Sri Lanka is the most Westernized country in South Asia – superficially at least – and this, combined with the widespread use of English and the huge tourist industry, can often lure visitors into mistaking the island for something more familiar than it actually is. Scratch the surface, however, and examples of cultural difference can be found everywhere.
Sri Lankans place great emphasis on politeness and manners, as exemplified by the fabulously courteous staff at top-end hotels – raising your voice in a dispute is usually counterproductive and makes you look foolish and ill-bred.
Sri Lankans are very proud of their country – “Sri Lanka good?” is one of the questions most commonly asked of visitors – and they tend to take a simple and unquestioning pride in their island, its national achievements and (especially) their cricket team.
A few Western concepts have yet to make their way to the island. Nudity and toplessness are not permitted on any Sri Lankan beaches. Overt physical displays of affection in public are also frowned upon – Sri Lankan couples hide behind enormous umbrellas in the quiet corners of parks and botanical gardens. You should eat and shake hands with people using your right hand.
All visitors to Buddhist and Hindu temples should be appropriately dressed. In Buddhist temples this means taking off shoes and headgear and covering your shoulders and legs. Beachwear is not appropriate and can cause offence. In large temples, the exact point at which you should take off shoes and hats is sometimes ambiguous; if in doubt, follow the locals. Finally, note that walking barefoot around temples can sometimes be more of a challenge that you might imagine when the tropical sun has heated the stone underfoot to oven-like temperatures – no one will mind if you keep your socks on.
Though you should never have yourself photographed posing with a Buddha image (that is, with your back to the image), there are two other traditional Buddhist observances that are only loosely followed in Sri Lanka: the rule about not pointing your feet at a Buddha image is not as widely followed as in, say, Thailand, though you occasionally see people sitting in front of Buddhas with their legs neatly tucked under them. Equally, the traditional Buddhist rule that you should only walk around dagobas in a clockwise direction is not widely observed.
The same shoe and dress rules apply in Hindu temples, with a couple of twists. In some, non-Hindus aren’t permitted to enter the inner shrine; in others, men are required to take off their shirt before entering, and women are sometimes barred entirely.
In some temples (Buddhist and Hindu) you will be shown around by one of the resident monks or priests and expected to make a donation. At other places, unofficial “guides” will sometimes materialize and insist on showing you round – for a consideration. Try not to feel pressured into accepting the services of unofficial guides unless you want them.
Whether or not you decide to give to beggars is of course a personal decision, though there’s nothing wrong with handing out a few coins to the obviously old and infirm, who often congregate outside temples, churches and mosques. What is important, however, is that you do not contribute to a cycle of excessive dependence or create unrealistic expectations of foreign beneficence. For this reason, be sparing in the amounts you distribute (it’s always better to give small amounts to lots of people rather than a big sum to a single unfortunate who catches your fancy) and never give handouts to children. In addition, avoid giving to beggars who specifically target tourists.
What is unfortunately widespread is a kind of pseudo-begging practised by perfectly well-to-do schoolchildren (and sometimes teenagers and even adults). This generally takes the form of requests for bon-bons (sweets), schoolpens or money (often in the form of “one foreign coin?”). Sadly, this behaviour is the result of the misguided munificence of previous visitors, who have handed out all of the above in the mistaken belief that they are helping the local population, but who have instead created a culture of begging that both demeans Sri Lankans themselves and creates hassles for all the visitors who follow in their wake. If you really want to help local communities, make your donation to a local school or contribute to a recognized charitable agency working in the area.
Western concepts of privacy and solitude are little understood or valued in Sri Lanka, whose culture is based on extended family groupings and closely knit village societies in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. Natural curiosity usually expresses itself in the form of endless repeated questions, most often “Where are you going?”, closely followed by “What is your country?” and “What is your name?”. These may drive you slightly crazy if you’re spending a long time in Sri Lanka, but it’s important to stay polite and remember how potentially negative an impact any rudeness or impatience on your part will have on perceptions of foreigners, and on the treatment of those who follow in your wake. A smile (even through gritted teeth) and a short answer (“Just walking. England. John.”) should suffice. If you really can’t bear it any more, a little surreal humour usually helps relieve the tension (“To Australia. Mars. Lord Mountbatten.”) without offending local sensibilities – Sri Lankans usually take great pleasure in being given first-hand proof of the generally recognized fact that all foreigners are completely mad.