Travel Tips

Festivals & Poya Days

All important Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and national festivals are celebrated- up to 72 in all, including Sundays. Sri Lankan’s have the right balance in life to work and play.

Every full moon -Poya day- is a Buddhist holiday. Public places of entertainment and most shops are closed. Some supermarkets remain open but will not sell red meat or alcohol. Hotels will often refuse to serve alcohol.

Most Spectacular Festivals

Esala Perahera in July/August in Kandy. The most important festival of the year extending over 10 days, climaxing on the Nikini full moon. This great procession – elephants extravagantly decorated, Kandyan dancers, fire walkers, spinning plates- honours the Sacred Tooth Relic of Kandy. The best parades are during the final 3 days. The crowds can be huge and queueing will start during the day for evening events which might frustrate young children and impatient travelers alike. Helga’s Folly is just a short stroll away from the parades.

Duruthu Perahera held on Poya day in January. This festival in Colombo celebrates Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka. Colombo House is brilliantly located to catch the festival and for a spot of shopping.

Dalada Perahera held on December 4 in Bentota. In memory of the Arapant Maha Kaypa whose Tooth relic is enshrined at the ancient Galapatha Rajamaha temple in Bentota. As a popular tourist resort, the festival attracts large crowds and a 4mile parade that equals Esala’s show but just for one night. You will see more, as the parade meanders through the town and villages from 7pm to 2-3am. You will get an excellent view from Nisala Arana.

Others to enjoy

National day : Feb 4 celebrates Sri Lanka’s Independence

Easter : Christian Passion Prayer performed near Negombo

Buddhist New Year – Aruda- 13/14 April marks the end of the harvest and start of the SW monsoon. There is normally a 3 day holiday and villages are alive with local carnivals and hospitality. This is the biggest celebration of the Buddhist year and families will exchange presents. The wealthy Sri Lankans will flee to Nuwara Eliya for opulent parties and 3 day Horse racing. The racing is serious and many Middle East horse owners will visit. The Heritage is a colonial hotel situated opposite the Race ground

Deepavali – Hindu festival of lights in Oct/Nov. Thousands of flickering oil lamps celebrate the victory of good over evil and the return of Rama. The Tea country will see the most colourful celebrations as the pickers are granted holiday from the fields.

Tamil Thai Pongal Day - Tamil New Year in early/mid January. Nuwara Eliya and the Hill Country will be alive with family parties and Horse Racing.

Christmas Day & New Year - Christian events are celebrated with equal enthusiam within the hotels, eg banquets, fire works, discos. The focus of the local people will be ensuring that the tourists have a wonderful time. Club Villa have an excellent upmarket and sociable atmosphere or take over River House and treat all the family

Exact Dates will alter from year to year. The Tourist Board produces a new comprehensive list each year for many other events on their website www.srilankatourism.org.

Travelling with Children

Don’t wrap the kids in cotton wool, they will thrive in Sri Lanka. Tuk-tuks, golden temples, elephant rides, tree houses or secret islands are just the start of their adventure.

This a family paradise and Sri Lankan people love children – they are the focal point of every town and in many hotels like Club Villa, Apa Villa, Colombo House and Boulder Gardens, children under 10-years will stay for free.


Possible considerations

  • Most hotels have Western dishes like pasta, chicken escallops and omelettes, but Western options like baked beans, fish fingers and burgers are best forgotten. Sadly, the fast food chains can be found in large Cities (KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut). Traditional Sri Lankan Curry is not very hot and the chefs will happily turn down the spiceometer for children.
     
  • Cots and extra beds are readily available at a small fee and often complimentary for under 5yrs. Children under 12 yrs sharing with parents will usually stay for free and get 50% discount on meals.
     
  • Amentities like disposable nappies and Calpol are hard to find except in the major supermarkets in Colombo, Kandy. The sad fact is that Sri Lanka has not developed a good refuge infrastructure.
     
  • Suncream and hats are a must. Best to bring your own as bottles will often be way past their expiry date in the local village shops.
     
  • Responsible babysitting services are available in most hotels and payment is usually at your discretion. R 2000.00 would be very well received and a small price to pay for a “night off” or “dinner à-deux”.
     
  • Childrens facilities tend to consist of snorkeling, pools, nature and wildlife, cycling and sightseeing- no computer games or cartoons. The Sri Lankan children are extremely resourceful and run around happily. They will never shy away from a new Western friend.
     
  • Prams or backpacks for very young children should be packed. Bear in mind the heat with backpacks.
     
  • Many stray dogs & cats roam the streets. Most are harmless but cleanliness is not apparent and children should be deterred from making “furry friends”
     
  • Cars and 1st/2nd class trains are suitable for young children. They are very crowded and small buses should definitely be avoided.

Health Advice

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Pre departure – Check polio, tetanus, typhoid , Hepatitus A, anti-malaria medication with your local GP or International Medical Centre. Malaria is in very small jungle areas and haphazzard in its presence. Cover well at night and use plenty of repellant and you should be clear of bites. Don’t risk it as there are many mosquitoes at dusk. Some swear by eating Marmite to keep them away but we at BSL believe that pure Citronella oil is the best repellant. You can buy it in all the pharmacies in Sri Lanka.

Useful and up-to-date health advice can be found on www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk and www.malariahotspots.co.uk.

In your First Aid Kit – Anti biotics, diarrhoea “blockers”, citronella, antiseptic cream or insect sting relief, box of matches (to burn paper and use ashes to stop any bleeding from leeches), lip balm, sunscreen, Tampax (unavailable).

Food & Drink – “If you can cook it, peel it or boil it- eat it”. Avoid dairy products made with unboiled milk, eg. Some ice creams.

Despite the streets being littered with rubbish, hygiene in Sri Lanka is good and few sensible visitors experience problems, unlike in India. Do not drink tap water or use ice from unboiled water and be cautious if using tap water to clean teeth.

Narcotics – Drugs are illegal in Sri Lanka.

Hospitals – Good private hospitals in Colombo and some in the regions. Major towns have well stocked pharmacies with qualified English speaking staff. Doctors’ prescriptions are not always needed.

The Sri Lankan remedy for many ailments from muscular pain to a hangover is King Coconut.

Local Customs

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Tipping – is optional for good service, 10% plus, but 10% is often built into any hotel or restaurant bill. For porterage R 30. For good service over 2/3 days R100-500 depending on the standard of hotel/service.

Touts may be a nuisance but if accepting a service remember that they have to make a living. They will receive commission from the shop/restaurant to which they lead you.

Photographs – do not pose in front of or beside a Buddha statue, it is disrespectful. Do not photograph (or attempt to shake hands with) a Buddhist Monk (in orange robes) or a Muslim family (especially the women) without prior consent.

Friendship - it is normal to see men out alone at night as the women tend to stay with the family. You will discover that men are very tactile, dance together and hold hand as a sign of friendship. Embrace this if you feel comfortable but please don't apply western thinking to what it may represent.

Music - Sri Lankans love music and they will strike up a tune on anything they can lay their hands on - guitar, shakers, bongo, bottles. Citadel and calypso music are still the favourites but reggae is extremely popular with the young.

Gifts giving or receiving - When gifts are received it is very impolite to open them at the time.

Visiting a Sri Lankan family – always take a small gist eg. Packet of biscuits, cake but not flowers. Remove your shoes when entering a home.

Eating – use only the right hand if eating Sri Lankan style. The left is associated with unclean activities.

It is considered very rude to blow your nose in public.

What To Wear

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On the beach/coastal resorts: Casual cotton clothing, sunglasses and hat. Long sleeves and trousers for evenings for protection against mosquitoes (many of your meals will be alfresco).

Topless sunbathing is prohibited. To avoid hassle and staring in public places eg. waterfalls, towns etc. women should dress modestly.

Hill Country : Much cooler, particularly in the evenings. Bring a sweater or fleece and a waterproof. In low wet land throughout the mid-country, you'll find many leeches in the grass from small to large buffalo leeches. Bring long trousers tucked into your socks and cover your boots with soap.

Religious Sites : Women should cover their shoulders and legs. All visitors to Buddhist temples should remove shoes & hats and fine umbrellas. Hindu temples also require you to remove shoes & hats. You may be asked to make a donation- if you chose to, place it into the donation box.

Colombo: The capital is a thriving social scene with many fashionable restaurants. Linen casuals will be fine but you may feel a tad under dressed in the “vogue” restaurants.

Visas/Travel Insurance

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It is recommended that you safely carry your passport at all times. Passport must be valid for a minimum 6 months.  Visas to be obtained prior to arrival and can be done on line: www.eta.gov.lk.

Insurance - A policy to cover theft, loss and medical issues is a must. You may also wish to check out cover for activities such as diving, white water rafting, cycling and abseiling etc..

Driving Licence – International driving licence is valid for only 3 months and must be obtained in your home country. To extend it to Sri Lankan travel, you must attend the RAC office in Central Colombo. You will require 2 photos.

It is a good idea to photocopy all relevant documents - passport, travel, insurance policy etc., and leave one copy at home. Carry another copy with you separate from the originals.

Shops

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Sri Lanka is full of crafts, jewellery and beautiful antique furniture and can be found throughout Sri Lanka.

Colombo is the centre for fashion, department stores, Western style shopping. There are many clothing manufacturers in Sri Lanka and Colombo’s fashion stores stock up on unsold export stock. For a list of the best retailers visit Colombo region shopping.

The South West is home to the traditional masks and carved crafts. They make great artifacts for decorating a home and the quality is first class. Ambalangoda, in particular is a haven for antiques and you will find some exquisite Dutch colonial pieces. It’s very heavy so consider export charges when negotiating your price. Sadly, the dealers have become wise to demand for such pieces. Most has been exported (they have sadly stripped Jaffna) and the prices are extremely inflated.

Jewellery stores can be found everywhere but predominantly in South West and Colombo. The gold is much more yellow in colour than English Gold and they generally trade in 18ct. White gold and platinum is rare and there is no Hallmarking so be careful. Labour is extremely cheap and the jewellery is beautifully hand crafted so if you have a design in mind, ask them to quote on making it up.

Diamonds are usually imported but Sri Lanka is the home to many beautiful gems, namely sapphires (not known to many, there are 5 colours not just blue), rubies, aquamarine, moonstone, garnets and topaz. Check all stones you may purchase for flaws and discolouration. There is a Gem testing center in Galle (310 Galle Road, Kollupitya).

The hotel jewellery stores have highly inflated prices, but the quality is of a reasonable standard.

For a list of reccommended shops and restaurants, check out our regional reviews – you might chose to print them off for your trip.

All stores have a local rate and tourist rate and this is commonly accepted across Sri Lanka - it can often be double. Please just accept it as the norm and don’t embarrass the locals, as most the tourist prices are still cheap.

Communications

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Time : Sri Lanka is GMT+5 in summer and +6hrs in Winter. Australia : -4 hrs. USA: +11 hrs

Telephone : Country code is 94, outgoing International code :00.

Mobile Tel: A good telecoms infrastructure but expensive. Local network chips can be bought for about R2000 and payasgo cards are extremely cheap.

Fax: Available in most hotel receptions

Internet: There is a growing number of internet cafés and hotels with Internet facilities.

Post: Airmail to Europe takes about 7 days

Electricity : 230-240 V AC, 50Hz. A voltage stabilizer is obtainable from a good electrical store.

Money

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The local currency is Sri Lankan Rupees. Currency can be exchanged in Sri Lanka only so you would be best to bring sterling, US dollars or euros. Travellers cheques are received but the commission can be higher.

The exchange rates are fairly flat across all the banks but the hotel rates are considerably poorer.

Money can be exchanged on the blackmarket at a better rate, namely jewellers, large stores but discretion is essential. Always be aware of the bank rate first for comparison. A local will find exchange easier and achieve a better rate. But you must have a good trust in a reliable friend or your Tuk Tuk driver before handing over cash.

The banks are open Mon - Fri 8am - 3pm and closed at the weekends and Poya Days. The main banks are Bank of Ceylon, HSBC, Peoples, Hatton national and Commercial.

Credit cards (Mastercard, Visa ) are commonly accepted in hotels and restaurants and many shops, but do check first. Cash points are in most major towns but careful as they attract a lot of beggars.

Guides/Books

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Guides are best hired at the sightseeing destination. They are very knowledgeable on their given subject. Most English speaking drivers will have a general knowledge as you travel about.

BSL would recommend the following guide books for Sri Lanka:

  • Lonely Planet Sri Lanka – latest copy August 2003. Many hotel address/tel inaccuracies but good for general tips and historical guides
  • Insight Guide to Sri Lanka – Focuses on sightseeing / culture. Well written and stunning photography.

Useful Contacts

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British High commission – 011 5390639
Colombo Tourist Information - 011 225 2411
Kandy Tourist Information - 081 222 2661
Department of Motor Traffic - 011 269 4331
Automobile Association - 011 242 1528-9
Department of Immigration - 011 250 3629
23 Station Road, next to Majestic City 9am -4.30 pm. Visa extensions
British High Commission 011 437336-43
190 Galle Road, Kollupitiya, Colombo 3. Applications for lost passport or non residence visitors to UK.

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