History of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a long and complex history that includes ancient kingdoms, colonial rule, independence struggles, and modern challenges. The island has been shaped by its diverse cultures that date back thousands of years, religions, and ethnicities, and has a rich heritage of art, architecture, and literature.
Prehistoric Period: Archaeological evidence suggests that Sri Lanka has been inhabited for at least 125,000 years. Stone tools and pottery fragments have been found in various parts of the island, indicating the presence of prehistoric communities.
Ancient Period (543 BCE - 1017 CE): Sri Lanka was known as "Heladiva" or "Lanka" in ancient times. In the 5th century BCE, it was inhabited by several indigenous tribes. In 543 BCE, the island was united under King Vijaya, who is considered the first king of Sri Lanka. The ancient period saw the rise of powerful kingdoms such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, which built impressive cities, palaces, and Buddhist stupas. Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE, and it became a prominent religion on the island.
Medieval Period (1017 CE - 1505 CE): During the medieval period, Sri Lanka saw the rise and fall of various kingdoms, including the Chola, Pandya, and Jaffna kingdoms. In the 11th century, the Chola dynasty from South India briefly ruled over Sri Lanka. The island also experienced invasions by the Pandya and Magha dynasties, which led to significant political and cultural changes.
Colonial Period (1505 CE - 1948 CE): In 1505, the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka and established a foothold in the coastal areas. The Dutch followed in the 17th century and gradually gained control over most of the island. The British, who arrived in the late 18th century, defeated the Dutch and took control of Sri Lanka in 1796. Under British rule, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon, and the British introduced coffee and tea plantations, which had a lasting impact on the economy and culture of the island.
Independence and Post-Independence Period (1948 CE - present): Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948 and became a republic in 1972. The country faced various challenges, including ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, which led to a civil war that lasted for 26 years until 2009. Sri Lanka has made progress in recent years in terms of economic development and infrastructure, but challenges such as political stability, human rights, and reconciliation efforts continue to shape its history.
Culture, Customs and Etiquette
The Right-hand rule – Always give, receive and eat with your right hand. It is considered extremely bad manners to use your left hand for eating (sorry left-handers).
Environmental responsibility –in many parts of Asia, disposal systems are inadequate and recycling of plastics is limited. Sri Lanka is no exception. Plastic bags will be offered for everything! If you wish to buy fruit and vegetables from local stalls, please bring a re-usable bag with you.
The law protects certain endangered species of flora & fauna. Export and possession of these species as well as of wild animals, birds, reptiles etc., is illegal. The production and sale of items made from wild animals and reptiles, e.g.: Leopard skins, crocodile skins, elephant tusks etc., is also illegal.
Never buy coral if it’s offered for sale. Similarly, don’t buy sea shells or turtle shells (or eggs). All of Sri Lanka’s five species of Turtle are endangered.
Language and Communication
Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages in Sri Lanka. English is generally understood by most people in major cities and towns, outside of this, knowledge of it thins. English is spoken in all hotels, major restaurants and shops. Road signs are written both in Sinhalese & English throughout the country.
Telephone facilities are available extensively throughout the country. There are many telephone booths which accept coins, but the clarity and talk times may be short. IDD facilities are available in most tourist hotels.
Country code and how to dial area codes
Dialling in – Sri Lanka’s country code is 94, (e.g. If you need to call a number in Colombo, dial +94 11 2XXXXXX). If you are calling a mobile number, you dial the number after the country code (eg. dialling a Dialog number, dial +94 77X XXXXXX).
Mobile technology in Sri Lanka
All mobile operators support the GSM technology on GSM 900/ 1800 bands. WAP & GPRS is widely supported. 3G and wireless broadband is available in Colombo. Wi-Fi zones are available in selected spots in major towns.
Local mobile connection
Wi-fi is common in hotels, hostels, restaurants and cafes across the touristed areas of Sri Lanka. Travellers can also purchase a tourist SIM card for the duration of their Sri Lanka tour if they wish to stay connected. Both Dialog and Mobitel offer tourist SIM packages that are valid for 30 days.
The mobile call rates are relatively cheap for both local and IDD calls. There are many mobile operators in the country (Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat, Hutch etc.). Dialog and Mobitel have counters at the Colombo Airport and you can obtain a connection on arrival. A Dialog connection will cost about Rupees 1500. Top up cards are freely available island-wide. You can buy top-up cards for denominations of Rupees 100, 400 & 1000. Be sure that your phone is `dual band’ and unlocked.
hotels provide WIFI facilities Most hotels provide internet facilities. There are internet cafes in most towns with ADSL connection. Connections in smaller towns will be slow. Large 5-star.
Shopping and Entertainment
Sri Lanka has a wide variety of handicrafts on sale. Sri Lankan masks are a very popular item, as are Ceylon Tea, batiks, wood carvings, gemstones, semi- precious stones, lacquer-ware, and hand-made Silver and Brass objects. Please avoid ornaments made from tortoise shells & ivory, and woodcarving made from ebony and turtle shell. We will take you to the government run ‘Laksala’ stores who understand Australian customs laws.
Nightlife in Sri Lanka
Colombo, Negombo and Hikkaduwa are places with active night life.
Colombo has some great pubs, night clubs, karaoke lounges and bars. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest for all night partying.
Negombo and Hikkaduwa have great beach restaurants and bars.
A 10% service charge is included in bills for food and accommodation; however, tipping is a customary way of showing your appreciation for services rendered. A rule of thumb is to tip 10% of the total amount due. Your housekeeping staff, doorman and bellboy all expect a little tip. A tip between 100 – 200 rupees for each service is considered sufficient.
Note: Tipping and porterage costs are included in your Culinary and Cultural tour.
Traveling and Photography
When is the best time to travel?
Sri Lanka has 2 monsoon seasons:
May to July – South West Monsoon
October – January – North East Monsoon
Dos and don’ts of local photography
Ask permission before taking photographs of people and respect their wishes if they refuse. Minority groups in particular are often unhappy to have their photo taken. Travellers should avoid paying for the right to take a photo as this has been found to encourage begging amongst sections of the local community.
It is forbidden to take photographs inside the cave temple complex of Dambulla. Never use flash photography on murals inside temples and other places; it can cause significant damage to them.
Similarly, flash photography is forbidden at the frescoes of Sigiriya, never pose beside or in front of a Buddha statue (i.e., with your back to the statue). Such conduct is considered extremely disrespectful. Never take a photo of a monk without asking permission. Tourists are sometimes asked for money for taking photos. Always ask before you shoot whether payment is expected.
Never take photos of dams, airports, roadblocks or anything to do with the military. Don’t use your camera around Colombo Fort.
Processing digital photos
There are many franchised photo shops such as Kodak and Fuji with advanced digital imaging services in major towns. Almost all types of digital data storage devices are accepted. It’s always advisable to keep a backup of your pictures before handing over for processing.
It’s always advisable to bring a USB cord (camera to PC) so you transfer the pictures to a PC. The internet cafés are ideal for this (you’ll find them all around the country). Simply copy the pictures to the PC and then burn them into a CD. This is much cheaper than processing through a photography shop/ studio. It’s best to make two copies of the CD. One you keep with you, the other send it home in the post. That way you can always keep your memory cards empty to capture more photos!
Digital camera accessories such as memory cards and batteries are available in Colombo, Kandy and a few major towns.
What to Eat
The Portuguese, Dutch and British invaders along with the Arab, Chinese, Indian and Malay traders all contributed to the melting pot of food that makes Sri Lanka famous worldwide for its unique cuisine. Sri Lankan cuisine offers a palate of mild and delicately flavoured dishes to hot and fiery ones. The dishes are flavoured with an assortment of herbs and spices, garlic, ginger, lemon grass and curry leaves. See my blog on spices www.petestravellingpans.com
Sri Lanka’s famous dishes
Rice and Curry – Considered the national dish of the country, Sri Lankan rice and curry consists of fluffy rice that is served with a variety of side dishes commonly called curries. There are typically three to five different meat and vegetable curries served along with the rice. This is accompanied with a Sambol (freshly grated coconut ground together with chilli and spices) Mallum (finely shredded leaves with coconut), and papadums. This specialty is a typical home-cooked dish and an undisputed staple on restaurant menus throughout Sri Lanka.
Hoppers – Hoppers in their simplest form are bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. Cooked in small round hopper pans over a medium heat flame, hoppers tend to come out crispy round the edges, thicker at the bottom. Hoppers can be simply seasoned with salt and pepper or made spicy with hot fresh chili sambols. There are many other types of hoppers such as the egg hopper, which is made with an egg poached into its centre. Milk hoppers and jaggery hoppers are a sweeter variety.
String Hoppers - String hoppers are carefully prepared by squeezing rice flour dough through a sieve-like metal appliance to form thin delicate noodles on small woven bamboo trays. These trays are then gently steamed until cooked. The finished product is light, lacy warm noodles to be served with a spicy sambol, lentils and meat or vegetable curry. It is a very popular dish that is eaten at any meal of the day.
Kottu Roti - made from a finely shredded roti bread and mixed with sizzling hot vegetables, egg or meat and curry sauce. It is traditionally stir-fried on a heated BBQ style plate. The clashing sound of this being made is ‘food music’ to Sri Lankan people, it can be heard ringing out from roadside cafes and restaurants late into the night.
Pittu - introduced to the Sri Lankan cuisine by the Malays and Tamils during the European colonial era. It is a soft, fluffy mixture of ground rice and grated coconut steamed in a bamboo pipe and served with freshly squeezed coconut milk and aromatic curries. Eaten at any meal of the day.
Lamprais - introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch Burghers, Lamprais has a unique flavour and a delicious aroma. It consists of rice cooked in stock, eggplant, a meat curry (usually chicken or beef however vegetarian is also available), spicy onion sambol, boiled egg and a Frikadelle (crumbed meatball) All of this is wrapped in a banana leaf and slow cooked in an oven. The flavour of the banana leaf infuses into the food giving it its characteristic aroma and taste.
Kiribath – This is a traditional Sri Lankan dish which directly translates as milk rice. It is eaten usually at breakfast with a sambol and curries, it can also be eaten with Kitul Panni (Honey from the Kitul palm). It is also eaten on the first day of the year and at any other celebration.
The major fruit varieties grown in Sri Lanka are mango, papaya, pineapple, avocado, banana, watermelon, rambutan, mangosteen, wood apple, guava, pomegranate and jackfruits. Banana, pineapple and papaya are commercially grown whereas other varieties of fruit come from home gardens for the most part. Fruits are grown all around the island of Sri Lanka, from the coastal belt lining the country to higher elevations in the hill country. The variety of fruits grown in each region varies significantly, depending on the climate and soil conditions. Some of them are rare and endemic to the country and play a very important role in Sri Lankan cuisine. Locals make curried fruits, eat ripe fruits after meal and also drink fresh fruit juices.
Pete is a Sri Lankan born Australian with over 40 years experience in hospitality. Pete has a deep love and understanding of the culture, cuisine and hospitality industries of both countries - knowledge which he weaves into his culinary tours.