Train time table

Sri Lanka scams and touts I met

Sri Lanka is a very peaceful place but like the Singapore safety tagline “Low crime doesn’t mean low crime”. I will share some of the scams and touts I met while in Sri Lanka.

As usual, at the beginning of a difficult post, I need to put a disclaimer. I have met many lovely people in Sri Lanka who are not scammers or touts. These people include:

  • Two schoolgirls who asked where I was from while I was eating my rice and curry at a “Cold Station”.
  • A Kandyan man with two children who were going back to his wife’s hometown (Sigiriya). His children pointed at me, smiling, when I boarded. He later showed me a picture of the Temple of Tooth and gave me an ice cream. “If you like,” he said.
  • The lady on the bus who insisted I take the seat beside her man-friend as she was getting off soon.
  • The little girl who said Hi on my ride to Colombo Airport.

I am trying hard to remember the good things about Sri Lanka because I am afraid that the dark side will take over and I only have bad memories of the country.

Even though I need to forget the bad, I still want to write down the scams that could have happened to me. I have no idea if the cases were really works of touts but, to be careful, I will list them down:

Official touts

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As soon as I reached Colombo Fort station, I encountered my first tout. Unfortunately, it was even a government-sanctioned tout.

At the station, I was ushered into an air-conditioned room. On the glass window, big letters spelling RAILWAY TOURIST OFFICE made me feel rather gladly surprised that there was such a service. This is even better than Yogyakarta!

I told the moustached man that I was heading to Anuradhapura and needed tickets  and I just missed the previous train by 15 minutes.

The man made a call on his cell phone to confirm that there were still tickets for the 4:30pm train. He asked where I was off to next, which I thought was nice of him. How wrong I was.

I told him I wanted to buy tickets from Kandy to Colombo and I would take a bus from Anuradhapura to Kandy since there were no trains.

He shook his head and said, “It’s very difficult by bus.” I replied, “It’s OK, I’m up for it.”

He offered to get me a driver to pick me up from Anuradhapura and bring me to the sights in Pollunawara and Sigiriya. I will stay in a hotel in Sigiriya for a night before being sent to Kandy. All this for 25,000 rupees.

At that point, my brain was hay wired. To me, 25,000 rupees sounded like S$25 which is ridiculously cheap. I almost said yes but didn’t because I wanted to do the indie travelling way.

When the man saw that I was not convinced, he brought over a map and pointed to the different places. Anuradhapura and Kandy looked very far from each other.

I was tempted until he said: “All this for US$250.”

Then I snapped out of it. I looked at him and said, “But I don’t have that much money.” US$250 was about two-thirds of my budget for the whole trip!

Then the man turned cold. He folded the map and said, “Well then, you have to buy the ticket yourself. For US$250, we can do it all for you.”

“I really do not have the money,” I said, packing up my things and standing up.

When I left, a Caucasian couple were deciding if they wanted to take up the package. I wanted to shake their shoulders and say: “It’s much cheaper to DIY!” But of course I didn’t, instead I left and went in search of my train.

Special ceremony tout

Kandy Lake

In Kandy, while I was walking the circumference of the lake. A man dressed respectably in sarong and white shirt suddenly started praying towards the Tooth Temple when he saw me approach.

I tried to walk behind him so I won’t block his praying. He stopped his praying and said to me: “Good morning, Madam. Today is a special day.” He pointed to the temple.

I replied: “Yes it’s New Year.”

He said: “There is a special ceremony at the temple. The president is coming.” He looked like he wanted to escort me to the temple.

Even though I had no idea if the president was coming or not, I said: “No! I was at the temple just now. Goodbye.”

I continued walking and heard his footsteps behind. In front, there was a tuk-tuk and the driver said, “Good morning Madam.”

The man behind me immediately followed with a “Good morning” but I just nod my head.

Good things another tuk tuk stopped in front. The drive in the vehicle prayed towards the temple. I took the chance to pretend to be enthralled with a crow that stopped in front of me.

I then continued walking and luckily the man did not follow me. Later, when I walked back (the lake was too big to walk a full circle), I saw the old man sitting in the tuk tuk with the driver.

Perhaps they were accomplices in a “special ceremony” scam: The man pretending to bring the tourist to see a special event. A tuk tuk miraculously appears. They then charge an enormous sum as payment for their company.

I will never know if my theory was right. But thank the Tooth for the tuk tuk which stopped just in time.

Tissue man scam

Donations welcomed

This is a rather small but ridiculous case of scams. At Sigiriya, there were two men lingering outside the women’s public toilet. It was very awkward and if I knew enough Sinhala, I would tell them to not hang around there.

One of the man offered tissue paper. I shook my head and went into the toilet.

When I was washing my hands, a few tourists came in. They took the tissue from the man, perhaps thinking that it was the Official Tissue Dispensing Man.

As I left, the Official Tissue Dispensing Man held out a palm in which there was a 50 rupee note. It was rather

Tour guide tout

At famous sights, there is always a person or two who wants to show me the way to the attraction (even though it’s plainly in sight).

I always decline because I don’t want them to turn out to be tour guide touts who want money in the end as reward for their company.

Regular Sri Lankans are lovely

Ice cream given by kind Kandyan man with Sigiriyan wife and 2 kids. On bus to Sigiriya.

All these incidents made me wary of people. When I hear “Good morning madam,” I have to ignore the greeting because I do not know if it was genuine Hello or just the beginning of a hard sell.

I know that as someone who is privileged enough to travel (yes, travelling is a privilege). I do have more disposable income than the locals. Yes I can bear to part with a dollar or two, but does that mean I should condone these scams and touts? I think not.

If we take out the scammers and touts of Sri Lanka, it’s a really great place to visit. The people are friendly and the sites are nice. Just remember to bring lots of sun protection and not get heat stroke.

More about Liau Yun Qing

Yun Qing is a writer, improviser and curious person. She loves finding little adventures in life. In 2013, she went on a 130-day round-the-world trip. She wrote a book to help those who also want to go on a career break.

4 Comments

    1. As you decide to take a walk around Colombo or any sri lankan hotels, you would see someone walking along with you suddenly with a grin and introducing himself as `I am a chef here with Hilton or Taj’ and he would offer you advice about practically everything – he is a tout and a crooked one. Don’t listen to anyone and use your judgement. These guys will be standing little away from the hotel gates and often prey upon those who take a casual walk for money exchange or buying something. He would even show his personal family pictures etc to gain confidence ….beware and avoid such sweet talkers

    1. I am usually aware of scams and I do not trust people at all. I come from a rough country so no one has gotten me in any of my trips, and trust me, they have tried. Until today.
      As I was walking a busy road in Colombo a nice older man told me to be careful on that road, that it was unsafe. He then told me that he was a cook in a hotel nearby and that he had just left work. I kinda ignored him as I usually do but I must admit he was handsome. Then he asked me if I had visited the biggest Buddhist temple in Colombo and I said “no”. I felt in his trap without knowing it. He told me the temple was nearby and that he was going that way, I told him I wanted to walk around first and then I would go to the temple but he just stood beside me. I kinda got suspicious but he told me not to worry that he was not looking for money. So we headed for the temple. Then all of a sudden he told me that there was a special prayer in 5 minutes and that it was going to close so he hailed a tuck tuck and got on and told me come on. I was hesitant but for some stupid reason I got on. The ride was not as short as I thought but we did get to a nice temple which calmed me down. Actually it was a great temple and he showed me around in detail. That was when I suspected he was some guide in disguise and I said, well, poor man, he just wants to make a living as an informal guide so I followed along. I was thinking on giving him about 500 rupees which is like 4 dollars and which is a good tip here. When we left the temple I said good bye but the Tuck tuck arrived right away and all of a sudden we were going to the independence square. So I said, this guy really wants a day tour, fine. I guess this is cheaper than another tour.
      On the way there I figured it all out! My Colombianess came out and I thought, this is a bigger scam than just playing tour guide. The scam is not the tour guide but the TUCK TUCK DRIVER!. So I said, wait, who’s paying for this driver and how much? Ask him the price. The driver said: 5000 rupees. I immediately jumped off that thing on a busy road with many people around, the men surrounded me and then the driver said, sorry sorry bad English, it is less. I knew this was bad and I was glad I stopped there because otherwise they would have taken me to some alley and taken everything from me. Fortunately I only left the hotel with 800 rupees (6 dollars). I should have made a bigger deal and scream or something but I was also afraid. So I said, I have 800 and leave me alone. I threw the 800 rupees (6 dollars) and left. They were not happy but I just started heading towards some security guards at some consulate. I knew I was being semi-kidnapped and that I was lucky it did not go all the way.

      I got to the hotel and googled the scams in Colombo and it seems to be a very common one. Fortunately I just got half way and jumped out of the tuck tuck before they took me to some deserted place which is what most people say in the blogs.

      Today I was approached eight times, fortunately I ignored them all. Do not even talk to them! They are driving around in pairs in tuck tucks and one of them jumps out when they see a possible prey. It is quite scary.

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