15 Tips for Solo Female Travel in Sri Lanka
Heading to Sri Lanka as a solo female traveler? What everyone says about Sri Lanka is true: it’s an incredibly diverse and wondrous destination that is bound to capture your heart. The landscapes and historical monuments will wow you, the palm-fringed coast will enchant, and tea from the sweeping highlands will warm your soul. In other words, it lives up to the hype!
But there’s just no way to sugarcoat it, solo travel in Sri Lanka for women can be challenging; the sad truth is that some female travelers have experienced (or will experience) some form of harassment and receive unwanted attention during their time on the island. I have personally experienced verbal harassment and lewd comments from men while walking down the street on multiple occasions, eve-teased by a tuk tuk-full of beach boys, and sadly even groped at a temple.
Which begs the question, is it actually safe for a woman to travel alone in Sri Lanka? Unfortunately, the harsh reality for many female travelers is that there is no place in the world that is completely “safe” and free of potential risk of catcalling, harassment and abuse. These types of unsavory experiences are not unique to any one destination. That being said, you should know that the authorities take reports of these vile incidents very seriously. In 2017, two off-duty police officers were arrested for harassing a women near Colombo; in 2018, an establishment in Mirissa was shut down by the tourism authorities for being the location of sexual and physical assault of tourists; and in 2019 a man was prosecuted in Kandy using evidence and testimony via video conference – prior to this, the victims had been flown to Sri Lanka by the tourism authorities for suspect identification.
Let me make it clear: Sri Lankan people are famous for their hospitality, and violent crimes towards tourists are very uncommon. More likely than not, you will have a wonderful, fuss-free experience in Sri Lanka as a solo female traveler. In fact, a small 2019 study interviewed solo female travelers to Sri Lanka and found that 82% said they would visit again, and 92% of respondents said that they would recommend Sri Lanka to other female solo travelers. Personally, I have met some of the kindest and most welcoming people in the country, but just like every other destination around the world there are bound to be some bad apples and issues.
My hope is that this article helps to prepare you in the (hopefully unlikely) event that you run into an issue in Sri Lanka – please don’t let this turn you off traveling to the Pearl of the Indian Ocean! If you are wondering to yourself, “is Sri Lanka safe for female travelers?” then read on for my top tips for solo female travelers to this stunning country.
1. Be smart with transportation
First timers to Sri Lanka often make a few common mistakes when it comes to transportation. For female travelers in Sri Lanka it is important to have a plan when it comes to getting around the country. Many people who visit Sri Lanka make the mistake of organizing one driver to chauffeur and follow them across the country. However, in my opinion, the fastest and best way to travel around Sri Lanka is to book a private car and driver from point-to-point – this way, you won’t need to organize driver accommodation, have some more flexibility in your schedule and itinerary, and are less likely to get “stuck” with a driver that you don’t like for hours and days on end.
Sri Lanka is only about 430 KM tall and 220 KM wide (about the same size as Tasmania in Australia or Lithuania), but it can take you hours and hours to travel from place to place. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating travel time in Sri Lanka. Here are some other common Sri Lanka travel mistakes to avoid.
Drivers and cars are a dime a dozen in Sri Lanka and can easily be arranged 1-2 days before you need a ride. Female solo travelers in Sri Lanka should reach out to the hotel they are staying at to organize intercity transfers and airport pick ups or drop offs, or use their recommended tuk tuk driver – all you’ll need to do is organize a driver to collect you from the airport on arrival (especially important if you are arriving late at night or early in the morning), and to take you to destination/hotel A. Then another driver to take you from destination A to destination B and so on. Once you are in those places you can get around easily by tuk tuk, and Uber is also available in some areas.
Headed somewhere for dinner and not sure how you’re going to get back to your hotel? Ask the hotel’s recommended tuk tuk driver if he’s willing to wait or come back at an agreed-upon time.
Where it becomes a little more complicated or daunting is if you’re taking public transportation. Unfortunately, a report by the United Nations Population Fund found that 90% of Sri Lanka’s women have endured some kind of sexual harassment on buses and trains in Sri Lanka, and 82% said they had noticed others being sexual harassed in public transport. The anecdotal stories go on and on.
Does that mean that you shouldn’t take public transportation if you’re a solo female traveler in Sri Lanka? Not necessarily. But it does mean that you need to be cautious and plan carefully: this means that where possible, you should avoid long, overnight bus and train rides, and if it is not jam packed you can place your bag in the seat next to yours so that you have the row to yourself. The report noted that “incidents are more prevalent during peak hours (morning and evening) when transportation is more crowded. High congestion on buses or trains is a contributing factor for sexual harassment, particularly unwanted physical contact.“
If something happens, scream and don’t suffer silently, and if you see something, say something. Once you are able to do so, file a police report. If you find yourself in this kind of situation, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and call out the offender – if you are taking public transportation, notify the staff or conductor immediately and ask for help from other bystanders. The incident should be reported to the police as soon as possible.
Next up is the issue of renting a scooter in Sri Lanka – let me put it this way, Sri Lanka is not the place to practice your scooter or motorcycle skills. The main roads are hectic and road safety can be substandard. You also are not covered by insurance unless you get your license verified in Sri Lanka, and you will need to have a motorcycle license from your home country in order to drive a scooter over 100cc. Turning up in Sri Lanka with an international driving permit is not sufficient, and you are very likely to run into issues with the police if you are pulled over.
2. Be mindful of your attire
Traveling to Sri Lanka alone? One of the most important things to know about Sri Lanka is that Sri Lanka is unlike some other Asian countries in the sense that it is still relatively modest, despite being a popular beach destination in Asia. The primary religion is Buddhism so you will need to be mindful of your attire when you visit temples (cover your shoulders and wear pants – the same applies in any Hindu temples and Islam mosques) and also when you walk around town – save the beachwear for the beach.
Sri Lanka is not the place where you drive shirtless on a scooter or walk through local villages in your bikini or speedos. Not only will it be perceived as culturally offensive, some tourists are even being stopped by police in the street and asked to cover up.
In Sri Lanka’s heat, you will want to pack light, breathable clothes that aren’t skin tight – t-shirts, rompers, long cotton trousers and maxi-dresses are my go-to. It is also always advisable to have a thin scarf or shawl in your backpack, especially if you are visiting temples or religious sites in the Cultural Triangle. Headed to the hill country? Don’t be surprised if the temperature drops to the low double digits – you absolutely will need a thick sweater and warm leggings or trousers for the mornings and evenings in Ella or Nuwara Eliya!
3. Keep an eye on your drink
Just as you would need to in any other country in the world, you’ll need to be careful about taking drinks from strangers at bars and restaurants. Make sure you don’t leave drinks unattended, and keep a close eye on your belongings. If you are a female solo traveler in Sri Lanka you should be careful of spiked drinks and petty theft – if something goes missing, report the loss to the manager of the bar or club, or if it took place on the street file a lost property report with the police.
4. Stay connected with friends and family back home
Keep friends and family at home up-to-date with your whereabouts and how to get in touch with you by purchasing a local SIM card – Mobitel/Sri Lanka Telecom and Dialog are pretty reliable options. The easiest place to purchase a SIM card and data package is via the booths at the airport in the arrivals hall once you clear customs. Do not rely on free wifi connectivity in Sri Lanka as it is spotty at best, and some guesthouses and restaurants may not provide it.
In general, your data package should last for the duration of your 1 to 2 weeks in Sri Lanka as long as you aren’t using it to stream Netflix or spend hours on Instagram – if however you find yourself running out of data then simply pop into a Food City supermarket and top up your number at the cashier. In the past, Sri Lanka has implemented social media bans without warning, I therefore recommend that you sign up for a VPN service before your solo trip to Sri Lanka, especially if you largely rely on Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger or Instagram to communicate with your loved ones.
5. Don’t accept random friend requests and DMs
Wondering if Sri Lanka is safe for female solo travelers? Here is a top tip: don’t be surprised if you receive a friend request from the waiter at the restaurant you had lunch at, or the jeep driver who took you on a safari. Most of the time it is fairly harmless and all you need to do (if you don’t want to become Facebook friends) is to ignore the request. However, I once received a DM via Instagram from a tuk tuk driver who claimed he drove me (“remember me from the other day?”) – the only problem is, I only ever ride with 2 regular tuk tuk drivers who I know personally! You can see how it’s easy to give someone the benefit of the doubt, only for them to have some sort of hidden agenda.
6. Use generic location tags
In the same vein as Sri Lanka solo female travel tip #5 above, avoid pinpointing your specific location and don’t tag your hotel or guesthouse. You’re better off using the general area or city, just in case.
7. Keep an eye on your belongings
Bag snatching is not as commonplace as in some other cities in Asia, but if you leave your valuables unattended on the beach there is a chance that it will go missing by the time you’ve finished going for a swim in the ocean.
One option is to buy a few drinks and nibbles from a beach restaurant and ask if they’ll keep an eye on your belongings while you go for a quick dip. Be a smart solo traveler in Sri Lanka and leave your valuables in the hotel room safe, or keep a close eye on your belongings at all times.
8. Book reputable hotels, guest houses and hostels
There are many, many excellent boutique hotels in Sri Lanka. If you can dream it, it probably exists – from luxury safari tents and open-air treehouses to cozy homestays and hip co-working spaces.
But what you need to do as a female solo traveler in Sri Lanka is to research, research, research. Do not skimp on your due diligence and read every single review out there.
I once booked a last-minute hotel in Negombo near the international airport to tide me over until a late night flight, only to show up to a complete delipidated property with not one person on site – and this place had what I thought was pretty decent reviews! When I did eventually get in touch with someone from the property, two men arrived in a SUV 15-minutes later to let me in. Needless to say, I got out of there and never looked back. If it feels off, trust your gut and move on!
BOOKING TIP: Read this article for tried-and-tested boutique hotels in Sri Lanka, or click here for current accommodation rates in Sri Lanka! You can filter by price, type of accommodation and ratings – I generally avoid booking any hotels or guesthouses if their overall rating score is below 8 out of 10.
9. Avoid visiting quiet or isolated places alone
Some of the best places to visit in Sri Lanka are off the beaten track. I mean, who doesn’t love an empty stretch of beach? But sadly it can be fairly common for peeping toms to take advantage of the fact that there’s no one around, and get handsy in the bush. While I was elated to be able to explore the ruins of Anuradhapura on my own and wander around centuries-old stupas without another soul around, how I wish I wasn’t the only person in that shrine room. Maybe then the man wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grope me from behind.
Does that mean you shouldn’t go places alone? Of course not. But you may want to always have an exit strategy in the back of your mind, and if something feels off then find a way out of there, pronto. You can never be too safe. An alternative is to meet like-minded travelers once you are in Sri Lanka to see if they’re keen to join you on a day trip or two for an adventure!
10. Get comfortable saying no
“No” is a full sentence. Sometimes women are made to feel like they aren’t allowed to say no, or that we are being rude by saying no. It’s not uncommon to be offered services – whether it be tour guiding, transportation or accommodation – in Sri Lanka. And sometimes you may be offered that service again, and again, and again, even if you said no the first time. If it’s something that you’re not interested, all you have to do is say “no, thank you” firmly.
11. But also learn a few phrases of Sinhala
Sinhala is one of the official languages in Sri Lanka and spoken and understood by a large percentage of the population. When tourists learn a few simple phrases, it usually takes people by surprise (in a good way).
People in Sri Lanka value sincerity, and in my experience a smile and genuine attempt at speaking Sinhala can disarm even the most grumpy people. Here are a few quick Sinhala phrases you can use:
- Ayubowan = may you live long, a formal way of greeting someone. Usually you would put your palms together when greeting someone and saying “ayubowan”
- Istuti = thank you
- Kohomadha = how are you?
- Hari = okay, got it, fine (you often say this twice – “hari hari”)
- Lassanayi = beautiful
- Hondayi = very good
- Suba dawasak = good day
- Esema wewa = same to you
12. Be alert around public holidays and Poya days
One important thing you should know about visiting Sri Lanka is that every full moon day (also known as “Poya”) is a public holiday in Sri Lanka and hard liquor consumption tends to be fairly high around this time of month. Though hotels and restaurants are not supposed to sell alcohol on Poya day, many people stock up from their local liquor shop ahead of time.
The standard drink of choice is arrack (usually distilled from coconut flower sap) which is very high in alcohol content. On Poya days in Sri Lanka it is not uncommon for groups of men to get intoxicated and rowdy on beaches or even in the streets. While there is minimal alcohol-related violence, eve-teasing tends to increase as inhibitions decrease so be alert and aware, just as you would anywhere else in the world.
13. Have a plan for the evening
There are certain areas in southern Sri Lanka, Colombo and Arugam Bay where you can find a vibrant nightlife scene. But what many people forget to do while they’re getting dressed up for the evening is to have a plan on how to get home. Drinks and conversation start flowing, and next thing you know you’re trying to hail down a tuk tuk and negotiate pricing with the driver, or you’re attempting to walk back to your hotel down poorly-lit streets.
Planning an epic night out in Sri Lanka? Have a plan for how you’re going to get home, don’t walk back to your hotel or guesthouse alone, and check on each other to make sure everyone is safe and sound. This might mean that you pre-book your transportation and ask a trusted tuk tuk or car driver to pick you up at the end of the night at an agreed-upon time, or you pair up with a fellow solo female traveler or two and make a pact to head home altogether.
Looking for great places to go on a Friday or Saturday night in the south coast? You can’t go wrong with Verse Collective, The Doctor’s House, or Dot’s Hiriketiya.
For quiet(er) drinks head to Lighthouse Ahangama, Smoke & Bitters, Mond, Harding Boutique Hotel or the recently relocated Zephyr restaurant in Kamburugamuwa.
14. Do not escalate
One of the worst things you can do when faced with confrontation in Sri Lanka is to escalate the issue, get aggressive or use profanities. Do not, I repeat, do not, escalate the situation. Sometimes with the language barrier all that is heard on the other end of the conversation is swear words, even if the F word is just being used emphatically. The best thing you can do if you find yourself in unwanted confrontation is to walk away – you may want to remove yourself from the situation and step into a shop or a restaurant where there are other people.
As I said before, people in Sri Lanka are generally very warm, friendly and hospitable. But there are difficult people all around the world, especially if alcohol is involved. I recommend that you exercise a reasonable amount of caution and humility, and be aware of your surroundings.
15. Keep these numbers handy
The tourism industry is critical to Sri Lanka’s economy, and as of 2018 created nearly half a million direct and indirect employment opportunities for its citizens – those in the tourism industry in Sri Lanka want you to enjoy your time in the country, and work very hard to create unique and memorable experiences.
So, if something happens to you, call the tourism police or tell your hotel immediately so that they can file a report on your behalf. Don’t leave incidents unreported. Here are some key numbers to know for your solo trip to Sri Lanka:
- 1912 for Sri Lanka’s tourist police
- 119 for emergency services
- +94 112426800 and +94 11 2426 900 for Sri Lanka tourism
- +94 11 242 1052 / +94 11 242 1451 for the Senior Superintendent of Police for Sri Lanka Tourism Police. Also reachable via e-mail at [email protected]
Looking for more tips on what NOT to do in Sri Lanka? Click here for 15 things to avoid doing in Sri Lanka!
Just as you would for any other country that you travel to, exercise a reasonable amount of caution and be aware of your surroundings. It may also be prudent to avoid large, crowded gatherings and places of worship during major religious holidays such as the Sinhalese New Year or Tamil New Year (mid-April), Vesak Day to celebrate Buddha’s birthday (first full moon in May), Easter or Christmas.
SRI LANKA BOOKING TIP: Read this article for tried-and-tested boutique hotels in Sri Lanka, or click here to explore the array of accommodation options in Sri Lanka! You can filter by price, type of accommodation and review scores.
And as is the case while traveling in general, it also makes sense not to flash money around and leave expensive jewelry and electronics in your hotel room or at home, and keep a close eye on your personal belongings when you head out. The vast majority of solo female travelers will have a wonderful, fuss-free experience and create extraordinary memories in Sri Lanka. However, I hope these solo female travel tips for Sri Lanka help you to better plan for any contingencies during your trip!
- Hit (On) and Run: The Hazards Of Being Female In Sri Lanka
- 90% Of Sri Lankan Women Have Been Sexually Harassed On Public Transport
- An Analysis of the Effect of Tourist Harassment on the Destination Image of Sri Lanka: Foreign Tourists’ Perspective
- The economic hit of harassment: The female tourist experience
- The Behavioral Characteristics of Female Solo Travellers in Sri Lanka
Heading to Sri Lanka? You might also find these guides helpful:
- Kick off your Sri Lanka travel planning here with a list of some of the top destinations in Sri Lanka
- And get inspired with this classic 2 weeks in Sri Lanka itinerary or my express 1 week in Sri Lanka guide
- Traveling down south? Here is my ultimate guide to south Sri Lanka
- One of the best things to do as a solo female traveler in Sri Lanka is to join a yoga retreat. Here are some reasons why!
- 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
- Looking for even more Sri Lanka travel tips and destination guides? Click here for everything you need to help plan your trip to Sri Lanka
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