Why I Spent AN ENTIRE YEAR in Sri Lanka ๐Ÿ‡ฑ๐Ÿ‡ฐ

It's crazy to think about it, but it's been over a year since I first landed here in Sri Lanka back on February 6th, 2020. Even crazier is that this is the longest I've spent in any single country since I first started traveling and living aboard full time in 2008. It's been on one hand one of the best years of my life, as well as one of the worst. Sri Lanka itself is like what Bali or Thailand was like 20 years ago. And even today, you see the juxtaposition of modern and old, good and bad, poor and rich, everywhere. 

These experiences may end up being an entire book one day, as in this past year I've seen and done more in this country than possibly anyone who has ever lived or traveled here. I've done it all from exploring ancient temples, living in local villages, safari camping, cooking, hiking, to scuba diving in the ocean, and even learning to fly a plane across the air. I've stayed in both homestays as well as 5-star luxury resorts all the way from the Capital of Colombo, throughout the South, and all the way up and down the East Coast then far north to Jaffna. It's been a crazy year, and I'll highlight my favorite places and what life has been like here with Covid19, the Visa process, and what it was like living here for so long. This is my one year in Sri Lanka mega blog post. 

1 Year Sri Lankan Visa

Funny enough, I actually arrived in Sri Lanka on a 30 day tourist visa and have now been here for over a year without needing to leave the country or ever visiting the immigration office even once. Hopefully things will get even easier in the near future as the government has proposed it but currently the way tourist visas work is you apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) online a few days before you are scheduled to arrive in Sri Lanka. It's basically an online visa that's actually quite simple to do and costs around $40 for most countries that can be paid online. 

Once you get it, you can arrive in Sri Lanka on a 30 day tourist visa, which then you can extend either through an agent like Immigration Lanka who i've used many times, or you can go to the immigration office in Colombo to extend for 3 months at a time. The only annoying and confusing thing is that pricing is all over the place depending on what passport you hold. Americans pay $100 while Germans pay $25. Even more confusing is that citizens from Nepal have to pay $30 while Pakistanis pay just 75 cents. The only good thing is that you can do it all online through an agent who will send a courier to pick up, then drop off your passport at your hotel and you can pay everything through Transferwise online. 

I am extremely grateful that even though normally you can only extend your tourist visa up to 6 months total before leaving the country, that because of Covid19 and the travel bans, Sri Lanka has allowed us to extend up to 15 months total, which is a bit over a year. My visa now expires on May 7th, 2020. This has been a super welcoming blessing compared to other countries like Thailand, Indonesia, or Vietnam which have made it difficult, uncertain, expensive or complicated for foreigners to stay long term during this past crazy year. At times when the immigration office was officially closed for months at a time during the peak pandemic, Sri Lanka even issued everyone an automatic extension. Here are some of my friends who have all stayed in the country for over 1 year now! 

Why I'm Still Here

My original flight was booked for April 1st to fly from Colombo to Kyiv, Ukraine, but that got canceled due to the world being closed. Now that the airport is officially open again, and travel from Sri Lanka is unrestricted to Ukraine, I could technically hop on a plane tomorrow. The only issue is that it's the middle of winter and even though guys like Harald Baldr and Bald and Bankrupt are brave enough to weather the -18c/0 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, I'm definitely not. Maybe if I was born in Norway or the UK like those brave lads, but as a California kid, living in Thailand for the past 10 years, I really don't think I'd manage it. 

That combined with Sri Lanka being paradise right now with few tourists, perfect weather, empty beaches, great surfing, and 80% off accommodations, I'd feel stupid leaving. Life is so good and affordable right now, I left my beach front villa empty this weekend just to stay in another beachfront property half an hour away as it was only 3,000lkr ($15.50usd) a night. The sad thing is that most expats and travelers still here aren't earning much money and don't have savings or investments, so even these ultra good values are out of their budget. That means that luxury hotel rooms, and private villas that normally go for $100-$250 a night are sat empty, even if they are 80% off right now. Being one of the few tourists who can actually afford it, I feel like it'd be silly not to take advantage of the amazing deals, especially since as discounted as they are, the property owners are still grateful for someone to stay in them.

During my time here I've also managed to grow a large Youtube audience on my channel that is interested in traveling Sri Lanka or coming back here once things are fully opened up again. While only 35% of my audience is viewing from within Sri Lanka itself, a lot of my viewers are expats or migrant workers living overseas with roots in the country. A big part of my viewers from the UK, UAE, and Canada are most likely Sri Lankans living and working overseas or those born here who have immigrated. I have no idea what'll happen to my Youtube revenue and views once I move to Ukraine or whatever the next country will be, as I'm sure there'll be a large drop off. And last but not least, I really love the people in the country, both the appreciation from the locals who are happy that I'm promoting and showing their country to the world, as well as the foreigners who are all unique as they've chosen to stay here for now over 1 year like myself instead of panic flying home during the pandemic. 

My Favorite Highlights

There's been so much I've seen and done here in Sri Lanka in the past year, but my favorite places and things I've done, in no particular order off the top of my head would include:

Surfing in Arugam Bay (Video)
The Elephant Gathering in Minneriya (Video)
Sri Lankan Sunsets (Video)
Little England (Video)
Ancient City of Polonnaruwa (Video)
Yacht Life on Sail Lanka (Video)
Snorkeling in Pigeon Island (scuba diving footage Video)
Pasikuda Beach (Video)
Meeting Buddist Monks (Video)
Seeing a Hindu Temple (Video)
Restaurants in Colombo (Video)
Beach Camping (Video)
Scooter Road Trip (Video)
Horton Plains (Video)
King's Outdoor Bath (Video)
Train Ride from Nuwara Eliya (Video)
Motorbike Adventures (Video)
Flying a Plane (Video coming soon)
Yala Safari (Video coming soon)

I'm sure there are tons of other amazing things I've done that didn't make it to the top 20 list, but those are some of the highlights. The only downsides to a lot of the amazing things I did this year was a lot of the positive experiences being ruined by things like crazy bus drivers almost killing us on the road, as in almost running us off a cliff and ending our lives, to getting overcharged for things or having to waste our energy bargaining just to get the true price. 

It's hard to explain, but little things like needing to waste energy bargaining with a tuk-tuk driver who is trying to charge us 3x the real price, or having the ticket seller to Pigeon Island try to pocket and extra 4,000lkr just because they didn't think we would count our charge or check the receipt really puts a sour taste in your mouth even after an otherwise fantastic day. But at the end of the day, that's Sri Lanka, as well as many other developing nations. The ruggedness is part of the charm, but it's also part of the annoyance and danger. 

My Favorite Places in Sri Lanka

Colombo - Skip it when you first arrive and instead, head straight down to the nicer beaches in the South or East Coast. You'll only want to visit Colombo if you'll be in the country for the while and want to experience some high end hotels, spas, or eat at great restaurants. 

South Sri Lanka - From Hikkaduwa to Mirissa you'll find great beaches, a chilled vibe and lots going on during the months of November - April. Weligama is perhaps the easiest and safest place in the world to learn how to surf as you have warm waters, surf board rentals/instructors directly on the beach, and sandy bottoms without reef or rocks to worry about.

Arugam Bay (East) - I absolutely LOVE this town. It's popular with surfers and travelers from around May/June to August depending on the weather and surf. By far the best surfing in Sri Lanka and some of the best in the world for intermediate to advanced surfers. If it's your first time, I'd recommend starting in Weligama as you'll have a hard time learning in Arugam. It's possible, but it won't be easy as there are big waves.  

Trincomalee/Pasikuda/Nilaveli (East) - Much more beautiful than the south and Pigeon island has the only great snorkeling in Sri Lanka. Worth the trip during the season. 

Yala/Minneriya/Udawalawe (Safaris) - Absolutely worth it. The Elephant Gathering in Minneriya by far the best to see lots of Elephants. Yala for the 5-10% chance of seeing a Leopard, but every safari has it's charms. Go to ones that are less popular. Skip Pinnawala.

Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa (ancient cities) - Go to Polonnaruwa if you want to see beautiful ancient ruins and the Angkor Wat of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura and the Temple of the Tooth is good for religious history, but can be skipped otherwise. 

Sigiriya Fortress - Research the history before going to truly appreciate it, otherwise the $30 ticket for foreigners may make you wonder why it's only 25 cents for locals. 

Jaffna and the North - Go there for culture and to see a different side of Sri Lanka. But you can skip it otherwise as there are no major attractions or must sees. 

Scuba Diving - Sri Lanka is a fine place to learn and get Open Water certified (SSI is better than PADI) or a discovery dive, but for experienced divers, there isn't that much to see here. Go to nearby Maldives. 

Kalpitiya - Go for kitesurfing from May to October or mid-December to mid-March.

Ella and Nuwara Eliya - Both are great to go to after you've spent a month at the beach and want to change of pace. Ella is great for low budget travelers, while Nuwara Eliya is amazing if you have some money to spend. 

Other Beaches - The great thing about Sri Lanka is the fact that the entire coast is literally surrounded by beaches, many of them unexplored and not yet popular. 

Tips and Travel Suggestions

After being here for an entire year I can confidently suggest a few itineraries for anyone who wants to visit Sri Lanka either on vacation as a short term holiday, or to spend a few months here as a digital nomad, surfer, or long term tourist or expat. The first thing you'll want to do is make sure you come with all of the tech and Apple products you'll need while staying here as prices for things are 30% more than they would be back home. Make sure you come with 1-3 backup credit and ATM cards as some banks like Capital One have refused to ship me a replacement card to this country. The good news is that unlike Bali where ATM scams, robberies, break ins and theft against tourists are common, things are very safe here and not something you need to worry about.

As for WIFI, my advice is to completely forget about finding good WIFI in most places and default to using 4G on your phone and tethering to your laptop. The telcom companies here as of early 2021 still don't offer hotels or businesses unlimited WIFI so 99.9% of the time you're basically tethering off of their 4G modems anyways. Mobitel has the best 4G signal strength, reception, and is far cheaper. Activate the 3 unlimited packages: Social, Youtube, and Messenger deals each month. When you plan on doing a lot of work, or data use, use the Mobitel Selfcare app to activate the 3 hours unlimited option for 60lkr (34cents). I know it sounds like a big hassle, especially compared to WIFI, and I hope things change in the future, but for now, it's really not that big of a deal or hassle. I spend around 3,000lkr ($15usd) a month on Mobitel and tether 24/7 without running out of data using the system above.  Dialog would would drain super quickly and run out regardless of how big of a package I bought which is why I switched. 

If you're planning to come for just 1-2 weeks, I'd honestly skip Sri Lanka unless you plan on flying through here to go to or from the Maldives. The best trips will be 1-2 months if you want to see everything. If you surf, want to escape the winter back home, or otherwise stay long term, I'd recommend staying 3-6 months and spending a few weeks or a month in each location. Sri Lanka is an amazing country filled with history, culture, and natural beauty.  Feel free to ask me anything in the comments below about your trip, things to do, or any other FAQs I can add to the blog post or answer below. I hope you come and enjoy it as much as I have.

Read next, my 6 months guide to Sri Lanka that has more info about what my first 6 months here was like.

With love from Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka,

Johnny FD

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Post a Comment

  1. Thanks Johnny, super helpful post! Embarrassingly I've never visited and my father is from Sri Lanka...

    1. It's time to plan a trip to the fatherland! =)

  2. Great recap! Your videos are great too! Helps address the wanderer inside me as I raise my two kids while traveling nowhere for years!

    Good job growing that YouTube channel!


    1. I appreciate it Sam! I think that a lot of people have been traveling vicariously through my Youtube videos this past year!

  3. Hi Johnny,

    Well documented year for you. This has been an insightful year and I think that you have made the best use of the available timing and existing circumstance to the best use.


    1. Thanks! I think it'll be a year i'll look back on in the future and have a lot of fond memories of. SO much happened that it could literally be an entire book.

  4. What is the water temp there right now?

  5. Good for you. I was there when everything was shutting down. I think calling those of us who had to return home to work panicking is a bit much though. And realize that lots of people there are struggling at the best of times. Desperate people do things to survive that they might not be proud of

    1. I understand that everyone had a different circumstances, and many people weren't prepared and didn't have an emergency fund.

      Everything we do now, 1 year ago, and 5 years ago all lead up to our choices, both good and bad.

      If this happened to me 7 years ago, I too would have been forced to go home.


  6. Thanx for all the details and promoting our country. Hope you have a safe journey when going back home!!!!

  7. Thanks for the info Johnny! We have been in India for a year waiting for Covid numbers to go down. After seeing all your videos we are thinking of making the jump to Sri Lanka.

    I’ve read that you can only extend your visa 2 times. How has immigration been treating you? Now that Sri Lanka is open any news on if they are requiring Americans to exit?

    1. Normally you can only expend twice, up to 6 months total. But this year they allowed us up to 15 months. I wrote about it in the article above.

  8. Hey, What was the name of the hospital you took the PCR test at in Colombo?

    1. This is the problem with Sri Lanka, even 4 months later they still haven't made it easier for tourists to find something as simple as getting a PCR test. Every other country makes it super easy.

      I used lanka hospitals colombo 578 Elvitigala Mawatha. People still message me on Instagram asking as there's no other way to find out this simple information.

  9. Hey Johnny thank you for your amazing posts!
    I would like to ask would you recommend Sri Lanka to a digital nomad that's just starting out? I plan on beginning my adventure in January, and I definitely want to start by spending 2-3 months somewhere in that region. Thailand seems like the most obvious option, but I'm also looking at other options. Honestly all I want is a warm place with beautiful nature, that has cheap accommodation and groceries. Vietnam and Indonesia are currently out of question for me, so I'm left with Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Sorry for the long comment but I would really appreciate your opinion.


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