Updated on January 11, 2021 by Asher Fergusson
To help you make the most out of a visit, I’ve compiled a packing list as well as sections on what to wear in Sri Lanka, what NOT to bring, and answers to FAQs. Overall you should be prepared to get wet, to be active as well as relax, and to appreciate beauty comfortably and respectfully.
What to Pack for Sri Lanka – 17 Essentials
If you’re traveling to Sri Lanka, there is so much to see and do that it is unlikely that you’ll stay in one place. I recommend that you fit all of your packing into a good, roomy and durable travel backpack so that you can move around with ease. Hopping on and off of busses, tuk tuks, and trains is just too difficult if juggling a suitcase or multiple bags! Make sure to get a backpack with anti-gravity suspension so that your load feels lighter. It’s also important to buy for your gender as women’s backpacks are fitted for the female body whereas men’s backpacks distribute the weight differently.
The downside of travel with a backpack, or any form of luggage really, is that your packing can get messy and disorganized. That’s why I rely on packing cubes. They organize your luggage so that finding your belongings, packing and unpacking is a breeze. This is especially helpful in Sri Lanka, so that you can easily separate your beach, hiking, and more casual or urban clothes.
Compression sacks are massive space savers in your luggage. They remove air so that items like clothing pack down smaller. Sri Lankan markets are fun, exciting and affordable, which means that you’re likely to accumulate luggage during your trip, which makes compression sacks particularly handy. These compression sacks are also waterproof, which provides important added protection in your backpack because Sri Lanka can get very wet!
Tap water is unreliable in Sri Lanka, and it is a waste of both plastic and money to rely on buying bottled water every day. Bring a Lifestraw water bottle with you to Sri Lanka; it filters and purifies water on the go, which means you can drink safely from just about any source.
5. Travel Towel
These travel towels are so versatile and practical. Perfect for your backpack, they pack small and dry quickly. You also don’t need to clean them as frequently as a normal towel, which is great if you don’t want to get stuck constantly doing laundry. I use my travel towel both outdoors and for bathing.
Outlets actually vary in Sri Lanka, which means that you’re best off traveling with a universal power adapter. This one has a built-in fuse to protect your devices in case of a power surge, and it is lightweight, reliable and compact.
Particularly because bus and train rides in Sri Lanka can be so long, it’s a good idea to travel with a portable charger to elongate your devices’ battery life. Portable chargers are also helpful because power outages are common in Sri Lanka. This portable charger is lightweight and compact, so that you can carry a whole power supply in your pocket while hardly noticing that it’s there.
Public transport in Sri Lanka often blasts fun and islandy local baila music. While I personally love this music, even for me it can get old after an hour or two. That’s why I find noise cancelling headphones especially important for travel in Sri Lanka. You’ll be grateful to be able to retreat into your own sonic world and enjoy the views.
The food in Sri Lanka is amazing. However, if you’re trying new foods, it’s likely that not everything will sit well in your stomach. Activated charcoal helps an upset stomach by absorbing toxins, allowing you to recover quickly. Keep it handy so that you can feel free to try all of Sri Lanka’s delicious street food.
One of my least favorite things about Sri Lanka is leeches. Even if you don’t normally like to wear insect repellent, you’ll definitely want to use it in Sri Lanka if you want to avoid leeches clinging to your feet. Mosquitos are also omnipresent. Good insect repellent can be hard to come by in Sri Lanka, so make sure to pack your own.
Sri Lanka is very wet; rain can pour down unexpectedly. My phone actually broke from water damaged within my first day traveling in Sri Lanka, so I definitely recommend bringing with a waterproof phone case. This phone case also keeps your phone clean from dust, dirt and grime, and even can allow you to take underwater photos.
12. Rain Jacket
Because Sri Lanka is a tropical island where rain can be frequent and unexpected, it’s also a good idea to travel with a good rain jacket. This will keep you somewhat dry and comfortable so that you don’t have to pause your day or cancel activities whenever it rains.
Have I mentioned that Sri Lanka can be wet? For real downpours, a good umbrella is essential. This travel umbrella is lightweight and compact, perfect for traveling. It is also durable, windproof and coated with teflon for added water protection – which you’ll need in heavy tropical rain.
A good daypack is important for adventures and excursions. I love daypacks that fold up small so that they don’t take up any extra space in your larger pack, but also can be unfolded to use as an option if you, say, have a shopping trip and your luggage starts to overflow. This daypack is rainproof and ultralight.
15. Neck Wallet
As you move through bus stations, train stations, cities and airports, you want to always be sure that your passport and wallet are safe. This pouch allows you to carry your passport, debit cards, cash and documents safely under your shirt where you won’t have to worry about them. This neck wallet even comes with RFID blocking to prevent e-thieves from stealing your credit card details.
A VPN protects your security. This means hassle free transactions at airports, hotels, hostels and vendors without worrying about your credit card number being hacked or stolen. Unfortunately, I’ve learned from personal experience that travelers are easy targets for credit card fraud anywhere in the world. With a VPN you can feel safer and more free in your transactions.
Within my first week in Sri Lanka, I found myself at the hospital due to a minor surfing accident. Luckily I had travel insurance, so I didn’t have to break my budget getting stitches. Because you never know what might happen while traveling, insurance is necessary. Especially if you want to enjoy an adventure in Sri Lanka or get off the beaten track, you’ll feel better if you are insured. World Nomads is the best, for protecting you in unpredictable events from illness and injury to theft.
Other Sri Lanka packing list items NOT to forget
First aid kit
Travel soap case
Tea tree oil
Travel toilet paper
Map of Sri Lanka
Backpack rain cover
What to wear in Sri Lanka
Depending on what you’d like to do on the island, include in your packing clothes for the beach, hiking, casual urban excursions, and temple visits. Sri Lankans tend to dress fairly conservatively, so don’t be too showy and leave revealing clothing behind. Opt for lightweight longer shorts or pants to get you by most days. Generally, men and women should dress comfortably, casually, practically, and respectfully in Sri Lanka.
While on beaches and in touristy coastal towns it’s more acceptable to wear shorts, beach dresses and shorter sleeves, elsewhere in the country you should generally cover your arms and thighs with loose-fitting, cool and breathable clothes. Loose-fitting blouses are perfect, whereas tight and revealing clothing may make you stand out in an unwanted way. If you plan on hiking or other outdoor activities, be sure to bring lightweight hiking pants, hiking boots, and a sweat-wicking t-shirt for the sun and humidity. A rain jacket and quick-drying clothes are a plus, as rain can be unpredictable and heavy. In the highlands, you’ll need boots or hiking sandals, but everywhere else you can wear flip flops.
Men should pack beachwear, activewear, and casual clothes for days out. Because Sri Lanka is so hot, clothing that is breathable, lightweight, and loose-fitting is most comfortable. While men can wear shorts, it’s often better to wear comfortable long pants, as locals generally wear jeans or pants rather than shorts. At religious sites, men, as well as women, need to cover their shoulders and legs down to below the knees. Beaches and touristy coastal towns are more permissive, but it’s always best to wear clothing that is respectful, casual, and comfortable. In the highlands, men will be comfortable in hiking boots, sandals, or closed shoes, but anywhere else flip flops are fine.
Sri Lanka has two separate monsoon seasons, affecting seperate parts of the country. The southwestern monsoon hits the southwestern quarter of the country including Colombo and Galle, and occurs from May to July. Meanwhile, the Northeastern monsoon hits the northeast of the country, including Arugam Bay, from October to January. The monsoons don’t hit the central highlands, but June through November are the wettest months. The monsoons don’t affect temperatures much, which remain between 77-86°F (25-30°C) throughout the year, but if you travel in the monsoon, prepare to be very, very wet. Make sure to wear your rain jacket ( women:men) hiking sandals that dry quickly and have good grip (women:men) and quick drying clothes Because the monsoon season hits different parts of the country at different times though, it’s best to avoid them altogether and simply travel where it’s dry. There’s not much fun in visiting a beach, anyway, if it is constantly dumping rain.
The dry season in the southwest is December to April, while the dry season in the northeast is May to September. Coastal temperatures sit all year between 77-86°F (25-30°C). The central highlands, meanwhile, are driest between January and March, and temperatures can dip down to 60°F (15°C) though it tends to stay between 74-78°F (23 – 26C). The central north, including the ‘cultural triangle’ of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Minneriya is quite dry all year, with more rainfall in November and December.
Expect hot and humid weather during the dry season, and dress accordingly in sweat wicking activewear (women:men), sunglasses (men:women), cool lightweight pants (men: women) and flip flops (men: women)
There are two intermonsoon seasons that affect the entire island. The first is in March and April, and the second is in October and November. The inter-monsoon seasons can bring thunderstorms and heavy rain, so be prepared with a rain jacket (women:Men), hiking sandals that dry quickly and have good grip (women:men), and quick drying clothes.
Beaches: At the beach you’ll be comfortable in flip flops, a beach dress, or board shorts. Sri Lanka has great waves for all skill levels, and if you surf, a rashguard will protect your skin from both the board and the sun. When you’re off the beach and in town, wear cool and comfortable pants or shorts and a t-shirt or blouse. In beach towns, it is more common and acceptable to show legs and arms.
City: For urban excursions in cities like Colombo, Kandy, and Galle, plan to dress comfortably in lightweight clothing that covers your shoulders and thighs. You’ll be comfortable walking around the city in sandals or lightweight closed shoes. If you visit Jaffna and the north, keep in mind that it is more conservative so both men and women should always wear long pants and long sleeves.
Temples and sacred sites: When visiting Sri Lanka’s temples and sacred, religious, and cultural sites, make sure you dress appropriately in clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. You may want to bring a sarong to wrap around your shoulders or legs. Keep in mind that you are also often required to take off your shoes, so bring socks if you don’t want to walk in bare feet.
What NOT to bring to Sri Lanka
3) DON’T BRING Nice shoes Unless you plan to really indulge in a fancy resort, there isn’t much occasion for nice shoes like leather loafers or high heels, which can also damage easily in Sri Lanka’s wet weather. Pack shoes that are practical, comfortable to walk in, weatherproof and that fit lightly in your backpack.
5) DON’T BRING Computer Traveling with a computer is impractical and unnecessary in Sri Lanka. However, if you need one, bring a laptop that is cheap and lightweight, like a Chromebook.
4) DON’T BRING Delicate items Because you’ll most likely be traveling from place to place, delicate items are unlikely to fare well in your luggage. Leave delicates behind and pack durable, practical items that can handle getting tossed around or rain-soaked.
6) DON’T BRING Bath towel A bath towel is impractical because it takes a long time to dry and is bulky in your luggage. Bring a travel towel instead.
FAQs about Sri Lanka travel
1. How should I travel around Sri Lanka?
It’s very easy to travel affordably in Sri Lanka. To travel short distances, within cities or towns, tuk-tuk is the way to go. From place to place, busses can very cheaply, albeit slowly, take you wherever you need to go. There is a large bus network with stations in every town and city, and locals are always available to help direct you to the right one. You can buy tickets aboard the bus. Sometimes you can pay slightly more for a more comfortable and quicker ride. The most special way to travel in Sri Lanka though is on the trains, which are charming and old-fashioned and also very affordable, but sometimes have schedules and routes that can be restrictive. The trains wind through stunning landscapes, and it is amazing to sit back, relax, and enjoy the views. The scenic train ride from Kandy to Ella is an unforgettable experience not to be missed, and train rides along the coast are also beautiful. The trains and busses are slow though, and if you can afford it you may be most comfortable hiring a car with a private driver to navigate the roads. For a real adventure, you can actually rent your own tuk-tuk quite affordably for the duration of your stay, which gives you more autonomy to explore. Be careful though – city roads on a tuk-tuk are not for the faint of heart.
2. Where should I stay in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka has beautiful resorts for the largest budgets, as well as a variety of cheap but wonderful hostels, and guesthouse hotel rooms that can also be very affordable while offering excellent value, including stunning views and home-cooked food. Many travelers opt to stay with local families in informal homestays, which is an amazing way to get to know local life – but you can only really plan this on the ground through word of mouth. For long term stays, look into opportunities on www.workaway.info if you’re interested in spending more time with locals, saving money, participating in projects, and giving back.
3. What is best to see and do in Sri Lanka?
All along the coasts, particularly the south and east, are gorgeous beach towns, each with its own character. If you have time, it’s worth experiencing a few of them depending on your interests. Arugam Bay is famous for surfing. Colombo is a colorful and vibrant capital city, very exciting if you want an urban experience, while Kandy, in the highlands, is calm, clean, and beautiful, surrounding a lake. There is wonderful hiking in Sri Lanka, particularly in the hill country surrounding Ella, Haputale, and Nuwara Eliya. Climbing Adam’s peak is a special treat, particularly if you go before sunrise with the pilgrims on Poya Day. You can see jaguars and massive herds of elephants at stunning national reserves such as Yala and Minneriya. For culture and history, the “cultural triangle” in the north is a holy region and home to ancient kingdoms, architecture, temples, and art. The Dambulla Cave Temple and Sigiriya Lion Rock are particularly worth the trip.
4. Are there any vaccines I should get before visiting Sri Lanka?
The World Health Organization recommends vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, polio, and tetanus. Luckily, Sri Lanka is currently malaria-free.
5. Is the tap water safe to drink in Sri Lanka?
Tap water in Sri Lanka is generally chlorinated and safe to drink. However, it may still contain unfamiliar microorganisms that upset your stomach. It is best to avoid tap water if it isn’t boiled, and instead, carry your own filtered water bottle or buy bottled water.
6. How can I respect Sri Lankan culture?
Be especially careful about codes of conduct, particularly in temples and religious sites. There will usually be signs alerting you of dress codes to follow. In general, try to blend in by not wearing clothing that is too revealing or showy. While haggling is common in Sri Lanka, be respectful and pay what is fair. In Sinhala, ayubowan is “hello” and stutiyi is “thank you.”
7. Is Sri Lanka safe?
Sri Lanka has only emerged from decades of civil war relatively recently in 2009, but it is now generally peaceful and, for travelers especially, the country feels extremely safe. Locals are generally friendly, trusting, respectful, and kind, and in my experience, they will commonly go out of their way to help you. The biggest unexpected danger in some parts of Sri Lanka is the possibility of an elephant attack at night! Sri Lanka apparently has the highest rate of elephant-human conflict in the world. However, this is still highly unlikely and very easy to avoid if you’re smart and aware.