This backpacker’s guide to Sri Lanka is the first in a series, so make sure you sign up to receive all future updates. If you’re looking for location-specific information about a particular part of the country, check out our older posts.
Sri Lanka, Ceylon, Serendib, Taprobane, ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’… these are just some of the many names that have been used to identify this small, teardrop-shaped Island.
Located in the Indian Ocean, just above the Equator, Sri Lanka’s nearest neighbours are India to the North and the Maldive Islands to the South East.
A well-kept secret amongst seasoned travellers for the past 50 or so years, Sri Lanka became a main-stream sensation after its 30-year civil war ended in 2009. Since then, the country has become a must-visit destination for travellers (and backpackers in particular) with Lonely Planet naming it as the best country to visit in 2019.
Why Visit Sri Lanka?
So why all the fuss and what exactly does Sri Lanka have to offer?
We’ll do our best to answer this question during the course of this backpacker’s guide to Sri Lanka. But first, here’s a short video put together by the people at Lonely Planet to give you a taste of what this amazing country is like.
Now that you have a rough idea, let’s get into some specifics.
Small in Size; Big in Experience
Although it is relatively small in size, Sri Lanka more than packs a punch, in terms of what there is to see, do and experience.
Sri Lanka has 24 wildlife reserves and boasts not one but eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa;
- The Ancient City of Sigiriya;
- The Sacred City of Anuradhapura;
- The Sacred City of Kandy;
- The Golden Temple of Dambulla;
- The Old Town of Galle;
- The Sinharaja Rain Forrest; and
- The Central Highlands
So, whether it’s relaxing on a beach; seeing animals on safari; hiking up a mountain trail or gazing with wonder at ancient ruins, you can do it all and more in Sri Lanka. And what’s more, it will only take you a few hours to get from once such experience to another.
Add to this the network of roads and highways and the ultra-affordable transport services, and you’ve got yourself a backpacker’s paradise!
Golden sandy beaches; lush tropical rainforests; misty mountains; gushing waterfalls, rivers and streams; and still, placid lakes are just a few of the natural wonders you’ll encounter here.
From crafty crocodiles to friendly dolphins and from shy leopards to lazy sloth bears, Sri Lanka has it all. A veritable treasure trove of biodiversity, it has the highest biodiversity density in Asia and is included in the list of 25 ‘biodiversity hotspots‘, in recognition of its wealth of species.
History and Culture
A melting pot of people, cultures, languages, religions and more, Sri Lanka has a rich and varied history. It’s written history goes back at least a good 2,500 years, as evidenced by the ancient texts of the Ramayana and the Mahawamsa.
Sri Lanka has seen immigration from the North and South of India, the advent of Buddhism, and the rise and fall of ancient kingdoms. She has also been a maritime trading hub for centuries and served as a convenient stop along the Silk Road which connected China and the Far East to North Africa and Southern Europe, during ancient times.
In later years, she was coveted by not one but three European colonial powers: the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, who ruled the country in turn, until its independence in 1948.
You will see evidence of this rich and varied history not only in the form of ancient ruins and monuments but in the language, the architecture, the clothing and the faces of the people. And you will even taste it in the food!
Whether you’re looking for a cultural deep-dive, an adrenaline-fuelled adventure or a calming and relaxing holiday, you’re sure to find it in Sri Lanka.
Here are just some of the many things you can do in Sri Lanka:
- Surfing (including learning to surf);
- SCUBA diving (including learning to dive and gaining your PADI certification);
- White-water rafting;
- Safari tours;
- Camping and ‘glamping’; and
- Receive ayurvedic treatment and therapies
Ask anyone who has tasted Sri Lankan food and they will tell you that it’s the best food they’ve ever tasted.
‘How can this be?’ you ask. Well, first off, Sri Lankans take their food very very seriously. You will be amazed at the amount of time and effort they put into preparing their traditional dishes – convenience is not even a consideration!
Sri Lanka’s status as a cultural melting pot is also reflected in its cuisine, so you’ll see influences from places far and wide such as India, the Far East, the Middle East and even Europe. Add to this the wide variety of spices that are produced in the country and the many different fruits and vegetables that grow here and then you’ll have some idea of the many varieties of tasty and flavourful food you can expect to taste in Sri Lanka.
The best part is that most of this food is relatively cheap to buy!
Even vegans and vegetarians will be pleasantly surprised to find that they are well catered for in Sri Lanka. The traditional staple dish of rice and curry usually comprises of rice, served with curried vegetables – i.e. cooked with spices and a little bit of coconut milk. So it’s almost always vegan-friendly (of course, many restaurants will also offer the option of a meat or fish accompaniment, but you can simply decline/leave that).
Sri Lanka’s best-kept secret (until recently) is probably its people. Kind, friendly and ever willing to help a stranger, their smiling faces will greet you wherever you go.
They will welcome you into their homes and their hearts without a moment’s hesitation and go out of their way to help you. This is why those who have met them remember Sri Lanka’s people, long after all other memories have faded away. It’s also why Sri Lankan hospitality is by far the best in the world, bar none.
And that concludes this post. In upcoming posts, we hope to discuss when you should visit Sri Lanka and possible routes and itineraries etc. So stay tuned.