Our List Of Dos And Don’ts In Sri Lanka For First-Time Trips

Dos and donts in Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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So, you’re heading to the Teardrop of India, eh? Great choice. This majestic land of lush forests and swinging macaques, perfect surf breaks, and pristine coral gardens is sure to be somewhere you never forget. But, before you get carried away, be sure to check out this list of dos and don’ts in Sri Lanka.

No matter if you’re planning to tread the classic tourist route around the southwest coast and the tea country or are looking to break away to the Tamil north and the wild bays of the east, it’s got just a small selection of pointers that we think all first-time travelers to the country should know.

Yep, our range of dos and don’ts in Sri Lanka covers everything from how to travel the country to tips on dodging the dreaded sunburn, warnings about the native wildlife and even some info on what to wear so as not to offend the locals. Oh, and we’ve thrown in some details about where to find the best dahl curries and firefly Sri Lankan samosas!

Do take the train!

Train line in Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

It’s super easy to get around Sri Lanka. You can usually organize private taxi transfers from the airport to the door of your hotel for just a handful of dollars. A lot of people do just that, and we can hardly blame them. It’s affordable, it’s simple, and – importantly – you’ll have air conditioning the whole way!

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However, doing it that way means you will miss out on one of the great experiences of the Teardrop of India: The trains. Yep, the locomotives here ooze character. They’re like something out of a Wes Anderson movie, with folk swinging out the doors and rickety boxcars dashed with vintage designs. The network is pretty cheap and efficient, too, as it can take you all the way from Colombo to the far east coast, and one main line links up the resorts to the south of the capital.

A special mention should be made of the route from Kandy to Ella. It’s often mentioned on bucket lists for Sri Lanka, and it really is an amazing way to spend a day. Taking about eight hours in all, it pushes through the foothills of the Central Highlands and up into the famous tea country of Ella, revealing mist-swirled mountains and dense jungles as it goes. Taking that train has to be one of the best dos and don’ts in Sri Lanka on this list!

Don’t forget the sunscreen

Sunny beach in Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

This one goes for travelers heading to pretty much anywhere in South Asia, not just Sri Lanka. Yep, from the glinting beaches of Thailand to the rolling central hills of Vietnam, the snaking rivers of Myanmar to the surf breaks of Bali, sunscreen is a necessary tool to carry you through such tropical climes.

Sri Lanka gets very hot indeed and the sun is just about as strong as it is in neighboring India. You’re going to need good SPF protection if you’re doing anything outside, especially if you’re planning on hitting the beaches (and let’s face it, who isn’t planning that?). Oh, and surfers should pack themselves a good zinc cover because being out on a white board for hours on end here is just like hitting the tanning salon!

One word of warning: Don’t think you can put this off until you land in Sri Lanka. Shops here don’t really stock sunscreen because the locals don’t use it. We ran out about halfway through our last trip and couldn’t find any of the stuff anywhere for about a whole week. That’s a long time to limit yourself to sitting under the shade of the coconut palms!

Do eat local

Local food in Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

The food of Sri Lanka is nothing short of epic. It’s a taste-bud-tingling journey through coconut sambal, chili-topped dahl stews, pumpkin curries, and samosas that will set the roof your mouth alight. Thing is, it’s almost ALWAYS better cooked by locals in local places.

These days, you can actually go a whole trip eating in only the tourist-orientated restaurants. They’ve got a hint of the Canggu about them in towns like Ahangama and Mirissa, where the menus routinely read Scandinavian rosti with poached egg, avocado on toast, potato hash with pickled cucumbers – you get the idea.

Skip those joints. Seriously, just skip em’. The real treats await in the local “hotels”. They might not have the fancy signage and the framed pictures of Kelly Slater ripping it up. What they do have is lentil curries and vegetarian thali platters that you’ll never forget, usually eaten with just your hands and topped by crunchy papadums.

Don’t wear bikinis and swimwear in the streets

Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

The clash between local sensibilities and the lack thereof in tourists is something that’s been well documented all over Asia. It’s no different in Sri Lanka, where you’ll often see signs asking, sometimes politely, sometimes not so politely, that visitors wrap and cover up when they leave the beach and enter the town.

The thing is…we cringe to see that it’s a rule that’s routinely ignored. On a recent trip to the resort town of Unawatuna on the southwest coast, we must have encountered more bare-chested and sunburned travelers wandering the coast road behind the sand than we could shake a bowl of spicy dahl at. Not good.

Unawatuna is perhaps a bad example because it’s one of the most international and developed resorts on the isle. However, these rules are especially important to follow when you venture a little off the beaten path, to smaller beach towns like Dikwella or Tangalle. Oh, and they are uber-important when you’re walking close to a religious site, Buddhist, Hindu, or otherwise.

Do leave Colombo!

Palm trees in Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Truth be told, most travelers will leave the capital of Sri Lanka in the dust before even setting foot in the downtown. However, we think seeing the big city is a good way to start an adventure here. It’s got buzzy streets brimming with tuk-tuks and the iconic outline of Galle Face Green, a hubbub of street stalls, samosa sellers, and cricket-playing locals.

Still, you will want to limit your time in the town. It’s fun, but it’s not really up there with the most incredible things in the Teardrop of India. Just a short transfer away and you could be wandering mystical Buddhist shrines, lazing on palm-shaded tropical beaches, or watching the macaques clamber over the tea trees.

Some of the most popular and convenient places to head to from Colombo in just a couple of hours include:

  • Kandy (3.5 hours’ transfer from Colombo) – The enthralling religious center of Sri Lanka and the city where you’ll find the Temple of the Tooth.
  • Hikkaduwa (2 hours’ transfer from Colombo) – You’ll find golden beaches and coral reefs for surfing and snorkeling in this town to the south.
  • Galle (2.2 hours’ transfer from Colombo) – If you must stick to the cities, head to Galle to see the incredible Portuguese-built old town and its surrounding fort.

Don’t forget about the native wildlife

Monkey in Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Ignore the local wildlife of Sri Lanka at your peril! Yep, this island has some pretty nasty creepy crawlies, and some fearsome beasts to boot. There are a whopping 21 deadly venomous snakes on the island, including the formidable king cobra, the elusive saw-scaled viper, and the dreaded Ceylon krait. On top of that, you’ll find hand-sized tarantulas and smaller house spiders, not to mention muscular mugger crocs that can rip limbs clean off.

The key here is always sticking to marked walking paths and keeping your eye out on the trails, especially up in the jungled areas of the Knuckles Mountains and the peaks around Ella. It’s not common that people, especially travelers, fall victim to the dangerous creatures in the Teardrop of India, but you can never be too careful!

Of course, another reason to pay attention to the wildlife is because Sri Lanka is booming with biodiversity. When you’re not dodging snakes, you can spy out amazing birds of paradise, swinging purple-faced langurs in the trees, and all sorts of awesome underwater creatures, from sea turtles to zebrafish.

Do pay attention to the travel seasons

Rain in Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Sri Lanka is a little more nuanced when it comes to monsoon seasons and dry seasons than other parts of Asia. It’s not just as simple as planning a trip to match the months with the least amount of rainfall here, as it is in, say, Thailand or Vietnam. That’s because Sri Lanka actually has two wet seasons, and they hit different parts of the island at different times of the year.

The first is the northeast monsoon. That hits the – you guessed it! – northeast part of Sri Lanka in the European summer months. It’s actually the overall peak season for the country because it means that the famous beach towns and resorts of the southwestern coast, from Bentota all the way to Hiriketiya, are at their best.

When May swings around, the weather patterns do a volt face and the southwest monsoon hits said beach resorts. That brings better weather to the eastern coastline between June and August, opening up the pristine sands of Trincomalee, the epic surf points of Arugam Bay, and the less-trodden city of Jaffna.

Don’t miss the surf

Sri Lanka waves
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Yep, Sri Lanka is a surfing mecca. In fact, it’s up there with the most beginner-friendly surf destinations in Southeast Asia. There are waves to suit all levels, though, ranging from strong A-frame reefs to mellow beach breaks. Keep an eye on the seasons if you’re planning to surf in Sri Lanka. The Southwest coast is better in the period from November to March, but the action switches over to the east coast in the months between May and August.

There are tons of places to consider for your trip. Our favorites include the chilled beach town of Hiriketiya Bay near Tangalle, which has a cruisy beach break for learners but also a left-hand reef for intermediates, and the Ahangama strip, which is 20 miles or so of forgiving reefs suited to long boarders. Arugam Bay is on the eastern side of the island. Surf that in summer when the southwest monsoon hits to find peeling waves like Elephant Point.

Do check foreign office and state department warnings

In Sri Lanka
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

It’s no secret that Sri Lanka has seen its fair share of political and social upheaval in the last decade or so. Following the end of a brutal civil war that lasted the best part of 25 years, the nation seemed to stabilize and enter the South Asian travel fold. However, the transition has been marred by terrorist attacks (most notably the coordinate Easter Bombings of 2019), fuel shortages, and government corruption.

From 2021 to 2022, major protests at the soaring cost and dropping availability of petrol wept across the island and even brought the bigger towns and Colombo to a complete standstill. They eventually culminated with the storming of the presidential palace and various other government buildings. Still, though, regular tourism seemed to carry on alongside that, albeit at a reduced amount.

Today, things seem to slowly be getting back on track in Sri Lanka, although serious questions about who will lead the country and the state of the economy remain. That said, there are currently FCO and State Department warnings about traveling to the Teardrop of India related to the ongoing political situation and shortages of key medicines. That, in turn, usually voids insurance and whatnot, so it’s something you’ll need to think carefully about if you plan on heading over!

Our dos and don’ts in Sri Lanka – a conclusion

So, there we have it, the JTG dos and don’ts in Sri Lanka. These are just a few pointers for first-time travelers. They are titbits to help you make the most of your time in the Teardrop of India without coming away with a painful sunburn or, worse, a snakebite. They should also help you plan the perfect trip, because they open the way to the epic trains that go to Ella and the sunniest and driest seasons of the lot. Of course, there are oodles more dos and don’ts in Sri Lanka, but we’ll let you figure them out once you’re on the ground!

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.