Digital Nomad in Sri Lanka: A guide (Arugam Bay & Ella)

Digital nomad Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of digital nomads. Being a digital nomad in Sri Lanka is quite uncommon. Remote working is more synonymous with places like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, and, truth be told, Sri Lanka isn’t a place where remote working has taken much hold at all.

When we decided we were desperate to visit Sri Lanka and would make every effort to make remote working there a success, we found it extremely difficult to get the information we needed. Because so few people remote work in Sri Lanka, you feel as though you’re on your own.

As such, we have created the following guide to remote working in Sri Lanka – focussing on Arugam Bay and Ella – the places we visited. We hope it will be of benefit.

We also created “A Day in the Life of A Digital Nomad” video, so you can see just how our days panned out.

Cost of Living

One great thing about being a digital nomad in Sri Lanka: it’s very cost friendly. According to NomadList the rough cost of living in Sri Lanka is around $900-$1400 per month. Currently Ella and Arugam Bay don’t even feature on NomadList and the places that do: Colombo, Kandy, Galle and Matara, all receive fairly low rankings.

We spent the majority of our time in Arugam Bay (we only spent around four days in Ella out of our month-long stay, the rest we spent in A-Bay) so we’ll be basing our costings on A-Bay. These are specific to what we paid and, of course, things may vary depending on what level of accommodation you choose.

A general guide to costs (in USD):

  • Accomodation: $524 (split between two people). A basic “surf and sleep” 5 minutes walk to the beach and town.
  • An average meal: $2.50-$5 (the more local you go, the cheaper, and often more tasty, it is).
  • Vegetable rotti from a rotti truck: 30c
  • 1 fresh coconut: 80c or less. (Free for us as our backyard was filled with 14 coconut trees).
  • Tuk Tuk: $1.20 (short trip).
    $8 (a trip to nearby beaches and return with a few hours for swimming or surfing).

Visas

In Sri Lanka you must get a visa before arriving in the country. You can apply online––the process is simple and costs between US $20-$35 depending on where you’re from.

Our visas were approved immediately giving us 30 days to be in the country. Obviously on a tourist visa you can’t work for any local companies.

You can apply for a 30-day extension, this isn’t something we did, so can’t advise on this.

Digital Nomads in Sri Lanka
Arugam Bay paradise

WiFi

Here is the big sticking point for most digital nomads––Sri Lanka can have unreliable WiFi. We were really worried about the WiFi before we arrived… turns out there is a solution to every problem and this is how we made it work.

Ella: In Ella our WiFi at our Airbnb was perfectly fine for us to do our work, make Skype calls and call New Zealand a number of times (through Skype). It was occasionally slow loading Netflix, but certainly bearable.

On day one in Ella we went straight to town and got ourselves set up with data (more on that below) so that we could have a fall back if the WiFi dropped out.

Remote working Sri Lanka
Remote working in Ella

Arugam Bay: This is where WiFi issues started to arise. At first the WiFi at our accomodation was fast for everything: Skype, Google Hangouts, Netflix, Youtube etc. But it turned out that it wasn’t an unlimited plan. We chewed through it super quickly and the bandwidth dropped to the point that it was unusable. (Before 8am in the morning and after 12pm the WiFi was still speedy as ever… but who’s working through the night).

Therefore there were two options: work in cafes or use our data. We did a bit of both tethering every single day and made it work. Honestly it’s made us realise that you can work from ANYWHERE if you set your mind to it. We were still able to be incredibly productive, never miss a call or deadline and get solid results for our clients.

The best cafe to work from in Arugam that we found is Karma Gardens (conveniently located around a 3 minute walk from our place). Fast WiFi, good food and the music, unlike in so many other places, isn’t crazy loud.

Data:

Data, we found, is absolutely essential and, frankly, working in Sri Lanka without it would be impossible. We went with Dialog who have great coverage across the country. We constantly topped up our plans as we tethered more often than not, but the cost overall was still cheap.

For more info on Dialog check them out here.

When you get a data plan, calling minutes aren’t always included. If you want to be able to order a tuk tuk or call people with local SIMs, then it’s good to get some minutes added on as well.

Nine-Arches Bridge
Nine-Arches Bridge: Demodora

Cafe’s to remote work from

People by and large go to Ella to hike and take the train to Kandy. When people go to Arugam Bay they’re there to surf and chill out. Working, for most travellers in Sri Lanka, is not on the agenda. Therefore, in Ella and Arugam Bay you won’t find any co-working spaces and you’ll rarely see other remote workers. Frankly we thought this was awesome. We love doing things differently and living in a way that others think is impossible.

There are a limited number of cafes to work from in Arugam Bay. Our favourite, as already mentioned, is Karma Gardens. We also worked in 1 World Cafe (great food and WiFi but loud music so not always the best for working). We worked one day at Ahimsa Cafe (good food and WiFi, but not the most comfy seats for working and we didn’t feel especially welcome).

To be honest, those were pretty much the only options –– perhaps why there are few people who call themselves a digital nomad in Sri Lanka. We tried many other places, but the WiFi was either too slow, or the music too loud. We found our groove with either working at our Airbnb tethering or going back to Karma Gardens.

Where to stay:

Because Arugam Bay and Ella are both so small but have an abundance of places to stay, you can’t go too wrong with accomodation. In Ella we stayed up in Ella Gap so we could be amongst the trees and see plenty of wildlife. This meant we were a tuk tuk ride into town, which was no problem for us, as we liked the remote feel.

In Arugam Bay we stayed on Sinhapura Road––this couldn’t have been a better location. 3 minutes to Karma Gardens. 5 minutes to the beach. 5 minutes to town. Everything was walkable. If we wanted to go further afield––Whiskey Point, Peanut Farm, Panama Beach etc––then we were only a tuk tuk ride away.

Being a digital nomad in Sri Lanka means you’ll care more about WiFi than anyone else, so make sure you check WiFi speeds before booking.

Digital Nomads in Sri Lanka
Fresh tropical fruit

Food:

In Sri Lanka we were in food heaven! Sri Lankan curries are a flavour sensation and, given there’s heaps of vegan options, it’s easy being plant-based. Rotti is out of this world, dal is life-changing and the variety of curries is immense. In one evening you could have beetroot, soybean, eggplant, green vegetable and potato curries with a side of sambol (coconut relish), rice and papadams.

There are also plenty of western cafes in Arugam Bay with great coffee, smoothie bowls, salads, wraps and avo toast.

We had a kitchen in Sri Lanka, so cooked/prepared food occasionally from home––especially breakfasts (fruit salad) and lunches (oatmeal with fresh fruit).

One thing I didn’t think I’d miss while in Sri Lanka, but absolutely did, was tofu and tempeh! Couldn’t find these plant-based staples anywhere.

Tropical fruit:

Fresh tropical fruit is one of the best things about Sri Lanka. We ate fruit every single day for breakfast and often added it to lunch too. The papaya there is the best we’ve ever tasted. You’ll also find amazing passionfruit, bananas, mangos, watermelon, pineapple and avocado. To find the most cost-friendly fresh tropical fruit take a tuk tuk north of Arugam Bay to Pottuvil where fresh fruit markets abound. You’ll also find vegetable markets here too if you want to cook your own meals.

Digital nomads in Sri Lanka
Free-roaming cattle

Water:

Tap water in Sri Lanka is not drinkable. While you’re in SL you’ll want to reduce your plastic usage though. Bring a drink flask that you can refill and take with you when you go out in the day. Larger bottles can be purchased from convenience stores then you can refill these at Hideaway Cafe.

Places to fill your drink bottle:

  • Karma Gardens
  • Bites (Coffee shop)
  • Hideaway (you can fill full sized bottles here as they have UV purified tap water).
  • Filling stations

Sustainable travel:

Sri Lanka is, by-and-large, really clean. People are conscious of plastic usage and respect you when you help keep their country clean. Some tips to be an awesome traveller:

Bring with you:

  • Reusable straws: take these everywhere with you. Most places serve metal straws (woohoo!) – sadly though, there are still some that will give you plastic straws. Always let them know that you have your own straw.
  • Bags for life: politely decline plastic bags when you purchase from markets and let them know you have your reuseable bag with you.
  • Drink flasks: as above – bring your own water bottle/flask and refill it. Don’t be that guy with a plastic bottle.
  • Increase your plant-based intake: this is one the biggest and most awesome things you can do for the planet. Fun fact: by eating a plant-based diet you can reduce your impact on the planet more than taking less flights or by buying an electric car. By eating plant-based meals you can be a more sustainable traveller. High five!

Fun:

Sri Lanka is one of, if not the best, countries we’ve ever visited.

Ella: In Ella there are many awesome things to do.

  • Chill out and watch the wildlife
  • Visit Nine-Arches Bridge
  • Do a hike
  • Eat awesome food in Ella town

Arugam Bay: this would require an entire other post, but here are just a few things:

  • Take a surfing lesson
  • Visit Yala East National Park
  • Eat epic food
  • Take day trips to awesome local beaches
  • Chill out in a hammock
  • Go shopping
  • Get a custom-made bikini

In Summary:

Living in Sri Lanka as digital nomads was one the coolest experiences of our lives! We would 100% recommend being a digital nomad in Sri Lanka to everyone and anyone. One great advantage of Sri Lanka is that it’s quiet––you can get a lot of work done away from the distractions of the world. We were really productive, happy and relaxed. We did so many amazing things and genuinely would say the experience was life-changing.

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