10 interesting facts about Sri Lanka
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka took us by surprise.
We came here completely unprepared with no expectations and left with fond memories of stunning treks in the hill country at Ella Rock, the very tasty food, some stunning train journeys and exciting safaris spotting leopards.
Here’s our top 10 favourite memories, interesting facts and observations about Sri Lanka.
#1 THE DOUBLE, SOMETIMES TRIPLE LANGUAGE
The Sinhalese (mainly Buddhists) make up around 75% of the 21.2 million Sri Lankan population and the Sri Lankan Tamil (mainly Hindu) are the largest ethnic group, comprising around 11%.
There’s been a long drawn out civil war in the past, which formally ended in 2009. Despite this messy history, most signs are in both languages and sometimes in English as well.
Stefan was particularly touched by this because his roots are also from a former British island colony (Cyprus), which unlike Sri Lanka is still in conflict between its Greek majority and Turkish minority.
Whilst Cyprus has a long long way to go, Stefan couldn’t help see Sri Lanka as a positive sign of the future for his motherland…
#2 DRACONIAN STRICT LAWS
When you arrive at Colombo international airport, you are met with this sign at the immigration desk:
We do not support drug consumption, but growing up in western Europe, we are so used to seeing the death penalty as an inhumane and degrading punitive measure. So this sign was a bit strange for us when we saw it at Colombo airport.
If a death penalty sentence was to be put into action, the death is carried out by hanging as initially set out in the 1883 Penal Code legislation introduced under British Colonial rule.
But, there have been no executions since 1976 in Sri Lanka and any death penalty sentences passed by the courts since were converted to life imprisonments.
Another draconian law we encountered in Sri Lanka were the homophobic laws from the British colonial era, criminalising gay sex.
This has allowed open discrimination of the LGBT community by the police and government authorities as we found out when we met local gay boy, Kaluu.
#3 RESPECT THE BUDDHA
In May 2013, British tourist, Antony Ratcliffe was deported because he had this 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.
Did you spot it? We struggled, but this is the offensive split second moment at 01:22 into the video:
The UK foreign office guidelines for Sri Lanka local laws and customs has 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.”
#4 MALARIA NEARLY ERADICATED!
Sri Lanka is a shining beacon to other malaria risk countries. It is the first tropical country to be in the position to shortly announce it has completely eradicated malaria and receive the certification of this from the World Health Organisation.
The Anti Malaria Campaign of the Sri Lankan government confirmed a reduction of 99.9% of malaria cases since 2000 from 210,039 cases to just 23 cases in 2012 as a result of government investment, global funding and strong support from the WHO.
Unfortunately though, Dengue fever remains a problem in Sri Lanka so care against mosquitos should still be taken when travelling here.
#5 CEYLON TEA
Sri Lanka is quite a small country (a bit bigger than Norway and a little smaller than Ireland). In fact it’s the 122nd smallest country in the world.
But despite this, it’s 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 significant that it led to the construction of the current railway system from 1864, to bring the tea from the hill country in the centre of Sri Lanka to its capital, Colombo on the west coast to be exported abroad.
Today, these train journeys through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka are some of the most incredible you will ever take with stunning views over the tea plantations and hill country of Sri Lanka.
We visited the Pedro Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya where we enjoyed several fresh brews…
#6 SRI LANKANS LIKE TO GOOGLE “SEX” A LOT!
An interesting (but pornographic) fact. The Sri Lankans are the world’s number one nation who googles the word “sex” according to Google Trends (India, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Nepal follow).
And, in 2015, Sri Lanka topped this ‘chart’ for its fifth consecutive year…!
#7 THE WORLD’S OLDEST HUMAN PLANTED TREE IS IN SRI LANKA
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 located in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
This fig tree was planted in 288 BC by King Devanampiya Tissa and is one of the most sacred Buddhist relics because it is believed to be the southern branch of the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment.
#8 COLOMBO AIRPORT: BUY YOUR FRIDGES, WASHING MACHINES, OVENS…
Another fun fact we found when we touched down at Colombo airport was the large numbers of shops in the airport selling, pretty much everything, particularly fridges, washing machine, ovens…!
Correct us if we’re wrong, but to date this has been the only airport in the world we’ve encountered where you can buy an oven or a fridge freezer.
#9 THE PEARL OF THE INDIAN OCEAN USED TO SHARE LAND BORDERS WITH ANTARTICA
This is the nickname commonly given to Sri Lanka because it is shaped like a pearl or a drop of tear.
Another nickname given is the “Pearl of India” because of its proximity to the south east Indian coast:
In this Google map image above, did you spot Antarctica? It’s quite far away…but around 300 million years ago when all the continents were linked as “Pangea”, Sri Lanka was not only joined to India, but also to Madagascar, Mozambique and…Antarctica!
In the map of Pangea below, Sri Lanka is the small cream coloured country on the left of red India, on the right of brown Mozambique, beneath green Madagascar and above white Antarctica:
#10 SRI LANKA HAD THE WORLD’S FIRST FEMALE PRIME MINISTER
On 20 July 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000) became Sri Lanka’s first female prime minister and also the modern world’s first female head of government.
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.
She 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 and first (and only) 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; the Prime Minister is now subordinate to the President in Sri Lankan politics.
Kumaratunga is now one of the important figures and advisors in President Sirisena’s newly elected government.
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 as well as Colombo city and if you've never used it before, we give you your 1st ride for free using this link. To go to Kandy, Nuwara Elya or Ella, just take the train: 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 in Ella or just lay on the beach all day long in Negombo, 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, you're better off taking the train. For international flights, flying to Sri Lanka can be expensive, Google flights can help you find cheap fares and Momondo is our favourite website to book airfares. In addition, flights from Sri Lanka to India and The Maldives are cheap 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 activities to do. Going to the hotel in person and negotiating the price face to face will most of the time result in cheaper prices compared to what you would get 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.