Tips on how not to be an ‘ugly tourist’ on this island in the Indian Ocean…
‘Serendip’ is the ancient name for Sri Lanka and the island more than lives up to its name -- a joyful place.
The tiny nation of Sri Lanka has always loomed large in my imagination. My grandfather regaled us with tales of its abundant wild beasts and Radio Ceylon provided the soundtrack for my mother’s childhood; my father talked wondrously about the sacred footprint on Adam’s Peak as well as the mythical Lanka from the Ramayana, kingdom of the arch-villain Ravana.
Sri Lanka was to be my first foray into South Asia and I was a bit apprehensive about travelling on my own, but I didn’t want to miss out on an extraordinary experience because of my own unconscious biases. Being a lone woman in any country is never without hassle: it means being on one’s guard all the time, but I told myself to trust my own instincts and to take commonsense safety measures. It was also comforting that Sri Lanka is an English-speaking country and communication wouldn’t be that much of a problem.
This is when I started researching in earnest. I genuinely believe that uncertainty can be kept at bay by knowledge, so I asked friends, posted on the internet, trawled through online forums so I wouldn’t be just another "ugly tourist", disrespectful of cultural norms and thumbing my nose at the unfamiliar.
I hadn’t travelled or been on a vacation for years, and was feeling like I had lost the knack of being a carefree tourist, but as soon as I boarded the plane, it felt like that old adage about riding a bicycle: you never really forget how. I settled into my seat with my copy of an airport thriller, and said a silent prayer to the airplane gods.
Here are some of the ways you can make the most of the experience and keep anxiety away:
Decide on a dollar amount that you’ll spend in a day and stick to it, mine was USD20 and I was mostly successful in not exceeding my limit.
Bring US dollars or travellers’ cheques
It won’t be possible to exchange Pak rupee for Sri Lankan rupee and the ATM will charge USD4 for every transaction.
Get a local SIM
Prepaid SIMs can be easily bought in the arrival lounge of the Bandaranaike International Airport. I got mine for USD7 and it still had data and minutes left over after my trip. I used the internet extensively for booking rooms, finding cheap food options and Google maps whenever I got lost. Websites that were lifesavers: https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/asia/sri-lanka/, Tripadvisor and Booking.com
As a solo traveller on a budget, hostels and guesthouses are a godsend. Not only are they reasonably priced, they tend to attract likeminded and unique people from all over the globe. In Colombo, I booked a capsule in a boutique hostel in the historic Dutch Hospital District for USD12 per night, where, over breakfast, I bonded with a Japanese woman who lived in Bhutan and taught animation for a living. We had the best conversation about gender issues across Asia.
Dress according to the cultural norms
Sri Lanka is a moderately conservative society and people tend to wear modest clothing at most times. I knew I’d be visiting a lot of places of worship, so I chose to wear a short cotton kurta with full sleeves and shalwars. Sri Lankan women were mostly dressed in western attire with their arms and legs appropriately covered.
Sri Lankan food uses a lot of coconut and curry leaves. I really enjoyed the varieties of Kottu, Rotis, Stringhoppers and other staples that are readily available. If you are a fast food aficionado, you might be out of options, as it’s not as ubiquitous as it is in Pakistan. The food was cheap, plentiful -- and I would get it from bustling roadside restaurants so it was always fresh. Everything shuts down by 10pm so if you have a hankering for a midnight snack, better stock up on some nibbles.
Uber is only available in Colombo and provides excellent service. The local PickMe app works in Western Sri Lanka and is a good alternative to flagging down a tuktuk. I found negotiating with tuktuk drivers frustrating. They would quote exorbitant prices and would offer to take you to buy gems at "special prices". A hostel mate was swindled out of USD500 for a gem that was worth half that price.
Aside from tuktuks, I exclusively took local buses and trains everywhere. At no point did I feel unsafe or uncomfortable, even in buses full to the rafters. It’s an inexpensive and scenic way to travel. The only caution is not to travel after dark. If you are one for creature comforts, the air-conditioned trains have to be booked a month in advance. The government buses make routine stops, and are therefore not the speediest way to get to your destination. So if time is a factor, choose another option.
Pakistani men stare at women; its incessant, uncouth and insidious. I didn’t know I had gotten accustomed to it until I was in Sri Lanka and when I didn’t feel the weight of a thousand eyes on me, I felt almost weightless with relief. The kinship of being South Asian kicked in, the jokes about corrupt politicians, the love of cricket and tea and the fading spectre of colonialism, everything felt familiar yet different. I saw glimpses of my face in the ancient frescoes of Sigiriya, the reverence of the dargahs in the Temple of Tooth Relic or eating "Buryani" on the beach in Mirissa. And when an older Sri Lankan woman on the bus asked me about my "dark complexion", I knew I really belonged.