Learn about Sri Lanka’s history with one of the world’s favourite drinks.Read more...
Sri Lanka - Health and safety
Before you go
As nothing is required by law (unless you are coming from a yellow fever area), whether you have the usual cocktail of inoculations recommended for visits to tropical countries is up to you. Since you may be travelling throughout the country and experiencing different locations and being with different people every day, we suggest you have just what the doctor orders. Evidence of a yellow fever vaccination (or an exemption certificate if you are unable to take the vaccine), valid for ten years, will be demanded en route if you visit Sri Lanka within ten days from sub-Saharan Africa or South America.
Vaccinations against diphtheria, tetanus and polio (given as the all-in-one vaccine Revaxis) and hepatitis A are recommended for trips of any length. For longer trips and definitely for those working in hospitals or with children, hepatitis B is recommended. A course of rabies vaccine should ideally be taken by everyone, as treatment for rabies is not always easy to come by. Hepatitis B and rabies vaccinations comprise a course of three injections given over a minimum of 21 days, so it is essential to go to your GP or specialist travel clinic well in advance of your trip. If you are under 16 then the minimum time for three doses of hepatitis B vaccine is eight weeks.
There are occasional reports of cholera and as there is now a more effective vaccine available in the UK, those travellers with debilitating long-term medical conditions or those working in high-risk areas should take the vaccine (Dukoral). For people aged six years and over, two doses should be taken between one and six weeks apart and at least one week before entering the affected area. No food or drink should be consumed an hour before or after taking the vaccine. Even if you don’t take the vaccine and are unlucky enough to catch the disease it is usually mild in well-nourished people and is treatable with antibiotics anyway.
More adventurous travellers who intend to spend time in more rural areas, especially in the north, should consider being vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis. This disease is mosquito-borne and occurs throughout the year. The course of vaccine (Ixiaro) comprises two doses given ideally 28 days apart but 24 days is allowed if time is short. Ixiaro is licensed for those aged two months and over.
In Sri Lanka
Minor health problems should always be treated with respect, in case they become major. Most common illnesses are the same as at home – colds, respiratory infections, minor ear, nose and throat infections, gastro-intestinal upsets, skin irritations and accidents. Prickly heat is common and will probably stay with you once you’ve got it, until you reach a colder and less humid climate. Hangovers are likely since you may be tempted to drink more than usual because of the heat, excessive socialising or trying to match the locals in arrack consumption. Guard against them – and dehydration – with lots of mineral water before you sleep.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
After an attack on the airport in July 2001, a lot of attention was paid to the Travel Advisories listed by foreign missions for the benefit of their nationals. Naturally, they were cautious. The result was that overseas tour companies cancelled package holidays because of their potential insurance liability if something happened to their clients. The decision of independent travellers about coming to – and staying in – Sri Lanka is theirs, not their government’s, who can only advise. However, private travel insurance may not be effective for nationals of a country that has officially advised its citizens against going to specific areas.
There was a similar situation after the tsunami in 2004 when foreign governments (and travel companies) advised their nationals holidaying in Sri Lanka to leave because of the uncertain situation. Those who stayed on were overwhelmed by the continued welcome they received and found their presence was a morale-booster.
There is occasional criticism in Sri Lanka by the government and press (and hoteliers) when foreign governments advise their citizens about the dangers of visiting certain areas. While terrorism has been eliminated, crime has not. Foreigners, whether visitors or resident, are especially attractive to robbers, and there have been a few cases reported recently about tourists being raped and murdered. To check the latest situation, but as seen by government officials who have to be cautious, go to either the UK website (www.fco.gov.uk) or the US version (www.travel.state.gov/sri_lanka.html).
If the advisories put you off and you are in doubt about whether to go, phone a Sri Lanka tourism office for an opinion from the tourist viewpoint.
If you are travelling in a vehicle, occasionally your driver will be flagged down at police checkpoints. Usually all that will be required is for the driver to present his driving licence and for the vehicle’s registration number to be logged. You may also be asked where you are going and for some proof of identity. Always carry your passport with you or a photocopy of the relevant pages (including the page with your entry permit sticker).
Tourists are advised not to linger at places where they could be at risk, even though accidentally, such as at political meetings, protest marches and where over-enthusiastic Sri Lankans are celebrating something. Theft is not as rampant as you might expect but, of course, you should not encourage it by leaving your handbag open on a train seat, wallet peeping out of your hip pocket or camera by an open window. Pickpockets are a hazard on buses, especially with passengers standing so close to each other. Razor blades are used to slash holes in bags or to cut the strap and remove the bag from a shoulder. Better to leave valuables sealed in the hotel safe or in the mini safe in your room. Also, it might not be prudent to venture into unknown territory at night with newly met companions. Street or beach muggings, however, are not yet part of the culture.
Do not interpret a Sri Lankan’s insatiable curiosity as a threat. On a train or bus you may be the first opportunity the Sri Lankan passengers have had of observing a foreigner at close quarters. Everything about you will be as fascinating to them as they are to you. Those stares are because they are trying to understand what makes you tick, not how to get your watch. When someone asks ‘Where are you from?’ it could be because the person has a relative living in England and wonders if you know him. It is also a conversation ploy, to break the ice.
There is no need to get paranoid about your personal safety. If you do, your fear will show and somehow what you dread will actually happen. Take normal, simple precautions and relax. If you do get robbed and intend to claim from your insurance company, make a report to the police and get a copy of the report from them as proof of your loss.
There have been letters in the local press from female foreigners complaining of ‘sexual harassment’ from men who pester them in the street or ‘accidentally’ touch them on buses. Male foreigners and mixed couples are also subjected to this nuisance in tourist areas. It begins with the question ‘Where are you going?’ as a kind of hello that does not really need an answer. Foreigners, trying to be polite, usually respond, which the pesterer will use to start a conversation. Just keep quiet if you don’t want it to go further; cutting remarks have little effect.
A woman sunbathing on the beach will attract attention, which can be annoying when she wants to be alone. However, some women prefer company and they’re the ones the lads on the beach are hoping for. If being ogled and chatted up is offensive to you, remember it’s not intended to be threatening.
Travelling with a disability
There are few of the facilities for disabled travellers that exist in some countries, although public buildings are now supposed to be accessible to wheelchair occupants. At the two international airports wheelchairs and assistance in boarding and disembarking from planes are available. Because of the difficulties in boarding trains and lack of space within carriages, train travel by the disabled would be difficult. Yet beggars without limbs know how to get on board, and blind singers – usually with a child as guide – patrol the aisles. Sri Lankans are generally very considerate to a foreigner who has special needs and one could expect help from strangers in an emergency.
Travelling with children
Travellers with babies will attract a lot of friendly attention since Sri Lankans love kids. However, babies may feel the heat. Children should be watched in case they wander off alone. There are half-price entrance tickets to most places for children.