1. Sri Lanka = serendipity. Serendipity is not just the name of a New York bakery and a mediocre John Cusack movie. The word serendipity (“happy accident”) came from Serendib, an old name for Sri Lanka. It may be a South Asian cliché, but it’s also a fitting expression for the-happy-go-lucky fatalism that governs life here. Time is elastic. People make grand promises and don’t follow through. Events unfold as the heavens will them. And yet, Sri Lankans try their best to make the stars align in their favor: parents have detailed horoscopes done for their children based on the time of their birth. Wedding dates and job changes are planned in close consultation with astrologers, and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa even set an early election date on his astrologer’s advice. (He lost).
2. Be patient. It’s having a tourism boom. Since the end of its 26-year civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has been aggressively courting tourism and investment, with some success. Hotels (and prices) are going up all over, including the former civil-war sites in the north and east. (Some say that Sri Lanka’s popularity with travelers might be because it offers a “South Asia lite” experience: the diverse landscapes, cuisines, cultures, and spirituality of India, condensed into a far smaller territory where almost everyone speaks English.) Many places are used to visitors (go see the stilt fishermen on the south coast and you may find they’re not catching fish, but earning small fees posing on their stilts for tourists). Hotels enthusiastically book guests while entire wings are still under construction. Others are ready for the hordes, but stand eerily empty. Outside of the capital, Colombo, and the established stomping grounds of the cultural triangle or surf-lined coasts, it can be hard to find a happy medium between ultra-basic guesthouses and luxury hotels. Finding the freshest food or the cleanest rooms can be a process of trial and error, and higher prices are certainly no guarantee of quality. Restaurant service is usually courteous, but very slow. People you meet are curious and friendly, and old-fashioned manners are important. Always keep your cool: raising your voice and pointing are rude—and counterproductive.
A cow on the loose outside the War Museum at Puthukkudiyiruppu. Photo: Alexa van Sickle
3. Don’t order from the Western menu. Glass-fronted stalls (“kades”) serve breakfast, snacks and lunch, but there isn’t a big restaurant culture outside larger cities. Guesthouse and hotel menus often offer a strange mix of local, pan-Asian, and Western staples, with croque monsieur and Chinese fried rice on one ambitiously sprawling menu. The Sri Lankan menu will be far superior in freshness and in execution, and even the most basic eatery is likely to offer a satisfying Sri Lankan breakfast. In Colombo, try Senkade for basic, cheap and good Sri Lankan buffet-style food.
4. But go for the combination dishes. Yes, you should skip the ‘English’ breakfasts that most restaurants churn out. But do try the Sri Lanka/British fusion of ‘deviled’ chicken and seafood, and the Sri Lankan-Chinese staple, hot butter cuttlefish: rings of batter-fried cuttlefish, fried in butter and tossed with local spices.