Map of the Indian sub-continent where SriLanka is marked in the green colour.
An enchanting tropical island lying off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka has a unique cultural and geographical identity. Its bountiful attractions and legendary natural beauty have lured traders, adventurers, invaders and – nowadays – the discerning traveller. Its undulating coastal plains, its historic sites, its wildlife and its unrivalled palm-kissed beaches will enchant all who visit this proud nation. Indeed, Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer trader extolled its virtues over eight centuries ago. “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, “The nation of smiling people”, the phrases abound, but perhaps the finest comment on Sri Lanka’s delights comes from the Arab traders of many centuries ago. They named the island Serendip, after which our modern word serendipity derives.
The Wild Navigator traveller may wish to dip into the delights of Sri Lanka by combining their journey with visiting parts of India, or may spend all their holiday on the island.
Unlike its neighbouring southern India, Sri Lanka has a flatter landscape but with central highlands towards the south, culminating in the impressive peak of Pidurutalagala. Tea, coffee and spice plantations dominate certain areas, all against a backdrop of lush landscapes of green tropical forest and grassland, and idyllic tropical beaches.
Sri Lanka is steeped in history with evidence of inhabitation long before neighbouring India. Indeed, much of early Buddhist teachings arose from the island. Technologically, Sri Lanka may have rivalled ancient Egypt and Persia with irrigation dams from 2500BC. The Sinhalese dynasties of over a millennium ago were supplanted during the Middle Ages by a series of shorter-lived kingdoms. Lying on the silk and spice routes to Europe, its importance in trading, a well as its strategic importance to nations seeking to dominate the sub-continent, led to waves of different cultures settling in Sri Lanka. Each culture has imprinted its presence on Sri Lanka, providing a prolific range of heritage sites, culinary experiences and festivals for the discerning traveller. To-day Sri Lanka remains one of the most culturally and religiously diverse island nations.
After the power struggles between European colonial nations, Sri Lanka became a British colony in the 1800s, gaining its independence after the Second World War. Sri Lanka’s recent history has been dominated by the Asian tsunami in 2004, which decimated many coastal communities and, above all, by the long civil insurrection between the northern Tamils and the central government. The civil war ended in 2009 with a controversial military victory by the central government. Although tourist visits to the unaffected southern regions had remained high throughout these turbulent years, tourism has rapidly blossomed since 2010 in the new, stable political environment.
Perhaps the most pervasive attraction for the Wild Navigator traveller will be Sri Lanka’s exceptional biodiversity. The nine national parks are home to large mammals including leopards, elephants, tigers and the insect-eating sloth bear. Butterflies and a rich diversity of birdlife abound in all regions. The coastal waters attract whales seasonally, and fish are prolific.
Few countries in this region can boast to having eight world heritage sites. A varied menu of vistas and experiences waits, from the hilltop capital of Kandy, to the cave temple of Dambulla, and to the rock fortress of Sigiriya, and with copious more minor heritage attractions. With over twenty main beaches scattered around the island and a myriad of smaller ones; idyllic waterfalls and scenic beauty throughout the countryside, there will always be something fresh to do. Adventure activities are also rapidly increasing with opportunities for day walks as well as longer treks in the highlands, white water rafting, diving and other water-sports, and cycling. And Sri Lanka has other opportunities to refresh body wellness, and the soul. It is home to spas and Ayurveda hospitals, yoga and meditation centres.
Sri Lanka’s diversity and enchantment is matched by the range of products and gifts available. Handicrafts reflect the multi-cultural heritage – from batik and lace; to cane, carved wood and bamboo; to ceramics, silverware and brass. Sri Lanka mines a wide range of precious stones and, naturally, is home to a vast spice industry as well as the world famous Ceylon teas.
With Sri Lanka offering such a vast menu for travellers, where will your journey on this enchanted island take you?
Most major international carriers fly to Sri Lanka. The main international airports is Colombo.
Visas and passports – A passport valid for a minimum of 6 months is essential. A visa is essential and cannot nowadays be purchased on arrival. Visas may be obtained on-line via the Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) system or via the Sri Lanka embassy or high commission in your country.
Weather – Sri Lanka is tropical, with distinct dry and wet seasons. The seasons are slightly complicated by having two monsoons. From May to August the Yala monsoon brings rain to the island’s southwestern half, while the dry season here lasts from December to March. Average temperature in the country remains around 27 degree celsius.
When to go
Best time to visit
SriLankan people are friendly by nature and, like other countries in the sub-continent, warm to friendliness that is reciprocated. SriLanka has some strong traditions, means certain customs and protocols should be kept to, including:
- In public places, please wear sensible clothes that cover arms and legs.
- Do not photograph people without seeking their approval.
- Still and video photography are permitted at all monuments. However, a licence is required for any flash photography.
- Always ask formal permission before entering a temple or monastary.
- Always remove your shoes when entering a temple.
- Do not take photographs within Hindu temples.
- In wildlife reservations the state will charge you a fee for photography.
- In tribal areas photography is not permitted.
- It is customary to tip most persons providing services – waiters, guides, doormen, porters, private drivers, etc.
Choice of clothing will be dependent upon the areas you wish to visit, the season and any outdoor activities. Cotton clothing is suitable for most of the year. For visits to the central highlands, warm woollen clothing and protection from wind and rain eg. anorak, hat, etc – as well as stout walking boots are recommended at all times. During the monsoon season good waterproof clothing (anorak, trousers and hat) is essential.
All international credit cards (MasterCard, Visa, etc) are accepted in leading hotels, shopping centres, bars and restaurants in all major towns and cities.
ATMs are common throughout towns and cities. You are advised to convert cash or travellers’ cheques into SriLankan currency only at banks or official exchanges, and to retain the receipts. Receipts allow for re-conversion at the end of your visit; it is illegal to export SriLankan currency on departure.
Sri Lanka uses 220 volt, 50Hz mains electricity similar to the United Kingdom supply. Plug sockets are round pin (2-pin or 3-pin) as in most Asian countries. We recommend you purchase a travel adaptor before leaving your country of residence.
Vaccinations and health requirements
The principal exception is for travellers from countries where yellow fever is endemic, where a vaccination certificate is essential. Your doctor can advise you on appropriate vaccinations. Please obtain advice a few months in advance of your travel so there is adequate time to complete any course of injections.
Insurance – We advise you to take out a medical/accident insurance policy in your country of residence. If you are trekking in the more remote regions insurance should include cover for helicopter evacuation.
Skin and eye protection – Always good to protect your skin and eyes from the sun. In the summer months the temperature can go high and we recommend to stay as much in the shade as possible, especially during mid day hours (10am – 4pm). Wear clothing to protect exposed skin. Wear a hat with a wide brim to protect your face, eyes from the heat. Apply sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher).
Landline telephone services are usually of good quality. Mobile/cellular phones operate in most regions.
Is English spoken?
Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages; in certain remoter areas local languages persist. English is widely spoken across the whole country, and is the language used by government agencies and larger businesses.
Do I need a permit to travel within Sri Lanka?
Permits are only required in certain restricted areas. Before traveling within SriLanka, you should register your intention and general plans with your country’s embassy or local consulate.
Are there some regions that I should avoid?
The northern regions of Sri Lanka, which were inaccessible to foreign travellers during much of the insurrection, can now be freely visited by tourists. There remains a strong military presence and travellers are advised to adhere to all instructions and advice from security forces. Particular care must be exercised in photography; photographs of personnel, equipment and bases – either directly or in the background of scenic shots – should be avoided. Please also adhere to the signs warning of the few areas of un-cleared military ordnance. These simple cautions should not detract from an enjoyable visit to these fascinating regions of Sri Lanka.