Sri Lanka is a great destination for backpacking and the island has so much to offer. I travelled to Sri Lanka in July 2018 and had an exciting and enjoyable time. Here I will give you 9 reasons why you will love backpacking Sri Lanka. Further, I will tell you more about the best places which you should visit when traveling around the country.
Reasons why you should go backpacking in Sri Lanka!
First of all, let me give you some very good reasons why a Sri Lanka backpacking trip will be an awesome experience!
The beautiful landscape
Sri Lanka has beautiful nature and a diverse landscape. In the comparatively small country, there is a lot to see and to discover. From the beautiful beaches in the south to the temples in Kandy, from the sacred Lion Rock in Sigiriya to the tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya – Sri Lanka has it all! Also, the country is great for wildlife, there are several national parks. Sri Lanka is wonderfully beautiful and varied, so you will not get bored with backpacking in Sri Lanka.
Backpacking Sri Lanka is cheap
Sri Lanka as a travel destination is incredibly cheap. Here it is possible to experience a lot on a small budget. Especially the transport in the country is cheap. For a train ride of several hours, you pay between 1-2 €! Also, the food in Sri Lanka is very reasonably priced. Of course, the costs depend on you. In local restaurants and on the street, you are already fed for less than 1 €, if you go to a slightly fancier restaurant, or like to eat west, you pay a little more. Nevertheless, you generally eat very cheap and for much less money as in Europe.
You do not have to spend much on accommodation! In hostels or guesthouses, you can often stay for less than 10 €, while even good hotels can be found for little money
The only expensive thing about backpacking in Sri Lanka are the entrance fees. As usual in Asia, as a tourist, you pay much more like the locals and I was surprised that many entrance fees cost 1500 rupees (about 8 €) – for example, a dance performance in Kandy. Access to the famous Lion Rock in Sigiriya is even $ 30! And the safaris in the many national parks are not very cheap either (but still much cheaper than safaris in Kenya!).
In general, it can be summed up that you can live and travel very cheap in Sri Lanka – but the entrance fees will increase the travel costs a bit. The more touristic and popular an attraction is, the more expensive it is!
The cheap and convenient train system
As in India, there is also an extensive train system, which is very handy for backpacking in Sri Lanka. Here you can avoid the traffic chaos and the crowded streets, and instead of bus and taxi, you can move on the train. Although the train does not reach every part of the island, most tourist destinations are easily accessible by train.
Luckily, a train ride is also very cheap and a trip usually costs you no more than 2 €, even if you are traveling for half a day. Also, I never found the trains to be overcrowded, I have always easily found a seat.
Above all, backpacking through Sri Lanka on the train is just fun. You can easily get in touch with nice locals, through the open windows and doors you can enjoy the great view and shoot cool photos. Particularly well known is the train route between Kandy and Ella through the beautiful landscape of Nuwara Eliya. The green tea plantations and the mountainous landscape offers a great photo opportunity and the train journey goes by quickly. Although you can also travel by bus and taxis in the country, a train ride shouldn’t be missing in any backpacking Sri Lanka trip!
The delicious and exotic food
Sri Lanka offers a varied landscape and also an exotic cuisine. The food in Sri Lanka is extremely tasty, especially if you like curries. Be careful though with the spices. In Sri Lanka, people generally eat very spicy and I always told the waiter when ordering food that I can’t handle it so that they could adapt the dishes for me. Generally, in Sri Lanka, you eat a lot of rice with different curries, lots of vegetables, chicken and especially on the coast seafood and fish. Also, the food is incredibly cheap. On the street, you can get full for just a few cents, and even in better restaurants, you pay little.
I had no stomach problems during my backpacking trip in Sri Lanka, but of course, you should be careful anyway. Above all salad should be avoided, and you should drink no tap water (for brushing my teeth it was okay for me). When eating at street stalls some restaurants do not look quite clean and organized, however, food quality might still be well. A good tip is always to look at the locals – do many of them eat there? Is it well attended? Then the street stand or the restaurant will be good and you should try it. Street food definitely is a must do when backpacking in Sri Lanka!
Backpacking Sri Lanka is safe
Sri Lanka is generally considered a very safe destination for backpackers and tourists. Although the country has a turbulent past with tribal wars and conflicts, most of it is over and the current problems are in the north, far from the typical tourist routes. Also, crimes and thefts are very rare. Of course, you should always take care of your valuables, but in general, I always felt very safe while backpacking in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is (relatively) organized
Often Sri Lanka is described as a “simple” version of India. In some cases, I definitely agree. Culture and landscape resemble above all the southern part of India (for example Kerala). If India seems too chaotic and overwhelming to you, compact and organized Sri Lanka is a good alternative for backpackers. Due to the small size of the island, a lot can be seen here in a short time. Also, I was positively surprised to see relatively little poverty and trash, especially compared to India. So if you would like to get to know the South Asian culture and landscape, but you do not want to visit India, Sri Lanka is a good destination for your next backpacking trip.
The relaxed and beautiful beaches
Sri Lanka is surrounded by great beaches and you should definitely include a beach vacation while backpacking in Sri Lanka. Although Sri Lanka does not have white beaches and turquoise waters like the Maldives, the coast is beautiful. The beaches are lined with palm trees, the water is pleasantly warm and the waves are also perfect for surfing. If you do not want to travel too far, the fishing village of Negombo might be nice for you. There are several resorts just a few miles from the airport. Negombo is therefore also perfect to end the journey before the return flight. I also really liked the southern coast. There are numerous beaches next to the colonial town of Galle, such as Mirissa Beach, which is great to surf and sunbathe.
The famous rope that lets you swing from the palm into the sea can be found at Dalawella Beach in front of the Dream Cabana Guesthouse. Here you pay 500 rupees (about 2.50 €) and you can swing as often as you want.
Read more about my stay at the wonderful 22Weligambay Beach Resort!
The friendly locals
The people of Sri Lanka are incredibly friendly, helpful and open. Here I have only good experiences. In addition, the locals speak very good English, so that someone can always help you in case you need it. Generally, you will be welcomed as a backpacker in Sri Lanka very friendly and warm.
The local culture of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a great and impressive culture to offer. The country is predominantly Hindu, but other religions are represented as well. Generally, you’ll find numerous temples, mosques and churches often close together. In Colombo, you shouldn’t miss the red mosque, which placed right in the chaotic city centre called Pettah.
The spiritual centre of Hinduism is probably in Kandy, with the famous “Temple of the Tooth.” There are ceremonies several times a day, which is always very busy – be careful, at the time the temple is extremely crowded and people are pushing and shoving their way, which I found a little tiring. Behind the temple in Kandy, there is a cultural show in the evening where a traditional dance will be demonstrated and people even walk over hot coals at the end! In general, you should get to know the culture while backpacking Sri Lanka, it’s worth it!
As you can see, there are a few reasons why you will love backpacking Sri Lanka!
I hope I could motivate you to explore this country yourself soon. I wish you a lot of fun!
Important travel tips for a backpacking Sri Lanka trip
In the following, I will give you some travel tips so that you’re perfectly prepare for your backpacking adventure in Sri Lanka.
Do some research regarding the visa
In recent years, tourists needed a visa to enter, which they could request in advance online. From spring 2019 the entry should also be valid without a visa for EU citizens. However, you should again inform yourself in advance, since this also depends on your passport and nationality.
Consider the right travel season
Actually, you should not expect a big difference in climate within a small country like Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the weather and climate zones in Sri Lanka are actually very different and depending on the particular part of the island you are on. That’s why I give you the tip to do some research about the parts you want to visit as well as the respective climate and rainy / dry seasons for your Sri Lanka backpacking trip.
Use the train (and the other cheap public transport)
In Sri Lanka there is a very good infrastructure for tourists when it comes to transport, with which you should have no problems to get around in Sri Lanka. You have the choice between the various transport options, such as buses, minivans, tuk tuks, private drivers. taxis and the train!
Exactly, you heard right – Sri Lanka actually has a rail network in the country from British colonial times. This does not span every part and every attraction in the country, but you should definitely go by train at least once. This is a cool experience – the doors are mostly open, you have fresh wind and a cool view. Of course, depending on your travel standard, there are also different classes. Above all, a train ride in Sri Lanka is not only cheap (a few hours in the train cost only a few euros), but also a cool way to observe the lives of the locals.
By the way, the “most famous” train route (which you know from all those Instagram shots) through the great landscape with hills and valleys connects Kandy with the tourist hotspot Ella (via Nuwara Eliya).
Be prepared for some expensive entrance prices
Actually, Sri Lanka is a great destination for tourists on a budget, because you can already eat well, find accommodation and get around in the country for little money. In general, you should therefore have no problems to travel through Sri Lanka for 20-30 € per day.
At one point, however, Sri Lanka is suddenly no longer cheap: the entrance fees for attractions! Tourists generally pay more than locals, I’m already used to that from other countries. In Sri Lanka, however, this is too extreme. For example, as a tourist you pay almost 30 € for the entrance to Sigiriya Rock! This is in my opinion very exaggerated and I might consider skipping it (especially since Sigiriya is completely overrun by Asian travel groups, which makes the visit very exhausting).
Also other entrance fees in Sri Lanka are relatively expensive. For example, admission to the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy and the botanical gardens costs around € 8 each. An elephant safari (for example in the Minneriya National Park) costs about 70 € for a jeep tour (+ the entrance fee to the park). Although this is still cheaper than a safari in Kenya, the prices are surprisingly expensive for an otherwise inexpensive travel destination such as Sri Lanka. That’s why I give you the travel tip to include these entrance fees directly into your budget when planning the trip or possibly skip some of the sights.
Negotiate all the prices
As in many other Asian countries, many prices (especially for e.g. tuk tuk rides or souvenirs) are very flexible and you have to negotiate a lot. If you’ve been to India or Thailand before, you’re probably used to that. Otherwise you have to get used to it!
Combine Sri Lanka with some other destinations
Sri Lanka has a lot to offer and you will not be bored even if you have a few weeks in the country. However, you can also combine Sri Lanka with other destinations! For example, you easily reach the beautiful Maldives, or you give India a try – especially Kerala is often and conveniently served by Sri Lanka. In general, however, the country is also suitable as a “stopover” on the way to Asia, and you can also travel from Sri Lanka to, for example, Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore.
Get a local sim card for fast internet
In general, you will find in most accommodations, restaurants and cafés reasonable wifi. Nevertheless, I recommend that you buy a local sim card with mobile internet for your trip. You can already get for a few euros several gigabytes of 4G Internet, so that you can easily rdo research on the road or write friends at home. Note that your SIM card must be activated and you need your passport for that. The best way to buy the mobile SIM card is at an official store or at the airport, where the staff are well prepared for tourists. There are several providers in the country, the most well-known is probably Dialog.
Be prepared for spicy food
The great cuisine of Sri Lanka is one of the highlights of your Sri Lanka vacation. This also differs significantly from other Asian food, such as Thai. In Sri Lanka, there are especially many delicious curries, people also cook a lot with fish and coconut.
But beware: As in India, people like their food very spicy. If you are not prepared for this as a European, you should definitely notify the waiter that your dishes should be cooked a little less spicy if you’re not used to it.
Be respectful in the temples
Religion plays a big role in Sri Lanka and you will see Buddhist and Hindu temples all over the country. Here are some rules you should follow to be respectful to the locals. For example, you should only enter temples with your knees and shoulders covered, never touch a Buddha statue, or sit on it for photos.
For example, in the holy Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, I was shocked at how many tourists with huge cameras were running around pushing away locals in a sacred ceremony pressed to take pictures – although that was clearly forbidden. Be considerate, because you do not want to be THAT tourist who does not give a shit, just to get a great picture.
Bring some warm clothes
Sure, Sri Lanka is a tropical destination. But keep in mind that it can get a bit cold or rainy in the heights and mountains. That’s what I learned, for example, in the tea plantations at Nuwara Eliya, where I had a very cloudy, rainy sky in July and it got pretty chilly in the evening. For your Sri Lanka trip, I give you the advice to have a thin (rain) jacket in the luggage.
Health in Sri Lanka: Vaccinations, medicine and Moskito spray
No vaccinations are required for Sri Lanka, but some are recommended, which you should also have for other tropical travel destinations in Asia. More detailed information will give you a tropical doctor. Generally, I recommend you to have a small first-aid kit with, for example, medicine for stomach problems and diarrhea. In general, you will find in Sri Lanka many pharmacies and most locals understand English.
My most important travel tip for Sri Lanka would be to have a good mosquito repellent with DEET factor. You can already buy this at home, but you can also find it locally. Because in Sri Lanka, there is a risk of getting dengue fever. There is no vaccine against Dengue and this fever can ruin your holiday. That’s why a good mosquito spray is important.
Plan enough time for your Sri Lanka backpacking trip
One would think that one has seen a small country like Sri Lanka quickly. But that’s not the case! Because the country has so many different regions, landscapes and attractions to offer, that you can easily spend 2-3 weeks here without getting bored. For example, if you only have one week, I would not try to see every part of the island, but to focus on a smaller part and enjoy and explore it properly. Have a look here for a 10-day Sri Lanka itinerary!
As you can see, Sri Lanka is a great destination and with my Sri Lanka travel tips you should be well prepared for your backpacking trip! Let me know in the comments how you liked the country. I wish you a lot of fun in Sri Lanka!
Backpacking Sri Lanka: Places you have to see and visit!
In the following, I will tell you more about the best places to visit on your Sri Lanka backpacking trip!
Backpacking Colombo + Surroundings
You will probably spend some time in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo when you arrive and depart in Sri Lanka. The city will probably not be the highlight of your Sri Lanka backpacking adventure, but I found Colombo’s sights quite interesting and it’s a cool place to visit for a day or two.
The red mosque (Jami Ul-Afar mosque)
The Red Mosque is located directly in the chaotic Pettah district in Colombo and is one of my favorite tourist attractions in Colombo. The mosque looks great and is one of the oldest mosques in the city. You can also enter the red mosque and look at the interior.
The Pettah quarter
The Pettah area is considered the center of Colombo and is very noisy, crowded and chaotic. Here you will find countless markets, street stalls, tuk tuks and, above all, many people. Nevertheless, a walk through Pettah is an experience you should not miss. Get lost in the busy streets and markets, try the cheap street food and discover the chaotic side of Colombo. Here you really feel like in the middle of India!
Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple
This temple is one of the most important temples in the city and is known for its countless Buddha statues. The temple consists of several rooms and also counts as a museum – here you will find all kinds of bizarre exhibits, such as the smallest Buddha figure in the world and a stuffed life-size elephant. Thus, the temple is one of the most unique attractions when backpacking Colombo.
Beira Lake & Seema Malaka Temple
In direct proximity to the Gangaramaya temple is the Beira lake in the middle of Colombo. The lake is quite idyllic and above all a strong contrast to the chaotic Pettah bazaar. Over a bridge you reach a small island in the middle of the lake. Directly next to it is also the Seema Malaka temple with some golden Buddha statues and a beautiful view.
Independence Memorial Hall
Directly on Independence Place you will find the Memorial Hall, from which you have a beautiful view of the park. This area of Colombo is very clean and nicely decorated and the hall has a beautiful architecture.
Beach time in Negombo
The coastal town of Negombo is located just north of Colombo and directly at the airport. There are some beach resorts here. In general, a visit to Negombo is a great way to have some relaxing days on the beach after a busy backpacking Sri Lanka trip and only a short drive from the airport.
Backpacking Central Sri Lanka: Dambulla and Sigiriya
The destinations Dambulla and Sigiriya are close to each other and offer some of Sri Lanka’s most interesting sights.
In Dambulla you should not miss the Cave Temple. A short walk will take you to the rock where the temple is built. You have to take off your shoes, and in the rock cave there are several chambers full of Buddha statues. On the way you will also be able to see some monkeys.
Directly on the main road to Dambulla Cave Temple you will also find the golden temple Sath Paththini Devalaya. This temple looks very impressive and is a cool photo stop on the way.
Minneriya National Park
Just north of Sigiriya and Dambulla lies the Minneriya National Park, which isa good spot for elephant safaris. Here you can explore the park by jeep and see countless elephant herds in the green nature. The view is great and an elephant safari is a highlight when backpacking around Sri Lanka that you should not miss. Of course, there are also some other national parks in other regions.
A visit at Sigiriya
Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous attractions and the famous Lion Rock is considered sacred to the local people. Thus, the rock is a famous destination in Sri Lanka that most backpackers do not want to miss.
Generally, the rock is worth seeing. Admission is not cheap ($ 30), but you can climb to the top of the Sigiriya Rock on steep stairs. At the top, you will be rewarded with a great view of the landscape. In addition, you can still see the foundations of the old fortress. The only problem with Sigiriya is that the tourist attraction is of course extremely touristy and especially crowded with Chinese tour groups. The climb up the steep stairs is jammed with many people and it is actually difficult to enjoy the view and the sight like this.
Is it worth to visit Sigiriya? In my opinion, you should not miss the Sigiriya rock, after all, it is one of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. However, you should be prepared for the tourist crowds. By the way, you can also climb the slightly lower neighboring mountain of Sigiriya, the Pidurangala, by taking a short hike. Pidurangala is a lot less touristy and offers a great view of the Sigiriya rock – unfortunately I had no time for the climb there, but friends of me had good experiences.
Sightseeing in Kandy
Kandy is considered the spiritual center of Sri Lanka. Even if the city is overcrowded and not necessarily beautiful, a short visit is worthwhile. Kandy has been a very important city in the past and is also considered a World Heritage Site.
Kandy is especially famous for the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most important Buddhist temples. Here the alleged tooth of the historical Buddha figure is kept as a relic and worshiped. Several times a day there is a ceremony in the temple. At this time however, the temple is incredibly crowded. In general, the surroundings of the temple are very nice, as it is built directly on a lake and offers beautiful views.
Directly behind the temple there is a cultural show in the evening. Here locals perform traditional dances and even run over hot coals! The entrance fee is 1500 rupees (about 8 €).
If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Kandy, visit the Royal Botanical Garden. The park is clean and full of different plants and open parks. Perfect for a relaxed walk!
Visiting Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
The tea plantations around Nuwara Eliya are best reached by train from Kandy. The train ride through the hilly country is fantastic and you will be rewarded with great views. Especially for backpackers, Nuwara Eliya is a nice stop on the way from Kandy to the backpacker mecca Ella in Sri Lanka.
In Nuwara Eliya you should definitely visit a tea factory. Here you can walk through the tea plantations and take great pictures, as well as learn more about how the tea leaves are processed in the factory.
Note that Nuwara Eliya is very high when it comes to altitude and temperatures are rather cool even in summer and the climate is rainy. Do not forget the jacket!
By the way: The ladies who collect the tea leaves in the plantations are a good photo opportunity and can also be photographed, but a little tip is expected afterwards.
Backpacking southern Sri Lanka
You should not miss the south coast of Sri Lanka when backpacking around the country. Although I was visiting in the summer and therefore not during the best travel time for southern Sri Lanka, I was still lucky and had sunshine and blue skies. The south coast is perfect for relaxing on the beach and you should also not miss the colonial town of Galle. I stayed in Weligama and had the perfect starting point to explore both, the coast around Galle and Mirissa Beach.
In Galle you should definitely visit the old fortress, where you can find the city wall around the core of Galle. There are some colonial buildings, guesthouses and cafés. Generally I found the area a bit touristy and a bit overhyped, but it was not as crowded with tourists as expected.
You can take a tuk tuk with a guide, which shows you the old town for 1 €. However, everything is so compact that you can explore the area on foot. Here you can walk along the city wall along the coast and enjoy the view. In general, it’s easy to explore the main attractions of Galle in half a day.
Things to see between Galle and Weligama
The coastal road between Galle and Weligama is very beautiful and the easiest thing to do is to get a tuk tuk driver for little money, which will drive you along the coast and stop at the best sights.
Here you can visit a turtle sanctuary for free where people will explain more about the work there. Afterwards the workers are glad about a small tip.
In addition you find on the south coast the famous stilt fishermen. While in the past this was a traditional way of fishing, the stilts are now unfortunately only a tourist attraction. As soon as tourists approach, the fishermen sit on their stilts, pose for photos and also offer the tourists to sit down there for a picture opportunity. Afterwards, of course, tipping is required. In general, the stilt fishermen are beautiful to look at and a cool photo opportunity, but you should be aware that this is now extremely commercialized and no longer related to the real life of fishermen.
An attraction in Sri Lanka I really wanted to visit was the famous rope swing on the beach. This rope can be found at Dalawella Beach directly at the Dream Cabana Guesthouse. Here, the owners of the guest house probably did not think much when they attached the rope to the big palm tree. However, Instagram has made this rope one of Sri Lanka’s most famous photo spots! Meanwhile you have to pay 500 rupees (2.50 €) to use the rope. However, it was worth it to me – on the one hand, it’s great fun to swing over the sea, on the other hand, it’s just perfect for photos!
Visiting Mirissa Beach + the Palm Hill
The beach around Mirissa is very beautiful and perfect for relaxing. Here you can walk along the bay and find some beach restaurants. Just east of Mirissa is the famous Palm Hill, a popular photo spot. You can find this right on the beach at Sri Sudharshanaramaya Temple on the coast.
A short hike takes you to Secret Beach between Mirissa Beach and Weligama Bay. From the west end of Mirissa Beach you need about 20 minutes walk. However, the path is a bit complicated to find, here you should always ask local people if you are still on the right track. The Secret Beach is very small and very relaxed, but nothing special. There is also a small bar / café which was closed during my visit.
Otherwise you should climb the Parrot Rock in the water at Mirissa Beach. Here you have a cool view of the bay, especially at sunset.
Conclusion about backpacking Sri Lanka
I hope I have been able to tell you a bit more about backpacking Sri Lanka! Note, however, that I was traveling in Sri Lanka for only 10 days and of course there is much more to see. Unfortunately, I was not in Ella, which should be an absolute highlight, especially for backpackers. Also, I heard good from the beaches east of Mirissa. In general, the east coast and the north of the country are rather less touristy, but if there is enough time, there is certainly much to discover. As you can see, Sri Lanka has lots to offer and is the perfect destination for your next backpacking holiday!
Disclosure: My trip was sponsored by Sri Lanka Tourism. Therefore, this article includes advertisement about the destination. As always, all opinion and reviews are my own.