Table of Contents
- Traditions and Customs of Sri Lanka
- Being authentic
- Etiquette in the Temple
- Candy, begging, and pennying
- “What’s your destination?”
Traditions and Customs of Sri Lanka
When compared to other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka appears to be the most Westernised. Visitors frequently misunderstand the island as a result of this, along with the widespread use of English and the robust tourism industry. However, if you take the time to look, you could notice cultural differences in seemingly innocuous places.
The staff at high-end hotels in Sri Lanka are a shining illustration of the country’s high regard for politeness and civility. If you speak up during an argument, you risk being seen as naive and unpleasant.
There is a common and unquestioning pride among Sri Lankans in their home country, its history, and (especially) their cricket team. The inquiry “Is Sri Lanka good?” ranks high on the list of inquiries from potential tourists.
Some concepts from the West have yet to make it to the island. In Sri Lanka, you cannot go shirtless or nude on any of the beaches. Public displays of affection are also frowned upon in Sri Lanka; therefore, lovers often meet in the secluded parts of parks and botanical gardens, protected from prying eyes by massive umbrellas. Eat with your right hand, and extend your right hand when shaking hands.
Etiquette in the Temple
Anyone visiting a Buddhist or Hindu temple should dress respectfully. When visiting a Buddhist temple, it is customary to remove your shoes and headwear, as well as cover your shoulders and legs. Inappropriate and insulting beachwear. When in question as to whether or not to remove your shoes and hat, follow the lead of the locals, especially at larger temples. Finally, keep in mind that stepping barefoot around temples can sometimes be more challenging than you might expect, especially when the tropical sun heats the stone beneath your feet to oven-like temperatures. But if you want to wear socks, no one will care.
Aside from not photographing yourself with your back to a Buddha image, there are two more ancient Buddhist observances that are only loosely adhered to in Sri Lanka. It is not as common to see individuals sitting in front of Buddhas with their legs neatly under them out of respect, but the first is the stringent edict against pointing your feet towards a Buddha picture. However, the old Buddhist rule that you must only go clockwise around dagobas is not widely observed nowadays.
Some Hindu temples have more relaxed rules regarding shoes and attire. In some, only Hindus are permitted to enter the inner shrine, while in others, men are required to remove their shirts before entering, and women are sometimes forbidden entry altogether.
You can take a tour of several local Buddhist and Hindu temples with a resident monk or priest in exchange for a donation. In some areas, unlicensed “guides” may approach you and demand money to tour you around. Avoid feeling obligated to hire unofficial guides if you aren’t interested in using their services.
Candy, begging, and pennying
Giving to beggars is a deeply personal decision; nonetheless, there is no shame in helping the obviously aged and sick people who congregate outside of places of worship. However, you must be careful not to set off a spiral of increasing dependence on others or to place unrealistic expectations on the goodwill of others. That’s why it’s a bad idea to hand out free stuff to kids, and why it’s better to spread your money around to many people rather than just one who’s particularly unfortunate. Don’t give money to panhandlers who seek out tourists, either.
Pseudo-begging is unfortunately widespread, especially among privileged schoolchildren but even among older people. This usually takes the form of a request for cash (often phrased as “one foreign coin?”), school supplies, or candy. Unfortunately, this tendency is due to the well-meaning but misguided actions of previous vacationers. These visitors gave out all of those products because they genuinely believed they were helping the locals. Instead, they encouraged a practise that brings shame to Sri Lankans and frustration to prospective visitors: begging. Donating to a local school or a trustworthy non-profit is a great way to give back to your neighbourhood and help those in need.
“What’s your destination?”
Western concepts of privacy and isolation are not generally understood or respected in Sri Lanka due to the country’s cultural emphasis on small, communal villages where everyone is acquainted with one another. Inquisitiveness typically presents itself in the form of repeated inquiries into the identity of the interlocutor, such as “Where are you going?” “What is your name?” and “What is your country?” They may drive you crazy if you’re travelling in Sri Lanka for a long time, but it’s important to keep your cool and remember the damage that your own rudeness or impatience could do to the locals’ views of foreigners and their treatment of those who come after you. Just say, “Just walking. England. John” with a smile (even if your teeth are clenched), and you should be fine. As a last resort, a bit of surreal humour can help defuse the situation without offending anyone (“To Australia, Mars, Lord Mountbatten”); after all, most Sri Lankans enjoy seeing firsthand evidence of the widespread belief that all foreigners are completely insane.