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|Introduction to Sri Lanka
For a small island, Sri Lanka has many nicknames: Serendib, Ceylon, Teardrop of India, Resplendent Isle, Island of Dharma, Pearl of the Orient. This colourful collection reveals its richness and beauty, and the intensity of the affection it evokes in its visitors.
Head for the rolling hills to escape the heat of the plains in the cool of tea plantations. The entire island is teeming with bird life, and exotics like elephants and leopards are not uncommon. To top it all off, the people are friendly, the food is delicious and costs are low.
Marco Polo considered Sri Lanka the finest island of its size in all the world, and you'll likely agree after exploring the country's fabled delights. What takes your fancy? Beaches? The coastal stretch south of Colombo offers palm-lined sandy expanses as far as the eye can see. Culture? Try the Kandyan dances, a procession of elephants or the masked devil dances. Ruins? You'll find enough ancient and inspiring architecture in the cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa to satisfy that inner archaeologist.
Sri Lanka lost tens of thousands of lives and received massive property damage in the 2004 tsunami. Though many areas are now slowly recovering, travellers are advised to keep abreast of our tsunami-specific information, stories and downloads at Tsunami Updates.
Though the worst of Sri Lanka's civil war is past, numerous regions are still considered too dangerous to travel. Pockets of the northern and eastern areas are heavily mined. The security situation in the Jaffna Peninsula remains uncertain. The A9 road to Jaffna remains heavily mined.
Areas north of Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Nilaveli, as well as the eastern side of the island south of Trincomalee, including Batticaloa, remain unsafe for travellers despite the easing political climate and the ongoing ceasefire that remains between the government and the LTTE ('Tamil Tigers').
In Colombo and southern tourist resorts, theft and violent crime are often aimed at foreigners. That said, southwestern Sri Lanka is safer now than it has been in years.
Full country name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Area: 66,000 sq km
Population: 19 million
Capital City: Colombo
People: 74% Sinhalese, 18% Tamils, 7% Moor, 1% other
Language: Sinhalese, Tamil, English
Religion: 69% Buddhist, 15% Hindu, 8% Muslim, 8% Christian
GDP: US$48.1 billion
GDP per capita: US$2,500
Annual Growth: 4.7%
Major Industries: Processing of rubber, tea, coconuts, and other agricultural commodities; clothing, cement, petroleum refining, textiles, tobacco
Major Trading Partners: US, UK, Germany, Japan, Singapore, India, Iran, Taiwan, Belgium, Hong Kong, China, South Korea
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Visas: Visitors from the USA, most western European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong do not require visas. Automatic entry for between 30 and 90 days is given on arrival.
Health risks: cholera (This diarrhoeal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It's transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage. Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure. The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhoea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It's characteristically described as 'ricewater' diarrhoea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario – only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form. It's a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don't succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment. You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera. Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time), hepatitis (The symptoms in all forms of this illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures), malaria (This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites. If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave. Use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) – it may be worth taking your own), dengue fever (The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the dengue virus, is most active during the day, and is found mainly in urban areas, in and around human dwellings. Signs and symptoms of dengue fever include a sudden onset of high fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, nausea and vomiting. A rash of small red spots sometimes appears three to four days after the onset of fever. Severe complications do sometimes occur. You should seek medical attention as soon as possible if you think you may be infected. There is no vaccine against dengue fever)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +6
Dialling Code: 94
Electricity: 230V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Sri Lanka has an enormous range of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals. The Kandy Esala Perahera (July/August) is the country's most important and spectacular pageant, with 10 days of torch-bearers, whip-crackers, dancers and drummers, not to mention elephants lit up like giant birthday cakes. It climaxes in a great procession honouring the Sacred Tooth Relic of Kandy. Second in importance is the Duruthu Perahera (January), held in Colombo, which celebrates a visit by Buddha to Sri Lanka.
Other celebrations include National Day (February), which is celebrated with parades, dances and national games; New Year (March/April), celebrated with elephant races, coconut games and pillow fights; Vesak (May), a sacred full moon festival commemorating the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha; the Hindu Vel festival (July/August) in Colombo, where the ceremonial chariot of Skanda, the God of War, is hauled between two temples; and the predominantly Hindu Kataragama festival (July/August) in Kataragama, where devotees put themselves through a whole gamut of ritual masochism.
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|Best time to Visit
Climatically the driest and best seasons are from December to March on the west and south coasts and in the hill country, and from May to September on the east coast. December to March is also the time when most foreign tourists come, the majority of them escaping the European winter.
Out of season travel has its advantages - not only do the crowds go away but many airfares and accommodation prices go right down. Nor does it rain all the time. Reefs may protect a beach area and make swimming quite feasible at places like Hikkaduwa, which during the monsoon can be quite pleasant.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee
Sri Lanka is still a pleasantly economical country to travel around. Shoestring travellers can exist comfortably on less than US$20 a day by staying in basic share or double rooms, getting around by bus and not lashing out at flash restaurants. Up the scale a bit, add US$5 or $10 for kipping down in delightful rest houses, or plan on around US$100 a day if you want the full five star treatment.
You'll have no problem changing travellers' cheques at most major banks. Banks will give you a slightly better rate for travellers' cheques, but it's convenient to have some cash for times when you can't get to a bank (there are plenty of money changers in Colombo and Hikkaduwa). US dollars are best. ATMs are becoming a common sight, especially in major cities, but other than in Colombo and Kandy, they're unlikely to accept international cards. Credit cards are widely accepted; Visa and MasterCard cash withdrawals are possible at major banks.
A 10% service charge is added to nearly every accommodation or eating bill in the middle and top ranges, so there's no need to tip, even though those serving you are unlikely to see much of it. Nor is there any need to top up taxi or three-wheeler fares. Hotel porters normally get Rs 10-20 per heavy bag. On the whole, prices are very negotiable in Sri Lanka, but bargaining shouldn't be seen as a battle to the death. Find out what the approximate cost is and then come to a mutually acceptable compromise. Losing your temper or shouting won't get you anywhere.
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Colombo, the island's largest city, is noisy, frenetic - and just a little crazy. Thankfully, the breakdowns, snarled traffic and power cuts are received with a shrug and a smile. While the city holds less obvious interest than many other parts of the island, it's still colourful and worth a look.
To the north of the centre is the Fort district, the country's business centre. South is Galle Face Green, a seafront expanse of occasional green graced by cricket games and trysting lovers. Cinammon Gardens, further south, is the most fashionable neighbourhood, with mansions and tree-lined streets.
Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka's first capital, a potent symbol of Sinhalese power, and the most extensive and important of Sri Lanka's ancient cities. It became a capital in 380 BC and for over 1000 years Sinhalese kings ruled from this great city.
The Sacred Bo-Tree is the city's holiest site, and was grown from the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. The Thuparama Dagoba, the oldest of the many temples in Anuradhapura, is believed to contain the right collar-bone of Buddha.
The port of Galle, thought by some to be the Biblical city of Tarshish, splendidly illustrates the solidity of the Dutch presence in Sri Lanka. The 36ha (89ac) Dutch Fort, built in 1663, has withstood the ravages of time. Its massive ramparts surround the promontory that forms the older part of Galle, and shelters within its walls sturdy Dutch houses, museums and churches. The New Oriental Hotel, built for Dutch governors in 1684, is a colonial gem with a wonderfully atmospheric bar. Nearby is a tiny sliver of a beach suitable for a dip, though most travellers prefer to head along the coast to the fine beaches at Unuwatuna, Weligama and Tangalla.
Hikkaduwa has been severely affected by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 26 December 2004. The area has suffered extensive damage and loss of life. Infrastructure is slowly being rebuilt and services restored but check with the relevant authorities before travelling to the area in the immediate future.
Hikkaduwa is the island's most developed beach resort. It has a range of accommodation, good restaurants and pleasant cafe-lined beaches. There's good snorkelling at an attractive and easily accessible coral sanctuary, scuba diving at a number of wrecks in the bay, tours by glass-bottomed boats and pretty good surfing. It's a relaxed place, similar to many Asian beach resorts popular with Western travellers. There are also plenty of handicraft shops catering to tourist whims, a Buddhist temple, a nearby lake with abundant birdlife and some pretty dangerous traffic hurtling down the main road.
The laidback 'capital' of the hill country, and the historical bastion of Buddhist power, is built around a peaceful lake and set in a picturesque bowl of hills. It has a distinctive architectural character and the town centre is a delightful compendium of old shops, buses, markets and hotels.
Its standout attraction is the octagonal Dalada Maligawa, a temple which houses Sri Lanka's most important religious relic - the sacred tooth of Buddha. There are daily ceremonies of homage to the Tooth Relic, each attracting white-clad pilgrims carrying lotus blossoms and frangipani.
The spectacular rock fortress of Sigiriya is an impregnable fortress, a monastic retreat, and a rock art gallery. Built in the 5th century AD to fend off a feared invasion, it is situated atop a 200m (656ft) high rock, and at the height of its glory must have been akin to a European chateau plonked on top of Uluru. There are water gardens, 5th century rock paintings of well endowed damsels, a 1000-year-old graffiti wall recording visitors impressions of the pin-ups, a couple of enormous stone lion paws and tremendous views.
To get to Sigiriya from Colomba, hop on a bus that stops at Dambulla, and from there catch any of the hourly buses going to the rock fortress, a total of 191km (118mi) away.
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