Let me start by saying that I’ve quite literally travelled all across Sri Lanka solo in every way you could possibly imagine. From cars, trains, bicycles, tuk tuks, boats, vans and buses to a hot air balloon and an army jeep, I have a lot of first hand experience as both a tourist and a resident. From my first solo trip 2 years ago (I travelled with family prior to this) to the guesthouse where I’m writing this in Jaffna, I have learnt so much between then and now by these many experiences.
I honestly do believe Sri Lanka is one of the safest countries in Asia to travel solo but as much as I love living here, unwanted attention, even occasionally harassment can be an issue for women. The question is, how to avoid it and stay safe throughout your travels?
To begin with, make a conscious effort to not only understand but respect the culture, follow some additional precautions and seek out other travellers experience and knowledge from blog posts such as this before you go. Fortunately, a lot of issues can be avoided when it comes to harassment but it’s easier said than done if you ‘walk in blind’ so to speak.
As a feminist, I believe a woman should theoretically be able to wear what she feels comfortable wearing without being harassed, however when visiting a country with modest & conservative values and culture, this is really not a wise mindset in certain areas, especially when travelling alone.
However politically incorrect as it may seem, for me as a liberal, friendly individual I have to make a conscious effort to hold back a little, especially when interacting with men in what would technically be described as working class professions such as tuk tuk drivers. When you assume they’re going out of their way to be extra helpful, there is a considerable chance that a) more money will be expected or b) if you’re coming across as too friendly (in their mind), something else. Never assume. You may find my Tuk Tuk Survival Guide useful.
I hope my experience and travel tips will give confidence and prove invaluable to other women (and perhaps even men) in Sri Lanka, so here we are, my ultimate guide to safe travel for solo female travellers. The photos scattered across this post are all taken by myself on self-timer- this isn’t called the ultimate solo guide for nothing!
1. Avoid personal questions. Ironically I was inspired to write this guide having experienced someone asking too many personal questions on the train from Jaffna to Colombo. I was simply thinking, here we go again as it was a textbook example but went along with it for research.
Questions that begin with a simple ‘how old are you’ can very soon escalate to ‘are you married’, ‘what is your job’ to ‘what is your salary’ (p.s red light) and someone telling you about their two babies can to the fact they don’t have enough money to support them. All of the above happened. And there is no denying that it happened because I’m a foreigner, despite explaining in Sinhala that I live here.
The way to overcome this is to simply not reply directly if something makes you uncomfortable because once they see you opening up to personal questions they will likely ask more. I’ve made the mistake in answering one or two before thinking I will be left in peace but trust me, it doesn’t work like that.
If I get the impression that someone wants to talk (which I’m quite the expert in these days) I often wear my earphones and listen to music or look busy on my phone, otherwise will be polite yet firm that I’m not interested in conversation. Being direct is not something which comes naturally to me but I’ve learnt to adapt to save time and energy.
2. Stay close to families. If you see a family on public transport or feel a little uncomfortable in general, stay close because they will 99.9% of the time be the safest to be around. If there’s a choice to sit in a carriage on a train full of males or another with children and mothers, be assertive and choose the latter, even if it means you are a little squashed between chattering children!Family groups can be fun to be with and if you have a few sweets in your pocket even more so. These are the people you can usually converse with in sign language or the children’s schoolroom English and have an authentic experience.
3. Book a 1st class seat or ticket. Now this is a little controversial as some of my favourite memories have been on regular 2nd and 3rd class seats but if you’re having one of those days where you just need your space or a little more comfort, there are often AC/ first class carriages where you have a considerably less chance of unwanted attention. This is particularly good advice for long distance journeys.
There are also luxury AC buses which you can book online, most often embarking from or in the direction of Colombo. Book a seat near the front. The prices are still incredibly reasonable.
4. Learn some Sinhala. There are two languages in Sri Lanka. Sinhala and Tamil. If I’m honest, the parts of the country where I feel most vulnerable as a solo female foreigner tends to be along the South Coast where the majority of tourists head toand Sinhala is spoken. Generally, it’s nice to meet and greet people in the native language and it also doubles up as a preventative method of people assuming your naivety. That said, remain sharp and vigilant regardless.
Speak the words with confidence, even if you’re not 100% about the accent- you will quickly learn as people will helpfully correct you and appreciate that you’re making an effort. Also, in some circumstances if the ‘sharks’ are unsure how much you can speak/ understand they tend to be a little more cautious of taking advantage of your vulnerability.
5. Walk with confidence. Whenever I walk I make sure to project an image of confidence, as though I am 100% sure of where I am and what I’m doing. If I look at a road sign I will do it subtly and inconspicuously, especially if people are watching. If this takes a little longer that’s fine.
Despite my relaxed demeanor, I’m also very aware of the people in close proximity and if I feel in any way uncomfortable, will take immediate action by walking into a shop or cafe, booking a taxi or both. The maps app is invaluable.
6. When travelling in public, don’t wear clothes that show too much skin. Try and dress a little local. When travelling in Sri Lanka I go out of my way to blend in. There’s a huge difference between walking along Unawatuna beach in shorts and a crop top and travelling on the local bus in the south coast wearing the same attire- which by the way, I really don’t recommend you do.
When amongst a crowd from all walks of life (again, I hate to stereotype but especially working class men) you need to be extra cautious. Wear light, loose comfortable clothing. It’s best not to flash expensive jewellery. When travelling in Jaffna and the North East, I like to wear long indian style dresses with sleeves and leggings.
7. When possible, use transport apps such as Uber or Pick Me in Colombo, Negombo and Kandy. In Colombo and Negombo Uber is an extremely reasonable and easy to use app- you can choose uberGo (mini car) or uberX (larger car). I regularly use it when travelling in and around Colombo, especially at night or when it’s too hot to travel by tuk tuk for the AC.
Pick Me is a Sri Lankan app which provide tuk tuks as well as cars and vans. They mainly operate in Colombo, Negombo and Kandy. I can’t praise them enough because it’s fair and equal for everyone which is exactly how it should be- I often book tuk tuks during rush hour (especially between 1-2pm when the children finish school) to get from A to B faster. As always, you still need to be alert but there is more security in booking through one of these reputable apps than hailing from the side of the road.
Both apps give you the option to use your credit/debit card as the payment option instead of cash which makes it a little easier when jumping around the city all day.
8. Be calm. Travelling in some parts of Asia is the ultimate test because each country has it’s own set of rules and cultural norms which there is no real guidebook for. Trust me when I say, the only way to overcome any issue is to not freak out because it will achieve nothing, only escalate things further. Think things through calmly before reacting and don’t get caught up in the moment by letting a situation steal your inner peace and calm. Think logically, not emotionally. You will overcome it.
9. Pack so you can manage. If you have the option of leaving some non-valuable items behind at a reputable guesthouse/hotel which you plan to return to, this could be worth considering, especially if you’re in the middle of globetrotting around the world realistically with too much to manage. Consider what you need carefully and transport it in the most convenient, hassle free way. Use locks.
10. Allocate plenty of time for everything, it will often take longer than you think. The times I’ve been most stressed in Sri Lanka are when I haven’t managed my time efficiently. I would rather turn up ridiculously early and know I’m there on time than at the edge of sanity in panic mode.
When travelling to or from Bandaranaike International Airport I often book a room for the day/ overnight at Hangover Hostels which is just 5 minutes away. Attempting to estimate an arrival time through traffic in Colombo can be unpredictable (rush hour, protests and the occassional road block) so I find this helps sustain calmness before a flight.
11. Don’t take unnecessary risks/ trust your gut. If you feel unsafe where you are, walk away from the situation asap in a calm, inconspicuous yet brisk manner. If it means paying a little more money for a taxi on said occasion, do it. Never compromise your safety.
If your phone has or is about to run out of battery, plan your next move of where to charge it before it does- p.s invest in a good powerbank. Think one step ahead. Don’t rush. Above all, trust your gut if you feel something isn’t quite right it probably isn’t. Don’t let people pressure you into making quick decisions, take your own time. If you feel pressure from someone the chances are it will benefit them more than you.
12. Be protective of your space. If someone is coming too close to you (F.Y.I try not to put yourself in situations where no one else is around), shuffle/move away to regain your space. Make sure they know your doing it because of them. If they don’t respect this, make an informed assumption that hints don’t work and move further away from said individual. I find bags or umbrellas particularly helpful in filling or creating this space if there is nowhere else to go ie: on a crowded bus or train.
Do not be afraid to make a fuss if someone is being inappropriate – a loud and firm ‘don’t do that’ is understood in any language!
13. Buy a local Dialog SIM card. Internet data, local calls, and to some extent international calls are very reasonable here in Sri Lanka. I use Dialog which is generally good for signal across the country. You can buy data/reload scratch cards in different amounts in even the smallest of ‘caddies’ or alternatively the shop will transfer it manually whilst you wait for text confirmation. I always keep a couple of spare scratch reload cards in my purse for emergencies.
Save emergency contacts in advance including the numbers of all hotels or guesthouses throughout your trip, reliable/safe/reasonable tuk tuk drivers you may have met, the tourist police of the area (just to be on the safe side) and any others that may be relevant. 119 is the emergency police number in Sri Lanka. I feel safer having this to hand even when I know the chances of using it is very low. Load onto your phone and have a paper copy also.
If, for example, your concerned about how to get from the train or bus station to your accomodation after dark, call in advance and ask if they can arrange transport for you. If they come across as reluctant at first, mention you’re travelling alone- I’m not one for drama but sounding a little ‘on edge’ can help in this situation.
14. Utilise internet data, especially the maps app. When travelling in a tuk tuk or taxi, check the maps app to ensure your going in the correct direction. Subtly showing the map on your phone to the driver if you have concerns he’s taking you ‘the scenic route’ will give the instant impression that you’re alert, assertive and less likely to be easily taken advantage of.
Maps can also avoid a lot of unnecessary stress. I ran out of data once on route to Ella which was due to arrive around 8:30pm but running late. It was pitch black and raining outside which made it almost impossible to read each station sign so you can imagine how anxious I was about potentially missing my stop. Having data to use the maps app would have solved the problem. You can also pre-download maps when you have wifi for a specific area on the google maps app.
Using review sites such as trip advisor can also be useful to instantly (and subtly) check whether a place is reputable and safe, especially restaurants and accommodation.
When it comes to research, I like to make lists on my phone and recently downloaded an app called Anylist which I absolutely love. It’s simple and easy to organise. I’ve also conditioned myself to regularly screenshot maps (with the nearest road names included) as backup in case the internet drops signal when I need it.
16. When booking accommodation, don’t be tempted by Tom, Dick or Harry’s (or Manoj, Prasan or Amila’s) friend’s place. As a solo traveller, it’s best not to consider accomodation (without an online presence) via someone you just met. It may be considerably less than where you’ve already booked but if it’s not rated online you have 0% security and it’s simply not worth it, especially if you have valuable personal items.
I use the Booking app a lot these days when travelling outside of sponsored work and if I plan to return, will request the offline rates to book directly. If they have a solid reputation on Bookings, Airbnb or any other site, it’s unlikely they would do anything to jeopardise it. Make safety #1 priority for yourself and your belongings.
At the time of compiling this blog post, Sri Lanka’s society is hierarchical. The lower echelons of society are patriarchal and for a minority, pre conceived assumptions regarding the lone travelling female is inevitable.
Don’t let any of the above scare you off as Sri Lanka is a beautiful, safe country and you will no doubt have a trip of a lifetime and meet some wonderful people along the way. Sri Lankan people are warm and friendly with a great sense of humour. If you heed all of the above tips, traveller traps can be avoided- knowledge is security!
If you have any tips of your own, please feel free to share them below.
Disclaimer: Please note, these tips are all experienced based. As much as I respect any varying opinions of others, nothing shared in this post is uninformed or out of prejudice- I’m a foreign solo female traveller with over 13+ years experience in Sri Lanka
This post was written by the founder and director of Style in Sri Lanka, Alice Luker.