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Tips on travelling to Sri Lanka from Yvonne Habeeb

After a 10-year career in the financial services I eventually bit the bullet and left the UK to embark on a three month journey. I travelled to South America, fulfilling some of my childhood dreams. I went to work overseas for the award-winning experts, Kuoni Travel, taking up positions in Switzerland, Egypt and the Maldives, where I worked on a total of 8 resorts before a couple of years of working back in the UK in the product division at Kuoni HQ.

Returning to the Maldives for a short time, my work took me back to Sri Lanka, where I have remained now for the last five years and regard it as my adopted home!

Working with clients, I love to impart my knowledge and lead people in their pursuit of discovery! There is so much to see and do in Sri Lanka, many clients return year after year to re-visit a special place or discover new secret hideaways.

How well do you know Sri Lanka?

I've been living in Sri Lanka for the last 5 years, and was a regular visitor whilst living in the Maldives for 8 years. We've offered tours and hotels through our sister DMC, and feel I know the country very well, although there is so much to offer in terms of incredible diversity and still so many off-the-beaten-track-adventures!

What is the appeal of Sri Lanka for travellers?

The diversity. You can start from a balmy beach on the west coast and within 6 hours, with a lot of beautiful vistas en-route, you can be in a climate 20 degrees cooler, amongst misty mountains!  The number of Cultural and Heritage sites is outstanding, with a total of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Tours are an amazing offering to clients, with so many fascinating and beautiful locations to experience. Wildlife on the island is also fantastic. A total of 14 national parks means a high density of the elusive leopard, mighty elephants, sloth bears, brown bears, dear, a huge diversity of reptiles, birds, and butterflies perfect for animal and nature lovers. not to mention of course, whale watching! – active from the north of the island from May to September and November to April in the south. The cities are eclectic and vibrant with generations of mixed ethnicities lending their own cultures to the melting pot that is Sri Lanka. Year-round there are arts and festivals and international events. The choice of accommodation also suits budgets from shoestring to luxury.

When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?

Year-round. I don't say that lightly, but there really are events and activities throughout the year. The typical tourist season is from November to April. However, the Southwest monsoon that hits most of Asia from around May, does not really happen anymore. It’s either late afternoon or early morning when a cooling shower will appear, otherwise the weather is hot and balmy! Some activities are seasonal, like whale watching, otherwise you can pretty much do anything, all year round.

Anything special I should pack for travel to Sri Lanka?

Mosquito repellent, and after-bite cream are essential. Hydrocortisone cream can be bought here, but no longer antihistamines. Light, cotton clothing is a good idea, but just remember that if you're travelling around the country you should pack some more conservative attire like long-sleeved cotton blouses, skirts, long shorts, and dresses - aside from that comfy and cool is the object of dressing in Sri Lanka! Sarongs are a good idea. Keep them in your bag at all times as they can be used as a head cover when visiting temples and protection from sunburn! Also, don't only rely on beach flip-flops trainers are great for hikes and getting about where you need something a little sturdier on your feet!

What's the best way to get around?

The vast majority of visitors to Sri Lanka opt for a tour, and/or beach stay, booking vehicles through their travel agent. Registered vehicles for tourists are well maintained, come with AC, and are new models able to comfortably transport between two and twelve people for small groups, or even large coaches where necessary. Your travel agent will work out the cost of vehicles for a tour, and often the driver is a chauffeur/guide who will stay with you throughout the tour. Drivers will have their own, separate accommodation organised by the agent and these costs will be covered by the agent.

Travellers coming independently prefer to take local buses, trains, and tuk-tuks - all of these are cheap and connect the island very well. However, take note that if you choose this route you should plan your trip in advance and be prepared for overcrowding! Domestic flights are now also available now!

Domestic flights are now also available now. Visitors often miscalculate the long distances involved in getting from one place to another, although there are now some good highways connecting the main cities, but can still be time consuming. If tours are for a short number of days or long car journeys aren't your thing, domestic flights are perfect alternatives!

What are your top three attractions?

The Cultural Triangle is Sri Lanka's most visited area, which includes the country's main cultural and heritage sites: the UNESCO World Heritage sites of The Sacred City of Anuradhapura, Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, The Sacred City of Sigiriya, Dambulla Cave Temple, and Temple of the Tooth Relic in the city of Kandy. These are the most visited sites, particularly on tours. After the Cultural Triangle people like to travel up into the hills, through the tea plantations, and up to Nuwara Eliya, the hill town. Then comes the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Galle Fort on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. These, I would say, are the main three, but there really is so much to see!

Anything or anywhere travellers should avoid in Sri Lanka?

The same precautions taken anywhere in the world should also be taken in Sri Lanka with regards to personal safety and possessions. Although we all like to feel we can travel where and when we like in this world, sensible care and attention should be given when travelling alone, using public transport, and particularly as a woman.

Anything I should be aware of as a visitor in terms of local customs/traditions?

Sri Lanka is made up of Buddhists (70 percent), Tamils, Muslims, and Christians, and there are many customs and festivals going on year-round to celebrate all ethnicities and religions. As a result, it gets pretty colourful and noisy in Sri Lanka! Visitors should always expect the unexpected and be respectful of all religions, wear appropriate clothing on visits to temples and heritage sites as directed.   

How safe is Sri Lanka? What safety measures would you advise visitors take?

Sri Lanka is generally a very safe country, but travellers should take precautionary measures as they would anywhere, but women should avoid traveling alone at night, and be aware of surroundings on crowded public transport.

Would you recommend Sri Lanka as a destination for families travelling with kids?

Absolutely! Sri Lanka is great for families with children. With great beaches, wildlife, and the educational history and culture there is so much for youngsters to get involved in. Additionally, the hotels also cater to children: there are children's clubs and special events, and particularly good ones can be found at the beach resorts!

What are your favourite restaurants in Sri Lanka?

Colombo has some great new restaurants serving all manner of international cuisine! Colombo is an amazing city with so many places to eat, namely, Noodles at Cinnamon Grand Hotel, RARE at Uga Residence, and, if I were to pick a local offering, you can't go wrong with the fantastic seafood served up at the Wadiya Beach Restaurant, found on Marine Drive, Colombo!

What are the best souvenirs to buy in Sri Lanka?

Visitors will find so much on their travels! Best buys are probably the gem stones, particularly sapphires mined on the island. For gifts that are easily transported, visitors should buy the little wooden elephants and colourful sarongs sold by the beach sellers who work hard plying their trade along the sand and the goods are pretty good quality too!

Is Sri Lanka expensive?

Local food and products are not so expensive, but Sri Lanka is an island after all so a lot of goods are imported. This means some things can be pretty expensive, especially imported food and drink items.

Which Sri Lankan city is your favourite?

Nuwara Eliya, for a cool, misty break from the heat of the coast!

Is there anything else about Sri Lanka you think travellers should know?

Come to Sri Lanka with open hearts and minds, and a sense of adventure! Expect the unexpected and if you're not yet patient, you will be by the time you go home!