Backpacker’s budget: Sri Lanka

Is Sri Lanka cheap?

The answer is: it depends on what would you like to do there. If you can resist the temptation to see UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Cultural Triangle and skip safaris, Sri Lanka would be by far the cheapest place to travel in the region. The public transport system works well. Additionally the prices of government buses and third class trains are very low. The (local) food also has great value for money. However, it is harder to find it in the touristic areas. Finally, the accommodation is very affordable and in most places- apart from the Tea Country- worth its price. It’s only the major tourist attractions that make a difference to the traveller’s budget as they are unreasonably expensive.

A cocrete board with Nanu Oya in Latin and local scripts at an empty train station.
Sri Lanka will treat the backpackers very well, so long they won’t focus on touristy things too much

Living on $10 a day is very easy in Sri Lanka. In fact, our daily budget WITHOUT major attractions was just $8 a day! The budget jumped to $12 per person per day solely due to the high price of tourist attractions.

Our route

The time I spent in Sri Lanka could be divided into ‘residential’ and ‘nomadic’ period. I spent the first month staying for free at a volunteering project in Balapitiya on the south coast . I explored most of the south-east coast during that time. Sayak joined me later on for the proper tour around the island. Over just three weeks we made a route: Mirissa- Tangalle- Ella- Haputale-Nanu Oya- Kandy- Dambulla-Polonnaruwa-Arunadhapura-Kalpitiya-Negombo.

Over- pricing

Cheating and over-pricing is a MAJOR problem is Sri Lanka. The bus conductors are the most notorious. Four out of five would ask a higher price, sometimes a third more. The shopkeepers might try to increase products’ prices, too.

To some extent, you can protect yourself from that. The conductors of the red, government buses would always give you a printed ticket and wouldn’t cheat with the price. If you take a blue, private bus you might not see the ticket at all or the conductor would scribble it on the spot. It means you’d need to have an idea of how much should you pay. Ask someone trusted before boarding or, if not possible, make a simple calculation using examples below as a reference. Usually, if you politely state what the correct price should be, the conductor would agree and take it. As for the grocery shops, the best weapon is the MRP (maximum retail price) printed on each product sold in Sri Lanka. Once you show it to the shop assistant who tried to cheat you, he will most likely come with an excuse that ‘the price must have changed since last week’ but would charge you correctly.

If you need to use a tuk-tuk, remember it should be around 60 rupee per kilometer. A tuk-tuk driver who offered me a free ride told me this, so I assume it’s a real price.

Flights and Visa

Sri Lankan visa costs $35 ($20 for Indian nationals) and is valid one month. However, at times the visa fee is waived. I applied for an e-visa which in theory required me to purchase a return ticket. Not knowing when or where would I go, I bought the cheapest return ticket – to Chennai -with the intention to change it later on. As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary, as the immigration officer didn’t ask me for it.

The 90 days visa extension cost varying amounts of money, depending on the nationality. For example, Polish pay $48 while British $54. You can apply for the visa extension in person at the Department of Immigration and Emigration in Battaramulla district, Colombo. It’d be just a few hours wait.

The main expense of the travel in Sri Lanka would be getting there. Flights to Sri Lanka are quite expensive, even at short distances. The cheapest flights to Sri Lanka are with Indian budget carries from Chennai and Bangalore. Regardless of the city, it should be around £80 one way in the peak season (December-February). There are no ferries between the two countries- the only way to get to Sri Lanka is by flying to Colombo airport.

Accommodation

Sri Lanka has a decent level of accommodation and fair value for money ratio. However, there have been a few places (especially in the Tea Country) where finding a clean, comfortable room for a reasonable price was more difficult.In Mirissa, the caretakers of posh apartments would often let you use the room for half of the Booking.com or Agoda price. In case of last-minute online booking, you’d need to leave to an alternative venue.

The author standing in a small but very clean and new room, next to a canopy bed in Mirissa, Sri Lanka
A nice room near the beach for a very low price- possible to negotiate on the spot

The most we spent for a double room was $11, standard being $7-8. It’s also quite easy to find a Couch Surfing host in Sri Lanka.

Transport

Trains

The best way to move around are trains. The third class seats are really cheap but even second class is very affordable. The great benefit of using trains is that you’d be always given a fair price at the train station.

The  smiling author and her friend stand in an extremely crowded train in Sri Lanka surrounded with local men.
Even a ride in the extremely crowded train could be fun

I travelled up and down the coast between Bentota and Galle as well as Negombo and Kalpitiya very comfortably. On the other hand, the commuter routes: Colombo- coastline cities and Colombo-Kandy are very crowded in peak hours.

If you’re open for any experience, travelling on a packed train might not be so terrible. The passengers help each other, pass the backpacks to others who could put them on the racks, sit on a rotation basis and even share their food. Finally, sitting in the open doors of the train is an unforgettable experience.

Two Sri Lankan men sit in the doors of a train standing at a tiny station in Upcountry
Sitting on the stairs of the train for the full view and fresh air

Taking a train through the tea country (from Ella to Hatton) is an absolute must as it is by far the most scenic rail route I’ve ever seen. Many tourists pay extra to book their seats in advance. We haven’t done it and travelled on the 3rd class from Ella to Haputale, from Haputale to Nanu Oya and from Nanu Oya to Kandy quite comfortably.

Buses

The second best option are buses since the bus network is extensive and covers the whole country. The bus numbers are the same for the public and private providers. The vast majority of the buses on the coast have the destination written in Latin script. In the Upcountry and the Cultural Triangle sometimes you’d need to ask conductors where the bus is going.

A clocktwoer and roundabout next to a bus station in Kandy, Sri Lanka
Buses at the bus station in Kandy

The government buses (older but always giving a fair price) are red, while the rest is blue. The private buses could be regular, semi-luxurious (slightly more expensive) and luxurious (double the price). It is not easy to guess whether a particular long-distance bus is luxurious. Better check it before boarding to avoid paying more than necessary.

Locals sit on the bus in Sri lanka, decorated with Buddha images.
Inside a Sri Lankan bus

The charge depends on the distance covered, but the fares aren’t uniform in the whole country. The buses on the coast are the cheapest and the ones in the Upcountry the most expensive.

Some people don’t like travelling on buses in Sri Lanka because the drivers are fast and reckless. Be ready for lots of jerking, overtaking in a dangerous way and speeding. Buses are very crowded in rush hours but spacious during the daytime. Beware that the most local buses stop running around 5-6 pm. The buses on major routes, (especialy no 1 and 2), run from very early morning till late at night, seven days a week.

Tuk-tuks

Tuk-tuks, like any form of private transportation, are more expensive. The actual charge in the lowlands is 60-100 rupee per kilometre, but tourists often pay much more. Always negotiate and agree on the price before boarding.

An Indian autorickhaw is in common use in Sri Lanka
A Sri Lankan autorickhaw

Tuk-tuk hire

An alternative, worth considering for a group of three or a family with kids, would be renting and driving a tuk-tuk for the entire stay in Sri Lanka. It costs around $10 a day, plus insurance and other extra charges. We met two families who chose this mode of transport and were very happy with it. Rental companies agree to collect tuk-tuk in Kandy and drop it off in the lowlands, so that the customers can visit the Upcountry by train.

Two autorickhaws parked on the courtyard
Hiring a tuk tuk is a great option for a family or small group of friends

Tourist attractions

Tourists attractions in Sri Lanka are unreasonably expensive, as compared to the prices of transport or accommodation, or the cost of attractions in the countries of the region. The cheapest whale-watching trip in Mirissa or dolphin-watching trip in Kalpitiya would cost around $20. The land safari is even more expensive- at least $30, including the entrance to the national park. Cheaper certainly isn’t better in this case.

A dorsal fin and a piece of blue whale seen in the waters near Mirissa, Sri Lanka
Count at least $20 for this sight – ideally more, if you’d like to do it in a more sustainable way

The sightseeing prices are just shocking. The World Heritage UNESCO sites: Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa cost a whopping $25 per entrance, while Sigiriya $30. As a comparison, the entrance to the much larger, iconic Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia costs $37 and to Colosseum just $14!

A characteristic, mushroom-shaped Sigiriya rock rising from the green plains in Sri Lanka
Standing in a long queue to get on top of this rock ,where some small ruins lay, cost twice as much as the entrance to Rome’s Colosseum

If you’d like to – like a standard traveller- see blue whales in Mirissa, leopards in Yala National Park and all 3 UNESCO sites it would set you back around $145! To put it into perspective: If you manage your budget well, you could travel (as a couple) in Sri Lanka for 2.5 weeks for this amount of money.

Food

There is a culture of having cheap lunches at the buffet-style eateries in Sri Lanka. Every larger town has a couple of such venues, serving rice with dal and selection of curries. Those meals should cost between 100 and 150 rupee. Beware that at the touristic locations, you might be charged 250-300 rupee for the same kind of food. The buffets are often open only during lunchtime with food running out as early as 1pm. Some dishes (like kottu) are served only in the evening.

A plate of rice and a selection of curiries with dried chillies stuck on top lie on a plastic table in a roadside Sri Lankan eatery
A typical buffet lunch from a cheap eatery in Sri Lanka

Wherever you go, you can always find plenty of mobile and stationary street stalls selling fried snacks or boiled chickpeas with coconut. Watch out for tuk-tuks converted into mobile bakeries. Inexplicably, they announce their approach with a ‘Fur Elise’ tune by Beethoven. They reach the smallest and further streets of every town and village and operate mostly in the mornings and evenings.

Other essentials

The internet connection in Sri Lanka is poor. The prices of phone/internet packages are much higher than in India or Vietnam.

200 data top up 1 GB day, 1 GB night
50 the lowest, call-only top-up
50 SIM card

Currency in Sri Lanka

The currency of Sri Lanka is a Sri Lankan rupee. With the exchange rate of 180-185 LKR to $1, no wonder this country is cheap for tourists from many countries around the world. It’s one of the currencies that would be very difficult to exchange abroad, so make sure you spend all the money before leaving the country.

Prices per destination (in high season)

SOUTH COAST

Balapitiya is just a small village known for mangrove safaris. Ambalangoda, a beach destination and a centre of traditional masks production is just a short drive awayThe beaches in both locations are empty, but the accommodation isn’t cheap.

A traditional Sri Lankan wooden fishing boat lies on a long, empty, sandy beach in Balapitiya
Long, empty beach in Balapitiya

Prices in Balapitiya and Ambalangoda [in Sri Lankan rupee as of December 2018]

75 3rd class train from Ambalangoda to Colombo (100km)
50 3rd class train Balapitiya- Galle (40km)
50 chickpeas with coconut (a street snack)
50 one mango at the supermarket
40 bus Balapitiya-Bentota (15km)
20 goverment bus Balapitiya- Ambalangoda (7km)

Weligama is a popular destination among surfers. Its main beach is unsuitable from swimming and far from beautiful. Both food and accommodation in Weligama is cheap, especially compared to the nearby Mirissa.

Shallow water at the Weligama beach enjoyed by beginner surfers. A large high rise hotel in the background.
Weligama- one of the worst beaches in the south coast, good just for learning surfing

Prices in Weligama [in Sri Lankan rupee as of January 2019]

900 high-standard 4-bed dorm
750 low-standard en-suite double room
280 2nd class train from Weligama- Colombo (145km)
80-100 breakfast at the roadside restaurant
100 cheapest buffet lunch meal
20 bus Weligama to Mirissa (6km)
20 one sweet bun

Mirissa is a popular destination with a few attractive beaches suitable for swimming and snorkelling. Its main attraction are whale safaris. It’s worth to go shopping and dining out to Weligama as Mirissa has tourist-only prices.

Turquoise water with some rocks looking thorugh, a white, sandy beach lined with trees and a rocky peninsula in the background in Mirissa, Sri Lanka
The Secret Beach in Mirissa which sadly isn’t much of a secret

Prices in Mirissa [in Sri Lankan rupee as of January 2019]

6 000 ethical whale-watching safari (not cheapest)
1260 simple double room with a bathroom
200 1 hour snorkel hire
50 herbal rice porridge from the street

Tangalle has stunning and empty beaches but the sea is quite dangerous there. Local food for local prices is easily accessible. The affordable accommodation could be found further from the beach.

A narrow, long, sandy beach lined with palm trees and waves crashing the shore in Tangalle, Sri Lanka
Long, empty beaches and rough sea in Tangalle

Prices in Tangalle [in Sri Lankan rupee as of January 2019]

1200 simple double room, ensuite, far from the beach
500 entrance to Mulkirigala cave temple
bus Mirissa to Tangalle (50km)
140 buffet lunch at the local eatery
15 bus from Tangalle centre to the Silent Beach

UP COUNTRY (TEA COUNTRY)

Ella is the most touristic town in the Up Country hence it is very over-priced both in terms of accommodation and food. Ella’s main attractions are: Nine Arches Bridge, Little Adam’s Peak, Ella Viewpoint and Rawana Falls.

A very tall, colonial railway Nine Arch bridge in Ella, set among steep tea plantations and full of tourists
Tourists on Nine Arch Bridge in Ella

Prices in Ella [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019

2100 simple double room, en-suite
200 rice and curry in a cheapest roadside eatery
150 5 hoppers and dal from the street stall
35 3rd class train from Ella to Haputale (25km)
15 bus from Rawana Falls to Ella centre (5km)

Haputale is a small, non-touristic town located high in the mountains. It is well connected by train and bus to Ella and Nuwara Eliya. Cheap food and accommodation isn’t much of a problem. The main attraction is British colonial Adisham Hall, nearby Lipton’s Seat and the stunning mountain views.

A panoramic view of the mountains and green hills covered with tea plantations in Haputale, Sri Lanka.
Stunning vistas from little-known Haputale

Prices in Haputale [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]

1500 very simple, en-suite double room with ample breakfast
150 buffet meal at the local eatery
78 bus Haputale- Diyaluma Falls (30 km)
15 large vada (street snack)

Nanu Oya

Nanu Oya is a small town in the Up Country, located conveniently close to such attractions as Nuwara Eliya and St Clair’s Falls. There isn’t much choice in terms of dining and accommodation, but it’s possible to find something budget-friendly.

Large, three-tier, wide St Clair falls set among rollling green hills and a rising mist near Nuwara Elliya in Sri Lanka
St. Clair’s Falls near Nanu Oya

Prices in Nanu Oya/Nuwara Eliya [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]

1770 spacious double room, shared bathroom
1200 100g of high quality tea
240 3rd class train Nanu Oya-Kandy (90 km)
55 3rd class train Haputale- Nanu Oya (60km)
30 savoury bun
15 bus Nanu Oya- Nuwara Eliya (9 km)

PLAINS/CULTURAL TRIANGLE

Kandy is a cultural capital of Sri Lanka, a large city full of historical temples. The surrounding villages abound in less-frequented but equally beautiful temples. Both cheap food and accommodation is easy to find in Kandy. However, be ready to pay quite a bit for sightseeing.

A white stone fence surrounding a few storey-tall Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka
The Sacred Tooth Temple in Kandy

Prices in Kandy [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]

1500 Sacred Tooth Temple entrance
650 capsule bed in a dorm in a hostel
300 entrance to temples in the villages around Kandy
250 Buddha viewpoint entrance
140 train Kandy to Colombo (125 km)
120 a large breakfast in a roadside eatery
80 pineapple juice at a juice parlour

Dambulla is a small town in the Cultural Triangle, most famous for a large cave temple. It’s also a convenient base for a day-trip to the nearby Sigiriya (and Pidurangala). With a bit of searching, you can find afffordable accommodation and food in Dambulla. Be prepared to shell out a lot of money for sightseeing, though.

Whtie-washed arched passages of the front of the cave temple in Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Cave temple in Dambulla, a UNESCO Hertitage Site

Prices in Dambulla [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]

1500 Dambulla cave entrance
1275 a double room with a shared bathroom
500 entrance to Pidurangala rock
150 lunch at a cheap eatery
110 bus Kandy to Dambulla (75 km)
45 bus Dambulla to Sigiriya (17 km)

Polonnaruwa

Pollonnaruwa is a tiny, peaceful town located near a lake and ruins of the ancient capital. The good value-for-money accommodation is easy to come by. For cheap food, search away from the touristic area. The main expense will surely be the entrance to Polonnaruwa UNESCO site.

A raised, intricately carved stone platform at the Polonnruwa ancient capital site in Sri Lanka
Ruins of Polonnaruwa ancient capital- interesting, but not worth their price

Prices in Polonnaruwa [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]

4600 entrance to Polonnaruwa site (for SARC countries: 2300)
1250 good standard, double ensuite room with breakfast
250 whole day bike rental
150 buffet lunch at a cheap eatery
120 pineapple juice
107 bus Dambulla to Polonnaruwa (70 km)

Anuradhapura is a quite spread-out town located at the banks of a lake. Its main draw are ruins of Anuradhapura ancient capital, but the nearby Mihintale is also worth a visit. Cheap accommodation and food can be easily found further from the core touristic area.

A lake view at three large ancient stupas seen at the other bank of large, blue, lake
Stupas of ancient Anuradhapura seen from the other side of the lake

Prices in Anuradhapura [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2020]

1280 accommodation (basic double room ensuite)
500 entrance to Mihintale site
180 bus Polonnaruwa to Anuradhapura (104 km)
150 buffet lunch at budget eatery
50 a pack of street deep fried snacks
40 bus from Anuradhapura to Mihintale (18 km)
20-30 a sweet bun

WEST COAST AND COLOMBO

Colombo is a capital city of Sri Lanka, a bustling metropolis with relatively few attractions. Since the international airport is closer to the nearby lacklustre sea resort- Negombo, you could stay your first/ last night in the country there.

High-rise, modern towers rising from behind the old colonial building converted to a restaurant in Colombo, Sri Lanka
History and modernity in Colombo

Prices in Colombo and Negombo [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]

1440 ensuite double room away from the beach, near bus station in Negombo
280 2nd class train Colombo- Weligama (145 km)
200 special bus Negombo airport to Colombo (50 LKR for a luggage ticket) 32 km
75 3rd class train Colombo – Ambalangoda (100 km)
70 string hoppers (breakfast) in Negombo
70 fresh coconut in Colombo
40 chai (milky tea)

Kalpitiya is a sleepy village on the west coast of Sri Lanka. It attracts mostly kite-surfers and nature lovers who come to see large dolphin pods. It also has some Dutch colonial monuments. Kalpitiya ‘town’ is very cheap both in terms of accomodation and food, but with no easy transport to the distant beach.

A salt-water lagoon with mangrove bushes and palms lining the beach in the distance
A lagoon in Kalpitiya

Prices in Kalpitiya [in Sri Lankan rupees as of February 2019]

4000 cheapest dolphin watching safari
1080 double ensuite room
150 lunch at a local eatery
115 3rd clas train Palaviya (nearest rail station) to Negombo (95 km)
50 8 bananas
40 shared van to the beach
30 large vada
25 a sweet bun

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