First Impressions: Sri Lanka (And Advice For Other First-Timers)

First time visitors to Sri Lanka tend to assume that the country and the culture are very similar to India given their close proximity (only 28km apart) however nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve only been in the country a couple of days and already I have been overwhelmingly blown away by the kindness of the locals, the richness of their culture, the mouthwatering local cuisine and of course the breathtaking scenery.

Sigiriya, one of the obligatory places that all Sri Lanka first timers must visitAfter killing his father, king Kasyapa fled town and built a castle atop this giant rock to escape the wrath of his brother Mogallana, the rightful heir to the throne. Welcome to Sigiriya.

Galle beach in Sri LankaGalle Beach, just one of the countless beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka

I arrived at 5am aboard Sri Lankan Airlines, the nation’s only international air carrier. Flying in to Colombo in the dark was a gorgeous experience in and of itself. As we descended overhead our speed combined with the abundance of trees kept blocking the lights below. The end result was very much like watching thousands of white Christmas lights blinking on and off.

  Here’s a gift for all you Pinners ๐Ÿ˜‰

First impressions of Sri Lanka and travel advice for your first trip

Sri Lanka Immigration

Sri Lanka is investing heavily in their tourism industry and one way it clearly shows is in their visa process. Foreign visitors can (and should) apply for a visa online prior to arrival. It costs $30 USD and only takes a minute but allows you to skip the VOA queue upon arrival and head straight for immigration. No annoying questions about where I am going or when I am leaving, just a warm welcome, quick stamp and a gift.

That’s right, all visitors are given a welcome package that includes a booklet on Sri Lanka, coupons for local businesses, tea packets and a free SIM card pre-loaded with 50 R. Sure, it might not be enough to start streaming videos but at least you’ve got a local phone number to make/receive calls and the ability to send and receive texts.

Sri Lanka tourism welcome pack and SIM card for tourists

After retrieving my luggage there were several different cellular providers selling SIM cards. The free one was Dialog but I also purchased one from Hutch and another from MobiTel (yes, for those who don’t know I carry an abundance of electronics with me, including two laptops, two tablets, GoPro, phone and perhaps most important of all, my universal myfi USB stick that runs off any SIM in any country in the world).

  As I’ve only been here 48 hours I cannot say yet which provider has the best coverage area and fastest data, however I will update this article with that info at the end of this month.

Arrival In Colombo

Bandaranaike Airport located outside of the capital of Colombo is one of three international airports on this island nation and is the gateway to Sri Lanka for the nearly all foreign tourists. From there it is less than an hour drive down one of the country’s many new highways to reach Colombo.


Although the war that ravaged Sri Lanka for thirty years finally ceased in 2009, some remnants of this tragic history still remain. For example upon nearing Colombo a few old cement watchtowers and barbed wire fences remain. However the city itself is completely safe and peaceful. The only thing you need to be wary of are the touts — but that is true with any tourist destination.

Transportation Around Colombo, Sri Lanka’s Capital City

The fastest and easiest way around Colombo is via tuk-tuk. These three-wheelers are exactly the same as the ones found in Thailand and Philippines but with one key difference: they are all brand-spanking new.

Sri Lankan tuk-tuk

The standard price for a tuk-tuk in Colombo is 50 LKR ($0.40 USD) for the first kilometre and 40 LKR for every additional kilometre. Of course this doesn’t mean that people won’t try and rip you off. My buddy and fellow traveler Kerwin of KerwinMcKenzie.com and I experienced this firsthand mere minutes after setting out on foot to explore Colombo. After being advised of a ceremony taking place at a nearby Buddhist temple the two of us opted to take our first Sri Lankan tuk-tuk ride and go catch the show.

Avoid this tuk-tuk driver in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, because he will drive you in circles and charge ludicrously inflated prices

Shortly into the ride we inquired as to the price and were quoted a staggering 1,000 LKR ($8 USD). After asking why so much the driver gave us a variety of bullshit answers all while driving in circles down side streets. Yes, seriously. (Like he thought we wouldn’t notice, HA!)

  Many of these tuk-tuks have meters however most do not. If you prefer not to have to haggle or hassle with your driver than it is best advised to stick with metered taxis only.

Galle Fort in Sri LankaCruising around Colombo in the back of a tuk-tuk


And now I leave you with…

  More Photos Of Sri Lanka

View from a Sri Lankan tuk-tukGalle Fort, located in the southwest corner of Sri Lanka

Kiri Vihara stupa, part of the Polonnaruwa ruins in Sri Lanka, a UNESCO World Heritage SiteKiri Vihara stupa, part of the Polonnaruwa ruins in Sri Lanka

Cinnamon Bey, Sri LankaPoolside at the amazing Cinnamon Bey Hotel in Beruwala, Sri Lanka

More Sri Lanka posts + photos

  Ever been to Sri Lanka?

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About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel." ย  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.

23 thoughts on “First Impressions: Sri Lanka (And Advice For Other First-Timers)”

  1. I have to be honest, I am very envious with your very first picture. It looks amazing!!!

    And really?? Is that for real, all visitors are given a welcome package.. awesome.

    You have been to India, right ?? As adjacent country, how about the local cuisines compared to India, I am just curious,… one of my best friend is from India, and I’m quite familiar with the Indian food, is it look alike from the taste, name and physical appearance ..

    Reply
  2. Ohhhh awesome! First trip to Lanka Mark? What are your plans? How long will you be here? Let’s definitely cross paths! Tomorrow I’m heading up to Jaffna for a few days but have yet to finalize my plans for after that…am actually trying to do that today. Think I will be looping through the central and south after that, so hopefully that overlaps with your itinerary. Let me know your sched

    Reply
  3. In Colombo now and probably headed south to start. I’ll be down there until I swing up towards Ella, I think. Let me know if your headed south it’d be cool to grab a beer since we couldn’t in Solo

    Reply
    • Happy to help Shaun but honestly, this is nothing yet. Over the next few weeks I will be publishing a ton of Sri Lanka travel guides and videos so be sure to keep an eye out for them ๐Ÿ˜‰

      BTW as far as SIM cards go, I already have the answer: MobiTel. Definitely the fastest and largest coverage area of the three.

      Reply
  4. Lol I’m the exact same way Mark. In Jaffna still but know I will be in Arugam Bay and Yala sometime around the beginning of December but not sure in between. Will go back to Galle after that. I leave the country December 8th

    Reply
  5. Are you going to post on Jaffna? I’d love to read more about it. On the fence on whether I’ll head up there or not. I’ll touch base with ya once I peel myself away from the cost ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Reply
  6. Many MANY posts / videos on Jaffna coming soon…in fact I am editing and uploading the first ones right now. Will be on YouTube in a matter of minutes. I have also finalized my schedule so msg me your email Mark and we’ll see where we can cross paths. I

    Reply
  7. ‘My Twitter feed is nothing but Jaffna James. so stay up to date there. Also as I just mentioned in the comment above, I’m starting to upload videos from Jaffna to YouTube. Will also be posting much more about this amazing yet overlooked city in the upcoming days and weeks.

    Reply
  8. Planning to hit on Sri Lanka this summer. Good to know there’s no visa hustle and I won’t need to go to the Embassy in advance ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I don’t want to offend nice Tuk Tuk drivers, but most of them are ripping off travelers, pretty much everywhere. Unless you are a really fierce haggler, of course. I speak the local language well enough to make the guy really puzzled ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • Hey Elena, so sorry for my late response to your comment. Let me know as you start to finalize your Sri Lanka plans, I’ll give you some more pointers on the best places to go. I have about ten different articles on Sri Lanka that will be published over the next couple months — not to mention tons of videos that I am still working on editing — so stay tuned. I just finished my month in the country about 48 hours ago (am in Malaysia now) so now it’s time to start spitting out content ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Reply
  9. It’s unfortunate when us as travellers get “ripped off” in foreign places by others. Yes those $8 are more important to a family living under the poverty line, but it also deters more tourists from visiting and boosting their local economy. On the other hand, many of these underdeveloped communities are victims of corrupt government so they rarely see those “tourism dollars” anyway, which makes some locals feel the need to overcharge tourists in order to survive. It’s a catch 22 – do you support locals or tourism?

    Reply
    • I completely get what you are saying Cristina and I have no problem paying $1 for some fresh veggies from the when the locals next to me are paying 50 or 75 cents. What I do have a problem with is shady drivers driving in circles just to try and justify charging you 10x more than the local price. Or (as in the case of Vietnam) being given a half portion of food yet charged twice the price while the locals talk/laugh about this very fact around me in Vietnamese. Things like that are not done to feed the family. And they are not done just one time to one person. They are repeated on a daily basis to many many tourists, to the point where the local becomes more of a conman than just an unfortunate victim of a corrupt government.

      But you are right. Whenever there is an option I always choose to support locals rather than the middlemen or chain stores or expat-owned businesses. I will however NEVER support the conmen and tricksters.

      Reply
  10. No doubt that Sri Lanka is a fabulous place to visit, re-visit and to admire the beauty of the nature.
    Glad you had a great time there….

    Reply
  11. Great post..! thanks for sharing… really helpful… The pictures are stunning too. Really looking forward to take on a complete tour around Sri Lanka.

    Reply

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