Think tropical beaches, palm trees, tea plantations, national parks, ancient cities, welcoming locals and a culinary delight and you have made it to Sri Lanka. We have been to Sri Lanka six times as a couple since 2009. In fact we even got engaged there back in 2013. It has been our second home, and once our son came along, we knew hands down it would be the first overseas holiday we would go on as a family. Sri Lanka ticks every travelling box. Amazing food, easy transport, white sandy beaches, great accommodation, friendly locals (most speak English), affordable, easy to get access, child friendly, picturesque scenery and an abundance of culture. We discovered this gem after spending 7 months travelling through India and needed some respite from the hustle and bustle. While in India, we were not ready to head home and looked on the map as to where the closest country was and jumped on a flight to Colombo the next day and it has been the greatest decision we ever made.
We have created a list of our top tips for travelling through Sri Lanka with kids.
We found out fairly quickly that Sri Lankans LOVE children. When we stepped out of the airport in Colombo, our 6 month old son was whisked away by a group of women. As a concerned mother, I quickly ran after them. They loved him, kissed him, cuddled him. It was in that moment where I took a deep breath and thought ‘okay i’m going to have to get used to this’. He was safe and loved, so we embraced it.
Sri Lankans are Buddhist and Hindu (predominantly in the north) so it is culturally appropriate to cover your shoulders and knees when going to sacred temples and relics. Sri Lanka currency is the Rupee. It is better to exchange money once you are there as you will get a better exchange rate. Ask for smaller notes (less than 500 rupees) as you will need smaller notes to pay for things like tuk tuks, water, bus fares, entrance fees to temples etc.
There is generally a tourist fee and a local fee for sights and temples. Kids usually get in for free, in fact if you’re travelling with young kids, the locals will give you preference to the front of line.
Sri Lankans are very lovely and generous people. You may often be asked to join their family for tea or dinner. They want nothing from you other than friendship. They are not trying to sell you anything or convince you to buy this or that, they genuinely like your company. We have made many many friends from Sri Lanka.
As many are aware, a Tsunami hit the coast of Sri lanka on boxing day 2005. A lot of people were personally affected by the Tsunami, and many of them only just survived after losing many of their family members, homes and businesses. Please be mindful when talking to the locals about the Tsunami. Don’t ask questions, let them talk to you – if they are comfortable.
Public display of affection – in the western world you wouldn’t do a double take if you saw a couple holding hands in public, let alone kissing! In Sri Lanka it is generally frowned upon. In the larger cities like Colombo or Kandy, you may see young couples sitting on the beach/lake hiding behind an umbrella holding hands (so cute), but it is very very rare that you will ever see a Sri Lankan couple holding hands or kissing on the street. If you feel the need to do this, try and be discreet. They are alot more relaxed in the big touristy beach areas, however, be prepared for unwanted stares.
Haggling is acceptable in Sri Lanka. You can haggle at markets but be reasonable. It is not as bad as India or Vietnam where they are trying to completely rip you off. But if they can get an extra couple of rupees from you, then there is no harm in them trying. Try with half the price they offer you, then negotiate up from there.
Always negotiate a price of a tuk tuk before you hop in. Local tuk tuk fares (less than 10km) can vary from 100 rupees to 500 rupees. Ask your guesthouse or hotel how much the fare should be prior to getting in the tuk tuk, just so you have a rough gage as to how much the fare should cost.
When previously traveling to Sri Lanka we would stay in cheaper style guesthouses or homestays, generally less than US$15 a night and with very basic facilities. We knew we couldn’t do this with a 6 month old.
Sri Lanka’s luxury resorts and high end accommodation were well and truly out of our price range, but they looked AMAZING with all the amenities and facilities you would expect from 5 star Western style resorts. We stayed in mid range accommodation around US$50/night. Keep in mind we were travelling in high season, where the prices of accommodation may double! When we got there we realised that you definitely do not get value for money in comparison to most other asian countries, however, the facilities were great and they were nice and clean, which is the main thing. The prices have definitely risen dramatically over the last few years, and after speaking with the locals they mentioned it was because electricity prices are higher than some western countries, making the price of accommodation more expensive. Another tip, do your research on hotels prior to leaving. There is a huge variety in standard of accommodation and value for money. The standard of a hotel priced at $50, may be the same standard as one 2 doors down priced at $100. We used Agoda.com and Booking.com for most of our accommodation.
If you have younger kids, I would arrange with your accommodation for a cot. We took a travel cot with us and we are lucky we did, as the standard of some of the ‘cots’ were completely ‘unsleepable’.
Family rooms and triple rooms are readily available and in some cases are the same price as a double room.
Sri Lanka is a very small country, so getting around is very easy. We mainly travelled around the country on trains, buses, Tuk tuks and cars for longer drives or day trips. We met many families along the way who had hired a driver for their whole trip. The vans had car seats and the drivers averaged at around $40 a day (this would be dependant on how long you were travelling for). The Sri Lankan transport system is very easy to navigate. Most people speak english and most signage at the main stations and bus stops are in Sinhalese and English.
Sri Lanka has “tourist buses” (minivans) that travel up and down the south west coast as well as public government buses and privately owned buses. There is now an express bus than runs from Colombo to Galle and finishing in Martara (near Mirissa). This bus runs the newly built highway and takes around 1.5 hours. Sri Lankans drive very erratically, liberally using the horn, over take unnecessarily, and can hit blind corners at full speed. In saying that, they seem to know what they are doing, and we have never seen an accident! If you are feeling uncomfortable, drivers are always happy to slow down and drive more cautiously.
There are many picturesque train rides throughout Sri Lanka, and it is easily one of the most beautiful and easy ways to travel around the country. The train ride from Colombo down the west coast takes significantly longer than the express bus, but the views itself are breathtaking. If possible travel at dusk as the sunset over the ocean through the palm trees is absolutely breathtaking. Another one of our favourite train rides is from Haputale to Ella (or Kandy to Ella). I have done many international train rides and this one hands down is the most beautiful. It winds its way through the tea plantations and picturesque mountainside.
Driver: There were times when the train times did not suit our kids nap time and the bus was full, so we got a driver from one destination to the other. We organised this through the hotel. Each person will know someone with a car who is happy to help out. We even managed to get a car seat for our bub. Worked out perfectly as he was able to sleep in the car and we didn’t have to worry about the noise of the trains or the buses. Drivers are very cheap. We paid AUD $60 to travel by car from Arugam Bay to the airport (one side of the country to the other).
What to pack
As mentioned above, you can get all the creature comforts you need when travelling with kids. The main shopping supermarkets are Keels, Cargills Food city and Aprico Super Centre. A quick search will show you the closest shop to your destination.
Other than the usual comforts of home, I would highly recommend packing sunscreen. It is very hard to purchase sunscreen in Sri Lanka, and if it is available, it is generally much more expensive than at home. I would also recommend taking a stroller with you, one that fully reclines. This was a life saver for us when we did day trips or general walks around a town. It ensures our son was able to have his day naps, and when going out for dinner at night, we popped our son in the stroller to go to sleep and transferred him to bed afterwards. We use the Steelcraft Phoenix travel stroller.
A baby carrier was great for us. We use the Baby Bjorn Air Mesh One. it can be used from birth to 15 kilos, front facing, inward facing and on your back. It was great for all the treks and long walks we did throughout the country.
Like sunscreen, mosquito repellent is very hard to come by in Sri Lanka. And if so, it is very expensive. I would recommend bring your own from home. Our son was only 6 months and could not use deet based products, so we took over tea tree oil, citronella oil, anti-mosquito patches (for the carrier, cot and the pram) and anti mosquito armbands which we put around his feet and legs. Most accomodation can supply a mosquito net if you don’t pack one.
The quality of cots in the guesthouses/hotels we stayed in were very unsatisfactory. I would highly recommend taking your own Travel cot. We have invested in a Phil and Teds travel cot after this holiday and have used it ever since. It saves the hassle of organising with the hotel and to be disappointed once you are there. For more general things on what to take when travelling with kids, see our post “Essential packing tips when travelling overseas with kids”.
When we travelled through Sri Lanka with our son, he was only 7 months old. He was still fully breastfed and i was a little worried about how i would tackle breastfeeding in public. However, once there, we realised it was completely okay. I saw many women breastfeeding in public. I felt very comfortable breastfeeding, although i was quite cautious about covering myself up using a shawl or a muslin wrap. I also wore loose modest clothing, however you do whatever feels comfortable for you. I very rarely got started at or got made to feel uncomfortable.
Activities for kids
When traveling to Sri Lanka with kids, do not expect kids clubs and amusement parks. Some new resorts cater for this but are not widely available. In saying that, there is plenty of things for kids to do in Sri Lanka. The beaches are beautiful, and many beaches on the south west coast are very flat, making it very suitable for kids to swim. This is of course dependent on the season. In the low season, the tides are high and the currents are very strong, making it unsuitable for swimming. There are plenty of outdoor activities for kids in Sri Lanka, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries.
In regards to baby amenities, you will not find feeding rooms or baby change rooms in any of the train stations or attraction sights. It’s probably best to bring a change mat when your heading out.
Many restaurants we visited did have a high chair. However i would recommend taking a portable high chair just in case. We took a fabric high chair called the anywhere chair. Most places we visited have foot paths however, they are very rough and uneven, which made it quite hard for strollers. I would recommend taking a stroller though. It is a godsend when you are out and you want your kids to nap, or if you want to go out for dinner and you can pop your bub in the pram for a sleep.
There are plenty of supermarkets in the larger cities. They cater very well for kids in regards to nappies, formula, wipes and baby food. You can purchase Heinz baby food, pampers nappies, huggies wipes and Nestle Nan formula, however be prepared to pay a little extra for them as you would back home. The main supermarkets are Keels, Aprico and Cargills Food City. Check out their websites ahead of time to get a feel for what they stock.
Food and water
We travelled Sri Lanka with a 6/7 month old, so he was only just starting to eat solid foods. Like most tropical islands, there is a plethora of fresh fruit for your kids to eat. He lived off mashed bananas, avocados, papaya, eggs, noodles, steamed veggies etc.
The Sri Lankan national food is generally quite spicy. However, if you ask for no spice, they are very accommodating.
Great child friendly Sri Lanka foods to order are:
- String hoppers and dhal
- Egg kothu (ask for no spice)
- Banana pancakes
- Hoppers with yogurt
- Coconut rottis
- Dhal Curry
- Short eats – bakery style breads and snacks.
In most of the tourists areas, there is an abundance of Western Style foods, even at Sri Lankan restaurants. You will always be able to get a “club sandwich” and chips, Sri Lankan style Pizza, fruit salad and yoghurt, noodles, vegetables and fried rice.
In regards to the water, we just drank bottled water. The Sri Lankan water is unsuitable for drinking, We would boil the bottled water and give it to our son for drinking.
If you eat how the locals eat, it is important to only use your right hand. You will notice that locals wash their hands before and after every meal. There is a small sink in virtually all local restaurants.
There are so many places to see and visit in Sri Lanka. When researching where to go with kids, it’s important to remember that there are no amusement parks, kids clubs, water parks or many playgrounds, however, keeping your kids entertained is easy! We are busy creating an extensive Itinerary at the moment – check back soon.
Unawatuna, Mirissa, Tangalle, Bentota, Aurgum Bay, Hikkaduwa, Trincomole.
Our friends at Flashpacking Family have a great breakdown of The best family friendly Beaches of southern Sri Lanka.
Udawalawae, Yala, Godella, Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Ella, Nuwara Eliya
Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Anuradhapura
When to go
There are two seasons in Sri Lanka. “Hot” and “Hot, rainy and humid”. There is no such thing and the 4 seasons. We have visited Sri Lanka 6 times and we have gone at different times of the year. When it is rainy on the south west, it is high season on the east coast. Beach tides and sand levels change depending on the season. For example, in rainy season in Unawatuna the tide is virtually all the way up to the restaurant level, the waves are large and the water is sometimes unswimmable, however in high season, the tide is 50-100 out, the water is flat and it is perfect conditions for swimming with kids. This is due to larger resorts building large stone barriers in the ocean out the front of their resorts to prevent the waves dumping large amounts of sand and water in front of their resort. Natural tide progression down the beach means that in low season, the sand then builds up down the remainder of the beach.
The Lonely Planet website has a great recommendations for the best time to visit Sri Lanka.