Thinking of joining the Sri Lanka programme? _SocialStarters consultant Daniah Shariff on the ground in Sri Lanka shares her tips in this latest blog post!
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with so much to see and culture to absorb. I’ve been based in Colombo for about a month now and have done a bit of travelling over the weekends. There are a few things I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) so I thought I would give any travellers the heads up!
1) Sri Lankans are very friendly people and will say hi to you when your outfit or skin tone screams ‘I’m a tourist’. They will also probably ask you where you’re from. I was a bit taken back by this when I first arrived as we Londoners consider speaking to strangers as cardinal sin. It all comes from a good place so don’t feel like they’re intruding – just smile and nod at least.
2) Take an umbrella with you regardless of what season you travel in. We arrived in what was said to be the hottest April on record, which was pretty uncomfortable. I noticed many Sri Lankans using umbrellas as parasols – it’s a fab idea! Having said that, we are now entering their rainy season which makes London’s rain look like pathetic drizzle in comparison.
3) Sri Lanka’s equivalent of our zebra crossings – while these look like crossings, no driver will ever stop for you. The aim of the game is to find a gap, start crossing and they’ll have no choice but to let you cross. Or you could choose to wait and watch life pass you by. At peak times, there are usually traffic wardens who help you cross the road – reminiscent of the lollipop man back in the day.
4) Don’t expect that all plug points will be the British three square pins. Some places do have them, but most don’t. Here they use three round pins so you can get hold of an adaptor at any supermarket like Cargills Food City for under 200 SLR (£1).5) If you find yourself needing toiletries, beware that you won’t find all your favourite brands that you’re used to. And if you do happen to find that all important branded body wash, it will cost a lot more than back home so pack those creature comforts you can’t live without. Don’t expect to buy SPF cream or insect repellent out here either.
6) This didn’t affect me but on new moon days known as Poya, no alcohol is served or can be bought so it might be worth checking when that day falls and working around it. On that note, my group found that wine is hard to find here and when you do see it on a menu, it’s ridiculously overpriced so the best alternative apparently is the local ‘Lion Beer’.
7) Getting around Colombo is easy.
– Local buses are less than 10 SLR (5p) a journey. Yes, that’s right…. 5p! Take note TFL! They may not be for you as they’re often crowded and a little worn out but worth a try anyway.
– Tuk Tuks – These little mean and not so green machines seat a maximum of three people. No seat belts and they weave in and out of traffic so get used to rubbing shoulders with buses and cars. There are loads of them around but make sure you take one with a metre. Not one that says ‘metred taxi’, but one that actually has a working metre (there’s a stark difference). Base fare is 50 SLR so you can expect to pay something like 250 SLR (£1.20) for a 20 minute journey. Note outside of Colombo, they don’t always have metres so agree on the price (haggle) before you get in! It’s worth whipping out google maps to help your driver navigate around the city! Also, carry small rupee notes, you’ll be faced with a frustrated driver and having to get change at a shop if you whip out 1000 rupee notes and above.
– Über – I had never used über before I arrived here but it came in handy when I needed to get to work in the heat. They come to around the same price as Tuk Tuks in Colombo but work out better if you have more than three people or luggage. Bear in mind, most drivers don’t know how to use sat nav so you may find yourself a) watching their car go in circles for 10 minutes before they get to your pickup location or b) having to direct them yourself! An alternative is to download the ‘Pick Me’ or ‘Kangaroo Cabs’ apps. They take cash so you don’t have to link your credit card as with über.8) Phone data – I got a Dialogue (type of network) sim for about £6 at the airport, which gave some minutes and oodles of data (5GB) of data for one month. This is a steal as you’d pay a packet for the equivalent in the UK and you’ll find yourself needing data to get around etc. Free wifi is also very hit and miss so don’t expect it to be as good or as available as back home.
9) Cash/credit cards -tourist attractions nearly always only take cash and it’s rather annoyingly a hefty fee for tourists and a pittance for locals. Make sure you set out with say 5000 SLR (£25) for entry fees – more if you hire a driver to take you for a day. Restaurants etc claim they don’t take Amex but be assertive about this as it’s more a case of they don’t like the higher fee. There are ATMs scattered around that take Visa or MasterCard but due to withdrawal charges I prefer to change cash. If in Colombo, go to York Street near Fort Railway Station where there are quite a few exchange places next door to each other. The rates are way better than I got in London and they don’t take commission. I recommend Swiss Money Exchange.
10) Water – always carry water with you! Not a small individual bottle, but a 1litre bottle. The heat can be so intense, you’ll find yourself drinking a lot more water than usual – especially if you choose to climb Sigiriya etc. The good thing is you can buy 1litre bottled water for as little as 50 SLR (25p) in small cafés or hotels (a term used for restaurants over here). In a more upmarket restaurant, expect to pay around 200 SLR (£1) or more for the same thing.
11) Food – this is the by far the best bit about Sri Lanka! Their food is mostly rice and curry but boy is it good and cheap! If you are fine with not so swish surroundings, there are hundreds of ‘hotels’ that serve egg hoppers, kottu, curries and more. Here you can get a delicious meal for a mere 200 SLR (£1) and I haven’t had Delhi Belly yet.
So there you have it! Some nifty little tips that will hopefully make your Sri Lankan experience that extra bit more enjoyable!
Would you like to #JoinUs in either Brazil, India, or Sri Lanka in 2016? APPLY HERE. Immersion Programmes are running throughout the year as well as a new programme format for people who can’t take 6 weeks out of their lives – our 2-3 week Inspiration Programme in Rio in August/September, and our flexible volunteer programme _TheAssignment. See our website for more details www.socialstarters.org.