Backpacking Sri Lanka: Ultimate Guide

Backpacking Sri Lanka, why should you do it?

Located to the South of India, Sri Lanka is a jewel in the Indian Ocean. This tropical island is as diverse in its people as it is in landscapes and scenery. Whether it be beautiful sandy beaches, peacock and elephant filled jungles, sacred mountain temples or tea covered hills, Sri Lanka has it all. During this article, we will link our other posts on why backpacking Sri Lanka is a must. Have a read and learn more about this spectacular country.

Famed throughout the world, Sri lanka’s beaches are a picture perfect destination which are fast becoming one of the number one wedding destinations on the planet. Head inland and you will find lush jungle Safari parks and UNESCO protected paradises. This is an island that has a deeply sacred feel to it, with spectacular religious sites spread across the land, whose history, beauty and splendor rivals that of the greatest sites in the world.  We could spend hours talking about this wondrous place but that is not why you are here. You want to know how much it costs backpacking Sri Lanka, so let’s get to it.

One of the many beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka

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What to expect when you arrive

Like we have said, Sri Lanka is a land of great beauty, once you have left the cities that is. When you arrive you will most probably be landing in the capital city of Colombo. Like most cities Colombo is not nice on the eyes. It can be a dirty place and also extremely busy. However, do not let this persuade you from visiting this incredible country.

When people think of this beautiful place, many picture India. This is a good image to start with. We love India and do not wish to insult the country … however. Backpacking Sri Lanka is both similar and completely different. As a whole Sri Lanka is a lot cleaner, friendlier and a more relaxed destination to visit. There is less poverty, less pollution and most important of all, far less people. Our friend once cycled across India, every night he would try to find somewhere to pitch his tent in a quiet, out of the way place. And every night he failed. In India people are everywhere. That is the problem when 1.2 billion people live in a country.

Where to visit?

Colombo

When you land in Colombo you will no doubt be thinking where to head to first. There are a few great sites to see in the capital. So you may want to stay for a day or two, to both get a feel for the country and to get over the jetlag from your flight. Check out the incredible Gangaramaya temple and relax in some of the roof top restaurants. 

The ancient cities of the north

Once you have recovered and are ready to go, it is time to begin backpacking Sri Lanka. In the north lies the ancient crumbling cities of Anarwadapurna and Polonawura. For more than a century archeologist have been peeling back the layers of history on these two incredible ruins. Think of yourself as an Indiana jones type? Then exploring these ancient cities may be just what you are looking for.

The beaches of the south

To the south lie a string of spectacular beaches which stretch from colombo all the way to the southern Coast and around. Here beaches like unawatuna and bentota make it a great place to just relax, chill and work on your tan. If you head to Mirissa you could even get the chance to spot a blue whale. From this little beach town many companies specialise in both dolphin and whale watching.

 Take one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world

When backpacking Sri Lanka, the No.1 thing to do is take the train to Kandy. The route connecting Colombo, Kandy, Ella and Nuwara Eliya is unbelievably beautiful. This is the most beautiful train journey in the world taking you through stunning hillscapes covered head to toe with delicious tea bushes.Also you do not have to take the train for the capital, Colombo. Many different routes from all over the country will finally get you to Kandy. It does not matter where you start from. Just make sure that you do it. Soak in the culture as you ride through this wonderful place. Sri Lanka also grows some of the best tea in the world, so do not miss your chance to try some.

Sigiriya

While you are in Sri Lanka you should not miss your chance to check out one of the wonders of the world, ancient Sigiriya. Here is our article for you to take a look. Sigiriya, The Ruins In The Sky

Udawalawe Elephant safari

If ancient ruins are not your thing, take a boat and go spot some whales or book a elephant safari and take a jeep into the national park of Udawalawe to see wild elephants up close. We was lucky enough to see a baby elephant when we went on our safari. Something that we will never forget. Take a look for yourself. A Rare Encounter with a Wild Baby Elephant, Udawalawe National Park Sri Lanka

Sri Pada/Adam’s Peak: The Buddhist Mountain

This is another must do when backpacking Sri Lanka. Located in the beautiful hills of south. This sacred mountain is a beautiful sight to behold. The mountain is best known for its pilgrimage. If you choose to climb the mountain you will begin at midnight and climb the stairs through the night trying to reach the holy temple at the top to see the dawn. You will not be alone when you do this as this is a holy thing for Sri Lankans. This is a cleanse of your body, when you return you will be shaking from exertion but with huge a feeling of contentment.

This is just a handful of the countless things that you can do on the island. Whatever it is that you would like to do, Sri Lanka caters for all.

Health and safety? What is health and safety

adventure-awesome-asia-guideHow much does Backpacking Sri Lanka Cost

To travel Sri Lanka on a budget you will be looking at paying between $20/£15 and $30/£23 per day. Sri Lanka is an Incredibly cheap country to travel. Many people who come here travel for a lot less. Some could even scrimp along on $10/£8  a day but that has become a tall ask over the last few years. Also, you are hear to make memories, not to scrimp and save every penny. Look at taking a minimum of $750/£585 and you will have a very comfortable time.

Daily Budget

However If you push your daily allowance up to $30/£23 to $40/£31 per day, say around the $1000/£780 mark. You will have a far better time. If you do this you will be able to stay in nice air conditioned rooms and eat beautiful meals every day. As Well as enjoying all of the activities available to you. And in Sri Lanka there is no end to the things that you can do.  If this is a little steep for you budget, do not worry. Backpacking Sri Lanka is  comfortably possible on a budget of $25 dollars a day. You will just have to keep a closer eye on your spending money. Read our articles below to learn the secrets of traveling cheap. 

When traveling in any country in the world, make sure that you use these resources for booking accommodation and transport: The Secrets Of Budget Travel, The Websites And Apps That You Need To Be Using!  You could save yourself hundreds of dollars by using these apps and websites. 

Here is another little article that could save you lots of money. Use these backpacking tips in any country to seriously bring down your costs. Backpacker Tips, How To Travel On The Cheap

Current exchange rate

USD = 152.6 LKR

GBP = 197.5 LKR

EUR = 169.5 LKR

(LKR = Sri Lankan Rupee)

Accommodation

We found that it was the accommodation prices more than most, which dented our budget (sightseeing is the biggest expense, which we will come to later). One way to get around this price is if you are traveling with a friend. This will help save you a considerable amount. As you can split the accommodation costs between the both of you.

Although accommodation was one of our biggest expenses, we did get some very beautiful rooms for the prices that we paid. One thing you will notice when backpacking Sri Lanka is that the country is  very clean. The locals wake up early each morning and go through their daily cleaning ritual, cleaning their homes and also brushing the streets outside.

Two of the beautiful places that we stayed. Left to right, a beach hut at Unawatuna and our jungle Safari lodge near Udawalawe National park

beach-hut-sri-lanka-paradise safari-lodge-jungle-asia

You will see that the price varies a lot throughout the country, where sometimes a double room will cost more than a single room that you had in a different location. Here are the prices that we paid and you can see that they often overlap. Use these as a general guide, and always remember to check multiple websites before you arrive to make sure that you get the best possible deal. Also keep in mind that it is rare to find any hostels when backpacking Sri Lanka. the only place where we found them was in the capital Colombo.

  • Dorm Bed: 900 – 1500 LKR ($5.80 – $10.00)
  • Single Room: 1500 – 2400 LKR ($10.00 – 15.72)
  • Double Room with fan: 1700 – 2700 LKR ($11.13 – $17.68)
  • Double Room with aircon: 2500 – 4580 LKR ($16.37 – $30.00)
  • Hotel Room, aircon, pool, all meals included: 9000 LKR and above ($58.95)

Transportation

Buses

Although accommodation prices are not the same as in India, transportation prices are. We were overcharged on our second day in the country. On a three hour bus journey from Colombo to the beaches of Bentota, we paid 350 LKR ($2.29). As soon as we handed over the money an elderly Sri Lankan gentleman and a pregnant woman started to shout at the bus conductor who quickly ran to the front of the bus. We found out that the actual cost should of been 250 LKR ($1.63). We calmed them down and told them that we did not mind but they were not happy. The people of Sri Lanka have beautiful souls (well, all except the bus conductors). You will find on all of your bus journeys throughout the country that you will never pay more than a few dollars for each ticket.

Trains

Trains are the cheapest type of transport available. Yes, even cheaper than $1.60 bus ride!. For 1st class you can expect to pay around 1000 LKR ($6.55) for a journey that is under ten hours. Tickets for 2nd class, which is both clean and comfortable, are far cheaper than 1st class. Again, for a journey taking ten hours, expect to pay just 250 LKR ($1.63). 2nd class is so cheap that 3rd class, which is often overcrowded is just not worth taking. Always buy a 2nd class ticket and you will enjoy some spectacular rail journeys with incredible scenery. Watch out for our upcoming article on one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, riding through the tea hills of Ella.

Hanging off of a train, riding through the hills of Nuwara Eliya 

kandy-nuwara-eliya-ella-train-journey-

Tuk-Tuks

Tuk-Tuks are a wonderful way to travel through this tropical country. However, they can get a expensive when traveling long distances. If you are in a tourist area expect to pay more than in the rural area, and remember, always haggle the price no matter where you are. Tuk-Tuk drivers will always try to charge you more. For short distances pay no more than 150 LKR ($0.98). When traveling up to 15 kilometers you will pay around 700 LKR ($4.58), just always remember to barter. When traveling further the price could be anything, depending both on your bartering skills and also the distance you are traveling. Compare the price you are given to the price of the bus/train and work out for yourself if you wish to take the Tuk-Tuk.

Food and Drink

Sri Lankan cuisine is very similar to Indian and equally as tasty, it is also very cheap. If you stay away from the pizzas and burgers and stick to the local delicacies like Kottu, Veg, Fish and Chicken Curries, Lentil Soup and Rotti, your daily food expenditures will be next to nothing.

  • Streetfood: 20 – 70 LKR ($0.13 – $0.45)
  • Inexpensive, local restaurant: 150 – 350 LKR ($0.98 – $2.28)
  • Tourist restaurant: 400 – 900 LKR ($2.61 – $5.80)
  • Western Food Chain (Mcdonald’s): 500 – 1000 LKR ($3.27 -$6.54)

The most common beer you will find is the country’s own, Lion Beer. In cheaper establishments you can pay as little as 300 LKR ($1.96). However in tourist restaurants expect this to rise, costing as much as 700 LKR ($4.57).

In Sri Lanka it is illegal for local shops to sell alcohol. To purchase alcohol you will need to find one of the local “Wine Stores” There are many about so you will have no trouble finding one. These places are often a little shabby looking and seem quite intimidating, but they are by far the cheapest place to buy alcohol and more often than not, very friendly towards tourists. They have a wide range of drinks from all over the world, so you will always find something that you like. If you are backpacking and on a budget, this is where you should be getting your drinks.

Attractions / Sightseeing

It is sightseeing which will be the biggest factor in how much you will spend. Whether it is Whale Watching, an Elephant Safari or even just visiting the Ancient Cities of the north, expect to pay an entrance fee. Like most countries, Sri Lanka has one price for tourists and another for locals. Tourists often paying much, much more. Just keep in mind that your money goes towards maintaining these wonderful places and that you earn far more than any ordinary Sri Lankan. For a general idea of the costs we will list the prices that we paid below.

  • Sigiriya Historical Park: 4577 LKR ($30)
  • Ancient City of Anuradhapura: 3815 LKR ($25)
  • Udawalawe Safari, Entrance fee and Jeep: 4577 LKR ($30)
  • Whale Watching: 5000 LKR ($32.76)

As you can see, Sightseeing in Sri Lanka can get a little expensive, but as we have said before, you are here to make memories that will last a lifetime, not count every single rupee. 

The view from the top of Sigiriya, Lion Rock

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Tricks and scams to watch out for

Closed hotel trick 

When you arrive in a new town or city you will often be approached by both Tuk-Tuk drivers and normal Sri Lankans. They will ask you which hotel you are staying at. If you say that you have not booked a hotel yet, they will try to persuade you to stay at theirs. Or at least one where they will receive a commision.

Now here is where the scam comes into play. If you tell the Tuk-Tuk driver that you already have a hotel. They will either A: rummage around and pull out a business card from that hotel and tell you that it is closed. Or B: tell you straight up that they know this hotel and it closed down due to refurbishment. They will then try to get you to stay at a hotel of their choice. They are Lying. Either politely tell them to take you to said hotel or go with another driver. If you have read our secrets of budget travel article above you will have seen the app Maps.me. If not, this is a great offline routing map, which can take you anywhere that you would like without Data. 

Food for the family scam

This is one that we nearly fell for in northern India. Here in Sri Lanka the trick is played as well. You will be approached, normally by a ragged looking gentleman and he will begin to tell you how hard his life is. He will tell you that he does not want anything for himself, he only wants to feed his family. You will then enter a shop with him and he will ask you to buy baby powder or even something as simple as rice. The scam is that the shop owner is in on it and will charge you five times the normal price. The ragged man will later return to pick up his share of the money.

Fake charity collectors

When Backpacking Sri Lanka you may unfortunately run into this trick often. Elderly respectable looking gentlemen wander the beaches and cities looking only for tourists. They carry official looking letters and clipboards and pretend to be collecting money for charities. They are not. Real Sri Lankan charities do not collect on the streets.

Few final tips

Visa

Sri Lanka does require a Visa in order for you to visit. If you are a UK citizen you will be given a Visa on arrival for a price of $30, although you are advised to apply before arriving in the country to avoid any possible delays. The Visa price for other EU citizens and US citizens is $35. Check the Sri Lankan government website for more up to date information.

SIM Card

The best way to get a SIM card is to apply in the arrivals hall inside the airport. Here they have dedicated booths set up just for tourists and they will set up your SIM for you there and then. A plan with 5GB of data will cost you 450 LKR ($2.94).

An early morning shot of a peacock asleep in a tree in Udawalawe National Park

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ATM’s

You will find ATM’s in every town on the island, although you may have to check more than one as some of the local banks do not accept foreign cards. Also be aware that all of the ATM’s have a withdrawal limit, some only allowing a 10000 LKR ($65.53) transaction. Keep an eye open for HSBC, these are the ATM’s that you should be using to avoid paying countless bank fees, their daily withdrawal limit is 50000 LKR ($327.66)

Stay Calm

Try to stay calm and friendly at all times. When you are backpacking Sri Lanka you may get overwhelmed with the amount of times you are hassled by Tuk-Tuk drivers or by shopkeepers trying to drag you into their shops. Travellers are quite rare in certain parts of Sri Lanka and many people will want to talk to you. Nine times out of ten you welcome this. but we know that sometimes you just want to relax. Just remember to stay calm and polite and that anger will not get you anywhere.

Other Great Articles

As you can see, backpacking Sri Lanka is exotic, mystical and filled with culture. It is an incredible destination to both travel and  go backpacking, and most important of all, it is CHEAP! For all of our other awesome articles on backpacking Sri Lanka, visit our Sri Lanka Hub.

Although great for budget travel and one of the least expensive destinations to visit, Sri Lanka is not the  no. 1 cheapest destination in the world. For that you should head to its noisy neighbour, India. Check out our price guide for India here: India Travel Budget.

See what others have said about this wonderful place, Sri Lanka: the good and the bad: By Helen in wonderlust

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8 comments

  1. Thank you for such a comprehensive list!
    I’ve heard a lot of great things about Sri Lanka, so will have to find time to visit soon!

  2. Hi, just wanted to ask if 500 usd is enough for 4days and 3nights. Thanks in advance hope to hear from you soon.

  3. Good write up 🙂 I did have a heart attack once trying to get into peradeniya botanical gardens with an aussie mate. Foreign tickets can be pricey…
    Being born lankan, I don’t follow these rules so whenever I go, I always splash out and stay in the most poshest places I can find ha ha

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