Here’s our guide to travel etiquette in Sri Lanka, to help you and your students navigate the cultural differences without inadvertently causing offence.
How should I greet people in Sri Lanka?
The traditional greeting in Sri Lanka is to press your palms together under your chin and in front of your chest, while slightly bowing your head.
What you say as you do this will depend on the ethnicity of the person you are greeting.
If you want to play it safe, you can say ‘Namaste’, which is Hindi and is used commonly here. If you know the person you’re greeting is Sinhalese, you can say ‘Ayubowan’ and if they’re Tamil, ‘Vanakkam’.
In more informal situations, you may notice people say ‘kohomada’, which means ‘how do you do?’.
Can you shake hands in Sri Lanka?
Handshakes are common in Sri Lanka, but there are some guidelines to be aware of. Men can shake hands with other men, and women with other women, but intersex shaking of hands is not common.
If you are a man greeting a woman, wait for her cue. If she wants to shake hands, she will offer her hand.
And if you are a woman greeting a man, you should feel free to offer your hand for a handshake if you are comfortable with this, just note that the man will be waiting for your cue and will not offer his hand first.
How should I address people in Sri Lanka?
Finally, when addressing people, you should always use their title followed by their surname, until they suggest you are on first name terms. Titles and honorifics are highly valued by Sri Lankans, so remember to use them!
Is there a dress code I should follow in Sri Lanka?
The Sri Lankan attitude to dress is fairly relaxed. However, in order to ensure locals are comfortable with you, you may want to ensure you dress modestly – and this applies to both men and women.
In this context, dressing modestly really means covering your shoulders and your knees.
What do I need to wear to enter a Sri Lankan temple?
And if you want to enter a Buddhist or Hindu temple then covering shoulders and knees is a must for both sexes. Some temples will have sarongs you can borrow, though not all.
You will also need to remove hats and shoes before entering a temple. Shoes must also be removed when entering someone’s home.
And it’s really important that you do not wear any clothes that depict Buddha, or any other deity for that matter, as this will cause offence.
Anything else we should know?
It’s unlikely to affect your students, although perhaps some members of staff may have some ink, so it’s worth mentioning that tattoos depicting Buddha are seen as highly offensive.
In fact, they have in the past led to foreign tourists being refused entry or even deported, so if any member of the group does happen to have one, it’s very important that they keep this covered at all times.
Out and about
How can I avoid causing offence in Sri Lanka?
While out and about, it’s really important to remember that mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is a serious offence.
So, as well as not wearing any depictions of Buddha on your clothes or skin, this also means you should avoid pointing your feet or turning your back on statues of Buddha.
Are there any rules on taking photos in Sri Lanka?
It is generally acceptable to take pictures of statues of Buddha, but you must make sure that anyone in the photo is facing the statue and not stood alongside it or with their back turned to it.
And like many countries around the world, you should avoid taking photos of military bases, government buildings or vehicles used by VIPs.
It’s also polite to ask people before you take a photo of them, although they may ask a fee.
Which hand should I use for shaking hands and eating in Sri Lanka?
The left hand is reserved for cleaning yourself, so you should only use your right hand when eating, shaking hands or passing someone something. Of course, if something is heavy, then you can use both hands.
Anything else I need to know about etiquette in Sri Lanka?
The head is considered the most sacred part of the body and the feet the dirtiest. Therefore, you should avoid touching people, especially children, on the top of the head.
And you should avoid pointing the bottoms of your feet at people or putting them up on the furniture.
If you do need to point at something, use your whole hand rather than your index finger as this is considered rude.
Indeed, Sri Lankans value politeness very highly. Should you enter into a disagreement with someone, try to avoid raising your voice – this could cause them to lose face, which is a big deal for Sri Lankans.
Food and drink
Is it easy for vegetarians to eat in Sri Lanka?
Meat and fish are eaten in Sri Lanka (although generally not on religious holidays), but if you do have any vegetarians in your group, they’ll be pleased to learn that Sri Lankans are very accommodating with this and they’re sure to find plenty of tasty food to enjoy.
Will I need to eat with my hands in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lankans don’t use cutlery, as they eat with their hands – or, more correctly, they use their right hand.
Most restaurants will bring you cutlery if you ask for it, but why not give it a go? The trick is to mix the rice and curry together, and to then roll small balls with the forefingers of your right hand. When you’ve finished, don’t lick your fingers, there will normally be a sink provided for washing hands.
And, actually, you will be expected to wash your hands before serving food or eating too, whether in a restaurant or at a private home.
Should I clear my plate at the end of a meal in Sri Lanka?
If you’ve had enough, leave a little bit of food on your plate, as this is a sign that your hunger has been satisfied. If you leave your plate empty, it indicates that you are still hungry.
Is it easy to get hold of alcohol in Sri Lanka?
One reason Sri Lanka makes such a good choice for a school trip is that it is actually quite difficult to get hold of alcohol.
And there isn’t much of a local drinking culture. This is because several of the country’s key religions actually disapprove of alcohol. So, you will find it rare even for alcohol to be served with meals.
What do I need to know if I’m invited to a meal at a Sri Lankan’s home?
If invited to a meal at somebody’s home, you should be aware that the socialising is usually done pre-dinner.
This could mean that several hours elapse between your arrival and the serving of the meal, so it’s advisable to at least have a snack before you head over.
You should also be prepared to leave fairly shortly after the meal ends.
And note that it is impolite to refuse refreshments offered.
What’s an appropriate gift for a Sri Lankan?
In terms of appropriate gifts, you should avoid flowers for all Sri Lankans, as these are generally reserved for funerals, weddings and other religious events.
And it’s a good idea to avoid giving alcohol unless you are absolutely sure that the recipient drinks.
Otherwise, when choosing a gift, you should take into account the recipient’s religion.
For Muslims, avoid anything containing pork or alcohol.
For Hindus, avoid anything containing products derived from cows, such as leather.
When giving a gift, remember to use both hands. And don’t be offended if the recipient doesn’t open the gift immediately, as this is the cultural norm.
Is Sri Lanka a religious country?
Sri Lanka is a very religious country. 70% of the population are Buddhist, and most of the rest of the population follow Hinduism, Islam or Christianity.
What do I need to know about visiting Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka?
As mentioned above, to enter a Buddhist temple, you will need to cover your legs (to below the knee) and shoulders. Some temples visited frequently by tourists may have sarongs available.
You will also need to take off your hats and shoes. However, the temple floors can sometimes get really hot under the sun – if this is the case, you’ll be relieved to know that wearing socks is perfectly acceptable.
As we also mentioned above, you should avoid turning your back to, or standing alongside a statue of Buddha.
If you do want to bring an offering, lotus flowers are a good choice.
And remember, this is a place of worship, so it’s a good idea to keep voices down, to avoid disturbing those in prayer.
What do I need to know about visiting Hindu temples in Sri Lanka?
Similarly to Buddhist temples, you will need to cover legs (to below the knee) and shoulders, and take off hats and shoes before entering a Hindu temple.
When it comes to entering the inner shrine, you should be aware that in some cases this is off limits to non-Hindus. In other cases, men must remove their shirts and sometimes women are not permitted to enter.
Is there anything else I need to know about visiting temples in Sri Lanka?
At some temples, you will be shown around by a resident priest or monk. In this case, you will be expected to make a donation.
At other temples, you may find unofficial guides keen to show you around. They will want to be paid for this service. You should not feel pressured into accepting these services unless you want to.