If you didn’t feel like reading through the entire Sri Lanka saga, here are the essentials. We went through Yatra and took a package that included air fare, hotel, a van and a driver, and breakfast. Your experience may be different if you travel differently. My husband and I couldn’t really do a backpacking style of moderation travel with our daughters. It just wasn’t practical for us. I hope I don't offend anyone with the advice I have to give, it is based only on our experiences and probably won't apply to everyone.
Weather : We chose to go to Sri Lanka in May, mainly because we are horrible at planning things ahead of time. Sri Lanka is hot as Balls in May and just as humid. Seriously. If you can put up with it, May is really a great time to go because everything is not jam packed with tourists. If you need the more moderate weather, go in the winter.
What to See: This is largely up to you and what interests you the most. Since we live in the Google age, I strongly recommend you do quite a bit of research into what areas/what things you want to see or do. We did the cultural bit because that float’s Daddy G’s and my boats. If your thing is more lounging on beaches and snorkeling, you will probably go somewhere different than we did.
Dress: I got far fewer stares in Sri Lanka than I ever do in India, but I dress conservatively. Pants/jeans/long skirts are essential, especially if you would like to visit any of the temples. This will be expected of you. I wouldn’t recommend tank tops to ladies either, but that’s just my take. Sri Lanka is incredibly oriented towards tourism, so people really do go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. This being said, don’t be stupid. You’re always better covered up a bit more. If you go in the summer, I STRONGLY recommend ankle length skirts for the girls. Much cooler than jeans. Capris are perfectly acceptable too, but will still be hot. Men have more freedom. Most of the Sri Lankan men wear lunghis (long pieces of fabric that are folded in a certain manner and tucked in), however this is completely impractical for anyone who didn’t grow up in Sri Lanka or India wearing one. Shorts are fine for the men, except for in a temple setting.
Transportation: There are small motor carts (tuktuks, same as Indian autos) if you have small distances. Otherwise taxis can be arranged, but they aren’t all that economical, especially if you are headed out of town and into the village areas. What I would recommend would be to hire a car and driver if that doesn’t come with your travel package/plans. It’s well worth the expense.
Guides: Guides can be a great resource or a pain, depending on what you want. Our driver acted as our guide many times and had lots of interesting information to tell us. He also had a vested interest to steer us towards some things we had absolutely no interest in (such as clothes and jewelry shopping). Remember that it’s just good policy to tip a guide. If he’s not good, don’t tip too much, but definitely don’t stiff the guy. This is their livelihood, they need the tips.
Food: Sri Lankans love spices and spicy foods. If you don’t like spicy food, you will end up eating a lot of over salted fried noodles and fried rice everywhere you go. It’s great if you are open to new stuff, because there is lots of yummy-ness to be discovered in Sri Lanka. Always start out slowly with the heat level and increase as you feel comfortable. If you stay in the larger hotels, expect more choice, but also expect a larger bill at the end. Water is essential, especially in the summer time. If at all possible buy lots of water from a grocery store and use as needed. Even in the hotels, the cost of water bottles is jacked WAY up. Do not drink the tap water people, that should be travel 101.
Money: This is where things get a bit sticky. If you are coming from America, or including Sri Lanka in your Eastern trip, you will already be spending a lot of money on plane tickets to get to this side of the world. That being said, Sri Lankan rupees are currently around 100 per 1 US dollar. Things are pretty cheap all considered. If you are an Indian coming to Sri Lanka, earning and spending in rupees, Sri Lanka gets pretty expensive fast. Our hotels were all very nice, which translated into ridiculously expensive meals too. Sri Lanka is not as developed as India and almost everything has a village feel (except for Colombo). This makes the sticker shock even more shocking. Sri Lanka knows it is a tourist destination, and knows the value of its services. The prices are pretty close to American ones which is hard for an Indian tourist to swallow. You will need to convert your dollars to Sri Lankan rupees, preferably not at the airport. If you have Indian rupees, they will need to be converted to dollars, again hopefully not at the airport, and then converted to Sri Lankan Rupees when you land, not at the airport. There are visa ATMs in pleny around the bigger cities, so if you run short of cash in those places and have an international credit card, you have access to more money. Make sure you have enough money for tips. As this is a tourist destination, everyone performing a service will expect one, even the grocery guy carrying your bag for you.
Souvenirs: Souvenirs get expensive fast too, so if that’s your cup of tea, make sure you bring along enough to do whatever shopping you need to do. Try your best not to get sucked into one shop just because someone recommended it. Everyone has a stake when they give you a suggestion. Use your best judgment and try and stay away from the tourist heavy sections of stores. Bargain shamelessly – a good place to start is just above half. You’ll also have a bit more bargaining room if you stay away from factories that give tours.
Beggars: If you come from the west, this will be hard. Don’t give to beggars. If you feel the compulsion to be compassionate, give to the Red Cross or another international aid organization. Begging is not a viable career option for people and does not help them overcome their situation. We didn’t see too much of this, but there was some. Don’t be unkind, but a firm no and no more attention should do the trick.
Time: Sri Lankans operate on a different time schedule than the west, or even India. They are much more relaxed. Try not to bother the waiters too much and try to be Zen about it.
Religions: Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country. There is a decent Christian, Hindu, and Muslim minority. If you don’t believe the same as one of these, do your best to live and let live. Everyone is pretty much relaxed about living together, just go with the flow.
Hotels: Do your best to stay in nice hotels as Sri Lanka has some amazing ones. I would recommend any of the hotels mentioned in my blog with the exception of the Topaz. I do not recommend bed bugs. If they can fix this problem, it will be a great hotel too.
Bugs: We found surprisingly few mosquitoes in Sri Lanka, which was totally unexpected. They are there, but they seem to be bigger, slower, and in fewer numbers than we are used to in India. That being said, bug spray is not a bad idea if you will be out in the evening as all the public buildings we encountered were of an open plan and mosquitoes came and went freely. We didn't encounter too much else for bugs.
Hope this helps. I welcome emails/comments/questions and will do my best to answer.