Top 5 Do’s and Don’ts in Sri Lanka

With so many new sights, sounds, aromas and people you will encounter, how will you avoid making disastrous cultural mistakes? Here are my top 5 Do’s & Don’ts!

  • Do respect the “way of life”

The majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhist numbering over 70%, and the majority of them practice Theravada Buddhism which is viewed as the “lesser vehicle” of Buddhism. This type of Buddhism is more conservative than Mahayana or the “greater vehicle” version of Buddhism. We should also mention here that nationals do not view Buddhism as a religion but simply a way of life. Theravada is practiced by over 100 million people in the world in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka.

Theravada Buddhism draws its teaching from the Tipitaka or Pali canon which virtually every Buddhist scholar concedes were the earliest teachings of the Buddha in the Pali language. Couple this with the fact it is believed the Buddha visited many sites in Sri Lanka, and you can begin to understand why the Buddha is so revered. While Buddha was a man born in what is today modern Nepal, he was “enlightened” at which time he began to spread his teachings.

Today in Sri Lanka you’ll want to abide by these tips in order to honor and respect their way of life:

  • Do not physically touch a monk as this is viewed as disrespectful
  • Do not take selfies with a statue of a Buddha
  • Do not turn your back on any statue of the Buddha
  • Dress appropriately when going to religious sites or temples
  • Understand that on Full Moon Poya Days (monthly) there is no alcohol to be served or sold. No meat is sold in markets on these days either.
  • If you have tattoos of the Buddha on your body, you must take care to conceal these as it is considered disrespectful to have an image of the Buddha on your body
  • Do behave

It’s never cool to “lose your cool” in Sri Lankan culture. Most people feel that he who has thrown a tantrum or started shouting has embarrassed himself and the people with him greatly. Most people in the culture seek peace and cherish an eased and laid-back flow of life. They leave the loud angry outbursts for disrespectful tourists and obtrusive horn blasts from the necessary but loathed buses.

Remember when your teacher or maybe even your parents would advise you to “use your inside voice?” Keep that in mind during your stay here and you’ll start to blend in with the nationals. That’s not to say Sri Lankans don’t know how to celebrate and shout for the Sri Lankan cricket team, especially after a victory over rival India! However, in casual settings the quieter the better. If you get too loud, they’ll just assume you’re a drunk tourist or savage.

Many of our guests enjoy the beach and lounging by the pool of their hotel or boutique, and that’s great! Just keep in mind that nude or topless sunbathing is illegal on public beaches and in virtually every resort save the private suite with a personal plunge pool. Bikini’s and bathing suits are fine but go too skimpy and you should expect stares and some whispering and maybe even a request to cover yourself more.

You’re enjoying paradise – and may even possibly be on your honeymoon- but PDA is frowned upon. Holding hands is fine, but when you look around you won’t see public cuddling, long embraces and beyond that in public. Most Sri Lankan’s understand you’re on vacation and a peck on the cheek or even a quick kiss is fine. If you go beyond this just go to your room or get a room!

With the exponential increase of tourism, the night life offerings are increasing as well. Colombo now has a number of night clubs, and in popular beach areas you will see “pop-up” beach parties usually hosted by some small hotel or restaurant. You will see nationals take part in this fun but remember you’re still in a primarily Buddhist and conservative country. Public drunkenness is viewed negatively by the majority, not to mention, it can put your own safety at risk. (Be sure to read “Is Sri Lanka Safe to Visit”)

After living in Sri Lanka a number of years, I can tell you the food is amazing and so diverse. Make sure you read our blog on Sri Lankan food here for an idea of what is available.

Some of my favorites include pork curry, fish curry (ambul thiyal) brinjal moju and for dessert curd & treacle. Trying the local foods will endear you to the people and you should dive in right hand first! That’s right, most Sri Lankan’s don’t use utensils, believing that the use of metal forks or spoons negatively affects the taste of the curries. Also, why would you want one more thing to wash at the end of the meal? For some tips on eating with your hand you should check out this video here:

While on the subject of eating with your hands, it’s important to remember that the left hand is considered unclean so make sure you are using the right hand. The left hand is used for washing and also for cleansing oneself after defecation especially in rural areas of Sri Lanka. With that in mind, you’d be wise to use your right hand for shaking hands as well as for eating. Once you’ve tried eating with your hand you may not like it, and that’s fine. All our hand selected hotels, boutiques, and guest houses have silverware available.

  • Do pack appropriately

Packing for a diverse climate, while trying to pack light, can be a little bit tricky. What you will need to consider is where your travels will take you during your visit to paradise. Primarily, you want to pack light, loose-fitting clothes for most of your journey here. The capital of Colombo is located at 7 degrees north of the equator so it’s typically hot. The average temperature island wide is 27.2 degrees Celsius with much cooler temperatures in the hill or tea country.

If your travels are taking you to the tea country, you should be prepared for temperatures between 10 – 20 degrees Celsius, dependent upon the time of year. For more information on temperatures and best times to visit check out our blog here. Remember that in the upper elevations rain and fog are high possibilities from time to time which may make you feel colder. Layering and a light rain coat or poncho may be helpful as well. Leave the umbrella at home as most hotels will have complimentary ones available; and if not, they are abundant and affordable to come by.

If your itinerary includes Buddhist sites, mosques or Kovils (Hindu temples), both men and women will need long pants and tops which cover the shoulders. Comfortable slip on shoes or sandals are also helpful because at nearly every religious site you will be asked to remove your shoes prior to entering the area.

In general, modesty is the key as you consider what type of clothing to bring with you. Most days shorts and t-shirts or a nice button up are appropriate. Personally, I find moisture wicking or dry fit type shirts and/or pants to be the most comfortable given the climate. For ladies, mini-skirts, short shorts or any clothing that is overly revealing is not usually appropriate. You will see tourists dressed this way but overall you want to be a respectful guest, so consider that when packing.

  • Do factor in travel times

Sri Lankan roads and train routes are crowded and can be a source of great frustration as you move about the country. Many guests choose to do helicopter or domestic plane transfers to move more quickly from one destination to the next. But there are times when the weather simply doesn’t cooperate, and train or car travel cannot be avoided.

Because we have lived here and know the traffic tendencies, each itinerary we’ve put together has careful consideration of departure, transit and arrival times. While you can’t expect a journey void of traffic, you can know we’ve worked hard to minimize its effect on your vacation.

Some guests have a tendency to rely upon GPS or popular traffic apps for their travel here; simply put, this technology hasn’t mastered the unpredictability of the conditions here yet. When you see a 5-hour transit time on your itinerary, and Google Maps says you can make it 3 hours, trust us. You’re on vacation and we don’t want you to worry and fret with the details.

  • Don’t take pictures of people without permission

A great way to take memories home of your time in Sri Lanka is with photography and candid smart phone snapshots, and you should do it! In general, it’s good to get someone’s permission before taking their picture. Because this is an honor/shame type of culture combined with the fact that many live in poverty, it’s never appropriate to take a photo which may highlight the misfortune of a person or group of people. While this may not be your intention, just take the extra little step and ask if you can take their picture or take a selfie with them.

Obviously, there may be times when you are taking a broad shot to capture a site or landscape which includes people, and that is understandable. Be aware that at some historical and cultural sites it may be necessary to purchase an additional permit to take photos if you’re carrying large amounts of professional equipment. Recently we’ve been asked about the use of drones for photography, and as with so many things in Sri Lanka – ask before doing so – ask politely and with a cheerful and polite disposition. Sri Lankans are delightful and accommodating and most of the time they are going to try and help you.

  • Don’t compare Sri Lanka to India

While Sri Lanka may be influenced heavily by India, it is not part of India nor has it ever been! In addition, not too many nationals are overly exuberant about the influence India has had on Sri Lanka over the years. Sri Lanka often does play the role of the “step brother” to India and that’s never a comfortable spot to be in, so be aware of this and avoid making comparisons.

Some quick differences would be:

  • Sri Lanka is primarily Buddhist, India is primarily Hindu
  • While both countries exist on rice and curry, the types and tastes of Sri Lankan food are distinct from India
  • Sinhala is the primary language of Sri Lanka, India has 22 national languages and Sinhala is not one of them
  • In general, Sri Lanka is less densely populated meaning it’s cleaner and less crowded

I have traveled to India and can understand the attraction, but I choose to live and work in Sri Lanka. The country of Sri Lanka is a bit more quaint, less busy and crowded, less modernized and all of these things are attractive to me. When I was asked about the highlight of my trip to India, I responded that the departure gate at the Delhi airport when returning to Sri Lanka was my favorite part. In the 6 years since my India visit this hasn’t changed! For more information on this whole crazy subject check out our article 7 reasons Why Sri Lanka is not India.

  • Don’t stay too long in Colombo

While we live and base in Colombo, we leave the city as often and for as long as we can. Colombo and its suburbs are growing and increasing monthly, so along with that growth comes traffic, noise, heat and constant construction. The city is quickly becoming one of Asia’s premier modern cities, but there is not much unique to Colombo that you can’t experience in any other large city in the world. In our itineraries we work hard to show you the highlights of the city, but don’t be surprised if your plans only call for one night or at most two in the capital of Sri Lanka.

What makes Sri Lanka attractive and stunningly beautiful are the beaches, mountains, wildlife safaris, historical sites and most of all the people. Many in the city are busy, focused and grinding through the week so they too can leave the city and enjoy this beautiful country.

  • Don’t drink the tap water

While Sri Lanka is a developing country, some modern conveniences like clean potable water from the tap are just not possible. Talk to any national and you’ll discover that very few of them drink from the tap. While you will observe some drinking from the tap, also remember that the average Sri Lankan takes anti-parasitic medicine every 6 months or so.

Just stick with bottled water. It’s readily available throughout the country and it is regulated by a health ministry organization. It’s recommended you use the bottled water for brushing your teeth as well.

  • Don’t miss out on the fruits

While we’ve encouraged you to try the local foods; fruits in Sri Lanka deserve their own write up here. It’s probably not possible for you to try every fruit but I’ll give you top picks or favorites of mine below:

  • Pineapple – I know you can get a pineapple at home in the market, right? Pineapple at home has been picked weeks in advance of its ripeness and has been shipped hundreds of miles arriving to you acidic and often sour. Guess what, pineapple is sweet, juicy and best enjoyed fresh so you must check it out while here.
  • Mango – Similar story to pineapples in terms of your bleh experience with it? Large varieties and fresh mangos here are plentiful. Some even enjoy unripe mango with a little bit of chili sprinkled on a slice.
  • Passion fruit – this small round fruit can be sweet and tangy and is truly so refreshing on a hot day.
  • Bananas – There are over 30 varieties of bananas to enjoy: small, large, yellow, red or green. The “seeni-kesel” is a personal favorite but you should try it for yourself.
  • Raw jackfruit – Sweet and resembling the taste of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum is the only way I can describe this. The season for this is limited in the months of April – June typically but it can be found at other times. Often called the “miracle fruit” you can learn more about this fruit and it’s use in various stages of development here:
  • Wood Apple, Soursop and Rambutan are three of my favorites that deserve attention here as well.

So, there you have it, an overview of the must do’s and the don’ts here in Sri Lanka! We’ve given you a great start here, but most of all remember to ask questions, be polite and then you will be inspired and awed by this land of great diversity and wonder.