My first solo trip to Sri Lanka was 2015, more than 10 years since my first encounter in 2004.
Despite flying out to the island almost every year since then, I soon discovered solo travel is worlds apart from venturing out with family.
Firstly, I didn’t have my mum to fend off unwanted attention, which she’s incredibly good at, and at 25 years old, I was becoming a fully-fledged adult.
My greatest asset of support were family friends, mostly Sri Lankan’s, in many pockets of the island. I have no doubt it would have been more challenging without this invaluable network.
I’ve had a whirlwind of solo travel experience on the island; incredible memories and those I’ve learnt from.
Many people ask me whether Sri Lanka is a safe country to visit solo. With 3+ years of experience, I would say, wholeheartedly, yes.
My intention of this solo travel guide is to spread the word to all the woman (and men) out there with everything I’ve learnt along the way. How to navigate and be assertive while travelling in Sri Lanka.
1. As a woman travelling solo, avoid one to one conversations with men on the road.
Of course, you’re going to talk with men during your trip. I would just avoid it (especially one to one) while you’re on the road, especially on public transport.
In Sri Lanka, local women don’t tend to be informally chatty with men they don’t know- again, especially on public transport.
So if a guy approaches to initiate an informal conversation, be aware it’s not the cultural norm.
2. Don’t answer personal questions
If you find yourself in a situation when you can’t easily step away, like in a tuk-tuk or on a train, avoid answering personal questions.
Questions that begin with a seemingly innocent ‘how old are you’, can soon escalate to ‘are you married’, ‘what is your job’ and or even ‘what is your salary’- I was asked all these questions consecutively on a recent train ride from Jaffna. The salary question (which I didn’t answer) was shortly followed by a request for money.
You will find there’s often an underlying intention behind being approached by overly chatty and eager strangers.
The difficulty is wrapping up the conversation if it reaches a more uncomfortable stage. It’s unlikely to become unsafe but can be emotionally and physically draining, which can be distracting long after the encounter.
A clear, focused mind is essential as a solo traveller in Sri Lanka.
2. Stay close to Families
You don’t need to avoid interactions with all strangers. Families can be good fun, especially on public transport.
Despite potential language barriers, you can always communicate with kids without words. A lollipop or packet of sweets can help too!
So if you see a family group on public transport, stay close.
3. Book a 1st class seat.
This is a teeny bit controversial as some of my favourite memories have been on regular 2nd and 3rd class seats.
If you’re having one of those days where you crave personal space or need a little extra comfort, there may be AC/ first-class train carriages where you have much less chance of attracting unwanted attention.
There’s likely a member of staff close by for most, if not all, of the trip too.
This is especially worthwhile for tiring, long-distance journeys.
An alternate option to local buses is semi-luxury & luxury coaches which you can book online. The prices are incredibly reasonable.
4. Learn some Sinhala and Tamil.
Sinhala and Tamil are the two main languages in Sri Lanka.
I am pretty competent in Sinhala- enough to give the impression I know more than I do which can be useful!
Tamil is mostly spoken in the upper part of the island (and the hill country), while Sinhala dominates the central province and south coast. You will, of course, hear both Sinhala and Tamil across the island.
Speak with confidence- don’t worry about the accent, it comes with practice.
5. Walk with confidence.
Wherever I walk, I make a conscious effort to project an image of confidence and familiarity. A sense of knowing exactly what and where I’m going, even if I don’t.
When I’m orienting myself on Google maps, I aim to look as inconspicuous as possible. The art of solo travel is to not look vulnerable.
Despite my outward demeanour, I’m always aware of onlookers.
If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, walk into a nearby shop or cafe. If they’re still lingering outside after a couple of minutes and you feel unsafe, book a taxi or ask someone inside to help.
By all means, ask for directions from fellow pedestrians (not from said onlooker!), just keep the interaction short and intentional.
6. When travelling in public, don’t wear clothes that show too much skin. Try and dress a little local.
Every woman should be able to wear what she likes without being harassed. However, when visiting a country with a more conservative culture, this is not a wise mindset in certain areas- especially when travelling solo.
Think of Sri Lanka as two separate wardrobes- one for the beach and hotel and the other for wearing on public transport, exploring local towns, temples etc.
My go-to outfit is a pair of colourful yogi style trousers (like harem but not so loose at the crotch!) with a strappy top and lightweight scarf. This way I can judge the situation- wrap the scarf around my upper half when I’m feeling more vulnerable or to be respectful and whip off when appropriate.
7. When possible, pre-book transport.
Apps for tuk-tuks and cars are becoming more widely available in Sri Lanka- mostly in the busier hotspots and Cities. I use Uber and Pick Me.
Both apps allow you to use your credit/debit card as the payment option instead of cash which makes it much easier- fewer trips to ATM’s and no fiddling around with cash. Tuk-tuks rarely have change for large notes.
While it’s tempting to jump into the nearest available tuk-tuk, it’s often not worth the risk.
The meter may be broken or tampered with, or they may demand more than originally agreed when you finally reach your destination. It’s surprising how energy-draining this exchange can be.
Use apps or ask the hotel, hostel, restaurant, hair salon etc to arrange transport for you. If you find a good driver and plan to be in the area for a while, keep hold of their number.
8. Stay calm.
The greatest assets to safe, stress-free solo travel are being emotionally and physically balanced.
It’s not easy. Sri Lanka has a different set of cultural norms to the West that can be difficult to get your head around. Heat and humidity can be exacerbating too.
For me, this resistance and frustration that can steal my peace and calm, which can and has, lead to mishaps.
Try to tap into your inner yogic mind. React logically, not emotionally. A solo trip to Sri Lanka is the ultimate lesson in learning to let go.
If possible, find the funny side of it. Your tuk-tuk has broken down on the side of the road? Allow yourself to smile at the situation, not become agitated. It’s all part of the experience. Tuk-tuks break down all the time in Sri Lanka and are usually fixed just as quickly.
9. Pack so you can manage.
Solo backpackers are less likely to have an issue with this.
I’m a suitcase kind of solo traveller. This is fine until I’m faced with two sets of stairs to reach the other side of the platform when the train leaves in 2 minutes.
These days I tend to only take trains when I pack light, opting for other modes of transport when my luggage is less manageable.
If returning to the same hotel after say, a train trip to the hill country, kindly ask them to look after some of your belongings until you return. You may wish to intentionally organise your trip this way- especially if you’re in the country for a month or more.
10. Allow plenty of time for everything, it will take longer than you think.
If you’re travelling in the Capital and need to be somewhere by an exact time (like catching the train), leave with twice the amount of time it’s meant to take- especially if you’re using Google Maps, or any other app, as your source.
It’s far better arriving early and finding a cosy spot for a cup of tea than breathless and off-balance.
Be aware that many Sri Lankans don’t have the same relationship with time. It isn’t such a high pressure, fast-paced culture as the West. While allowing plenty of time for things that matter, let go of what doesn’t.
Above all, it’s more important to arrive safely than quickly.
11. Trust your gut
Always trust your gut, especially with people.
There are a plethora of excuses I conjure in my mind when my gut says no.
I don’t want to seem rude, it will be quicker to take this tuk-tuk than wait forever to book an Uber while it’s raining, I don’t know where else to stay or the worst of them all, I want to trust them. I don’t want to judge a book by its cover.
When you’re travelling alone, your safety is not worth any risks. The moment your gut tightens, trust it.
This is the #1 reason for most of my mistakes and lessons.
12. Be protective of your space.
You may find it becomes a little too cosy on public transport.
If you take local trains and buses without pre-booked assigned seats, protect the immediate space around you.
You may be lucky to hop on the train or bus while it’s still quiet. Be prepared for the situation of a full house later down the line. Choose to sit near the front on a window seat, with a bag at the ready to sandwich between you and any unwanted neighbours.
When standing, find a spot where no one can stand directly behind you (which is easier on trains) with your luggage at the front, forming a protective cocoon.
If someone invades your personal space, let them know you will not tolerate it. Be verbal, with a short and sharp, ‘please give me space’ or ‘do not touch me’, making sure others hear you too. Move away as quickly as possible- this is when number 9 (pack what you can manage) is important.
13. Familiarise yourself with maps
Above all, make sure you have access to the internet at all times- not just when connected to wifi at hotels, restaurants etc.
Wherever you are travelling, familiarise yourself with the journey – Google Maps is great for this.
On a taxi ride, you may want to check you’re being driven in the right direction.
If you feel a little uneasy with their route, make sure the driver knows you’re keeping a constant check on the map.
14. Always know how you’re getting back late at night.
The South Coast has the most incidents between female travellers and tuk-tuk drivers.
Apps like Uber aren’t as reliable in beach hotspots as tuk-tuk drivers who don’t use them often threaten and scare those who do away from certain stretches. I call it the tuk-tuk mafia.
Always have travel arrangements pre-planned to go back to your accommodation, especially after a night at a beach bar or club. Commit to these arrangements and the agreed pick up time.
Your hotel or hostel will likely have a few safe tuk-tuk driver contacts for guests- after all, your safety is in their best interest.
15. Be conscious when booking accommodation.
There are many places to stay across the island with well-reviewed, assuring online presence.
Not only will these be the safest to stay, but they will often help in other ways to ensure your safety too- booking tuk-tuks etc.
Look out for reviews of the staff going ‘above and beyond’, this is what you want.
Home in on the reviews specifically from solo female travellers. Despite rave reviews from couples or families, you may be treated differently as a woman travelling alone.
If your accommodation is a homestay or guesthouse, try to choose one that is on more than one online booking platform. Bookings, Airbnb, Kayak etc.
Don’t stay anywhere from word of mouth alone, unless there are fellow travellers, preferably women, already there who feel 100% safe.
Sri Lankan people are warm and friendly with a great sense of humour. If you heed the above tips, you should have a safe, memorable trip.
Most importantly, enjoy your time on this magical island!