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The island of Sri Lanka lies off the southern tip of India in the Indian Ocean, a verdant paradise that is the cradle of the Buddhist faith. Apart from hundreds of miles of the world's most beautiful palm-fringed beaches, Sri Lanka boasts no fewer than seven World Heritage Sites listed by Unesco, ranging from sacred cities, palaces and cliff-top citadels to colonial strongholds, spanning close to 3,000 years of history.
To complete the picture of perfection, Sri Lanka is situated just three degrees north of the Equator, meaning the weather is constantly hot, humid and tropical. Sunny skies are the order of the day; even in the brief monsoon season there is always a daily spell of sunshine.
There has, however, been trouble in paradise. Modern Sri Lanka has experienced indigenous terrorism, particularly in the north of the island and the metropolis of Colombo city, but the beautiful beaches and towns of the south and southeast coast have been largely unaffected.
Anyone travelling to Sri Lanka is advised to acquaint themselves with the current political and security situation before embarking on their visit. To compound matters, the island's tourism infrastructure is still recovering from the effects of the catastrophic tsunami, which devastated coastal areas in December 2004.
Adventurous visitors who enjoy some mystery and wonderment will, however, marvel at the ancient sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Panduwasnuwara, where the remains of a great civilisation are to be seen. The cities of Colombo and Kandy show the influence of the foreign colonial powers that fought for control over the strategic, lush island in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Dutch-inspired buildings stand cheek to jowl with Victorian British mansions and Portuguese fortifications.
Sri Lanka offers leisure and pleasure opportunities at a gentle pace; this is no package holiday destination but rather one to be savoured by discerning travellers who enjoy discovering their own diversions.
Attractions in Sri Lanka have grown from a long and vibrant history leaving many things to do and see including seven UNESCO heritage sites. Sri Lanka's history can be experienced at the ancient sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Panduwasnuwara. The National Museum houses artefacts and explains Sri Lanka's complex culture. This complexity is also apparent in the capital city Colombo where exotic smells and goods are traded in the Pettah bazaar district. Calmer attractions include the seafront in Galle or the peaceful lake town of Kandy.
To leave the city and towns altogether attractions include treks into Yala National Park and up Sigiriya or Adam's Peak. Of course many leave the exertion of historic discovery in favour of sandy beaches stretching hundreds of miles. These are best visited outside of two rainy seasons May to August and October to January.
In Sri Lanka, due to a warm climate, the dress etiquette may vary according to various sectors of business. In the more formal sectors, men will be required to wear lightweight suits, but a more casual approach is acceptable during the warmer months depending on regulation. Appointments are to be made in advance and business cards to be swapped upon first engagements. It is considered rude to be late for meetings. Business hours are generally 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday with an hour taken at lunch.
Sri Lanka has a tropical climate with high humidity, tempered by sea breezes on the coast. The average temperature is about 81ºF (27ºC). January is the coolest month, becoming especially cold in the highlands, and May is the hottest time of year. Monsoon season is between May and July, and December and January.
The international country dialling code for Sri Lanka is +94. The outgoing code is 00, followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). City or area codes are in use, e.g. (0)11 for Central Colombo. International direct dial facilities are available in Colombo and other major cities. Mobile phone operators provide GSM 900/1800 frequency networks with coverage across all the main parts of the island. Internet cafes are available in the main towns and resorts.
Photography near government or military buildings is prohibited. Homosexuality is illegal. Topless sunbathing is not allowed, and visitors, particularly women, should cover up when entering Buddhist sites. It is considered offensive to pose for photographs in front of a Buddha statue. Smoking and drinking in public are forbidden. Honour, or personal dignity, is extremely important to Sri Lankans and causing an individual to 'lose face' by public criticism or anger should be avoided.
Travellers to Sri Lanka over 18 years do not have to pay duty on the following items :2 bottles wine and 1.5 litres spirits; perfume up to 59ml and 250ml eau de toilette; and souvenirs to the value of US$250; 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars and 340g of tobacco.
For family members travelling together free import applies for two members. Passengers must declare personal effects to ensure free export when they arrive in Sri Lanka. Restricted items include firearms, ammunitions, explosives and weapons, plants, fruits, birds and by-products, medication (unless it is for personal use), and goods for commercial purposes. Prohibited items include drugs or narcotics, pornographic material, and material that ridicules religious belief systems.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. Round, three-pin plugs are used.
Food and waterborne diseases are a primary cause for ill health in Sri Lanka. Visitors should only drink bottled water, avoid ice in drinks, and take care to eat well-cooked food. Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended for all travellers to Sri Lanka.
Cholera is regarded as a serious risk and precautions are advised, while typhoid is more of a problem in rural areas. Yellow fever vaccination certificates are required by travellers coming from infected areas. Malaria, Chikungunya fever, Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever are a risk and protection against mosquito bites is essential.
Prophylactics for malaria are also strongly recommended. There is also a particular danger from contaminated seafood. Travellers are strongly advised to take out good travel insurance, and seek medial advice at least three weeks before leaving for Sri Lanka.
Most people speak Sinhala, which is the national and official language. Tamil is also spoken, and English is spoken at most tourist establishments.
The unit of currency is the Sri Lanka Rupee (LKR), which is divided into 100 cents. Major credit cards are widely accepted, and travellers cheques in US Dollars are recommended. ATMs are becoming more common, but outside the main cities they are unlikely to accept international cards.
Credit cards should be used with caution due to the potential for fraud. Foreign currency can be exchanged at bureaux de change, banks and hotels, but exchanging cash is more expensive than exchanging travellers cheques. Banks are closed on Sundays.
Visitors should be able to show the immigration officials proof of sufficient funds for their stay in Sri Lanka (minimum USD 15 per person per day). Passengers must also hold return or onward tickets and all documents needed for the next destination. Visa-exempt nationals should have a passport valid for three months beyond period of stay, otherwise passports should be valid for two months after expiry date of visa.
It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There is a risk of terrorism in the country, and although foreigners have not been the targets of previous attacks, there is a risk of being caught up in incidents. There has been a dramatic increase in political violence, and visitors should avoid public gatherings and political demonstrations.
The Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been involved in long-standing conflict which has resulted in indigenous terrorism, particularly in the north and northeast of the country, with attacks and abductions occurring almost daily, and fighting between the rebels and the government. Visitors should keep themselves informed of developments and remain vigilant.
As a result of the conflict much of the north and east remains heavily mined, particularly around the A9 road to Jaffna; foreign governments are advising against travel to the north or east of the country. Fatal attacks in Trincomalee continue almost daily. Attacks have also taken place in central and southern Sri Lanka, in areas popular with tourists, and civilians have been targeted. Attacks have also occurred in the south, including the tourist town of Galle. Yala National Park is currently closed due to security concerns; there have been a number of attacks since October 2007.
Security has been increased in the south of the country, particularly in Colombo, and road check points are common. There have been recent bomb explosions on public transport in central Colombo. Violent crime against foreigners is infrequent, but there have been cases of sexual assault and robbery in rural areas and women are advised to take care when travelling alone.
Local time is GMT +5.30.
A 10% service charge is added to most restaurant and hotel bills. Tipping is a customary way to show appreciation for almost all services and small amounts are sufficient, otherwise 10% of the amount due is standard. There is no need to tip taxi drivers.