I’ve shared some tips in my stories from the trip so far, but I have a few other things to say about Sri Lanka that I thought might be helpful if consolidated into one post – a mini guide to the country for the intrepid explorer on a budget, I suppose. This is in no way comprehensive, but more a reflection of my experiences. Hopefully it will contain some useful nuggets if you’re thinking of visiting.
What To Eat
Rice and curry – roadside ‘hotels’ are often the best places for the national dish. Look out for aubergine curries, coconut sambol and paratha bread.
Seafood – the prawns are to die for, as are crab curry (the best is in Jaffna) and devilled cuttlefish. On the coasts, there’s calamari at the wazoo.
Kottu rotti – a cheap local dish a lot like a noodle stir fry, but with chopped rotti bread instead of noodles. It usually comes with chilli flakes or sauce, and is quite spectacular.
Wattalappam – a traditional flan-like pudding made with jaggery (a type of dark brown sugar).
What To Drink
Fizzy drinks – local tastes are dangerously sweet, but nothing beats an icy Necto or Mirinda on a hot day. Nelli crush is a nuclear green quasi-squash that’s most common in the north. It’s made with nelli fruit, which are a bit like gooseberries, and tastes better than it sounds.
Lassies – yogurt drinks that we got sort of obsessed with.
Arrack – the local spirit. It’s usually made from coconut and served with ginger beer (or straight), but you can get mango arrack and mix it with lemonade if you’re feeling creative.
What To Pack
Something to cover your shoulders and knees – for temples and more conservative areas.
A travel towel – hostels and the occasional guesthouse don’t provide towels.
Comfy sandals – it’s way too hot to wear trainers, and sandals dry quicker if it rains (and when it rains, it pours).
What To Buy
There are innumerable little shops that sell shirts and sarongs with lovely batik designs, and many have a good collection of cheap jewellery – aforementioned elephant necklaces, friendship bracelets, etc.
What To Expect
Stares – especially if you’re whiteish and female. Don’t be alarmed – nine times out of ten it’s unthreatening fascination. Just smile and nod and a seemingly menacing stare will be replaced with a friendly grin and the classic Sri Lankan head wobble.
The Sri Lankan head wobble – it can mean ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ and a million other things. I love it.
A tendency to say yes to everything – even if it shouldn’t be a yes. A local we met in Jaffna called this the ‘national disease’. Double and triple check that the person you need something from knows exactly what you need – for example, we often had tuk tuk drivers who would respond to the question ‘do you know X address’ as if their mother had lived right next door for several decades, and then would pull over a dozen times during the drive to ask people on the roadside if they knew where it was.
The sound of Sri Lanka – crows squawking, horns honking, the chant of the snack vendors on buses and trains, the rickshaws that sell bread rather than taxi services and invariably play either Fur Elise or the Nokia ringtone (it’s charming once you get used to it).
The smell of Sri Lanka – petrol fumes, onions frying, the sea.
One Last Tip
Ditch your Lonely Planet and ask the locals, hostel owners and fellow travellers where to go.