Blue train curving around on bridge - backpacking Sri Lanka

How To Backpack Sri Lanka On A Budget | Things To Know!

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This guide will tell you everything you need to know in order to backpack Sri Lanka in the best way possible. We’ll give tips, recommendations and a suggested itinerary that will help you plan your trip to this awesome island country!

Sri Lanka might not be on the popular south-east Asia backpacking route but it really is somewhere not to be missed. It’s a beautiful country with so much to see and do, and it should definitely make your bucket list.

Orange sunset with light blue skies and a few clouds over the beach
Can you beat sunsets into the bay at a beach?

Read More: Awesome 10 Day Itinerary For Sri Lanka & The Jam-Packed 7 Day Sri Lanka Itinerary

How to Backpack Sri Lanka on a Budget

Compared to somewhere like the UK or the US, Sri Lanka is a very budget-friendly destination. It can easily be explored without spending thousands of dollars. It can be pricier than places like Thailand or Bali in terms of accommodation and alcohol, but for food, attractions and transport then it’s very affordable.

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*Current exchange rate as on July 2022: $1 = 358 LKR (Sri Lankan rupees)*

Typical Sri Lankan street food (samosas): 40 LKR/ $0.11 USD

Typical Sri Lankan meal (curry and rice): 500LKR/ $1.39

A local beer (Lion): 350 LKR/ $0.98 USD

An imported beer: 400 LKR/ $1.11 USD (but these will be smaller than the Lion beers!)

Train from Colombo to Kandy (115km): 340 – 680 LKR/ $0.95 – $1.89 USD (depending on seat class)

Read More: Your Complete Guide To Taking The Train From Kandy to Colombo

Accommodation can range from as little as $2 per night to thousands, depending on what you’re looking for! There are some great hostels, hotels and full villas across the whole of Sri Lanka so you will always find something to suit your budget.


Sri Lanka Visa Requirements

It’s extremely easy to get a visa if you’re going to backpack Sri Lanka. You’ll need to pay $35 unless you’re from one of the SAARC countries (such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and more). Nationals from The Maldives, The Seychelles and Singapore are also exempt from needing a visa to backpack Sri Lanka.

You can get a visa online here before you travel and it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to receive it, or you can wait until you get to the airport. This visa gives you 30 days in the country, but you are able to extend it twice during your stay.

You are also usually asked to show proof of an exit ticket out of Sri Lanka. When we visited, we didn’t know when we’d be leaving, so we used Onward Ticket to reserve a flight – but didn’t actually have to pay for the ticket. It was really easy and only cost us around $10 each.

I would recommend doing this so that you don’t get rejected at check-in, plus you don’t have to worry about forking out for a real flight and having to worry about cancellation policies and refunds.

Click here to book your verified flight reservation now.

Read More: Your Complete Guide To Galle

Vaccinations to Backpack Sri Lanka

As with most Asian countries, you’ll need to make sure that you’re vaccinated against certain diseases before you go.

Talk with your doctor or nurse around 2 months before you travel so that they can advise you on what you need and how long it will take to administer it. Remember that some vaccinations will take more than one visit to the doctor.

A girl sat on the beach making th epeace sign with a brown dog lying in the shade behind her
There are hundreds of stray dogs in Sri Lanka. They can obviously be dangerous but this one just wanted to use me for shade!

The internet has some good information, but getting face-to-face advice from a medical professional will always be best.


Best Time Of Year To Backpack Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is actually one of those places that you can visit most times of the year because the regional differences in weather are astonishing!

There are two monsoon seasons that occur at opposite times of the year, and one small inter-monsoonal season in around October/November that can send rain throughout the country.

Avoid those two months because thunderstorms can occur anywhere and for random amounts of time. It could mean that your whole trip is ruined by the weather if you plan your trip then!

Green rice fields with cloudy and misty white sky
In the rainy season, your brilliant views will be significantly reduced.

In the northeast, the rainy season starts from November until around March. If you can, visit this region from around April until September.

Sri Lanka’s south and southwestern towns are best seen between December and March. It’s the peak season, but it means that you’re almost guaranteed nicer weather.

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The average temperature in Sri Lanka is pretty stable all year round, at between 26 degrees and 30 degrees. However, the humidity can be quite high! The temperature will also drop quite considerably with altitude increase.

If you plan on visiting Kandy, Ella and Nuwara Eliya then then bring a light jacket for the day and a jumper for the evenings to keep a little warmer.

Read More: The Top Things To Do In Ella!

Rich orange sunset over the waves in the ocean
Watching the sunset at the beach has always been one of the most relaxing things I have ever done.

What to Pack For Sri Lanka

Carrying around a big backpack can be tiring, so you’ll need something extra comfortable like this Osprey Renn. It has an adjustable shoulder harness so it’s suitable whatever your height and the back panel is ventilated which helps on those hot sweaty days! The bag has plenty of compartments for all of your belongings – there’s a space for your sleeping bag, water reservoir sleeve and rain cover too! Click here to buy yours.

If you’re not really planning on doing any major hiking then we recommend that you check out these AKK walking shoes. There are extremely lightweight, breathable and have memory foam insoles to make them super comfy. Don’t make the mistake of spending loads of money on insane walking boots if you don’t need to! Check them out here!

If you don’t have a camera then I HIGHLY recommend the Panasonic Lumix ZS70K. It is an affordable point-and-shoot camera that can be picked up and used by anyone of any ability. The camera captures gorgeous images and surprisingly excellent video whilst fitting in your pocket. The main difference between this and your phone’s camera is that it also has an incredible optical zoom so you won’t miss any of the shots you need to take. Check it out here.

If you’re worried about powering your devices on your trip then the simple solution is to take this EPIKA worldwide travel adapter. We have used it all over the world and it has worked flawlessly. Being able to charge up to 5 devices by USB (4 USB-A’s + 1 USB-C) plus a full power outlet socket is incredibly useful and works as an all-in-one solution. Check it out on Amazon here.

Whether you’re visiting religious temples or windy beaches, this long cover-up by Moss Rose is perfect for wrapping around your shoulders. It’s lightweight and has so many uses, plus it looks great too! One size fits all and there are so many different patterns to choose from. Click here to get yours.

For city exploring and shorter hikes, you’ll need a decent day pack. We recommend one like Osprey’s Arcane, as not only can it hold a 15″ laptop, water bottle and everything else you would need day to day but it is also incredibly stylish (we think). We have used Osprey for loads of different bags over the years and they have all been perfect. Check out the Osprey Arcane on Amazon here.

If you’re worried about your devices losing power throughout the day then we recommend the Anker 10,000mAh power bank. Anker actually makes quite a few power banks but this one comes with a USB-C and USB-A port which means that you’ll be able to charge any of your devices regardless of connection. The 10,000mAh capacity is enough to completely charge an iPhone 12 twice so you should be good for a number of days with this beast. Have a look at the price here.

Packing cubes are a really easy way to organise your luggage before going away and Jade absolutely swears by them when we travel. I don’t use them and I always look over at super organised Jade spending 5 seconds looking for something in her bag whilst I’m there for 5 minutes. Don’t be lazy like me! Take a look at these packing cubes from Shacke Pac. They come with 4 cubes in varying sizes and a laundry bag to separate all the dirty clothes from the clean ones. The reviews for these are something to behold so check them out here!

You’ll be surprised by how often a small first aid kit is used, be it for small cuts or repairing something with safety pins. This 100-piece first aid kit from Project Life has everything you would ever need and is tiny as well! Check out the price here.

We all know that tampons and pads are bad for the environment (not to mention uncomfortable and expensive!) so get yourself familiar with a reliable menstrual cup, like this one from Sirona. These can be reused for up to 15 years – think of the money and plastic waste you’ll save! Made from medical-grade silicone, Sirona’s cup is designed for comfort, sustainability and protection. Click here to choose the right size for you.


For a comprehensive breakdown of this list go to our budget-savvy packing list guide.

Yellow sand beach with palm trees in the background
I feel like the UK should get some of this sand, selfish really…

Read More: Check Out This Full Guide To Beruwala Beach!

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Seasickness Tablets

If you plan on taking a boat tour, you might want some sea sickness tablets or motion sickness relief bands. The water can get quite rough and you don’t want to be trapped on a boat feeling queasy!

I would recommend taking a brand of tablet that you know and trust works for your body – we bought tablets at a local pharmacy and they were incredibly drowsy so not great for a sightseeing tour!

Girl with her head in her hands wearing an orange life jacket
Rough seas are not my friend!

Getting To Sri Lanka

Being an island, you can only arrive in Sri Lanka by air. There’s one main international airport at the moment and that’s in Colombo (Bandaranaike International Airport, airport code CMB).

If you get the chance, fly with Sri Lankan Airlines. It was one of the best flights we have been on. The staff were lovely (and dressed beautifully!), there was plenty of legroom (even for us being over 6 feet tall) and the food was good. We would definitely recommend flying with them!

Many other airlines fly to the island though, so check prices with Skyscanner to compare the best deals.


Best Sri Lanka Backpacking Route

Sri Lanka is a good place for backpackers as there are plenty of buses and trains for super low prices, and the journeys are never too long. Whilst it can be fun to experience a sleeper train, sometimes 24 hours is just too much time!

In Sri Lanka, the longest train journey we encountered was around 6 hours because there are stops along the way that we wanted to get off and explore.

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Getting Around Sri Lanka

An unmissable experience when travelling Sri Lanka is to take the train through tea country. Not only are the views outstanding, but the trips also are super cheap and it’s an easy way to get from A to B.

A girl and a boy staking a selfie on a train
If you get a seat like this then you should be very happy.

You can buy your tickets at the local train stations but do be aware that the tickets do run out. You can pick different classes of seat – third, second or first. It’s actually better to get second-class tickets because they have open windows. You’ll get the best views from here.

Sometimes it’s better to book your tickets in advance, especially if you are on a tight time schedule or there are only a few trains running your route per day and you can’t afford to miss it!

Click here to reserve your train tickets now.

There are often snacks being brought around, such as chunky samosas, fresh mangoes and the BEST chocolate milk I’ve had!

A samosa wrapped in a piece of paper with writing and red pen on
Sometimes street food will be served in somebody’s homework!

Tuk-tuks are popular in Sri Lanka too. Ask your hotel to give you an idea of prices to get around the town you are staying in so that you aren’t ripped off.

Buses are also an option to use in Sri Lanka. There are generally large bus stations in the popular towns, and numbers will be displayed but ask around for help. However, the bus drivers tend to go FAST and don’t always seem to follow safe road rules, so be careful!

You might have to pay for a ticket for your luggage too as it will take up a significant amount of already limited space (these buses get busy!) but tickets are usually much less than $1.

A white and blue bus on the side pulling up to a bus stop with a red tuk tuk next to it
It rained a lot whilst we were in the mountains, don’t make the same mistake.
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Taxis also offer long drives for a decent price. We were waiting for the bus at the Ella bus stop to go to Tissamaharama and a taxi offered to take us instead of waiting. Two other girls shared the car with us so we split the cost for a more comfortable journey.


Where to Stay in Sri Lanka

Hostels aren’t as popular in Sri Lanka as Thailand, for example, but it’s quite common to stay in a guesthouse. You will usually be welcomed by a friendly family and they’ll cook your meals too.

6 types of curry in clay pots with ladles on a table
Sri Lankan food is so delicious

In Colombo, it was difficult to get a cheap hostel or private room close to the train station.

We paid around $25 to stay in a terrible room for one night with walls that didn’t reach the ceiling and no blanket. However, there are some incredible resorts near the beaches too, so there is definitely a range of places to stay in Sri Lanka.

Here are our top finds for the best accommodation in Sri Lanka:

Hostel

Tree House Hostel

Great location, breakfast included, only 4 beds in the dorms, garden area

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Hotel

Green Escape Unawatuna

Gorgeous pool, bar + restaurant, breakfast included, kitchenette room options,

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5 Star Hotel

The Elephant Stables

Vintage vehicles for hire, infinity pool, wide variety of exclusive rooms, restaurant + bar on-site

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Villa

Sri Sharavi

On-site masseuse, huge saltwater pool on-site bar, option to book separate villas or whole place

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Read More: The Best Budget, Mid Range and Luxury Accommodation in Mirissa

Where to Visit in Sri Lanka

There are plenty of awesome cities and famous sites to explore when you backpack Sri Lanka. The really good thing about the country is that it isn’t really overrun by tourists.

You won’t feel like you’re just following all of the foreigners around all of the time! Of course, more and more people are discovering Sri Lanka all the time so there is a good amount of tourism, but for now, it isn’t as ‘hippy-fied’ as Thailand or Cambodia.

Colombo

You’ll land in Colombo and to be brutally honest, I wouldn’t recommend spending more than 1 night here.

Read More: How To Get From Colombo To Hikkaduwa

The city isn’t famed for its attractions, restaurants or accommodation. Only stay here if you have plenty of time and you want to get over your jet lag.

Don’t get me wrong, wandering around the city in the daytime isn’t a bad idea, but I would stay inside at night unless you’re on a tour. Explore the food scene with a guide to tickle your taste buds and get you excited for the rest of your meals on this trip!

Try to stay near Colombo Fort train station if you’re moving onto Kandy or Sigiriya afterwards because the trains start early.

Negombo

A small beach town, Negombo is close enough to Colombo to warrant staying there for a few days before your flight out of Sri Lanka. There are some gorgeous hotel resorts so if you are looking for somewhere to relax and treat yourself for a few days, Negombo is the place to do it.  

A bicycle with a water bottle in the basket, leaning against a yellow wall which ha the words Winston Beach on it
Hire bikes, if not to get around then do it for the cool snaps.

Borrow a bicycle from your accommodation and explore the main street, looking out for the beer shops that are dotted around. Watch the sunset on the beach – there will be people trying to sell you things but don’t just brush them away because they’re sellers.

Some of the souvenirs are really worth taking a look at but be prepared to haggle! Consider taking a boat tour that includes a visit to the local market, fishing and lunch!

Sigiriya

The famous Lion Rock is a must-see when visiting Sri Lanka. The fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site says it all! The hike up the rock isn’t terrible, but there are over 1200 stairs so you do have to be reasonably fit! You can stop for breaks though.

Stay in the nearby town of Habarana and organise a driver to spend the day with you. If you book a tour, you’ll be picked up from your hotel and get a guide to share information about the local history.

Kandy

We’d recommend getting the train to Kandy from Colombo, as you can begin to see some of the incredible views from the elevated track that Sri Lanka is so famous for!

Kandy has plenty of temples and religious complexes to explore, as well as tea plantations for miles!

2 white cups of black tea with a white teapot in the background
Sri Lanka is famous for its tea, it would be rude not to have one.

Visit the Ceylon Tea Museum to learn about the tea-making process and enjoy a cup of authentic Ceylon tea!

Ella

The beautiful tiny town of Ella makes the cooler temperatures and humidity caused by the higher altitude worth it! There are lots of quaint little restaurants, hostels and guesthouses catered to backpackers on the main street.

Plan a hike to Little Adam’s Peak, enjoy Diyaluma Falls and take a cooking class at Ella Spice Garden.

Pro Tip

If you’re going to stay out late, organise a driver to pick you up at a certain time. Tuk-tuks aren’t commonly sat waiting to take people back to their hotels after dark. You might find yourself stranded with no choice but to pay the bar to take you at an inflated price.

Yala National Park

This part of your trip to Sri Lanka truly is a highlight. Book a safari tour and keep your eyes peeled for elephants, buffalo, monkeys and sloths!

However, the real star of the show is the elusive leopard. If you’re quite lucky, you’ll see one dozing in a tree. And if you’re insanely lucky, one will stride out into the open grass and you’ll see it in all its glory.

Read More: What To Expect On A Sri Lankan Safari & The Best Yala Safaris Available Right Now

A leopard walking out into grassy opening
These stunning creatures are a rare find if you don’t spend the time looking!

Pro Tip

I highly recommend taking a 12 hour safari over a 6 hour one! We went for 12 hours, and we saw so many jeeps stopping for a few minutes and having to move on because they had to go round the whole park. We managed to see three leopards in our time there so it really does pay off to spend longer there!

Mirissa

If you’re looking to laze around on the beach, Mirissa is the place to do it. There are plenty of bars and restaurants around too, and the waves are great if you want to get into the ocean for a bit of surfing or boogie boarding.

Don’t forget to check out the famous Coconut Tree Hill in Mirissa too!

Have a look at my complete guide of things to do in Mirissa for more information, below are just some of the top tips!

Read More: Check Out Our Guide To Secret Beach Mirissa Here!

View of the sandy beach in Mirissa from the water's edge with some restaurants
Mirissa beach is one of the most popular in the whole of Sri Lanka.

The real attraction here though is the blue whale. You can take a boat tour out into the Indian Ocean and go whale watching. You might even spot some dolphins too. Choose your company carefully though – some boats chase the whales and get to close which is terrible.

Read More: How To Get To Mirissa From Galle

A blue whale tail flicking out of the water
I would definitely recommend seeing blue whales whilst in Sri Lanka.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide To Whale Watching In Mirissa

If you are interested in learning how Sri Lankan food is cooked, then you can take a cooking class at a local restaurant in Mirissa. Personally, we didn’t think the class matched up with some of the others we have taken in Thailand or Bali. The food was good though and we got a recipe booklet to take home with us.

Read More: Our Opinion Of The Most Well Known Cooking Class In Mirissa

Chopped vegetables in 4 clay pots from above
Asian food just seems to be so much more colourful.

Galle

Galle is a popular spot for those interested in history. It has influences from the Portuguese, Dutch and British Colonial periods, so explore the architecture and museums. Visit Galle Fort and be transported back in time to Europe!

Read More: Here’s Your Guide To Getting To Colombo From Galle



What to Eat in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has some awesome food that you will crave as soon as you leave the country!

A Sri Lankan breakfast is huge and comes with a whole range of accompaniments. Fruits, roti, dhal, hoppers, coconut – you won’t be hungry afterwards!

The main meal you’ll find everywhere is rice and curry, but it isn’t similar to Indian curry as I expected.

6 vegetable dishes and 1 big plate of rice on a table ready to eat
A typical Sri Lankan curry comes with multiple different curries to mix with your rice.

If you order a curry for two, plates upon plates will arrive at your table. There will be curry (usually with chicken but you can ask to omit that), spicy beetroot, creamy lentil dhal, fragrant rice, sweet aubergine, curried potatoes, crispy poppadoms … it’s a pretty good feast.

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If you’re craving dessert in Sri Lanka, go for the curd and honey. It’s basically a thick and creamy yoghurt made from cow’s milk drizzled with honey or treacle.

Pro Tip

Lots of restaurants close relatively early, so if you’re looking for local food, remember to go at lunchtime. If you’re in a touristy area though, you should be able to grab dinner easily.

Currency Used in Sri Lanka

When you backpack Sri Lanka, you’ll use the rupee.

Unlike places like Vietnam and Cambodia, you can’t use the US dollar, so change all of your money when you arrive. The exchange rate at the airport is actually pretty good, and it’s safe to do it there because there are plenty of security measures in place.

Languages Spoken in Sri Lanka

There are actually multiples official languages in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese is spoken by around 70 – 70% of people. However, English is widely spoken across the country – we didn’t meet anyone who didn’t speak a high enough level of English to communicate.

We always recommend learning a few key phrases even if it’s not needed – it’s just polite and people will appreciate it! There is a second language that is also used (mainly north and eastern areas) by the Hindu Tamil people.

Buy a practical guidebook to help you with the phrases, or download an app that you can use offline.

Safety and Scams to Avoid in Sri Lanka

Being scammed as a tourist can happen in Sri Lanka, but only if you happily give out your details or money to people you don’t know! A lot of scammers rely on the fact that many locals are super helpful and friendly, so tourists don’t know the difference between the two.

General Theft

There are also the typical pickpocketers, inflated tuk-tuk prices and ATM scams. These can happen anywhere so just be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close to you. Wear a concealed money belt when you’re out and about and don’t flaunt expensive items around.

Tours

Someone you just met might offer you a really cheap tour so you think they are being friendly, but instead, they take you round to pre-planned shops and restaurants.

You’re then pressured into buying things you don’t need and the scammer pockets commission. If you want to book a tour, consider doing it before you arrive in the country with a reputable company like Get Your Guide or Viator, our favourites.

A woman and a man wearing orange life jackets sat on a boat taking a selfie
Hopefully, you get a nice calm day when you go and see the whales.

Temples and Charity

Or, you might visit a temple and someone shows you a card with photos of a physically disabled person on. They will claim that any donations you make will help the person in the photo, but the likelihood is that the money just goes into the scammers’ pocket. If you want to give some money, do your research beforehand into official charities.

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Corrupt Police

One of the more worrying scams that can happen involves real police who have become corrupt. Usually traffic police, they can stop you and demand that you pay a fine for something that you didn’t actually do.

Always ask to be taken to the local police station to settle any issues (if you HAVE actually done something wrong then still do this!). If you’re really concerned, get in touch with your embassy. Never hand over your passport to a police officer in the street because they could also demand money for you to get it back.

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Travel Insurance

Whilst accidents do happen, the only way to make sure that you don’t pay financially for them is to be insured. World Nomads have extensive travel insurance options that will cover you for most things. They also offer the added bonus of being able to take out cover if you are already abroad.

If you have forgotten to get insurance, you are extending your stay and need a different type of cover or you are an expat and have health insurance instead of travel insurance, then World Nomads are a great option to get covered.

Our Honest Opinion of Sri Lanka

We absolutely loved backpacking Sri Lanka! We were slightly unlucky with the weather whilst taking the scenic train trips.  There was lots of cloud and mist so we didn’t see too much of the view but we still had a great time on the train.

Green rice fields with cloudy and misty white sky
This was one of the best days in the mountains and the cloud still ruins the picture.

The food was probably our favourite of all of Asia. There are literally so many flavours and textures, and it’s wonderfully cheap.

We also saw a leopard walk past our jeep less than 5 metres away and watched two more snoozing in their trees. You just can’t do that in many other countries! Sri Lanka will always be high up on our list of best places to visit for that alone!

We didn’t ever feel hassled or scammed by the locals, and so many people spoke English. The accommodation was probably the worst thing about Sri Lanka. It was expensive to get close to some city centres and we often were unable to get an air-conditioned room. However, if you are prepared to pay a bit more then you can find some gorgeous villas and hotels.

A woman and two men standing close together in front of the entrance to Yala National Park
Sometimes we do really feel like the Two Tall Travellers.

Go to Sri Lanka before it becomes too busy, crowded and expensive. It’s a magnificent country with flawless scenery, friendly local people and wonderful wildlife for you to meet.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long should I backpack Sri Lanka for?

Despite being a small island country, you can spend a month here and not get bored. If you are pushed for time though, I would recommend spending at least 10 days in Sri Lanka.

What is a realistic budget for a backpacker in Sri Lanka?

For one person, a daily budget of around $25 should be enough to include accommodation, food and cheap activities. However, if you are planning on doing a whale watching tour or an epic safari, make sure you budget for these separately as they can be quite expensive.

What is the best 4G sim card to buy in Sri Lanka?

Mobitel or Dialog are probably your best bet when buying a sim card in Sri Lanka. Pick one up at the airport before you venture out and you’ll be good to go.

Which is the best train route in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is so scenic throughout that you’re almost guaranteed to see gorgeous views whichever train you get on. However, the pictures you see on in Instagram and Pinterest most likely come from between Kandy and Ella.

Can you drink alcohol in Sri Lanka?

Yes, you can, but there isn’t really a drinking culture there. You’ll find large bottles of Lion beer everywhere, and you can buy alcohol from designated ‘beer shops’. Don’t expect to be partying until 3 am anywhere though!

Is there malaria in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka was declared malaria-free in 2016 by the World Health Organisation!

What is the main religion in Sri Lanka?

Buddhism is the main religion in Sri Lanka, but there are also many Hindus, Muslims and a minority of Christians.

Does Sri Lanka have a tipping culture?

Tipping is actually quite an important part of the Sri Lankan service industry. Whether it’s for a waiter in a restaurant, a tuk-tuk driver or a tour guide, if you receive good service then it is good manners to tip 10%.


Are you planning to backpack Sri Lanka? Let us know if you have any questions!


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