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Getting ready for Sri Lanka: Volunteer Preparation Guide

10 things you need to know and do before travelling to Sri Lanka 

By Lea Ernst | 19th February, 2020

Planning a holiday trip to Sri Lanka? Or packing your bags for a volunteer internship abroad in this country? Before you set foot on this little paradise, there are 10 important things you should know.

1. Is it safe to travel to Sri Lanka?

Yes, Sri Lanka is largely safe to travel.
 
While the country has a turbulent history, Sri Lanka has come a long way from a civil war that devastated the country between 1983 and 2009. Since the end of the war, tourism has flourished, and growing numbers of tourists visit the island each year. After the tragic bombings of 2019, safety is a priority, and the local military and police do everything they can to ensure the safety of locals and tourists.
 
We recommend exercising the same amount of caution you would when travelling to any new country. Our staff are always on hand to answer your questions, and provide updates about what’s happening locally.  And take care when crossing the busy roads: Traffic in Sri Lanka is probably much more chaotic than what you’re used to!

You should know the following for your trip to Sri Lanka:

  • Avoid taking photos of military installations or buildings.
  • Always make sure to dress appropriately, especially in temples and at religious sites.

Your local Projects Abroad team is happy to help you at any time.
 

2. Do you need a visa for Sri Lanka?

When you travel to Sri Lanka, your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the end of the trip in order to enter the country. For most passports, you can apply for a visa online before your journey, which costs around 20 GBP.

Our Visa Team will provide you with detailed information about the specific visa requirements after you have applied.

3. What vaccinations do you need for Sri Lanka?

We advise you to consult your GP or health centre for up-to-date information about vaccinations. Since we are not medical experts, our advice on vaccinations and other medical matters can only be informal.

Before travelling to Sri Lanka, you should get the following vaccinations:

  • Hepatitis A and B 
  • Poliomyelitis
  • Rabies
  • Typhoid

You should get these vaccinations in addition to the standard vaccinations for Europe:  tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough (plus measles, mumps, rubella).

Dengue fever is present in Sri Lanka. By taking precautions, you can drastically minimise your risk of getting sick but there is no vaccination against it. Dengue-carrying mosquitoes are mainly found in cities and unlike malaria-carrying mosquitoes, they’re also active during the day.

How to prevent dengue-fever:

  •  Apply mosquito repellent every day
  • Sleep under a mosquito net

Let our local staff know immediately if you feel sick, and we will ensure you get the best care possible. 

4. What’s the best time of the year to travel Sri Lanka?

You can visit Sri Lanka anytime during the year. It’s a tropical country so expect sunshine and blue skies practically year-round, even during the “rainy” season. Often the sun shines all day, followed by rain in the evening.

Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons and the climates can vary throughout the country. From December to March, you have the northeast monsoon. Between June and October, the southwest monsoon rains fall.  Our staff can help you adapt your plans to the season.

5. What do you need to pack for Sri Lanka?

Before you pack your bag, do your research and check what is appropriate in Sri Lanka. The majority of Sri Lankan people are Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus and it’s important to dress respectfully and conservatively. So you can wear a pair of shorts, for example, but they should be a certain length. Our Destination Expert will be on hand to advise on what kind of clothing to pack for your trip.
 
Be the Polite Traveller: When visiting religious sites, always:

  • Remove hats and other headgear
  • Take off your shoes
  • Cover your shoulders and knees. A covering scarf in your bag is always useful!

Here you can find a helpful packing list for Southeast Asia that also fits Sri Lanka.

6. Is it cheap to travel to Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is affordable and cheap compared to some Western countries, but not as cheap as other Southeast Asian countries.

The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee and the exchange rate varies from approximately 120 -135  GBP. There are plenty of places to exchange money in Sri Lanka, and there are ATMs in cities like Colombo and Galle. Our staff will be able to help you with this when you arrive in Sri Lanka.

Be the Polite Traveller: Do you tip in Sri Lanka?

  • It’s common to tip for services in Sri Lanka. In restaurants, the standard tip is 10%. Some restaurants will also add a service charge of 10% automatically to your bill. If in doubt about when and how much to tip, ask our staff!

7. What food is Sri Lanka famous for?

Wondering what there is to eat in Sri Lanka? Say no more: we love to talk about the delicious foods found in all of our destinations!

Sri Lankan food is a symphony of flavours and taste sensations (what we wouldn’t give for a proper Sri Lankan curry right now). It’s often described as the milder Indian food, and you can always ask for the spice level to be adjusted if you need help handling the heat! There are curries, rice and roti, string hoppers (steamed rice noodles), kottu, and loads of fresh seafood and tropical fruits. Our mouths are watering just thinking about it.

Vegetarians will have it easy in Sri Lanka: Many dishes are vegetable-based, and ridiculously flavourful and delicious.
 
Be the Polite Traveller:

  • Locals use their hands to eat rice and curry, but tourists are usually given a fork and spoon.
  • If you do try eating with your hands, you should always use your right hand to eat (the left hand is considered impure).
  • If you hand something to someone, you should also always use your right hand.

What to drink in Sri Lanka:

  • King Coconuts from Sri Lanka are said to be the best in the world. When you order one, they are freshly cut and you drink them with a straw.

Sri Lanka is also a paradise for fresh fruit juices. Pineapple, mango, passion fruit, melon, papaya – everything your heart desires.

8. What are the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka?

In Sri Lanka, you’re spoilt for choice. You’ll find yourself relaxing at endless beaches, riding trains, tasting delicious food, talking to friendly locals and discovering impressive ruins and temples. Sri Lanka is truly irresistible – and not only for beach lovers!

We’ve collected our favourite five places to visit in Sri Lanka. They’re easy to reach from Colombo and are perfect for weekend trips when you’re not working at your volunteer project or internship in Sri Lanka.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

  • approx. 3 hours from Colombo by car

Watching the baby elephants playing and getting up to mischief is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Adams Peak

  • approx. 5 hours from Colombo by car

Climb the slopes at night to watch a breathtaking sunrise at dawn that will sear itself into your memories for years to come. A biodiversity hotspot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s difficult to match the spectacular views from Adams Peaks.

Mirissa

  • approx. 3 - 4 hours from Colombo by car or by train

Spend your weekend soaking in the sun on a hammock and whale-watching at the little village of Mirissa, one of the most appealing beach getaways in Sri Lanka.

 Ulpotha

  • approx. 4 hours from Colombo by car

Sri Lanka is popular for those studying Ayurveda and Yoga. The village of Ulpotha has excellent centres where you can practice yoga in the midst of nature.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress

  • approx. 4 hours from Colombo by car

Perhaps one of the most dramatic sights in Sri Lanka. Here, you can wander amongst ancient remains, remarkable frescoes, and water gardens at the astonishing Sigiriya Rock Fortress.

9. Sri Lanka for Photographers

Sri Lanka is unbelievably photogenic, and if you’re a keen photographer, you’ll have the opportunity to get some stunning shots. Some photo opportunities, like the famous fishermen on stilts, will cost a fee. Tip: We recommend not paying over 500 LKR, especially if the fishermen are already positioned on the stilts.
 
Be the Polite Traveller: Please don’t engage in irresponsible and unethical experiences just to get that perfect shot for your Instagram feed.

10. What language is spoken in Sri Lanka?

Sinhalese and Tamil are the two main languages spoken in Sri Lanka. Many people – mostly in larger cities - also speak or understand basic English.
 
Here are some useful phrases in Sinhala you should know before you go:

  • Ayubowan = “May you live long”. This is a formal way of greeting someone (But you can also just say “hello” or “hi”).
  • Istuti = “Thank you”
  • Kohomadha = “How are you?”
  • Hari = “Okay”, “Got it”, “Fine” (you often say this twice – “hari hari”)
  • Hondayi = “Very good”
  • Kiyeda? = “How much?”

Learn More About Our Volunteer Programs and Internships in Sri Lanka

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