Standing in line at the immigration counter upon arrival, my eyes started to wander, observing the type of travellers visiting. Families with kids, groups of guys who look local, solo travellers and couples. COUPLES! There were a lot of them. Looking at my own queue, I noticed that they were all couples and started counting how many exactly. 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8…8! before another solo traveller stood in line, and again another couple before me.
Solo Travel in Sri Lanka
While doing my research on solo travelling in Sri Lanka, I did read about the country’s lack of hostels, being more of a destination catered for couples rather than solo travellers. So I became slightly disappointed at the sight of people in pairs and absence of travellers like me since couples tend to stick together and mingle less with others. Especially since the low season was arriving, I worried about not having someone to explore with, go deep into the jungles to chase waterfalls.
All these disappointments was for nothing however. The couples I met on this trip was so lovely, didn’t mind me being a light bulb either as they were all adventurous, many of them backpackers themself who still love to hang out with others rather than just being on their own. Sure it was quiet at some places and none of the places I went felt like it was overwhelmed by tourists actually, but there were still a handful of solo travellers, enough not to felt like I was alone.
Safety, cleanliness and food was also one of few main concerns people had while reading through forums for Sri Lanka. In recent years, the world has read a number of rape cases that happened in India and naturally, people worry and are afraid. India also get bad rep for their hygiene with people commenting they dare not eat the local food, swim in their waters etc. Though in fact Sri Lanka and India are two different countries, but probably because of its close proximity and share a few similar ethnicity, they are often being compared. When I told my friends about this trip, their reaction was more or less the same “huh….is it like India? Are they all Indians there? Is it safe? Clean or not? Eat curry everyday uh?…..”. My brother even told me to fly to Maldives if I felt unsafe since it is less than an hour away.
Having little to no knowledge about these two countries, I did not had answers to those questions but now….
It is safe to say that Sri Lanka felt safer than most other countries I have solo travelled in before. I have felt anxious walking home alone at 4am in NYC or even before 9pm in a small town in Honduras, but never once felt the same in Sri Lanka. Of course I have not hung out alone on the streets in the wee hour, nor would I recommend it either, walking back to my hostel alone at 11pm was not an issue though. On my first night in Colombo, the hostel I stayed at is approximately 30mins out of the city center and located at an end of an alley, however, it felt safe enough to go out alone and get dinner at 9pm. It did helped that there are police posts across the city, and in the alley where I stayed at. I have also seen some local women breast feeding their child in public areas e.g. on the bus, and no men would even glance at them. As a matter of fact, I noticed them turning their heads away when a lady needs to breast feed.
I cannot compare it with India however, since I have never visited before. But some solo travellers who went after a trip in India said they feel much safer in Sri Lanka and it is okay for females to travel alone, but advise otherwise for India.
The only time I felt slightly uncomfortable was walking around Kandy city in shorts. It was laundry day and the only clean bottom left was a pair of shorts. So having no choice, I wore it out despite being aware of their culture. Walked around the whole day and didn’t felt out of place until dusk while walking back to my hostel, a lady raised her voice, pointed at my shorts and asked where my pants are. A word of apology came unconsciously before I scurried through the streets back to my hostel while she continuously pointed at her ankle asking me to put on long pants. On the way back, I looked around to check if anyone else was in shorts and, NO, none of them were. Not even tourists.
There were occasions where I was disturbed by the locals as well. While walking by the side of a road, a motorcyclist driving in an opposite direction drove relatively fast and stopped right in front of me. A group of teenage boys walking past looked at me and said “sexy”, then laughed between themselves. These were all done deliberately to annoy rather than harass though. They happened rarely, and majority of the locals were either friendly or indifferent to my presence.
Down to cleanliness, I myself was surprised at how clean the country is. Sure there were litter scattered around, but I have not come across a reeking pile with flies hanging around. Even in Pettah Market (Colombo’s most hectic shopping area) where delivery men weave in and out what seems like maze, shops with all sorts of things, the streets were considerably clean. I am not sure if it is throughout the day though I have seen cleaners sweeping the streets, getting rid of rubbish at sunrise, during the day or even when the night has fallen. The public toilets did not smell awful either.
I travelled along the south coast and swear that every beaches that I went to was clean, very clean. The sea was of a lovely temperature and sparkling clean, did not smell weird or like drainage, I could soak in them all day.
Never have I suffered from a stomachache during my time there either. Tried street snacks, dine at local eateries, restaurants and they were all fine. Since the locals eat using their hand, there will always be a wash basin so you can wash your hands before and after meals. Not to worry though, they do have utensils to provide if needed.
One thing I am not comfortable with is that when having local snacks at local eateries, they will serve you a plate of assorted pastries and the people just eat whatever they want, charged accordingly, then the leftovers will be put back on shelve until the next customer comes before they serve the same again. It probably will be more acceptable if they provide tools to grab the pastries, but people were picking them up with their bare hands, checking which one is fresher and putting it back on the plate after they have touched them. Imagine there are people who lick their fingers after finishing the food and using the same fingers, touch the food which another customer might pick up. Gross. It is also usual to see pots of curries on the table for people to scoop onto their plate to have it with dosai or pastries etc. These are not in small amount and neither replaced after each customer. They are placed on the table and shared among the customers, only being replaced when the pot is emptied. What I can advise is to ask if there are freshly made curries (not that we will know if they are), or pour some onto your plate and smell if they are still good. We were once served curry that has gone bad.
Overall, majority’s perception of Sri Lanka seems to be wrong or far from being true. Is it dangerous to travel solo especially for females? Never did I felt threatened, and definitely safer to me than in Malaysia. Is the country dirty? Cleanest Asia’s country I have ever been apart from home. Unhygienic food? Not having suffered once from a stomachache even when I have a weak one is considered hygienic to me. Not taking the shared plate of pastries and curries into consideration that is.
Rather than fleeing to Maldives like my brother advised, I can now suggest to choose Sri Lanka instead if you don’t have the budget for Maldives. They share the same ocean afterall :p
This is Pearl of the Indian Ocean.