Backpacking Sri Lanka should be on every traveler’s bucket list. With its delicious street food, budget-friendly accommodation, and cheap public transport, it doesn’t get much better than this! The kind-hearted locals and unmatched beauty make it that much better.
I spent 4 weeks backpacking Sri Lanka and was amazed by how diverse the country is. From the historic sites of the cultural triangle to the lush mountain regions of Hill Country and gorgeous sandy shores all along the coast, Sri Lanka is one of my favorite counties ever!
If you’re on the fence about visiting, just do it! There’s no better time to explore the country and I’ve put together this massive Sri Lanka backpacking travel guide so that you’re armed with all the knowledge for an epic trip.
Here are 24 things you need to know about Sri Lanka for backpackers.
Hiriketiya is the best place for backpacking Sri Lanka
Hiriketiya Beach is a small cove located in the south of Sri Lanka. This is where I learned to surf and met awesome travelers from all over the world.
I spent my afternoons sipping on cocktails with my feet in the sand and ended my day wading in the water as the sun set.
The vibe in Hiriketiya is relaxed and friendly – so get here quickly becomes it is fast becoming the next best place to visit in Sri Lanka.
Additional locations for your Sri Lanka backpacker route
Here are some other destinations to add to your Sri Lanka backpacking itinerary.
Ella: Visiting Ella and taking the Kandy to Ella train is a rite of passage for all backpackers in Sri Lanka. Whether you’re here for the bars and live music, to see the Nine Arch Bridge, or to hike the scenic trails to Ella Rock and Little Adams Peak, Ella is a tourist hub, and you’ll find lots of backpackers here.
Sigiriya: Situated in the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka lies Sigiriya. The small village is home to the famous Lion Rock, an ancient rock fortress. But the best thing to do here is hike Pidurangala Rock which offers panoramic views of Lion Rock in the distance.
Trincomalee: Nestled along the northeast of the country lies Trincomalee. If time is on your side, then I recommend you venture to this lesser-visited part of the country. The beaches run for as far as the eyes can see and the water is calm and clear. And don’t forget to visit Fernando’s Bar which is where all the backpackers meet up.
Weligama: Conveniently located between the surf breaks of Midigama and the Instagrammable hotspot of Mirissa, Weligama is a great place to meet other backpackers in Sri Lanka. It’s a bustling town with an awesome beginner surf break and scores of budget-friendly options for travelers.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the destinations to choose from, this guide will help you plan the perfect Sri Lanka itinerary.
2 weeks isn’t enough time to backpack Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a big country and getting from A to B can take much longer than expected.
This is why you should spend 4 weeks backpacking Sri Lanka. It’s worth the extra few days or weeks as you’ll get to all the attractions while also traveling slowly.
If you’re pressed for time, rather pick 3 or 4 areas that you want to visit instead of trying to squeeze everything into a short trip.
You could also look at booking a private driver who will take you to each destination. This will save you a lot of time, but it will eat into your backpacking budget as private transport is not cheap.
The food is amazing (and cheap)
Before my backpacking trip to Sri Lanka, I wasn’t familiar with Sri Lankan cuisine. But after my first kottu roti, I was hooked!
And before I knew it, I was having coconut curries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The devilled chicken, string hoppers, and dhal curries are also great.
And better yet, it’s affordable – perfect if you’re exploring Sri Lanka on a budget.
Don’t have everything pre-booked
Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely do your research and have a rough idea of where you want to go and what you want to see.
But when you’re backpacking in Sri Lanka, you need to allow for changes to your travel route.
You might meet people along the way and choose to travel with them.
You might not enjoy a destination and decide to leave earlier.
Or you might love a spot and opt to stay a few extra days. And also remember that the weather can throw a spanner in the works!
So, rather book your accommodation a day or two before arriving at your next destination. I’d normally browse through Booking.com while on route and have a place reserved by the time I get there.
There will always be a place to stay – It might not be the best spot or most social hostel, but at least you’ll have the freedom to alter your itinerary as you go along.
No matter how much planning goes into your backpacking trip, there will always be something you’ve missed and some diversions to your schedule.
Of course, if you’re traveling over Christmas and New Year, or if there is a specific timeline for an activity on your itinerary, then pre-booking is recommended.
Safety in Sri Lanka for backpackers
Sri Lanka is a great place for backpackers, as it’s not only cheap but also safe.
While incidences of petty theft have been reported, I never experienced any issues. As a female traveler, I also never felt at risk or nervous when I was out and about.
If anything, you should be cautious of the buses that fly by when crossing the road. This is because the main highway runs through towns and villages and the buses do not slow down – they come out of nowhere. We even witnessed a Sri Lankan man being hit by a bus in Midigama After speaking to a few locals, they said it happens often.
It’s also important to note that in 2019, Sri Lanka was targeted in a series of bombings, now known as the Easter bombings. Hotels and churches in Batticaloa, Negombo, and Colombo were targeted, and the country hit a massive low as tourism came to a halt. Security protocols have since been increased and the country hasn’t had any further issues.
You’ll need travel insurance
When you’re hiking mountains, partying all night, eating street food, and dodging traffic, you need to be covered for emergencies.
Plus, if the pandemic has taught me anything, there is a lot that can go wrong anywhere in the world! Travel insurance is the one thing that can mitigate any issues and reduce stress in what can be a very stressful situation.
I personally used World Nomads for my Sri Lanka itinerary as they cover everything from stolen luggage, missed flights, natural disasters as well as activities such as surfing and hiking.
Their online dashboard is amazing, and you can get a quote in a few minutes.
Don’t expect a party like Thailand or Bali
Sri Lanka isn’t famous for its wild parties or full moon festivals, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you may want to reconsider your travel plans!
Ella and Mirissa are the most popular destinations for backpackers in Sri Lanka so if events are happening, you’ll find them here.
However, there are plenty of places to grab a drink or local beer throughout the country.
Hostels are watering holes for Sri Lanka backpackers
The backpacker hostels in Sri Lanka are awesome and you’ll find them in most destinations. There’s always a vibey crowd and you’re guaranteed to meet other travelers along the way
… but stay in homestays as well
But if there’s one piece of advice I can give, it’s to stay with the locals in their homes. These are called homestays (or guesthouse) and there are plenty of options to choose from.
What makes a homestay so attractive is not only the price (because they’re super cheap) but rather the unique experience which can’t be matched by a hostel or hotel.
Check out this amazing place I stayed at in Ella – and how gorgeous is that view. It was only $14 for a private room for 2 people and included breakfast. I ate dinner with the family and got to learn more about their beautiful country and culture.
You can find these on Booking.com or by asking a local where to stay.
Staying at a guesthouse or homestay means that you’ll get a room inside a local home (often with a private bathroom). Alternatively, the owners may have separate rooms on the property which they rent out.
Pro tip: Save money and don’t choose a room with an aircon – a fan will do. Also, check that the cost includes breakfast.
Public transport will become your new best friend
The best part of backpacking Sri Lanka? The cheap transport!
I safely traveled throughout the country using public transport only. From tuk-tuks to public buses and trains, it’s a lot more affordable than renting a car or taking a taxi.
Using public transport is also a great way to connect with locals and experience life the way they do. They’re so friendly and always eager to chat with tourists.
Here’s what you can expect when traveling on trains and buses.
The famous Sri Lanka trains
The trains in Sri Lanka operate along the west and south coast of the country – from Colombo to Ella and down south to Mirissa.
The scenic train rides wind between rolling hills, lush forests and take you on a journey past tea plantations and gorgeous beaches.
If you’re heading to hill country you should definitely take at least one train ride (even if you’re not backpacking Sri Lanka).
Want to get the best seat in the house? Avoid first-class carriages! Rather opt to sit with the locals in third class where you’ll have the best views and a truly unique experience.
Unfortunately, the trains don’t go as far east as they do west, so if Arugam Bay or Trincomalee are on your Sri Lanka backpacking routes, you’ll have to use the public buses.
You can book train tickets here.
Using Public Buses
Public buses operate throughout the country… but be warned, they can be tedious, uncomfortable, and time-consuming. Oh, and pretty scary!
But on the bright side, they’re cheap and run frequently. Hence I used them often.
Some routes take a lot more time with public buses because they stop frequently and follow numerous detours. As an example, if you’re traveling from Ella or Hiriketiya to Arugam Bay, you might want to consider carpooling and getting a private driver.
Tuk Tuks are the way to go
Tuk Tuks are the best way to travel Sri Lanka. You can easily order a tuk-tuk through the Pick Me app which is like Uber, but for tuk-tuks!
Alternatively, ask around as most locals offer tuk-tuk taxi services. Always remember to confirm the price of the trip before you start the ride as you may be overcharged. You’re looking at 3000 – 4000 LKR for a tuk-tuk driver for a day ($15-$20 per day)
Scooters aren’t too popular with backpackers
This one caught me by surprise as I expected to see scooters everywhere!
But this wasn’t the case and scootering around isn’t nearly as popular as it is in the rest of Asia.
If you want the freedom of having your own transport, you can still rent a scooter from your homestay or hostel. We did this in Sigiriya, Ella, and Arugam Bay – but this was just for a day rental to explore the nearby sites as opposed to renting one for the duration of our Sri Lanka backpacking trip.
You’ll need your passport and driver’s license to rent a scooter in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Backpacking Budget Breakdown
If you’re backpacking Sri Lanka on a budget, you can get by on $25-$40 per person per day. This will cover food, transport, accommodation, and a few activities.
As soon as you start adding tourist attractions to your itinerary (such as national parks, whale watching, historical sites), your Sri Lanka backpacking budget will increase.
To keep prices down, avoid too many paid experiences, don’t travel by private van, stick to local food, and stay in local homestays.
Here’s a breakdown of costs to expect. (Prices in USD)
- Private room in a homestay: $7-$18 per night
- Shared bunk in a hostel: $15-$25 per night
- Street food: $1-$3 per meal
- Food at a restaurant: $3-$8 per meal
- Local beer: $1-$2
- Train/buses between cities: $2
You’ll need to get a visa
If you’re backpacking through Sri Lanka, you’ll need to apply for a Sri Lanka tourist visa which costs $25. This is a simple process that’s done online and takes 24-48 hours for the visa approval to be processed.
I recommend that you apply for your visa a week before your date of travel. You can do it all here.
Watch the weather as there are two monsoon seasons
Sri Lanka has a tropical climate so expect warm weather and sunshine all year round.
But, to make it complicated, the country has two monsoon seasons which are bound to affect you no matter when you visit Sri Lanka.
South-west province: April to August is the south-west monsoon so it’s best to visit the north or east coast during this time. The dry season arrives between December and March in the southwest province.
North-east province: October to January is the northeast monsoon season so it’s best to visit the central and southwest coast. The dry season runs between May and September in the northeastern parts of the country.
October and November are synonymous with erratic weather, and it can rain anywhere at any time.
But don’t be put off from traveling to Sri Lanka, or avoiding certain areas, during monsoon season. While there are frequent rain showers, they’re over before you know it.
On the plus side, the crowds are smaller, and you’ll often find more budget-friendly accommodation options during this time.
Pro tip: Peak season for the southern part of the country is from November to January, and the east coast is from June to August.
Pack for every season
You’ll most likely experience 4 seasons in a week, possibly even a day!
Oh, and Sri Lanka doesn’t have the trendy beach clubs or large-scale resorts you may find elsewhere. It’s a lot more rural, off the beaten track, and untainted by tourism (well, most of it at least)!
So, when preparing for your backpacking trip, keep this in mind and pack clothes that are comfortable and practical.
While it’s a conservative country, I never felt like I had to cover up on the beaches. But it’s not like Bali and I don’t recommend that you walk the streets in your bikini.
Here are a few things to remember for your Sri Lanka packing list.
- Bring some items that cover your shoulders as this is required when entering a temple or religious area.
- Pack a set of exercise clothes as the country offers spectacular scenery and outdoor activities.
- Bring warm clothes as one day you’re soaking up the sun, the next you’re freezing your butt off! The coastal areas and beaches are generally pretty hot but as you go inland to the hill country and Nuwara Eliya, the temperature drops dramatically.
Read my comprehensive Sri Lanka packing guide here.
Colombo is chaotic
The capital city, Colombo, is filled with street vendors, noise, and traffic. It’s busy and chaotic so if you’re backpacking Sri Lanka, rather give it a skip.
The moment you leave Colombo, you’ll find paradise – stunning mountain ranges, ancient cities, wildlife safaris, and UNESCO world heritage sites.
If you’re worried that Kandy, the second-largest city in Sri Lanka, might be as hectic as Colombo, it’s not. While there is a hive of activity happening here, it’s not nearly as busy as I expected it to be.
READ MORE: 10 Places You Have to Visit In Kandy
Tipping isn’t required but you should do it anyway
While there isn’t much of a tipping culture in Sri Lanka, it’s encouraged to leave a 10% tip, especially when you’ve received good service. This goes a long way and can help support a family.
Buy a sim card
Do you really need a sim card? Yes! Most accommodations in Sri Lanka have free Wi-Fi, but there are often connectivity issues and so having your own sim card is the best option. This allows you to do extra travel research while on one of those long bus rides.
After you arrive in Sri Lanka, go straight to the Dialog stand at the airport and purchase a local sim card. The cost is 1300 LKR ($7) and includes 9 gigs of data. The staff will help you activate it then and there.
This is easier than doing it in town where communication may be a barrier and you’ll spend more time trying to get connected.
There are lots of free things to do in Sri Lanka
Hiking trails. Ancient temples. Historic buildings. Towering waterfalls.
You can see all of these, and more, without spending a cent!
If you visit Sri Lanka on a budget, you’ll be pleased to know that there are numerous free things to do in the county.
Sri Lanka backpacking bucket list
There are so many amazing things to do in Sri Lanka. Here are a few of my highlights.
- Kandy to Ella Train
- Visit a tea plantation in Nuwara Eliya
- See the Nine Arches Bridge
- Learn to surf
- Feast on all the amazing Sri Lankan food
- Do a hike. My favorite is Pidurangala Rock in Sigiriya or Ella Rock in Ella
- Grab a drink at a beach bar
Manage your expectations when backpacking in Sri Lanka
We’re all guilty of this! You see a photo or read a blog, and you immediately take it at face value.
It describes the waterfall as “uncrowded” or the tea plantation as “untouched” or that Kandy to Ella train as “the best experience”.
You travel there with the hope of experiencing the same seclusion and tranquility of the person who captured the image.
But it won’t always be like this.
What you don’t see is the 4 am wake-up call to get to the destination before the crowds arrive, or the long queue to get a train ticket.
The things that I was most impressed with were those that I had little expectations for such as the drive to Dalhousie to climb Adams Peak.
And those that I was most disappointed in, I initially thought would be the highlights of my trip!
Don’t expect everything to live up to your expectations. And that’s ok.
Other Sri Lanka travel tips for backpackers
- It’s time-consuming to travel around Sri Lanka. Think about how you’d prefer to travel and know where the main hubs are in relation to each other.
- Don’t drink the tap water as it’s not safe.
- Be wary of the elephants as it’s not uncommon to see them in the villages.
- Always carry cash on you. Card machines are not always accessible and, in most cases, people prefer cash. There are many ATMs available, and I recommend withdrawing enough of the local currency (Sri Lankan Rupees) to cover a week of expenses.
READ MORE: The Best Beaches in Trincomalee
Final thoughts on Sri Lanka for backpackers
Sri Lanka has only recently come to the spotlight and tourism has increased dramatically over the past few years.
Sleepy coastal towns have developed into Instagrammable hotspots and beach bars have popped up where previously there were none.
And it’s only going to get busier and more developed. So enjoy it now while you can. Discover some of the hidden gems and explore those areas off the beaten track.
I love Sri Lanka and the people who call it home!
Are you planning your Sri Lanka backpacking trip? Do you need more advice on the best places to go? Drop me a message in the comments section below!
Looking for more Sri Lanka travel inspiration? Check out my other posts!
- The Ultimate 3 Week Sri Lanka Itinerary
- Hiking Pidurangala Rock in Sigiriya: Everything You Need to Know
- Why You Should Visit Midigama in Sri Lanka
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