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A Backpacker’s Guide To Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a land of remote coastlines, lush rice paddies and dense rain forests, where elephants and leopards roam free and peacocks own the wild in a plume of splendor. Tea plantations tumble into tropical jungles and the glimmering oasis of turquoise ocean beckons just over the next horizon.

From the surfer to the trekker, history enthusiast to meditative seeker, Sri Lanka is the answer for any avid traveller. With affordable prices, unexplored locations, and not to mention some of the most hospitable and generous people in the world – this paradise island is the dream backpacker destination.
Here’s all you need to know to plan your trip to Sri Lanka.

All photographs courtesy of Willa Roos, follow her visual journey @amillionadventures.

Getting around

At  65,610km2 Sri Lanka may seem small in stature (especially in comparison to neighboring India) but there’s so much to see and do, you’ll need at least three weeks or more to do the island justice. The best way to cover long distances is by bus, train or motorbike. The train lines cover a large chunk of the country and offer very scenic views at penny pincher prices. For example, a ticket for a two hour trip from Colombo to Galle will set you back a mere R17.00. But be sure to book a 1st or 2nd class seat as carriages full up fast and you may find yourself standing the whole way.

Busses run regularly, departing most stops every 10–30 minutes. These trips are however are not for the faint hearted. Drivers operate on commission and so hurtling down roads at breakneck speeds, granting customers a mere split second to board before screeching off into the distance is a common experience. If you’re lucky enough to get on, you’re likely in for a vigorously bumpy ride, so keep your laptop and precious cargo on your lap instead of in the trunk compartment.

Motorbikes or scooters can be rented at about R50 a day or R1400 for one month. If you have your international bike license and travel light, then this may be your best mode of travel. Just keep an eye out for those rip roaring busses.

In and around the town and cities, colourful tuk tuks with even more colourful characters as drivers, truly own the streets. Drivers are always up for a good bargain and may even rent you their tuk tuk for the day; disco ball, pink furry seats and surfboard racks included.

Find cheap tickets to Sri Lanka here.


It’s easy to get a one month tourist visa to Sri Lanka. This can either be applied for online before your flight or you can pay $40USD for a visa on arrival. If you fall in love with the slow ebb and flow of the country (as likely you will) and wish to prolong your stay, you can head to the Department of Immigration and Emigration in Colombo for a visa extension. Extending your visa for another two months costs $43.86 for South African passport holders. Be sure to have a passport photo, three months bank statements and a ticket out the country with you. Although chances are high the rather relaxed official won’t even ask to see these documents, it’s good to have them handy just in case.

A further three months can be applied for before your first extension is up (taking your total trip up to six months without having to leave the country). The cost for South Africans is $43.86USD and an additional R1000 tax. A valid reason for extension must be given, but don’t be put off, simply wanting to surf more spots around the island may be enough to convince the official.

Local cuisine

It  won’t take long to realise that the crown of the Sri Lankan culinary scene is the simple but understated rice and curry. Similar to the South Indian Thali – the dish consists of three or more vegetable curries arranged around a rather impressive mound of rice and priced between R15 – R50. Varieties change with the day but usually include dhal, coconut sambal, poppadum and a choice of curries such as pumpkin, jackfruit or string beans. Other popular local foods include hoppers (pancakes made with coconut milk and flour), kottu (vegetable, chicken or fish stir-fried with thinly chopped hoppers), halapa (sweet treacle and coconut pancakes served warmly wrapped in a Kanda leaf) and rotis (flatbreads) stuffed with any filling you can imagine – think curried vegetable, chili sambal, coconut and honey or oozy banana and nutella.

In  Sri Lanka loyalty is rewarded royally, so when you find a restaurant or roti shop that you like, keep returning to it again and again. Get chatting with the owner, spread some good vibes and you’ll soon find extra rotis being slipped onto your plate and second helpings of curry being offered at no extra charge.

If you fancy a fresh slice or loaf of bread, listen out for the old school bread trucks reminiscent of childhood days as they trundle through the streets. Just follow the tinny rendition of Furlise or Christmas carols to find where it’s parked and take your pick from floor to roof shelves stacked with sweet and savoury loaves, coconut pancakes or jam centred buns.

What to do

Sri Lanka is a land spiced in variety with activities and sites to tempt any type of traveller. From guided walks through tea plantations and rainforests to trips to temples and ancient Buddhist cities or a visit to one of the 7 UNESCO world heritage sites dotted across the island. Lush jungle waterfalls to epic surf spots, culturally rich villages to traditional fire dance festivals – whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed.

With far too many unique experiences to mention, here’s just a few highlights to add to your backpacker itinerary:


You’ll find some of the sweetest surf spots this side of the equator along the South and East sides of the Sri Lankan coastline as the swell shifts with the season. During November to April you’ll find the best waves down the South coast and from May to October all the action can be found along the East coast. Popular spots to check out include Arugam Bay, Weligama, Mirissa Bay, Hikkaduwa and Yala. If you’re looking to escape the crowds and floundering beginners clogging the foamies, ask the locals about the lesser known spots. For every popular point, there’ll be an equally epic but quieter gem close by. Surfboards cost between R50 to R100 to rent for the day depending on the season.

Exploring Buddhist culture

If  you’re keen to get your zen on, Sri Lanka is the perfect place for peace and tranquility. With Buddhists making up 70% of the population, the land and its people have a calm but deeply resonating energy and the inquisitive and seeking foreigner will find himself warmly welcomed into homes and temples. On celebrative days like Poya (a monthly full moon celebration) free food is handed out on street corners and at temple doors. The Sri Lankan culture is immensely generous.

If you’re looking to go deep into the Buddhist culture then a trip to Anuradhapura to marvel at the astounding Buddhist temples and an original sapling from the Bodi tree of enlightenment is well worth a visit.  Doing a five day meditation retreat at a centre like Nilambe near Kandy or Kanduboda outside Colombo could also offer a life changing experience or at least a reprieve of well-needed rejuvenation.

Getting into nature

Take a safari trip to catch sightings of elephants, leopards and the endangered red slender Loris before ending the day’s excursion with a sunset jungle barbeque. With over 24 declared wildlife reserves to choose from, nature lovers will be spoilt for choice when it comes to flora and fauna on this island destinaiton. In particular Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Yala and Wilpatthu nature reserves are worth penciling in to the travel schedule.

Sri Lanka is also home to a number of simply stunning trekking trails. Take a twisty turn up popular Adam’s Peak and reward yourself with the site of Buddha’s footprint preserved in the rock, or check out the famed “World’s End” escarpment edge in Horton Plains.

Set out for Sri Lanka

All you need to explore the untouched beauty of this characterful country is a light backpack of essential items, a couple thousand Madibas in the bank and the spirit of adventure in your eyes. Of course, a tent, hammock, trusty tube of antibacterial cream and surfboard may not hurt either.

Set out with an open heart and open mind and you will be rewarded with a country that is rich in culture, rooted firmly in a colourful and ancient history and with a populace who will teach you the true meaning of depthless generosity and how to live life with a pure soul. It won’t take long to see that Sri Lanka is home to far more than just a thriving cricket team as one trip turns into countless more and it sneaks up your list of favourite travel destinations in the world.   

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