Sri Lanka Costs: $51 a Day

Having just reopened its borders to tourists in 2009, Sri Lanka is a relatively new travel spot. Essentially untouched by large developers and many of the hassles that accompany well-worn backpacker trails, it’s still possible to travel there on a shoestring. We did exceed our budget of $40 a day, since Sri Lanka isn’t quite as affordable as its large neighbor to the north. And we definitely got the sense that prices are rapidly rising as proprietors test the waters on what visitors will pay to enjoy the country’s beautiful beaches and cultural attractions.

Here is a breakdown of our costs. This table does not include costs to enter the country, which included $52.00 in airfare (this is when we used airline miles to fly first class) and visa fees of $60 ($30 each).

Type of Expense Total Cost
(for 18 days)
Daily Average Notes
Lodging $278.25 $15.46 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $7.92 in Anuradhapura to $27.71 in Unawatuna.
Food $262.41 $14.58 Food prices on the beach tended to be much higher than local food shops, with the exception of roti stands. Local places had better food and music.
Transportation (within country) $33.62 $1.87 Transportation can cost as little as $1 a day!
Entertainment $251.21 $13.96 Includes SCUBA, Horton Plains National Park, whale watching, and the cave temples at Dambulla.
Alcohol $81.34 $4.52
Incidentals $19.16 $1.06 Includes the costs for items like sunblock and internet.
Grand Total* $925.99 $51.44 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare)

Some Examples:

1 L water – Rs.70 ($0.55)
640ml beer – Rs.240 ($1.90)
Hotel near the beach – Rs.2500 ($19.80)
Meal at a local’s restaurant – Rs.300 ($2.38)
Ice cream cone – Rs.50 ($0.40)
Western-style breakfast – Rs.500 ($3.96)

A Guide to Riding Buses in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Bus

Sri Lankan roadways can be heavy with congestion and noise. Rather than using mirrors and turn signals, drivers honk their horns* in order to let others know that they’re passing or turning, making for very loud, hectic journeys. Getting from point A to point B can be frustratingly slow in a country around the size of West Virginia, but along the way you may have some of your best experiences seeing the countryside and meeting locals.

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If you’re visiting Sri Lanka, traveling around the country like a local is the best way to go. Although tuk-tuks are always around (really, you can’t get away from them), they tend to be much more expensive than public transportation and we made it a point to use them only when necessary. If you need to get to where you’re going quickly there’s really no better option and they are a lot of fun to ride in, although they don’t go that fast (which is probably a good thing, because they don’t seem safe!). We found that they charged around Rs.80 ($0.65) per kilometer, but prices are negotiable. Sometimes the people at your hotel will be able to give you a ballpark of what they should charge for well-known routes. Remember to agree on a price before getting in!

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Buses are ubiquitous and cheap, but we rarely saw other tourists taking advantage of them. The bus network goes everywhere and you never have to wait more than five minutes for one to drive by. There’s one main highway from Colombo that stretches all the way around the southern coast, so getting from town to town is as simple as walking out to the road and hopping on. Bus stops are marked by blue signs and yellow paint on the road that juts out from the curb in a large rectangle. You can hail most buses but be prepared to get on quickly as they don’t always come to a complete stop.

Two people operate each bus. Along with the driver there is always a second person that collects the fare from passengers and helps the driver not to run people over as they’re getting on and off. The conductor also assists the driver in navigating through obstacles on the narrow streets.

Usually the ambiance of Sri Lankan buses is festive, filled with the sound of local music that is a nice reprieve from the late 90’s soft rock rubbish they play at the beach resorts. At times there are even music videos or strange soap operas. At the front of each bus are flowers and colorful photos of deities. Most have prominent gold-plated boards featuring various gods that are encircled by blinking LED lights. The consistent use of this particular type of décor makes us think that they’re state funded. The omniscient ornamentation isn’t always enough though, and it’s not uncommon for the driver’s assistant to hop off the bus and leave a quick offering at one of the thousands of roadside shrines that dot the country.

A few tips for riding the buses:

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  1. If you have your pack with you, you’ll need to store it as soon as you board the bus. In many cases there was a space next to the driver where you can put it, but sometimes it has to go under your seat. In certain cases you’ll be asked to store it in the boot. If so, make sure the conductor remembers to get off and open it when you get to your stop.
  2. Seats at the front of the bus are reserved, which means that you may have to get up if monks, pregnant or disabled people board. If a monk does get on, women cannot sit next to them so if you’re of the fairer sex it’s better to sit elsewhere. It is also a common practice to offer your seat to the elderly so they don’t have to stand, and we saw many men offer their seats to women as well.
  3. Once you’re on the bus and situated, the conductor will ask your destination and collect your fare. Ask him to let you know when you’ve reached your stop if you aren’t sure where it will be. You can also ask a local, they’re usually happy to help. Pay attention to the shops you pass as they often have the name of the town in English, and keep a map as it’s a good to have some idea of where you’re going anyways.
  4. If you don’t catch the bus at the station, you may need to stand for all or part of your journey. Either way, make sure to hold on as the ride can be quite bumpy and the drivers have a tendency to accelerate and brake abruptly. Try not to stand near the doors as they are strictly for show and do not close.
  5. Personal space is limited. If you get knocked in the head by a handbag or two, it’s not intentional – the buses can be quite cramped and it seems like there’s always room for one more.
  6. If there’s no bus stop at your destination, there are small switches on the ceiling to alert the driver you need to stop. He will not stop the bus immediately, however, so make sure to let him know slightly ahead of time if possible.
  7. There are no toilets on Sri Lankan buses. Longer routes will make an occasional bio-break stop, but the facilities are usually unpleasant.

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The cost to ride buses in Sri Lanka is negligible. As an example, the journey from
Matara to Nuwara Eliya (220 kilometers/130 miles as the crow flies) was Rs.310 each ($2.50USD). But it did take 8 hours! BTW, we searched everywhere for this information so I’m going to put it out there for Google: There are two daily direct buses from Matara to Nuwara Eliya, and they leave at 6:10am and 8:00am.

Private bus companies are also affordable and have A/C, however, they may want to charge you for an extra seat if you have your pack. Overall we preferred the public buses.

*Just for fun, here’s a list of reasons drivers might honk their horns. We observed all of these, although given the amount of noise on the roads there may well be more!

Horns may be used to…

…alert people you’re turning

…alert another car that you’re passing

…warn pedestrians that you’re there

…say “thank you” after passing

…tell someone to get out of the road (including livestock)

…say hello

…alert others that you are speeding around a blind corner in the wrong lane

…alert people that you’re driving down the road in the dark with no headlights

…just to honk. Sometimes we couldn’t discern a reason!

Buddhas, Buddhas Everywhere!!

GoldenTemple

The remainder of our whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka was split between the mountain town of Nuwara Eliya and the cultural sights in Dambulla and Anuradhapura.

90 degree days with near 100 percent humidity definitely took a toll on us Denverites, so a few days in the mountains going on hikes, visiting waterfalls and tea plantations, and enjoying the cool night air was a great change of pace.

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On our way to Dambulla to see the ancient cave temples we decided to check out one of the main attractions in Kandy, a city where we had to transfer buses.

Backpacking Rule #1 (well, we haven’t established rules yet, but this is sure to be near the top when we do): Do not go sightseeing with a full backpack in 90-degree heat. It was HOT and Kandy is a busy, noisy city full of touts and far too many annoying tuk-tuk drivers.

We made a beeline toward the Temple of the Tooth. The holiest site in all of Sri Lanka, this temple is supposed to hold one of Buddha’s teeth that was stolen as he was being cremated a couple thousand years ago. They don’t display the tooth very often anymore so I can’t give my first-hand opinion, but rumor has it the tooth is some three inches long and looks like it came from a buffalo (that’s one scary Buddha)…so in short we didn’t pay the entrance fee to get into the temple and just snapped a couple of shots from outside the fence.

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A short walk back to the bus station and we were on our way to Dambulla. We arrived only to find it a ghost town. Apparently every full moon in Sri Lanka is a holy day for Buddhists so everything was shut down. We were able to find a hotel, but questions about where we could find a beer (much needed at this point in the day) were met with unexpected shock and horror. Apparently it is illegal to sell alcohol on the day of the full moon (it sure seems backwards not to allow alcohol on holidays!).

Eventually our host made a deal with the hotel next-door so we could buy a beer from them. This was only on the condition that we hide it inside a bag and drink it in our room. It felt a bit like a drug deal but we were successful in getting our beer! Oh, forbidden beer tastes good!

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A set of ancient cave temples and a very tall golden Buddha statue are really the only reasons to visit Dambulla. They claim the golden Buddha is the largest Buddha statue in the world, but in actuality he’s not even the tallest in Sri Lanka. He is magnificent, though.

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The cave temples are situated on top of a large hill with very nice views and more than a few monkeys. Seriously, I felt at one point that if I didn’t watch where I was going I might accidentally step on one!

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The five cave temples at the top are quite impressive. The temples (along with many of the statues and murals within) date to around 100 BCE. Many of the statues were carved from large slabs of stone using only rudimentary tools.

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Overall they’re very cool, however, it’s ALL Buddhas! Countless Buddhas. Plain ones, ornate ones, painted ones, sitting and laying down ones, but all Buddhas. There’s even Buddha wallpaper!

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After a couple caves we’d seen more than enough and it was off to Anuradhapura.

Anuradhapura is an ancient city and former capital of Sri Lanka. As such, there are numerous religious sights, tons of ancient ruins, and…you guessed it! More Buddhas. It’s good to note that there is a surprisingly high ($25) entrance fee to get into the main sights, but you only have to have a ticket to get into the museums so 90% of the sights are completely free. This was not well noted in our guide books.

We saw some very large Buddhist stupas including a brick stupa called Jetavana that is the largest single brick structure on earth consisting of some 90 million bricks. At the time of its creation it was the tallest man-made structure save the great pyramids in Egypt.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Jetavana.jpg” title=”Jetavana Stupa” position=”center”]

The majority of the archeological site is open to pedestrian traffic only which makes it a pleasure to walk though. Ruins littered the whole area, with monkeys now the only residents.

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Our all-too short time allotted for Sri Lanka had run out, and in many ways we were disappointed we couldn’t explore the rest of the island. However, as Sri Lanka was added onto the trip at the last minute we’re very happy to have been able to visit what we could. We certainly would come back, but for now it’s off to India!

Exploring Sri Lanka’s Beach Towns: Part Two

Unawatuna

After Hikkaduwa and Galle we went over to Unawatuna, still famed as being one of the more alluring beaches in the Southern Province although it suffered extensive damage in the tsunami of 2004. The town itself is a long stretch of dusty road that follows the shoreline. Dotted with roti stands, restaurants, and clothing shops, it’s touristy but mellow.

We found a gem of a guesthouse there with a great proprietor who served us breakfast on the balcony facing his garden. Our next-door neighbors (aside from the European couple) were giant water monitors and toque macaque monkeys that are endemic to the island.

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On the western edge of town there’s a small dagoba and Buddha statue, although they were both under construction at the time of writing. The walk up the hill was worth it, though, for the views of the surf crashing against the shoreline. It’s a nice place to wind down the day.

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Habaraduwa Sea Turtles

Our next stop was Mirissa. Along the way we visited the Habaraduwa Sea Turtle Farm, whose mission is to ensure future generations of the endangered sea turtles who call the island home.

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Of the seven species of sea turtles on earth, five nest on the beaches of Sri Lanka. We paid Rs.400 each to meet the turtles there and learn about how they’ve released more than 500,000 sea turtles into the ocean since they opened in the 1980’s.

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Mirissa

More low-key than the other places we saw, Mirissa has great seafood options and wild waves. It was our favorite beach town, and we stayed there for the better part of a week watching whales and enjoying the beach. When you visit, make sure to look out for red flags that warn you if there’s a strong undertow. The currents there can be pretty intense and have been known to sweep less cautious swimmers out to sea.

There’s another turtle farm right off Mirissa Beach that doesn’t charge a fee for visitors. We still left a small donation there because it’s such a great cause.

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Each evening, the fishermen bring in their catch and put it on display in front of the restaurants so you can choose what you’d like for dinner.

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We went with a butterfish one night, which they spiced up and grilled to perfection.

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A torrential downpour hit as soon as it came to our table, but YUM! It was good.

Next up, a very long bus ride to Nuwara Eliya!

Exploring Sri Lanka’s Beach Towns: Part One

The beach towns of Hikkaduwa, Galle, Unawatuna and Mirissa provide a great introduction to the traveler-friendly country of Sri Lanka. Although the accommodation and food in the Southern Province are a bit more pricey than the hill country and Cultural Triangle, the good nature of the people and the laid back atmosphere make up for the higher costs.

Hikkaduwa

After landing in Colombo, our first stop was Hikkaduwa. Previously a hippie haven, it has since been taken over by tourists and offers decent surfing and SCUBA diving (the latter being what drew us there). There are a few dive shops in town, and all of them offer the same fixed rate for single dives – $35USD including gear. Poseidon Diving Station seemed to be the most legitimate so we went with them. We still had to trade out our dive gear a few times before we were satisfied that we’d met all the safety requirements that go with diving sixty feet under water. The staff were responsive and replaced our regulators and tanks promptly, but their equipment might be due for an upgrade. In all honesty, we didn’t really feel safe diving after so many equipment malfunctions.

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After thirty minutes on the sea we dove down to the remains of the SS Conch. A British oil tanker that sank in the year 1903, the Conch dropped to the sea floor after hitting a reef and breaking into two. Diving near the wreck wasn’t the best, as there were strong currents and the visibility was low. But the massive boilers from the ship are still intact and they’re quite a sight. The dive lasted for only 35 minutes since we used a lot of oxygen fighting the currents, and we both experienced seasickness for the first time once we got back on the boat.

Even though it wasn’t our favorite place to dive, it’s not hard to pass a couple of days in Hikkaduwa just watching surfers and swimming off the wide white-sand beach.

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Galle

A well-preserved piece of colonial and Sri Lankan history, Galle Fort is a picturesque spot at the southwest corner of Sri Lanka.

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Originally built by the Portuguese in the 16th century to defend Galle, the fort was ceded to the Dutch in the seventeenth century before control finally went to the British when they fully colonized Sri Lanka in 1796.

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It doesn’t take long to familiarize yourself with the streets that crisscross the Fort. It’s a major tourist attraction, as evidenced by the many tour buses that park alongside the walls. But the bulk of the traffic remains outside in the main city of Galle, making it all the more pleasant.

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As far as beaches go, Galle Fort doesn’t have much to offer. There’s a small strip of sand near the lighthouse, but it seems to be used mostly by the local Muslim residents (not the place for sunbathing in a bikini). There must be other swimming holes outside the Fort, but we didn’t venture that far out during our short stay.

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In Part Two we’ll take you to Unawatuna and Mirissa, some of our favorite places on the island!