Guide & Tips
Someone once described Sri Lankans as being like “tropical Italians. ”Sri Lankans are generous with their smiles and their eyes express genuine emotion. The majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhist with Tamils (mostly Hindu), Muslims and Burghers (descendants of Sri Lankans and Portuguese or Dutch colonisers; mostly Christian) making up the rest. Sri Lankans welcome strangers and are keen to see that visitors are happy to be here.
The Sri Lankan Rupee (Rs) is made up of 100 cents but you’ll rarely see cents as most coins are of Rs10, 5, 2 and 1 in value. Currency notes in circulation are in denominations of Rs5000, 2000, 1000, 500, 100, 50 and 20. As new notes are being phased in replacing two older versions, you will find some notes of the same denomination come in three different colours. Watch carefully when you are handling currency to see that you don’t mistake a high denomination note for a lower one. Even Sri Lankans make that mistake.
Visitors bringing into Sri Lanka an excess of $10,000 in any foreign currency should declare the amount to customs on arrival, to allow that much to be taken out again. Keep exchange receipts so you can easily exchange excess rupees back into foreign currency on departure.
Banking Hours: All banks in the country open for the public from 0900hrs to 1300hrs from Monday to Friday, but some banks have extended their opening hours until 15.00hrs and are also open on Saturday. There are ATMs for obtaining cash with credit or debit cards in every town; look for the sign equivalent to the one on your card. Some ATMs do not return the card until after the transaction is completed, so don’t pocket the cash and leave without collecting your card.
Cleanliness and modesty are appreciated even in informal situations. Nudity and topless bathing are prohibited and subject to heavy fines. Display of intimacy is not suitable in public and will probably draw unwanted attention.
CUSTOMS DUTY-FREE ALLOWANCES
Import on arrival: visitors to Sri Lanka are officially required to declare all currencies, valuable equipment, jewellery and gems etc., so they can be taken back on departure. Visitors are not allowed to bring in goods in commercial quantities, or prohibited/restricted goods such as dangerous drugs, weapons, explosive devices or gold. Drug trafficking or possession leads to severe punishments up to the death penalty. A tourist is allowed to bring in duty free: 1.5 litres of spirits, 2 bottles of wine, a small quantity of perfume and 250ml of toilet water. The duty free importation of cigarettes, cigars or tobacco is not permitted. However, locally manufactured brands of international cigarettes are readily available.
Tourists are allowed to export without paying export tax up to 10kg of tea grown and packed in Sri Lanka. The export of Sri Lankan antiques (defined as an item over 100 years old) is not allowed.
VISITING PLACES OF WORSHIP
Visitors to Buddhist and Hindu temples are welcome though the shrines of Hindu temples are sometime closed to non-Hindus. Visitors to temples are expected to be respectably clad, bare footed and with heads uncovered.
Do not attempt to shake hands or be photographed with Buddhist monks or to pose for photos with statues of the Buddha or other deities and paintings.
HANDS AND EATING
Use your right hand for giving, taking, eating or shaking hands as the left hand is considered to be unclean. Do not shake hands with a Buddhist Monk or a Hindu Swami. Greet them with your hands clasped together as if in prayer and raising them to your forehead bending slightly forward. When handing objects to another person, using right hand or both hands would be appreciated by the receiver.
Smoking is prohibited in public places. Please observe non-smoking rules. Smoking is permitted in some enclosed spaces (like bars) but if in doubt, ask before lighting up.
In conversation Sri Lankans may ask questions that a foreigner would regard as being too personal. This simply reflects the emphasis Sri Lankans place on family life.
Sri Lankans are happy to pose for photographs but it is polite to ask for permission first. Street entertainers like snake charmers would expect a fee for posing.
As in any country, theft can occur, especially when travelling by train or in a crowded bus. It is sensible to secure valuables, passport and credit cards out of sight, such as in a money belt or buttoned pockets, and not to leave bags, computers, cameras, etc., unattended when travelling.
Keep a record of vital documents, including your passport number, credit card numbers etc., separate from those documents in case they do get stolen. If items are stolen, report the theft to the nearest police station and, if you need proof for an insurance claim, obtain a copy of your report. The paper work involved in reporting losses can be time consuming and irritating. Tourists should not assume that if procedures move slowly they are expected to offer a bribe. If you face really serious problems, e.g. in case of a driving accident, you should contact your consular office as quickly as possible.
UNWRITTEN RULES OF THE ROAD
The rule of ‘might is right’ applies. Flashing headlights mean ‘get out of the way, I’m not stopping’. In these circumstances it is advisable to give the oncoming vehicle adequate space, since they usually approach at high speed. Roundabouts are generally a free-for-all, so take your chance cautiously.
Foreigners intending to drive in Sri Lanka are required to obtain a ‘recognition permit’ that is issued up to the expiry date of your International Driving Permit. This is a simple process. Just call at the Automobile Association of Sri Lanka at 40, Sir M.M. Markar Mawatha, Galle Face, Colombo 3, open 08.30-16.30, Monday-Friday except on public holidays.
If you do not have an International Driving Permit but have your national licence, you must apply for a temporary Sri Lankan Driving Licence from the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, Department of Motor Traffic at 341, Elvitigala Mawatha, Colombo5. Tel: 0112694331. Temporary driving licences are issued on payment of Rs 2500+VAT per month up to a maximum period of one year. (Rates are subject to change)
Mains power in Sri Lanka is 230 V @ 50 Hz AC. Some hotels have transformers/ converters enabling visitors to use non compatible appliances. There may be pronounced variations in the voltage and occasional power cuts. As socket types vary, it is advisable to carry a universal adapter.
Government Offices: Open 09.30-1700, Monday-Friday. Restaurants and Bars: Permitted hours for alcohol service are 11.00-14.00 and 17.00-2300; however some restaurants/bars have different licences and do not close in the afternoon. No alcohol is served on Poya (Full Moon) Days.