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I created this Sri Lanka packing list after spending three months on the island and realizing there were quite a few things I wished I had brought with me.
Everyone loves packing lists, right? Just having a list of something makes you feel more organized.
Whenever I’m planning a trip, one of the first thing I always search for is a packing list, especially if it’s a country I’ve never visited before.
Sri Lanka was no exception. Unfortunately, once I was actually there, I found that every Sri Lanka packing list I had read in preparation for my trip were a little, um, lacking. If you’re a 20 year old Instagram goddess you might be able to spend a month on the island with only a dozen flowing dresses and a selfie stick, but I found there were quite a few things I wish I had brought with me.
Lucky for you, I wrote them all down, so you can be much better prepared.
Please note: there are tons of general packing lists on the Internet and I assume most people understand that they should bring pants and a toothbrush on their trip, so I’m going to skip the basics and just focus on the things you’re definitely going to want in Sri Lanka.
Without further ado, here is everything I think you should have on your Sri Lanka packing list:
Baby wipes. I almost always travel with these anyway, but somehow I completely forgot to pack some on this trip. If only I’d had a list…
Hand sanitizer. Once you see your first train bathroom, you’ll understand.
Safety pins. Apart from preventing a variety of wardrobe malfunctions, I wish I’d had a safety pin with me every time I visited a museum and paid the camera fee to be allowed to take photos. The ticket agent would give me a slip of paper and a microscopic straight pin with which to attach it to my shirt. I would then spend the next hour trying to keep it attached while my camera bag strap continually knocked it onto the floor.
Spray bottle of rubbing alcohol for shoes and sweaty clothes. Keep your luggage fresh, and disguise the fact that you’ve been wearing that tee shirt for 3 straight days.
Dryer sheets. Along the same lines as the rubbing alcohol, tucking a few dryer sheets into the nooks and crannies of your suitcase or backpack will keep everything smelling clean long after it actually is.
Portable Wi-Fi like Tep. I almost always carry Wi-Fi with me when I travel, but I decided to skip it on this trip for a couple of reasons. One, I was going to be in Sri Lanka for three months, making the rental cost pretty high. And two, on past trips I’ve ended up not using the device very much because I had reliable Wi-Fi in hotels and other public areas. Unfortunately, that was not the case in Sri Lanka. Even hotels that advertised reliable Wi-Fi were subject to frequent service interruptions and the signal rarely reached the rooms even when it was working.
Sunscreen and mosquito repellent. It’s getting easier to find these products and you won’t have any trouble locating them in Colombo or the main tourist strip down the coast, but they’re much more expensive than what you would find at home and the selection is very limited.
Benadryl and Claritin. I thought I was being super resourceful by taking a small first aid kit with me, but because I’m an idiot, it didn’t have either of these things in it. I lost an entire week of my trip due to getting a sinus infection that I thought was the flu. I suffered in sweaty, miserable solitude in my Airbnb until I worked up the strength to walk a mile to the nearest pharmacy in the 90 degree heat.
(Speaking of Airbnb: sign up here for a free $40 travel credit, which will go a long way in Sri Lanka.)
Cough drops. Between the sinus infection and the air pollution in Colombo, my throat was painfully raw. I did manage to find throat drops at the local Cargill’s supermarket, but it was another long, hot walk when I was feeling near death.
Hair product. Because I was traveling for so long, I made the (wrong) decision not to devote precious packing space to bringing all the toiletries I would need for the entire trip. I knew I would be making several passes through Colombo and I assumed (wrongly) that I would be able to pick up anything I needed while I was there. One day I will learn that everything I assume is probably wrong, but today is not that day. Anyway that’s how I ended up sitting in a salon chair with a bunch of random chemicals burning my scalp while an old Sri Lankan lady chugged gin straight out of a bottle. (Side note: if someone tells you that you can buy boxed hair dye in Sri Lanka, they’re not lying, but what they’re not telling you is that the only color you’ll be able to find is black.)
Dry shampoo. You’re going to be hot and sweaty and your hair is going to get nasty. Trust me.
Contact solution. Another thing I wish I had brought enough of for the entire trip. As it turns out, you can only buy this in optometry shops in Sri Lanka, and you won’t find these outside the main tourist areas.
Pajama pants. Not just for sleeping, I wore these darling pants constantly and they were so ridiculously comfortable I decided to never wear anything but pajama pants again for the rest of my life.
Energy bars. Most restaurants will close down for a few hours in the afternoon and not reopen for dinner until around 6 p.m., by which time you might be so starving and hangry that you collapse in the first restaurant you find and sadly eat horrible veggie fried rice with ketchup while internally berating yourself for missing out on hot cheese kotthu. For example.
Extra memory cards and spare camera batteries. Despite how earnestly the entire country tried to kill me, Sri Lanka is ridiculously photogenic. You’ll have a tough time finding decent photography supplies anywhere here, so bring more than you think you’ll need. On that note, having a good camera is a must here. I still regret all the trips I took before I got a “real” camera. If you’re looking for something that’s going to take amazing photos without you needing to be a professional photographer, I can’t recommend the Sony mirrorless A6000 strongly enough.
A flask. Only half kidding. If you enjoy a cocktail before dinner and your trip falls on the full moon Poya day, you won’t be able to buy alcohol anywhere.
Multiple credit cards. I had two situations arise while I was in Sri Lanka that necessitated my bank closing the account and issuing me a new card. Luckily I had a third credit card and a debit card with me.
A lightweight umbrella. Between the unrelenting sun and the sudden monsoon rains, there are many reasons to have an umbrella with you. I didn’t pack one and spent a lot of time drenched and/or sunburned.
Chapstick. Speaking of getting sunburned, have I mentioned that the sun is really powerful here? I was constantly re-applying Chapstick to combat the drying effects of the sun and the salty air.
The appropriate travel adapter. Sri Lanka was the first country where my usual universal converters didn’t work. I ended up buying a couple of cheap converters at the supermarket in Hikkaduwa. You’ll want to bring a universal adapter anyway, because you never know what kind of outlets you’re going to encounter. I’ve been in Sri Lankan hotel rooms with 3 different kinds in the same room.
Laundry detergent for washing your own clothes in your hotel room. I brought a few packets with me, but after I ran out I had to rely on hotel laundry services. Hotels with self-service laundry machines don’t exist in Sri Lanka and I had some terrible experiences with sending my clothes out to be cleaned by the hotel. One hotel lost my favorite pair of pants, another ripped two seams out of my second-favorite pair of pants, and they all wanted to count everything (including dirty underwear) in front of me, which is a special kind of embarrassing. If nothing else, I would carry laundry detergent and wash my own undergarments so I wouldn’t have to stand there while a teenage errand boy sorted through my unmentionables. (If you’re on a shorter trip, you can always just pack your oldest, rattiest tee shirts and underwear and toss them as they get dirty!)
A travel clothesline. Even if you’re not going to do your own laundry, you’ll probably go swimming and need a place to hang up wet clothes so they can dry properly and not turn your bag into a festering mildew colony.
Clothes that cover knees and shoulders. You can’t swing a string of prayer beads in Sri Lanka without hitting some kind of temple or religious site, and they all require modest dress. Please don’t be that clueless tourist prancing past temple entrances in short shorts and a bikini top while outraged locals stare in horror. At the very least, carry a sarong or large, versatile scarf with which to cover up. Opt for white or light colors as much as possible; in some places like Anuradhapura, you won’t be allowed to enter temples wearing black. The locals wear white as a sign of respect, and you’ll be so much cooler if you follow their lead.
A heavy long sleeve shirt for cooler hill country evenings. I don’t think a jacket is necessary unless you’re really cold natured. I hate being cold and I was comfortable in a flannel button-down layered over a tee shirt. (And it was a fantastic break from the heat!)
Sunglasses and/or a wide brim hat. I had sunglasses but wish I had made room in my luggage for a hat. The sun really is brutal, especially along the coast. Plus then I could have pretended I was a 20 year old Instagram goddess in a flowing dress.
Tampons, Thinx, menstrual cup, whatever combination of feminine contraptions you use to deal with Satan’s Sacrificial Waterfall. You won’t be able to find tampons outside of a few stores in Colombo, and the ones you find aren’t going to be what you’re used to at home. I relied on a combination of tampons and Thinx panties, but if trying to use a menstrual cup hadn’t caused me permanent emotional scarring, that would have been a better option. Maybe one day I’ll write about that experience, but only after the trauma fades enough for me to discuss it without needing to do straight shots of Johnnie Walker Blue.
Kindle Fire. I finally hopped on the e-reader bandwagon and bought a Kindle before my trip so I wouldn’t have to carry so many physical books around with me. It was also good for watching the occasional movie. I’m not a TV watcher, but if you need digital entertainment you’ll want to have some movies or shows loaded on your Kindle or laptop because many of the hotel rooms I stayed in didn’t have televisions in them.
Notebook, pen, and printed itinerary showing the addresses and phone numbers of all of your hotels. Extra credit if you have them translated into Sinhala (or Tamil if you’re going up north) because not every taxi and tuk tuk driver can read English. Most appreciated having the information on a piece of paper they could look at and almost all of them preferred to call the hotel and get verbal directions in their own language.
Travel Insurance. I did have travel insurance, although I didn’t end up using it on the trip. While in Kalpitiya, I managed to contract the mystery virus that was sweeping through the area and I honest-to-goodness thought I was going to die. I thought about contacting my travel insurance for a medical evacuation but I was too sick to pick up the phone. I’m extremely fortunate that years of doing stupid things like drinking tap water in Burma have apparently made me immortal, because I slowly started to recover on my own. If I hadn’t, getting transported to the nearest western-style hospital outside the country would have been astronomical.
Sri Lanka packing list bonus: 3 things you definitely don’t need to take with you:
Jeans. It’s going to be like a billion degrees. Jeans will make you miserable. Fashionable locals in Colombo do wear them, but it was far too hot for me to worry about trying to blend in with them.
String bikinis. I like to get my tan on as much as the next Florida girl, but Sri Lanka is a very modest country. No one is going to say anything to you if you lounge around the beach in that tiny two-piece, but the locals are definitely going to notice. If you’re traveling solo, wearing a tiny bathing suit is going to get you a lot of (presumably unwanted) attention. Whatever you do, definitely don’t wear your swimwear off the beach. And don’t even think about trying to avoid tan lines by going au naturale on the beach. If you’re up around Jaffna or anywhere in the north, you’re going to need to swim fully clothed. It’s that conservative.
Travelers Checks. Leave these dinosaurs at home and just hit the ATM at the airport when you land to stock up on cash.
OK, you’re packed! Have a fantastic trip! Don’t forget, if you’re planning to stay over 30 days, you’ll have to extend your visa while you’re there. (You can’t get a longer visa before entering the country.) I wrote a handy guide to extending your tourist visa here.
Wait, don’t leave me. Have you read everything I’ve written about Sri Lanka?