11 essential things you need to know for backpacking in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a pear-shaped tropical island in the Indian ocean and it used to go with the name of Ceylon when the country was captured by Portuguese, Dutch and English colonists in the age of discovery. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka and you have to know that nowadays Sri Lanka is an excellent ‘off-the-beaten-path’ & tropical travel destination. In this article, you will be able to read about 11 essential things to know about backpacking in Sri Lanka. The topics on this page will prepare you for when you will be backpacking on the island. They are written in such a way to make sure that you should be well prepared for your backpacking journey.

1. It’s a safe country for backpacking

Sri Lanka is a safe country for backpackers. This is one of the most essential things to know. But another advice for you to know is that you should always think before you act. This counts for every possible situation. Thus, you have to know that every country has neighborhoods where you should not be walking outside after dark. My advice for you is to always keep an eye out for your personal belongings. Plus, always act responsibly towards your own safety. It’s better to prepare yourself well before you start your backpacking trip. So it’s an essential thing to know some basics about safety and risks in Sri Lanka.   You have to know that reports of petty theft and aggressive touting are occurring in some regions in Sri Lanka. But in comparison, they are less common than in many other parts of Asia, Europe & the US. Also, Terrorist attacks haven’t been reported since the end of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009. Yes, Sri Lanka has seen rough times during a 30-year during the war. The good news is that this war is completely over now. So at the moment, it’s practically safe to go backpacking now in Sri Lanka.  

2. Essential tip: don’t Forget about Sri Lanka’s tourist visa arrangements

Don’t forget to make proper arrangements for your tourist visa in Sri Lanka. When you are preparing for your backpacking trip to Sri Lanka you’ll definitely want to know about this information:

  • The tourist visa is valid for 30 days. Make sure you know this before you plan your backpacking trip. A fine will be applicable if you don’t take this into account.
    My essential advice for you know: You can extend your stay by going to the immigration service center in Colombo. It’s in the middle of the capital city of Sri Lanka. Do this before you run out of the 30 days that are applicable to the Tourist visa.
  • You can apply for a tourist visa online before you arrive. The other option is to apply for the visa when you arrive at the airport. The (small) processing price for your tourist visa depends on which country you live in.
  • Know that your passport should be valid for a minimum of six months when you enter the country.

3. Buy a local Sri Lankan SIM card for your smartphone at the airport at arrival.

Upon arrival at the airport, you will be able to find a couple of mobile network service provider stands. At these stands, you can buy a local SIM card for your mobile phone. Tip: In 2016 I had the best experience with a Dialog sim card. Some reasons why you should consider doing this:

  • Know that calling/texting from a Sri Lankan sim card to other countries is (probably) going to be a much cheaper option.
  • 3g /4g is really affordable on the island and you get 8gb for +- 5$. Plus, you have to know that the WIFI in hostels is probably going to be super slow. The 3g/4g network will enable you to use google maps and use the internet. You are going to enjoy this when you want to book accommodation in advance. Also, for when you need to search for some information about sightseeing and want to know about where to go on your backpacking trip.
  • I have seen about 20 foreign tourists buying a local sim card during my backpacking trip in Sri Lanka. I also advised other backpacking tourists in Sri Lanka to do the same thing. Buying a local sim card really helps to make everything go so much easier when you are backpacking on the island.

Essential Tip: You have to know that there are some ATM’s at the airport. Make sure you get some cash from them or exchange some cash at the exchange offices at the airport. Know that this will make everything go a lot easier at the beginning of your backpacking trip.   

4. Local transport in Sri Lanka is a great adventure on its own


A journey in a train in Sri Lanka is quite similar like in India. In the lower classes, the windows and doors are open in stuffed train wagons with wooden benches. In contrast, the luxury AC first class is top-notch and very comfortable. The trains in Sri Lanka are not as long as in India. Plus, you have to know that they’re quite slow. This makes it much safer to look out of the doors or windows.   Tip: One of the essential things to know is that if you are an adventurous backpacking type, don’t go for the AC first class. The closed windows won’t let you enjoy the scenery as much as in the lower classes. Thus, you will be amazed by the breathtaking sceneries that will pass you by when you looking through the open doors and windows.  


You’ll be amazed by the chaotic, people packed, fast driving, but cheap local buses in Sri Lanka. They will bring you about everywhere where you want to go. My essential advice for you to know is to take a local bus at least once when you are backpacking in Sri Lanka. It’s a great way to interact with local people. Plus, know that it’s much safer as a TukTuk. There are also more expensive luxury AC buses available for you to take for long distances. Ask at your guesthouse if you want to know more about these special AC buses. 

11 Things to know about backpacking in Sri Lanka. Local bus - Unnavigated
View from a seat in a local Sri Lankan bus

Tuk Tuk

The almighty TukTuk! A Tuk Tuk or three-wheeler is a common cheap way of transport in Sri Lanka. It’s almost essential for you to know that the tin-can wagon is a fast but efficient way of getting around on the island. Some TukTuk’s are tuned out with blasting speakers pumping hip local tunes. Some of them also have some neat chrome rims under their chariot. You could even consider renting your own TukTuk and scoot around all of Sri Lanka. Know that this is probably going to be one the most unique, (un)safe and hilarious rental transports in your life.  

11 Things to know about backpacking in Sri Lanka. Local bus - Unnavigated
View from a Tuk Tuk in Kandy, the cultural capital city of Sri Lanka.

5. Colombo is a vibrant but modern capital city

I remember Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, as a vibrant city with many different facets. The time I spent in Colombo was often filled with relaxing evenings on rooftop bar terraces. I also really loved the mouthwatering experiences in excellent restaurants in the fancier areas. Know that some worthy sightseeing was also featured during my stay there.

Colombo-vibrant-city-sri-lanka-unnavigated Things to know about backpacking
City skyline view in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka

Colombo is the official financial & commercial capital city of Sri Lanka. Its location is also quite close to Negombo, that is where the biggest airport of the island is. You have to know that the capital city a recommended backpacking destination for any backpacker. But know that you should explore the city in a maximum time span of 1 or 2 days. After that, head out backpacking to the rest of the country. There are still so many other places for you to discover on the island.

6. Most of the country is still untouched by widespread tourism.

You have to know that there is a huge regional difference in Sri Lanka when it comes to tourism. The South-West region represents fast-developing tourism with many resorts and hotels. But there are some hot spots in the area that are definitely worth visiting.
Note: Unawatuna was named “The Best Beach in the World” by Discovery Television Channel in 2004. Today Unawatuna is really becoming overwhelmed by tourism. But still, it’s a lovely place. And know that I do recommend you to go there.    The North-East region of Sri Lanka represents a much less developed scene of tourism. A good example here is the beautiful area around the harbor town of Trincomalee. You can easily notice that this area is quietly developing its first sprouts of tourism. Essential for you to know: When you are backpacking in the Trincomalee area, definitely consider to go visit: Pigeon island, Nilaveli beach, Fort Frederick.    The upper north of Sri Lanka (the area around Jaffna) has been scarred by the war. But you have to know that the area is really interesting to visit because of the pure atmosphere, surreal water lands, and tremendous Hindu temples.

Don’t skip the central mid- and highlands

The mid and highlands of Sri Lanka are somewhat touched by tourism. The cooler atmosphere, many tea estates, and the many fairytale hills are a must-see for any backpacker. You have to know that this area is a big contrast compared to the sandy beaches of the island.
Another essential for you to know: Ella, Kandy, Sigiriya, and Anuradhapura are the hotspots in the central mid- and highlands. You have to know that they surely are a must-see for any backpacker. They sure are one of the better things to know about backpacking in Sri Lanka.      

Skyline view of Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. A must-see on your backpacking journey.

7. Sri Lanka can be a cheap backpacking destination

Sri Lanka is a very affordable country for backpacking. This is one of the most essential things to know about backpacking in this country. I even think it’s one of the cheapest backpacking destinations I ever went to. But the reason why I could keep it cheap is that I was able to save some money on transportation and accommodation. I saved some money because then I was able to spend a bit more money on sightseeing, some fresh drinks, and good food. You have to know that prices for tourists generally can go from dirt cheap to very high in Sri Lanka. Restaurants, resorts and hotels in tourist areas are logically more expensive. Especially around the South – West coast of the island.   Tip: Know that the common luxury surplus of hiring a private driver to get around in the country is, of course, pay for what you get. My personal recommendation for you to know is: don’t hire a personal driver if you want to have the best backpacking experience in Sri Lanka. You will miss a lot of the beauty of the island if you do hire one. Plus, you won’t come in contact with the local people in the same way as if you would take public transport or a Tuk Tuk. My advice for you is to talk to locals, be friendly and get to know the amazing hospitality of Sri Lankan residents.  

Overview of common costs in Sri Lanka

  • Hostel: minimum 4-8 $ (600 – 1200 RS) for one night
  • Guesthouse: Around 10$ (1500 RS) for one night
  • Local beer: 1,9 $ (300 RS)
  • Inexpensive local restaurant food: 1,65 $ (250 RS)
  • Ticket for a long journey train: 1-2$ (150 – 300 RS)

See a full list of costs about living & generalities in Sri Lanka here.

Tuk Tuk pricing guide: Don’t get scammed

There are some things you should watch out for when you consider taking a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka. My essential recommendation for you to know is that you better prepare yourself well and know about some tips & tricks. This information can help you when you are planning your backpacking trip.
Some advice for you to know: Definitely do take a Tuk Tuk in Sri Lanka. You will be amazed by this experience on your backpacking trip. I promise you this. 

Cash withdrawal tips

Not every ATM in Sri Lanka accepts foreign credit cards.  Only ‘Commercial Bank’ seemed to work well for me every time. If it will work for you or not is also going to depend on your personal bank. I always withdrew cash with my MasterCard or Maestro card (Visa also works perfectly). Withdrawals in the local currency (Sri-Lanka-Rupee, LKR) have been no problem. My advice for you to know is to try out some different ATM’s when you are backpacking in Sri Lanka. But do get some cash from an ATM at the airport when you arrive. So you won’t lose your first half of the day figuring out which bank does or doesn’t accept your credit card. This an essential thing to know about backpacking in Sri Lanka.

8. Delicious food is available everywhere on the tropical island

One of the things that I liked most about backpacking in Sri Lanka is the abundant amount of delicious food on the tropical island. There are so many different kinds of mouthwatering dishes and drinks for you to experience. Sri Lankan seafood specialties, tropical fruits and chopped up Kothu. It’s all there waiting for you.

crab-seafood-delicous-sri-lanka-unnavigated things to know about backpacking
A seafood platter in a seaside restaurant close to Negombo.

Tip: Try out the national dish ‘rice and curry’, when you are backpacking in Sri Lanka. Rice and curry is a very tasty and healthy dish that never gets boring.

9. Things to know about health and hygiene in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka ranks at 79 in a list of 188 countries when it comes to health and hygiene. Even though it scores above average, you really should know about some standard precautions about health and hygiene. The medical standard on the island is also of a decent standard. It’s also essential to know that malaria has largely been eliminated in all of Sri Lanka.

Things to know about the malaria risk areas for backpacking in Sri Lanka

Source: Fit For Travel

Health and Vaccinations

When it comes to things to know about vaccinations: always be sure you see them as a key precautionary. You should always make sure that they are being taken into your account. It’s one of the essential things to know about what’s best for your health when you are backpacking. Below I have listed some recommended vaccinations for Sri Lanka:

Watch out for drinking tap water

When it comes to essential things to know about drinking tap water in Sri Lanka: try to avoid it. Especially if you are planning on staying less than 1 or 2 months backpacking in Sri Lanka. The fact is that all the local people drink it, so it won’t poison you. But the tap water contains tropical micro-organism that your body probably is not used to yet. Thus, your body didn’t build up any resistance with antibodies yet that will protect you. So one of the most essential things to know here is that you probably will get sick from drinking it. This could result in abdominal pains and a bad fever. It happened to me for about 2-3 times during my backpacking stay in Sri Lanka in 2016. But after getting used to the tap water I noticed that I had built up a resistance. So, drinking it became a daily habit for me.   Do know that the undeniable truth is that you will come in contact with tap water anyway. Because vegetables, plates, and cutlery in restaurants are all washed in it. So it’s not really worth it to become overly suspicious about it.

Tips & tricks about drinking water in Sri Lanka:

  • Buy bottled water, it’s almost available in shops on every street corner. It’s cheap (Only 40 RS(0,26 $) per bottle) and you will constantly need it because of the tropical heat on the island.
    Tip: Always make sure that the plastic seal of the bottle is still unbroken when you buy bottled water. The bottle might be refilled with plain tap water when the seal is broken.
  • Avoid drinks with ice cubes when you buy it in on the streets.
  • Tap water in restaurants is sometimes boiled or purified by chlorination and is perfectly safe to drink.

10. Breathtaking nature and many animals all over the island

Sri Lanka has one of the most breathtaking sceneries you’ll ever encounter in your life. Waterfalls, national parks, botanical gardens, stunning beaches and magnificent mountains are all waiting there for you to explore. The flora and fauna of Sri Lanka are unique, yet recognizable. That is if you have been backpacking in other tropical countries and know about tropical environments. The national parks of Sri Lanka are perfect for a full-day safari. They will provide you with a magnificent sight of many impressive animals.

11 Things to know about backpacking in Sri Lanka. Elephants in nature - unnavigated

Elephants in Wasgamuwa National park in Sri Lanka

11. Conclusion: when is the perfect time to visit Sri Lanka?

Whenever you wonder when the perfect time is to visit Sri Lanka: almost about a year-round. This is definitely one of the most essential things to know about backpacking. The island in the Indian ocean is a beautiful backpacking destination. Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons: from October to November and from June to July. This means excessive rain for hours, every day. But know that it’s perfectly ok to come outside again when the rain stops falling.

Know that the wet atmosphere of the rain cools off the hot temperature of the tropical climate in Sri Lanka. So, I didn’t really mind the heavy rain in November 2016. That was when I was staying in Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, Kandy. The monsoon gave a special atmosphere to the tropical climate. It felt like a good experience. You might agree with me about this or not. This opinion will depend on your own backpacking experience.

Things to know about the best visiting time for backpacking in Sri Lanka

Source: India Odyssey Tours

When it comes to essential things to know about choosing a good time in the year to visit Sri Lanka, expect December – April for very hot and sunny weather. This is also the high season for backpacking tourism in the South-West. So expect prices to be more expensive in that region. Do know that the weather can be unpredictable and can change quickly. Especially in the mountains around Ella. But you have to know that the average temperature will be very enjoyable. So a little bit of rain now and then will not matter that much.

Sri Lanka is a small, but a very precious tropical island. You need to know that I had a great time there. One of the greatest times in my life actually. My advice for you: don’t rush over the island in too little time. Instead, take enough time to breathe in the atmosphere. Do enjoy and behold the breathtaking sceneries on the island when you are backpacking. Plus, you will get amazed by the common hospitality of Sri Lankans. Know that you’ll need at least 3-4 weeks to do your backpacking trip in the best way. Y I really can’t wait to go back again to Sri Lanka, one of my favorite backpacking destinations in the world. Also check out this article: 23 travel pictures that will make you go to Sri Lanka

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