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Travel Tips and Advice to Sri Lanka - The Do's and the Don'ts

Travel Tips and Advice to Sri Lanka


The national airline is SriLankan Airlines (UL) (website: www.srilankan.lk).

Approximate flight times
From Colombo to London is 12 hours, to Hong Kong is five hours 10 minutes, to the Seychelles is three hours 55 minutes and to Tokyo is nine hours.

Main airports
Colombo Bandaranaike (CMB) (Katunayake) is 29km (19 miles) north of the city. To/from the airport: Buses go to the city regularly and take 45 to 60 minutes. Taxis are available. There are trains to Maradana Station, located 1.6km (1 mile) from the city center (travel time – 60 minutes). Facilities: Duty free shop, restaurant, bar, snack bar, bank, post office, tourist information and car hire.

Main ports: Colombo, Galle, Hambantota, Kankasanthurai, Point Pedru and Trincomalee. For more information on Sri Lankan ports, contact the Sri Lanka Port Authority, No.19, Chaithya Road, P.O Box 595, Colombo 01; tel: (1) 242 1201 or 1231; Website: www.slpa.lk 

Duty Free
The following items may be imported into Sri Lanka by persons over 18 years of age without incurring customs duty: 
200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 340g of tobacco; 2 bottles of wine and 1.5l of spirits; a small quantity of perfume and 250ml of eau de toilette.

Prohibited items
Firearms, explosives and dangerous weapons; ivory; antiques, statues and treasures; old books; animals / birds / reptiles (dead or alive) and parts; tea; rubber; coconut plants; dangerous drugs.

(a) Only two members of the same family traveling together are entitled to free import allowances. (b) Valuable personal effects (including jewelry), must be declared on arrival in Sri Lanka. (c) There is no gift allowance. (d) Unused Sri Lankan currency should be reconverted to foreign currency upon departure. You are not permitted to leave Sri Lanka with currency in excess of Rs.250.


The major domestic airport is Ratmalana at Colombo. There are daily flights to smaller airports at Batticaloa, Gal Oya, Palali and Trincomalee. The airport at Jaffna is currently closed.

Departure tax
An embarkation tax of Rs1550 is payable at the Bandaranaike International Airport. Otherwise, none.

Trains connect Colombo with all tourist towns, but first-class carriages, air conditioning and dining cars are available on only a few. New fast services operate on the principal routes, including an inter-city express service between Colombo and Kandy, otherwise journeys are fairly leisurely. 
Note: Rail services to Jaffna have ceased owing to the violent political disruptions in the northern area.

Traffic drives on the left. Most roads are tarred, with a 56kph (35mph) speed limit in built-up areas and 75kph (45mph) outside towns. Flashing lights mean that the driver is asserting right of way, unlike in the UK. Avoid remote areas and traveling at night. Bus: An extensive network of services of reasonable quality is provided by the Sri Lanka Central Transport Board. Private bus drivers are paid according to the number of passengers and can often drive rather dangerously. Taxi: These have yellow tops and red and white plates. In Colombo, taxis are metered but it is advisable to agree a rate before setting off. Drivers expect a 10 per cent tip. Car hire: This is available from several international agencies. Air-conditioned minibuses are also available. Motorised rickshaws are also readily available for hire in towns and villages. Chauffeur-driven cars are less expensive and recommended. Documentation: In order to avoid bureaucratic formalities in Sri Lanka, an International Driving Permit should be obtained before departure. If not, a temporary license to drive is obtainable on presentation of a valid national driving license. This must be endorsed at the AA office in Colombo. The minimum age for driving a car is 18.

Bus: The Central Transport Board provides intensive urban bus operations in Colombo, where there are also private buses and minibuses. Fares are generally collected by conductors. Services are often crowded.


Don’t wrap the kids in cotton wool, they will thrive in Sri Lanka. Tuk-tuks, golden temples, elephant rides, tree houses or secret islands are just the start of their adventure.

This a family paradise and Sri Lankan people love children – they are the focal point of every town and in few hotels children under 10-years will stay for free.



  • Most hotels have Western dishes like pasta, chicken escallops and omelettes, but Western options like baked beans, fish fingers and burgers are best forgotten. Sadly, the fast food chains can be found in large Cities (KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut). Traditional Sri Lankan Curry is not very hot and the chefs will happily turn down the spiceometer for children.

  • Cots and extra beds are readily available at a small fee and often complimentary for under 5yrs. Children under 12 yrs sharing with parents will usually stay for free and get 50% discount on meals.

  • Amenities like disposable nappies and Calpol are hard to find except in the major supermarkets in Colombo, Kandy. The sad fact is that Sri Lanka has not developed a good refuge infrastructure.

  • Sun cream and hats are a must. Best to bring your own.

  • Responsible babysitting services are available in most hotels and payment is usually at your discretion. Rs. 300-500 would be very well received and a small price to pay for a “night off” or “dinner à-deux”.

  • Children's facilities tend to consist of snorkeling, pools, nature and wildlife, cycling and sightseeing- no computer games or cartoons. The Sri Lankan children are extremely resourceful and run around happily. They will never shy away from a new Western friend.

  • Prams or backpacks for very young children should be packed. Bear in mind the heat with backpacks.

  • Many stray dogs & cats roam the streets. Most are harmless but cleanliness is not apparent and children should be deterred from making “furry friends”.

  • Cars and 1st/2nd class trains are suitable for young children. They are very crowded and small buses should definitely be avoided.



  • Pre departure – Check polio, tetanus, typhoid, Hepatitus A, anti-malaria medication with your local GP or International Medical Centre. Malaria is in very small jungle areas and haphazzard in its presence. Cover well at night and use plenty of repellant and you should be clear of bites. Don’t risk it as there are many mosquitoes at dusk. Some swear by eating Marmite to keep them away but we at BSL believe that pure Citronella oil is the best repellant. You can buy it in all the pharmacies in Sri Lanka.

  • Useful and up-to-date health advice can be found with your local health adviser.

  • In your First Aid Kit – Anti biotics, diarrhoea “blockers”, citronella, antiseptic cream or insect sting relief, box of matches (to burn paper and use ashes to stop any bleeding from leeches), lip balm, sunscreen, Tampax (unavailable).

  • Food & Drink – “If you can cook it, peel it or boil it- eat it”. Avoid dairy products made with unboiled milk, eg. Some ice creams.

  • Despite the streets being littered with rubbish, hygiene in Sri Lanka is good and few sensible visitors experience problems, unlike in India. Do not drink tap water or use ice from unboiled water and be cautious if using tap water to clean teeth unless in a hotel.

  • Narcotics – Drugs are illegal in Sri Lanka.

  • Hospitals – Good private hospitals in Colombo and some in the regions. Major towns have well stocked pharmacies with qualified English speaking staff. Doctors’ prescriptions are not always needed.

  • The Sri Lankan remedy for many ailments from muscular pain to a hangover is King Coconut.



  • Tipping – is optional for good service, 10% plus, but 10% is often billed into any hotel or restaurant bill. For porterage Rs. 30-50. For good service over 2/3 days Rs.300-500 depending on the standard of hotel or service.

  • Touts may be a nuisance but if accepting a service remember that they have to make a living. They will receive commission from the shop/restaurant to which they lead you.

  • Photographs – do not pose in front of or beside a Buddha statue, it is disrespectful. Do not photograph (or attempt to shake hands with) a Buddhist Monk (in orange robes) or a Muslim family (especially the women) without prior consent.

  • Friendship - it is normal to see men out alone at night as the women tend to stay with the family. You will discover that men are very tactile, dance together and hold hand as a sign of friendship. Embrace this if you feel comfortable but please don't apply western thinking to what it may represent.

  • Music - Sri Lankan's love music and they will strike up a tune on anything they can lay their hands on - guitar, shakers, bongo, bottles. Citadel and calypso music are still the favourites but reggae is extremely popular with the young.

  • Gifts giving or receiving - When gifts are received it is very impolite to open them at the time.

  • Visiting a Sri Lankan family – always take a small gist e.g. Packet of biscuits, cake but not flowers. Remove your shoes when entering a home.

  • Eating – use only the right hand if eating Sri Lankan style. The left is associated with unclean activities.

  • It is considered very rude to blow your nose in public.



  • On the beach/coastal resorts: Casual cotton clothing, sunglasses and hat. Long sleeves and trousers for evenings for protection against mosquitoes (many of your meals will be alfresco).

  • Topless sunbathing is prohibited. To avoid hassle and staring in public places eg. waterfalls, towns etc. women should dress modestly.

  • Hill Country : Much cooler, particularly in the evenings. Bring a sweater or fleece and a waterproof. In low wet land throughout the mid-country, you'll find many leeches in the grass from small to large buffalo leeches. Bring long trousers tucked into your socks and cover your boots with soap.

  • Religious Sites : Women should cover their shoulders and legs. All visitors to Buddhist temples should remove shoes & hats and fine umbrellas. Hindu temples also require you to remove shoes & hats. You may be asked to make a donation- if you chose to, place it into the donation box.

  • Colombo: The capital is a thriving social scene with many fashionable restaurants. Linen casuals will be fine but you may feel a tad under dressed in the “vogue” restaurants.



  • It is recommended that you safely carry your passport at all times and ensure that it is valid for 6-months beyond the date of travel. A visa valid for 30 days is issued on arrival at no cost for travelers from Europe, USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. These can be extended for a fee in Colombo at the Visa Council next to Majestic City (photographs sometimes required).

  • Insurance - A policy to cover theft, loss and medical issues is a must. You may also wish to check out cover for activities such as diving, white water rafting, cycling and abseiling etc.

  • Driving Licence – International driving licence is valid for only 3 months and must be obtained in your home country. To extend it to Sri Lankan travel, you must attend the RAC office in Central Colombo. You will require 2 photos.

  • It is a good idea to photocopy all relevant documents - passport, travel, insurance policy etc., and leave one copy at home. Carry another copy with you separate from the originals.



  • Sri Lanka is full of crafts, jewellery and beautiful antique furniture and can be found throughout Sri Lanka.

  • Colombo is the centre for fashion, department stores, Western style shopping. There are many clothing manufacturers in Sri Lanka and Colombo’s fashion stores stock up on unsold export stock. For a list of the best retailers visit Colombo region shopping.

  • The South West is home to the traditional masks and carved crafts. They make great artifacts for decorating a home and the quality is first class. Ambalangoda, in particular is a haven for antiques and you will find some exquisite Dutch colonial pieces. It’s very heavy so consider export charges when negotiating your price. Sadly, the dealers have become wise to demand for such pieces. Most has been exported (they have sadly stripped Jaffna) and the prices are extremely inflated.

  • Jewellery stores can be found everywhere but predominantly in South West and Colombo. The gold is much more yellow in colour than English Gold and they generally trade in 18ct. White gold and platinum is rare and there is no Hallmarking so be careful. Labour is extremely cheap and the jewellery is beautifully hand crafted so if you have a design in mind, ask them to quote on making it up.

  • Diamonds are usually imported but Sri Lanka is the home to many beautiful gems, namely sapphires (not known to many, there are 5 colours not just blue), rubies, aquamarine, moonstone, garnets and topaz. Check all stones you may purchase for flaws and discolouration. There is a Gem testing center in Galle (310 Galle Road, Kollupitya).

  • The hotel jewellery stores have highly inflated prices, but the quality is of a reasonable standard.

  • For a list of recommended shops and restaurants, check out our regional reviews – you might chose to print them off for your trip.

  • All stores have a local rate and tourist rate and this is commonly accepted across Sri Lanka - it can often be double. Please just accept it as the norm and don’t embarrass the locals, as most the tourist prices are still cheap.

  • There are main things to do in Sri Lanka. Adventures, Night Clubs, Safari's, etc. Please consult us for more information.



  • Time : Sri Lanka is GMT+5:30 in summer and +6hrs in Winter from UK. Australia : -4:30 hrs. USA: +11 hrs

  • Telephone : Country code is 94, outgoing International code :00.

  • Mobile Tel: A good telecoms infrastructure but expensive. Local network chips can be bought for about Rs.1500 and payasgo cards are extremely cheap.

  • Fax: Available in most hotel receptions and communication centers around the country.

  • Internet: There is a growing number of internet cafés and hotels with Internet facilities. All Colombo hotels are equipped with Internet facilities.

  • Post: Airmail to Europe takes about 7 days.

  • Electricity : 230-240 V AC, 50Hz. A voltage stabilizer is obtainable from a good electrical store.


Money / Currency

  • The local currency is Sri Lankan Rupees. Currency can be exchanged in Sri Lanka only so you would be best to bring sterling, US dollars or euros. Travellers cheques are received but the commission can be higher.

  • The exchange rates are fairly flat across all the banks but the hotel rates are considerably poorer.

  • There are registered Money Changers which will offer you a better rate than banks. But also money can be exchanged on the blackmarket at a better rate, namely jewellers, large stores but discretion is essential. Always be aware of the bank rate first for comparison. A local will find exchange easier and achieve a better rate. But you must have a good trust in a reliable friend or your Tuk Tuk driver before handing over cash.

  • The banks are open Mon - Fri 8am - 3pm and closed at the weekends and Poya Days. The main banks are Bank of Ceylon, HSBC, Standard Chartarted, Peoples, Hatton national, Sampath and Commercial.

  • Credit cards (Mastercard, Visa) are commonly accepted in hotels and restaurants and many shops, but do check first. Cash points are in most major towns but careful as they attract a lot of beggars.



  • Guides are best hired at the sightseeing destination. They are very knowledgeable on their given subject. Most English speaking drivers will have a general knowledge as you travel about.

  • BSL would recommend the following guide books for Sri Lanka:

  • Lonely Planet Sri Lanka – latest copy August 2003. Many hotel address/tel inaccuracies but good for general tips and historical guides

  • Insight Guide to Sri Lanka – Focuses on sightseeing / culture. Well written and stunning photography. 



Safari Tours

3 Nights - 4 Days

Includes safari at Minneriya and kaudulla. Covering Habarana, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa and Giritale.

Round Trip

8 Day Tour Package

Sri Lanka Grand Tour covering most of the Splendours of Sri Lanka. From World Heritage Sites to safari's.

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