Sri Lanka: An affordable Asian surprise

2017-05-24 21:00 - Anje Rautenbach
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I hand over a 100 Rupee note to the fare collector on the bus; I have no idea how much the ticket is from Tangalle in the South, where I just spent a few glorious days on the beach searching for sea turtles at night, to Dikwella, a small village just a hop away from the well-known Unawatuna beach and two hops away from the World UNESCO site, Galle Fort.

He hands over my change and plants 80 Rupees in my hand.

A 4-hour bus journey, albeit slightly comfortable, a tad squishy and with two bus doors open the whole time to fasten the pace on pick-ups and drop offs,  just came down to 20 Sri Lankan Rupees, less than two silver springbok-embossed South African coins, less than R2.

“Welcome to Sri Lanka,” I tell myself.

I tuck the 80 Rupees in my wallet knowing that in a few hours I’ll be able to buy an intense curry from the bus change, and continue to stare out of the bus window as the West coast of Ceylon shoosh-shoos-shoos by.

My fingers search on my phone for accommodation on a booking site. I skim through the reviews, skip the dormitory-style accommodation and lock in a deal for just under R200 a night; breakfast, private bathroom, great location and air-conditioning included.

Another beach, another passenger  – shoos-shoos-shoos – another fishing boat, another surfer  – shoosh-shoosh-shoos.  I take out the last samoosa from my bag and snack on the spicy crunchy vegetable treat.

Four samoosas were R4.

“Welcome to Sri Lanka,” I remind myself again.

You’re in for a Sri Lankan surprise

Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island South of India, which was once under colonial rule, torn by more than two decades of civil conflict from 1983 to 2009 and struck by the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, is now a firm favourite amongst adventure seekers, budget travellers, solo travellers, foodies, surfers and yogis as an off-the-beaten path destination in Asia.  And it is not only easy on the wallet, but with its sprawling jungles, abundant wildlife, idyllic beaches, terraced tea plantations, friendly and helpful locals, charming landscapes, its fair share of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and good food, Sri Lanka is also very easy on the eye.

What is not to like?

You can take the scenic train route to Nuwara Eliya and Ella and spend your days cooling off in the cooler temperatures of the highlands where green tea plantations and waterfalls beckon you closer.

Fancy a beach, a chance to surf or want to go whale watching? Then beaches like Trincomalee in the north, or Arugam Bay, Mirissa, Uppuveli and Unuwatuna is the white sand answer you’ve been looking for.

If your budget allows a safari, try Yala National Park which has the highest density of leopards in the world, or Horton Plains National Park where you can peek over World’s End, a sheer cliff with a suitable name.  And if you have itchy feet and feel like a hike, why not tackle Adam’s Peak which towers 2 243 m above the clouds or Ella’s Rock. 

But if you are after history and heritage, best you add another day in the cultural triangle or just extend your stay in Sri Lanka; visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, go to the sacred city of Anuradhapura, climb Sigiriya Rock (or Pidurangala if you want a more affordable option which offers the same view), go inside the impressive Dambulla Caves, spend some time in Kandy to stroll around the lake and explore the Buddhist temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.  But just keep in mind that if you are on a tight budget you might not want to visit all the historic sights mentioned, as tickets to these sights should be bought separately (about R1 200 for four sites) and it is only valid for one day.

And then of course there is the old Dutch Galle Fort filled with history, and the vibrant and harmonious mix of people, cultures, religions and traditions. Don’t forget to stick around for sunset to see the cliff jumpers plummet into the water.

Safety and Smiles in Sri Lanka

If you are concerned about safety you may cast your worries aside. Like any country with tourists you may expect the inflated “tourist price”, but the country is extremely safe; weather you are travelling as a family, a female, in a group or solo. As with any country, don’t walk alone at night and trust your instincts. The people are incredibly friendly, caring and helpful; be prepared to smile a lot because when in Sri Lanka you smile. Even though English is widely spoken in Sri Lanka and you’ll most likely have no language barrier if you keep it simple… but a smile is still the easiest form of communication.

Money matters

South Africans can apply and pay the R465 visa fee online (highly recommended if you want to avoid lines and papers at the airport). It is a simple and quick application process to get your 30 day e-visa and it is also a double entry visa if you wanted to visit the Maldives.

Taking a public bus will set you back about R1 to R5 while an air-conditioned mini bus is about R16, the express bus from Galle to Colombo is R40 and a tuk-tuk starts around R17 for a short journey or R350 for a full day tour.

If you find yourself in the capital city of Colombo try using Uber as it is cheaper than bargaining a taxi price to get to or from the airport/guesthouse.  Scooter rental is on average about R120 p/day.

Tourists can pick up an 8GB simcard for R200 (4GB night time – midnight to 9am, and 4GB day time – 9am to midnight).

Budget accommodation starts from just under R200; just note that some hotels add a 10% service charge, and there is also a government tax but if differs from hotel to hotel, just check the fine print of your booking confirmation or ask the hotel about any extra charges.

Street food starts at R2 while a meal in a local restaurant is R13 and in a touristy restaurant it can easily go up to R86. A 1.5 liter bottle of water is R7, a beer R30 and coffee – even though a decent cup of coffee is almost non-existent – is also R30.

When it comes to the tourist attractions the heritage sites, like mentioned before, can set you back more than R1000 if you opt to visit all the sites and if you want to go on a safari it is R400 while a surf lesson is R175.

When, where, what and how long?

Sri Lanka is all-year destination and it has rain throughout the year but in different regions; the best time for the west, south coast and hill country is from December to March while the east coast is highly enjoyable from April to September.

Sri Lanka is not suitable for a quick visit due to the time it takes to travel from one destination to the next (unless you just want to visit one place and move on again); it is best to plan your itinerary around 10 days to 3 weeks if you want to experience a bit of everything from beaches to wildlife to the highlands and the cultural triangle.


The names of towns and cities in Sri Lanka are real tongue twisters - Unawatuna, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura – but before you know it it will just roll of your tongue, effortlessly.


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