Before you decide to spend your vacation in Sri Lanka there are important things to know:
1) Sri Lanka online visa (ETA)
Before your enter Sri Lanka you need to obtain an online visa – Electronic Travel Authorization System (ETA) on the official website: http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/. ETA is valid for 30 days (but can be extended) and costs US$30 per person for most nationalities (US$15 for nationalities from SAARC countries). It’s a very smooth and quick process as you do not need to send your passport anywhere, just present it on arrival with a printed ETA confirmation and proof of funds (we were not asked about evidence of funds however).
2) Sri Lanka currency, language and religion
Sri Lankan rupee (LKR) is a currency officially used but US dollars are also often accepted. Entry tickets to various historical sites are very often quoted in dollars – as they are relatively high. We found the best way of obtaining currency in Sri Lanka was just by withdrawing Sri Lankan Rupees from an ATM – which are located at the airport, in most cities and towns. It’s very useful to have small change handy for bus and train tickets, tuk-tuk rides etc.
There are several languages spoken in Sri Lanka but Sinhala and Tamil are official ones. It’s relatively easy to communicate in English – especially in hotels and around touristy places. In fact many people will approach you and try to speak English as a way of practising and improving their language skills. Bus drivers and tuk-tuk owners usually don’t speak much English – it helps to write down the name and address of the place you want to get to avoid any confusion.
Sri Lanka is one of the most religious countries in the world. Around 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist. Other religions include Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, respectively. You can really notice that when visiting Sri Lanka on your vacation - many tourist attractions are places of worship for local people. Especially during one of the numerous religious holidays. When we were there in June, Poson Full Moon Poya Day (commemorates introduction of Buddhism) was celebrated so there were crowds of worshippers, whole families at the religious sites and on the streets – it felt like it’s a big thing for everyone in Sri Lanka.
Be careful when taking photos – people will get very offended if you take a photo with your back turned to a likeness of Buddha. Statues of Buddha are commonly found in Sri Lanka. If you happen to have a Buddha tattoo in visible place then you shouldn’t go to Sri Lanka as you might end up being deported: Sri Lanka to deport Buddha tattoo British woman!
3) Precautions against malaria in Sri Lanka
To learn about malaria in Sri Lanka we did extensive research and found a useful website with malaria maps: http://www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk/destinations/asia-(east)/sri-lanka/sri-lanka-malaria-map.aspx. From this website you can also learn about vaccinations and other health precautions before your Sri Lanka vacation.
From the map you can see that there is ‘variable risk of malaria’ only in the far northern part of Sri Lanka and ‘no to very small risk’ elsewhere. During our 15 days backpacking trip we didn’t travel that far north so we decided not to take any antimalarials. We checked in various places we visited, and were told that there had been no reported cases of Malaria. Instead we took a couple of precautions: carried with us Malarone tablets just in case (as our trip around Asia was in total over 3 months long); used mosquito repellents; wore long pants and sleeves whenever possible to protect from mosquito bites.
At the end we hardly got any mosquito bites on our vacation in Sri Lanka in June, but mosquito prevalence may vary depending on the time of the year. We also chatted to many fellow travellers that we met, and most of them did not take any antimalarials.
4) Maps on your vacation in Sri Lanka
Maps are not always available in Sri Lanka (in other countries we found tourist maps easy to acquire – not in Sri Lanka). Sometimes maps are very handy – especially if you chose to travel off-the-beaten-path.
We made extensive use of OpenCycleMap (http://www.opencyclemap.org/). The Android App “Maverick” makes it easy to download maps wherever we had Wifi. We found this valuable in navigating cities, but especially when cycling and hiking. It’s a great way of having a map on the go without requiring a mobile data internet connection – letting you see your whereabouts on the map as you move, and giving you the freedom and confidence to explore.
We used our mobile maps for finding hotels, hiking trails or cycling through tea plantations – our vacation in Sri Lanka was definitely more adventurous thanks to OpenCycleMap.
5) Hotel booking in Sri Lanka
We tended to find the best deals on nice hotels with Agoda.com – often booking the day before as we decided our plans. If you you plan to stay in one place, or are visiting Sri Lanka in peak season then it may be advisable to book further ahead. We tend to talk to other travellers and adjust our plans as we learn more about a place, and move on when we are ready.
You may not have heard of Agoda before (we hadn’t until we first went to Asia). Agoda is based in Thailand and have a much wider selection of hotels, and cheaper prices in Asia, than any of the usual Western hotel providers. We booked almost all our accommodation through Agoda (often with half price deals!), which worked out very well for us. We often seemed to get better deals and nicer hotels than other tourists we met on our travels!
The ratings on Agoda are quite valuable. We would generally only book hotels with a customer rating of 7 or above. 8 or above almost guarantees that you’ll be happy with your stay there.