Common scams tourists should be aware of as they tour Sri Lanka

Well, there’s no scam specifically made for Sri Lanka as any country has them in the same proportions. But it would be easier if you know the ones found in Sri Lanka before you fall for them. Remember that Sri Lanka has a good internet coverage which helps you to research online if you have any doubt about anything.

1. Buses. Know the bus fare, and insist on the ticket.

 Private buses operating from the airport to Colombo are known to rip-off tourists 99% of the time. I know a tourist who paid 500 rupees for a normal bus ride from the airport to Colombo when the bus fare was just 45 rupees. Into the bargain, the bus took more than 2 hours to arrive in Colombo.

Usually the state transport service has an air-conditioned bus service starting from the airport every 15 minutes and the bus fare is around 265 rupees. It takes only around 30 minutes for the whole journey. Private air-conditioned buses on the other hand charge more from tourists, around 500 rupees, and take more time to arrive in Colombo. You can identify the state transport buses as they are big buses with the transport board label printed on them while the private air-conditioned buses are smaller ones like Mitsubishi Rosa and Toyota Coaster. Sri Lanka Transport Board (known as CTB) run buses only charge the standard price. Therefore always use the state owned buses.

If you choose to take a taxi you can get it through a counter at the airport, or you can again get one via Uber or Pickme apps. Uber and Pickme are cheaper while the airport taxi services charge you a much higher price. The best is to get an Uber arranged by your guest house if possible which would save you time and free you from trouble.

2. Free rides are not always free.

Do not accept free rides from taxi drivers who offer you help. If you are in Colombo then always call a cab service via your smartphone apps. Colombo has Uber and Pickme taxis which offer rides for very reasonable prices. Other “metered taxi” services are there but many of them have 2 price structures which they can swap with just a press or two of a button. One is for the locals and the other is for tourists and other non-suspecting locals who would just pay what is shown on the meter. On those meters if the price for the locals is 100 rupees per kilometre, the price for tourists range from 150 to 250 rupees per kilometre. But if you take an Uber it will be much cheaper than what a metered taxi would charge. Trust me, an Uber car would be cheaper than a metered taxi trishaw. I will give you an idea of the transport prices in a separate article.

However, if you are in a hurry then you may hail a trishaw and ask them how much they charge per kilometre. If it is 100 rupees then that is the normal fare. They would start at 100, and after 1 km the meter will start going up by 10 rupees every 100 metres. Do not agree on a fare to your destination as going by the meter will be much cheaper. But again, check your google maps as they might take much longer routes just to increase the amount.

3. Know the price before you buy.

Ask about the price before you buy anything. There are some small shops that charge more than the marked price although the vast majority of sellers are honest. Generally speaking, shops in Sri Lanka do not rip off tourists but a handful of people do so thus tarnishing the image of everyone. But if you can visit a supermarket you can buy things at the regular rates, and since supermarkets are found in every city it won’t be much of a problem to find one. Always check the price label and expiry dates when you are buying from small shops anywhere in Sri Lanka. But when you go to the rural villages they might even throw something in free, just to show their friendship although there is the occasional black sheep everywhere.

Fruit stalls by the road have their own scams for locals as well as tourists. They will display a very low price on the best looking fruits but when you buy them they will say that the low price is for a bunch of low quality fruits. Therefore, before you pay money, pick the fruit and ask clearly what the price of that particular one is. Also take the bag in your hand and put your fruits in it yourself. Do not let the seller help you to put them in the bag. There’s a lot of magic going on at fruit stalls.

4. What looks cheap may not be cheap

In 2018 a small paper packet of peanuts was just 20 rupees. That’s anywhere in Sri Lanka. But if you buy it without asking they would take 100 rupees. Same goes about many other items sold on buses and trains. Always ask the price before you buy, and judge it by your common sense. We have here a page about prices of groceries in Sri Lanka. The rule of thumb is Do Not Buy Anything Sold On Bus Or Train. But if you buy at a roadside fair sometimes it is wiser to buy from the old lady selling just 2 papaya fruits than buying from a heap of them. Probably that old lady is selling the fruit from her home garden which comes with no pesticide or chemicals sprayed on.

One of my friends told me that a roadside seller charged him 200 rupees for a pot of curd with treacle which is usually sold for 50 rupees. That was in 2018, before the prices sky rocketed in 2021. Always be aware of prices. You may ask your host about the usual price of an item, or you can ask me here if time permits.

5. Do not settle for substitutes

If you want a certain shop, then insist on taking you there, do not settle for “recommendations”. There are taxi drivers who would show you a “better place” than what you have heard of online or from the community. Now, you may check it out there if you want, but insist them taking you to the place you want. Some taxi drivers try to drum up their friends’ businesses but again there can be some people who really want to help you. Be aware of both sides of the scene.

6. Beggars in the cities are professionals

Keep away from the “professional beggars” who come to you in the most convincing manner. The truth is that there are no real “poor” beggars in the main cities as begging is an organized mafia run by several people. They employ the beggars on a commission basis, and any other genuinely poor person is not allowed to beg anything from anyone within the territory. There will be all kinds of medical certificates, letters from authorities etc. to convince you but they are all part of the organized business. Believe me, many of the children the women are carrying are not their own, they are hired for the day for the character they are acting out.

7. Change your money from licensed money changers.

Do not seek help of random people to change your currency. In the main cities there will be hundreds of people who would ask you if you want to change your money. And if you say yes, you will get a very low rate, or the person may disappear altogether with your money. There are many shops that offer to change your money at very low rates.

Check the exchange rate for the day, and ask for that rate only. Because the well reputed money changers offer you the same rate. State banks have good exchange rates most of the time. But compare rates before you commit to change.

8. Water. Buy it from a decent shop.

Do not buy water bottles from the vendors on trains and buses. Those bottles are “specially made for buses.” In other words those bottles are not quality controlled, and they contain tap water which is why it is sold cold most of the time so that you won’t taste the chlorine. Occasionally you might even find tiny pieces of trash if you take a close look at them. Some trusted brands of water would be American, Crystal, Keells (sold at Keells Supermarket outlets), My Choice (sold at Food City supermarket outlets ), P&S (sold at Perera and Sons outlets found in all major cities), and Aqua (by Access group). You will find at least one of those brands at leading supermarkets in almost every city in Sri Lanka. You can find average prices on our price page.

9. SIM cards. Do not go for “special offers.”

Buy your SIM card from a small shop in a town, not from the airport. That will save at least 15 USD which you can use for something else. All major telecom operators have a counter at the airport selling SIM cards with data etc., at exorbitant prices. But at any other shop those SIM cards would be around 100 rupees (approx. 50cts USD), or sometimes even free. Then you can reload your SIM with some funds and activate an internet package. I will post some suggestions here.

10. Call the police. They will help you.

If you fall victim to any kind of scam do not hesitate to find the nearest police station and make a complaint. Sri Lanka police usually take prompt action in such cases. They will try their best to find the culprits and render justice, and return whatever possessions stolen from you if it is a theft. There is the occasional carelessness of authorities at lower level but you can always reach the higher officials if that is the case.

Tourist Police: +94 11 242 1052 / Emergency 119

I will add to this list as I remember things but for now I believe that this would keep you safe.

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