Sri Lanka or the Maldives? That’s a tricky one. Set out in the sky-blue waters of the Indian Ocean, both of these island countries come with plenty to impress – think wave-washed beaches of chalk-hued sand, resplendent coral gardens teeming with rainbowfish and zebrafish, groves of palm trees that move to and fro in the ocean trades. Yep, it’s pretty awesome stuff.
But, close though they are – a mere 470 miles of the Laccadive Sea separates one capital from the next – Sri Lanka and the Maldives are also very different places. For starters, one (the Maldives) is a whole archipelago of countless cays and reefs and coral islets. The other (Lanka) is one big island with many different regions and areas. And that’s just scratching the surface.
This guide will dig down even deeper into the things that set both countries apart. It will take a look at the practicalities of traveling to these nations, the amazing things there are to do in both of them, and the sort of vacation you can get excited for when you pick one over the other. Let’s begin…
Sri Lanka or Maldives for ease of travel
The Maldives span a whopping 35,000 square miles of territory, and over 25 island groups (known as atolls), ranging from Addu Atoll in the south to Ihavandhippolhu Atoll in the north. If that sounds like it’s not going to be the easiest place to travel, that’s because it’s not. It’s hardly a surprise that most vacationers here choose to head to one hotel or atoll and stay there for the duration. Getting around is done by boat or seaplane, and rates for those can be high.
Getting to the Maldives in the first place almost always involves a flight into the Velana International Airport near Male, the capital. Lots of charter and commercial carriers go there from Europe and Asia, but you might find that lots also involve a stop in Colombo – the capital of Sri Lanka – along the way.
So, that leads us to the Teardrop of India…Generally better served by international carriers like Qatar, Sri Lanka Airlines, Emirates, Turkish, and others, this one’s got more arrival flights per day than the Maldives and is an easier place to reach from Asia, Europe, and North America.
But there’s more, because Sri Lanka is one, single, self-contained island. Once you’re on the ground, you’re on the ground. You can get taxis, buses, trains, or tuk-tuks to anywhere you please, depending on your budget or availability, making it a whole load easier to travel around than it’s archipelago brother a little west in the Indian Ocean.
Winner: Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka or Maldives for beaches
Think the Maldives, think beaches. Really, there’s an argument to be made that these atolls host the world’s most spectacular sands. In fact, almost any list of the best beaches in the world makes mention of somewhere in the Maldives, and it’s easy to see why. Virtually the whole place is laced with sands that could be plucked from a picture of paradise. They are as white as caster sugar. Waters are as turquoise as a fishbowl. Reefs teem with fish. Some of the best are:
- Cocoa Island – A south Male beach that rings a diamond-shaped island.
- Baros – Navigate the blooming tropical flowers to this perfect, chalk-white strand.
- Dhigurah – Find swaying coconut trees above powdery coves where not too many travelers go.
Look, Sri Lanka can’t live up to all that. But it does make a darn good fist of it. The beaches here are still rather wonderful. They’re tinged with gold and sometimes brown sand, have outlying reefs where you can snorkel to see turtles, and are certainly better for surfers thanks to the abundance of waves. Where they fall down is due to development. Many of the nicest parts of Sri Lanka are now riddled with hotels that effectively block the whole beachfront and take away from the charm. Still, there are some great spots:
- Hiriketiya Beach – The new poster boy of the south coast, Hiri is a true gem with two surf breaks and sandy streets just behind.
- Hikkaduwa – Snorkel reefs converge with sunset bars at this southwestern resort town.
- Jungle Beach – Skip the resort of Unawatuna for this hidden beach that’s backed by a Japanese temple.
Winner: Maldives. Sri Lanka has lovely beaches, but Maldives might just have the best of all!
Sri Lanka or Maldives for hotels
Until recently, the Maldives tourism authority tightly controlled where and what hotels could open across the archipelago. Licenses for new establishments were only granted on uninhabited islands and atolls, which meant big-name resort developments dominated the scene. Much to the glee of independent travelers (and tourism-savvy locals), that’s since been relaxed, so there’s now an array of B&Bs, surf resorts, and casual hotels to pick from, along with the usual five-star honeymoon retreats with those trademark overwater bungalows. Here’s a glance at what’s on offer:
- Kuredu Island Resort & Spa ($$$) – Overwater bungalows on white-sand beaches await at this four-star gem.
- Vaali Beach Lodge Maldives ($$) – A family-owned guesthouse that’s meters from a private beach.
- Sun Siyam Iru Fushi ($$$) – Honeymooners will love the pool-ready bungalows of this sleek resort.
Sri Lanka has an abundance of hotel options. The stays here run the gamut from chilled hostels for backpackers to opulent Ayurveda spa and yoga retreats in the hills. Prices (as we’ll see in more detail later) are almost certainly going to appeal to the wallet a little more than in the Maldives, even for the chicest stays. However, we’d say that the quality of hotels on the Teardrop of India is generally very high. Here’s a look at the sorts of places you can expect to find across the island:
- Kiri Palu ($$) – A charming villa just a few steps inland from the reef breaks of Ahangama.
- The Golden Crown Hotel ($$) – A lovely hotel overlooking Kandy and the forests of the Central Highlands.
- EKHO Ella ($$) – Expect fantastic mountain views from this relaxing hotel in Sri Lanka’s tea country.
Winner: The Maldives. Those overwater bungalows steal the show but remember you’re going to pay for the luxury!
Sri Lanka or Maldives for cost of travel
The Maldives is never going to beat Sri Lanka when it comes to price. Not a chance. The string of 1,200 isles in the Indian Ocean is proper honeymoon territory and there’s always a premium to be paid for its paradise looks and chic hotels. Most estimations put the cost of a seven-day trip here somewhere in the region of $2,000-5,500 per person, based on hotel rates that can easily be upwards of $250 a night, and excursions and trips – scuba, surf boats, fishing – that range from $80-160 a pop.
Things are noticeably cheaper in Lanka. Here, you can dine out on curry and rice for $3-5 per person. You can stay in a pretty classy hotel with a pool right by the Indian Ocean for $40-80 a night. Oh, and you can catch a whole day’s train through the Central Mountains for the same price as a beer! Where things will get more expensive is in the chicest resorts and honeymoon hotels, where rates can crank up to over $220 a night. Still, average spending is between $600-1,200 a week per person. AKA, way less than in the Maldives.
Winner: It’s always going to be Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka or Maldives for things to do
Once associated with nothing but rest, relaxation, and romance, the Maldives are now coming out of their shell little. The islands now host all sorts, from surf-boat outings for barrel hunters wanting to hit spots like Chickens or Jailbreaks (very consistent and fun spots at that) to deep-sea fishers on the hunt for mahi mahi and tuna. Diving is also extremely popular in the Maldives. The top season with the highest visibility is December to May, and there are more scuba locations than you can shake a brain coral at.
Sri Lanka is a true Asian experience, though. It trumps the Maldives by offering legendary surf breaks, from Arugam Bay to Hikkaduwa, but also soaring mountains dressed in tea plantations for the hikers, bucket-list safaris in Yala to see the leopards, boating adventures for whale watching in Mirissa, and enthralling human history at Buddhist shrines like Kandy’s Temple of the Sacred Tooth. And that’s really just the beginning!
Winner: Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka or Maldives for nightlife
Nightlife in the Maldives is pretty chilled. Most travelers here are limited to a single resort or a relaxed beach town, and, since it’s a Muslim country, alcohol isn’t as widely sold as in other parts of Asia. On top of that, the vibe is more honeymoon than hedonism, which keeps the action in even the more touristy areas like the Male Atoll to a minimum. Oh, and we’re not even mentioning the fact that you have to fork out extra dosh here for beers and wines (the Maldives are quite pricy, remember?).
While we wouldn’t put Sri Lanka down as one of Asia’s major partying meccas a la Koh Phangan, there is certainly some energy once the sun’s dipped on the horizon. A couple of places really stand out. First, there’s Mirissa on the southwest coast. It’s a backpacker haven with jungle bars and beachfront bars that get lively in the peak season. Second, there’s Ella, which hosts an array of reggae bars that fill with hikers fresh from the trails. Then there’s Arugam Bay, which hosts surf beer shacks for wave riders in the summer months.
Winner: Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka or Maldives for food
The Maldives is the home of Dhivehi cuisine. That’s a fusion of south Indian, Sri Lankan, Persian and East African cooking that’s pretty unique and downright tasty. Major ingredients include taro root, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and green bananas, and there’s usually a heavy use of strong spices. Fish is also a major player – just look at the map and you’ll see why! Things you simply have to try include garudhiya (a coconuty fish soup) and bis keemiya (a Maldivian samosa packed with tuna and egg).
Then comes Sri Lanka. This is a land of zingy curries infused with brinjal and ginger, spicy dahls for breakfast, lunch and dinner, coconut-tossed fish cuts on the BBQ, and fiery sambal sides that get the taste buds tingling for hours on end. The whole cuisine is characterized by a freshness and exoticism that you just don’t find elsewhere in Asia, which is why we think it just about trumps the Maldives to the top on this list.
Winner: Sri Lanka.
The Maldives or Sri Lanka – our verdict
The truth is that the Maldives and Sri Lanka are quite different places. They might not be very far from each other in the depths of the Indian Ocean, but one – the Maldives – is really angled towards travelers on the hunt of rest and relaxation, but with potential surf trips and scuba dives on the side. Sri Lanka is a more hands-on and hectic experience that’s about riding tuk-tuks to surf breaks, tasting spicy coconut curry, and hiking trails in the Central Highlands.