Editor’s note: Elina Sundqvist is a journalist intern from Sweden, who recently spent time traveling and working in Sri Lanka. We are happy to hear her thoughts on useful tips for women travellers to the island, and welcome her insight as a foreign traveller.
All women know that there are certain precautions to be taken when travelling to new countries, especially when traveling solo. Sri Lanka is by no means a dangerous country to visit as a woman ‒ for that matter, it is not even on the 2015 International Women’s Travel Centre’s list of ‘10 Worst Countries in the World For Women Travellers.’
So if you are reading this list and want to come here, or already have a trip planned – that is awesome! Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with plenty of things to see and do. There are a few things to keep in mind, however, so we hope this list will help make your travels in Sri Lanka safe and fun.
1) Brace Yourself For The Staring
Even for a woman who is well travelled, the constant (and unwarranted) attention you receive from the opposite sex can be tough to handle. Sometimes people, predominantly men, will pass a misogynistic comment, whistle or make “sexy” faces at you if you make eye contact. Some might even try to take photos of you without your consent. Funnily enough, it’s a little like being a celebrity. People might not understand what the issue is if you complain, and may just laugh it off. They may even add that as you are a foreigner, people will find you exotic; hence the staring and the general creepy behaviour.
However, this is a real issue, one which shouldn’t be belittled. While most of the attention is harmless, and is best ignored, women should never have to feel uncomfortable or unsafe just walking down the street. Trying to think about it as a cultural difference might not ease the frustration, but it might explain why it happens.
2) Going Out After Dark By Yourself
Depending on who you ask – ranging from the average Sri Lankan mother to a fellow traveller – going out at night will either result in you being dragged into a dark alley and slaughtered, or is perfectly doable if precautions are taken.
The kind of precautions to be taken varies depending on which part of the island you plan to visit. Walking by yourself after dark in Unawatuna/Hikkaduwa/a popular tourist spot can almost, where safety is concerned, be compared to an European or American city, as there will most likely be a lot of other tourists out during nocturnal hours.
Colombo is a little different in the sense that there are not as many tourists, and a female traveller will most likely note that late at night, seeing a Sri Lankan woman out on the streets alone is a rare occurrence. That alone can make you feel unsafe — add groups of men lurking around, possibly staring at you, and tuk tuk drivers driving through dark alleys, and it can be hard not to imagine gruesome things ahead.
It is always best to travel with at least one companion, but if you are by yourself, remember that whatever feels unsafe, such as walking in dark alleys, being excessively intoxicated, and so on, is wise to avoid.
3) Riding Tuk Tuks Safely
In Sri Lanka, tuk tuks roaming the streets is as common as mosquitoes and temperatures over twenty-five degrees. A lot of the tuk tuks patrolling the streets are privately owned, unregulated vehicles, and you’ll do yourself a favour by not getting into one of those. While it is perfectly safe during the day, you will most likely encounter a rude(ish) driver who will do everything in his power to convince you that the meter is not working and try to rip you off by quoting a ridiculous price. To avoid this, use the PickMe app, which is easy for English-only speaking travellers since it involves little to no verbal communication. Alternately, you could even call for a tuk tuk via Fair Taxi, Budget Taxi or Online Cabs. Most Sri Lankan women prefer to take a Mini or a car after dark, but a tuk tuk attached to a well-known company is fine as well.
If you do get into an unregulated tuk tuk, remember to negotiate the price before getting in, and if you’re travelling in a metered one, make sure that the driver starts the meter before the drive begins. Sometimes they will pretend to push the ‘hire’ button but not actually do so, thus keeping a close eye on the meter the first few minutes is recommended (check out Roar’s article on things you should watch out for while taking a meter taxi here).
For foreign travellers getting off at Pettah, Fort or any other touristy area in Colombo: watch out for the tuk tuk drivers hanging around those places. They are known to be pushy in an aggressive way and don’t have or use meters. No matter how tired you are, call a company tuk tuk to come pick you up, because it will save you a lot of trouble. For travellers going to destinations outside Colombo, where all the tuk tuks are unmetered , don’t hop into the ones waiting at bus and/or train stations — getting one from a little further ahead will give you a much better price.
If you are ever worried or feel unsafe, it is smart to have your phone with you so that you can call someone and let them know where you are going and which landmarks you are passing by. This will let the driver know that somebody is keeping a tab on you. Even pretending to talk to someone on the phone might help, if you have no one to call.
4) Smoking And Drinking In Public
Smoking in public places such as bus stops or on the street is illegal and can lead to an unnecessary fine. In Sri Lanka, smoking, and drinking, are both considered a man’s thing, meaning you will see very few women having a cigarette or a beer. That is not saying that it never happens, but it is something worth thinking about when you are in the mood for some good old nicotine in the middle of the street.
Being intoxicated in Sri Lanka requires the same precautions as anywhere else in the world, such as thinking twice about accepting drinks from strangers, keeping your drink within your eyesight, and not drinking to the point where you’re not capable of taking care of yourself.
5) Wearing A Wedding Ring Can Help
It’s not uncommon for female travellers to get asked if they’re married, which can be tiresome, but is not meant in an offensive manner, nor as a reason to flirt; people here are simply unaccustomed to women getting around without a family member, friend or boyfriend/husband. Wearing a wedding ring is a tip that is commonly given to females travelling to developing countries. In Sri Lanka it will not ensure that men back off in their advances, but it will lessen the quota of men trying. Casually mentioning a boyfriend or husband waiting for you at your hotel or apartment will have the same effect.
6) Staying In Hotels And Receiving Strange Invitations
If you’re staying at a less recognised hotel, you may unfortunately meet some dodgy people. Worst-case scenario: drunken men will come and bang on your door in the middle of the night hoping for some “fun.” Several female travellers staying by themselves in hotel rooms have reported that male guests had asked them to come to their rooms, or had asked them for their room numbers. It can be unpleasant, but politely letting them know that you don’t want to give out that information usually works. Sometimes even staff members at hotels will come knock on your door late at night with some flimsy excuse and, logically, things such as new towels do not need to be given after 11 p.m.
7) Think About What You’re Wearing
You’re allowed to wear whatever you want, and in more tourist-packed places, no one will bat an eye if you wear shorts and a t-shirt, but wearing the same thing in Colombo or other more rural areas will attract a lot of attention. If that is something that you are not comfortable with, buy a pair of cosy elephant pants that you can find in nearly any corner of Sri Lanka and you are good to go.
Remember that when visiting temples and other religious places, it is mandatory to cover your knees and shoulders. If you happen to be wearing clothes that don’t cover those areas you might not be allowed to enter, or you will be given a sheet to cover yourself with. If you can, it is a plus to wear something white. Also, wearing Buddhist jewellery or clothes can sometimes be seen as offensive. For example, in 2014 a British woman was deported from Sri Lanka for having a Buddha tattoo on her arm.
Shoes are also often not allowed into places of worship and for foreigners they will sometimes offer to keep your shoes safe for a small charge. You will see locals leaving their shoes at the entrance, which if you want to save money, is a good option.
8) How To Get Around Like The Locals
Getting around Sri Lanka using the local commute system is an adventure in itself, with plenty of perks to it. First and foremost, no matter what you read online, it is completely safe for a woman. Not only is it also ridiculously cheap and easy, but there are several options on how to get around this tropical island. The craziest and cheapest option is taking the local bus, which means riding in a hot, crowded space for several hours while trying to ignore the overall loudness of people talking on the phone, the driver’s constant honking and the music threatening to blow the speakers. Taking the train is not as hectic and if you manage to grab a window seat, you are guaranteed an amazing view.
If you’re unsure of which bus or train to take, you can always ask someone who works at the bus or train station.
What to be wary of: Men sitting a little too close who try to rub their arms or legs against you. Either let them know that you’re not okay with what they’re doing, or sit down next to a woman. If that’s not an option, you can put your bag next to you, creating a physical barrier between you and your fellow passenger.
9) Sri Lankans Are Not As Conservative As You Might Think
They actually do swear, smoke, drink and wear clothes that the internet will tell you are strictly forbidden in Sri Lanka. For example, this writer herself was told that the world map tattoo on her arm needed to be covered at all times, otherwise all the Sri Lankans would ‘go nuts’. So far ‘go nuts’ has meant getting compliments and questions about it.
Therefore, don’t get overly shocked when you see young women on the bus wearing shorter clothes than you do. Or people drinking and having fun at the club. It may not be as common as in your own country, but it’s definitely not uncommon in Sri Lanka.
If you are a traveller and have any more useful tips for fellow travellers in Sri Lanka, please feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments section below.