The good news is that Sri Lanka is a remarkably safe place to travel in, and violent crime against foreigners is virtually unheard of – this is still a place where, despite 25 years of brutal civil war, in parts of the country the theft of two bicycles is considered a crime wave. The only bad news is that scams and aggressive touting are widespread in a few places.
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Petty theft is less common than in many other parts of Asia (and rarer than in most European and American cities), though you should still take sensible care of your belongings. Pickpockets sometimes work in crowded areas, while thefts from hotel rooms are occasionally reported. Many hotels and guesthouses ask guests to deposit valuables in their safe, and it’s sensible to do so when you can. Muggings are very rare, though single travellers (especially women) should avoid dark beaches late at night – Negombo and Hikkaduwa have particularly bad reputations. In addition, make sure you keep a separate record of all your bank card details (along with the phone numbers needed in case of their loss) and passport information; it’s worth taking a photocopy of the pages from your passport that contain your personal details.
If you do have anything stolen, you’ll need to report it to the police – there’s little chance that they will be able to recover it for you, but you’ll need a report for your insurance claim. Given the fact that you might not find any English-speaking policemen on duty, you might try to get someone from your guesthouse to come along as an interpreter. The process of reporting a crime is usually a laborious affair, with much checking of papers and filling in of forms. Unfortunately, although tourist police offices have been set up in a few parts of the island, they’re not much cop.
Following the end of the civil war in May 2009, the entire island is now at peace for the first time in almost thirty years and almost all travel restrictions have been lifted, with the exception of a few remote areas in the north which remain out of bounds. No LTTE attacks have been reported since the end of the fighting, although the landmines and UXO pose a risk in remote areas.
An altogether more prosaic but much more serious source of danger in Sri Lanka is traffic. Be particularly careful when walking near busy roads and treat buses, in particular, with respect: as a pedestrian you’re at the very bottom of the food chain in the dog-eat-dog world of Sri Lankan road use.
Drowning is the second most common cause of death amongst tourists in Sri Lanka (after road accidents). Currents can be strong and beaches may shelve off into deep waters with unexpected steepness – and there are no lifeguards to come and pull you out if you get into trouble. Always ask local advice before venturing in the water anywhere that is obviously not a recognized swimming spot. Conditions can vary radically even within a few hundred metres, so don’t assume that because lots of people are swimming at one end of the beach, the other, deserted, end will be safe. The only warning signs of dangerous swimming conditions are the red flags posted on the beaches outside major resort hotels. Sensible precautions include always keeping within your depth and making sure that someone on the shore knows that you’re in the water. Never swim under the influence of alcohol – newspaper stories of locals washed out to sea after too many bottles of arrack are an almost weekly occurrence.
Scams and hassles
Sri Lanka has an unfortunate but well-deserved reputation for hassle, ranging from tuktuk drivers, gem shop owners and guesthouse touts to virtuoso scam merchants who run well-oiled schemes to entrap the unwary. At its simplest, you’ll encounter low-level hassle from people who want you to visit their shop, stay in their guesthouse or be your guide (or, alternatively, who want to take you to a shop or guesthouse where they’ll receive commission). Tuktuk drivers are the main source of this sort of pressure, although it can come from pretty much anyone with even a few words of English.
Fortunately, the island’s virtuoso con artists who formerly plagued places like Galle, Kandy and, especially, Colombo’s Galle Face Green are now far less numerous than they once were, although it still pays to be aware of the classic scams. Convincing you of their trustworthiness is an important part of any scam, and con artists will often attempt to boost their own credentials by claiming to be a member of a professional elite (a SriLankan Airlines pilot; a former international cricketer). A standard ploy in Colombo is for con artists to claim to be visiting from the Maldives, thereby implying that they too are visitors and thus to be trusted. Another common introductory ploy is for a con artist to claim to be a cook, gardener or other backroom member of staff at your hotel, hoping thereby to gain your confidence.
You shouldn’t get too paranoid about these characters, and it’s important not to stop talking to people because you’re afraid they’re going to rip you off. The vast majority of Sri Lankans who approach you will be perfectly honest, and simply keen to have a chat – or at least find out which country you are from. Look out for the classic scams and, if you suspect that you are being set up, simply withdraw politely but firmly from the situation.
Taking you for a ride
Many scams involve gaining your trust, then getting you into a tuktuk to visit some temple/“elephant festival”/handicraft shop or other attraction. Having driven you around for a while, you will be dumped in some remote and seedy part of town at which point the tuktuk driver will demand a wildly inflated fare for the ride. Never get into a tuktuk without agreeing a fare beforehand.
You are offered free tea by someone claiming to own or work on a plantation, on condition you pay a “small sum” to cover the export duty or postage. Needless to say, the tea never arrives.
Fake charity collectors
Often elderly and respectable-looking gents with clipboards and official-looking letters; especially common around the lake in Kandy, but also in Colombo and on beaches everywhere. Real Sri Lankan charities do not collect on the streets.
Having a drink
You fall into conversation with a friendly local who asks if you would like to have a drink with him. Having taken you to some obscure drinking den, he claims to have forgotten his wallet, leaving you to pay the (usually vastly inflated) bill. Once you’ve gone, he will return to collect his share of your money from the bar staff.
The card trick
Someone asks you where you plan to stay. When you tell them, they produce a business card (purloined) from the relevant establishment and claim that they work there/are related to the owner. They then tell you that the said guesthouse or hotel is closed/full/undergoing renovations, then propose you come with them to their own guesthouse, or one where they earn commission.
A plausibly ragged-looking local engages you in conversation and tells you about the shocking poverty he lives in. He insists, however, that he doesn’t want any money for himself, but desperately needs a tin of milk powder so that he can at least feed his hungry baby. You are then led to a chemist, where a (surprisingly expensive) tin of milk powder is produced. Once you’ve left, he’ll be back to return the powder and split the proceeds.
For current information on the security situation in Sri Lanka, visit one of the sites listed below.
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs
British Foreign & Commonwealth Office
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs
US State Department