Backpacking across Sri Lanka - Mistakes to avoid

Top 7 Mistakes To Avoid In Sri Lanka (At Any Cost)

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A journey to Sri Lanka will feel surreal, hectic, mysterious, peaceful, fascinating, and a whole lot more. After my month-long trip, I took away some of the best experiences, some of the most fascinating learnings, and also a few unanswered curious questions. However, I did understand and know a few things about this country that you must too. These were things I read, heard from fellow travelers, and the locals, and thought I must share them with everyone else. 

So, here’s a list of the top 7 mistakes you must avoid in Sri Lanka, so that your trip remains seamless, hassle-free, and your experience wholesome! Let’s dive right in.

Mistakes To Avoid In Sri Lanka

1. Paying Online For Cabs

Although booking a cab from the Airport isn’t a mistake, paying online through the designated app, is. Here’s why? In Sri Lanka, cab drivers do not like it if you make online payments. They like hot and fresh cash in their hands for multiple reasons that I may or may not know. In fact, I’ve even heard stories from travelers that they had to pay the drivers twice (online and in cash) because the latter didn’t accept digital payments. So, before you book a cab ask the driver and let them know that you will be paying for the ride online.

We didn’t face the issue as we carried the country’s native currency before departing from India. If you do not want to exchange money at the airport, ask the cab driver to stop by the ATM located en route to withdraw some cash and pay them.

Twins tip: You get 3 hours of FREE WiFi at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. After purchasing a SIM card, download the Pick Me app (requires a valid Sri Lankan number for signing up) or Uber as the cab drivers demand up to 10 times the charges when you approach directly.

2. Camping Everywhere & Anywhere

Is Sri Lanka safe?

25% of Sri Lanka is covered in reserved forests or is deemed a protected area. This is because the government aims to preserve the flora and fauna thriving in these regions. So, do NOT pitch your tent or camp in unknown places. The places could be home to wildlife that might be harmful to humans. In 2019, a British journalist died after being snatched by a crocodile at a lagoon near Arugam Bay.

Several cases of elephant attacks have also been reported every year. Be vigilant and keep an eye out for elephants on roads leading to national parks or while walking or driving on the hills. In 2023, an incident was reported that a couple who was camping in the central highlands of Sri Lanka – the lady was killed by an elephant on the spot while the man luckily escaped with serious injuries. If you find any wild animals, maintain your distance and be ready to back away. 

Another important thing you must do is explore remote areas with locals or guides who are well-versed in the regions. This way you know how to take care of yourself, are protected by the guide/local person’s knowledge, and have a safe yet exhilarating experience.

3. Taking The World Famous Kandy To Ella Train Ride

Train from Kandy to Ella

An adventure on the bucket list of many visitors is the renowned train ride from Kandy to Ella. The train is always crowded and overflowing with people at all times throughout the year. Online reservations get filled up pretty much in advance as soon as the bookings open. The smartest way to experience the ride is by boarding the train from Ella. You go through the same route and enjoy the same scenery but with less hassle and fewer people around you. So, plan your itinerary to ensure you board the Ella-to-Kandy train.

4. Not Taking Enough Cash

Cash is the most commonly used payment system in Sri Lanka. In fact, in a majority of the sites, regions, and destinations, cash is the only payment option. While VISA and MASTER cards are accepted in main tourist attractions, offbeat venues or places in remote locations will likely accept only physical payments. For commuting and eating local cuisines (unless you eat in a good fancy restaurant), you need cash. Accommodation fees are mostly handled by the property even if the booking is done online and are to be paid in cash. So carry enough cash with you and pay with a card wherever possible.

Twins tip: Remember to bring an international card with you. Add it to your packing list right away.

5. Hopping On A Tuk-Tuk Without Fixing A Price

Tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka

Tuk-tuks are everywhere in Sri Lanka accessible during the day and night. Whether it’s a rural area or an urban region, you’ll find tuk-tuks ready to take passengers onboard and drop them to bus stands, railway stations, or different sites for different rates. If you need a ride, ensure you negotiate and fix a price before you start. If you’re unhappy with the price, just walk away politely by declining the offer.

Usually, the drivers charge LKR 100 for every Km throughout the country. For approximate charges, you can download PickMe or Uber, refer to the prices or even book online.

I tried metered service in Anuradhapura but the measured distance in the tuk-tuk meter was not accurate. So, we had to pay a little extra. To avoid being stuck in such situations, we recommend you ask for a fixed price before hopping on one.

6. Not Knowing About SAARC Discount

Most of the important tourist destinations and museums in Sri Lanka offer 50% discounts on entry fees for SAARC nationals (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan). You’ll find this information near most ticket counters. So ask about this discount before purchasing the ticket as this will save you a lot of money. To avail of the discount, you should show your original passport. It is important to note that Xerox, photographs, or digital copies of the passport are not eligible for verification.

Twin’s Tip: A 50% discount is also applicable while applying for a visa.

7. Booking Accommodations

Accommodations in Sri Lanka

With respect to booking accommodations in Sri Lanka, Booking.com works the best. We did try booking a hotel through Agoda but the place didn’t accept our confirmation. As a result, we had to rebook and move to another hotel. The offline prices are a little higher compared to online rates. So, save yourself from the hassle and book on Booking.com only.

Although most of the accommodations in Sri Lanka offer free WiFi, Instagram, and a few other social media platforms don’t work in budget or mid-range hotels even when the phone is connected to the WiFi. This is because of restrictions the host might have kept in place to limit data usage. If you’re dependent on social media and have some urgent tasks to complete, check with the host before confirming the booking.

Additional Tip: Do not stick only to the popular beaches and hills of Nuwara Eliya, explore the unexplored islands of Jaffna in the north, and try adventure activities like kite surfing in Kalpitia, hiking in the Sinharaja forest reserve, etc. for an offbeat travel experience. Go beyond the touristy places to discover the country’s culture, people, beauty, ethos, and hospitality.

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