I’ve written plenty of guides on why you need to visit Sri Lanka now, how to plan your trip, what to see, where to go, and what you should know before you visit. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Sri Lanka has become one of the top places to visit in Asia. Since I’ve written extensively about what you should do in Sri Lanka, I thought it would be fitting to cover some things you shouldn’t do in Sri Lanka and common mistakes that travelers make!
Are you visiting Sri Lanka for the first time? As with any travel destination, there are some important do’s and don’ts when you travel around Sri Lanka – read on for things to avoid doing if you’re visiting Sri Lanka.
1. Don’t ride an elephant in Sri Lanka
Let me start with the good news: Sri Lanka has more than a dozen or so national parks where an estimated five to six thousand elephants roam freely. However, there are also approximately 120 to 200 elephants in captivity (according to the World Animal Protection Organization) and they are mostly used in religious processions as well as riding camps in Sri Lanka.
Elephants are “broken” to train them to allow riders on their backs using a variety of cruel methods, and many are not fed properly as well as kept in chains. You’re likely to find elephant riding camps in and around Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka, slowly dragging their legs and ferrying selfie-stick toting tourists around town.
Please – be a responsible traveler and head to one of Sri Lanka’s many national parks to see wild Asian elephants instead! Alternatively, you can also visit the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe to see orphaned baby elephants (from a distance on an observation platform) – these elephants are returned to the wild after they turn 5 years old.
2. Don’t encourage your safari Jeep driver to chase or corner animals in national parks
Things can get seriously dicey in some of the more popular national parks, and these types of incidents where wild animals are being cornered or cut off is too prevalent. I once saw an elephant put its tusks through the open side of a safari jeep in Yala National Park because the driver got too close, and the passengers ended up having to hang off the other side of the vehicle to get out of the way – thankfully, nobody was hurt but the elephant did throw the woman’s purse out of the jeep and stomped on it. There have been other times where the passengers are not so lucky.
Respect the animals by keeping a safe distance, and don’t encourage your driver to get too close or to chase wild animals. Some irresponsible or less-experienced safari drivers in Sri Lanka may equate a better line of sight with more tips – assure them that that is not the case and encourage your driver to stick to any marked paths and roads in national parks.
Wondering what else there is to do along Sri Lanka’s southern coast? Head on over here!
3. Don’t touch any dogs that don’t have their ears clipped or don’t have a collar
Unfortunately, rabies does still exist in Sri Lanka, though there are amazing charities like WeCare that run vaccination as well as spay/neuter programs around the island. Just a few years ago, a young French boy was nipped by a puppy in Sri Lanka and tragically passed away once the symptoms set in when he returned to France.
It is common for vets to clip dogs’ ears to show that they have been vaccinated, and most domesticated dogs will have also been vaccinated. However, you can never be too safe – most street dogs in Sri Lanka are nothing but lovely, but avoid touching them unless you know for certain and without a shadow of a doubt that they have been vaccinated against rabies (and also kept up with their booster vaccinations). If you are bitten by a dog or even a monkey, go directly to the hospital. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
4. Don’t ride a scooter or motorcycle without a helmet
Though scooter rentals are not as common in Sri Lanka as they are in places like Bali and Thailand, you might still be able to rent scooters here and there from private owners, especially along the southern coast. Just know this – you will get stopped by the police if you ride a scooter or motorcycle in Sri Lanka without a helmet, and you will be fined. Plus, don’t you want to protect your noggin in case you get into an accident?
While I’m at it, this is not the place to drive aggressively or recklessly – do not attempt to overtake large vehicles on a scooter. Sri Lanka is not the place to practice your scooter or motorcycle skills, and in fact you are not actually allowed to drive a motorcycle or scooter without the proper license (which also has to be endorsed in Colombo – an international driving permit is not sufficient).
5. Don’t cross the road without looking both ways
Another traffic related one! Bus, truck and tuk tuk drivers in Sri Lanka often drive like madmen. Just because you are in a small town or village doesn’t mean that you should let your guard down.
Use designated cross walks (to be honest these are far and few in-between) if there’s a lot of oncoming traffic, and be vigilant during dusk and at night – there are lots of blind corners!
6. Don’t compare Sri Lanka to India
Though Sri Lanka and India are separated only by a narrow channel of water, the two countries are so, so, so different! The people speak (very) different languages, the culture and customs are unique, even the food is extremely dissimilar.
7. Don’t visit a turtle sanctuary…
….unless you’re 100% sure that it places the welfare of turtles and eggs above tourist demands and photo opps! Phew – that was a mouthful! Look, I’m pro-turtle conservation (obviously), but the standards of care for wild turtles are not yet well regulated in Sri Lanka, and many places try to pass as a legitimate ethical facility just by sticking the word, “sanctuary”, in their name. This is definitely one of those things to avoid in Sri Lanka. Do your due diligence before you support one of these places, and read reviews from other tourists before you go. You may even be approached while having a beachside dinner by people offering to let you release turtles into the ocean – these eggs have been taken from nests and you should avoid interfering with the hatching and releasing process.
The good news is, many places along the coast put up cages to keep the eggs safe until they hatch, and you often don’t need to pay a fee to go see them as all beaches in Sri Lanka are public.
8. Don’t expect your international credit card to work everywhere
Self explanatory! Especially in smaller towns, restaurants and hotels, cash is king. If you do need to withdraw cash, look for Sampath Bank, Commercial Bank or People’s Bank branches where they are more likely to take international debit or credit cards. You should exchange a small amount of foreign currency when you arrive at the airport, and if you keep the receipt you can exchange any leftover Rupees back into US dollars, pounds or Euros on your way out.
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Click here for more Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides!
9. Don’t walk around town half naked
This is one of the more important dos and don’ts in Sri Lanka that you need to know about: Sri Lanka is unlike some other Asian countries and popular beach destinations in the sense that it is still relatively modest. The primary religion is Buddhism so be mindful of your attire when you visit temples (cover your shoulders and wear pants) or walk around town.
Let me put it this way: shorts and tank tops are fine (it’s not a problem to expose your shoulders unless you’re in a place of worship), but I would not recommend that you drive shirtless on a scooter or walk around town in a bikini. Some tourists are even being stopped by police in the street and told to cover up! Don’t worry, bikinis and other swimwear are fine when you’re actually on the beach and taking a dip in the Indian Ocean.
10. Don’t be disrespectful in religious shrines and monuments
Cover your legs and shoulders, and take off shoes and hats if you are entering a Buddhist temple. Do not mistreat Buddhist images, statues or other artefacts as it is an extremely serious offence – this is one of the most important things not to do in Sri Lanka and could actually get you deported on the next flight home. Don’t mock the Buddha, and don’t pose for photographs with your back facing the Buddha.
Taking a photo with your back facing the Buddha is considered very disrespectful, and is not only frowned upon but you may be stopped by staff or police and asked to delete any photos you took in that position. You’ll see many signs reminding tourists of this, especially in places like Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura or Dambulla.
Sri Lanka is also home to many Hindu temples and Islamic mosques, and you are expected to dress appropriately if you are visiting one of these complexes – in general, your shoulders and knees should be covered and you should enter barefoot. If you are a female visiting a mosque you may be asked to cover your hair with a headscarf. Ensure that you abide by the temple or mosque’s rules and etiquette. If you are lucky enough, you may even time your visit during a worship ceremony or festival and as for any religion, you should avoid taking photos of people during prayer without express approval.
The Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka is home to some of the most incredible religious and heritage sites in the country including Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Dambulla. Click here for 7 places you have to visit in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle!
11. Don’t snap photos willy nilly
Don’t take photographs of military bases, government buildings or vehicles used by VIPs (this includes numerous sites in Colombo as well as on the east coast in Arugam Bay). Before you take photos of people, especially children, ask! As mentioned in #10 above, this includes not taking photos of people without their express consent during prayer at temples around the country.
Taking photos of the stilt fishermen? Know that in tourist areas you will be charged a fee for doing so, and that the fishermen are often just there for the photo opp.
12. Don’t hop into a tuk tuk until you’ve agreed on a price
In general, I have found that tuk tuk drivers in Sri Lanka don’t try to rip you off (too much), and that prices are fairly standard to get from place to place. However, most tuk tuks do not have a meter so make sure you agree on a price (including waiting time, if needed) before you hop in! I also recommend that all travelers to Sri Lanka think seriously about whether it is worth haggling over a few hundred Rupees – it may make a huge difference to those in the tourism industry who heavily rely on this income.
Are you a first-time visitor to Sri Lanka? Click here for more Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides!
13. Don’t underestimate how long it takes to get from place to place
While we’re at it, don’t tell your hotel to expect you at 2 PM when it’s more likely that you’ll arrive at 4 or even 5 PM! Sri Lanka is only about 430 KM tall and 220 KM wide, but it can take you hours and hours to travel from place to place as the roads can be extremely busy.
Expect to wait for a herd of buffalo to cross the road, the occasional monkey appearing out of nowhere, crazy bus drivers who love overtaking onto oncoming traffic and sometimes even a stubborn elephant in the middle of the road. I talk about this a bit more in my post on 12 things you should know before you visit Sri Lanka.
14. Don’t forget to learn a few easy Sinhala phrases before your trip
Sri Lankan people are friendly and open to you trying (butchering) to speak their language! More often than not, Sri Lankan people will chuckle if you pronounce something incorrectly, and teach you how to say it the right way.
Most people in Sri Lanka (especially those in the tourism industry) will understand and speak English, but here are some useful Sinhala phrases you should know before you go:
- Ayubowan = may you live long, a formal way of greeting someone. You can also just say “hello” or “hi”
- Istuti = thank you
- Kohomadha = how are you?
- Hari = okay, got it, fine (you often say this twice – “hari hari”)
- Lassanai = beautiful
- Hondayi = very good
- Suba dawasak = good day
- Esema wewa = same to you
15. Don’t avoid “rainy season”!
Rainy season in Sri Lanka is like the Bogeyman, there’s really nothing to be scared of. I’m often asked, “when is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?” Sri Lanka is a tropical country so expect lots of blissful sunshine and blue skies practically year-round. If we’re being technical, the island has 2 monsoon seasons: the northeast monsoon (December to March), and the southwest monsoon (June to October); however, you can visit Sri Lanka anytime during the year IMHO!
While there are “rainy seasons” where the average rainfall is higher, it is nowhere near as unbearable as rainy season in Laos or Thailand, often it will pour in the evening and the sun will be shining the very next day. For your reference, the peak season for the southern province is from around November to January (be mentally prepared for significant crowds if you are visiting Sri Lanka in December around Christmas or New Year’s Eve), and the peak season for the east coast is from around June to August.
Don’t let people talk you out of visiting Sri Lanka’s south coast in the summer months – you might experience some rain but it tends to be a lot less crowded and there is still plenty of sunshine to be had! More travel tips for Sri lanka’s south coast over here and incredible beaches that you can’t miss in southern Sri Lanka here.
Bonus: Don’t hang out of a moving train
Unfortunately we live in a day and age where this needs to be said explicitly: do not risk your life for a photo. There has been too many devastating incidents of people falling off trains in Sri Lanka, all to recreate the “instafamous” shot of a couple or woman dangling precariously out of a moving train carriage. There’s really no need to put yourself in danger – watching the world swirl by from inside the train is magical in and of itself!
Headed to Sri Lanka? You might also find these reads helpful:
- Start your travel planning here with a list of some of the top destinations in Sri Lanka and important things to know before visiting Sri Lanka
- And get inspired with this classic 2 weeks in Sri Lanka itinerary or this express 1 week Sri Lanka guide
- Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is unmissable – here are 7 places you can’t skip
- Traveling to Sri Lanka as a solo female traveler? Read this guide first
- Did you know? Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see elephants in the wild. Here is where to see elephants in Sri Lanka
- I’ve loved experiencing boutique and luxury hotels around the island. Here are some of my favorite hotels in Sri Lanka
Headed to Sri Lanka? I hope you found some of these Sri Lanka travel tips helpful! There are many do’s and don’ts when it comes to traveling around Sri Lanka, let me know in the comments section if there are additional things you’ve noticed during your trip to this beautiful country.
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