With its gorgeous beaches and Instagram worthy scenery, Sri Lanka might just be one of the hottest travel destinations on the planet. But how much do you really know about this teardrop shaped island nation? Before leaping for that great Sri Lankan adventure, here are some of the most important things to know about Sri Lanka for first time visitors.
The first Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka in the 6th century BC. Since then, the country has been influenced by several different cultures. The first Buddhist influences landed around 250 BC and in the 14th century, south Indians founded a Tamil kingdom in North Sri Lanka. The Europeans arrived in the 16th century. First, Sri Lanka’s coast lines were controlled by the Portuguese who were then followed by the Dutch. This period also saw the building of the UNESCO protected Galle Fort on the southern coast. What was then known as Ceylon became a British colony in 1802. The country gained independence in 1948 and changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972.
Today, one of the most common things to know about Sri Lanka is of course the civil war which ended in 2009. The fighting flared up in 1983 between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatist group known as the LTTE. A ceasefire was brokered in 2002, but both sides violated the treaty repeatedly and finally, in 2009, the government defeated the LTTE fighters. Today, conditions in Sri Lanka are stable and the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller guide advices travellers to Sri Lanka to exercise normal safety precautions.
People and Language
Sri Lanka has a population 22 million. The country has two official languages: Sinhala is spoken by 74% of the population and Tamil by 18%. English is commonly used in the government and it’s also mentioned as the “link language” in the country’s constitution. About 20% of Sri Lankans live in urban areas, with most people living in the southwest regions, the urban hubs on the east coast as well as the Jaffna peninsula in the north.
About 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, followed by 12% of Hindus and around 10% of Muslims. When visiting the country, respecting the Buddhist faith and following proper temple decorum is very important. Dress conservatively when planning a temple visit – in other words, remember to cover your knees and shoulders. It’s also considered disrespectful to photograph or pose with a Buddha statue.
And now onto more practical things. One of the first things to know about Sri Lanka is whether or not you need to apply for a visa. If you’re travelling to Sri Lanka for a short period of time, you should apply for ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) in advance. You can apply for ETA online. ETA can be issued for the purposes of tourism, business or transit. The validity of the short visit visa for tourism and business is 30 days. The visa may be extended for up to 90 days from the date of arrival. Nationals of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles travelling to Sri Lanka for a maximum of 30 days are exempt from ETA. For up-to-date information on applying for ETA, visit the Sri Lanka Electronic Travel Authorization System website
One of the most important things to know about Sri Lanka is the intricacies of the local weather. The weather in Sri Lanka varies drastically in different parts of the island. The country is affected by two distinct monsoons: The South-West monsoon (also known as Yala) and the North-East Monsoon (Maha). To enjoy the best possible weather in Sri Lanka, the following rule applies: Travel to the east coast between May and September and visit the western beaches between October and January. For the rest of the year, you can expect decent weather throughout the country. Read more about weather in Sri Lanka.
Popular Things to Do in Sri Lanka
So we’ve been through some very useful things to know about Sri Lanka already. But besides understanding the culture, visas and weather, it’s equally important to know what you can actually do once you get there! If you’re looking to make the most of your holiday, Sri Lanka is a great choice as this country is several destination all rolled into one. Here are just a few of the highlights of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is blessed with some truly stunning beaches and unlike in many other tropical destinations, here the beaches remain blissfully devoid of tourists. Though it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, Sri Lanka also offers great surfing. The most popular beaches are dotted across the southern coastline – read more about beaches in Sri Lanka.
Ceylon tea is known (and consumed!) the world over and what better place to enjoy the perfect cuppa than the homeland? Sri Lanka offers cute tea shops for sipping and shopping for fine Ceylon tea. You can also visit the tea plantations and see how tea is produced from start to finish. Read more about tea in Sri Lanka.
As the country’s rich history demonstrates, Sri Lanka’s culture is diverse and varied. A great place to explore the tapestry of cultures first hand is the UNESCO protected Galle Fort. After the Portuguese built the fort in 1588, is was heavily fortified by the Dutch. Today, the fort constitutes the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans anywhere in South and Southeast Asia. Another way to get a feel of the local culture is to hop on a local train in Sri Lanka. Rolling down the tracks, you’ll see the views change from the rugged coastline to lush jungles and from historic railway stations to fragrant tea plantations.