We hadn’t planned on visiting Sri Lanka as part of our Big Trip, but while we’ve been away we’ve heard so much about how beautiful the island is, how much tourism is still in its infancy, and how it’s been recovering from the years of bitter civil war that’s plagued it for decades.
We headed there in August, which coincided with the onset of the south-west monsoon that dumps huge amounts of rain on the south and south-west of the island. Unperturbed, our plan was to head first to the famed southern beaches of Mirissa and Tangalle and then travel north to the hill country and ancient sites, before heading over to the east coast to check out the relatively uncrowded and undeveloped beaches that had previously been “off limits” during the civil war. But, as always, our plans changed along the way.
In the end, we didn’t actually make it to the east coast as we’d heard from a number of travellers it was extremely busy (to the point where some travellers were turning up and sleeping on the beach as everywhere was fully booked) and the beaches themselves were strewn with litter. But outside of the August school holidays, we reckon it would be easier to include the likes of Trincomalee, Uppaveli, Pigeon Island and Kalkudah on your list of places to see.
Here’s the route we took…
Although you can travel and eat very cheaply wherever you go, you’ll also have to be prepared to pay pretty steep entrance fees for some of the cultural sites and national parks if you plan to go and visit them. For example, foreigners are charged 4000 Sri Lankan Rupees (£20) to climb Sigiriya Rock. Which, you might think is OK in isolation. But if you also want to go and see the ruins at the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, and maybe visit a national park or two you’ll soon be burning quite a large hole in your holiday budget.
If you’re planning on holidaying or travelling in Sri Lanka you could do worse than follow the route we took, particularly if you’re trying to do it on a budget. Although we spent four weeks there you could do it comfortably in three (without backtracking as we did), and maybe even two if you fancied more of a whistle-stop tour. For details on all the accommodation, we stayed at you can visit our Sri Lanka page. And, for a taste of what it’s like to travel by public transport in Sri Lanka, we’ve published a post on that too.
Our accommodation cost an average of £21 per day and our overall spend was £48 per day, including all transport, activities, food and drink. If we’d ditched the alcohol we would obviously have done it for less again. But that was never going to happen.
So for budget-conscious travellers everywhere, here’s how we toured wonderful Sri Lanka on a budget…
Exchange rate while we were there: £1 = 210 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs).
We stayed here for just the one night as it was the first point of call after our flight from Kuala Lumpur. We stayed at the Grand Oriental Hotel, which wasn’t a great start for our budget as it cost an eye-watering £60 per night, but we really struggled to find anywhere that was more reasonably priced. The place itself reminded me of The Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool – a once-luxurious hotel frequented by the rich and famous, but which was now living on its former glories.
We can’t drum up much enthusiasm for Colombo itself as a destination, although it’s probably unfair to judge after just one evening there. But in that time we were subjected to two scam attempts by locals who tried to get us to go on a tour of their “gem factories”. One guy was so pushy that he tried to usher us into a tuk-tuk to take us there. In the end, the only way of getting rid of him was to just walk away and keep walking. We’ve since read that this type of scam typically involves the “tuk-tuk driver” taking you to some other destination in the middle of nowhere and demanding a considerable amount of money from you.
Lesson Number One – don’t enter into conversations with people who approach you on the street, ask you where you are from and then tell you that the English (or whatever other nationality you are) are his favourite people.
Lesson Number Two – don’t believe the taxi drivers at Colombo airport who tell you that there’s no airport transfer bus to Colombo itself – there is! Rather than pay the equivalent of £25 for the privilege of a taxi you should turn left out of the airport building and jump on the shuttle bus for 100 Rs (£0.50) instead.
Tuk-tuk from hotel to train station – 100 Rs
Train to Galle (2 hours) – 100 Rs (each)
Tuk-tuk from Galle train station to our guest house within the Fort area – 100 Rs
After overnighting in Colombo, we caught the train (100 Rs / £0.50 each) for the two-hour journey south to the historic port of Galle. Founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century, it’s the Dutch-built “Fort” area that’s the big draw, with its easily-walkable walls and streets lined with beautiful colonial buildings. Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site you certainly won’t find yourself alone – lots of Chinese tour parties here – but it’s definitely worth a couple of days to just wander around and take in the arty, bohemian atmosphere, which you won’t find anywhere else in Sri Lanka.
Around Galle on a budget
- Take a walk around The Fort by following a route along the historic wall
- Watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean from one of the viewpoints near to the clock tower
- Enjoy a delicious and inexpensive rice and curry at “Spoons” – but get there early or reserve a table if you can as there’s only five to choose from.
Tuk-tuk from guest house to Galle bus station – 100 Rs
Bus from Galle to Matara (2.5 hours) – 75 Rs (each)
Bus from Matara to Mirissa (1 hour) – 50 Rs (each)
Tuk-tuk from bus stop in Mirissa to guest house – 100 Rs
Our first thoughts when we set foot on Mirissa’s lovely golden beach was “Monsoon? What monsoon?!” The combination of blue skies, lush coconut tree backdrop, golden sands, azure blue/turquoise sea, and a constant barrage of white-tipped waves was about as close as I could imagine what the perfect tropical beach should look like.
There are actually three distinct beaches at Mirissa. Our guest house was at the north end, where we had an access to a small beach populated by a group of super-friendly puppies.
Just south of that there’s a pretty deserted beach, which was actually our favourite. No bars or restaurants here – just a clean expanse of super-fine sand and the sound of crashing waves.
And then, at the southern end of Mirissa, there’s the main beach with its bars and seafood restaurants. It’s a nice beach in itself but you do have to share it with a lot of other people. Still, free body boards are available for you to use in the sea and it’s a nice place to sink one or two “Lion” beers while watching the sun go down before gorging on a plate of freshly barbequed red snapper.
To the left of the beach, there’s a promontory which can be climbed via a dodgy set of steps and, by looking back, gives a wider perspective view of Mirissa and its beaches.
Bus from Mirissa to Tangalle bus station – 60 Rs (each)
Tuk-tuk to guest house – 150 Rs
Quite simply our favourite place in Sri Lanka. More specifically, Marakolliya Beach, which is a couple of kilometres east of Tangalle town centre, accessed via a glorious walk along one of the most spectacular beaches we’ve ever seen.
If you like your beaches big, clean and uncrowded, and don’t mind the fact that you can’t actually swim in the sea because of the thunderous waves and wicked undertows that quite literally knock you off your feet, then look no further.
We even found the perfect place to stay on the best part of the beach – Mangrove Beach Chalets. A real leave-your-shoes-off experience and a good enough reason to visit Sri Lanka by itself.
After spending four nights there we returned later on for a further five nights as we felt it would be the perfect way to end our trip “on a high”. And the best part about it was because it was officially the monsoon season on this part of the island, there were large sections of the beach we pretty much had to ourselves. Don’t miss it!
Around Tangalle on a budget
- Take a walk further east along the incredible beach at Marakolliya…and just keep going. There are miles and miles of undeveloped and completely empty beach to discover. Just don’t forget you also have to walk back!
- Take a walk westwards along Marakolliya Beach until you reach Tangalle town. Stop along the way (or on the way back) at “The Roti Hut” for superb stuffed roti (fried flatbread stuffed with vegetables, with or without chicken).
- Just find yourself a deserted spot on the beach, or jump in a hammock, and watch the mesmerising display of crashing surf in front of you.
- For lunch, you can also pick up “short eats” from most roadside cafes in towns for next to nothing (30 rupiahs each, less than 15p). Our favourites were stuffed roti, egg balls (the Sri Lankan equivalent of a Scotch Egg), fish rolls (spicy minced fish with vegetables in crunchy batter), and the ubiquitous vegetable samosas. Pleasingly for my palate, they were universally spicy as hell.
- But if you’ve booked a guest house on a B&B basis you can always skip lunch by filling up with a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast of string hoppers (rice noodles), dhal curry and coconut sambal – but you might need to order it in advance.
Tuk-tuk from guest house to Tangalle bus station – 350 Rs
Bus from Tangalle to Ella (6 hours) – 240 Rs (each)
After surviving the six-hour bus journey up into the hill country we were left a bit underwhelmed by the village of Ella. Full of Western Europeans, with the main road running through it which was being re-surfaced during our visit, it felt like one of those places that existed purely for tourists, although the surrounding countryside offered plenty of walking opportunities.
We took a morning walk to “Little Adam’s Peak”, which takes you through a tea plantation and up the hillside to give you great views of the valley below.
We also found a good bar/restaurant to spend the evening (“Chill”) but even that was overflowing with European travellers who were, like us, spending just one or maybe two nights in town.
Ella’s also where many travellers get off the scenic train from Kandy, thanks to its billing in Lonely Planet as one of the world’s most beautiful train rides – which it definitely is.
Around Ella on a budget
- Take a walk along the train tracks for easy access to wonderful views of the surrounding countryside (Health & Safety alert: remember to jump off the tracks in the event of an oncoming train)
- Buy a third class train ticket to just about anywhere in the hill country, find a “seat” in one of the open doorways, dangle your legs outside and watch the jaw-dropping landscape open up in front of you. Note that, if you are travelling west from Ella through Haputale you’ll want to grab a seat or doorway on the right-hand side for the best views.
Train from Ella (1 hour) – 50 Rs (each)
Tuk-tuk from Haputale train station to guest house – 100 Rs
Firstly, if you want to get the best views from the train try to book a first class ticket at least a few days in advance – they cost 1000 Rs (£5) each but, for unobstructed panoramic views of the stunning countryside, they would seem to be well worth it. Suffice to say they were sold out when we tried, so we ended up in third class, which to be fair was both clean and comfortable. The views were still pretty spectacular, too.
Haputale itself is the complete opposite of Ella in that there’s almost a total absence of tourists in the town centre – which in itself means that hardly anyone speaks English. Most travellers come here to walk in the surrounding countryside – sometimes along the railway tracks – and to take a trip to Horton Plains National Park, which is what we did.
After a 5 am start, we took the two-hour journey by shared taxi to the park. We spent a lovely three hours on a trek, taking in “World’s End” (featuring a 1200 metre sheer drop overlooking the valley below), waterfalls and plenty of nature. Well recommended as long as you’re prepared to get up early and take the chance that the weather is kind to you – which it certainly was for us.
Around Haputale on a budget
- If organising a trip through your guest house to Horton Plains and World’s End, try to share the cost of taxi and driver with other travellers. This shouldn’t be too difficult as most travellers in Haputale are there for that trek alone. By doing this we shared our taxi cost of 4500 Rs (£22) with two other people
- We’d heard that some people were taking a cheaper option by getting the train from Haputale to Ohiya and then walking for several hours to Horton Plains from there. Nice idea but to get the best chance of decent weather (which you really do need to appreciate the view at World’s End) you need to get there very early.
Tuk-tuk from guest house to Haputale train station – 100 Rs
Train from Haputale to Kandy (5 hours) – 250 Rs (each)
Bus from Kandy to Dambulla (3 hours) – 140 Rs (each)
Bus from Dambulla to Anuradhapura (1.5 hours) – 120 Rs (each)
Tuk-tuk from drop off point to guest house – 200 Rs
Note: We were told at Kandy bus station that there were no direct buses to Anuradhapura – which was just another scam as we saw one pulling out as we left on the bus for Dambulla.
The first thing we struggled with at this place was how to actually to pronounce it (“An-your-rad-hap-oora”). The second was whether we were prepared to pay the $25 each entrance fee to the ancient sites. In the end, we decided to stick to our budget and visit another site 13km away at Minhitale, which turned out to be a great idea. We arranged an early tuk-tuk start (8 am) with our guest house and arrived there before any of the crowds arrived.
It’s believed to be the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and features a gleaming white seated Buddha and stupa, together with panoramic 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside – simply stunning. With an entrance fee of just 500Rs each, it was certainly more palatable than the main site in town.
Tuk-tuk from guest house to Anuradhapura bus station – 100 Rs
Bus to Polonnaruwa (3 hours) – 120 Rs (each)
Tuk-tuk from drop off point to guest house – 200 Rs
Another of Sri Lanka’s “golden triangle” of ancient sites, it also came with a hefty entrance fee of $25 each – which we again passed on in favour of a safari trip at Minneriya National Park (5,000 Rs / £25 each, including jeep, driver/guide, and entrance fees) and a day just exploring the countryside on bicycles hired from our guest house (300 Rs / £1.50 per day).
Tuk-tuk from guest house to Polonnaruwa bus station – 150Rs
Bus to Dambulla (2 hours) – 80 Rs (each)
Bus to Sigiriya (45 minutes) – 45 Rs (each)
Famous for its “Lion Rock” fortress, which juts out over 200 metres above the jungle-filled plains below, this was originally one of our must-sees in Sri Lanka. But, like in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa before it, we found a cheaper and better alternative. Rather than paying 4000 Rs each to climb to the summit we instead climbed Pidurangala Rock opposite with an entrance fee of 500 Rs. By doing so we had superb views of Lion Rock and its fortress, along with the queues of people on their way up to the summit!
And, like in Polonnaruwa, we borrowed bicycles from our guesthouse to explore the lovely countryside and villages in the surrounding area – including Kandalama Lake. Highly recommended.
Around Sigiriya on a budget
There really is much more to see at Sigiriya than just “that rock”. You can access both Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura by motorbike/scooter, but we loved exploring the surrounding countryside by bicycle – particularly as they were free to use from our guest house. It was a great way to see the real Sri Lanka – passing through numerous villages and seeing locals working in the fields, children returning home from school and a myriad of wildlife, including kingfishers, wading birds, monitor lizards and buffalo.
Sri Lanka on a budget – final thoughts
Despite the high prices to enjoy many of the ancient sites, there’s plenty to love about the island. The beaches, the food, the wildlife, the history – and yes, the crazy bus and train journeys.
But what we also loved about the place was the warmth and friendliness of ordinary people. They’ve had to contend with civil war for the past three decades – and we got the impression there’s still plenty of simmering discontent between certain communities and religions – but you can’t help but just respond in kind to the genuine smiles you receive from young and old alike.
And there’s no doubt it can be done on a reasonably tight budget – just travel like a local, eat the local food, select your activities carefully and set yourself a budget (and expectations) for your accommodation.
…or visit our Sri Lanka page.
For more information on travel in Sri Lanka visit the official tourism website.
What did you think? Do you have any tips to add on how to tour Sri Lanka on a budget? Or perhaps you’re planning on travelling to Sri Lanka yourself? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.