If you are looking for a truly unique and off the beaten path destination for your next backpacking trip – look no further than Sri Lanka. Whether you want to see elephants and leopards in their natural habitat, or cruise around the coast on a jet ski, Sri Lanka has something for everyone.
So, just how good is Sri Lanka for backpacking? Sri Lanka is a paradise for the empty-pocketed backpacker. In recent years, budget friendly hostel accommodation has arrived on the island, and everything from food to transport rarely climbs beyond a single-figure sum. The island is well connected with bus and rail links, while it offers everything from beautiful sun-drenched beaches to temples perched high up in the mountains.
Affordability / expected cost per day
Sri Lanka remains one of the most affordable destinations on earth. Dorm rooms in Colombo go for as little as $4 – $5 per night, while private rooms in those same hostels can be found for $12 – $20, depending on the level of comfort you are looking for.
The larger, more international chains will be more expensive, it just depends really on how adventurous you are willing to be (and how many hygiene risks you’re willing to take).
Bus tickets will set you back a couple of dollars to get almost anywhere on the island, although the cost is in relation to the level of comfort you are going to experience. And that is not much. Take plenty of water with you, as sweltering temperatures, humid days, no air-conditioning and overcrowded buses mean you are going to lose a lot of fluids. But hey! That is all part of the fun of backpacking, right?
Also read: How Much Water Should I Carry Backpacking?
Although the routes are more limited, Sri Lanka does have a rail service, and for about $10 you can buy a first-class ticket on these trains. They are usually air-conditioned, but do not expect luxury. Being a backpacker, you will probably want to ride in second or third class, so that you can hang out of the open doors and snap selfies with the wind in your hair.
Popular routes and must-see sites
All flights into Sri Lanka will land you in the capital of Colombo. If you have time, then it is worth exploring the place for a couple of days, and the National Museum is a must-visit; even if museums are not your thing. Having historically been Portuguese, Dutch and British colonies, it can seem a bit of a confused place at times, and you will undoubtedly want to get out into the countryside before too long.
Head to Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka up in the mountains, which offers a cooler respite from the often-baking heat associated with the lowlands. Set on a picturesque lake, surrounded by tea plantations and featuring lush botanical gardens, Kandy is a great, laid back place for backpackers to hang out for a while.
The city is famed for the Temple of the Tooth, which houses an actual tooth from the Buddha, and is an important relic and pilgrimage point for Buddhists the world over.
Make for Kalpitiya on the north-western side of the island, where dolphin and whale-watching are on the menu. Spend some time in the nearby Wilpattu National Park for a chance to see some of Sri Lanka’s diverse wildlife. The park is home to about 30 species of mammal, including the Sri Lankan leopard and elephant, the sloth bear, spotted deer, buffalo and mongoose.
Throw in monitor lizards and crocodiles and more bird life than you can poke a stick at, and you will realize why a safari in this park is an absolute must for nature lovers.
Visit Kaudulla National Park on the way across to the east coast, where you will want to take in some of the incredible beaches the country has to offer (more information below).
Sri Lanka is a surfer’s paradise, and you are able to find almost any form of sea sport if you know where to look. There are some incredible dive sites dotted around the island, and if you make your way to Galle in the south, this could be a great place to start. If you get tired of all that salt water, explore the city and the old Dutch architecture.
Top Tip – Take in a Cricket match: Even if you know nothing about the sport, a visit to a cricket ground to watch Sri Lanka take on an international rival is not something to be missed. Check out the local schedules during cricket season and see if you can get a ticket to one of these games. You do not need to know what is going on.
Sri Lankan fans are some of the most passionate (and vocal) in the world, and the atmosphere created at these grounds is simply electric. Even if you do not like the sport, the carnival atmosphere is something that will long remain in the memory bank.
Do you need a visa to visit Sri Lanka?
If you are from the US, Europe, the UK or Australia you will need to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) to visit Sri Lanka. The cost is US $35 if you apply online, but visas can be obtained at Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo on arrival, although you will be charged an extra $5 for the privilege.
The visa will last for 30 days, although it is possible to extend this twice, giving you up to a total of 180 days in the country.
Is it safe to visit Sri Lanka now?
Sri Lanka has suffered from a fair share of violence in recent years, although at present the US Government advises that you ‘Exercise Increased Caution’ in the country. They give the travel advisory a level two warning, which for purposes of comparison put that on the same level as places such as Mexico and Peru.
On Easter Sunday, 2019, three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo were targeted in a horrific wave of terror attacks in which 259 people were killed.
That being said, there is no evidence to suggest that Sri Lanka will be targeted again any time in the near future, and you really do have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I would hate to put you off visiting a country as wonderful as Sri Lanka because of what has happened in the past.
What are the best beaches in Sri Lanka?
The southern tip of Sri Lanka is dotted with an abundance of beautiful beaches. Whether you are looking to ride a few waves or just to sit back, relax and enjoy that fine white sand between your toes, there is a little something for everyone. For me, the best beach in Sri Lanka was Dickwella Beach. It is blessed with blindingly-white sand, but also had some amazing breaks to paddle out to.
It is almost impossible to choose the single best beach, as this is a subjective experience, and it will always vary from person to person. However, if you are looking for some inspiration and want to look through some Google Images, try punching in a few of these names for travel inspiration:
Mirissa Beach: Popular for swimmers, surfers and snorkelers, this 1.2-mile beach is absolutely stunning.
Trincomalee Beach: This is your quintessential Instagram beach, with whiter-than-white sand and sloping palm trees that stretch into a mesmerizing blue sky.
Bentota Beach: If you are looking for a touch of paradise, mixed with a bit of high-octane fun, then Bentota is where you want to be. You can find all forms of motorized and non-motorized water sports in this area.
Hirikatiya: Tucked away in a horse-shoe shaped bay, this lovely little beach is quiet and unspoiled.
How to access Sri Lanka from India?
There used to be a backpacking-friendly (if not necessarily safe) ferry service between Chennai and Colombo, but that will be of no help to you, as they suspended operations in 2011. The best way to get to Sri Lanka from India is to take one of the direct flights from Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru or Tiruchirappalli. Direct flights are normally provided by Air India or Srilankan Air.
The only other way (apart from swimming) to get between the two countries is to take a luxury cruise option from Mumbai to Colombo, but as you have found your way to a backpacking guide to Sri Lanka, I doubt that this expensive option will be of interest to you!
Is Sri Lanka more expensive than India?
Although Sri Lanka will seem unbelievably cheap to a western traveler, it is actually quite a bit more expensive when compared to prices on the Indian subcontinent. Estimates put the general price of consumer goods and transport at between 12 – 30% higher in Sri Lanka than in India. The sheer size and population of India means that there is far greater competition for goods and services, while things such as transport are covered by a vast and intricate rail service that helps to keeps the costs down.
So, it is not something to worry about if you have a decent-sized budget, but if you really are traveling on a shoestring, then perhaps you will find your pennies go just that little bit further in India.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.