15 Tourist Scams and Traps in Sri Lanka: Be Safe on Your First Solo Trip
Welcoming locals, great tourist attractions, rich history and culture, beautiful beaches, precious gemstones, tea plantations, and an overall cheap place to travel to – that’s how I would describe Sri Lanka in a sentence. You can spend a couple of hundred dollars and have a great time in the country without compromising on much.
Some people argue that it is not the safest place for female travellers. While it might be true in some cases, all in all, there is nothing much to worry about. During my solo trip to Sri Lanka, I had no complaints relating to the safety aspect. What you do need to worry about are the tourist scams and traps. To be very honest, these scams happen in every country. This is nothing exclusive to Sri Lanka.
Don’t get me wrong, people in Sri Lanka are amiable and will greet you with a smile. But not everybody is the same. Some of them just want to take advantage of tourists, and that happens in many counties. So, to safeguard yourself from all the scams that you might come across on your first solo trip, I have compiled a list of the most famous tourist scams in the country. Read them and save yourself from all the frauds during your trip to Sri Lanka.
1. Gemstone touts
Sri Lanka is known for its precious gemstones. Most of us buy a few for our friends and family to take back home as a gift. What some people try to do is sell you either stolen gemstones or cheap ones. This can land you in unnecessary legal problems, and it is pretty common in Sri Lanka. You can easily spot touts as they will try to sell you gemstones, highlighting their features and even trying to sell them at a cheaper rate than usual. If you think something is fishy, it probably is!
I would recommend that you buy gemstones from an authorised store and not from any random person on the streets. However, if you are looking to purchase artificial jewellery, it’s okay to buy it from anywhere.
2. Credit card scam
Credit cards are not generally used in Sri Lanka. If you decide to use one for some reason, make sure that the seller charges you the exact amount as per the bill. Some sellers charge an extra percentage for payment using credit cards. If you find that this is the case, refrain from using your credit card. What’s even worse is that sometimes, your card information might be stolen. And I need not explain the consequences.
Never let your card go out of sight when you are paying. If possible, let your bank know that you are travelling abroad. This way, you can save yourself from all the frauds to a certain extent. The best way to avoid these scams is to carry cash all the time. You can make payments using cash everywhere in Sri Lanka. Make sure you split the amount of money in various places of your backpack/luggage.
3. Fake illness scam
This scam happens randomly on streets, usually outside a major tourist attraction. A person will approach you with a photo saying that this person broke their bones, needs to undergo surgery, and whatnot. He will then say that some organisation is sponsoring the surgery, and you can donate to save a person’s life. What will you do in such a situation? You will ‘help’ the person and give him some money without realising that you have filled his pocket rather than helping someone in need.
I fell for this trap because I couldn’t say no to the person. I would suggest you just walk away. Don’t think that you are heartless if you do so. If any person did really need urgent help, I doubt if they would be walking on the streets talking to random tourists.
4. Charity scam
This is similar to the previous one, but here, good-looking and elderly men and women try to scam you. They come with official-looking papers to significant tourist hotspots and pretend to be charitable community owners/leaders. They demand huge sums of money, saying that you will be helping their community a lot by donating them. But in reality, you will be helping them earn some easy money.
The best way to save yourself from these kinds of scams is to ignore giving people money on the streets or make an excuse saying that you do not have cash. It is a known fact that charitable organisations will not ask for money on the streets. If you really want to help someone, you can donate online to trusted organisations.
5. ‘The baby wants milk.’
A child or young woman will come to you in tatters with a baby in hand. They will then request you to buy milk powder for the baby who hasn’t eaten in days. Seeing the baby’s suffering, you will agree to buy the baby whatever he needs to survive. Once you enter a shop, you will find that the milk powder is absurdly overpriced. The fraudsters will return this packet to the shopkeeper and split the proceeds at the end of the day.
If you really want to help the baby, you should buy him a tetra pack instead of some random, overly priced milk powder. Again, you should trust your gut while making such decisions.
6. No meter scams
While tuk-tuks are a cheap mode of transportation, drivers have the highest chances of scamming you. Some tuk-tuks do not have a meter, and you enter it without noticing. If you see no meter, the driver will say that it is ‘hidden’ inside the vehicle. Once you reach your destination, you will be asked to pay a considerable sum of money, much more than the usual price. And what about the ‘hidden meter’? Well, that’s imaginary!
The best way to avoid this is to not get into tuk-tuks that do not have a visible meter. If the driver says that there is a ‘hidden meter,’ just ignore him and walk away. You will end up saving a lot of money!
7. Fake attraction scam
As tourists, we might not know about every single tourist attraction in the country. There are a lot of hidden places in the country that only the locals know about. Usually, tuk-tuk drivers take advantage of this and approach you by asking if you have visited ‘XYZ’ place. You will definitely say no because either the site does not exist or it is relatively unknown. Once you agree to get into the tuk-tuk, the driver will usually take you to a location, not the one agreed upon, and demand a huge sum of money for the ride.
I would suggest that you do not get into a tuk-tuk if you do not know where you are going. If you find yourself in a situation mentioned above, you should call the police immediately or at least note the vehicle number of the tuk-tuk if the driver is intimidating. Alternatively, I would recommend that you hire a private cab for the entirety of your trip as that is much safer and would save you a ton of money as well.
8. Spice Garden scam
Tuk-tuk drivers partner up with the owners of a spice garden and promise to bring tourists to them for a commission, obviously. The owner will then try to sell you many spices explaining their uses and advantages. Usually, these are either of low quality, fake, or totally useless. And if you refuse to buy these, he might even get angry, or shout at you, or even worse, trick you into buying them.
I would suggest that you do not take any tuk-tuk ride that you don’t want to. Don’t fall for the drivers’ scams because if they approach you by convincing you to take a ride, it’s a trap more often than not. Also, do not enter a spice garden even if the driver has brought you to one. Instead, you can buy fresh spices in any local supermarket.
9. Stilt fishermen’s scam
Stilt fishing is a form of fishing that is exclusive to Sri Lanka. Watching stilt fishers is one of the best things to do in the country. No, not the fake ones, but the real ones. Some people simply sit on stilts near famous beaches and wait for you to click pictures with them. You would be standing near the shore, they would be in the sea, and you click a picture, that’s the situation. After you click pictures, they will demand a massive sum of money.
There is no point in clicking pictures with them as they are fake stilt fishers. Instead, you can click a portrait that would include them in the background as it is not illegal or something that has to be paid for. You are free to click pictures of nature and the ocean unless photography is restricted in a particular area.
You can read more about Sri Lankan stilt fishing by clicking here.
10. “I’ll be back.”
Here, a local befriends you and asks you to go out with them, usually to a bar. Then, they will eat and drink with you as much as they want. Once they are done, they will disappear, saying that they will get their wallet or need to use the washroom. What next? Well, they will never return. And good luck paying that massive amount on the bill. After you leave, they will split the proceeds with the owner of the bar. Do note that this scam can happen in a restaurant too.
The best way to avoid this scam is to trust your gut while making friends. Do not go out with anybody if you have even an iota of doubt. You cannot really avoid this scam once the person goes away. So, better eat out yourself and pay your own bill, rather than paying someone else’s too.
Pickpocketing is common at a lot of places, mostly at jam-packed sites or tourist attractions. Some examples include but are not limited to Kandy, Colombo, and Pettah. Pick pocketers are pretty skilled and rob you without you even noticing. You will not even realise something is fishy until you return to your hotel and find something missing.
The best way to avoid being pickpocketed is to carry as little stuff as possible when going out. This way, you will have one less thing to worry about. Also, try not to be flashy. It only attracts pickpocketers and will land you in trouble. You should try wearing joggers or jeans which have a zip in them. Trust me, it helps a lot.
12. Ticket scam
Taking the ‘Kandy to Ella’ railway ride is one of the best things to do in Sri Lanka. Not only can it be used as a means of transportation, but you can also enjoy the scenic views of the ride. It is quite popular amongst tourists to take this beautiful ride. What does this mean? An opportunity to scam tourists! Scammers will try to sell you railway tickets at short notice, which is almost impossible to get. Usually, these are fake.
You should avoid buying tickets from third parties. If you want to take the train ride, you should only buy a ticket from the station at the ticket counter. It might be a little tiring to go to the station, but it is much better than buying a fake one.
13. Animal trickery
You will find a man who will open a basket in front of you, and what comes out? A snake. This snake charmer wants to squeeze all the money from you. He’ll demand money just because you looked at the snake that came out of the basket. And if you don’t agree to give money, he’ll get emotional saying that he requires money, he is the only earning member in the family and whatnot.
I would suggest that you simply walk away and not even look at his basket. They usually obtain these snakes illegally and do not treat them right, and they die in a few weeks. And after that, they get a new snake. While there are authentic snake charmers, you will rarely find any of them walking on the streets.
14. Beach boys
Sri Lanka is known for its beaches. There are many beaches here, and if you are a beach bum, you will visit at least a few. You will find many young Sri Lankan men on the beach who will try to make friends with you. Not only do they want to be friends, but a little more than that. They might want a benefit after talking to you, so engage in a conversation at your will.
This happens on a lot of beaches, and Sri Lanka is not an exception. I would recommend that you say no and not engage in a conversation as it’s not worth it. If you decide to engage in a conversation, do it at your own will.
15. “I’m a guide.”
Sri Lanka is a famous tourist destination, and there are a lot of things to explore here. While there are many official guides to take you around the place, some locals try to make a quick buck. They will wait for tourists outside a place and start giving useless advice and throwing facts in your face about a place, even if you don’t want to listen to them. They will then ask for a ‘fee’ for the ‘service’ that they have provided.
I would recommend that you tell them that you need no advice and ask them to stay away. If they persist, you should ignore them and walk away. If things get out of hand, you should call the police immediately.
Those are some of the many scams that you might come across during your solo trip. Before travelling to Sri Lanka, I had done my research on these scams, but I fell for a couple of them even then. Don’t get me wrong, Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with welcoming people. But there are scams in every country, and Sri Lanka is no exception. I would advise that you stay alert at all times, and if you are travelling to Sri Lanka for the first time, you can look up additional tips that will help you a lot.
An introverted blogger who is looking to make unforgettable solo travel memories with one short life.