Sri Lanka is a picturesque island 31 km south of the Indian mainland in the Indian Ocean. Its beaches, beautiful countryside, rich culture and friendly people have made the island a popular tourist destination.
The island, known as Ceylon until 1972, has been of strategic significance since ancient times, originally as a trading post and later as a military base for the Allies. It was originally settled by immigrants from the Indian mainland in 600BC, and today these people constitute the majority ethnic group; the Sinhalese. In the 14th century, the north of the island was invaded by a kingdom from the south of India, who are today known as the Tamils. Realising the importance of Sri Lanka as a gateway from the Middle East to the Far East, a succession of European powers colonised the island, starting with the Portuguese in 1505. The Dutch took over in the 17th century, and the British claimed the island as a crown colony in 1802. These Europeans began the modernisation of the island, which included building tea, rubber and coffee plantations in the hills of the island’s fertile interior. The British also began the construction of schools, medical facilities and transport infrastructure.
After the Second World War, the island became independent of the British, and the Sinhalese majority set up a parliamentary democracy of the British style. However, conflict emerged in the 1970s as the Tamil population of northern Sri Lanka became dissatisfied with the treatment they were receiving at the hands of the Sinhalese, and demanded the creation of a separate Tamil state in the northeast of the island. Over the years this conflict has become increasingly violent, with the Tamil Tigers pursuing their demands via a guerrilla campaign. Although a ceasefire is technically in effect, it is worth checking with the Foreign Office to see what advice they can give about the safety of your visit.
English is the official language, and most people, except in the most rural areas, will have a grasp of it. Sinhalese is spoken among the majority, and Tamil by the minority in the north.
The unit of currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee, which is divided into 100 cents. It is uncommon for shops to accept foreign currencies, although traveller’s cheques are usually fairly easy to change. In cities credit cards are accepted and cash machines are available, but they very rare in the countryside. As of 21st October 06, 100 SL Rupees is worth 0.51 GBP, 0.98 USD, or 0.76 Euros.
The pleasant tropical climate is one of the island’s biggest attractions. The lowland coastal areas have an average temperature of 27 degrees Celsius, with the inland hills being slightly cooler. From May to July the south of the country experiences a wet season, with the possibility of typhoon conditions. Tsunamis caused by the 2004 Indian Earthquake caused a great deal of destruction and loss of life on the coast of Sri Lanka.
The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage houses around 70 elephants, most of which are youngsters found in the forest without their mothers, although some are older and disabled. The institute is funded by the government and has dual role as a tourist attraction and a centre of research and captive breeding. As a tourist, you can observe the elephants moving around the 25 hectare estate, being fed, and if you are lucky you might be able to bathe one of the younger animals. Equally fascinating is watching the mahouts (elephant handlers). They move among the elephants comfortably, and can control a whole herd with just a few shouted commands.
Beruwela is a 130km stretch of beaches which is undergoing significant development, and new resorts seem to be appearing every couple of weeks. The area is about 30 miles from Colombo. The sands are fine and white, the water is clear and at moment, of very good quality.
Dambulla Vihara is an ancient settlement of great cultural and historical interest. North of Kandy, the site lies in the centre of Sri Lanka’s lush hills and is built around a large isolated mass of rock. The rock has 5 caves, each of which is filled with statues and frescoes of Buddha commemorating his visits to Sri Lanka. The viewing site at the top of this rock commands breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. The area’s outstanding natural beauty and cultural value has earned it the status of a UNESCO world heritage site.
A popular souvenir among females is a custom made sari. You can select the fabric from an array of colours and textures and have it made to your specifications, all for around £10. Colombo has several high quality leather goods outlets, all of which are very good value. You can also pick up genuine western brands for a very good price in Colombo’s chains stores.
Colombo has many cinemas showing mainly Bolywood films, although some western productions are available. Sri Lanka is not known for its exceptional clubs. There are many nice bars in Colombo, but most of these will shut around midnight or shortly after.
You will need to obtain a temporary driving license upon arrival, which shouldn’t be a problem proving you have a valid UK or EU license. The drink driving limit is 0.06%.
Food and Drink
Sri Lankan cuisine is based around rice, curry and chutneys. A speciality is Kottu Roti. This is a selection of chopped vegetables and shellfish or lamb curried in a unique way and served around a mound of rice. You will rarely find yourself paying more than a pound for a meal unless you eat in hotels or the very best restaurants. Sri Lankans eat with their right hands only, but this is not necessarily expected of tourists. Drinking tap water is not recommended for travellers. Bottled water is available cheaply.
Tourist InfoMinistry of Tourism, Colombo
- Tel: +94 11 441 464
- Web: www.srilankatourism.org