Sometimes referred to as ‘the Pearl of the Indian Ocean’, Sri Lanka is a tropical island about the size of Ireland, just off the south-east of India, with a population of 21 million people. Formally known as Ceylon, until independence from the UK in 1972, it is now officially titled the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
Language and Culture
Sri Lanka is a diverse country with many religions, ethnicities and languages. There are two main ethnic groups: the majority Sinhalese (who speak Sinhala), and minority Tamil (who speak Tamil). These main languages are written in beautifully complicated scripts which look like this සිංහල (Sinhala), தமிழ் (Tamil).
English speakers can more commonly be found in the capital city, Colombo, and in tourist destinations, however don’t expect English to be spoken by most people that you meet, especially whilst on projects. It’s great to pick up some commonly used words to break the ice when you meet new people in the local community. You can check out some past volunteers’ tips for overcoming the language barrier here.
As well as learning the odd phrase, a good way to make a great first impression is to remember to remove your shoes and hats when entering temples or houses. You’ll be reminded by the piles of shoes outside of most doorways. Doing this is a way to show respect and keeping your shoes and hats on indoors is a big faux pas.
Sri Lanka is mainly a Buddhist country, which is highly signified by the abundance of temples and Buddha figurines displayed in houses, shops and even on buses (we’re particularly fond of the flashing Buddha images which, along with the blaring pop music, make some buses feel like very exclusive, packed clubs).
The Buddha monuments that adorn street corners and temples alike are beautiful, but also sacred, so please resist the urge to touch them, as that is seen to be massively disrespectful. Two French tourists were deported recently for photographing themselves kissing a Buddha statue, so feel free to look, but don’t touch!
Buddhist monks are also quite visible in the community and may even be some of your students. These brightly-robed men, women and sometimes children are treated with the utmost respect; they even have a special seat reserved on buses. So if you’re ever on a bus and a monk gets on, you need to vacate the first two rows of seats and be aware that if you’re the opposite sex of a monk you can’t sit next to them.
Hinduism is the second largest religious group, followed by Islam and Christianity. Reflecting this, the Sri Lankan calendar observes many different religious holidays and we’d be very surprised if you don’t spot a religious parade whilst in the country which usually involves dancing, drumming and sometimes bejewelled, costumed elephants.
Every month Sri Lanka celebrates a ‘Poya Day’, which is the festival of each full moon. On this day, most shops and offices will close and many Sinhalese will use the time to visit their temple. You’ll have the day off from projects, so you can head to the beach, but as this is a holy day, you won’t find any alcohol being served on the island, so take this time to detox and catch up on some reading. You can find the complete list of Sri Lankan public holidays for the upcoming year.
One of the biggest festivals is the Buddhist and Hindu New Year which falls in April. It generally lasts about a week during which time schools and businesses will be closed and people will spend time with their family, visit the temple, play lots of games and of course, eat lots of sweet food.
Sri Lanka is home to indigenous populations of elephants, leopards and other exotic animals like deer and wild boars. However, it’s unlikely you’ll bump into any of these on the road, but in addition to the more unfamiliar species, you’ll definitely come into contact with dogs and cats on the streets of Sri Lanka. They say for every person in Sri Lanka there are 7 dogs, so that’s roughly 147,000,000 dogs roaming the streets and no one could even estimate the number of kitties on the island.
It’s best to stay away from these critters as, despite their adorable appearance, they aren’t domesticated and aren’t really up for human contact. We find that if you don’t bother them they won’t bother you and though it’s hard for animal lovers like us to resist, it’s safer for everyone to not try and play with the stray dogs and cats you find on your Sri Lankan journey.
Most Sri Lankan families have dogs for protection, so they’re not really pets, and as a result, they aren’t trained either. Keep the doors of your room closed if you don’t want them to leave you a ‘present’ or chew on your things. We can’t take responsibility for any damage done by homestay animals.
With an average temperature of 27ºC (80ºF) and over 70% humidity, whenever you join us in Sri Lanka, prepare to be hot!
You’ll be pleased to learn that all our homestays have cold showers! As on most tropical islands, showers are unpredictable, but the rainy season is generally from May-July in the south-west and October-January in the north-east.
The rain tends to come in short-sharp bursts so it’s a good idea to pack a light rain mac or umbrella in case of a surprise downpour. Although the majority of the country is hot and sticky, you can head to the tea country for a bit of a break from the heat on the weekend if you fancy it. Stunning Nuwara Eliya has an average temperature of 16ºC (61ºF) so packing a light cardigan is advised. It’s chilly in those hills!
Sri Lanka is a vast country that can take days of overnight travel to merely scratch the surface.
Despite the small size of the island, Sri Lanka is blessed with a diverse landscape and a wealth of places to visit. Think postcard worthy beaches, jungle safaris, ancient cultural sites, and even a bit of nightlife on the beaches.
Whether you’re a culture vulture, beach bum, activity seeker or flash packer, there should be something to take your fancy. Those wanting to escape the heat can venture up to the cooler central highlands for trekking and tea plantations (Sri Lanka’s biggest export).
Although Sri Lanka is a relatively small country, the infrastructure is inferior, so travel across Sri Lanka can take a while. Be prepared for bumpy bus journeys and slow but scenic train rides. Volunteers finish their weekly projects around Friday lunch time, so you’ll have from Friday afternoons right through to Sunday afternoon to travel as you please. Just make sure you’re back at your homestay by Sunday evening at 9:30pm.
However you decide to spend your weekends in Sri Lanka, we strongly advise travelling in groups with other volunteers and to always make sure you research the area well and the accommodation you choose. Using a resource such as Trip Advisor is a great way to read up to date travel advice and get a range of reviews on accommodation, transport and activities.
Get a flavour of Sri Lanka and watch this video to see some of the things past volunteers have got up to at the weekends.