Dear Sri Lanka…

Hello, how are you? Where are you from?

It always starts the same. The opening gambit of someone wanting to talk to you. Here in Sri Lanka they have the patter down to a fine art.

But you know what’s coming. Tuk-tuk, sir? I have a tuk-tuk – I can take you to the lagoon, the turtle hatchery, the tea factory, the temple, whatever.

It seems that everyone has a tuk-tuk or something to sell you. Even the waiters in a beachside restaurant. You think they are being friendly and the next thing you know they are showing you their driving licence and offering to take you somewhere for 400 rupees. ‘Good price.’

And even when you eventually get a tuk-tuk to take you somewhere, they often make a detour to a herbal ayurvedic garden, wood-carving shop or gem museum. And there the hard sell really starts. They immediately say they will give a good price, they readily halve the marked price (if indeed you are lucky to find a marked price), you think you must be getting a bargain, and you struggle to keep up with working out an exchange rate – what with Sri Lankan rupees or dollars. By the time you have converted it to pounds, you are on the tuk-tuk home again with a bag of stuff you didn’t mean to buy.

And then you wonder what commission the tuk-tuk driver is on.

The man who showed us around his pretty average herbal garden even had the cheek to suggest we tip him for the time he spent showing us around (about ten minutes) (we didn’t) AND he asked for David’s red carabiner for his son. I muttered something like ‘It’ll cost you 200 rupees’. I wish I had had the guts to say it louder.

It often feels like everything here amounts to hard sell. If you agree to buy one item, they push you to buy a second. If you buy a soft drink, they push you to buy a snack. If you opt for the small portion, they push to buy the larger size. One cafe, we wanted only a cheese toastie and chips – one portion of each to share. They gave us double portions.

This week we went into a cafe to get decent wifi. We explained that we only wanted a drink as we had just eaten. Even then, the maitre d’ left the menus with us and said he would be back for the food order. ‘Maybe later.’ No!

We took a tuk-tuk to Unawatuna. We got dropped off at the driver’s friend’s hotel, of course.

I wouldn’t mind if it happened occasionally but it is ingrained in their DNA – and I have to admit it gets a little tiresome. You end up shunning people who may genuinely want to say hello, or children who just want to practise their English.

I wasn’t in the mood for it the other day. Up in the hills, having a brief walk around a tea plantation, a persistent little boy carrying a large empty plastic bottle lurked around us. ‘Photo,’ he said. ‘Photo.’

So in the end David takes his photo and then the boy says ‘Money’.

We opt to give him a 20-rupee note. It really isn’t much, 10p or something, but maybe it will mean a little more to him.

However, a little further on, there are four more kids. Two start walking our way saying ‘Photo.’

An old woman further up, standing outside her home – even she says ‘Photo.’

At which point I walk away. It’s difficult, really. I know that they don’t want foreigners just turning up and snapping away at their home life, as if they were some exhibit in a zoo. I know that they must see us with our cameras and clock that we must have spent hundreds if not thousands of pounds to have travelled all this way.

It’s not the money that matters so much as the principle. If in six months we gave money, however small, to every person we would like to photograph, our budget would be worn away pretty fast.

And anyway it hadn’t been our decision to approach these villagers in the first place.

The other divisive thing going on here in Sri Lanka is one price for locals, one price for foreigners. We noticed an entry fee for foreigners was four times that for locals. Just to walk around a pretty average lake. Again, I know that in the grand scheme of things, it is still cheap but the overall effect, bearing in mind all the other examples, grinds away at you.

And it is noticeable that at the iconic ‘must do’ Lion Rock at Sigiriya, the entrance fee is $30 per person. (To put it in context, that could buy two nights’ accommodation.) The local price is closer to $1.50.

Yes, I agree that our money should go towards preserving the heritage that we are so interested in visiting, but it is the difference in price that grates – however worthwhile and majestic the experience. And it would be nice if for that money they would employ a small team of people to pick up all the rubbish. (The top of the rock was ok but there was too much litter lower down.)

The other day, one hotel owner tried ingratiating himself with us, saying that he was happy so long as we were happy, patting us on the shoulder like old pals and putting his hand on his heart. (Cue fingers down throat.)

Paying the bill in cash, we required a small amount of change and he said something along the lines of ‘What would you like to pay me?’ as if to suggest he keeps the change. I felt like rounding the figure down, but decided just to hold out for the proper change.

His was the same hotel that had no prices on display for dinner, drinks or laundry. I felt like he was making it up as he went along. Perhaps a different price depending on whether he liked you or not.

We have been getting around Sri Lanka with a private driver which has been worth it for the number of things we have managed to do and see, as well as the convenience of door-to-door pick-ups.

Sometimes he asks us if we fancy doing something (silk factory, wood-carving shop or gem museum) and we decline. Today we said yes, we would try some dorian fruit. Known as the king of fruits, they are large and spiky and they are the Marmite of the fruit world. They divide opinion partly because of their obnoxious smell.

A few words are always spoken first – we wonder whether our driver is saying ‘These guys have lots of money, just look at that man’s camera, they are rubbish at bartering, take them for every rupee.’

We were asked for 800 rupees for one large dorian. 800 rupees was the cost of our cheapest meal in Kandy (two main meals and two drinks) – about £4. For a piece of fruit that we might not even like. We asked for a smaller one for 300. We settled at 600 for a medium. Blimey, this was hard work. £3 for one piece of fruit, in a country which has plentiful cheap fresh fruit. Eventually the guy at the side of the road splits open a second fruit with no extra demand for money, so clearly he has had a good sale.

Again, you think, well, it’s an experience, it doesn’t matter in the long run, it means more to him than to us. But personally, much as I love this country, I dislike the constant ill feeling of being ripped off.


Anyway, now that that little rant is out the way, let me add that Sri Lanka has been well worth visiting and we have actually loved our time here and the photography, of course.

In our ten days we have packed in the heritage of Anuradhapura, the stunning rock temples of Dambulla, the climb up Lion Rock at Sigiriya, whale watching in Mirissa, a jeep safari in Yala National Park, the train to Ella.

For me, what I will remember most is paddling with a wild turtle at Hikkaduwa and the beauty of the Royal Botanical Gardens near Kandy.

The beaches on the south coast are stunning but at this time of the year the sea is startlingly strong and full of breakers. It doesn’t make for a relaxing swim and you certainly can’t go snorkelling.

Jersey friends, never ever take for granted our beaches. They are the best. Do everything you can to keep them this way!

Much as the beaches are here are pretty as a view, when you get close, you notice the rubbish at the edges and, for an international resort of such beauty, it is not good enough. We love the chaos of a place, the character, the mess, the smells. But I never want to see litter on a beach because it is so preventable. If every cafe or hotel owner on the beach did their bit, they would keep on top of it easily.

(Above: The picturesque perfect beach. And the reality you have to walk past)

We haven’t been to many other beaches around the world. Bali, Phuket, Ibiza, Tenerife, Majorca – I wonder what they are like? Are they pristine, or rough around the edges?

It’s easy to get around Sri Lanka, the roads are surprisingly good. In fact, we probably should have hired our own car.

Food is cheap and ‘safe’. So many places cater for the tourist that you are never far from pizza, pasta and chips if that is what you need, rather than roti, curry and rice. (You do sometimes have to break up the monotony of rice and noodles because it’s all quite samey.)

Sri Lanka, the Pearl of Asia, is beautiful. It is. But in an Asian kind of way. Miles of unspoilt countryside, palm trees, forests, national parks, tea plantations. But then, heading into rural towns, sprawling shanty rundown huts, many now unoccupied and much new building.

Observations on the drive in to Kandy…. Small shops, crammed with goods, seem to have limited power supply. The lightbulbs are weak. Occasionally, as you drive past, you spot a modern ‘supercentre’ or an upmarket gem store or a small blue church. Rusty coloured short-haired dogs sleep in the gutters, behind parked cars.

Particularly smart walled-off office buildings seem to be reserved for those who consider themselves important, like the Central Provincial Irrigation Department or the Office of the Registrar of Pesticides.

The local buses are dusty and look like they have been on the road for 100 years. Passengers have their faces kinked to the half-open window, like fish coming up for air. There is certainly no air con in there.

The traffic in Kandy was busier than anywhere we had seen in Sri Lanka. It was school holidays. Everyone fights for position on the road, drivers still overtake like mad even when all the traffic is going the same speed and there seems no reason to overtake nor any space on the road to do so.

Toy monkeys with long thin arms hugging the back of ttuk-tuks amuse me, as do slogans and messages like ‘You’r (sic) follow me but you don’t back kiss me’.

Mis-spelt signs also make me smile. Rocery. Water Malone. A shop selling ‘Shoes and Sleepers’.

And it seems that every shop or service is the ‘best’ or includes a lucky, a palace, a brilliant, constantly reminding me of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (the inspiration for the next step of our journey).

Next stop, India.

2 thoughts on “Dear Sri Lanka…

  1. Great post, again. I am with you on hating the hard sell. I suppose that foreign tourists have almost trained the people to be that way. In they come, with their flashy clothes and cameras and dollars, and the people who are living in grinding poverty see a chance to improve their lot. We saw some of that in St Lucia. You never did say if you liked the Durian fruit. We can buy them here at our local supermarket but I’ve never tried one.


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