Sri Lanka may be a small island off the east coast of India and famous for its tea and elephants, but it is packed with so much more. There really is a never ending list of things to do in Sri Lanka. Here are 26 things you didn’t know about this diverse and intriguing country.
Did you know?…
1) You can stop off for a glass of milk at a milk bar
You will find milk bars dotted around the cities. And they really are what they say on the tin. Rock up to a local bar and grab yourself a refreshing glass of milk! They also sell other popular local drinks and snacks. We would recommend grabbing a carton of Milo, a yummy chocolate milk drink that is advertised on nearly every billboard.
2) You can buy baked goods from a bread van
Forget the ice-cream man, the sound of Beethoven’s classic Für Elise only means one thing in Sri Lanka: bread. Throughout the day you will hear the tune broadcast loudly from tuk-tuks that circle the streets selling bread and other baked goods. These friendly vendors are referred to as choon paan – or tune bread – sellers. They become part of daily life and are a rather welcome sound when you are feeling peckish for a snack.
3) Volleyball is the national sport
So you thought it was cricket? So did we! Volleyball was first introduced to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1916 by Mr. R.W. Camack the then Director of Physical Education at the Colombo Y.M.C.A. Volleyball was tremendously popular and by 1922 the City of Colombo alone had 25 Volleyball Clubs. In 1991, Sri Lanka officially declared Volleyball as its National Sport.
4) They make music whilst making street food
The preparation of the street-food favourite Kottu Roti has a rhythmic tune that can be heard blocks away. Sit down to enjoy some tasty local food and enjoy the mid-meal entertainment! The ingredients – onions, vegetables eggs and cut up roti – are placed on the cooking griddle and mixed together. This is when the music starts. The Kottu cook uses the two metal spatulas to mix and cut the ingredients with a rhythm, banging the metal to create a catchy beat. Every cook has his own personal rhythm, and you might find two cooks making a tune together.
5) The currency is super colourful
Sri Lankan banknotes are unusual in that they are printed vertically on the reverse. Portraits of former Sri Lankan prime ministers and presidents have graced the fronts of bank notes, while the backs have featured Sri Lankan fauna and flora, landscapes and industries, and images depicting Sri Lankan culture, history, and achievements. They are also super colourful!
6) Tuk-tuk drivers carry water in wine bottles
If you pay close attention on your tuk-tuk journeys, you will notice that a lot of the drivers have a bottle of vodka/whisky they sip from. Even the locals do it. But no, they are not drink driving! Apparently they keep water in glass bottles so the plastic doesn’t go bad after a longer period of time and contaminate the liquid inside. Good idea!
7) Spot the scariest scarecrows
There are different theories as to why you will find these scary little fellows hanging about. Some say it is to do with the superstitious belief that hanging up a scarecrow can ward off the evil eye cast by the jealous neighbours or ill wishing relatives. Others say they are to fend off evil spirits from unused buildings; used to trick these spirits into believing that the property is still occupied. Whatever the reason, keep your eyes peeled and see how many you can spot.
8) Forests are at risk from palm oil
To meet the ever-increasing global demand for palm oil has meant that large swaths of biodiversity-rich rainforests are being cleared to make a way for large scale palm oil production. Unfortunately Sri Lanka is no exception. Oil palm was introduced to Sri Lanka from Malaysia in late nineteen sixties. As of now, after approximately three and a half decades, it has spread over 10,000 acres of the southern part of the Island.
9) The street dogs are rather friendly
In general street dogs don’t really get an amazing rep, but from our experience, they are generally quite friendly in Sri Lanka. Usually they can be seen having a walk around the streets or simply sitting down in the sun minding their own business. Of course this is a generalisation, but we have found that they have always been welcoming to a biscuit or two.
10) Most of the electricity is produced through hydroelectric power
Many countries blessed with rivers and waterfalls have harnessed their inherent kinetic energy through hydro-electricity in fulfilling their energy needs. Sri Lanka is one of them. Hydroelectricity is the oldest and historically the principal source of electricity generation in Sri Lanka, holding a share of 48% of the total available grid capacity in December 2013 and 58% of power generated in 2013.
11) Sri Lanka is the largest producer of coconut arrack
Sri Lanka is the largest producer of coconut arrack and up until 1992 the government played a significant role in its production. Each morning at dawn, men known as toddy tappers move among the tops of coconut trees using connecting ropes, similar to tightropes. A single tree may contribute up to two litres per day. You can buy arrack from local licensed shops – be sure to have a try!
12) Hotels aren’t always hotels
Yep, this is a confusing one. A cultural quirk of Sri Lanka is that places like cafes, restaurants and bars adopt the word ‘hotel’ into their names, even if they don’t actually offer any lodgings. Reasons behind this are unclear, although if the locals are asked, they’ll often tell you that it simply became a trendy thing to do over the years. Another reason may be that back in the day if you wanted to go for a decent meal you would go to an actual hotel to get your dinner. Local business owners quite cleverly cottoned onto this trend and decided to include ‘hotel’ in the name. It’s something to keep in mind in case you accidentally walk into a bakery and ask to check in.
13) Cows outnumber cars in the North
The North of Sri Lanka is a world apart from the rest of country. Here, one interesting disparity is that the number of cows wandering the streets far outnumber the amount of cars on the road. Buses are known to stop along the road because there were a hundred or more cows in the middle of the road. Cow jam.
14) Second biggest tea exporter in the world
Tea production is one of the main sources of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka. In 1995, it was the world’s leading exporter of tea (rather than producer), with 23 per cent of the total world export. Though it has since been surpassed by Kenya, being second in the world is a pretty mean feat for such a small country! The humidity, cool temperatures, and rainfall of the country’s central highlands provide a climate that favours the production of high-quality tea.
15) Shaking of the head means yes not no
One of the first things you notice about Sri Lanka is the way people communicate. The way Sri Lankans waggle their head is similar to the Indian head bob. Both the Indian head bob and the Sri Lankan head waggle are a manner of communicating without words, but the Sri Lankans do it a little differently. In India, the bob is a side-to-side movement and in Sri Lanka it’s a figure of eight. Shaking of the head actually means yes! (don’t worry, you’ll get used to it).
16) National parks have a 2km buffer zone
You can’t go far without finding a national park in Sri Lanka. National parks are a class of protected areas in Sri Lanka and are administered by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. There are currently 26 national parks which together cover an area of 5,734 km. Each one is protected by a ‘buffer zone’, which has been created to enhance the protection of the conservation area and keep the wildlife inside happy.
17) Sri Lanka has one of the highest growing economy rates in the world
Sri Lanka’s economy is predicted to grow 7 per cent per annum through 2019. With the support of World Bank, the government is improving public financial management, increasing public and private investments, carrying out fiscal reforms, addressing infrastructure constraints, improving public financial management and improving competitiveness. The launch of its Vision 2025 in September 2017 was designed to strengthen democracy and reconciliation, inclusive and equitable growth and ensure good governance. Go Sri Lanka!
18) It has South Asia’s highest literacy rate
The Constitution of Sri Lanka provides free education as a fundamental right. Sri Lanka’s population had an adult literacy rate of 96.3% in 2015, which is above average by world and regional standards. Education plays a major part in the life and culture of the country and dates back to 543 BC.
19) Sri Lanka is home to the world’s second largest natural harbour
Trincomalee Harbour is a seaport on the north-east coast of Sri Lanka, and is the world’s second largest natural harbour. The harbour is overlooked by terraced highlands, and its entrance is guarded by two headlands. The harbour has 1630 hectares of water, while the entrance channel is 500 metres wide. Its strategic importance has shaped its recent history, with many sea battles to control the harbour. The Portuguese, Dutch, French, and the English have each held it in turn.
20) They had the modern world’s first female head of government
Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, commonly known as Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was a Sri Lankan stateswoman. She became the world’s first female head of government, when she became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, serving three terms 1960–1965, 1970–1977 and 1994–2000. She made such history after her party won the Ceylon general election in 1960 and chose her as the new Prime Minister of Ceylon.
21) Sri Lanka is home to the oldest human-planted tree in the world
Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is a sacred fig tree in the Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. It is said to be the right-wing branch (southern branch) from the historical Sri Maha Bodhi at Buddha Gaya in India under which Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment. It was planted in 288 BC, and is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date. Today it is one of the most sacred relics of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and respected by Buddhists all over the world.
22) Sri Lanka is one of the most biologically diverse countries in Asia.
In terms of species, genes and ecosystems, Sri Lanka has a very high biodiversity and is one of the eighteen hot spots in the world. Sri Lanka has the highest biodiversity per unit area of land among Asian countries in terms of flowering plants and all vertebrate groups, except birds. Since over 75 per cent of the population is rural and agrarian, biodiversity assumes significant economic and consumptive importance in Sri Lanka.
23) They have just built the second tallest building in South East Asia
The lotus-shaped tower in Colombo will be used for communication, observation and other leisure facilities, with construction costing $104.3 million, funded by EXIM Bank of Peoples’ Republic of China. It is visible throughout Colombo, its suburbs and most major highways radiating from and around the city. When completed, the tower will be the second tallest structure in South Asia.
24) There a few different plug sockets
When visiting Sri Lanka it is good to know that there are different plug types. Buildings in Sri Lanka sometimes have the three-pronged UK socket, sometimes the two-pronged European one, and, often in older buildings, the rounded three pronged socket used in India and Nepal. Some rooms have outlets for all three plugs, but sometimes only the latter. We could recommend carrying a universal plug so you are always prepared!
25) The fried snacks are delicious
Aside from delicious flavourful curries, Sri Lankan’s have a wide array of snacks like cassava chips, deep fried jackfruit seeds, or fried batter with curry leaves. Pick yourself up a roadside snack of samosas, a popular snack from coast to coast filled with meat or vegetables. Have a taste of the delicious fish cutlet balls and chinese egg rolls. Devour some cocounut rotis. The list really is endless.
26) The stilt fisherman aren’t actually fishing
Well, they used to be. The practice (requiring much skill and balance) started during World War II, when some clever local men, prompted by food food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots, started to try fishing on the water. Today, the traditional practice is a dying craft. The 2004 tsunami that devastated much of the Indian Ocean coastline changed the Sri Lankan shoreline and reduced access to fish using this method. It often therefore makes financial sense for the fisherman nowadays to rent their stilts for tourists to take pictures.