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10 interesting facts about Sri Lanka

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 completely unprepared with no expectations and left with fond memories of stunning treks in the hill country at Ella Rock, delicious curries, exciting train journeys and impressive wildlife safaris.

These are our 10 interesting facts about Sri Lanka following our trip from Colombia to Nuwara Eliya, Yala, and along the southern coast.

1. The official languages of Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan population is around 21 million and is mainly comprised of Sinhalese (Buddhists) who make up 75% of this figure. The Tamil (Hindu) are the country’s second largest ethnic group, comprising around 11%. The remainder are a mix of various other ethnicities.

There has always been tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, which led to a long drawn out civil war that lasted from 1983-2009. Since the war ended, relations have soothed and the communities moved forward together. The result of this is that Sinhalese and Tamil are the country’s official languages, along with English, which is a “recognised language” as a nod to the Colonial days when Ceylon (former name of Sri Lanka) was part of the British Empire.

As a result, most signs in Sri Lanka will be written in 2, sometimes 3 languages:

Seb posing by the triple language Slave Island road sign in Colombo

Our favourite road sign in Sri Lanka (!) the first line in Sinhalese, the second in Tamil and the third in English.

2. Some very draconian strict laws

When you arrive at Colombo international airport, you are met with this sign at the immigration desk warning you that you may face 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. So when this is the first thing that greets you when you arrive in the country, you can’t help feeling a little intimidated!

In reality, the death penalty has not been enforced since 1976. Any death penalty sentences passed by the courts since then were just converted to life imprisonments.

Another very sad draconian law in Sri Lanka are the laws banning homosexuality inherited from the British colonial era. This has validated open discrimination to the Sri Lankan LGBTQ community by both the police and governmental authorities, which you can read more about in our interview with Kaluu from Colombo.

3. Respect Buddha or else!

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 singer, Akon, was refused a visa to Sri Lanka in 2010 because one of his videos (“Sexy Chick” by David Guetta featuring Akon singing) had scantily clad women dancing around a Buddha statue at 01:22.

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.”

Antony Ratcliffe with his Buddha tattoo

Antony Ratcliffe with his Buddha tattoo, which caused offence and led to his deportation in May 2013

4. 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.

5. 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 of tea (along with China, India and Kenya), 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 to Colombo so it could be exported abroad.

Today, these train journeys through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka are some of the most incredible you will ever experience. The views over the tea plantations are absolutely stunning! 

6. Sri Lankans like to Google “sex” a lot!

One of the more comical interesting facts about Sri Lanka is that they are the world’s #1 nation who Googles the word “sex” according to Google Trends.

In case you were wondering, India, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Nepal were next on the list.

7. The oldest human planted tree in the world

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya (or the Bo Tree) is over 2,500 years old and is the world’s oldest living human planted tree with a known planted date. It is located in Anuradhapura, towards the north of the country.

The Bo tree is in fact a fig tree, which was 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.

8. Colombo airport: buy your fridges, washing machines, ovens etc!

Another comical interesting fact about Sri Lanka was the large numbers of shops at Colombo Airport selling pretty much everything you need to redecorate you kitchen! That’s right, after you collect your suitcase, you can purchase a new fridge freezer, washing machine, ovens and more!

For us this definitely makes Colombo Airport one of the most unique airports we’ve ever been to in our travels.

9. Sri Lanka used to share a land border with Antarctica

Today Sri Lanka is quite far away from Antarctica. But around 300 million years ago when all the continents were linked together (“Pangea”), Sri Lanka was not only joined to India, but also to Madagascar, Mozambique and to…Antarctica!

10. The 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 and for changing the name from “Ceylon” to “Sri Lanka” 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 became Sri Lanka’s fifth President from 1994 to 2005, making her the country’s first female President.

The role of President was introduced in 1978 and over time replaced the role of Prime Minister as the head of state figure. Today the Prime Minister is subordinate to the President.

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.

61 Comments

  1. Great post! I actually went to Sri Lanka(and southern India) because I learned Tamil in Highschool. It was interesting trying to pick up the dialect haha! I loved visiting, the food, the beaches, and the washers and dryers haha!

    Reply
    • Thanks Joe!

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  2. I’ve never been to Sri Lanka but it sounds like a unique place to explore. Interesting facts too, learned something new today!

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    • Thanks Alyssa 🙂

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  3. Fascinating facts! That warning of the death penalty for carrying drugs is terrifying weather you partake or not! I’m headed to Sri Lanka in a few months, and I found a lot of this information surprising. I do my best to be respectful when traveling, but I could see myself kissing Buddha without realizing the severity of that act… you guys may have saved me from being arrested! I think I’ll just stick to enjoying the beauty around me and googling sex instead.

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    • Ha ha ha thanks Andrea!

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  4. Wow, I struggled to see that Buddha behind Akon! Maybe if they allowed more scantily clad women to hang around they wouldn’t need to Google sex so often. I kid! Very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it!

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    • Thanks Mia 🙂

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  5. Hmm, not sure what to say. On one hand, these are just ten random facts, but on the other hand, they do portray Sri Lanka as a strange (for the lack of better world) country. Having the first female prime minister or virtually eradicating malaria is so admirable. Having homophobic laws do not make any sense. Would these facts stop me from visiting the country? I do not think so. They would, however, make me more cautious. Thanks guys for another great article.

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    • Our pleasure – thanks for your comment Elena 🙂

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  6. Yeah, I grew up (and still live in) Western Europe and am amazed by laws regarding drugs in other countries, especially Asian ones. I totally respect them, but it’s something that is so different than what I’m used to…

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    • Agreed!!

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  7. Amazing post guys! Seriously cool, I never knew any of this :). Specially loving that they had the first female prime minister (gotta love a bit of girl power!).

    I also never knew how strict Sri Lanka is about buddhas, that’s definintly something I’ll remember.

    I love these kinds of posts though, my favourite thing about travel is learning about the cultural differences 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks Maria

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  8. Awesome facts (I honestly didn’t know a lot of them!!) Have you been to India? I’d be interested in hearing a comparison of the two countries. I actually laughed at the “googling sex” fact….considering how “against” open sexuality they are….pretty interesting insight that makes you go “hmmm”

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    • Very true! If comparing Sri Lanka to North India, it’s totally different. It’s quite similar to Southern India which is like a whole different place.

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  9. Love these little facts and very spot on since I am going to the North of Sri Lanka again in 3 weeks. I had no idea about most of them except for the buddha tattoos, a friend of mine was also not allowed because of a large one

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    • No way?! What happened exactly?!!!

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  10. Impressive! Sri Lanka isn’t on my travel radar just yet, but it’s good to know that tourists can get in plenty of trouble there! Some of those laws are pretty harsh by our standards here in the States!

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    • Thanks Beth – so true!

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  11. Ha ha that did cross our mind but it seemed a tad too cheesy lol

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      • Ha ha ha – you’re good 🙂

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  12. And we think the US drug policy is excessive! Also, I am saddened that you missed the opportunity for a play on words when the French tourists had the gall in Galle to kiss the buddha. Maybe next time!

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  13. Love this completely random facts about Sri Lanka. Applicants for sale at the airport? Because you just never know, right?

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    • Ha ha ha – exactly right? Thanks Erica.

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  14. That was a fun read, and some interesting and rather unusual facts about a country that I have visited 3 times now (only stopovers on flights to the Maldives so I know the airport quite well) Im glad I only took photos of the giant Buddha in the airport and didn’t do any inappropriate poses. We had a 6 hour layover on one trip and got a really good foot massage from one of the many shops. Cant say I noticed the appliance shop but there are plenty of tea shops.

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    • Thanks Sue

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  15. Sri Lanka is recently one of the most popular destinations among my friends and I must say I know nothing about it! Thank you for this post, it was very educational and I learnt so much about this unknown to me place, really! Now I can pretend I know what my friends are talking about 😉

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    • Super thanks Kami – glad to be of service 🙂

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    • Of course lot to see and do ,we are still unexplored island and less known ,these guys are doing an amazing job with their travel in the island . Tourism is bringing lot of benefits to local people.thanks for updating info to outside world .

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  16. Great post! It is interesting to see they google “sex” a lot,but the government views only straight couple intercourse as acceptable. Shame!

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    • Thanks guys.

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  17. This was fascinating! I was a bit taken aback about the illegal drug possession and the death penalty, but I guess they can’t say you weren’t warned. And I don’t think I’ve even seen an airport where you can outfit your kitchen before catching a flight. Maybe the prices are really good 🙂

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    • Ha ha ha – right?

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    • They are duty free shops for srilankan working aboard , they get a tax free purchases of goods at the airport according to the length of stay they have been outside the country .because they have helped the economy by bring foreign money while working aboard .mainly the domestic workers work in Arabic countries are from poor families so when they return home they like to purchase these stuff with their hard earned money .most of the goods they sell at these shops now is becoming essential items .

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  18. Haha! What a random list of things to know about Sri Lanka. Great info though! It’s funny how some countries are still so closed up to change.

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    • Thanks Anna – so true.

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  19. I was researching about Sri Lanka just a few days ago! I’d love to see Colombo and some less touristy places in the hinterland. when is the best period to go?

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    • Hmmmm good question. Apparently December the monsoon eases up and it’s good from then. But when we went in December in late 2014, the monsoon was late so we had heavy rain throughout. Fortunately, we were season for whale watching though.

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    • January to April is the best month to vist. Since less rain fall and temperature stay up to 30c . But srilanka is year round destination served by two monsoons .since now east coast is accessible for tourists ,you can enjoy the east coast during rainy since in west coast . But sometimes rain can be also pleasing . Colombo is nice with lovely history and lot of interesting places and eateries to cover .

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  20. Very interesting! How long did you stay there? Which itinerary would you suggest?

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    • We were there almost a month. If like us you’re not into temples and more into nature, we’d recommend skipping Colombo, Kandy and the Cultural Triangle and head straight to Nuwara Eliya and take the awesome train journey to Ella and do some trekking there. Then safari in Udawalawe and/or Yala, whale watching at Mirissa (if it’s in season) and enjoy the beaches around there.

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    • There are lot to see and do , the boys recommendations is good if you are not in to much culture , but learning and seeing some cultural things and history also good , like sigiriya and kandyan dance ,kandy is a nice city , in cultural triangle you get more ruins and historic monuments , polonnaruwa is my favourite , but if you visit there the thing is the cultural triangle is a different vegetation zone , so you will have good insight in to how different this small island ,most people take around two weeks holiday which will be good enough fir someone with short time.

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  21. Sri Lanka sounds so progressive back also so draconian in ways as well. What a contradiction it must have been in places. Ha ha the porn cracks me up not one but continually voted number 1 in that category . maybe they should have put that sign up at the airport

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    • LOL – good point 🙂

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  22. Great post guys, I definitely learnt 10 new things today!

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    • Thanks Sophia

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  23. What an intense place. It would seem that Sri Lanka does nothing with minor intent. While we’re not ill-behaving folks, it’s a bit scary to know the risks of a mistake if you’re there and unknowingly do something…

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    • Thanks Rob

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  24. Great story about our country guys… I am also from sri lanka… Best wishes…

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    • Thanks Tharindu.

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  25. Interesting facts, I particularly like number 10. Strange though that Sri Lanka was progressive enough to have the first female prime minister but it still has some outdated, oppressive laws. If we ever get to Sri Lanka we’ll remember never to kiss a buddha!

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    • Thanks for your comment Amy 🙂

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  26. Hi, Guys

    Thank you for information and different stories. Have a nice journey!

    .

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  27. Love the posts and the way you tell all different stories on the pictures well done boys !!

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    • Awww thanks a lot Betty

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  28. Cool article! Glad we connected, look forward to reading and commenting on more of your articles my friends!

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    • Thanks JP!

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  29. Oh Akon – that’s why you are so lonely.

    Interesting to read about the first PM – go Sri Lanka. Symbolic that she died after casting her vote.

    Great post guys!

    Reply
    • Awwww thanks a lot for your comment Gemma 🙂

      Have you been/planning to visit?

      Reply

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