Backpacking in Sri Lanka: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Sri Lanka occupies a strange space in the backpacking world. People say backpacking in Sri Lanka isn’t as exotic, chaotic, cheap or challenging as in India, and it’s a long way from the Southeast Asia backpacking trail that it’s probably better suited to. While travelling through Sri Lanka I saw similarities with Laos and Myanmar (2 of my favourite countries in Southeast Asia) but Sri Lanka is a pretty unique place, full of friendly people, interesting food (I’d never eaten Sri Lankan cuisine before I went there) and a huge variety of sights and activities.
Sri Lanka has dealt with its fair share of problems over the last decade, including the Boxing Day Tsunami and a civil war. The war has ended and the waters receded, and everyone I talked to seems hopeful for the future of the country they are so proud of.
There are some excellent beaches in Sri Lanka which attract an eclectic mix of travellers. Most people backpacking in Sri Lanka will spend at least a few days at a beach, which one really depends on your mood. The beach in Hikkaduwa is nice but the town isn’t; it was basically just a stretch of main road which housed a whole lot of guesthouses and restaurants, along with the inevitable traffic. Unawatuna is popular and it was nice, the only problem – the water wasn’t as inviting as most beaches I’ve been to in Asia. Mirissa was my personal favourite, even though I was on my own (it was definitely the most couple friendly of the beaches I stayed at in Sri Lanka). The East coast apparently has some nice beaches too, but it was rainy season when I was there so I didn’t make it that far.
Sri Lanka is home to a few amazing ancient wonders, the most impressive being the Lion Rock in Sigiriya. It was a fortress for a flawed king, and while there isn’t much left of the buildings it’s still a great place to visit (read a full article on the Lion Rock here). Polonarruwa is a former capital where you’ll see some well preserved ruins as well as bats flying through the sky at sunset. There are also some cave temples in Dambulla which were a bit disappointing, and the colonial cities of Galle and Nuwara Eliya. Galle has an old Portuguese fort and is a nice place to wander (read a full post here), and Nuwara Eliya is a “More British than Britain” hill station full of old villas and tea fields. Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, has some interesting historical elements, including the famous Temple of the (Buddha) Tooth, but it’s not the most likeable of towns.
If you’re into wildlife then you’ll love backpacking in Sri Lanka. There are lots of national parks where you can go on an African style safari, with Yala National Park probably being the most well known. Yala is famous for its leopards and I saw 2 of them during my visit. I also saw elephants, jackals, crocodiles and lots of monkeys, and while it isn’t that cheap (I paid around Rs 5000 or $40 USD for a half day tour) it’s definitely worth it.
I also went whale watching in Mirissa, which was an awesome yet scary experience. The sea was angry that day and we seemed to be out there for ages looking for whales. I eventually saw some, although the water was too rough for me to get any photos.
The Hill Country
One of the first articles I wrote on this website was about Sri Lanka’s hill country, and it remains one of my favourite places in Asia. The scenery is a mix of tea fields, mountains and waterfalls, and although it seems to rain a lot I’d recommend spending a good chunk of your Sri Lankan odyssey exploring the area. Ella is probably the best place to base yourself, but check out Haputale and Nuwara Eliya as well. Read a full post on the hill country here.
If you’re coming from India or Southeast Asia you might find the prices high, but only really in Colombo (Negombo), Kandy and the popular beaches. It was hard to find any rooms for under Rs 2000 ($15 USD) in those places, but once you get out into the rest of the country you’ll easily find nice rooms for between Rs 1000 – 1500. I mostly stayed in small family run guesthouses which were always clean, friendly and great value.
Buses and trains in Sri Lanka are really cheap, but good luck getting a seat as they are always full. I had to stand up more than I have in any other country, so if comfort is important to you it might be a good idea to hire a driver. As I’m a bit of a masochist (and tight with my money) I never did, but I talked to a lot of people who had and they said it was well worth it. If you have a few people together you should consider it, but try and take some local buses and trains as well.
Backpacking in Sri Lanka Costs
It’s expensive to go to tourist sites in Sri Lanka, but once you’re inside you quickly forget about your unhappy wallet. The Lion Rock (Sigirya) costs $35 USD, Polonarruwa was $25 and the cave temples in Dambulla were around $12. I spent 2 and a half weeks in Sri Lanka and spent about $600 USD, a little over my Southeast Asia budget but still pretty cheap considering all the places I went.
You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Colombo, by far the biggest city in Sri Lanka. I only spent a couple of hours in Colombo, and most of that was spent at the station waiting for a train. A lot of people (myself included) go straight from the airport to Negombo, a beach side town which is million miles from the bustle of the city, but within an hour drive. I kind of wish I spent more time in Colombo, but I’m sure I’ll be back.
Further reading: Thinking of going backpacking in Sri Lanka? Check out this Wikitravel guide
Have you been backpacking in Sri Lanka? Let me know if I missed any must see places!