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Culture shock Sri Lanka

May 30, 2013

elephants around

It’s easy to be a tourist but much more difficult to understand the people in your destination. There’s a dearth of information on the everyday challenges of this fascinating island, from which hand to receive your change in, to giving appropriate gifts to your hosts. A friend is off to Sri Lanka shortly so I thought it was a good opportunity to pen a few pointers about the culture that I learned during my four month stay. Hope you enjoy them, and I look forward to hearing your tips and experiences, too.

TRAVELLING AROUND

eating short eatsFood

If you want to look like a tourist, ask for a knife and fork. No-one will laugh, I promise.

Otherwise eat with your right hand (never the left) and enjoy the sensation. Every restaurant has somewhere for hand washing – just ask.

Any bakery will give you a selection of delicious pastries if you ask for ‘a plate of short eats’. You won’t pay for the ones that you don’t eat – but it’s considered perfectly acceptable to prod and poke them.

You can get almost all food wrapped up ready to take away if you ask as you order.

“Where are you going?”

A standard phrase in Sri Lanka, see this as a conversation opener rather than the sign of a stalker!

Young Sri Lankans in particular may ask for your email address.  You’re unlikely to hear from them but this simple detail tends to be all they are looking for.

Buses and trains

If you see a woman standing you may like to offer her a seat. If you’re a lady yourself, you may like to find where all the other gals are sitting and perch yourself among them.

Buying things

Take your change with both hands to show respect. Never take anything (money, goods) with your left hand – it’s considered dirty.

For a less formal touch, hold your right elbow with your left hand as you receive your change or pay.

As in lots of countries, paying for small items with a big note will get you a few “tsk”s. The biggest note you should pay for things under 50Rs is 100Rs.

hotel

In your hotel

Things that you consider essential may be seen as a luxury in Sri Lanka, such as a towel for each guest; hot water; a mosquito net; soap; a sheet over the bed. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask politely for these things.

Nightlife

Most Sri Lankans are tucked up in bed by 10pm, and the nightlife reflects that. Women in particular don’t tend to go out after dark. It doesn’t mean you should be unduly concerned about doing so, but just be aware that your behaviour might be seen as unusual, and take all the usual precautions.

Women in Sri Lanka never drink; it’s considered insulting to suggest that they might.  It stands to reason that pubs and bars (usually attached to hotels outside the tourist areas) are male affairs.  Foreign women will be served courteously, albeit with some amusement.

However, when drinking in late-night bars, women may attract a lot of attention.  A firm ‘no’ and a wave of a wedding ring (imaginary or otherwise) will see off most potential suitors.

AT HOME

Visiting someone’s home

Always take your shoes off (or make an attempt to) when you enter someone’s home. Sri Lankans never walk around at home with shoes on.

It’s not polite to point the soles of your feet at people. If you’re sitting on the floor, go cross legged or put your feet flat on the floor.

You will almost always be offered tea, and likely something to eat.  It’s wise to accept this gesture as a sign of interest.  If you don’t want something, you will be asked a number of times – again, this is just to show hospitality.  You may need to be firm in refusing.

As you may have guessed by now, it’s considered polite to accept second helpings. A clean plate will be interpreted as a sign that you’re still hungry. Showing interest in a particular food, or in the food on someone else’s plate, may result in them giving it to you (learned from experience!).

People often have a siesta between 1.30-4pm, for between 1-3 hours. If you’re invited for lunch, you may be expected to leave promptly afterwards.

Gifts

Always take something when you visit a Sri Lankan home. Biscuits or a very small souvenir from home (such as a couple of pens or postcards) will be much appreciated. However, don’t expect people to mention or open the gifts, it’s not the done thing to swoon over them.

Give and receive with both hands to show respect.

RELIGION

Everyone is something. They may be confused if you aren’t 🙂

Dambulla monksVisiting a temple

There are so many stunning Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka that you’re sure to find yourself wandering into one at some point. It’s perfectly acceptable to go in, at any time of day, as they are open places of worship. However, you should ensure that you take your shoes off on holy ground (look for the piles of sandals to the side of the entrance) and remain covered up, which means no shorts or skirts over the knee, and shoulders covered.  The monks can provide you with a sarong if you’ve come in your holiday gear.

Once inside, walk clockwise round the stupa (large mound) and don’t turn your back on the main Buddha statue. Respect the silence.  Some temples may appreciate a donation – 100 Rs per person is enough, as elsewhere, double that if you are given a full tour. Ask a monk for a blessing and he will say prayers and wind a bracelet round your wrist. Again, a donation is appreciated.

Taking photos of the Buddha image is a big no-no.

In a Hindu temple, the rules are the same for women, but men may conversely be expected to remove their shirt. This can be a relief on a hot day.  Once again, take care to remove your shoes, and proceed clockwise.  You should not take photos inside.

Poya days

Every month, lucky Sri Lankans get a day off to celebrate the arrival of the full moon. What does that mean for the traveller? If you need to visit a bank, go the day before (but not in the afternoon – it’ll be busy). Either side of the poya day you’d be wise to book on public transport, or arrive early. And don’t expect to get an alcoholic drink on a poya day – although some sneaky hotels may bend the rules and serve you beer in a teapot to dodge the authorities.

SENSITIVE ISSUES

Guys and children

There’s a big issue with child trafficking and prostitution in Sri Lanka, particularly along the west coast resorts. Don’t be surprised if parents are especially protective of their children in these areas, especially if you’re a guy.

Clothing

Sri Lankans consider dress to be an essential part of your presentation. Traditional Sri Lankan women will wear long skirts, tops that cover their shoulders and upper arms, and will avoid trousers and any skirt above the knee. You will often see girls bathing in their clothes – swimsuits haven’t hit Sri Lankan beaches. Men wear long trousers and T-shirts or shirts, whatever the weather. Be aware that in more conservative areas, religious sites and the North, you may attract attention if you choose to dress differently.  Foreign ladies will draw fewer stares if they swim in the sea in a T-shirt and shorts.

Point Pedro road, Jaffna

Recent history

Once you get to know someone, you may find they are quite open about the recent civil war, tsunami damage and their continuing struggles. However, it’s probably wise to let your new friends bring it up rather than probing – almost everyone knows someone injured or killed in both tragedies.

Marriage

When travelling with a companion of the opposite sex, don’t be offended if people think you’re married. It’s just that Sri Lankans rarely have close friends of the opposite sex that they’d hang out with alone. Go with the flow or explain that things are different in your country.  Same-sex couples are rarely seen ‘out’ in public, and displays of affection (including holding hands) are rare outside the immediate family.

As you might expect, family is often a safe topic of conversation and people will be delighted to hear about your siblings and other family members.

Money

It’s a good idea to bear in mind the average wages of a Sri Lankan.  A tea-picker earns about 600 Rs a day; an office worker about 18,000 Rs a year.  The cost of your flight, your shoes, and even your posh restaurant meal may be overwhelming to the average person.  I white-lied my way through these questions by fibbing that I couldn’t remember, or that things were ‘a gift’.

Having said that, haggling is common. It’s fine to ask for a discount on your hotel room, especially if you’re staying for more than one night.  Expect, however, to be shown a ‘cheaper’ room if you go down this route.  Like everything else in Sri Lanka, such financial deliberations are always done with a smile.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2015 6:47 pm

    This is exactly what I needed! I’m heading to Sri Lanka for five weeks with my boyfriend and we want to respect their culture as much as possible. Great article- thanks!!

    • May 6, 2015 10:53 am

      What a lovely motivation. Sri Lankans are far more conservative than their tourist population, tis true. Have a fantastic time!

  2. Briana permalink
    August 24, 2015 2:24 pm

    Thanks for the tips, I am headed to Sri Lanka in a week. Enjoyed this read!!

  3. September 5, 2015 3:56 am

    I’m book marking this page. We are off to Sri Lanka next year and as always when we travel we try to be respectful as a guest in their country. Thank you for sharing these very useful tips.

  4. anika permalink
    October 28, 2015 4:15 pm

    Die Leute aus Sri Lanka sind so dumm. wie so baden sie mit den Klamotten.. kann mir Gar nicht vorstellen. Und warum ziehen die Lehrerinnen saree? das passt gar nicht zu der Kultur und für warmes Land.

  5. Chamara Wijerathna permalink
    January 14, 2016 6:16 pm

    Hello there..! I’m just a sri lankan young guy(21 yrs) that accidently get on to this page. But actually i’ve to say that the author had done well in writing this article. We Srilankans warmly welcome anyone from anycountry. So, don’t be affraid to ask anything here from a person seems a gentlement. But be aware.Someone may loving your money. Don’t get caught..!If you wanna get security, please just call a policeman on the road wearing a kaki colored dress.. They’re ready to help you. So,friends come, enjoy your unforgetable days here.. We Warmly Welcome you..! more problems?–wijerathnachamara8@gmail.com/ fb– chamara wijerathna-kurunegala SriLanka.

  6. Juvy permalink
    July 25, 2016 4:45 am

    Hi! I’m really planning to go to Sri Lanka this December, if allows to attend my male friend’s weeding. I just want to ask and know if this is ethical? I’m a woman. thanks..

  7. Dr.Syed Niaz permalink
    September 12, 2017 3:57 am

    Sri Lanka really a paradise on the earth with soft and decent people with a smile on their face.

Trackbacks

  1. Shocking Sri Lanka? | Sri Lankan Stories

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