After spending three weeks in Sri Lanka, here are 15 interesting facts and things we learnt about Sri Lanka:
1. Sri Lanka is often referred to as the ‘tear drop’ of India due to its shape and position located just south of India. The island itself is smaller than Ireland but is home to almost 21 million people (whereas Ireland has a population of around 4.7 million).
2. Sri Lanka used to be known as ‘Ceylon’. The new name of Sri Lanka was issued in 1972 following independence from the British Empire in 1948. You may recognise Ceylon tea though, and this is one of the main exports of Sri Lanka. The British had complete rule over Sri Lanka from 1817 and introduced tea plants to the island in 1824. By 1965, Sri Lanka became the world’s largest tea exporter and to this day remains one of the top 5 tea exporters in the world. Check some of the English well-loved brands such as Yorkshire tea, Tetley and Twinnings English breakfast teas and you’ll find it is part made from tea plantations in Sri Lanka!3. Tea is not the only British thing we oberserved, we saw traditional red postboxes, railway stations built by the British, British colonial hotels and architecture and ‘tea-time’ biscuits in every shop.
4. Sri Lanka is situated near the equator so typically has a hot climate between 29-34 degrees Celsius all year. However, unlike other countries it is affected by two monsoons: the Yala monsoon in the south & west of the country from May to August and the Maha monsoon in the north & east from October to January. This is perhaps why you see such green and lush vegetation in the hill country and a large array of wildlife in Sri Lanka from parrots and buffalo to elephants and leopards. 5. The south coast has a stunning coastline of white sandy beaches and huge waves so it’s perfect for surfing. We stayed in Hikkaduwa which had a lot of surfers. We also saw a lot of dogs on the beach. The dogs were all well natured but tended to all be strays that the locals would occasionally look after. We never saw a dog go into a home though. 6. The main language in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese though we found the majority of Homestay and Guesthouse owners spoke some English. In general, we found the Sri Lankan people to be very friendly. Many would go out of their way to help you find your way. As tourists, we were always popular with the kids who wanted to say ‘hello’ to us in English.
7. Sri Lanka is one of the oldest Buddhist countries in the world and played a key part in the history of Buddhism. You can climb Adam’s peak to see what is believed to be Buddha’s own footprint, visit the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy to see the casket containing the tooth of Buddha and cave temples in Dumbulla over 2000 years old.
8. The currency in Sri Lanka is Sri Lankan rupees (LKR). The exchange rate from LKR to GBP is roughly 195 rupees to £1. Most of the Sri Lankan rupees are in notes rather than coins. We found the cost of living in Sri Lanka to be a lot cheaper than the UK- our average daily spend was £45 (or £22.50 each) for a double room with a fan and private bathroom, plus 3 meals a day and travel/daily activities. We used our credit card to withdraw money from the ATM and found Commercial bank to be most accepting of MasterCard. The Bank of Ceylon did not seem to ever accept our credit cards.
9. We found Booking.com to be wonderful for booking accommodation in Sri Lanka. It had a huge range of accommodation including guesthouses, home stays, hotels and hostels. Most of the time we would just book our next stay the night before with no problem. We tried to do a lot of home stays and found these to be the most rewarding since you could begin to understand the local customs, meet local people and ask questions about Sri Lanka and the area you were staying in.
10. It is custom to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home or a place of worship. In general, women tend not to bare their shoulders or knees opting for a t-shirt style dress or t-shirt & skirt.
11. Traditional Sri Lankan food is curry & rice. We were always presented with a big plate of rice and then 3-4 smaller dishes which normally consisted of Dahl (lentil curry), 1-2 vegetable dishes often with aubergine (eggplant) or okra, perhaps a chicken or fish curry and sambal (which is made from coconut), plus poppadoms if you were lucky. We also tried egg and string hoppers and milk rice. If you order food in a restaurant, we learnt that Sri Lankan’s like to take their time (I read somewhere that they like to socialise before eating) so waiting around 30 minutes for food after ordering is not uncommon.
12. Public transport in Sri Lanka is pretty good and very very cheap, particularly the buses. We used the local buses mostly and found a 1 hour journey would cost less than a bottle of water! The buses can get a little crowded and many do not have air-conditioning. There is a conductor on every bus so you do not buy tickets in advance- just hop on and wait for the conductor to come to you! If you’re not on a tight budget you can also hire a driver for the day for around 60 USD. Tuk-tuks or rickshaws are everywhere- on average expect to spend about 50 LKR per kilometre and slightly more in touristy areas. The benefit of tuk-tuk is that they can reach places cars/buses cannot like down trails or long driveways. We found it was all male drivers in Sri Lanka and be prepared to hear serious amounts of ‘honking’!! They use their horns more than the brakes! It can feel a bit unsettling for foreign travellers at first.
13. Haggling or negotiating is part of everyday life in Sri Lanka, particularly for tuk-tuks or at market stalls. In a supermarket, prices are printed directly on each individual item so you can quickly build up an idea of how much you should be paying for a bunch of bananas or bottle of water for example. One thing to note is that you can only buy alcohol in a dedicated store which may be a side store to a large supermarket or even in the basement. It only seems to be men who purchase alcohol at these stores so it can be a little intimidating for a woman since you’re likely to get some disapproving looks.
14. Between 13th-15th April, the Sri Lankan people celebrate their New Year. It is a National holiday and a time for family gathering so many businesses, buses and restaurants will close over this period. Small fireworks can be heard across the country and sweets are prepared in every home such as Kokis and oil cake which we were fortunate to try. On New Year’s day it is tradition to wear a new piece of clothing.
15. Lots of tourists carry the Lonely Planet guidebook which means more remote areas mentioned in the book have started to become more touristy. If you are looking for a really remote location, the locals have great knowledge or another option would be to take a bus and explore other areas. One more note for travellers is the plug socket – it is a cross between a UK plug socket with three prongs and a European one with rounded prongs. We brought a world travel adapter with us for our trip but found it would not fit. In the end we bought a plug adapter from the local supermarket.