Sri Lanka is home to several tropical diseases unfamiliar to those living in more temperate and sanitary climates. However, with adequate preparation, the chances of serious mishap are small, especially now that malaria has been eradicated. And in the unlikely event you are taken ill, decent hospitals and pharmacies exist in most large towns, consultation fees and laboratory tests are relatively inexpensive, and doctors and pharmacists almost invariably speak good English. Commonly required medicines such as broad-spectrum antibiotics, painkillers and antihistamines are widely available, but anybody who has specific needs relating to a less common medical condition should bring the necessary treatment with them.
Sensible preparation will go a long way to ensuring your trip goes smoothly. Particularly for first-time visitors to Asia, this includes a visit to a travel clinic to discuss vaccinations. A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel (USA). Information about various medications may be found on netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Make sure all your immunisations are up to date. A yellow fever certificate is not required unless you are coming from a yellow fever endemic zone. It is wise to be up to date with routine vaccinations and boosters as recommended in the UK. This would include measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and diphtheria, tetanus and polio. Immunisation against hepatitis A, typhoid, hepatitis B, rabies, Japanese encephalitis and TB may also be recommended, depending on length of stay and the nature of the visit. For example, those who are staying with friends and family, or who are undertaking long trips or to areas of poor sanitation are likely to be recommended hepatitis A and typhoid.
The biggest health risk used to be malaria, but this is no longer the case. Indeed, in 2016 the World Health Organization finally declared Sri Lanka to be malaria-free after a 3½-year period when no locally transmitted cases were recorded. Hence there is no reason to take anti-malarial drugs, though you might want to confirm the situation before you travel, and should still take precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes, which also carry dengue fever and the like.
Theft is not as rampant in Sri Lanka as some might expect, and street or beach muggings are fairly rare. However, pickpockets sometimes operate on buses, especially when passengers are standing close to each other, while razor blades are occasionally used to slash holes in bags or to cut the strap. Overall, though, Sri Lanka is certainly safer than most countries in Asia, and crime is far less prevalent than in most Western countries. Still, while there’s no call to be paranoid about personal safety, you shouldn’t be too casual about your possessions, and action such as leaving your handbag open on a train seat or your wallet peeping out of your hip pocket might be viewed as inviting trouble, especially since the protracted financial crisis may result in increasingly desperate behaviour.
Single travellers should avoid dark alleys and beaches at night. When in doubt, it is usually safest to leave valuables sealed in the hotel safe or in the mini-safe in your room. 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.
On the whole, women travelling alone have little to fear on a gender-specific level, and they will generally be treated with respect and kindness by protective locals. That said, single women travellers may be worn down by unwanted male attention, such as persistent staring, inappropriate comments and flirtatiousness, and even groping. Some of these issues are most noticeable on the south and west coasts where ‘beach boys’ are common, as well as on crowded buses, and even hotel staff may behave poorly. Local women are treated significantly worse, which leads to complaints not being taken seriously, and Asian travellers may find they attract an in-between level of harassment.
Wearing a wedding ring and telling anyone who wants to know that you have a husband at home or waiting for you in the next town may help deflect attention. And while dress codes are relaxed enough in Colombo and other recognised resort areas, elsewhere – especially in strongly Muslim areas – it pays to dress modestly, which means covering your knees and shoulders, and wearing loose tops and skirts or trousers.
Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka, a law that has seldom been enforced in recent decades, but which reflects a widespread stigmatisation of local gays and lesbians. Still, while Sri Lanka isn’t a destination suited to single travellers in search of any kind of LGBTQ+ scene, homosexual couples are unlikely to encounter any problems with discrimination in hotels and other tourist institutions, provided they exercise some public discretion.