Sometimes a story begins with a warning. This is such a time:
The teardrop isle of Sri Lanka will capture your heart.
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From the majesty of turquoise oceans fringed with surf and beaches, the magnificence of its lush green jungle heart and the magnanimity of welcoming locals to the insanely memorable cuisine…
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Sri Lanka is the amuse-bouche of the Indian Ocean.
Does it have everything you can dream of in one convenient location? Why yes, yes it does.
It packs an incredible punch for its size.
The culture is alive and gripping, timeless World Heritage sites are helpfully located all over the island and an abundance of elephants and leopards live happily ever after in the national parks.
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It may be tempting to paint Sri Lanka with an Indian brush (at the closest point there are only 18 miles of water separating the two countries) but they are very different places.
In a good way… by different, we mean less frantic and overwhelming and more laid back about western visitors, their clothes and their culture. As an emerging destination, the guides are not as experienced as in other destinations. Any traveler requiring the kind of intuitive luxury and service we tend to associate with more practiced destinations like India is advised to seek an expert on Sri Lanka when planning a trip here.
Sri Lanka in a nutshell
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Size | 25,330 m² (65,610 km²)
Population | 21.7 million
Languages | Sinhala, Tamil, English
Capital city | Colombo
Visas | It is cheaper and easier to organize your visa prior to arrival. A tourist visa is usually issued for a 30 day period and can be arranged within a couple of days through ETA (Electronic Travel Authority) before you arrive in the country.
Prices for the ETA Visa are:
U.S., U.K. and Australian citizens | USD $35 for 30 days with double entry
You will also need to meet the following entry requirements when you arrive at Colombo airport:
- Proof of departure flight
- Minimum 6 months validity remaining in your passport
- Blank page to stamp
- Proof of Yellow Fever and Cholera vaccination (only important if you’re traveling from an infected area, such as Africa, within 10 days).
A 30-day visa can be extended for 30 days twice during your stay.
Currency | Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR)
Sri Lanka is all about the ‘Cash Money’. ATM and card facilities are easily accessible in main tourist areas, but you are advised to withdraw rupees in batches from the ATM as you need it.
There isn’t a strong tipping culture (a tuk-tuk driver may chase you down the street to give you your change if you add money to the charge) but you can always tip when you feel the restaurant or service was particularly good.
The bargaining culture is alive and thriving. Do feel free bargain respectfully wherever it is applicable.
Weather | The two short monsoon periods affect opposite sides of the island and come at alternate times of the year. This is good news for travelers although it can complicate your itinerary logistics.
The Yala or southwest monsoon delivers heavy wind and rain to the West (Colombo, Negombo, and Kalpitiya) to the hill country (Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Haputale, Adam’s Peak), and the Southwest coastlines (Galle, Mirissa, Unawatuna, Tangalle, Yala National Park) from April/May through to August.
So – if you want to visit these destinations you should travel between October and April.
The Maha shuts down the East coast and northern regions (Trincomalee, Arugam Bay, Nilaveli, Jaffna) entirely between October and February.
December to March is driest across Sri Lanka allowing you to see as much as possible.
Cultural Considerations | The pilgrimage season (December to May) offers an opportunity to climb to the top of Adam’s Peak with the assistance of tea shops and the camaraderie of local devotees and other climbers along the way.
The Sinhalese Tamil New Year (Avurudu/ Puththandu) falls over the 13th to the 15th of April every year. As the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) fireworks and sweet treats erupt in a happy feast.
The party is phenomenal but nothing much of any significance that is NOT the party will take place in Sri Lanka during this time.
12 Signs that you should make Sri Lanka your next stop
1. You find yourself exhausted by the pace of modern life.
Sri Lanka is currently right in the middle of that sweet spot in development. Transport options are improving along with the infrastructure… but the winding roads and steep inclines still allow travelers who visit (soon) to experience a timeless trip.
Sure, you can hop on a seaplane or have a dedicated driver, but you can also travel in a tuk-tuk at a deliciously slow speed.
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2. Strangers have started to annoy you (and sometimes you don’t even know why)!
We prescribe a generous dose of Sri Lankan hospitality. If you can find a country where the local people are friendlier, we will eat a Rothschild Safaris safari hat. The entire country is filled with people who have a genuine interest in your culture but will also be happy to simply spend a little time talking to you about the local weather or helping you with anything you need.
It might speak more profoundly of our own environment but in Sri Lanka, it is perfectly normal for a complete stranger to offer assistance with bags or other logistics or to surprise you with a coconut on a long hot day.
Please note that a common side effect of visiting Sri Lanka is having your belief in humanity restored.
3. The only bright lights you want in your eyes are the ones sparkling in the night sky.
Unlike some of its neighbors in Asia, Sri Lanka is not a happening nightlife destination. This is not the destination you want on your radar if free-flowing cheap booze by the crateful and a crazy party scene is your hearts’ desire.
In Colombo, you can visit jazz clubs, boutique stores, incredible restaurants, and rooftop bars… or lose yourself amidst swathes of vivid saris as you stroll around Pettah Marke. This is more or less as crazy as life gets in Sri Lanka.
But don’t wait too long – this little island is developing incredibly fast.
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4. You find yourself yearning for a little (or a lot) of pampering and spoiling.
From local data of general travel expenses, Sri Lanka remains an affordable destination. This means that luxury stretches quite a bit further here.
“Where to stay?”
We are glad you asked. But “How to choose?”might be the better question – and we have some great answers for you:
The River House is a tiny tropical hideaway with private courtyards and high ceilings.
Beautiful gardens, mangrove scattered beaches, and storied architecture can be found at the Paradise Road The Villa.
Two Àni Sri Lanka villas sleep a total of 30 guests comfortably. The entire family can spread out across five-acre grounds, four swimming pools and a gorgeous stretch of private beachfront.
Antiques and patterned textiles decorate huge bedrooms and the garden of Habaraduwa House spills right onto the beach.
In HILL COUNTRY
Four elegant boutique villas (restored planter’s bungalows) dot the lake in Bogawantalawa Valley in the Hill Country. The Ceylon Tea Trails give visitors a glimpse at the days of the Raj and allow them to live like a tea baron, complete with butler, claw foot baths and bay windows.
The luxurious Santani Wellness Resort & Spa is designed to bring harmony and balance to your life. The minimalist design integrates the retreat with the natural elements and removes every obstacle between accommodation and the environment.
The Amanwella boutique hotel embodies cool, contemporary comfort with a touch of opulent bounty. This property offers a magnificent beach on your doorstep and jungle-edged villages nearby.
In THE CULTURAL TRIANGLE
An agricultural project turned sanctuary; every part of the Kalundewa Retreat is rooted in nature. Natural materials surround guests and there are no gimmicks here. From the local produce feeding the people to the natural spring feeding the pool, the dazzling design does not compromise.
A remote rural village is home to the Jungle Beach Resort. The perfect castaway chic is maintained throughout with an almost deserted beach, a restaurant that resembles a treehouse and villas peeking through the mangroves.
5. Your friends think travel is a competitive sport.
Sri Lanka is a country of two halves. The Tamil population of the Northern Province lives among deserted golden beaches, remote temples, and colonial port towns.
A strong Hindu culture dots the region with temples, women in saris and shirtless men genuflecting in prayer. The Tamil language is spoken here, and the people are more guarded and less demonstrative.
Until quite recently this area was quite unexplored and if you visit Sri Lanka soon you may experience a world no one in your circle has ever seen. As a fairly new destination guiding and unique experiences may be difficult to attain. The same may go for the attention to detail that luxury clients expect. If you have no room for doubt and simply expect the best, it is particularly important to rely on experienced Travel Designers when you visit Sri Lanka.
New Tech is another unique aspect of Sri Lanka. The relatively small size and huge population make the country a heaven-sent for cutting edge technology firms who need a market to try out their products. Tech entrepreneurship thrives and you may return with first-hand knowledge of something that is nothing more than an urban myth at home.
Next stop flying cars?
6. Your dinner dance card has featured the same names for years.
In Sri Lanka, food brims with flavor from lush fertile farms and oceans and the best influences from nearby India (the cuisine in the north is strongly influenced by southern India which lies under 100 km from the Tamil coastline) and its varied colonial history.
From the bowl-shaped hoppers (fermented rice flour and coconut milk pancakes with yellow lentil dahl) at the start of your day to a rice and curry (rice with two or three curries and coconut sambal) at lunchtime and kottu roti (shredded godamba roti, veggies, and spices cooked on giant hot plates) for dinner, the home of cinnamon and spice may offer the best in the world.
Other dishes you should not miss:
- A noodle patty called a string hopper that is served with a mild curry sauce and coconut sambal
- Vegetable Rotis filled with a variety of vegetables
- The deep-fried dahl cake heaven that is known as wade
Curries to sample:
- Dhal – a spicy lentil curry in coconut milk
- Eggplant or Brinjal – a spicy and sweetly caramelized eggplant curry
- Jackfruit – a spicy tender curry that has a meaty texture
NOTES ON EATING IN SRI LANKA
- Sri Lanka is the home of spice – if you prefer your food a little more on the plain side, do tell your chef.
- Vegan or vegetarian? Thanks to the predominantly Buddhist population this is no problem at all in Sri Lanka.
7. Someone in your family thinks everyone traveling together is a grand idea.
Sri Lanka is a great place to bring children.
The pace is slow enough for the most experienced members of your family – there is bound to be a stupa, tea plantation, or a beach around the next corner.
At the same time, anyone who likes to think that travel and adrenaline are a match made in heaven will also be right at home. While some drink tea others can cycle to hike the Knuckles Mountain Range or raft in Kelaniya Ganga.
Sri Lanka is also one of the best places on earth if you want to learn to surf. Arugam Bay, Unawatuna, and Weligama all offer excellent surf schools.
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8. Learning a second language is still a resolution.
Welcome to Sri Lanka where English is the third official language and almost everyone can happily converse in English (or quickly locate someone who can).
9. You are tired of winter and yearn for a little Vitamin D (delivered the old-fashioned way).
Prepare for pretty steady temperatures of around 79- 86 oF (26-30oC) year-round.
The humidity combined with the heat can limit all sightseeing to before 10 AM every day at certain times of the year.
This is your cue to break out the loose-fitting, island wear, the sunscreen, sunglasses, fun hats and your reusable water bottle (the water in Sri Lanka is generally not safe for drinking).
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The culture in Sri Lanka revolves around modesty, politeness and conservative behavior. Do save your bikinis and shorts for the beach and cover knees and shoulders as you move closer to town.
A sarong or Turkish towel can instantly transform any outfit into temple wear.
Do bring all your medication as a prescription from a doctor will be required if you need medication while visiting Sri Lanka.
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10. You don’t have a Buddha tattoo/ You are happy to keep your Buddha tattoo under wraps.
Sri Lanka is a deeply religious majority Buddhist country and as you might expect, Buddha is a revered religious figure. Any depiction of Buddha – whether on your body or on a t-shirt can result in your summary detainment and deportation.
Don’t touch, kiss or interact in any way with a depiction of Buddha. You should never turn your back on Buddha. And absolutely never take a picture where everyone in the image is not facing Buddha.
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11. You have always thought you might make an excellent Ferroequinologist.
If you find a more authentic and fun train ride anywhere else on earth, please do let us know.
The scenery is jaw-droppingly impressive and the trains move at a speed so slow your logic will be challenged. You will never feel more alive than when the wind teases your hair through open doors and windows, the color filled platforms blur past outside while sweet chai and hot wade vendors race through the inside of the carriages.
The section between Kandy (specifically Haputale) and Ella is the most iconic.
Do book early and choose third class if you want the experience of hanging out of the doorway and mingling with the locals.
(In stark contrast to the serene vibe of your train journey, taking a bus in Sri Lanka has a lot more in common with skiing moguls. Expect local music, horns, flashing lights, and cheap prices. Don’t dally as they don’t wait for anyone!)
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12. You don’t want to break up with coffee, but you will take a hall pass.
Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) may be home to the best tea in the world.
The world’s fourth-largest tea producer, it has held fast to its English colonial legacy. The Ceylon tea in your Lipton and Dilmah originate from where the thick jungles of the hill country have been replaced by rolling tea plantations.
Do try the sweet breakfast and spicy Sri Lankan breakfast tea and if you have a romantic soul you may like to take the trip up to the viewpoint from where Sir Thomas Lipton himself used to contemplate his vast plantations.
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When you love the excitement of planning your next trip but find yourself submerged in a sea of logistics (and feel a keen responsibility to travel better) we can help.
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