Sigiriya rock

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Sri Lankan Culture and Etiquette

Sri Lanka appears to be the most Westernised country in South Asia from the outside. This, combined with the widespread usage of English and a booming tourism industry, frequently leads visitors to mistake the island for something more familiar than it is. However, if you look closely, you may notice instances of ethnic diversity all around you.

Being authentic

The very polite staff at expensive hotels is a perfect example of how much manners and civility are valued in Sri Lanka; speaking up during a disagreement usually backfires and makes you appear naïve and unfriendly.
Sri Lankans have a simple and unconditional admiration for their country, its achievements, and (especially) its cricket team. “Is Sri Lanka good?” is a frequently asked question by visitors.

Some Western concepts have yet to make it to the island. On any beach in Sri Lanka, it is illegal to go naked or topless. It’s also frowned upon for Sri Lankan couples to make overt physical displays of passion in public; instead, they hide behind huge umbrellas in the quieter regions of parks and botanical gardens. You should eat with your right hand and shake hands with others with your left.

Temple etiquette

All visitors to Hindu and Buddhist temples should dress appropriately. This requires you to take off your shoes and hat, cover your shoulders and legs, and enter Buddhist temples. Beachwear is derogatory and inappropriate. In large temples, the precise moment to remove your shoes and hats may occasionally be confusing, so if in doubt, follow the locals. Finally, keep in mind that going barefoot around temples can be more difficult than you think when the tropical sun heats the stone beneath your feet to oven-like temperatures. No one will notice if you wear socks.
Two other ancient Buddhist observances are only loosely observed in Sri Lanka, however you should never be seen posing with a Buddha image (that is, with your back to the picture). The first is the ban on pointing your feet at a Buddha image, which is not rigidly enforced as it is in Thailand, however you will occasionally see people sitting in front of Buddhas with their legs neatly tucked under them. On the other hand, not many people adhere to the traditional Buddhist rule of just walking around dagobas clockwise.

The shoe and dress rules that apply in Hindu temples vary slightly. Non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the inner shrine in some; men are required to remove their shirts before entering in others; and women are occasionally barred entirely.

A local monk or priest will give you a tour of some Buddhist and Hindu temples before asking you to donate. Unofficial “guides” will come to other spots on occasion and insist on showing you around in exchange for payment. If you don’t want the services of unofficial guides, don’t feel obligated to accept them.

Penning, begging, and candy

Naturally, the decision to donate to beggars is a personal one, but there’s nothing wrong with offering a few pennies to the visibly aged and ailing people who congregate outside mosques, churches, and temples. However, it is critical that you should not fall into a vicious spiral of excessive dependency or inflate your expectations of foreign charity. That is why you should never provide freebies to children and be conservative with your distribution (it is always best to donate small sums to a large number of people rather than a large sum to a single unfortunate who catches your eye). Additionally, do not contribute to beggars who aggressively seek visits.
Unfortunately, a sort of phoney begging used by highly wealthy schoolchildren—and occasionally teens and adults—is all too widespread. Demands for money (usually stated as “one foreign coin?”), schoolpens, or bon-bons (sweets) are common examples. Unfortunately, this action is the result of previous travellers’ misguided benevolence. These tourists distributed all of the aforementioned products in the mistaken belief that they were assisting the local population. Instead, they cultivated a begging culture that denigrates Sri Lankans and generates problems for all future tourists. Consider donating to a local school or a trustworthy charitable organisation if you truly want to help your town.

“What’s your destination?”

Because Sri Lankan culture is based on close-knit village cultures in which everyone knows each other’s business and extended family groups, Western concepts of privacy and isolation are not generally understood or respected. The most common manifestation of natural curiosity is the repeated asking of the same questions: “Where are you going?” “What is your name?” and “What is your country?” They may drive you insane if you’re holiday in Sri Lanka for an extended period of time, but it’s critical to remember to be courteous and to consider the potential harm that rudeness or impatience on your part could cause to the perceptions of foreigners and the treatment of others who come after you. “Just walking. England. John.” and a smile, even through clenched teeth, should suffice. If you can’t take it any longer, a little surreal humour usually helps defuse the situation (“To Australia. Mars. Lord Mountbatten.”) without hurting anyone’s feelings; after all, Sri Lankans usually enjoy being shown firsthand evidence of the widely held belief that all foreigners are completely insane.

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