“How much?!” I found myself exclaiming, yet again. It was a phrase I repeated all throughout our month in Sri Lanka – whether it was finding accommodation, looking up entrance fees, or finding something cheap to eat – Sri Lanka was expensive!
First, a disclaimer – I don’t believe I was ‘ripped off’ in Sri Lanka in the usual sense as a backpacker, like other countries – where there is a tourist price and a local price for simple things like a tuk tuk ride. I found these costs quite reasonable and to be honest didn’t come across any ‘scams’ – that was really refreshing. It was the essentials – accommodation, food and activities, that I found more often than not, were incredibly expensive.
Accommodation abounds in Sri Lanka, in the form of guesthouses, homestay and small boutique hotels, with the occasional chain hotel. Hostels – the usual budget choice of the average backpacker, were rarely found. That meant the next best (cheapest) choice was a guesthouse. Our average spend per night on accommodation in Sri Lanka was $36.83. Whilst this still sounds cheap – and compared to some destinations, it is – it was far more than our usual $20 – $25 a night. The kicker though, was that even though we were paying more – we weren’t getting more for our money. A tiny room with two single beds pushed together, a bathroom that was almost always cold water only, run down, dirty, lack of bedding/towels, no breakfast, etc… For $36 a night somewhere like Thailand, Vietnam or even India – this would include buffet breakfast, king size beds, a pool and air-conditioning….
We did stay in some nice places in Sri Lanka (albeit these were around the $40+ a night bracket), but we also stayed in some terrible ones . It definitely pays to hunt around, as the smaller, family owned guesthouses tend not to advertise online. This option may still not be the cheapest, but you will get more value for your money. Walking in you’ll also avoid the absurdly high 26.5% tax that was charged online…
Sri Lanka’s staple is rice and curry. Not a specific type of curry – just curry, whatever they’ve decided to cook up that day. It was always delicious, however more often than not it was also cold, as it’s typically made in large batches and sat in a chafing dish at a buffet without being kept warm. Whilst cheap (usually $2 – $5 for a plate of rice and four curries with a pappadum), you get to a point where you’re really, really over eating cold rice and curry, for breakfast, lunch and dinner….
What’s the alternative? Mediocre, expensive western food. They say it’s always best to eat local whilst travelling, and Sri Lanka is one place where I wholeheartedly agree with this statement – they really aren’t that great at preparing western style food. I think my most memorable dish was chicken schnitzel and mash potato – it sounded really appealing at the time after weeks of rice and curry. What I had in mind and what was served up in front of me was completely different – I think they honestly got a meat cleaver, chopped a chicken in four, dropped it in some bread crumbs and fried it and then served it with a slightly squashed boiled potato. What did I pay for this plate of deliciousness? $8.00. I cannot even begin to tell you what I could eat in Vietnam for $8.00.
We did come across some great little restaurants (If you’re in Ella you MUST try AK Ristoro, incredible Italian food!), but meals in these establishments were charged accordingly.
The general idea in travelling to foreign countries is to engage in the local activities, see the local sights and visit attractions. Sri Lanka has such a varied amount of activities to suit anyones tastes. Love wildlife? An abundance of national parks can be found here, as well as turtle watching and whale watching. Love to surf? The coast is littered with hot spots to catch a wave. Love the great outdoors? Climbing Adam’s Peak and other treks are available everywhere. Love culture and history? Sri Lanka alone has eight UNESCO sites. There’s something here for everyone.
The thing is, you gotta pay for it. “Of course” you say – “I don’t expect to do anything for free.” Absolutely, we agree – more than happy to pay for attractions that require staff to run and maintain them, to build facilities for tourists and to also earn some tourism dollars.
However, what we paid to engage in activities in Sri Lanka was ridiculously high. And they weren’t all worth it. Compare these few prices for example:
- Entrance fee per adult to climb Sigiriya: $30 USD / $42.00 AUD
- Entrance fee per adult to climb the Eiffel Tower: 11 Euro / $17.15 AUD
- Entrance fee per adult to go up the Empire State Building: $32 USD / $44.75 AUD
- Entrance fee to go up the Tokyo Tower: 900 YEN / $11.05 AUD
- Entrance fee to visit the Taj Mahal: 750 Rupee / $15.00 AUD
Climb a rock in Sri Lanka for $42 or visit the Taj Mahal for $15…. hmmm…
A particularly popular stop in Sri Lanka was the national park known as World’s End, usually accessed from Nuwara Eliya or Haputale. It’s known for beautiful waterfalls and an 800 metre cliff drop, where it gets its namesake from. However, the entrance fee for park was $30 USD per person. For a national park, where there are no facilities, and not a whole lot of maintenance. Coupled with transport, once again, this became an expensive activity and one we just had to say no too – as Sri Lanka was very quickly turning into an expensive destination.
Compare this to the United States, where there are an endless amount of incredible national parks – and they offer an ANNUAL pass for just $80 USD.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was priced at $25 USD ($35.00 AUD) – with the two of us, plus transport and bike hire, etc – once again, it was a $100.00 day trip. Whilst very well maintained, we couldn’t help but think of the other ancient sites we’ve visited, particularly in Turkey where not only were we usually alone, but they were either free or just a few dollars entry fee.
WHAT IS CHEAP?!
It’s not all bad news – transport and getting around the country was incredibly cheap. The trains charged just 1000 LKR / $10.00 AUD for a first class seat no matter how long the journey was, with second and third class even cheaper. Local buses were regular, efficient and a journey of several hours was just a dollar or two. Being so cheap to get around makes it so much easy to see more of the country.
The people were friendly and as I mentioned above, we didn’t once feel like we were being scammed or ripped off – they were always so helpful.
We just found it a real shame that all the things that were an essential part of travel – accommodation, food and activities – were so pricey. Tourism in Sri Lanka is still fairly new, with the civil war only ending very recently in 2009. In talking with other travellers, the majority of them we found had wanted to visit India (which is considerably cheaper) but didn’t have the time to do India justice, so opted for Sri Lanka where they felt they’d be able to ‘see more’. Whilst they were definitely seeing a good cross-section of the country, the cost was killing a lot of them.
We really feel that unless the government and tourism providers look at what they’re offering for the prices they’re charging – in comparison to their neighbouring countries – that over time, as the real cost of Sri Lanka becomes realised, they will lose the tourism that they’re working so hard to bring in.
Compared to other expensive destinations – Europe, United States, Australia – Sri Lanka is still a cheap destination. However, if you are traveling on a budget, you may just find that Sri Lanka is the country that breaks it.
In saying all this though, we’re headed to Japan next month where we’re playing an average of $60 a night for two futons on the floor in a hostel. I really shouldn’t complain!
Have you been to Sri Lanka? Did you find it expensive? What countries have you visited and were taken aback by how costly it was – we’d love to hear all about it!