10 Things You Don’t Know About Sri Lanka

One of the best things about visiting a new country is learning new things. No matter how much research you do or how many people you ask, there are always things about the country that surprise or even bewilder you.

Here’s a quick gift for all you Pinners

Presenting the top 10 things you didn't know about Sri Lanka -- otherwise known as India for beginners ;) #travel #srilanka #travelguide #traveltips #knowbeforeyougo #offbeat #interesting

Last November I had the honor of being selected as one of the top 50 travel bloggers in the world and was invited to Sri Lanka as part of TBC Asia. During my month exploring the country I saw incredible sights, ate delicious food, made amazing new friends, and yes, learned countless new things. So without further ado I present to you 10 things you don’t know about Sri Lanka:

The locals in northern Sri Lanka are so friendly! Everyone in Trincomalee was so curious what we were doing there.

Sri Lanka Is India For Beginners

If you are thinking about a trip to India, I highly recommend visiting Sri Lanka first. Given that the countries are only 28km apart, there are of course many similarities between the two. Many of the same foods can be found in both and there is a large overlapping in fashion.

See More First impressions of Sri Lanka

However the people of Sri Lanka are much friendlier and more polite. Many of them care more about making a new friend than making money off you. Countless people invited me back to their house and I always said yes. And then there is the touts! Even if you say no to a tout in India they will still follow you with persistent pleas of “my friend” or “very cheap, just for you.” However in Sri Lanka a single “no” or simple wave of the hand is all it takes to be left alone.

The traffic in Sri Lanka is much more tame than India. Cars in Kandy stopped for me to walk across this street and photograph the Buddha.

Crossing the street in Sri Lanka is also much easier as traffic is MUCH more tame. Cars will actually stop for you, whereas in India you have to be very defensive when crossing the road, as it can be a life-threatening daily ordeal. However the same cannot be said about buses, which are just as aggressive here in Sri Lanka. The hurtle along the roads day and night at breakneck speed and seemingly would not stop even if the driver’s own mother was crossing the road.

The Orient Hotel in Jaffna, Sri Lanka is not really a hotel but rather a restaurant

Hotels Are Not Always Hotels

Everywhere in Sri Lanka you will see places called “Hotel Paradise” and “Orient Hotel” however most of these places are not actually hotels. It is very common for restaurants to place the word “hotel” either before or after their name. Not only is it “the cool thing to do,” as several local friends told me, but there was a time in Sri Lanka when if you wanted good food, you had to go to a hotel. Although the word stuck I’m happy to say that now you can find good food on every street in the country πŸ™‚

Things you don't know about Sri Lanka: Hotels are not actually hotels. They are restaurants. This is Bharani Hotel in Jaffna, Sri Lanka

But my favorite was…THE NON-VEG HOTEL.

Things you don't know about Sri Lanka: Hotels are not actually hotels. Hotel De Nathans "non-veg hotel" in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. This is actually a restaurant that does not offer any vegetarian dishes.

Shaking Your Head “No” Actually Means Yes

I was so confused during one meeting with a hotel’s marketing director when he kept agreeing to everything I was saying but shaking his head left to right in what most westerns recognize as a way of saying no. However in Sri Lanka (much like Bulgaria) this in fact means “yes” or “okay, I understand.”

Here in Jaffna, Sri Lanka the cows own the streets. They are not scared of anything and when you honk at them they just look at your like "WTF do you want?"

Cows Outnumber Cars In The North

In many parts of Sri Lanka the number of cows wandering the streets far exceeds the number of cars of the road. Several times our bus would stop along the road not due to traffic but rather because there were a hundred or more cows in the middle of the road. These cows are brave bastards too and totally unfazed by horns.

Things you don't know about Sri Lanka: cows outnumber cars in the north. Our bus to Jaffna had to pause while the cows crossed the street.

Rapidly Expanding Highway And Tollway Network

Since the war ended five years ago the transportation infrastructure has undergone massive improvements. There are now brand new large highways and tollways connecting many cities along the west coast and other popular tourist destinations. Throughout the country roads are being widened and re-paved with the goal of making it easier and faster to get from one city to another.

Buffer Zones Around National Parks

By law there is a 2km buffer zone around all national parks in Sri Lanka. This means that the land cannot be developed by commercial interests and helps protect the pristine beauty of the park. It is a wonderful idea and one practice that I wish more countries would follow.

Pigeon Island National Park, Sri Lanka
See More Sri Lanka Travel Guides

Sri Lanka Is The 4th Biggest Tea Producer In The World

Tea is one of the most popular drinks in Sri Lanka and for a good reason. The country produces an insane amount of tea considering how small it is. Only China, India and Kenya produce more, and all of those countries are significantly larger than Sri Lanka. (Kenya is the smallest of the three and it is still more than ten times the size of Lanka.) As such visiting a tea plantation is one of the must do things while in the country.

Magestic tea plantation up in the Sri Lanka highlands

It Is Possible To Travel The Northern Provinces

I read online before arriving that it was forbidden for foreigners to travel the northernmost provinces of Sri Lanka, where much of the fighting occurred during the country’s three decade long civil war. Fortunately this is only half true. It is possible to visit these areas — as long as you have received prior permission from the Ministry of Defence. Luckily, as I discovered, this is surprisingly easy to obtain.

Learn More How To Get Permission To Visit Northern Sri Lanka
After getting blessed by a Hindu priest in Jaffna he attached a kalava to my wrist, which is supposed to ward off evil

There Are Extreme Anti-Smoking Warnings On Movies, Even On HBO.

Sri Lanka gets it’s television signals from India. As such in addition to seeing commercials in Hindi they also have many anti-smoking advertisements on TV. These include a large disclaimer before the movie starts that can run 60 seconds or longer, and even text warnings against smoking during any scenes where someone is smoking a cigarette or talking about tobacco.

There was three separate anti-smoking advertisements that ran back to back prior to the film beginning. And then of course the text warnings anytime someone smoked or talked about cigarettes.


Ever visited Sri Lanka?

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About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel." Β  Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

53 thoughts on “10 Things You Don’t Know About Sri Lanka”

  1. I visited Sri Lanka in October 2005 – ten months after the tsunami devastated most of the country. Yes, you could see some of the damage, we were even taken to a hotel on an inlet where people died. The country is poor and infrastructure wasn’t great. Having said that, out of the 25 or so countries in the world I have visited, I don’t think I can recall a place where the people are so happy and make an effort like they do here. It is a beautiful place, and during my week tour I was captivated by the scenery and the people. The locals want to know more about you; where you are from, where you are staying, why Sri Lanka, and it was great to interact with them. I really hope I can get back one day. I really captivating place.

    • Very well put Andy, I completely agree. So much so that I’ll be taking my second trip there in a couple months πŸ™‚ Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts, best wishes for 2015!

      • My favourite coastal areas during my hectic week spell in Sri Lanka were Bentota and Negombo. I also loved Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Kandy – a bustling city filled with history. We stayed in the same hotel the England cricket team stay and that was fantastic.

        • My favorite coastal areas were definitely Jaffna and Trincomalee, both located in the north. Bentota was okay but I prefer Induruwa just to the south. However I skipped over Negombo in my efforts to get to some of the places that were further removed from the typical tourist trail. Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Kandy were all spectacular cultural destinations for those eager to learn more about the history of Sri Lanka, however the cost of getting in to some of those attractions definitely adds up fast.

          Next time you head back to Sri Lanka, let me know — I’ll give you some personalized recommendations and put you in touch with some local buddies πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks Derek for the awesome articles about my country. Great to hear that you enjoyed your visit. Hopefully You’ll comeback and have more pleasant experiences.

    • Hi Eranga, thanks for reading and commenting πŸ™‚ Yes I most definitely loved Sri Lanka — so much so that I’ll be coming back for a second trip in February. What city do you call home?

  3. they call those ‘hotels’ cuz ‘restaurant’ is hard to say/pronounce for the people and generally if you went out for a meal in SL some time ago you went to the few actual ‘hotels’ that were there….

    little aspiring joints they are! mixed bag of nuts when it comes to fare and quality.

    • Ahhhh really? Awesome, thanks for the info Gary. Will update the article now to reflect this πŸ™‚ And yes, you are right, some of those little hotels are amazing and others are, well, not so hehehe πŸ˜‰ I had the opportunity to go in the kitchen and “cook” in a couple of them (not much cooking involved in throwing some roti on the hot pad and chopping away lol) and definitely met some great people at each of them, even the ones with the lackluster food.

    • Those photos and the video were taken while we were in Trinco. I put the TV on HBO for background noise one night (after the crab curry) and didn’t really pay much attention until I heard this crazy cig warning. I stopped what I was doing, looked up and started watching it. Then when the second warning started immediately after the first one ended I scrambled to grab my tablet and record it.

      Really curious to see your list now as well. Likewise I’m sure I’ll also learn a few new things πŸ™‚

  4. Hi Derek,I enjoyed reading this post.I am a Sri Lankan and you are correct.Hotels are not always hotels in Sri Lanka πŸ™‚ And of course,we shake head from left to write to give positive gesture of ‘yes’,or ‘okay’,But it is opposite to the western countries.:)
    Glad you found that people in Sri Lanka are polite…..

    • Hey Amila, thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate it πŸ™‚ And yes I really enjoyed my time exploring your country but one month wasn’t enough! Luckily I’ll be back at the end of February to do some more exploring…cannot wait! What part of the country do you call home?

      • well….I am from Colombo,but definitely not from the city.You are so lucky to visit Sri Lanka again.Hope you’ll enjoy yourtime there and we’ll hope to read some more interesting articles based on your time there……Don’t forget to try some Sri Lankan traditional sweets too πŸ™‚

        • Hey Amila…I don’t think I tried any authentic Sri Lankan sweets while I was there. However if everything goes as planned I should be back around the end of February. Any chance you can give me the names of a few sweets, so that I know what to look/ask for? Thanks!

    • Marysia has a similar post going live today and only two of our items overlap….so get ready to learn some more! Shame you couldn’t have stuck around Sri Lanka longer Erin. Hope we cross paths again somewhere else this year πŸ™‚

  5. Hey Derek

    I love your site!

    I have a client going to Kandy for 2 days. He seeks cultural and educational experiences and is open to private and group tours. As far as an itinerary, I was going to have him hit all the major sites… including the Temple of the Tooth and the Botanical Garden. Do you think it is worthwhile to go to Pinnawala to see the elephants? It seems quite touristy and I read lots of bad reviews.

    Any other must-sees? Would you recommend a guide in order to optimize the educational opportunities or is it pretty easy to do that on one’s own?


    • Hey Brad, thanks for the kind words, hope all is well on your end. I skipped Pinnawala myself, for those exact reasons. It’s a greedy place, they don’t give a shit about the animals. If you or your client (or anyone else reading this, for that matter) wants to see elephants, do it at a national park like Kaudulla — along that is a bit out of the way for a two-day Kandy trek.

      As far as a 48-hour Kandy itinerary goes, I would recommend spending one day in town to see all the obligatory (and yes, touristy) sites such as the Temple of the Tooth and Buddhism Museum. For the second day get out of the town and do some hiking and exploring. There is some great trekking to be found and tea plantations and villages to explore. A guide will definitely be needed for this, but the in town stuff can be done without a guide. Especially TooT, as the entrance fee also covers paperwork and a CD that includes multi-language videos and information on the site, among other stuff. No need to pay for a guide as well, at least IMO.

      So, do I get a small percentage commission for helping plan your client’s trip? Hahaha πŸ˜‰

  6. Very interesting. This as a very strange thing happened in Sri Lanka. but whether this will have a positive impact for tours in the tourist locations. Sri Lanka is an exotic tourist locations. and we need to have a lot of references if you want to enjoy a holiday in the place. what you post, is very useful information. nice post.

  7. Thanks Derek for the awesome article about my country. We are as Sri Lankan glad to hear that you enjoyed your stay. I do hope that we will soon have the opportunity to welcome you back to Sri Lanka for what I am sure will be another unforgettable stay.

    • Hey Saman, thank you for the comment and well wishes. I’ve actually already been back to Sri Lanka a second time and hope to come back for a third visit later this year πŸ˜€ (In India right now, not far away.) Beyond an amazing and beautiful country with a rich culture and delicious food, there are also fantastic and friendly people there just like you. That is why I keep coming back.

  8. Awww. You want to know about authentic Sri Lankan sweetmeats? Oil cakes, athirasa, kokis, aasmi, helapa, kiriya, gingelly rolls, melon candy, aluwa, gotu pittu, wandu aappa, peni walalu, naarang kewum, aggala, lewariya, bibilkan, seeni murukku, dodol, rulang dosi… There you go! πŸ™‚ Unfortunately, I do not know much about the sweets made by Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. And try some real Kitul treacle and jaggery…

  9. Hi Derek, I really enjoyed reading your post bout my mother land and I am proud to be a Sri Lankan .However it is great to hear that you enjoyed your visit at there. Most of things in your article are correct , except “Sri Lanka gets it’s television signals from India. ” we have more than 10 TV channels and over 20 Radio channels our own. but North part of Sri Lanka can capture Indian TV signals. ( you may be watched satellite tv channel from “Dialoge” ) . It’s glad you understand that people in Sri Lanka are polite and friendly. yes it is……..

    • Hey Pradeep, thanks for the kind words and the update on television signals. I was in Trincomalee when I filmed that short video clip of the tobacco warnings, and I recognized it (and the channel) from India. Guess I need to re-word what I wrote so that others do not get confused.

      BTW, I just published a new article on Sri Lanka about an hour ago: Unique & Offbeat Things To Do In Sri Lanka. Do let me know if you think of anything else that I missed. I’ve only been to Sri Lanka twice, so I’m sure there is still more for me to discover πŸ™‚

  10. Sublime country with amazing kind people !!!

    Visited this jewel island in 2001, still in my memory.

    Recommended to visit really


  11. Hello Derek,thanks for your review,I’m really enjoyed your review,and it’s happy to hear you enjoyed in here,don’t forget to taste spicy foods and street foods like chili mango salad,Ceylon olive chutney, by the way just feel the different climate between cost line and up country side,
    ayubowan !!

  12. Hi,derek, I’m happy to read your post on my country.actually we have admirable etiquettes,morals & values inherited since the past that foreigners don’t care much,unfortunately, some of sri lankans don’t respect them too. And also, some tourist guides forget to admonish foreigners. I think that is why foreigners don’t care much to follow our etiquettes.besides,there are many foreigners who are well-informed of our culture & etiquettes & It’s fortunate to mention, our culture appreciates & establish equality,peace, togetherness,human rights,respectfulness,democracy etc.Our culture is based on theravada buddhism & that is why our people (specially, early sri lankans ) are so conservative , morally developed & have developed spiritual attitudes . unfortunately, there are some deviations can be seen in the present . However, there are many good things to learn from sri lankans to others. I think everybody should study deeply on the culture & etiquettes as well as theravada buddhism in sri lanka in order to clarify their vision & avoid misconceptions.( Note. some people who is not well-informed about our culture may give wrong informations to foreigners )

  13. L’ove the post Derek and really like the way that you describe Sri Lanka as a country for beginners!

    I haven’t yet been to Sri Lanka, but I have been to India! I would like my German husband to visit India too, but I think he might have a heart attack at the conditions and the stress of the noise and dirt, so perhaps Sri Lanka would be best lol!

    • Hahaha yes definitely best to ease him into it then. If you don’t have time this year, highly recommend putting Sri Lanka on y’all’s itinerary for 2018. Amazing, beautiful, friendly country. Funny how some of the countries with such rough history turn out so sweet and amazing….

    • Well I actually did not mind Colombo so much but would imagine it gets a bit boring after more than a week or so. Least favorite parts eh? Hmmm well I’ve been thinking about this question for a couple weeks now (that’s why it took so long for me to reply) and I still cannot come up with any part of Sri Lanka that I did not like. Galle got old fast, even though it is beautiful, but that’s just because I’ve been traveling for so long that now I tend to not like places that are super touristy. Otherwise everywhere was good for its own reasons and all so close together that it is not really possible to pick a least favorite part. Guess that says a lot about the country, eh? Usually there is always at least one place I hate hahaha πŸ˜‰

  14. Hey I’m from sri Lanka I just read some of the old comments so I thought of mentioning some sweet meats we have asmi ,kokis which came from the Dutch, kawum, milkrice or kiribath in Sinhalese, and spices which you could eat with milkrice are lunumiris
    Or pol sambol but there are more .

  15. Hi Derek, seems like your favorite is the Northern areas. I love the Central such as Nuwara Eliya because the weather’s decent. I’m basically sick of the weather in Colombo where I live.
    Love reading your article and good luck!

    • You’re right Kadi, I do love the north, especially Jaffna but also Trinco. Back during my first trip in 2014 Jaffna was still semi-off-limits and I had to get special permission from the government to visit. That all changed with the new president, but having the chance to visit while it was still “off the beaten path” AND right after the train had reopened, well to me that was very impactful. It made me understand more the hardship that Sri Lanka has gone through. Passing old ruins and buildings riddled with bullet holes and meeting local families with heartbreaking stories to tell is something that you never forget. However, that is also one of the reasons why I am glad that the north has opened up more now. Increased tourism has helped Sri Lanka so much the last few years and now the northernmost part can finally begin to enjoy some of that increased revenue and positive foreign attention.
      Anyway, sorry for rambling on…..but thanks again for your comments. Are you Sri Lankan or just a fellow traveler?

  16. Well, I am Sri Lankan. Btw my parents have been to Jaffna but I have never. My mom’s dad is from a city there I don’t know the name of πŸ˜€

    • Definitely get the chance to visit your first opportunity. Tourism changes places a lot — both positively and negatively — so it’s always nice to see things raw, real, and authentic, before the buses of tourists begin rolling in πŸ˜‰


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