Travelling alone in Sri Lanka as a woman: is it safe?

I was quite a latecomer to the solo travel game, having taken my first solo trip when I was 28. As I traipsed around the old towns of Eastern Europe and perfected the fine art of dining alone, I only had one question: why hadn’t I done this sooner? Needless to say, I now have no qualms about packing my bags and heading off on a solo adventure.

However, I was nervous about travelling alone in Sri Lanka, as I wasn’t sure how the whole ‘solo female traveller’ thing would go down. Would I be safe travelling alone in Sri Lanka…as a woman? Would I constantly be harassed? Stared at? Followed? Or God forbid, would I inexplicably find myself in an unpleasant situation?

After spending only one brief but utterly extraordinary week in Sri Lanka, I can say that I never once felt intimidated, frightened or concerned for my safety. In fact, I was completely blown away by the hospitality of the locals, who emanate such a refined warmth. Women in their colourful saris (if only I had that much style!) and men in their traditional sarongs would share a friendly smile or greeting as they walked past, and I found that people would go out of their way to assist me (directions are not a strong point of mine). It sounds strange but I actually felt safer in Sri Lanka than I do in Phnom Penh, where I am kept constantly on my toes due to the high rate of petty crime.

It was interesting to note that in all the guesthouses that I stayed at, the employees all seemed to be male. This was never an issue, but it was certainly noticeable, and I could certainly understand how this might potentially be daunting as a solo female traveller. Even though I personally didn’t encounter any issues travelling alone in Sri Lanka, every situation is different and travellers should always have their wits about them, particularly when travelling solo.

Travelling alone in Sri Lanka as a woman: is it safe?

Did I get hassled?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I was approached by men who were keen to strike up a conversation. I wasn’t opposed to engaging in some polite conversation, but if I wanted to move on, there was no aggression towards me or persistence to continue the conversation. Men would also call out on the street and say hi, but I saw this as more curiosity rather than blatant leering. I had some teenage boys approach me to ask if they could take a photo of me (I declined but I appreciate that they asked in the first instance) and someone asked if they could add me on Facebook (ermmm let me think about it…no). So, yes, there were times when I got attention that I wouldn’t usually receive back home, but there was never a time when I felt uncomfortable or not in control of a situation.

Is it okay to show some skin?

I made a conscious effort to dress more conservatively while travelling around Sri Lanka, despite the relentless heat. I wore loose linen pants, long dresses and carried a scarf around with me to use as a shawl. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of tourists in shorts and strappy tank tops, but I wanted to avoid any kind of unnecessary attention. The choice is yours; however, an effort should be made to dress appropriately at religious sites.

Is it safe to venture out at night?

My routine in Sri Lanka was to wake up early, head out and get through my list of planned activities and then return to my guesthouse following dinner to do work. I didn’t want to risk navigating the potential dangers that emerge once the sun sets and shadows take precedence, particularly in a foreign country all on my lonesome. Furthermore, I spent most of my time in the hill country in Kandy and Ella, which didn’t really have much of a ‘night scene’ anyway.

The one time that I did feel a bit uneasy was while walking home at night along Kandy Lake after a visit to the Temple of the Tooth. I didn’t take a tuk tuk, as it was a relatively short walk back to the guesthouse and I had assumed that the lake would be well lit…it wasn’t. If not for the lights from oncoming traffic, then it would have virtually been pitch black. I made it back to the guesthouse without any problems, but the next night I made sure to catch a tuk tuk when returning to the guesthouse.

Is public transport safe?

I had read articles advising women not to travel alone in a tuk tuk at night and I heeded that advice. However, I had no issues at all travelling in tuk tuks during the day—make sure to get a metered tuk tuk in Colombo (I couldn’t find metered tuk tuks in Kandy and Ella) or negotiate the price beforehand. The standard rate is LKR$0.40/km, which works out to be approximately AU$0.32 per kilometre. It’s useful to have a measure of far you’ll be travelling if getting into a tuk tuk without a meter, so that you can have a rough idea of how much you should be paying. I also had my Google offline maps on all the time, so that I could keep tabs on where the tuk tuk was taking me.

I took the train from Colombo to Kandy and then from Kandy to Ella. Train travel is easy and super cheap in Sri Lanka and probably the best way to see the country. Train seats can be reserved in advance for first-class or second-class carriages, or you also purchase unreserved tickets on the day for the third-class carriage (a number of unreserved tickets can also be purchased for the first-class or second-class carriages on a first-come, first-served basis).

I also booked a car to take me from Ella back to Colombo. It was a long and winding 6-hour drive, but the views and scenery along the way were some of the best I had seen on the trip. I was nervous being alone in a car with a stranger for such a long duration, but my driver was extremely courteous and professional (I used the company Sri Lanka Exclusive Tours, who were also quite competitive on price).

Were there many other solo female travellers?

To be honest, I didn’t run into many other female solo travellers or solo travellers in general. There were lots of couples (Sri Lanka is such a romantic place!), families and groups of friends. However, this doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka isn’t a great place for solo travel!

Other advice?

In terms of practicalities, I would recommend getting a mobile sim card at the airport, as it is cheap to purchase and having data will be incredibly handy. Send your itinerary to someone trusted back at home and have a contact person to check in with on a daily basis. I also spent more on accommodation in order to stay in a central location to avoid getting lost in dark alleyways at the edge of town when finding my way back to the guesthouse.

More importantly, greet everyone with a smile if they do approach you or say hi. It’s ingrained in us to assume that everyone who falls outside of our circle of familiarity has bad intentions or ulterior motives, but for the most part, I found that people genuinely wanted to have a chat and to know what I thought about Sri Lanka (in short, I fell truly, madly, deeply in love with the country). Be polite and respectful; however, that being said, (women’s) intuition is everything and you shouldn’t hesitate in sounding the alarm if you do get that gut feeling.

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