Don’t disrespect religion. It is especially ill-advised to touch a monk, particularly on their head, and women are not allowed to touch monks at all. Also, don’t forget to take your shoes off when visiting a temple.
Don’t turn your back on a Buddha statue. This action is considered to be disrespectful. It is okay to take photos, but make sure everyone in the picture is facing the statue. It is also frowned upon to wear clothing with images of the Buddha (or any other deity) or have tattoos with the Buddha, so if you have those, cover them up.
Don’t compare Sri Lanka to India. Though Sri Lanka and India are separated only by a narrow channel of water, the two countries are so, so, so different! The people speak very different languages, the culture and customs are unique, even the food is extremely dissimilar.
Don’t get carried away in public. Public displays of affection are not socially acceptable. However, if you must steal a quick kiss, be like the locals and take an umbrella. If you stroll on Galle Face Green or cross the bridge to Lover’s Island in the middle of Beira Lake, you will spot courting couples hidden from prying eyes behind a brolly!
Don’t take snaps without asking first. Before you take a photo, make sure that you check that it is okay to do so. Some places, such as museums, sometimes require you to buy a permit. It is best to ask before taking photos of soldiers or police officers.
Don’t get confused between a restaurant and a hotel. In the past, the best joints for locals to get a sumptuous meal would be at hotels and not restaurants. As a result, many small restaurants started calling themselves hotels instead of restaurants as it would attract more customers, and consequently, more revenue. So do not go into a hotel and ask them for a room or a bed, for you are most likely to be turned away.
Don’t get confused when they waggle their heads as an answer. An action peculiar to Sri Lanka, the head waggle is a distinct form of affirmation. When saying ‘okay’ or ‘yes’, Sri Lankans usually shake their head from one side to the other instead of nodding like most westerners. So don’t mistake their head waggle for a ‘no’, rejection or negation, its connotations often are positive, unless the locals are being ironic or sarcastic with you.
Don’t drink the tap water. Avoid drinking water from the tap. Just don’t – even to brush your teeth. It is unsafe. Not only will your digestive system not be used to the micro-organisms, but experts also believe that industry, agricultural waste and fertilisers are contaminating the water supply, causing the growing number of water-related health problems in the country.
Don’t eat with your left hand. No matter how much your mouth waters, never ever eat food with your left hand, no matter however difficult it is to eat with your right one if you’re left-handed. The reason behind this etiquette is because the left hand is considered unclean in their culture. The same applies to activities such as taking or giving something, and obviously shaking someone’s hand. Take it as a rule of thumb when traveling in Sri Lanka and do not forget it at any cost or you might risk offending anyone superstitious.
Don’t get taken for a ride. When you get in a tuk-tuk, don’t forget to ask if they have a meter and check that it is on and running. You can negotiate the price if you know the usual cost. In Colombo, it is LKR 50 per kilometre. Settle the price with the driver before you take off.
Don’t think people will drive as they do back home. Road deaths in Sri Lanka are at record highs, mainly due to reckless driving. Buses running red lights, motorcycles cutting up on the pavement, tuk tuks on the wrong side of the road on a blind bend – these are all common sights, so please take extra care!
Don’t forget the mozzie spray. Be certain to pack plenty of DEET-based mosquito repellent, as such products are difficult to find in Sri Lanka. Although the island is malaria free, there are frequent outbreaks of dengue fever, which can be pretty nasty.
Don’t ride an elephant. Sri Lanka has more than a dozen or so national parks where an estimated five to six thousand elephants roam freely. However, there are also approximately 120 to 200 elephants in captivity and they are mostly used in religious processions as well as riding camps. Elephants are “broken” to train them to allow riders on their backs using a variety of cruel methods, and many are not fed properly as well as kept in chains. You’re likely to find elephant riding camps in and around Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka. Be a responsible traveler and head to one of Sri Lanka’s many national parks to see wild Asian elephants instead! Alternatively, you can also visit the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe to see orphaned baby elephants – these elephants are returned to the wild after they turn 5 years old.
Don’t touch any dogs that don’t have their ears clipped or don’t have a collar. Unfortunately, rabies does still exist in Sri Lanka, though there are amazing charities who run vaccination as well as spay/neuter programs around the island. It is common for vets to clip dogs’ ears to show that they have been vaccinated, and most domesticated dogs will have also been vaccinated. However, you can never be too safe – most street dogs in Sri Lanka are nothing but lovely, but avoid touching them unless you know for certain that they have been vaccinated against rabies. If you are bitten by a dog or even a monkey, go directly to the hospital.
Don’t ride a scooter or motorcycle without a helmet. Though scooter rentals are not as big in Sri Lanka as they are in places like Bali and Thailand, you might still be able to rent scooters here and there, especially along the southern coast. Just know this – you will get stopped by the police if you ride a scooter or motorcycle in Sri Lanka without a helmet, and you will be fined. Plus, you would want to protect your head in case you get into an accident.
Don’t visit a turtle facility unless you’re 100% sure that it places the welfare of turtles and eggs above tourist demands and photo opps. The standards of care for wild turtles are not yet well regulated in Sri Lanka, and many places try to pass as a legitimate ethical facility just by sticking the word “sanctuary” in their name. This is definitely one of those things to avoid in Sri Lanka. Do your due diligence before you support one of these places, and read reviews from other tourists before you go. The good news is, many places along the coast put up cages to keep the eggs safe until they hatch, and you often don’t need to pay a fee to go see them as all beaches in Sri Lanka are public.
Don’t walk around town half naked. Sri Lanka is unlike some other Asian countries in the sense that it is still relatively modest. The primary religion is Buddhism, so be mindful of your attire when you visit temples (cover your shoulders and wear pants) or walk around town. shorts and tank tops are fine (it’s not a problem to expose your shoulders unless you’re in a place of worship), but it’s not recommended that you drive shirtless on a scooter or walk around town in a bikini. Some tourists are even being stopped by police in the street and told to cover up! Don’t worry, bikinis are fine when you’re actually on the beach.