So, it’s come down to Sri Lanka or India? Talk about deciding between the trips of a lifetime. Both these places are downright incredible. IN. CRED. IB. LE. They’re up there with the most bucket-list spots in South Asia, and each attracts millions upon millions of visitors every year.
Mhmm…these countries tout a journey that’s laced with ancient culture, enthralling history, tales of Rajput kings and Sinhalese Buddhists, adventures through wild rainforests and tiger-stalked mountain ranges, jungles filled with snakes, and beaches so perfect you’ll hardly believe they’re real. They offer spice-plumed curry houses and sizzling fish BBQs by the Indian Ocean, surf breaks and snow-capped summits, eco lodges and yogi resorts.
There’s honestly so much to get through when it comes to these two nations that it can be tricky to know exactly where to begin. Cue this guide. It runs through seven key pointers that we think will help you decide between these two big hitters of Asia, including the ease of traveling there in the first place, the cost of a trip, and the things there are to do once you’re on the ground.
Sri Lanka or India for ease of travel
India is one of the natural stopover points for flights heading east from Europe, which means it’s super well connected to big hubs like Frankfurt and Heathrow by air. Direct or indirect flights leave daily from those, going to all sorts of major arrival points in the north and south. The most popular of them are Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore. On top of that, there are oodles of low-cost connections joining India to the rest of Asia, making it easy to hop over from Thailand or even Sri Lanka.
The downside is that India can be hard to get around. Yes, the trains are famously efficient and taxi transfers from town to town hardly break the bank. However, India is HUGE. We can’t overstate how huge! You’re even looking at long, 12-hour legs to travel between towns in the very same state.
Sri Lanka doesn’t have the same number of international flight arrival points as India. In fact, 100% of the connections jet into the Colombo International Airport that’s just north of the capital. The good news is that the island is small enough to cope with just one hub, as a day-long taxi transfer from the terminals should be enough to take you just about anywhere, from Jaffna in the north to Tangalle in the south. The downside is that there aren’t quite so many airlines running routes into Lanka, so your choice might be a little limited when you come to book.
Winner: Draw. Sri Lanka is harder to get to but easier to travel round. Vice versa for India.
Sri Lanka or India for cost of travel
Neither of these countries is going to be expensive when you compare them to western standards. However, we’d say that India is just a smidgen cheaper than Sri Lanka. You can still get decent hotels for around just $10 a night here, and even a five-star option for $60-80. Food is similarly cheap, with thali plates of four or five curries in a local place sitting at around $0.50 a pop! Tourist-orientated eateries do cost more, but you’re still looking at paying $3-4 for a full meal.
Sri Lanka comes out just a touch pricier. Hotels range from about $20-100 a night but can soar to over $150 a night for the best-quality and most luxurious beachside stays or yoga retreats in the hills. Food is still very affordable, with rice and curry sets coming in at about $2 per person. Getting around is also a bargain, although we’ve noticed that the cost of taxis has gone up in recent years – you’re looking at about $30-60 for a transfer to one of the main southwest beach towns from the airport.
Sri Lanka or India for things to do
It would be impossible to sum up all the things there are to do in India in just one paragraph. This is a whole subcontinent of a country. A journey here is like a rollercoaster ride of mysticism and magic, with everything from pre-historic temple visits to deep-sea diving on the menu. Some things really do stand out from the crowd if you’re putting together an India bucket list, though:
- See the Taj Mahal – It almost sounds ridiculous to recommend a visit to the Taj. Everyone knows this is one of the most majestic buildings on the planet. Head to Agra to see its glorious outline.
- Walk the Indian Himalaya – The highest mountain range on the globe pokes into India. Our favorite spots to see it is the far-flung plateau settlement of Leh, Ladakh, but Shimla is pretty cool (literally!) too.
- Eat at the Golden Temple – The home of the Sikh religion in Amritsar is somewhere you’ll never forget.
- Explore Varanasi – An overload for the senses, Varanasi straddles the Ganges River and is considered one of the holiest cities in Hinduism.
Sri Lanka might not have the same headline-capturing sights and attractions, but you rarely get bored on the Teardrop of India. From the tea fields of the highlands to the shimmering coral gardens that fringe the southwest coast, there’s all sorts to get through here. Here are some of the standouts for us:
- Ride the train from Kandy to Ella – This is a famous train route (maybe even the most famous on the globe), taking you high into tea-covered ridges where the clouds swirl over the jungles.
- Surfing – Sri Lanka is a beginner surf mecca. Soft, crumbly waves are on offer from Hiriketiya to Hikkaduwa.
- Taste tea – Old Ceylon was transformed into a tea growing province back in the day. The island is still a great place to sample new tastes and fresh leaves. Head to Ella for that.
- Go on safari – There are three or four stand-out national parks (the Yala chief among them) that offer unique safari opportunities, with potential glimpses of rare Sri Lankan leopards in the mix.
Sri Lanka or India for nature
Its cities may sprawl like megalopolises that count populations in the tens of millions, but India is still an indelibly wild place. There are colossal tracts of land where Mother Nature totally dominates and you can find yourself entirely alone with just the gushing rivers, creaking ice fields, or misty jungles.
Of course, south is different to north. In the first, you encounter the humid rainforests of the Western Ghats, where elephants roam tea plantations, and the gurgling streams of the Keralan Backwaters. Up north, you meet the Himalaya, a land of snowy summits that rise to 8,500 meters+ with monstrous Kangchenjunga.
Sri Lanka can’t really match that diversity, but it’s still got plenty of natural jewels up its sleeve. The ocean is worth a special mention, because it teems with pods of whales between November and March (you can go on spotting trips from the town of Mirissa).
But there are also national parks – the Yala National Park and the Maduru Oya National Park, especially – where you can do game drives to see elephant herds and leopards. Finally, the Central Highlands are Sri Lanka’s great mountains, offering the Horton Plains reserve and the challenging Knuckles, which are covered in hiking routes and cobra-slithering jungles.
Winner: India. It’s a land of extremes that’s pretty unique around the globe.
Sri Lanka or India for relaxation
We’ll just go right ahead and say it – India isn’t the most chilled place on the planet. It may be one of the homes of yoga and meditation but boy does this country get hectic. Tooting traffic jams and hawkers, bustling chowk bazaars and endless street touts – that’s the sort of thing you have to get used to here.
It’s actually part of the charm for most travelers, but not the best if you’re seeking R&R. To be honest, only two or three places really offer that chilled vibe. You can escape to the beaches of south Goa and Karnataka, head to the retreats of Dharamshala, or choose the highland escapes of the Western Ghats.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, does chilling very well indeed. In fact, a lot of people say how Sri Lanka sometimes feels like a way more relaxed version of India…
The whole southwestern coastline is one long run of beachside hotels and bamboo bars with cold beers ready and waiting in the fridge. We’d actually recommend steering clear of some of the most famous sunbathing and swimming spots, like Unawatuna and Bentota. Much better are the slightly lesser-known beach towns of Ahangama and Hiriketiya.
Winner: Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka or India for beaches
India tops 4,700 miles of total coastline. That’s a whopping great amount. Thing is, though, the country isn’t anywhere near as famous as other Asian nations (Thailand, we’re looking at you!) for its beaches.
The sad truth is that lots of them have been totally destroyed by either development or pollution, or are simply not the idyllic, white-sand bays you come in search of. There are some great exceptions that prove that rule. South Goa has the golden arc of Palolem Beach, and there are the picture-perfect Andaman and Nicobar Islands (if you’re lucky enough to get a pass to visit them).
The Teardrop of India has no such problem. The whole 130-mile run of its southwestern coast is basically a long montage of white- and gold-tinted bays threaded by endless palms and dotted with the husks of king coconuts.
There are loads of built-up resorts if you want infinity pools by the shoreline, but also hidden coves and inlets where you can escape to. The east coast is also downright lovely and has a different peak weather season (June-August). If that’s when you’re traveling, check out the sands of Trincomalee and Uppuveli.
Winner: Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka or India for nightlife
To be honest, we wouldn’t recommend either Sri Lanka or India for the nightlife scene. If you’re heading to Asia to party and dance until the early hours, you’re almost certainly going to be better off in Thailand (the home of the Full Moon Party!).
However, Sri Lanka is the place that channels the most tropical vibe of the two, with beach towns like Mirissa coming up trumps on the hedonism front – the whole front of the sands there is one long happy hour. There are also upcoming party hubs like Ahangama and Hiriketiya that specialize in low-key surf shacks and reggae bars.
India has plenty of party, especially in big cities like Mumbai and Delhi. However, it’s not really orientated towards travelers. Most foreign visitors choose to head to one state for their after-dark fun: Goa. That’s actually part of the issue here; that Goa – or at least north Goa – is now so inundated with clubs and bars that it’s shed all its real charm. Still, we like the more chilled scene in Palolem and the upcoming scene in nearby Karnataka.
Winner: Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka or India – our verdict
Deciding between Sri Lanka or India was never going to be easy. These are two of Asia’s most amazing places. Ideally, we’d say do both. However, if you have to choose, then here’s our two cents: Go for Sri Lanka for R&R, great beaches, and surfing, but India for a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience that involves iconic sights like the Taj and the Himalaya.