Home to an ethnically and culturally diverse population, Sri Lanka has an extensive history marked by colonisation and civil war. Many tourists are drawn by holidays to Sri Lanka’s tropical forests and varying landscapes, which are rich in different plant and animal species.
Sri Lanka comprises of 9 provinces with the capital of Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte in the Western Province, together with Beruwela, Colombo, Gampaha and Negombo. The Central Province is made up of the highlands of Kandy, Matale and Nuwara Eliya. There is Jaffna in the North; the cultural triangle of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla in the North Central region; Trincomalee and Arugam Bay in the East; Kurunegala in the North West; Galle, Weligama, Matara, Tangalle, Unawatuna and Yala National Park in the South. The cool highlands of Uva Province consist of Badulla, Haputale, Bandarawela. Each province is further divided into districts.
From the sights and landforms to food, local culture and historical sites, each area adds to the charm of Sri Lanka with its own unique flavour.
People & Culture in Sri Lanka
People in Sri Lanka
A 30-year civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were defeated by the Sri Lankan military. Sri Lanka is now the only South Asian country rated “high” on the Human Development Index.
Sri Lankans are mostly producers of tea, coffee, coconut, rubber, cinnamon and gemstones. The 20 million-strong population comprises of a fascinating mix of ethnicities, ranging from the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Sri Lankan Moors to the Tamils from India who came to work on local plantations, as well as small ethnic groups like the Burghers (of mixed European descent), Malays from Southeast Asia and the indigenous Vedda people.
Languages in Sri Lanka
The two official languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhala and Tamil. Signs are written in both languages, with Sinhala taking a rounder, more cursive shape.
English is the link language by Constitution, used in educational, scientific and commercial contexts, especially common in Colombo, Kandy and Galle. English speaking Sri Lankans are mostly found in touristy areas, and far less so in rural villages. The Burgher community speaks different forms of Portuguese Creole and Dutch, while the Malays speak a unique variant of Creole Malay.
Design & Architecture
Ancient Sri Lankan architecture are vestiges of the country’s rich history. Impressive cave temples like the Kaludiya Pokuna Mihintale built of stone and feature carved roofs. Dagobas or stupas that enshrine Buddhist relics, such as Jetavanarama and Mirisaveti, are admired for their stable form and structural perfection.
Colonial government buildings feature Classic Renaissance or Neo-Classic Styles. While few buildings from the Portuguese era remain, many from the Dutch rule, like the old town of Galle – a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was fortified by the Dutch in 1663, stand along the Sri Lankan coastline. The British influence can be observed in various parts of Colombo.
The 60s, 70s and 80s ushered in a Tropical Modernist style, led by architects like Geoffrey Bawa, who had a far-reaching influence on the design and construction of Sri Lankan’s homes and commercial buildings. Clean lines and space fused elements from older Sri Lankan influences like terra-cotta-tiled roofs and reflecting pools, to create a modern Sri Lankan aesthetic.
Postmodernism is present in monuments like the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre in Colombo. These incorporate historical landscape design features and cultural elements as signifiers of heritage. Sustainable green architecture has also taken root in Sri Lanka. The 186 metre-tall Clear Point Residences, expected to be the tallest vertical garden in the world, harvests rainwater and recycled water from the bathroom with a Drip Irrigation system to water plants.
Cultural & Legal Restrictions
Most Sri Lankans follow the Theravada school of Buddhism, with majority of Buddhists Sinhalese. Hindus, mostly Tamils outside West Sri Lanka, are the second largest religious group. Islam and Christianity are also practised by some.
These diverse cultures inevitably lead to a complex Sri Lankan legal system. Criminal and Basic Civil law systems are colonial, while family law is largely communal; customary laws of the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils, as well as Sharia law are also invoked in special cases.
Visitors are advised to abide by common cultural etiquette when interacting with Sri Lankan locals. People are generally reserved and large emotional displays of any sort are not common in public. Greetings are often marked by physical instead of vocal cues, with broad smiles or a friendly raised eyebrow. Religion, race, cricket and politics are sensitive topics that should be avoided in conversation – particularly the Sinhalese-Tamil divide and the civil war that ravaged the country with bloodshed on both sides.
Conservative attire is encouraged, especially in places of worship. Public nudity is illegal, except in private beach resorts that allow nude or topless sunbathing in Sri Lanka. Public displays of affection like kissing and hugging are mainly seen as private behaviour, unless at adult-friendly establishments and nightspots. Religious tattoos are frowned upon and should be covered up at all times.
Buddhist monks are revered by Sri Lankans. Be mindful that touching or patting the tops of their heads is strictly disallowed. The same reverence is extended to Buddhist statues and turning your back to a statue of Buddha is considered disrespectful – even when taking photos.
Things to Do In Sri Lanka
Shopping in Sri Lanka
Shopping in Sri Lanka ranges from bargaining at a handicraft shop, to picking fresh fruit from a village stall or sussing out the best prices for the latest international fashion in this major garment exporter.
Independence Square Arcade in Columbo is where you can shop in air-conditioned comfort, alongside entertainment and fine dining establishments. On the other side of the spectrum, the road linking Colombo and Kandy is lined by a series of cultural villages, each specialising in particular wares, like brooms, cane chairs, cashews, tea and teapots. Alternatively, go to the Bastian Mawatha near Fort Railway Station for the Floating Market with a wide range of local products. Other exquisite Sri Lanka souvenirs include woodcarving, pottery and silverware. They feature traditional motifs of lotuses and mythical animals.
Sri Lanka is especially renowned for its gems and jewellery. Hunt for Sri Lankan blue sapphires, rubies, garnets, moonstones and topazes, and have them transformed into beautiful trinkets.
Places to Visit In Sri Lanka
With over 2,000 years of history, Sri Lanka’s places of interest include some of the most well-preserved Asian monuments with no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Nature lovers can trek up to Adam’s Peak or hike across the Horton Plains near Nuwara Eliya for a glimpse of the 700 metre drop at World’s End.
Take a tour of the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the country’s capital for more than 1,400 years, still containing Buddhist monuments and royal ruins at least two centuries old.
Visit the Scared Bo-Tree grown from a sapling of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment; the Thuparamaya Dagoba, believed to contain the right collarbone of Buddha and Ruvan, the oldest historically documented tree in the world.
The old city of Polonnaruwa is Southeast of Anuradhapura. From there, journey to the magnificent Sigiriya Rock (“Lion Rock”) Fortress, the site of a sixth century fortified palace. You will be blown away by this amazing architectural feat, built by an obsessed monarch in the fifth century. Don’t miss its most striking portion – a grey and terracotta core of rock that rises 200 metres above a forested plain. The ruins of the giant stone lion surround the Temple of the Tooth, where the sacred tooth relic of Buddha is preserved.
For picturesque scenery, visit Kandy, where a tranquil lake is surrounded by rolling hills, 116 kilometres away from Columbo. Along the way, stop by Pinnwala Elephant Orphanage. Bathing and feeding the cute baby elephants with giant milk bottles will definitely be quite an experience.
Beach bums will love Unawatuna Beach, South of the coast of Galle and ranked among the Discovery Channel’s Top 10 Most Beautiful Beaches in the World. This beautiful semi-circle of golden, coconut trees and cerulean waters is bordered by a coral reef.
In recent years, Sri Lanka has become a major dolphin and whale watching spot. It is located within the parameters of the International Whaling Commission’s protected zone in the Indian Ocean. Head down to Alankuda beach in Kalpitiya, Mirissa, Dondra Point and Trincomalee for the best observation ports.
Water Activities, Snorkeling & Diving in Sri Lanka
There are over 1300 kilometres of sandy beaches in Sri Lanka. With balmy temperatures and year-round sunshine, you’ll always be able to find a beach that will suit your choice of activities for the day. Surfing, kite surfing, diving and snorkeling are just some of the things you can do there.
A line of breaking waves amidst the calm, azure seas marks the coral reef where brightly coloured tropical fish and living corals wait to be discovered when on a Sri Lanka diving trip. The dive centre at Sri Lanka’s Hikkaduwa is a good base for reef exploration in regions like Dodanduwa, Gintota and Ralagala. Coasts in the southwestern parts are perfect for swimming, while the Bentota River is popular with windsurfers, sailors and water-skiers.
Cuisine in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan Food
Rice and spicy curry dominate native Sri Lankan cuisine. In Colombo, there are restaurants that offer a spectrum of international gourmet and fusion cuisine. Stalls and eateries offering delicious, reasonably priced fare are common too.
However, to truly eat like a local, you have to sample the delectable dishes served up at roadside haunts. Colombo’s roadside cafes serve up kottu – a mix of chopped roti, vegetables and meat – rice flour noodles eaten with curry), pittu and rotti. You could try the Sri Lankan way of eating with the fingertips of your right hand, but cutlery will always be available.
Sri Lankan Nightlife
Sri Lanka comes alive when night falls – be it at the chic relaxing cocktail lounges, modern international restaurants, lively pubs, pulsating discos, tapas bars or sports bars with their snooker tables and big TVs.
Columbo’s night scene, in particular, has experienced a spike in activity ever since a series of nightspots appeared within a short period of time, giving partygoers more options. Although there are many clubs and bars catering to young adults, those with live bands are very popular with a more mature crowd. The strong pub culture, coupled with Sri Lanka’s trademark hospitality, will definitely make your night out a great time to remember.
Essential Travel Tips for Sri Lanka
Going To Sri Lanka
Flights to Sri Lanka are served by the Colombo-Bandaranayake International Airport from most cities in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. If you are traveling to Sri Lanka from another country, plan for strategic stopovers to travel more efficiently, or sail to Sri Lanka by cruise ship via the American cruise operator Zegrahm Expeditions.
SriLankan Airlines is the national flagship carrier; flying both internationally and domestically.
Accommodation in Sri Lanka
Hotels in Sri Lanka have evolved since traditional beach hotels were built on Sri Lanka’s west coast to cater to the package holiday crowd and conventional travel operators in 1960s.
Recently, small independent properties, villas and boutique hotels in Sri Lanka have emerged to present a wide array of choices to tourists to Sri Lanka. You can even experience five-star luxury hotels in Sri Lanka at very reasonable rates in the countryside.
Sleeping in railway stations or parks is not recommended and some youth hostels or traditional “rest houses” are budget-friendly alternatives. Getting a decent room in this crowded holiday destination is difficult during peak season, so book early.
Getting around Sri Lanka
Three-wheelers, or auto-rickshaws are the most common mode of transport in Sri Lanka – cheap and convenient to get around town in, though not quite as safe as sedan taxis because of their lack of seatbelts and open sides. They may not always be metered, so prepare to bargain.
Sri Lankan taxis are a better way to travel Sri Lanka, and because meters are often used, the fare can be lower than a three-wheeler’s. You can even book a full-day Sri Lankan personal driver for around USD40 in the form of taxi packages by licensed tour operators.
Motorcycle and car rental in Sri Lanka is increasingly popular, and valid licence is needed in both cases, which can be converted into an international drivers licence at The Department of Motor Traffic in Werahera for under USD$10.
Renting a car with a driver in Sri Lanka is not expensive, and most Sri Lankan rental cars often come with their own drivers, many of whom are multi-lingual and knowledgeable about Sri Lankan culture and history.
Buses are the cheapest mode of transport in Sri Lanka. Despite being crowded and uncomfortable, it only costs about one dollar to travel halfway across the island. Air-conditioned buses are twice as expensive.
Currency of Sri Lanka
The currency in use is the Sri Lankan rupee (SLR). Major credit cards are accepted in shops, most hotels, restaurants and shopping centres. Tipping is always appreciated.
Sri Lanka Entry Requirements
Citizens of all countries except Singapore and the Maldives are required to apply for a visa online, valid for three months from date of approval. Applying for a Sri Lanka visa upon arrival can be extremely tedious.
Climate & Weather in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s tropical climate see hot and humid days cool off in the evening. Drier regions like Hambanthota can be as warm as 30-35°C while temperatures in the highlands can remain as low as -5 to 20°C. Prepare warm, waterproof clothing or an umbrella.
The major rainy seasons in Sri Lanka are the North-East Monsoon from October to January and the South-West Monsoon from May to July.