10 interesting facts about Sri Lanka
We completely fell in love with Sri Lanka, an island nation south of India in the Indian Ocean.
We came here with no expectations and left with some of our favourite travel memories, in particular our trek to Ella Rock, cooking delicious curries, exciting train journeys and impressive wildlife safaris. We loved it here so much, we visited a second time as part of our campaign with Durex.
These are our 10 interesting facts about Sri Lanka, some of which may surprise you and make you smile.
1. First female Prime Minister in the world
On 20 July 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000) became Sri Lanka's first female prime minister. In doing so, she also became the modern world's first female head of government. She was so popular that she became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka 3 times: 1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000.
Her government was responsible for declaring Sri Lanka a Republic, as well as for changing the country's name to “Sri Lanka” from “Ceylon” in 1972.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike died on election day on 10 October 2000 after casting her vote for her last time. Her daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, continued to pave the way forward for Ceylon Girl Power, becoming the country's first female President in 1994.
2. A nation that Googles “sex” a lot!
According to Google Trends, Sri Lanka ranks high each year as one of the main countries in the world that Googles the word “sex” the most. For many years it held the #1 spot until it was snatched by Bangladesh(!)
In case you were wondering, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Nepal were next on the list.
3. The official languages of Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan population of 22 million is mainly comprised of Sinhalese (around 75%) and Tamil (around 11%). The remainder are a mix of various other ethnicities. As such, Sinhalese and Tamil are the two official languages of the country, with English also recognised in the constitution as a linking language. As a result, most signs in Sri Lanka will be written in 2, sometimes 3 languages:
4. Some very draconian strict laws
When you arrive at Colombo international airport and get to the immigration desk, you are met with a sobering sign warning that you risk the death penalty if you're caught using drugs. Whilst we do not condone illegal drug use, coming from western Europe, we are so used to seeing the death penalty as an inhumane and degrading punitive measure that this certainly startled us!
In reality, the death penalty has not been enforced in Sri Lanka since 1976, and any death penalty sentences passed by the courts are usually converted to life imprisonments instead.
Another set of very sad draconian laws still in place in Sri Lanka are those criminalising homosexuality. Whilst they are not actively enforced by the courts, the very fact that they exist validates open discrimination towards the LGBTQ community of the country by both the police (seeking bribes) and governmental authorities. Read more in our interview with Kaluu from Colombo about gay life in Sri Lanka.
5. Respect Buddha or else!
Sri Lankans have a deep respect for Buddha. Any replica of Buddha used to mock or to disrespect will get you into trouble. For example, in May 2013, British tourist, Antony Ratcliffe was deported because he had a Buddha tattoo on his arm. In 2012, three French tourists were arrested in Galle for having their photo taken posing by a Buddha statue and pretending to kiss it. The UK foreign office guidelines for Sri Lanka local laws and customs have since been amended to state:
“The mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence and tourists have been convicted for this. British nationals have been refused entry to Sri Lanka or faced deportation for having visible tattoos of Buddha. Don’t pose for photographs standing in front of a statue of Buddha.”
Even celebrities are not immune to strict anti-Buddha laws in Sri Lanka. For example the singer,Akon, was refused a visa to Sri Lanka in 2010 because one of his videos, “Sexy Chick” had scantily clad women dancing around a Buddha statue at a pool party. See for yourself in the blink-or-miss-it moment at 01:40 and 02:05:
6. Malaria eradicated in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a shining beacon to other countries that have a malaria risk. It is the first tropical country that has completely eradicated malaria as a result of government investment, global funding and strong support from the WHO.
Unfortunately Dengue fever remains a problem in Sri Lanka, so do take care against mosquitos when travelling here and bring an effective spray.
7. The famous Ceylon tea
For its size, Sri Lanka certainly packs a punch when it comes to tea. It is one of the world's top exporters, accounting for over 19% of the world's tea exports. In 1824, a tea plant was brought to Ceylon (the colonial British name for Sri Lanka) by the British from China and this massive industry took off from there.
The Ceylon tea industry was so big that it led to the construction of the current railway system in 1864, to bring the tea from the hill country all the way to the capital, Colombo from where it could be exported abroad.
The train journeys through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka are some of the best we've taken in our travels. You zip through cloud forests in the mountains with some stunning views below.
8. The oldest human planted tree in the world
The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya (or the Bo Tree) at over 2,500 years old is the world's oldest living human planted tree. It is located in Anuradhapura, towards the north of Sri Lanka.
The Bo Tree is in fact a fig tree, planted in 288 BC by King Devanampiya Tissa. It is also considered to be one of the most sacred Buddhist relics because it is believed to be the southern branch of this tree where Buddha gained Enlightenment.
9. Colombo airport: buy your fridge, washing machine, oven…
One of our favourite interesting facts about Sri Lanka is the abundance of shops at Colombo Airport selling pretty much everything you need to redecorate you kitchen! After collecting your suitcase and passing through immigration, you can on your way out, purchase a new fridge freezer, washing machine, oven, microwave and more…
Not many airports in the world can offer its visitors such a comprehensive interiors service(!)
10. Sri Lanka used to share a land border with Antarctica
Although Sri Lanka is today quite far away from Antarctica, around 300 million years ago this was not the case!
Back then, Sri Lanka used to share a land border with not only Antarctica to its south, but also with Mozambique to its west, Madagascar to its north and India to its east. This was Pangea! See for yourselves here:
Watch our travel video diary of our adventures through Sri Lanka as we ate our way through this tropical island, took some beautiful train journeys and enjoyed excellent safaris spotting leopards at Udawalawe and blue whales at Mirissa:
Sri Lanka travel recommendations
Transportation: first, there is no need to stress about getting taxis around the capital. Uber is heavily used in Colombo Airport and in Colombo. If you've never used it before, we give you your 1st ride for free using this link. To get to Kandy, Nuwara Elya or Ella, we highly recommend you take the train because the landscapes are stunning, tickets are cheap and it is an amazing adventure.
Travel insurance: whether you go on a safari in Yala National Park, scuba diving in Unawatuna, hiking at Ella Rock or just lay on the beach all day long in Hikkaduwa, you need travel insurance. We use World Nomads because they offer considerable coverage especially for adventure travellers. They also make it easy to make a claim as it’s all done online.
Flights: flying domestically in Sri Lanka doesn't make much sense because the train has more comprehensive coverage across the country and is far cheaper. For international flights, flying to Sri Lanka can be expensive. We recommend Google flights to search for the cheapest fares, and Momondo for booking airfares. In addition, flights from Sri Lanka and India to The Maldives are very affordable, so don't miss out on the opportunity!
Hotels: Sri Lanka has a huge diversity of accommodation options. Make sure you check out our Sri Lanka content for hotel recommendations first. TripAdvisor is also a good place to start researching places to stay and find the best activities to do. Going to the hotel in person and negotiating the price face to face will most of the time result in a cheaper price compared to what you find online. But if like us, you're a bit of a control freak and like planning ahead, we recommend using Booking.com to find the best deals and book your accommodation online.