Eight-Hours Transit in Colombo and How to Deal with Scams
We were only going to Sri Lanka for a transit, and before we got there, we did a little research. The half of people, whose comments we read, recommended to spend the transit in a touristic coastal village not far from the airport. The other half recommended to see the capital of the country. Whether it was good or bad, we decided for the second option.
What did we know about Sri Lanka? That it is a country with a rich Buddhist heritage. That the country hosts people of different ethnicities, with different religions and languages. And of course we did know about the tea production (the fourth largest in the world despite the size of the island by the way), that made the country famous by its old name Ceylon.
Most posts on the internet depict Sri Lanka’s resorts and coastal villages, but we decided for the capital of the country, as we had less than one day to spend there. And here is what happened when we went to see Colombo.
Our way to the city from the airport
We arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport and wanted to take a bus to Colombo. According to the governmental website, every tourist in transit for less than 2 days gets a free transit visa. Our total stay was 20 hours, we had our tickets, everything seemed to be fine and then we were refused the visa with the following comment: “you need a hotel voucher from your airline or you buy the usual tourist visa, you can use credit card”. We asked at the airline. “Every tourist in transit gets a free transit visa. It is said on the government website”, they assured. So we tried again and it didn’t work. To imagine the whole situation correctly: the immigration officers were actually not replying directly, it seemed more like they were trying to bargain… Finally, the airline employee decided to give us a fake voucher. And this is how we officially passed the immigration control.
The next step was to find the bus. We withdrew some money, went out of the airport, there were no signs, nor any kind of official transportation, just one lane with private drivers. By chance, a little further we saw a man gathering people who clearly appeared to be travellers. We went there and discovered an Express Colombo bus hidden behind some trees. The bus took about an hour to Colombo and when all the people got out at the bus station, me and two other girls were almost squeezed between two busses. Don’t forget to ask the bus driver what time the bus drives back to the airport, there are no timetables.
We took a tuk-tuk and went on to the beachside promenade called Galle Face Green. Be prepared that the driver most likely won’t have any change.
Along the beach we noticed many foreign people jogging in the morning (it was about 8 a.m.). Then we continued our way further to the downtown and found many beautiful colonial buildings.
While walking we were asked many times by tuk-tuk drivers who offered us a ride. And as we finally tried to bargain a price of a short ride, one of them summed up his expectations, “If you are a tourist, you need to come with much money!” Well… we smiled back and went on to take another chance.
The interesting phenomenon was that no matter whether we wanted to take a short ride or a long one, we were friendly proposed a rip-off price. Sometimes just friendly invited to sit down and discuss the price later.
A man approached us in the downtown street, when we were focused on the map, and talked in a friendly way, asking our whereabouts and introducing himself as a harbour worker and ex-sailor. Finally he told that he is free for a couple of hours and was heading to a temple that he can show us. While I was talking with him, Janis walked by side and checked, if no one was following us, as he was aware of similar scamming techniques. In the middle of our way the man stopped a tuk-tuk driver, as he told we might miss the morning ritual, if we don’t hurry up. After the visit he recommended to see a couple of other landmarks and said that if we agree, the price for using the tuk-tuk will be just great. The worst part, of course, was that we already had used the tuk-tuk. Anyway, we bargained an acceptable price to return to the city, said good-bye to our friend, whose several hours of being free were vanished after we refused the whole tour and so had to continue the sightseeing without “friends”. On our way the driver was silent the whole time, but suddenly decided to point out a sight while driving and almost crashed into a car. Of course, we were slightly shocked, but later noticed that it was quite a common driving style. Anyway, all is well that ends well, and the sightseeing tuk-tuk experience was surely worth it.
Why Janis has not warned me about the scam? Well, it is better to let your partner experience it for him/herself and at the same time remain prepared to step in, when you feel, it is going to far. I wasn’t mad at him at all but thanked him for letting me learn a lesson, I have never had before. Later he gave me some details, so I was able to analyse the happening myself. Who was the first one to speak? Did he try to quickly build a connection by asking for our country, city, interests and associating himself with each of them? Did he go into details when telling something and did introduce himself properly at all? Another important thing is to be able to understand the distances and the ways, using a map. This is why the scheme was completely obvious to Janis, when the friend stopped a tuk-tuk.
If you would like to know more about tourist scams, you can read a whole list here: 40 Tourist Scams to Avoid This Summer.
Though Sri Lanka is primarily a Buddhist country, mosques, churches and Hindu temples are very present.
While walking we were followed by groups of men two or three times. We stopped taking photos, sticked together, gave them a couple of direct looks to let them see that we are aware of them. At this moment they usually turned and walked in the opposite direction, while we kept walking towards a crowded place or police officers or, to be precise, in this particular country, towards military officers.
Speaking of military. Due to recent conflicts between the government forces and the separatist movements, the military is still very present and one may see soldiers and officers almost everywhere in Colombo. It gave us a feeling of security, but also a thought that there is still a potential of a conflict to explode. However, if you need to ask for directions, it’s good to ask them. They showed a very friendly and honest attitude, when being addressed and replied to smiles.
We rested in one of the parks and walked along the Beira Lake. We’ve seen and experienced enough and headed back to the airport earlier. Despite all the scams, we still want to travel back to Sri Lanka. To give Colombo another shot and to see the nature and the beautiful resorts.
This post is not intended to picture Sri Lanka, nor particularly Colombo in a bad light. Scams that we described above happen everywhere. And thinking of that we came to Colombo from Southern France explains that we could see a harsh contrast.
What do you think about these scams? What was the scammiest city you have ever been to? :)