Where Is Sri Lanka?

A train in the jungle of Sri Lanka

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There is a good chance you've got something in your kitchen from the island (tea, cinnamon, curry, or coconut oil), but where is Sri Lanka located?

Travelers who have already been there sing the praises of Sri Lanka, a medium-sized island located just south of India. Still, Sri Lanka was off the tourism radar for years until recently. A 30-year-long civil war there ended in 2009. After 10 years of growth and rebuilding, Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka the top destination for 2019. Sadly, violent terrorist attacks in April that year again stifled tourism and prompted travel advisories to be issues by many countries.

Sri Lanka is among the top in the world for biodiversity and boasts an astonishing variety of flora and fauna for its size. The beaches and interior alike are absolutely gorgeous. The mix of Theravada Buddhism and influences from nearby India create a unique vibe unlike anywhere else in Asia. Falling in love with Sri Lanka's charm is way too easy!

Train Journey in Sri Lanka
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The Location of Sri Lanka

Known as Ceylon until 1972, Sri Lanka is an independent island nation located in the Indian Ocean just southeast of the tip of the Indian subcontinent. The name change may be one reason Sri Lanka isn't overly familiar to many Americans. If you have tea in the cupboard labeled as "Ceylon," it came from Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was a British colony until obtaining independence in 1948. Interestingly, Sri Lanka is claimed to be the oldest democracy in Asia.

Here are a few specifics about the location of Sri Lanka:

  • Along with India, Nepal, and the Maldives, Sri Lanka is considered a part of South Asia.
  • Sri Lanka is in the Indian Ocean, almost rowboat distance from the southeast tip of India. It is located just a little southwest of the Bay of Bengal.
  • The Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait are the two shallow waterways separating India and Sri Lanka.
  • The Maldives, an island nation and popular honeymoon destination in Asia, are southwest of Sri Lanka.
  • Sumatra, the largest island belonging only to Indonesia, lies far across the Indian Ocean to the southeast of Sri Lanka.
  • Northeast from Sri Lanka, across the Bay of Bengal, is the coast of Myanmar (Burma).

Sri Lanka is thought to have once been connected to India via an 18-mile-long land bridge, however, only limestone shoals remain. Large cargo ships transporting Indian exports from Mumbai to the rest of Asia cannot sail through the shallow waters between the two countries; they must pass all the way around Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, congested street in Old Colombo
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The Size of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a medium-sized island that occupies 25,330 square miles, making it only slightly larger than the U.S. state of West Virginia. But fewer than two million people live in West Virginia; more than 21.7 million people call Sri Lanka home!

Imagine cramming the populations of Sweden, Norway, and Finland combined into a space about the size of West Virginia (more than 10 times the population of the state). Adding to the problem of urban overcrowding, much of the island interior is made up of uninhabitable waterways, steep mountainous terrain, and rainforest so dense that elephants and leopards call it home!

People and tuk-tuks in a street in Sri Lanka
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Getting Around in Sri Lanka

Getting around Sri Lanka is easy by bus and train, although public transportation is often painfully overcrowded. Like in India, you'll be inundated with offers from tuk-tuk/rickshaw drivers. Fortunately, distances are relatively short; journeys in Sri Lanka span in hours rather than days.

Traveling by rail is the slowest but most scenic option for getting around in Sri Lanka. If you aren't in a hurry, going by train is a memorable experience.

Driving around the island by motorbike (scooter rentals are readily available) provides the highest level of freedom. Local trucks and buses, often overloaded, speed recklessly along Sri Lanka's roadways even worse than usual. The head-on passing antics are enough to give even veteran drivers in Asia the shakes. Don't attempt to drive on the island's main roads unless you're willing to play head-on "chicken" with fully loaded cargo trucks!

SriLankan Airlines Airbus A330-243
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How to Get to Sri Lanka

Ferry service between India and Sri Lanka stopped during the civil war. Boat service started up again in late 2011 but did not run for long. Although some cruise ships do call into Sri Lanka, the most common way to get to Sri Lanka is by flying into Colombo. Many budget airlines operate flights between major hubs in Asia and Sri Lanka. Flights from India are especially inexpensive.

There are no direct flights from the United States to Sri Lanka. American travelers usually connect through Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. The quickest way to fly to Sri Lanka from the United States is to book a direct flight to New Delhi or Mumbai, then connect with an onward flight to Colombo. You won't need an Indian Transit Visa if your layover is less than 24 hours and you don't leave the airport.

Another option for flying to Sri Lanka, as with many other points in Asia, is to pass through Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. Bangkok is a popular hub for stopovers on the way to Sri Lanka; no transit visa is required. You'll even be allowed up to 30 days to leave the airport and see a few of the top sights. Because of high volume, airfare to Bangkok is often very affordable from Los Angeles (LAX) and New York City (JFK).

If you prefer to transit through Malaysia instead, AirAsia operates affordable flights from Kuala Lumpur's KLIA2 terminal to Colombo.

If you get a chance to fly with Sri Lankan Airlines, the national airline, do so! Sri Lankan Airlines consistently wins awards for friendly service and reliability. You'll enjoy good food on a flight instead of arriving convinced someone is trying to injure you gastronomically.

You should arrange your first hotel before arriving in Colombo, the hectic, concrete heart of the island. Driving around the urban sprawl after hours looking for a place to stay isn't a good plan.

Visa Requirements for Sri Lanka

Whatever you do, don't show up in Sri Lanka without a visa! You'll be refused entry and put back on a plane.

Travelers of all nationalities (excluding Singapore, the Maldives, and the Seychelles) must get an electronic visa authorization (ETA) in advance before arriving in Sri Lanka. After applying on the official ETA site, you will receive a confirmation code associated with your passport number. Travelers print that code then later receive a visa-on-arrival stamp at immigration after arriving in the airport. The process is pleasantly efficient, assuming you don't make any mistakes on the application.

Applying for a travel visa to visit Sri Lanka is easy, inexpensive, and can be done quickly online—you do not need to pay an agency to help you get one. If for some reason the electronic process doesn't work, you can visit a Sri Lankan diplomatic mission to obtain a visa before flying to Colombo.

The default length of stay granted for tourism is 30 days. Getting a visa for Sri Lanka is notoriously more straightforward than getting a visa for India; no passport photos or additional paperwork are necessary.

A crowded local beach in Sri Lanka
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Sri Lanka Travel Safety

Sri Lanka had to deal with both the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and a civil war that lasted for nearly 30 years. Fighting stopped in 2009, but the greatly empowered military has remained in a mobilized state for decades. High-ranking officials face accusations of war crimes; outcomes are still pending. Heavily armed police and even machine gun nests are a common sighting in the city.

On April 21, 2019, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks killed more than 300 civilians and injured 500 more at churches and high-end hotels throughout the country. Foreigners, including travelers from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Australia, Japan, and Portugal were among those killed.

The United Nations and other world organizations have claims against Sri Lanka for corruption, war crimes, torture, and the disappearance of more than 12,000 individuals following the end of the war. The founder of a major newspaper (a human rights activist and outspoken critic of the government) was assassinated in 2009; the case is still pending.

Although all this sounds like quite the deterrent for visiting, Sri Lanka is still a safe destination for international tourists. Despite a heavy militarized police presence in Colombo and some cities in the north, Sri Lanka is statistically safe to travel with the usual amount of vigilance. Tourists usually don't get targeted for anything more than annoying travel scams. The tourism infrastructure has largely been rebuilt, and more than two million foreign tourists a year come to Sri Lanka to enjoy the beauty and biodiversity.

Jungle view of a beach in Sri Lanka
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Places to See in Sri Lanka

A majority of the visitors to Sri Lanka end up at popular beach destinations south of Colombo along the west coast of the island. Unawatuna is a popular beach destination and attracts visitors from all over the world. Surfing and whale-sighting cruises are popular activities along the coast.

Although you'll have to face high humidity after leaving the pleasant sea breeze along the coast, the interior of Sri Lanka is green, cooler at higher elevations, and home to abundant bird species and other wildlife, including elephants. Verdant tea plantations can be found among the hills. The island interior is rich with trekking and bird-watching opportunities.

The city of Kandy in the Central Province is a popular tourist destination and is generally considered the cultural epicenter of Sri Lanka. The Sacred Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha is housed in a temple in Kandy.

Even if lazy beach vacations aren't your thing, there are enough interesting things to do in Sri Lanka to make everyone happy.

Ocean view from the beach in Sri Lanka
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The Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka

Peculiar for an island so small, Sri Lanka is subject to two different monsoon seasons. At any given time, some part of the island will be dry enough to enjoy while the other side experiences rain. For no good reason, you could technically drive to monsoon season and then come back to sunshine.

The popular beaches in the southwest enjoy a dry season from December to March. Meanwhile, the northeast parts of the island get rain. The season then toggles: The south receives heavier rain from late May until November (with a slightly drier respite in July and August) while the north gets less rain.

You will enjoy better snorkeling and diving during the dry season months when less runoff from the interior clouds visibility. Whale-watching season begins in November; Mirissa is a popular place to go on an excursion.

Dambulla cave temple - Buddha statues in Sri Lanka
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The Religion in Sri Lanka

Unlike India to the north, Theravada Buddhism (the same variety found in Thailand) is more prevalent in Sri Lanka than Hinduism or other religions. More than 70 percent of Sri Lankan people claim to be Buddhist.

What is considered by many to be the most important Buddhist relic on earth, Gautama Buddha's left canine tooth is kept at the Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka. Along with the tooth, a sapling claimed to be from the bodhi tree beneath which Gautama Buddha obtained enlightenment is planted in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is more religiously devout and can be more vigilant about enforcing religious laws than the Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia.

Displaying religious tattoos (even the sacred sak yant ones popular among travelers in Southeast Asia) is technically illegal. You could be denied entry or receive additional harassment from immigration officials if you don't cover up Buddhist and Hindu tattoos.

Be extra respectful when visiting Buddhist temples and shrines. Don't turn your back to an image of Buddha to snap a selfie. Avoid making too much noise or acting disrespectful near temples.

Avoid wearing clothing with religious themes. Even a shirt that depicts an image of Buddha could be deemed as offensive. Be sightly more conservative when choosing clothes to wear.