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If you forgo most of the main tourist attractions, electing instead to participate from afar, travel slowly, eat locally and play a game of risk with the tap water, you could easily survive on less than $100 a week in Sri Lanka.
Well actually, I didn’t. My total expenditure ended up being about $150 but that was mainly because I splashed out and went whale-watching and to Sigiriya.
Food & Drink
At local eateries you can easily get a sit down meal for 300 LKR ($2) or less, soft drink or water included. The best part is the portions are massive. At one local restaurant in Mirissa, I opted for the Rice and Curry Vegetables (having more-or-less overdosed on egg roti by that point) and what I thought would be a plate of rice with one, maybe two small curry dishes on the side, was in fact large enough to rival a feast at a wedding. The plate of rice itself was enough to feed a family of five, but it also came with a bowl of sweet curry, a bowl of spicy potato curry, traditional dal and a dish of what looked suspiciously like green chillies but actually tasted like mushrooms. In hindsight, on placing my order the nice lady was looking at me incredulously while saying “Just one?!” At the time I assumed she was shocked that I was alone, but now I realise she was probably trying to tell me that was way too much food for lonely old me. So anyway, my feast for one came in at 250 LKR, and it most likely would have been a little less had I ventured a little further away from all the guesthouses and hostels.
For breakfast or lunch, scope out local fast food shops. When I say fast food, I definitely don’t mean greasy KFC or Mcdonalds-type crap; I mean egg roti, samosa and other types of local loveliness. 150 LKR (just over $1) at one of these kinds of places will definitely fill your bellies (and probably your arteries too, but who cares – you’re on holiday!).
Another major money saver for me was drinking the tap water. I know the majority of people reading this may recoil in horror at the mere suggestion, given that Asia is well-known for not having the best filtration systems around, but I drank tap water all day every day and came across no problems whatsoever. Whereas I definitely wouldn’t recommend tap water in India, in Sri Lanka it is actually chlorinated and filtered, so is perfectly drinkable. With 500ml bottles of water costing 50LKR at a time, simply refilling the same bottle again and again saved me at least LKR1400 (approx. $10) throughout the week.
Finally, alcohol. Just don’t drink it, or make it a “special occasion” type thing, and you’ll end up saving a bomb.
Couchsurfing was a major factor in how I saved money in Sri Lanka. Believe it or not, there is actually a massive Couchsurfing community in and around Colombo, and if you take the time to filter through the masses of dodgy sounding messages you’ll likely get, you may actually find some pretty interesting people! They are generous too – to all the hosts I met, hosting was more than just offering their spare room or space on the floor. It was about sharing their life and their culture, initiating you into the We Love Sri Lanka club.
If you’re not into staying with random strangers, that’s perfectly okay, and extremely sane. In most towns you can get a night at a basic hostel-style accommodation for as little as $3. Sure, most of these places are just starting out so you may find yourself as the only traveller in the whole building, but then it’s even more value for money if you technically have the whole place to yourself, right?!
One top money-saving tip is to look further away from the centre of the city/town. Of course you don’t want to be so far out that you’re basically in India, but the more central lodges are almost always the most expensive.
Of my eight nights in Colombo, I spent exactly half Couchsurfing and the other half in hostels/hotels. Altogether for those nights I spent a little under 4000 LKR (approx. $27).
Move slowly and have patience; walk instead of taking the easy road out with a tuk-tuk (unless it’s too hot – don’t risk heatstroke for the sake of saving some dollar) and use local transport instead of taxis for longer distances. For comparison, a private taxi service from Colombo centre to the airport is advertised at most places for 3000 LKR (approx. $20). A government-run bus from the airport to Colombo cost me, if I remember correctly, about 120 LKR (< $1), and that’s likely to be including your typical foreigner-inflation.
Activities and Sights
Sri Lanka has so much to offer without having to pay extortionate prices. Sure, it would be amazing to see whales and dolphins in their natural habitat. And okay, why go all the way across the world to a country and not experience a single one of the main tourist attractions? I’m not saying not to hike up Sigiriya or visit Yala National Park or climb to the top of Adam’s Peak. If you can afford it, you should definitely do as much as you can! What I am saying is you don’t have to do all of the above to enjoy the country. There are enough sights and sounds and experiences to soak in without having to splash out all your cash; one of my most enjoyable evenings was spent just wandering around Galle Fort with two girls I met through my CS host.
Another major way in which I saved money was by not buying one single souvenir. Which is huge for me! Normally I come home with gifts for every Tom, Dick & Harry, and their wives too!
It’s not that I didn’t want to buy anything – trust me, there are so many little treasures in almost every store you enter – but that I’m actually being sensible. My logic is that I am travelling for the foreseeable future – until late September at least, probably even longer – so any little trinkets I pick up along the way will have to somehow survive the next five months, squashed at the bottom of my backpack. So unless they’re a necessity or can be used on the road (here’s talking to you harem pants!), they’re staying on the shelf.