Nifty Tips for First-Time Travellers to Sri Lanka

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There were a million worries that plagued us while planning a trip to Sri Lanka. There were umpteen blogs with some very worrisome feedback about the place. But we were very pleasantly surprised when we landed up there. A warm country with very friendly people, Sri Lanka is a charming nation that should definitely be on your travel list. Here are a few quick, practical tips to help you plan and to address common worries about travelling to this land of jewels.

Money

As Indian tourists, we were naturally freaked out when told that INR would not be exchanged for LKR by banks in Sri Lanka. There is a limit of LKR 5000 on currency import and that would have barely covered our first night’s stay. Exchanging currency for dollars and then for Lankan rupees would have incurred a lot of loss. So we decided to see how it goes.

And that was a wise decision. There are plenty of international ATMs around (especially in the cities). In fact, you can withdraw money right at the airport as soon as you cross immigration. There is a nominal charge per transaction depending on your bank and the prevalent exchange rate. In larger restaurants and supermarkets, you can swipe and pay very easily. So chill!

There are some places that will exchange INR for LKR in case you really badly do want to. Some places might even accept INR payment. Our hotel in Maskeliya, for instance, happily accepted INR as they frequently visited India. Win-win!

Phone

Get a local SIM at the airport. All you need is your passport number to register and you’re set! We got a Mobitel temporary SIM (10 days) which gave us some 250 minutes of local calls and about 3 GB data for LKR 1250 (we did not want international calls so we opted for a local call plan). You will need it for navigation and contacting cabs and hotels. Make that investment. It is totally worth it!

Food

When in doubt, stick to rice and curry. In fact, stick to it generally. You will rarely go wrong with that. We did this for nine days and had only one bad meal: at this place on the road from Maskeliya to Galle where they had rice and curry in set boxes. Everything in that box, apart from a spicy potato curry, was so dry and so spicy (not a flavourful spicy, but just plain heat for the heck of heat) that it took two bottles of crap lassi to put out the heat.

The local dishes are usually tastier and come in generous portions (not to mention, economical!). The rice varies across provinces. We had smaller, rounder rice in Maskeliya while the rice in Galle was the more familiar long, thin white grain.

As far as water is concerned, mineral water all the way! Just to be safe, avoid consuming uncooked food (like salads) outside. That’s just asking for it.

Sunscreen

The sun in beach towns is no joke. Load yourself with sweatproof, waterproof (and strong!) sunscreen to avoid shedding layers like a snake once back home. Remember to reapply every time you frolic in the water to avoid a Mississippi tan!

Buses

Those monster buses ain’t as bad as their reputation. It is a cheap and efficient way of moving around locally. However, we were stumped about how to get the (very, very crowded) bus to stop when we were stuck at the back with no conductor around. A helpful citizen pointed out the existence of switches on the roof of the bus which you could press to signal to the driver that you need to get off. And voila! The monster bus suddenly was much tamer.

Beware of ‘Friends’

In larger towns and cities, beware of excessively ‘helpful’ strangers who are out to dupe and scam you. This is not to say that all nice people are scamsters. How to tell whether your stranger buddy is genuine or not? People interested in actually helping you out will get to the point. Scamsters will chat you up, ask you about various things: where you are going, how many people you are with, how long you are staying, where you are staying, when your flight is. And the list goes on!

Plug Points/Adapters

A number of hotels in Sri Lanka tend to use the square-pin (UK) plug. Remember to carry universal adapters with you to avoid being stuck with a discharged camera/phone!

Travel Time

Pick your base cities/towns after thorough research or you will be stuck spending most of your time just getting from one place to the other. Road routes are limited and can take much longer than you think due to traffic and elevation. Train timings and routes are also restricted and reserved tickets are not easy to book (no advance online bookings except for the private coaches). The map is your guide. Use it well!

Cabs

We tried multiple cab options while commuting between cities. PickMe App is effective but not available everywhere. For instance, we had it in Negombo and Maskeliya but not in Galle. Also, remember that the prices are mere estimates. The actual cost could be about SLR 1000 or more higher depending on the total distance. Hotel pickups are decent. They give you the flexibility of picking your cab and deciding stops and routes. We also took a cab drop to the airport from an operator based within Galle Fort, which turned out much cheaper for us than the option offered to us by our hotel.

Adam’s Peak

Unless you are a regular climber, it would be wise to leave this (or any other peak) to the end of your trip. My limbs were jelly for two days after the climb and I hobbled around Galle, creaking and groaning, wondering why on earth I did this to myself!

Wise Tuktuks

Keep your eyes open and you will find the solutions to all of life’s problems at the back of your tuktuk. Here’s a sampler set:

‘Only one sun shine for all’

‘The things you wish for a lot, will make you end up in pain’

‘Who flies not high falls not law’

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If you have any further questions, feel free to leave a comment on this post and I will get back to you.

Have a great trip!

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