Sri Lanka has snuck its way onto many a digital nomads’ bucket list lately. It was recently named the Number 1 country on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2019 list, and even more recently the country was testing out visa exemption for tourists from many Western countries for 6 months. (It’s my understanding that scheme is no longer available and you do need to apply and pay for a visa electronically beforehand, depending on your nationality of course.)
I’ve been intrigued by Sri Lanka for a while. It’s been on my radar ever since I traveled to India. So this year I asked some digital nomad friends if they would like to come with me to travel and work in Sri Lanka and they said yes!
We traveled around the country for two months, from mid-January to mid-March. In that time, we went to Negombo, Dikwella, Tangalle, Weligama, Mirissa, Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Arugam Bay, and Galle. We spent the most time in Tangalle because we ended up liking it the best!
Here I’ll review the island in terms of liveability for people who work online. I’ll evaluate it based on the following categories:
- DN Community
- WIFI and workspaces
- Cost of living, and
- Activities and social life
Each category will get a rating out of 5, with 5 being the best and 1 being the worst.
So what’s the verdict – is Sri Lanka a good place to be a digital nomad?
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Our van driver described the never ending sea of tea plantations in the hills of Sri Lanka as a ‘green carpet’ and no phrase could be more fitting ☕️ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In related news, I’ve never been caffeinated on so many consecutive occasions as here in Sri Lanka. There’s just so much tea happening all the time and it’s hard to say no!! 📷: @josefinstrang
Digital Nomad Community: 1/5
In Sri Lanka, you will struggle to find and connect with any sort of digital nomad community. There are some coworking spaces in Colombo and probably Kandy but my friend who checked them out in Colombo while she was there said there were very few people inside and only locals. (Not a bad thing but probably not the digital nomad community you’re looking for.)
I think there are a few digital nomads here and there but it’s definitely going to take extra effort to track them down. For that, I recommend the Sri Lanka Foreigners, Expats, Digital Nomads Facebook group.
Honestly, I barely even saw other backpackers. They’re around, sure, but sparsely distributed (except in Ella, but you don’t want to live there long term, trust me.)
I was grateful I was traveling with a group. Otherwise it would have been one lonely time!
WIFI and workspaces: 2/5
Overall the WIFI in Sri Lanka sucked. Most of the places we stayed at had free WIFI but it was either shitty to start off with or just completely undependable.
Dialog, the country’s main phone and internet provider, does offer pretty good coverage and data plans for acceptable prices (but there’s no equivalent of AIS’s $10 unlimited data plan like in Thailand). Hotspotting your phone’s data is the [basically only] way to go in Sri Lanka.
As for workspaces, we looked for private rooms with aircon and desks and mainly worked from our rooms. There were not a lot of options for other places to work e.g. coworking spaces or cafes, indoor with aircon or otherwise.
We checked out Verse Collective, which is a coworking and co-living space in Dikwella right by the sea, and their WIFI was great, food was Western, and interior design all shades of Instagram, but, from my understanding, this is the only coworking/co-living space of its kind in the country. If you’d like to stay there, they have rooms listed on Airbnb – get $40 off your first Airbnb booking.
Chase for Adventure list out some of the best cafes they found for WIFI and working around the country in their post, Sri Lanka for Digital Nomads.
Cost of living: 4/5
Food and transport can be done super cheaply but accommodation seemed to be relatively expensive everywhere we went. A minimum of $20 a night seemed to be the standard for a private room with aircon (if you can work on your laptop in a room with no aircon get it girl, but I’m not that strong).
To be fair, we weren’t booking any single accommodation for more than a week and a half; we were traveling around the country. I think if you stay in one place for a month or more you could find a place with a really good long-term discount on rent. I would recommend looking in the Sri Lanka Facebook group for this.
Here are some Sri Lanka digital nomad accommodation recs:
Ocean Voyage – We stayed here for a while in Tangalle. It’s in a perfect location for walking to the beach, around Mediketiya, or into the town. They have multiple room types (with aircon/without etc.) but we liked the ones on top of the restaurant with aircon and desks!
Grand Residence – Located a bit outside the main tourist center of Medaketiya but still in Tangalle. Other digital nomads said they have decent WIFI as well as desks.
Knight Inn – I stayed here while on my own in Galle. They have hot water, aircon, and great breakfast, and were perfectly located in the center of the fort area, but back in a courtyard so it wasn’t noisy.
Colours Hostel – Apparently the WIFI here is quite decent and they have a great breakfast.
Space Garden Hostel – They have decent WIFI according to other digital nomads.
Here are some examples of Sri Lankan prices from my experience:
Local Sri Lankan meal (veg rice and curry): 250 LKR | $1.39
Coca Cola: 150 LKR | $0.83
Western meal (burger and fries): 1200 LRK | $6.67
Local Lion beer (500 ml): 400 LKR | $2.22
Yoga class: 1000 LKR | $5.56
Private room w/ aircon: 4,500 LKR | $25 per night
Train ticket from Colombo to Matara: 350 LKR | $1.95
Private driver from Arugam Bay to Tangalle: 14,000 LKR | $77.84
I calculated how much I spent and it came to an average of $890/month, not including incoming and outgoing flights. This is about the same as what I spent living as a digital nomad in Koh Tao, Thailand.
Basically, if you want to eat rice and curry or hoppers for every meal; feel fine about a shared room or fan+cold shower room/stay in one place for long enough to pay monthly rent; and exclusively travel by train, you can do Sri Lanka much cheaper than me.
For me, as a place to live and work, Sri Lanka doesn’t provide the same value (or comfort or convenience) as Thailand. As Johnny FD said in his review of Sri Lanka for digital nomads, the infrastructure just isn’t there.
Activities and social life: 3/5
The category Sri Lanka shines in is natural beauty. The country is gorgeous, I can’t deny it. In terms of nature, there’s so much there to discover: rainforest, mountains, beach…There are lots of national parks where you can do safaris and see elephants, leopards (should you be so lucky), peacocks, crocodiles, water buffalo, monkeys, birds…
If you’re into birdwatching get yourself to Sri Lanka stat! This place is filled to the brim with all different kinds of birds.
And the beaches! Empty crescents of soft golden sand, not a footprint for miles. There’s tons of surfing if you’re into that or want to learn. Tea plantations, hikes and viewpoints, temple hopping…
There’s a lot to explore for sure. But in terms of social life, there just aren’t a ton of other travelers around. Ella and Mirissa were the only destinations that felt extremely touristy and were indeed overrun by tourists, but otherwise it’s just…sparse. I’m not saying you couldn’t meet folks at a bar or hostel for example, but if you’re looking for digital nomad meetups/workshops or free-acro-yoga-in-the-park type of thing, it’s not there.
The locals do speak English – there’s a good opportunity to make local friends, so there’s that.
The consensus: Should you live in Sri Lanka as a digital nomad?
It’s a lower-middle-income country with not a lot of tourist infrastructure, let’s just face it. Yes, you can live in Sri Lanka, but do you want to?
It depends what your preferences and levels of desired comfort are. I think if you’re trying to build any sort of ‘settled down’ life you’ll be in want– for a new dress from H&M, or some really great Mexican food, or a well-equipped gym, or bottle of wine. (It’s not that these things don’t exist in Sri Lanka, they’re just expensive and/or hard to find.)
For me personally, I prefer better value, more of a community, and more convenience for my money. Again to quote Johnny FD, “It’s little things that really start adding up to make it hard to live here long term or even get anything done.”
I would recommend Sri Lanka as a two week holiday instead. It’s truly an amazing holiday spot!
Here’s a 2-week Sri Lanka itinerary to get some ideas of what to do for fun when you’re not sat behind a computer screen 😉
BONUS: If you nomad in Sri Lanka, where should you live?
If you want to create a home base, I would recommend Galle. You can have access to Western foods and colonial charm in the fort area, Sri Lankan local food and necessities (pharmacies, supermarkets, ATMs) in the new city area outside the fort, and some gorgeous beaches a short tuk-tuk away.
Tangalle is also a good choice – after all, we did stay there the majority of our time in Sri Lanka. In Between Latte’s has a good post about living in Tangalle as a digital nomad that I referenced more than once while there.
This Culture Trip article mentions a few other spots you might want to check out as a home base.