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A traveller's guide to Sri Lankan etiquette

A traveller's guide to Sri Lankan etiquette

One of the most exciting things about long-haul travel is the culture shock that meets you alongside that warm breeze when you finally step off the plane. Being in a place where the customs and traditions are totally different to what you're used to is often a freeing and refreshing sensation, but it does mean that you have to adjust your behaviour somewhat to ensure you don't offend local people.

After an incredible trip to Sri Lanka this summer, here's my advice on fitting in with the locals when exploring this stunning, verdant island.

Dress conservatively

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette - visiting Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a conservative country: in fact, it is much more conservative than I imagined when I first booked the trip. I've visited plenty of countries where dressing "politely" is important, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, although in Southeast Asia there often seems to be one rule for tourists and another for locals. In Sri Lanka it was different.

When travelling in the so-called "Pearl of the Orient", tourists need to pay heed to the country's conservative culture, demonstrating their respect for the people of the island nation through both their attire and their behaviour.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette - dress conservatively to feel at home with locals

A good rule is to ensure your knees and shoulders are covered when you're out in public. If you're taking to the streets, visiting a temple, or using public transport, the people around you will feel more comfortable if you're conservatively dressed. This in turn will help you feel at home in the country and to have meaningful, positive interactions with locals. This is particularly important if you're getting a bus or a train, where you'll be physically in close proximity with Sri Lankans. When inside a resort, or reclining around the hotel pool, you can relax your dress code a little - this is expected, and won't shock anyone.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette - culture shocks in Sri Lanka

Be polite

Ensuring you're dressed conservatively will help you to make a good first impression on the Sri Lankans you'll encounter throughout your day - but you also need to ensure your behaviour matches your appearance.

The local people we encountered on our trip to Sri Lanka were generally polite, helpful and charming - and everyone had a friend who wanted to take us on a tour. The difficulty comes in refusing the sales pitches of the people who approach you on the streets in busy cities like Kandy.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette

For the best outcome, make sure you remain polite and smiling throughout these interactions - even when you feel a bit harassed. Getting stressed out is only going to turn a potentially pleasant interaction into one you leave feeling a little upset. Just smile, say a firm "thank you but no" and continue on your way.

Look out for the Sri Lankan head wobble!

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette - train journey from Ella to Kandy

On "the most beautiful train journey in the world" from Ella to Kandy, we got chatting to a man sat in our third class carriage. We offered him some of our crisps and he laughed as we contended with the spicy snacks we were sold on the journey. He pointed out all the photo opportunities along the route and told us a little about each place.

When it came time for him to disembark, he smiled at us and moved his head from side to side in a gesture unique to that part of the world. We were elated! We'd finally been the recipients of a Sri Lankan head wobble.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette - man on train

The first time you see one, the gesture is likely to leave you surprised. The individual smiles and very rapidly moves their head from side to side in a learned motion that is almost impossible to imitate, and - if you've never been to Sri Lanka or India before - one you'll never have experienced.

So what does it mean? If you're on the receiving end of a Sri Lankan head wobble, consider it a gesture of friendship, agreement or acknowledgement. In a nutshell - it's a good thing!

The drinking culture is very different

A holiday would usually be the perfect time to indulge in a couple of cocktails or beers, or to treat yourself to a delicious wine with dinner. However, Sri Lankans treat drinking very differently to those of us in Europe.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette  - special bottle shop

Firstly - it's just not as easy to buy booze. Alcoholic drinks are not served in restaurants as standard, and you have to go to a special bottle shop if you want to buy any outside the confines of a hotel, restaurant or bar. On our first night in Kandy we went to a few different restaurants looking for one that would serve us a beer with our curry, before realising this was just not normal practice in the holy city and admitting defeat.

Furthermore, older Sri Lankans in particular stick to drinking a potent spirit called arrack - meaning classic options like wine and beer are not that popular or widely available.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette

When in cities such as Kandy your best bet for enjoying a few beers or a chilled glass of wine will be at your hotel, which should be well-stocked. However, if you're partial to a tipple with your dinner, it's worth checking ahead of time if the restaurant you're planning to visit serves alcohol. Coastal towns like Mirissa and Galle tend to have Western-style bars and restaurants for tourists, serving cocktails and other alcoholic drinks alongside Western food.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette - beach bars lining the coast in Mirissa and Galle

Our route took us from Colombo to Kandy, then Ella, Mirissa and Galle. We found that Mirissa and Galle had the most opportunities for partying, with beach bars lining the coast, and Ella boasted a handful of hip bars. However, even here, it was not the high-octane nightlife you'll find in countries with a more established tourist trail.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette

What's more - on some days of the year it's illegal to buy or sell alcohol in Sri Lanka at all. When we visited in May, the Buddhist festival of Vesak was taking place, and alcohol was entirely unavailable during this time. It is worth noting, however, that some restaurants offered alcohol-free beer for those with a hankering for a frosty pint.

People will likely expect men to take the lead

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette  - men take the lead

Sri Lanka remains a traditional country, and in my experience there, it was clear the people from the service industry we came into contact with were more comfortable interacting with my boyfriend than with me. He was expected to be the decision maker, and also to deal with monetary transactions. For example, whenever I paid for anything, he was handed the change. We also fielded a number of questions as to our marital status, which would have been invasive back home, but in Sri Lanka, were all part of the experience.

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette

While it was a little irritating to often have my presence ignored in favour of my boyfriend's, it's important to remember you're there to observe and learn more about a different culture - not to try and change it.

That said, Sri Lanka felt very safe, and had I been travelling alone or in the company of women, I don't doubt we would have been able to explore the country just as successfully.

Don't ask awkward questions

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette

Like many countries, Sri Lanka has a tumultuous history. While for some travellers learning about this is an interesting part of discovering the country, it is not advised that you ask such questions to locals.

In some cases, your tour guides may offer the information up - young people generally seem more open to discussing such matters - but largely, the local people are trying to put the past in the past, and will not enjoy a conversation in which it is brought up.

Give eating with your hands a go!

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette - eating delicious dishes

Indulging in local cuisine is an absolute treat in Sri Lanka, with a plethora of spicy curries, delicious breads, and dishes such as Kottu Roti - the nation's fast food of choice - to choose from.

While you will be given cutlery in Western-style restaurants, if you manage to get to a more authentic joint you can try eating with your hands like the locals do.

The trick is to mix up your rice and curry and then to create small balls with your forefingers. Try not to use any other parts of your hands, and don't lick your fingers afterwards: this is considered uncouth, and restaurants will typically have a sink for washing once you've finished your mouth-watering dish.

Use your common sense

A travellers guide to Sri Lankan etiquette

No matter where they are in the world, travellers should always keep their wits about them. Colombo - Sri Lanka's bustling capital - is no different to most of the world's other major cities, so don't take unnecessary risks, and ask the reception desk at your hotel for help if you're unsure of anything.

Sri Lanka is a colourful, delightful once-in-a-lifetime travel experience, and in most parts of the country you'll feel very safe. It's easy to get about using tuk-tuks and trains, and - if your experience is anything like mine - you'll be charmed by the local people who help you along the way. As long as you do your research about different parts of the country ahead of time, and plan well, you're in for a beautiful trip you'll remember forever.

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Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

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