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.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike one of first female heads of state in the modern world
Sirimavo Bandaranaike: the first female Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

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.

Google Trends results for countries searching for "sex" the most

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:

Sri Lanka official languages
Street signs in Sri Lanka are in the 3 official 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.

Strict draconian laws in Sri Lanka
A sobering sign at Colombo airport to welcome you to 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.

Malaria eradication in Sri Lanka timeline
The timeline of malaria eradication in Sri Lanka

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. 

View from train journey in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka train journeys were some of the best we've ever taken!

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.

Oldest tree in the world is in Sri Lanka
The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya is one of the oldest trees in the world

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(!)

Colombo airport shops to redecorate your kitchen
Colombo airport: buy everything you need to redecorate your kitchen

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:

Map of Pangea: Sri Lanka border with Antarctica
Map of Pangea

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:



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Our 10 interesting facts about Sri Lanka

63 thoughts on “10 interesting facts about Sri Lanka”

  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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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…

  6. 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 🙂

  7. 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”

    • 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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!

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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 😉

    • 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 .

  13. 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 🙂

    • 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 .

    • 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.

    • 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 .

    • 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.

    • 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.

  14. 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

  15. 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…

  16. 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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