builds in your mouth and you start sweating and tearing up, and you pretty much end up only being able to eat bread. The spice is even more pronounced when it’s coming out the other end, so buyer beware.

There are bones in everything

Another notable fact about Sri Lankan food is that they take any piece of meat or chicken and put it in everything. So you might bite into a bone if you’re having curry or fried rice or even a pastry. If this is something that will ruin your entire meal, I suggest you eat vegetarian.

Transport apps are ubiquitous and convenient in bigger cities

The transportation, not only within cities but between cities, is incredibly convenient due to the use of apps like Uber and PickMe in Colombo and Kandy. You don’t have to haggle with tuk tuk drivers. You don’t even have to talk to them. Just grab an Uber and for less than a dollar, you’ll be at your next destination. If you take it from Colombo to another city, it’s up to $50-60. Outside of Kandy and Colombo, it will be harder to use the app, but we used the company TaxiGo for transportation from other cities. You can get an estimate and book online, and they’re very reliable.

Some bank ATMs don’t always take foreign cards

I was able to find absolutely no information about this issue online but when we first arrived, our debit cards were rejected by like 6 banks (SET, Commercial Bank, NBD, etc.) because they were foreign cards, even though they’re global Visa and Mastercard. We finally found a People’s Bank ATM that allowed us to take out money. After that, we were fine taking out money from these same ATMs. So it seems like a sporadic issue. Sometimes you have to indicate that it’s a foreign card, so check for signs around the ATM.

Most places take credit cards

The good thing is that you can pay with plastic at most bars, restaurants, even small cafes and dessert shops. And considering the fact that you can Uber and pay online, it’s not a place where having cash on you constantly is all that necessary. Though you should definitely carry some to pay for entrance at temples and sites that are cash only and for transportation.

The entire country is extremely clean

If you’re coming to Sri Lanka expecting a dirty dump, you won’t find it. The entire country, from big cities to small villages, is impecably clean and very well maintained so it looks pristine. You’ll see people trimming hedges, putting down new turf, actually sweeping up leaves from the street. There isn’t trash anywhere, and a lot of signs encourage locals and visitors not to litter or cause harm to the environment.

The elephant exploitation is a problem

In our short time here, we saw an elephant being herded around with hooks in Colombo to take pictures with tourists. We also saw two tourists riding an elephant that was led by a guy pulling chains around the elephant’s neck through Dambulla. It’s sad and upsetting and unnecessary. Even the famed safaris around the national parks are kind of a shitshow because it’s a huge mass of jeeps harassing the local wildlife. There are people in the city that also have monkeys and snakes trying to entice people for photos. I’m not a fan.

Women can and do drink out

A lot of Sri Lankans (and subsequently visitors) found out last year that there is a law against women buying alcohol when the law was repealed and subsequently reinstated. Apparently no one really cares about this regardless of the status, and we were served cocktails, beer and even shots with no questions asked, even in  more religious cities like Kandy.

There isn’t a whole lot of nightlife

Outside of Colombo, you really shouldn’t expect a big party. There are some places to drink here and there, but a lot of them close early, and they’re just not that popular. Sri Lanka is definitely the kind of vacation where you spend the day exploring and then go relax at the hotel and get to bed early.

Sri Lanka is very male-dominated

One of the things I don’t particularly love about the country is that it’s very traditional in the sense that men and women behave noticeably different. There’s a ton of men everywhere, and women are generally accompanied by a man. So walking around the city as two female travelers definitely feels out of place. Men also don’t really listen when you ask questions or make requests like they’re mentally discounting whatever you’re saying in real time. I’m sure it’s partly the language barrier, but they don’t really make an effort to understand what you’re actually asking for. They just start mansplaining whatever is on their mind.

That being said, men have generally been perfectly respectful though perhaps a bit leery. The closest thing to catcalling we experienced was someone calling us beautiful in Colombo, which was mostly flattering considering how sweaty and disgusting we looked.

You can do all of Colombo in one day

There are many reasons why people love Sri Lanka and it’s not because of Colombo. People love lush forests and pristine beaches and sacred rock formations. But the capital has a lot of buildings and a shitty waterfront and none of those other things. Most of the interesting things to see are easily doable in one day, especially if you’re just hopping on an Uber from place to place.

Tampons are not really a thing

Feminine hygiene has a long way to go in Sri Lanka, so if you happen to have your period while visiting, you should come prepared. Pads are available but don’t expect ultra thin invisible panty liners. They’re big ass granny pads, and tampons are nowhere to be found.

Driving distances are extremely long

Whether you’re taking private transfers or public buses, if you’re getting from one city to another, it’s probably gonna take longer than you think. You’ll be driving through cities where there’s traffic and often with one lane going in each direction. So get comfortable in the car because you’ll be there awhile.

The scenic train from Kandy to Ella is more hassle than it’s worth

Frequently touted as the most beautiful train ride in the world, the 6-hour train that goes through the mountainous tea plantation region of Sri Lanka is definitely also the most uncomfortable train ride ever. You’re packed like sardines with a bunch of people who are all standing with huge bags. The view is better from the right side, so if you’re on the wrong side, it’s just a normal train ride full of overgrown bushes and small towns. We took it halfway to Nuwara Eliya, and it took almost 5 hours because it was late, and we kept stopping. It’s really nice if you need transportation to visit those cities, but it’s just okay. And it’s so crowded that it’s barely enjoyable.

It requires a lot of planning

I love to show up somewhere and just explore a place without having much of a plan. But Sri Lanka is a bit complicated to get around and to undertake certain activities without getting ripped off or ending up wasting a day doing something you don’t want to do. You have to research well-reviewed transportation and tour companies, attractions, and my God, we read like 1000 blogs about the train from Kandy to Ella to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do.

Visiting Sri Lanka is exhausting

Unless you’re spending several weeks here, in order to see the best of the country, you have to spend your entire vacation traveling from place to place, which is really tiring. I’m tired of spending hours each day on the road driving through small towns with horrible traffic. I’m tired of the food, and I’m tired of the people. Every time you get in a car, you have the same conversation “Where are you from? How long in Sri Lanka? Do you want to go to a spice garden?” Just ugh.

I would suggest you take a longer vacation so you can sit back and enjoy everything, but I’m so ready to get the hell out of this country that I can’t imagine having another two weeks here.

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