Sri Lanka Safety Tips for Female Travelers
First off, I want to say that not all men are like the ones I’m about to describe in the following paragraphs. Hillary and I have had some incredible Couchsurfing hosts with whom we’ve created amazing bonds. They have been over the top hospitable, and our stay in Sri Lanka would have been lacking without them. However, as surprised as they were when we told them stories like those mentioned below, it makes sense to me why shock and surprise would be their reaction. Unfortunately, the truth is they’ve never been a foreign female in their country and could live out their whole lives without having the experiences we have in one day, at no fault of theirs. And so I want to say how very appreciative we are for them. They offered a much needed safe haven for us where we could be ourselves, let loose, and really enjoy our time in Sri Lanka. This is a beautiful country, with a rich history and a welcoming people. We really couldn’t think of a better place to start our trip through SE Asia. Now that my thanks and appreciation to the good guys has been expressed, I feel the need to share some stories to help prep all my ladies out there for some moments they’re likely to encounter. Please enjoy a few lighthearted photos of the local people, culture, and nature along the way!
#1 Be prepared to get stared at. And I mean stared at for 5 and 6 and 10 solid minutes, unabashedly, for the whole duration of your bus or train ride or while you’re trying to enjoy a meal. On a particularly rough day (ie: travel day, when you’re hot, sweaty, hungry and lost, for instance), this can be as good enough reason as any to lose your cool. For example, we have had a man stare at us from his upstairs window while we sat at a bus station waiting on our CS host to pick us up. Then, once our ride arrived about 10 minutes later and parked around the corner, Oogly-Eyes McGee proceeded to come downstairs and outside in search of us. The man then walked down the street to find us sitting in the back of our host’s truck. He crossed to the other side and stood on the corner just 15 meters from our parked vehicle, his eyes fixed on us the whole time. He then walked the length of the sidewalk and back again, all the while gawking at us as if we were exotic animals in a zoo.
I’ll tell you that it had been an extremely long day, and we had missed our stop on a 5 hour train because a man blocked us from getting off. In that situation, as we scrambled to grab our packs and make our way through the crowded aisle to the door, he stood in front of us and simply stated, “This is not your stop.” He knew best, of course, because we are women, no explanation necessary. So one backtracking train ride and two unplanned bus rides later, I couldn’t have felt more over the day. I stared Oogly-Eyes McGee down, our eyes locked, my facial expression clearly not a welcoming one, disgusted at his complete disregard for socially acceptable behavior. Disgusted with him for the behavior of every other piggish man I’d encountered during my trip thus far. But it didn’t matter, and it usually doesn’t. He continued to stand and stare, and I continued to sit and stare, until the engine started up and we began our drive out of town. His eyes narrowed and focused on mine until he became a still small dot against the village backdrop.
#2 You will be subjected to inappropriate behavior. Men have made kissy faces and ridiculous noises. One whistled, patted his thigh and shouted, “Come!” We’ve been air-licked (if that’s a thing?) and have ignored raised eyebrows accompanied by clicking tongues. In one small village where we Couchsurfed, one man went so far as to stop us during a walk, ask if we were the Couchsurfers staying with his friend, stated that he knew we were a lesbian couple, and then made highly inappropriate, suggestive comments before we raised our voices at him and walked away, shocked and put off – our host was mortified!
#3 You’ll probably be followed at least once. One afternoon we were followed by a tuk-tuk on a busy street in Colombo after we declined a ride. The driver stopped in front of us and waited for us to pass, then started up his tuk-tuk again and creeped up on us, passing us and pulling over to turn his engine off and wait a second time, then a third and fourth. This literally went on for about 10 minutes as we hurriedly walked toward a restaurant on the busy street, shouting silly comments each time he drove past. After many refusals, we began ignoring his remarks, which only seemed to fuel his interest. We even turned around on the main street to try and deter him after many firm, “No’s” were said, only to have him make a u-turn in the busy traffic another three times before finally driving away for good.
#4 Unwanted attention seems unavoidable. Unfortunately these situations have been frequent and commonplace. At times it can be exhausting just walking to get a Coke or hopping a bus for just a few blocks on a particularly hot day. Even with regular t-shirts and pants, sometimes while also wearing our rain jackets, the staring and harassment can seem all but unbearable. By our second week, I became much more direct, forward, and less tolerant. It has actually helped a bit with ending unwanted conversations. But why must I be rude? Why must I say “No” about nine times before it’s even remotely heard? Perhaps traveling with a male companion would help to ease up on this aspect of local attention as we rarely had this issue when our male CS hosts took us out.
#5 The men always have an answer, even when they don’t. Don’t be surprised if you ask a random local (man) a question, and they confidently give you an answer – and it turns out to be completely inaccurate. Like at the bus stop, “Does this bus go to Kandy?” or at a train station, “When is the next train to Colombo?” Perhaps it’s just your average Joe making conversation with you (because they generally will), and you ask how many kilometers it is to the specific tourist attraction he’s talking about. You will always get an answer, but make sure to ask at least two other people and see which answer averages out. It has happened to us several times when we haven’t had access to WiFi and had to rely on information from a local. Ready to be served up a hot plate of irony? We’ve even been told by a host or two that the men here never say, “I don’t know,” as they don’t want to lose credibility.
#6 Buses sometimes stop running by 6 pm in the small villages that surround many tourist attractions. This can be a very important piece of information when planning your day trips, especially for solo female travelers. It’s often completely dark by 6pm, so know where you’ll be at that time and how you are going to get there. Busy cities like Colombo and Kandy are well lit on the main streets, but in smaller villages (with blatantly interested men lingering around) it can be downright intimidating after dark.
#7 Plan as much as possible and stay outwardly confident in all situations. This is easier said than done, I’ll assure you. Some information is hard to find online, and the language barrier will present its own set of difficulties. The last thing you want is to be followed and heckled during a high stress situation. At the end of the day, no matter how much time you spend on planning and educating yourself, you’re bound to experience similar situations as we did. It’s very easy for all of these isolated circumstances to eat at you and ruin parts of your trip. You just have to choose not to let it. Keep in mind this is a different culture, perhaps even a different generation of people, and foreigners are just that – foreign. Something to be noticed, sometimes this is just done in a less attractive and less acceptable way than we are used to.
**Note to readers.
I struggled a bit as to whether or not I should post this blog, as I did not want to slam the men of Sri Lanka or appear ungrateful towards the male Couchsurfing members who were among the kindest, most hospitable individuals we met during our month there. However, as I filtered through Google to find similar articles, there appeared to be nothing on what to expect in Sri Lanka as a female traveler. I felt compelled to share my experiences, just as many bloggers have shared their ups and downs of sexism issues in India. The war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, and the tourism industry is just now really beginning to flourish. I’m sure as the years pass, the shock and awe of seeing backpackers and foreign women will fade, as well as the inappropriate behavior and advances. I have shared the negatives for female safety purposes, but let me be clear that these experiences made up a small percentage of our interactions in Sri Lanka. The people, as a whole, are among the most kind and welcoming I have ever met in my travels. Expect the best, but be prepared to handle yourself with composure in unexpected situations, such as these.
Been here? Headed here? Would love to hear from you! Share your thoughts in the comments section below!