Hope you're very well and having a lovely London summer. Here are my tips for Sri Lanka. I'm also putting this on my blog so I've written everything I know and split it all into sections, general advice first and specific places after, just read the bits you need.
Sri Lanka has a closed currency so you have to exchange it, or get it out of an ATM, when you're there. The best ATMs to use are Commercial Bank (charges a Rs 400 fee) and Hatton National Bank (which I don't think charges). There's also HSBCs about. It's about 200 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs) to the pound.
IMPORTANT: You need a receipt for a withdrawal/ exchange of rupees in order to change your money back when you leave, so hang onto one.
Only big places take credit cards it's good to have cash, preferably small change on you at all times.
There are tuk tuks everywhere which are generally the cheapest way to get around. If they have a meter get them to put it on. The buses are great, very cheap but can get busy. It's best to ask your hotel/hostel for times as there's not much online.
The trains are also great but some routes get very crowded especially in second class. Of the three classes I did first class once which gives you a guaranteed seat and air con, it cost Rs1000 and was very pleasant. I did unreserved second class once, which has fans and open windows and cost Rs260 (for 7 hours). Second class was a lot more fun. If you want a second class seat book as early as possible in any Sri Lankan train station ESPECIALLY the Kandy to Ella train as that books up weeks in advance. You can buy tickets for any journey at any train station.
Drivers will try and sell their services by telling you that journeys between Sri Lankan cities are horrible. They're not. The bus didn't let me down and was super cheap. Towards the end of my trip though I did find a Facebook group called Sri Lanka taxi share, might be worth joining this to see if you can share longer journeys to save on travel time.
Toilets and toiletries
I wrote a blog about the toilets. There's lots of squat toilets so be prepared for that. Take tissues, anti-bac and warn Liv to take any feminine products she needs as it's super hard to get hold of those. Sun cream is also very expensive so take plenty. THERE ARE SO MANY MOSQUITOES, especially in rural areas, take the strongest repellent you can find.
Full moon festival
Whenever there's a full moon the religious places and transport get very crowded and nowhere serves alcohol. There's also parades and people give out free food on the street which is lovely.
Actually, on alcohol, there's a strange (to me) drinking culture in Sri Lanka. Alcohol is banned in sacred areas and not available at lots of restaurants. Most hotels do have a bar though. You can buy booze but from a bottle shop rather than a supermarket. Local women don't drink, men do, but in a secret, slightly shameful way. Never buy alcohol as a gift for a local.
I've listed all the places I stayed and what I thought of them. I guess you guys will be doing more hotels and guesthouse than hostels. You'll be able to get something nice for around £20pn.
The main city in the north.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Theresa Inn which was average. Nice room, lovely food, very helpful owners (and dachshunds!) but not very clean. So far no one that worked on the project I did has found a really good guesthouse or hostel in Jaffna.
Things to do: We visited the Nallur Kovil (massive Hindu temple) at 4pm, ceremony time, which was incredible. Dario you have to go in topless, because you're Irish.* Near there are some places of interest, including the Mantiri Manai which is a really beautiful derelict building. We attempted to visit the Library and failed to get in because it only lets in visitors 4-6pm each day. We went for a walk around the fort which was big and fort-like.
We spent a day visiting the island Delft. You need to get a bus to the port to go to Delft, you want to be on a bus around 6.30am to be able to get the 8am boat. The journey to the port is beautiful. I also got seasick on the way over so take pills if you suffer from motion sickness. There's places to but food and drink near the port and on the island, but perhaps take a picnic. Delft is lovely, go if you want to see ruins, a baobab tree, wild horses and pretty beaches. We got a tuk for half a day to take us on a tour of the island which cost Rs2000.
Food: Had some ice cream at Rios (near the Nallur Kovil) which was lovely and a Mango Special Dosai at Mangos Restaurant which was BRILLIANT I highly recommend this restaurant and this dish. Mangos is also near the Nallur Kovil so you could go after visiting the temple and sites.
Ancient city. From my experience I would recommend spending and afternoon and night in Anuradhapura and then moving on (possibly to Sigiriya).
Accommodation: We stayed at the Milano Tourist Rest which was a little pricey (double room Rs4500pn) but had great facilities and a lovely garden restaurant.
Things to do: Our evening there we visited the Sri Maha Boodhi Temple (Rs200) and then walked up to the Dagoba, which was beautiful, lots of candles. The we visited the Isurumuniya Temple (Rs200) which stays open until 8pm. These temples in the evening were magical, one of my Sri Lanka highlights. There are ceremonies at 6pm (check with your hotel). We paid a tuk Rs 800 to take us round. If you start around 3/4pm you could possibly get some other free sites in like the free Royal Gardens.
To be honest I really didn’t enjoy touring the ruins of Anuradhapura in the day, it was expensive (Rs4000 for the ticket and Rs2000 for the tuk) and very very hot. You also have to keep taking your shoes and hat off. The museum was boring and I reached my dagoba threshold about twenty minutes in. I'd say skip the cultural ticket in Anuradhapura, save your money for Sigiriya.
Travel: When we left Anuradhapura for the west we went to the Old bus station where the bus starts. If you're travelling from here check if you can do that as it went on to call at the New bus station and completely filled up.
Ancient city. Mountain top ruins. Sigiriya was very fun.
Accommodation: I stayed at the Rainbow Lodge which was nice, although both I and someone else had issues with our bill. Probably worth getting their quote in writing.
Things to do: I did Pidurangala rock in the late afternoon, which involved some scrambling so wearing sensible shoes and practical trousers/ shorts is a must. Short wearers should also take a sarong as you go through a temple.
As advised I did Sigiriya rock itself early and I’m so glad I did, it was getting very crowded as I left. It's expensive Rs4700 but worth it, the gardens are lovely and the hike to the top is rewarding. The museum there is excellent, although it should be saved for after the climb to the summit.
Food: I had lunch at the Croissant Hut which i enjoyed a lot, although that might be because it was the first time I'd had chips in a couple of weeks. I recommend it if it's not too busy, the chef is great but service can be slow.
Travel: If you happen to do this route travel from Sigiriya to Kandy is easy. I got a tuk to Dambula for Rs800, although there is a bus which takes slightly longer, and then got a bus straight to Kandy at around 2pm.
The cultural capital. It's fine.
Accommodation: I stayed at the Clock Inn hostel which was fine, a bit cramped but very clean and social. I think they do private rooms.
Things to do: I shared a tuk tour of Kandy with another girl which cost Rs2000 and took us to the big Buddah, a tea factory, a gem museum, the botanical gardens, a batik factory and a viewpoint. I would advise people to skip the batik factory, it’s just people trying to sell you stuff. I went to a cultural show (Rs1000) which is quite fun but you should skip if you have any other options. We went to the Tooth Temple at 6pm on a full moon day which was a massive error. We basically stood in a queue for an hour and a half. A friend suggested visiting at 6am so perhaps try that.
Food: I had dosai at Bolagi, a kind of fast food Indian restaurant, which was really nice and really cheap.
Train Kandy to Ella
So good it gets it's own section,
Described as the most scenic train journey in the world, it's pretty frickin' scenic. We went to Peradeniya, the station before Kandy to get a seat, the train was due to arrive at 8.32 (it was late), we managed to get seats the left facing backwards which meant we were on the right facing forwards when it backed out of Kandy and got the best views. We did second class, unreserved and bought our ticket on the day (Rs 260). There's some great blogs about this journey and how to get a seat.
Hill country. Ella was my favourite.
Accommodation: I stayed at the Hungover Hostel which was really lovely, you need to book in advance though as it fills up. It attracts a nice crowd (hikers) and it does have a private room.
Things to do: Lipton’s Seat, a tea plantation, factory and viewpoint, was outstanding although we went too late. Arriving there before midday is generally best to get the views before the clouds set in. This is a bit of a journey from Ella, we hired scooters but you can also get a train and a tuk.
We also hiked Little Adam’s Peak and the Nine Arch Bridge which were awesome. I ran out of time before I did Ella Rock. You could easily spend three full days here.
Food: The food highlight in Ella was the Matey Hut, Dreams cafe was also very good. The service at the Chill Cafe was awful and the food at 360 was sub-par.
Travel: Ella to Galle: I ended up getting a bus to Wellawaya, then a bus to Matara, then to Galle, which took a little over six hours. It was long but pretty.
Fortress city, feels Mediterranean.
Transport: In Galle don’t take a tuk from the bus station into the fort, it’s walkable and they’ll overcharge you.
Accommodation: I stayed in the Pilgrims Hostel which had cramped dorms but a lovely restaurant area. Pretty sure there are no privates so maybe just drop by for food or drinks. Has a really nice owner called Nadia (Irish).
Things to do: Exploring the fort and watching sunset from the walls as the local families are out with their kites is awesome. There are lots of amazing beaches nearby if you have the weather, the South was out of season when I was there so I didn't spend long in Galle.
Food: Lots of restaurants are shut on a Sunday. I ate at Crepeology which was really tasty and takes credit card.
Travel: Travel from Galle to Colombo if you're going that way... I took the highway bus which took and hour and a half, was very comfortable and cost Rs450. It drops you in outer Colombo which was good for our Airbnb, but if you're going to central Colombo it might be better to take the train. This train can get really crowded apparently so choose your travel time wisely or try and reserve a seat or try and sit in the door with your legs hanging out.
The Capital. If you are wondering where Sri Lanka's money is, it's here.
Accommodation: My friends booked an Airbnb which was £44 a night and really lovely. I tried and failed to find it for you, can ask my friend if you really want it, but the airbnbs in Colombo look amazing!
Things to do: I didn't give Colombo much time but I did go to the Ministry of Crab which was another Sri Lanka highlight, it’s expensive (comparatively) but truly excellent. Book in advance. It's in the Old Dutch Hospital and there's a Spa Ceylon there too. Tell Liv to go here, it has gorgeous creams and balms and perfumes, which are pretty cheap. Also visited the House of Fashion which is in all the guide books but is basically Debenhams, don't bother unless you need a pretty skirt.
Hope some or all of that was useful! Get in touch if you have any questions and I'll do my best to answer (you too blog reader!)
Have a great time!
See you soon. Xx
*All men have to go into the Nallur Kovil bare-chested