FACT FILE

CAPITAL                 Colombo

POPULATION        22.58 million

LANGUAGE           Sinhala, Tamil, English

TIME ZONE            GMT+5.5

CURRENCY            Sri Lanka rupee (Rs.)

ELECTRICITY          230v 50Hz

FLAG

The main image recalls that “Ceylon” stemmed from the Sinhalese word for “lion”. The yellow border symbolises the island’s protection by Buddhism; the bands represent its minority groups: Muslims (green) and Hindu Tamils (orange)

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FLIGHTS TO SRI LANKA

From the UK, SriLankan Airlines fly direct daily from Heathrow to Colombo (near where our Big Trip Sri Lanka itinerary starts). Otherwise, the most convenient one-stop services to Sri Lanka are with the Gulf-state airlines via their hub city: Emirates (via Dubai); Etihad (Abu Dhabi); Qatar Airways (Doha); Oman Air (Muscat); or Gulf Air (Bahrain).

From Ireland, your best bet is to fly to Sri Lanka via Heathrow, or via the Gulf with Emirates, Etihad or Qatar Airways.

From the US, you’re looking at a long haul, from the east coast via the UK or Europe (Paris, Barcelona, Frankfurt or Rome), for non-stop onward connections with SriLankan Airlines, or via the Arabian Gulf to link up with direct flights from Doha (Qatar Airways), Dubai (Emirates) or Abu Dhabi (Etihad), and from the west coast via Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific) or Singapore (Singapore Airlines, SriLankan and Silk Air) amongst others.

From Canada, it’s a similar story, with the most convenient routes from Toronto via the UK, for non-stop onward connections with SriLankan Airlines, or (usually slightly quicker) via the Arabian Gulf to link up with direct flights from Dubai (Emirates) or Abu Dhabi (Etihad), and from Vancouver via Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific).

You can search for the most convenient routes and the best fares at skyscanner. All international flights arrive at Bandaranaike Airport (CMB), 32.5km northeast of Colombo. Flight times are around 10 hours 45 minutes from London and around 18 hours 45minutes from New York, 19 hours 45 minutes from Toronto, 20 hours 30minutes from Vancouver and 22 hours 15 minutes from Los Angeles.


VISAS AND PASSPORTS

British, Irish, US and Canada passport holders require a visa or ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization), which grants you a stay of up to 30 days ($30, under-12s free); you can get them in advance online. Passports need to be valid for at least six months from the date of arrival. Entry requirements do change, however, so check the latest with Sri Lanka’s Department of Immigration & Emigration.


HEALTH AND SAFETY IN SRI LANKA

In addition to the inoculations that are part of the routine childhood immunisation programme in the UK (ie diphtheria, tetanus, polio), the only other vaccinations you’ll probably be advised to have for visiting Sri Lanka are typhoid and Hepatitis A; some practitioners might also recommend Japanese encephalitis and rabies as well, but only if you’ll be staying for a long time and in remote regions (rabies) or rural areas during the monsoon season (Japanese encephalitis). Remember to check with your GP at least six weeks before you travel, and make sure you take out sufficient travel insurance for your trip.

The most common problem is an upset tummy, the risk of which can be reduced by practising good hygiene (applying hand gel fairly regularly also helps) and taking sensible precautions with food and water – avoid unwashed fruit, only buy street food that you can see being cooked in front of you and only drink bottled water.

Protect yourselves from the sun and make sure that everyone drinks plenty of water.

Many visitors are pleasantly surprised to find that there’s no malaria risk in Sri Lanka. The flu-like dengue fever, however, is present, though most reported cases occur in urban areas (particularly Colombo) and the far north. With dengue (and Japanese encephalitis), being bitten is the best prevention. The mosquitos that transmit both diseases bite between dawn and dusk, so where possible cover up with long-sleeved shirts and trousers, apply insect repellent on exposed skin (DEET is the most effective but it reduces the SPF in sun cream, and you should only give children products that contain less than 30 percent DEET; we use Citronella) and sleep under a net – most places to stay will have screens on their windows and/or mosquito nets set up around the beds.

Rabies can be carried by dogs, monkeys and bats; it’s transmitted by a bite or scratch or (rarer) the licking of an open wound. It is usually enough to warn children not to approach stray dogs and to avoid monkeys, though their natural inclination to pet any animal they see can make them vulnerable. If bitten or scratched, wash with soup and water, clean the wound with iodine or alcohol and seek medical attention immediately. 

Apart from the obvious dangers posed by leopards and sloth bears – which you’ll only (hopefully!) encounter in Yala National Park – Sri Lanka is also home to several species of venomous snake. Although you’re highly unlikely to see one, it’s still useful to know to avoid, in particular, the Russell’s Viper (with its triangular head and rows of dark-brown elliptical spots, ringed in black), the cobra (easily recognised by its hood) and the nocturnal banded Sri Lankan krait (black-and-white stripes).


GETTING AROUND SRI LANKA

By far the easiest way of getting around Sri Lanka with a family is by car. But don’t worry, you won’t have to get behind the wheel yourself. The majority of visitors hire a car and driver – or, in the case of larger families, a mini-van and driver. This is a great way to travel: it’s flexible, convenient and comfortable (most cars and vans are air-conditioned and some drivers will provide drinks and sometimes snacks); you don’t have to tackle Sri Lanka’s notoriously erratic traffic yourself; and you don’t have to worry about where you need to get to and how long it’ll take you to get there. Drivers can usually offer insight on everything from opening times to local restaurants to the ins and outs of Sri Lankan cricket, and many are trained in tourism and can also act as guides. Ayu in the Wild provide excellent English-speaking drivers who are friendly, reliable and brilliant with children, though be prepared for a few tears from the kids when it’s time to say goodbye. Their rates include fuel, any necessary living costs for the driver (most hotels provide free accommodation and meals for drivers, but some do not) and a generous daily mileage allowance.

Trains run along the southwest coast, north to Jaffna and, of most interest to visitors, across the hill country between Kandy and Ella, a fantastically scenic journey through tea plantations and past trackside villages – if you’re travelling with a driver-guide, they will drop you off at your starting station and pick you up in Ella. You can check timetables on Sri Lanka Railways’ website, but there are normally five trains that run this route daily (from either Kandy or Peradeniya, 7km to the southwest), with the most convenient services departing from Kandy at 8.47am and 11.10am. You can book your tickets in advance online (reserved seats in 1st or 2nd class) with Visit Sri Lanka Tours, through Ayu in the Wild if you’ve organised a driver-guide through them, or at Kandy Station itself. If you’re told that the train is full, this just means that the reserved tickets have all sold out and you’ll instead need to buy unreserved seats (in 2nd or 3rd class) on the day, which will probably mean standing.

You’ll see lots of motorised rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, whizzing around Kandy, Galle and just about every other town and village you’ll travel through. They’re good fun, and a useful way of getting around town (or between nearby towns in the south), though make sure that you agree on a fare beforehand – and hold on tight!

Hotels can organise taxis for onward journeys, whilst some places (mostly along the south coast) run their own pick-up service if you’re not travelling far.


GIVING SOMETHING BACK

Child Action Lanka Kandy-based charity trying to break the cycle of child poverty by offering educational and financial assistance to street children (and their families).

Ocean Stars Formed following the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, this UK charity now provides education and community care to families on Sri Lanka’s east coast.