We often visit the Trip Advisor Sri Lanka Travel Forum, both to learn more from the various experts who answer questions and occasionally to add our own thoughts and advice in response to questions. After people seeking advice on itineraries and on transport options, perhaps the third most common question set concerns the weather. We have even seen desperate pleas for advice as to whether someone should cancel their entire Sri Lanka holiday on the basis of a poor weather forecast! Why people who are so concerned about getting wet decide to have a holiday in a tropical island is hard to understand. Perhaps they should choose Dubai or Las Vegas. Anyway, this blog is addressed to those who don’t mind a bit of rain but want to have some idea of what they’re letting themselves in for.
We remember reading some years back, around the turn of the century, that the first significant effect of climate change would be to disrupt tropical monsoon patterns, and so it has proved. What used to be reliable starts and ends of the two annual monsoons during Sally’s childhood here are now long forgotten. Sometimes a monsoon arrives late, other times early, sometimes it seems to miss completely and other years it forgets to stop. We have kept a very basic daily weather log for most of the four and a half years we’ve lived here and just to give an example, for 20th December for the four times we’ve experienced it (we spent last Christmas in the UK) once it rained incessantly, once it was wall-to-wall sunshine and twice it was sunshine and showers. The same lack of pattern shows through for most of the full months we’ve recorded.
The other aspect of uncertainty is local variation. We are 5km from Kandy (in a direct line) but we often leave our hilltop home in the rain to go shopping and find the sun shining warmly down in Kandy. Or the other way around. We look out from the Hantana Range towards the Knuckles Mountains and we’re often bathed in afternoon sunshine and watching the mother of all thunderstorms ravaging the Knuckles (believe me, it’s a fantastic sight). And no doubt there are times when we can’t see the lovely weather in the Knuckles through the curtains of rain in front of our veranda.
Despite being a land mass only the size of Ireland (or for Aussies, Tasmania) Sri Lanka has three distinct climate zones: a wet zone which includes Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Hikkaduwa, Galle/Unawatuna, Sinharaja and the south west and south coast round to Matara; an intermediate zone which includes Sigiriya/Dambulla, Ella, Uda Walawe and the south coast area around Mirissa; and a dry zone which includes all of the north including Jaffna, Kalpitiya, Anuradhapura, Wilpattu, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee, Arugam Bay and Yala, and round the south coast to maybe Tangalle.
But we need to go into a little more detail. First, the dry zone is a relative term here – only for short times of the year does the land appear arid, it’s mostly green – just not as lush as in the wet or intermediate zones. Second, as mentioned above, there are two monsoon seasons: the south west which usually starts May or June and goes on to late July (if it remembers to stop) and the north east which usually starts in early November and should be over by Christmas. That’s technically wrong as (I think) the meteorological definition of a monsoon relates to the prevailing wind direction so the monsoons technically last much longer. But what most people think of when they hear the word “monsoon” is heavy rain and what I’ve written concerns the times when most rain is likely to fall. And of course the west and south get most rain during the south west monsoon period and the north and east get most during the north east monsoon period.
Most foreign visitors tend to spend most of their time in the west, south, and hill country so on that basis the best time to visit is between October and April. But if you’re up for not following the herd and explolring some of the other amazing places in Sri Lanka off the standard tourist trail which runs: Airport – Sigiriya – Kandy – Ella – Mirissa – Galle – Airport then come at other times. And of course if you’re from the northern hemisphere and you’ve got kids or you teach you may have no option but to come in August – when pretty well anywhere can be either lovely and sunny or very wet!
Two other factors to consider, though, assuming you do have a choice about when to visit. First, the prevailing winds not only bring rain from different directions but also affect coastal and beach conditions. So even if it’s not raining the south west and west coasts are pretty rough and even dangerous in places between May and September, while the east coast is the same between October and March even though the weather may be sunny. No problem for beach sunbathing but it is an issue if you want to snorkel, swim, dive or surf. And whale or dolphin watching trips can be, let’s say, a bit exciting (and possibly may not go out at all).
The main problem with rain in Sri Lanka is that there is always either too much or too little of it. If you are here during an exceptionally wet period travel can be disrupted by floods, landslips and fallen trees. If you’re here after a period of drought some smaller guest houses and homestays may even close due to lack of water, there may be restrictions on showering, and there may be planned power cuts on a daily basis to conserve energy supplies. None of which should be more than a minor problem, though, if you have a spirit of adventure.
Finally, it rarely rains all day even up here in the wet zone hills. Mornings tend to be sunnier than the afternoons – though again, nothing is certain – so if you’re an early riser you may have a better Sri Lankan holiday than if you go to bed late and get up late. But since there’s very little night life in most of Sri Lanka anyway, that should not be a problem. Happy holidays!