Thailand or Sri Lanka: Which Backpacker Haven to Visit?

Thailand or Sri Lanka
Photo by Anton Petrus on Envato Elements
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Ah, the fabled Land of Smiles and the wave-washed Pearl of the Indian Ocean. These are two of Asia’s most enthralling, enticing, and mystical destinations. They are known for their warm climates and even warmer people, ancient temples, and stunning coastlines. They’ve each got taste-bud-tingling cuisines and rich histories that go back millennia. But which is better for you – Thailand or Sri Lanka?

Thailand is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. It’s been a mainstay on the backpacker trail since the 1960s, and its popularity shows no signs of wavering. Why would it? White-sanded islands, chili-topped masaman curries, and gold-tipped Buddhist shrines all ensure it remains something special. Then there’s Sri Lanka. Small but stunning, it’s fringed by coral-filled bays, has endless surf, and mountains clad in tea.

Torn between which tropical destination to choose for your next trip? Fear not. We’ve done the hard work for you. From the general vibes to the beaches and hotels, our extensive guide answers all your questions and then some. But which country gets our vote? Thailand or Sri Lanka? Keep reading to find out…

Thailand or Sri Lanka: General vibe

Thailand or Sri Lanka
Photo by Sean Pavone/Envato Elements

Thailand and Sri Lanka are tropical countries, one in South Asia, the other in the heart of Southeast Asia. They’re both home to diverse cultures, languages, and religions. Both are steeped in history, Sri Lanka with its colonial heritage and Thailand with its ancient Buddhist traditions. On the face of it, you’d think they’d be quite similar. However…

Sri Lanka is eight times smaller than Thailand. The island lies in the Indian Ocean, southwest of the Bay of Bengal and southeast of the Arabian Sea, almost 1,300 miles from Thailand. Like Thailand, Sri Lanka is known for its friendly locals and atmosphere. Yet, Thailand has been welcoming tourists for far longer than Sri Lanka (mainly because of a brutal civil war). That means that the Land of Smiles is a touch more traveler-friendly overall, though Sri Lanka probably offers a rawer, more authentic cultural experience.

Thailand is the perennial heart of Southeast Asia. The country has long been a mecca for backpackers, holidaymakers, and expats. Whether you like the city, the beach, or a bit of both, Thailand has it all, and there’s no shortage of things to do, no matter your budget. The country is almost 200,000 square miles in total size, compared to Sri Lanka’s 25,000 square miles. We can’t say that Thailand boasts the small island vibe that Sri Lanka does, but there are certainly islands in Thailand that do (Lanta, Samui, Tao).

Winner: Draw – these are two different but also oddly similar places.

Thailand or Sri Lanka: Ease of travel

Sri Lankan railway network
Photo by Chalabala on Envato Elements

Whether you’re off on a six-month backpacking adventure or a two-week honeymoon, the same question will always crop up, how are you going to get there? Thailand and Sri Lanka might be on either side of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, but are they as easy to reach? 

Thailand has several international airports to choose from, including two in the capital city of Bangkok and a busy arrival hub in Phuket. This makes travel to Thailand’s southern islands easy, no matter how much time you have in the country. Sri Lanka has two international airports, but most flights arrive at Bandaranaike International Airport, and you’ll likely need to connect in Delhi or Chennai before flying to Colombo. As an island, Sri Lanka is inaccessible by road and train. In contrast, you can reach Thailand by land or continue your southeast Asian travels cheaply by bus into the neighboring nations of Cambodia and Laos.  

Still, despite its small size, Sri Lanka has a well-developed transport system. A famous railway of over 1,000 miles links Colombo to the rest of the country, and Sri Lanka’s road network consists of around 62,000 miles of highway. Infrastructure has developed in Sri Lanka as tourism has risen. Any town in even the most remote areas of the country is reachable by local bus, and the ticket is likely to set you back less than one dollar for a single trip. 

As a relatively small country, it’s easy to see a lot of Sri Lanka in a short amount of time. If local transport is not your thing, car hire and tuk-tuks are popular options and are still cheap and accessible forms of transport. However, Sri Lanka is less equipped for large-scale tourism than Thailand. Overcrowded buses moving along jammed roads where locals ignore traffic lanes can be a little chaotic. Whether you’re a passenger or navigating the streets in your own hired car, travel can be both adventurous and slightly terrifying in Sri Lanka.

Thailand is well prepared for tourism. Getting around is uncomplicated with cheap domestic flight routes, local buses, overnight trains, and a developed ferry system between the southern islands and all the mainland ports. We’re convinced Thailand earned its title as the “Land of Smiles” because of the ease of travel. At every port, there’ll be helpful locals waiting to guide you onto the next portion of your travels, whether you’re switching from a ferry to a bus or looking for the next station.  

Thailand is sizeable, and you’ll struggle to see everything even if you have weeks to spare. With so much of the country to explore, domestic flights and island hopping can get tiring. Still, Thailand is unmatched when it comes to being equipped for the backpacker trail.

Winner: Thailand.

Thailand or Sri Lanka: Beaches

Thailand or Sri Lanka
Photo by Raw Pixel/Envato Elements

As tropical hotspots, beaches are likely to be at the top of the agenda when visiting Sri Lanka and Thailand. But how do they square up in comparison to each other?

As an island nation, beaches contribute to Sri Lanka’s allure. Like Thailand’s southern isles, you’ll find golden sands, palm-fringed shores, and coral reefs all along Sri Lanka’s 800 miles of picturesque coastline. Sri Lanka’s west coast is perfect for sunbathing and water sports, with the calm, warm waters of the Laccadive Sea welcoming visitors. Yet, despite the Indian Ocean’s picturesque appeal, it’s advised not to swim off Sri Lanka’s coasts for the majority of the year. 

Hidden undertows and big breaks make for dangerous conditions, and most visitors don’t venture beyond waist depth anywhere across Sri Lanka’s shores. But this does make Sri Lanka famous for one phenomenon for which Thailand doesn’t accommodate: surfing.  

Sri Lanka is world-famous for hosting breaks suitable for all levels. The country is also a year-round surf destination because seasonal patterns mean that when one coast is calm, there’ll be beaches on the other side that are adequately choppy. From November to April, in Sri Lanka’s high season, the southwest coast of Hikkaduwa is a hotspot for hardcore surfers. And from May to October, hit up the east coast of Arugam Bay for the best breaks.  

On the other hand, Thailands 1,500 islands that stretch across the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea promise diversity above all else. From Koh Phi Phi’s pristine white sands overshadowed by lofty limestone peaks to Koh Phangan’s rustic golden shores, clear shallow waters, and rows of imperfect palm trees, Thailand’s beaches are anything but monotonous. 

Thailand is also home to world-famous beaches, like Maya Bay, the location for Danny Boyles’s blockbuster drama, “The Beach.” There is no shortage of breathtaking beaches for snorkeling, swimming, scuba diving, and sun-bathing, meaning Thailand steals the win over Sri Lanka for variety. Still, even though you can’t float freely in undisturbed crystal clear water like you can in Thailand, Sri Lanka’s beaches offer a different kind of wild bohemian allure that you shouldn’t underestimate. 

Winner: Thailand. 

Thailand or Sri Lanka: Nature

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Away from the body-packed beaches of Koh Samui and the Phi Phis, Thailand still has some vast and untouched swathes of natural land that’s just waiting for the true adventurers. Let’s start in the north around Doi Inthanon, a 2,500-meter peak that’s the tallest in the country. It’s part of its own national park near to Chiang Mai and is ringed by hiking paths and ancient elephant trekking routes. The middle of the nation is dominated by the Khao Sok National Park, a maze of lagoons and karst mountains that’s stalked by tapirs and langur monkeys. Further south again and you get the Thale Ban National Park, a largely unknown dash of primeval jungle.

Sri Lanka is smaller, so it follows that it has less protected land. However, the Teardrop of India still packs one hefty punch on the nature front. We put a lot of that down to the region known as the Central Highlands. They rise over the southwestern beaches to the heights of Pidurutalagala (the highest) and the Horton Plains National Park. Within, you’ll find gushing waterfalls and rolling vistas of emerald tea fields. Then you get the safari meccas. They’re like nothing Thailand can muster, offering a taste of a more African outing with their savannahs stalked by leopards and elephants (check out Yala and Udawalawe for that).

Winner: Probably Sri Lanka on account of the safari potential!

Thailand or Sri Lanka: Food

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Food plays a massive role in the traditions and appeal of Sri Lanka and Thailand. Locals love to feed each other, and their guests and food is central to hospitality practices in both cultures. While Thai cuisine is well-known and freely available worldwide, Sri Lankan food culture is more obscure but heavily influenced by some of the most famous global cuisines. 

Spices, seafood, and traditions are central to Sri Lankan food, which combines Indian staples with island ingredients. Fish curry, roti, and samosas are just some national favorites. A journey through Sri Lanka promises the most authentic local food that you won’t find readily available outside of the country. Ambul Thiya, the sour fish curry found at nearly every restaurant, is made with tuna, chili, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic, and dried goraka. Sri Lankan curry is actually known to be spicier than Indian food.  

Thailand has a similar street food culture to Sri Lanka, with the cheapest and most authentic dishes served at small stands and local restaurants. But Thailand also boasts no shortage of western restaurants, which threaten to dilute your authentic experience of Thai cuisine. What’s more, there’s a high chance you’ll have had a few Pad Thais and Green Curries before you’ve ever visited Thailand. While the food is aromatic and fragrant, Thai food lacks spice and variety compared to Sri Lankan cuisine, and visitors are known to bore with it quickly. 

Winner: Sri Lanka.

Thailand or Sri Lanka: Price of travel

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

As backpacker havens, Thailand and Sri Lanka are generally among the cheaper holiday destinations in the world and easy to travel on a shoestring. That said, the average price does differ a little from place to place…

On average, consumer prices are 37% higher in Thailand than in Sri Lanka. That means mid-range restaurant meals cost around $5 in Sri Lanka compared to $10 in Thailand, while single journeys on local transport can cost as low as $0.15 in Sri Lanka compared to $2 in Thailand. That all adds up, to the point where we’d estimate that you can get by on around $25 per day in Sri Lanka enjoying the same comfort that $35 would buy you in Thailand.

Sri Lanka certainly has its fair share of uber-costly places to stay – in the form of palatial, five-star honeymoon resorts with sea views. They’ll set you back hundreds of dollars a night just as they do in Thailand. However, the lower end of the spectrum is considerably cheaper in Sri Lanka, where hostels and guesthouses still sit at under $5 for the night in some places.

One caveat: Recent political turmoil (throughout 2022) in Sri Lanka has seen runaway inflation and the effect that’s going to have on the tourist industry is still unclear. It might be that prices go up and stay up in the Teardrop of India, in which case the country will probably cost around the same as Thailand in the next few years. Watch this space, though.

Winner: Sri Lanka, at least for now.

Thailand or Sri Lanka: Nightlife 

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

We’ve all heard crazy stories about the Khaosan Road, Phangan’s epic Full Moon Parties, and Phuket‘s heady Patong Walking Street. But can Sri Lanka compete when it comes to nightlife?

They might not be quite on par with some of Thailand’s bustling beach towns, but the coastal areas of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, and Mirissa are all great partying areas if dancing until the early hours is what you’re after. Sri Lanka will surprise you with its party scene with beach clubs and all-night festivals galore. The capital city of Colombo has a few of its own iconic partying spots like Zaza Bar in the Dolce Casa Colombo Hotel and Loft Lounge that are not to be missed.

Still, nightlife tends not to be a prominent feature on the Sri Lankan itinerary, and partying isn’t the most significant pull factor to the country. Whereas, it’s safe to safe that Thailand’s vibrant party scene draws tourists in year after year. Ever since Thailand emerged on the backpacker radar in the 1960s, it’s been a mecca for partying. You can find diverse and world-famous nightlife nationwide, but does this give Thailand more appeal?

Fifty years of development and skyrocketing tourism means some of Thailand’s most outstanding areas of natural beauty threaten to be destroyed by their party scenes. On Koh Phi Phi, the once peaceful and remote Edenic paradise, it’s near impossible to escape the sound of the booming Stones’ DJ decks once night falls. And as the home of the iconic full moon party, the same can be said for Koh Phangnan. If partying is your thing, make sure you check out Stones and  

In Thailand, the nightlife almost exclusively caters to a western audience outside Bangkok, while locals are known to party with tourists in Sri Lanka. The impact of party tourism on Thailand’s plastic problem also puts the benefits of thriving nightlife into question. Is Thailand’s party scene diluting the country’s rich cultural heritage? You decide.

Winner: Draw.  

Thailand or Sri Lanka? Our verdict

Honestly, we think every traveler should visit both of these places at least once. You can even do them in the same trip – it’s about a two-hour flight to Colombo from Bangkok, usually costing under $100. However, if you can only do one then you’ll need to consider the sort of adventure you want.

Thailand is a tried-and-tested tourist mecca. It’s got some of the world’s most iconic beach resorts, on Phuket and Samui, but also loads of backpacker-vibe places like Koh Lanta and the mountain town of Pai up north. Traveling around tends to be easier on account of the tourist infrastructure and it’s generally a little easier to reach in the first place, though the costs are likely to be higher.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, remains less developed in a tourist sense. You can still escape the resorts of the southwest coast and venture to wild mountains or even remote village in the north where hardly any other visitors go. The island – in our humble opinion – also touts the better food and comes with amazing surf, just in case you were bringing the board in tow. We also like that it offers safaris in the African style, with glimpses of wild elephants and leopards.

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Esmé is an English literature graduate and freelance writer. Originally from London, Esmé is lucky enough to call Bali home. Her travels have taken her from the far corners of the East to the islands of the Caribbean. When she's not writing, you'll find her lying on a beach somewhere, lost in a crime novel.