Essentials For Backpacking Sri Lanka | Vaccinations for Sri Lanka, Travel Insurance, Safety, And Avoiding Scams

The adventure of experiencing Sri Lanka is one of a kind and easily worth the hours of research, preparation, and flying to reach this island paradise.  Unfortunately, the foreignness of Sri Lanka can be a turnoff for many westerners.  Logistics like understanding the necessary vaccinations for Sri Lanka, travel insurance, how to handle food and water, and other small (but logical) questions can leave travelers feeling overwhelmed.

Essentials For Backpacking Sri Lanka | Vaccinations, Travel Insurance, Safety, And Avoiding Scams
Sri Lanka is filled with adventure and fun opportunities, but approaching your travels the right way is essential to a safe and comfortable trip

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A Brother Abroad has you covered!

Read on for everything you need to know about vaccinations for Sri Lanka, tips for healthy eating and drinking, advice for choosing travel insurance for Sri Lanka, and more.

CONTENTS

SRI LANKA VISA INFO

You absolutely need a visa or Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) to visit Sri Lanka, but for most nationalities, it’s a zero-hassle situation, and available when you arrive at the airport for an additional $5 fee.

Sri Lanka’s Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) system allows you to apply and get approved for a visa before arriving, to allow you to skip the lines. Find out more information at the official Sri Lank travel visa website

Travelers holding passports of the following countries are exempt from ETA visa fees:

1. Thailand

2. Iceland

3. United Kingdom

4. United States of America

5. Japan

6. Australia

7. South Korea

8. Canada

9. Singapore

10. New Zealand

11. Malaysia

12. Switzerland

13. Cambodia

14. China

15. India

16. Indonesia

17. Israel

18. Ukraine

19. Philippines

20. Russia

References:

Visa on Arrival

If you’re like me and lazy when it comes to visas, don’t worry.  A visa on arrival is available at the airport on arrival, for an additional $5 USD charge.

SAFETY IN SRI LANKA


Food and Water in Sri Lanka

As per the CDC, only drink water that is bottled or has been disinfected. In Sri Lanka, do not drink tap water, well water, or any juices or ice made from tap water.  For more info, see the “Eat and Drink Safely” section of the CDC Travel website.


Recommended Vaccinations for Sri Lanka

This is a brief summary of the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) vaccination recommendations for Sri Lanka travel.  Please consult the CDC Travel website for Sri Lanka for full vaccination recommendations and guidelines.

CDC Recommended Vaccinations for Sri Lanka | All travelers

  • Measles
  • Routine vaccines: These vaccinations include the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot.

CDC Recommended Vaccinations for Sri Lanka | Most travelers

  • Hepatitis A: Hepatitis A can be contracted through contaminated food or water in Sri Lanka, regardless of where you are eating or staying.  Be aware of this risk and get the Hep A vaccination prior to travel
  • Typhoid: The CDC recommends getting vaccinated for Typhoid if visiting smaller cities or rural areas, or traveling to adventurous destinations.

CDC Recommended Vaccinations for Sri Lanka | Some travelers

These vaccinations won’t be necessary for most travelers but you should ask your doctor if they’re necessary based on your medical background or travel plans.

  • Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B can be contracted through sexual contact, contaminated needles, and blood.  A Hepatitis B vaccination is recommended if you’ll be having sex with a new partner, getting a tattoo or piercing, or have any medical procedures.
  • Japanese Encephalitis: If you will spend more than one month in Sri Lanka or Asia ask your doctor if this vaccination is necessary for you.
  • Rabies: Can be contracted via dogs, bats, and other mammals in Sri Lanka.  The CDC recommends a rabies vaccination for travelers engaging in outdoor and adventure activities or any travelers that will potentially come in contact with animals.
  • Yellow Fever: Required if traveling from a country with risk of Yellow Fever virus transmission

CRIME AND SECURITY: NICE AND SAFE, VERY LITTLE CRIME

Despite recent events such as the Easter Bombings in Colombo, my travels through Sri Lanka were blissful with no major issues of safety or crime. 

Women traveling solo should exercise similar caution as they would traveling to India or traveling solo in general.

The most up to date and accurate source of safety and security info for Sri Lanka is the US State Department’s Sri Lanka travel page – which I highly recommend for new travelers.  Experienced travelers, take the safety and security warnings with a grain of salt…and just go!

For US travelers, I do recommend enrolling in the US State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), and notate your Sri Lanka travel dates to keep the embassy apprised of your location in case of an emergency – it’s quick, free, and a good safety net.

TRAVEL INSURANCE | SRI LANKA

For most wanderers, travel insurance in Sri Lanka is a must – and from experience, I recommend World Nomad’s

Absolutely get travel insurance, in case of accidents, sickness, or emergency.  I don’t always get travel insurance but Sri Lanka is so adventurous that I absolutely opted for it.  If you’re on the fence about spending the $100-$150 on travel insurance, read the article “Do You Need Travel Insurance? Maybe yes, maybe no…” to help decide whether or not it’s worth the expense.

Whenever I travel to an adventurous destination where I’m surfing, trekking, riding, or even eating adventurously, I always carry travel insurance that covers injuries, getting sick, and evacuation – read the article “Do You Need Travel Insurance” to understand why, or if it is even necessary for you.  Odds are, if you are traveling Sri Lanka the right way, you probably do need travel insurance.

SCAMS IN SRI LANKA

As fantastic as Sri Lanka is, the location is still a tourist destination and not free of scams.  Most of the scams involve tuk tuks or drivers – and can be easily solved by either 1) only riding in metered taxis and tuk tuks 2) agreeing on a fare before starting a ride or 3) using a rideshare app.


Tuk Tuk Ride Scams

Tuk Tuk ride scams generally target foreigners that don’t think to agree on the price of their ride ahead of time.

Generally, the Tuk Tuk driver will stop, offer a ride, get the rider to hop in, go to the destination, and demand an outrageous fare (10x the price) for a short ride.  After the ride has been taken, if you haven’t agreed on the fare beforehand, there’s not much you can do besides paying the fare.  Prevent this potential scam by

  1. Only using metered Tuk Tuks and taxis
  2. Agreeing on the price beforehand (use a rideshare apps ride estimate as a fair starting point for the price)
  3. Use rideshare apps that standardize fares.  The best rideshare apps in Colombo and Sri Lanka to use are Uber and Pickme.  Both work for taxis, tuk tuks, and moto-taxis

The “I don’t have change” scam

This is a very light scam that many taxi and tuk tuk drivers may try to pull.  The tourist pulls out a medium to large amount bill and the driver says they don’t have change – hoping the tourist will allow them to keep the change and claiming there is no other alternative: Solution: Simply tell the driver its on them, and suggest they drive to a mini-mart or restaurant so they can get change – don’t pay any extra for the additional ride required to get the change.


The “I’m a guide” or “Ride with me” scam

This scam uses a bystander who strikes up a conversation with a tourist and finds a reason to flag down a tuk tuk to stop, usually listing a set of sites that the tourist should see, and then shuffles the tourist into the taxi without negotiating the fare.  The end state is the tourist is stuck paying whatever the tuk tuk driver charges and the “bystander” takes a cut later.  Solution: Either politely decline riding in the tuk tuk or agree on the fare before the tuk tuk starts driving.  Don’t be afraid to walk away.


Police “Fines” (Bribery) for travelers driving Tuk Tuks

This scam only applies to those driving their own tuk tuks

Outside of Colombo, and between cities, police and military checkpoints are fairly common.  At the checkpoint, you’ll be asked for registration, insurance, and the appropriate Sri Lankan Driver’s license.  If you have these three items you’ll have an enjoyable, polite experience.  If you don’t have these documents then you will be fined (in some inconvenient way) or you can “pay on the spot” (pay a bribe).  Let’s be honest – if you don’t have the proper documents, the fail is on you, so decide if you want to pay a fine, or pay a cheaper bribe

In some rare cases, if your paperwork is good then a shady policeman may try to stick you with a made-up moving violation – usually speeding (faster than 40 kilometers per hour), passing in a no-passing zone, or passing in a pedestrian zone.  The punishment will be a citation and fine or paying on the spot.  If you’re in the right and have your paperwork, I recommend politely refusing and stating that you followed the laws.  If you do happen to pay the fine, get a picture of the policeman’s badge number and name to report to the local department.  Also, contact your tuk tuk rental agency about recourse, the best ones will help you out.

Solution: Rent a tuk tuk the right way from a good company.  I highly recommend the Tuk Tuk Rental Team as they offer great, consistent support via Whatsapp, all of their tuk tuks are insured with proper registration, and they can set you up with a Sri Lankan driver’s license before you even arrive.  Click here to read the write up on my experience Driving for Three Weeks on Three Wheels from Tuk Tuk Rental Sri Lanka

 

 

BEING A RESPONSIBLE TRAVELER

Just like many other locations in Southeast Asia, the plethora of beautiful animals can often create a lucrative tourist trap at the expense of the animals.  As a favor for creating this (hopefully) great and useful guide, I ask that you refrain from supporting these activities and instead do what it takes to see the animals in the wild, on a safari or on your own tuk tuk ride

I saw every one of the caged animals on the road, wild, and free…for free! 

Avoid the “Snake Charmers”, dancing monkeys, and elephant rides as supporting them perpetuates exploitation of the animals while forcing them to live in very crappy conditions…that I personally wouldn’t want to live in.


Notes on Elephant Tourism in Sri Lanka, Recognizing It and Avoiding It

If are considering an elephant ride or an elephant interaction, look at the elephant’s neck and legs – if there are shackles and chains, the conditions are likely inhumane. 

If the “guide” is carrying a spike or spear-like object (to poke the elephant when it gets “out of line”) the conditions of captivity are likely inhumane. 

Last, if you observe captive elephants doing a wagging motion with their heads, regardless of how cute this looks they’re actually suffering an emotional breakdown, so absolutely do nothing to support its captivity.

Elephant Tourism Alternatives in Sri Lanka: Udawalawe National Park, Yala National Park, Cruising a Tuk Tuk

Some of my favorite experiences in Sri Lanka were interacting with elephants, in the wild, free to roam.  In Sri Lanka, there is no need to seek out a tourist experience with captive elephants.

Visit Udawalawe National Park if you want to see hundreds of elephants roaming around your seafaring jeep, in the wild, and happy.  With Udawalawe tours range from $35 USD and up, the experience is rich, cheap, and friendly to these gentle giants. Book in advance if you’re on a tight schedule, and book at the location if you’re on a budget.

Visit Yala National Park if you want to experience elephants along with water buffalo, crocodiles, monkeys, cocky peacocks, and so much more.  I wandered in via my own tuk tuk and shared my lunch with a very friendly tusked bull elephant, feeding it by hand.  For plenty of reasons, we shouldn’t feed the elephants – but – I couldn’t resist, and that was a moment I’ll remember on my deathbed.  Kinda worth bending the rules.

Outside of organized tours, just driving a tuk tuk through Sri Lanka will take you past countless elephants on the road.  Solo, in herds, and super friendly.  This experience is far better than seeing them in captivity.

SRI LANKA FAQ

  • Is Sri Lanka Dangerous?
  • Is 3 weeks too long in Sri Lanka? How many days is enough to visit Sri Lanka?
  • How much money should I bring to Sri Lanka?
  • When should I visit Sri Lanka? When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?
  • What to wear in Sri Lanka: “How should I dress in Sri Lanka?”

Is Sri Lanka Dangerous?

As a frequent traveler, I felt just as safe in Sri Lanka as I have in the Southeast Asian countries popular with backpackers – which generally means as safe or safer than at home in the US.  Petty crime is possible in the capital of Colombo, as in any big city, but in the countryside, there is a warm, welcoming, and safe feeling all around. Police and military presence is ample and they were all very friendly and happy to have foreigners experiencing their culture, in my experience.

Though the civil war, which ended 2009, and the Easter bombings of 2019 have left a stigma in the eyes of the media and foreigners that haven’t yet visited, you will quickly see that those events aren’t accurately representative of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka of today is warm, welcoming, chaotic in places and quiet in others, but with preparation and common sense, will give you another, enjoyable and adventurous travel experience.

Is 3 weeks too long in Sri Lanka? How many days is enough to visit Sri Lanka?

3 weeks in Sri Lanka is a perfect length of time to travel, giving you time to experience the beaches, safaris and national parks, hill and tea country, and the 1500+-year-old cultural and archeological sites at a comfortable pace.

Ultimately 21 to 24 days is the perfect length of time traveling Sri Lanka, giving you time for all of the unique things to see and experience in Sri Lanka without feeling rushed

How much money should I bring to Sri Lanka?

In Sri Lanka as a traveler, a budget of $50 per day is reasonable to cover food, a private room, transportation, and light fun.  Plan on tours and excursions each costing $50-$100 and alcohol to be much more expensive than in Southeast Asia, and slightly more expensive than western countries.

When should I visit Sri Lanka? When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?

For most travelers, November to April is the best time to visit Sri Lanka, as the easily accessible beach towns near Colombo & Negombo are experiencing their best weather, with January to February being the absolute best times.

For surf focused travelers, April to November is best as the tourist season shifts to Arugam Bay with its legendary point break that is arguably the best in Sri Lanka – at windless times offering ~400 meter long rides, and hollow, barreling waves at nearly double overhead height when full-on.

What to wear in Sri Lanka: “How should I dress in Sri Lanka?”

Dress for everything when traveling to Sri Lanka.  In the beachy south, the sun beats down hot and hard.  In the cool, highlands of tea country, the weather is frequently cloudy with cool nights in the 60s year-round in Ella (16-20 degrees Celsius) and in the 50s (11-14 degrees Celsius) in Nuwara Eliya, so bring a rain jacket and insulation layer. Bring long clothes that cover the arms and legs for the times you’ll enter religious sites.

For a good starting point, check out our Ultimate Packing Guide for Adventurous Travelers


Now that you know the essentials for visa and staying safe in Sri Lanka, what now? I recommend checking out our other free Sri Lanka backpacking and travel resources.  Our ultimate guide to backpacking Sri Lanka linked below is 100+ pages of free, well-researched Sri Lanka travel info. 

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