Sri Lanka, an absolutely beautiful country.
Fun, gorgeous train rides.
Lush tea plantations.
Small island charm.
There’s a reason Lonely Planet dubbed it the most top place to visit in 2019. And yet, Sri Lanka was nowhere near my top travel list before I left to travel for a year while working independently.
It’s not that I didn’t want to visit- it was more so there were so many other places in the world that I so badly wanted to see. Even beginning my trip, not knowing how long it’d last or how sustainable my businesses would be, it wasn’t a priority for the trip.
It wasn’t until I was back in Indonesia for the second time, working my face off, and scheming where I could take a 3-4 week holiday (still working, but far less) that I started considering Sri Lanka.
Well, I’d heard and seen enough to know that it was truly a stunning destination.
It was also close to India, which I wanted to spend a few weeks in.
And, so the trip planning started.
I talk about it more in my post with my Sri Lanka itinerary, but I found planning a trip for Lanka tougher than anywhere else in SE Asia.
Largely because, unless you’re going to hire a private driver for each day (which was cost prohibitive to me as a solo traveler), it’s not an easy country to get around.
Public transit connects some places, but not all places. And, sometimes, it takes really long to get from place to place- several times over the time it’d take you to drive direct.
In the end, I ended up taking public transit a few times- only trains and a bus once- and hired a city to city driver three times to help me get to places where public transit wasn’t available, or took 2-3+ transfers to reach.
Why is Lanka a bit harder to get around than its Asian counterparts?
It’s because tourism is relatively new to the island. And, despite the hype around it as a tourist destination, locals, businesses and the government are still getting used to the influx of foreigners.
This means they’re not used to seeing women with giant backpacks wandering around on their own.
Enter the staring.
Most of the time, these looks were those of curiosity. You’ve gotta remember- there are huge cultural differences. A woman traveling on own isn’t a common activity among Sri Lankan women.
I never felt unsafe traveling Lanka on my own, but I did feel uncomfortable at times, which was a direct result of the sexual harassment I experienced.
In the south, the sexual harassment was rampant- near constant attention, remarks, whistling and kissing noises.
If you’re coming with a guy or a group, you’ll be fine. From what I experienced and observed firsthand, only solo women are targeted.
And, although it’s exhausting to navigate and dodge, I never felt actually threatened.
The majority of people I spoke with were welcoming and kind.
In fact, I had a few encounters that restored my faith throughout my stay.
One such moment: My first train ride from Colombo to Galle.
I arrived at the station early, and went to the ticket counter to buy tickets. The man selling tickets literally threw change at me, hoping I wouldn’t notice he’d shorted me 400 rupees ($2 USD). This kind of scam is common in Lanka- unfortunately for him, I know to count the money carefully and was able to request the rest of my change before I left.
Leaving the ticket booth, I felt on guard. I’d read that train platforms changed regularly, and sometimes, people purposely misled foreigners, in hope they’d resort to alternate transportation and could recommend a service to them.
Two station workers confirmed platform 5 was the one I’d need.
I went to the platform, waited and when a train pulled up, confirmed it was the one I’d need before boarding. On board, finding second class was a bit tricky (not much to distinguish it from third class, at least on local trains).
Once I found a car with empty seats that I was pretty sure was second class, I took a seat next to a woman.
Cue: Tons of staring and loads of people (all men) asking me where I was going in effort to try and sell me something- a hotel, a tour, a tuk tuk ride on arrival.
Before the train even left, I was feeling a bit weary.
And then, one of the station workers I’d talked to earlier ran onto the car, breathless. He saw me, smiled and gave me a thumbs up. He was checking to ensure I made the train and found my carriage class okay.
This simple encounter warmed my heart the whole way to Galle.
And, then, there was the Uber driver I had at the Colombo airport.
Not such a great experience.
When I arrived in Lanka, it was 10 pm. By the time I made it through the airport – customs and acquired a SIM – it was nearing 11 pm, and I still had a 45 minute drive to Colombo.
Uber to the rescue, or so I thought.
My driver was a jerk- loud, boisterous, kept demanding I pay him extra money, and asking uncomfortable questions.
When we got to my b&b and all the lights were off, he laughed and immediately started trying to push me to come to a friend’s home with him.
It’s moments like this that I do feel a bit scared- I recognise I’m alone in a car with a man I don’t know in a foreign country, and from what I can see there’s no one else around.
But, I think it’s important to not panic in these situations and remain confident.
I firmly said, ‘No’, quickly exited the car, grabbed my bags and walked fast to the front of the b&b. Fortunately, there was a night guard (asleep under the stairs), who woke up and took me to my room.
Of course, I reported the Uber driver post trip, writing a detailed account of the incident. But, it was a good reminder that I have a level of comfort association with Uber in the Western world, and even though they’ve expanded into new countries, it doesn’t mean the experience will be comparable.
All this to say, these kind of things can happen around the world- even in your home country.
It’s no reason not to travel or close yourself to encounters with locals.
If I’d ignored a man who hesitantly approached me in Galle to tell me he liked my tattoo, we wouldn’t have had a beautiful chat about spirituality and the significance of the lotus flower in Sri Lanka.
I’m a big believer in gut feelings, and doing your best to remain calm, no matter the situation. Time after time, I’ve found people will help you if you really need it.
But, I also believe in understanding what you’re getting yourself into.
I’d read posts from a few other women who travelled Sri Lanka on their own, and understood the experience of traveling the country as a solo woman drastically differed from tales I heard from those who went as part of a couple or group.
5 Tips for Solo Female Travel in Sri Lanka
Be Aware of Top Scams
The ones in Lanka are similar to other countries in Asia. For whatever reason, they felt more intense in Lanka- perhaps because I had more people approaching me as a woman on my own.
Be on the lookout for people selling train/transport tickets if they’re not at the official booth, receiving incorrect change, people offering tours on the street (always go through a legit provider), and tuk tuk drivers who try to take you to ‘special stops’ or tell you a road is closed.
The stops are total scams, where you’ll be pressured to buy something (because your driver gets a kick back). And the roads are rarely, if ever, closed- they tell you they are to try and take you to a friend’s hotel.
Use Rideshare Apps to Call Tuk Tuks Where Available
No need to negotiate with a tuk tuk driver or demand the metre be turned on, which can be more daunting as a woman on her own- especially if you’re talking to a group of male drivers standing together.
Instead, in the cities (Colombo, Kandy), use PickMe and Uber to call tuk tuks. Doing so also eliminates any confusion about where you’re heading and removes the chance they may try to up-sell you on a tourist stop, or lie to you about a road closure.
As with anywhere else, make sure the tuk tuk license plate matches what’s in the app. A few times, I cancelled rides because drivers were in other vehicles and I didn’t feel comfortable with that.
Use Women & Families As a Crutch
On public transit and in lines, I always sat or stood next to women or families.
It’s less likely men will harass you incessantly when you’re in the company of other women or families.
Chat to Other Foreigners, Befriend Travel or Walking Pals
Even if your itinerary isn’t flexible, like mine, and means you can’t float around the country with newly befriended travel pals, it’s still worth chatting up other travelers.
One night, after eating at a restaurant in Mirissa that was a 10 minute walk from the main road, I asked two women who were finishing near the same time if I could walk back to the main road with them. Not because I didn’t feel safe, but because it’s a smart precaution.
Understand Sri Lankans Stare
It doesn’t matter what you look like- if you’re not Sri Lankan, you’ll be started at. I noticed this most in big cities, but it happened everywhere.
Most of the time, it’s just curiosity.
If people came over to talk to me, they wanted to know where I was from, and if I was enjoying their beautiful home.
Sometimes, men will ask for your name, phone number and Facebook ID. They can be pushy, but you can firmly tell them no.
I dressed pretty modestly during my time in Lanka, which I think helped the number of advances I received. Normally, I’d say- wear whatever makes you comfortable, but when traveling to countries where customs and expectations are different to what I may be used to, I try to adapt where possible, out of respect.
A Few Other Tips to Feeling a Bit More Comfortable As a Solo Female Traveller in Sri Lanka
- Get a SIM if your phone is unlocked– it’s a game changer for helping you understand where you are, where you need to go, or look up details on the fly
- Limit times you’re walking alone at dark, in cities and the countryside– most nights, I tried to be back in my room early enough, or used ride share apps to help me get back safely
- Tell your hostel/hotel owner where you’re going/when you’ll be back, or make sure someone else knows your plans
- Dress conservatively, Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist country, which means shoulders and knees should be covered
- Don’t show off flashy belongings– Apple watch, jewellery, name brands, etc. I felt fine, walking with my iPhone in my hand most times, but wore minimal possessions otherwise
- Know a few key phrases in Sinhalese– hello, thank you, goodbye
And, finally- I’ve honed a three-step method to dealing with unwanted male attention while traveling that works in most countries. Usually, I just ignore it, but if they’re in my face or persist-
- I say, ‘No thank you’ kindly, with a head shake
- If they pursue, then it’s a firm, ‘No, I do not need help’ / whatever they’re offering, spoken slowly and louder
- If they still pursue (which I haven’t encountered much), then, it’s a single word, ‘NO’, spoken very loudly to draw attention from those around me
Bottom line: Stay alert, be aware, trust your gut.
But, remember to relax and have a good time, too.
The majority of Sri Lankans will welcome you- they’re thrilled to help serve tourists, who boost their economy.
You’ll also find Sri Lankans are proud of their beautiful homeland and culture, and eager to share it with visitors.
Have you ever traveled Sri Lanka, or another place on your own and found it to be difficult? What tips or words of encouragement would you share with other solo travellers?
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