Light and data in Sri Lanka

I’ve just come back from an enjoyable three weeks in Sri Lanka. If you’ve been following this blog you will know that we’ve previously been planning to go to Myanmar and ride the Trans-Siberian.

Projects and life got in the way of both ideas – Myanmar in the monsoon didn’t sound like a good idea and we couldn’t find a big enough window for both of us to do the Trans Siberian justice. So Sri Lanka it was.

Before we went we found conflicting information on the five great topics of of twenty first century travel:

  • can I recharge my computer/iPad/kindle easily?
  • can I get wireless internet ?
  • will my smartphone work ?
  • will my debit card let me get money out of an ATM
  • what do I do about mouthwash/tampons/panadol etc

So after all the misinformation I thought I’d write up what we found on the ground in June 2013. Bear in mind that Sri Lanka is rapidly playing catch up after thirty years of civil conflict and things are changing quickly and some of this information may be out of date by the time you read this.

Electricity

Sri Lanka is in the 230V/50Hz club. Outside of Colombo, and especially in rural areas, the power supply can drop out, flicker and fluctuate a bit so a surge protector is probably an idea.

There is a taxonomy for power sockets – essentially Sri Lanka uses a mixture of type D as in India and type G as in the UK. You may occasionally happen across a type M, but if you do there will almost always be a type D or type G available.

Most guest houses seem to have a mixture of D and G. More upscale hotels sometimes also have the new inverted T universal wall sockets [picture].

If you’re from Australia you may find that Australian power plugs are sometimes a bit of a loose fit in these – the solution is to plug your Australian plug into the type G adapter you brought with you and plug that into the socket.

If you lose one of your adapters along the way, you can get what Sri Lankans call a multiplug , essentially a local design of universal adapter for two and three pin plugs, from any electrical goods or mobile phone store. Australian plugs normally plug straight into them, and some of them include surge protector circuitry. Note that you often need to buy separate ones for both type D and G sockets.

I normally pack an Australian powerboard with a surge protector built in – that way we can charge several devices at once rather than hauling multiple sets of adapters around with us.

Internet

Just about everywhere you are likely to stay will offer wireless internet for free. I agonised before we went about whether to take a tablet or computer with an ethernet socket with us. A tablet, possibly with a keyboard, would have been fine, and much less bulk than a computer. However when we had a stopover in Singapore on the way back we hit problem common to a lot of hotels of only providing wireless in the lobby, while the internet in the rooms was most definitely wired (and expensive).

Internet speeds are reasonable – never fast, but never excruciatingly slow either.

Smartphones

Smartphones are common, and you can of course use them with the hotel or guest house internet to surf the web. You will find when travelling about that you need to call drivers to arrange long trips and also tuktuk men to come and pick you up from restaurants to take you back to your hotel. To minimise charges its a good idea to buy a local SIM for use in your phone. There are various deals on offer from the various network providers but I found this deal from Dialog worked well and you could pick up the SIM in the airport. I went for the Rs1300/- deal and by pure fluke that lasted me all the time until ten minutes before check in without having to buy a recharge.

Obviously your phone needs to be unlocked to do this. Unlocking policies vary by country and service provider, and if you have to pay an unlocking fee it might be cheaper to buy a basic pay as you go mobile phone from Dialog.

If you do have an unlocked phone and buy a Sri Lankan SIM it does mean that calls to your home mobile number don’t go anywhere. One trick is, if you have a Skype subscription, ie you pay for the extended services, divert your mobile to your Skype dial in number before you leave home – that way calls will get routed to your Skype voicemail and you can pick them up and deal with them using Skype on your laptop or tablet at a time you find convenient.

Money

ATMs are common and I had no trouble using my normal Visa debit card to get money out of a cash machine. Just as I would at home, I used my bank’s smartphone app to check for unauthorised withdrawals and kept my wits about me for skimmers and scam artists.

If you are unhappy using your own bank card, you might consider using one of these prepaid debit travel cards, like this one offered by my bank. Depending on what you pay for overseas withdrawals it can work out cheaper to use one of these rather than your own card.

I managed to source some Rupee notes from my bank before I left, but this turned out to be unecessary and expensive – there are several ATMs and foreign exchange counters at the airport.

Sri Lanka is however a largely cash based society with only a few more expensive hotels accepting credit cards, even though various Sri Lankan banks are furiously promoting their use – plan on having to carry a wad of Rupees about with you. Also keep some ATM withdrawal slips – when you change your left over Rupees back to hard currency at the airport, the foreign exchange people will want to see some evidence that the money you are changing back is the result of a legitimate transaction.

Note that Colombo airport has multiple security checks and you need to change your money before going through the security check to get into check in. Shops in the departure lounge after check in and passport control tend to deal in US dollars (and often other hard currency if you ask) rather than rupees.

It’s my impression that Visa is bit more common than Mastercard. Both companies have websites listing their ATMs worldwide. As the ATM network in Sri Lanka is expanding rapidly they can be a bit out of date but it might be worth checking if you are going somewhere in the northern part of the island where a lot of the infrastructure is still being rebuilt.

Stuff

Cargill’s supermarkets are the traveller’s friend. They are to be found in all main towns, and while they’re more like a mini market (think IGA or Spar) than a supermarket, they often have a pharmacy counter and stock most of what you need. Most of the products on offer are local rather than international brands, and reflect local preferences, especially as regards feminine hygene products.

Cargill’s often have a nice clean staff toilet that they will let you use if you ask nicely and buy something such as biscuits fruit and bottled water from the shop.

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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