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beggars, beach boys, bad guys

"First contact" with Sri Lankans

If you are addressed by a local for the first time - generally in English - then you are likely to be asked the following questions:

  1. What's your name?
    Conversation opener
  2. Which country?
    Germans, Austrians and Japanese are viewed a cash-cows, unlike Italians, Australians and the British.
  3. First time Sri Lanka?
    First-time tourists are easiest to exploit.
  4. How long you stay?
    Is this tourist worth the effort? How fast does the questioner have to be.
  5. Are you married? - You have Boy-/Girlfriend?
    (The typical question asked by Beach Boys)
    If you respond with "No" as a woman then you are considered fair game. Even if you answer with "Yes" then you are fair game until you have a boyfriend or husband actually standing next to you. Men are asked this to find out whether they are gay or not.

So how should you respond? Here are a few tips on trouble-free conversation with the natives:

  1. What's your name?
    Tell them your name.
  2. Which country?
    People will be able to tell by your accent whether English is your native language or not, so you might as well tell them where you come from.
  3. First time Sri Lanka?
    Tell them that you were in Sri Lanka 5 or 10 years ago. Expect to be tested, but if you've read your travel guide properly, you should be able to answer most questions correctly. If you do get something wrong - well, ten years is a long time.
  4. How long you stay?
    Tell them that you are staying two or three months. Long-stay tourists are always more careful with their money. Together with your answer to question no. 3, this will make you far less attractive for locals who are only after your money.
  5. Are you married? - You have Boy- Girlfriend?
    If you are a woman travelling alone and you are not interested in intimate relations with the locals then you should chose a travelling companion to you can present as your boyfriend. Alternatively, you could also say that you are lesbian.
    Things are easier for men: once you have politely made it clear - perhaps twice or three times - that you are not interested in the services proffered, you will generally be left in peace.

Beggars, Beach Boys, Bad Guys


Be prepared to see beggars everywhere you go in Sri Lanka: in the train, at the station, at the bus station, on the road, walking from Colombo to Kataragama or anywhere else for that matter. Most will not be pushy and you can ignore them if you like.
Most locals will give a few rupees or buy them a meal. War victims and the disabled get very little in the way of aid from the state: too little to live on, too much to die.

Professional beggars are a different matter altogether: despite their crutches they will be able to follow you pretty nimbly and will entreat you in fairly good English, telling you of their 10 starving children and dying wife. You'll see them day after day on the beach or in the street.
Some of these beggars arrive every morning by train or bus, unpack their "gear" - filthy clothes or crutches - and start their "work". Many of them earn more through begging than the cook at your hotel.

Do not give begging children money! Once the children have learned that they can earn money this easily, they stop going to school. Even the school pens they beg off you are generally sold in the nearest shop. Schooling is free in Sri Lanka and all the necessary materials are also provided free of charge, meaning that no child needs to beg for a biro.

Beach Boys

To clear any misunderstandins out of the way right from the start: Beach Boys are not the youths who offer to organize round-trips or offer to show you the area without any more sinister intentions than that of earning a little money. These youths live off the commission they are paid if you book a tour through them or buy a piece of batik.

Beach boys are stylish young men between 18 and 25 who swagger bedecked in gold chains and who lead a very lavish lifestyle. Of course, they will also try to sell you a tour. However, they need to finance their lifestyle somehow, and you will probably find yourself paying three times the going rate if you go shopping with a beach boy.

Their main aim, though, is to get young female tourists to sleep with them, and some beach boys brag about having sex with up to 50 women each season. Of course, these young women are taken for every penny they've got. Older women and male tourists can also use the services of a beach boy, but will generally be asked to pay cash.

Times are changing - and even the Beach Boys have realized that while you can have fun with 20-somethings and perhaps even earn a little cash, the real money is to be made with the 40+ age group. The pattern is usually something like this: a woman in her mid-forties, disappointed and frustrated with the typical western male and more than willing to listen to the soulful declarations of love (and enjoy the ultimate "proof of love": her willingness to have sex without a condom), returns back home after her holiday with the burning desire to see her lover boy again.

It is at this point that his sick mother or defective car will suddenly be mentioned - and with it a bad conscience: "If you don't send me € 5000 then it's your fault if my mother dies; if you don't send me money to repair the car then it's your fault if I can't earn any more money." There is no limit to the imagination of the beach boys when it comes to wheedling money out of their victims.

And although the women come back twice a year, they are usually only in the country for two weeks, meaning that the boy can usually coordinate anything up to three or four "sponsors", all of whom believe that they are the sole object of their lover's desire.

Addendum: according to data published in 2006 by the Ministry of Health, the number of people infected with HIV in Sri Lanka was 743; by 2011 the number was 1463 - meaning that the number has almost doubled in only five years. Around 75 per cent of those infected live in the coastal region between Negombo and Galle.
As new infections do not have to be registered, these figures include only those with visible symptoms. The WHO estimates that the actual figure is more likely to be between three and four times higher.

Bad Guys

There simply isn't enough space on this website to write down even a fraction of the tricks that some Sri Lankans will use to get money from naïve tourists. Here are some examples - we leave the rest to your imagination!

"Cheap cigarettes"
Old, but still very popular; this is the refined version:
You're sitting on the beach, smoking a cigarette. A local walks past and starts up a conversation. During the course of the conversation he will offer you cigarettes, which usually cost 400 rupees, for half the price. He disappears and shortly after returns with two packs. Naturally, you are delighted to have made such a bargain. Same thing again next day. Then you don't see your friend for a few days.
The next time you meet it will probably be you that mentions the cheap fags. This is where your friend tells you his problem: the cigarettes are stolen goods and the man who has them wants to get rid of them as fast as possible and is not selling single packs anymore. The minimum quantity is two cartons of 10 packs each. Unfortunately, your friend just doesn't have that much money just now, i.e. could you pay upfront?
Now this is where you should start asking yourself if your friend's friend doesn't trust him sufficiently to give him the cigarettes on credit, then why should you trust him? Congratulate yourself on having got four cut-price packs and having stung a swindler for a change.

"Hello, I'm the cook from your hotel"
The poor guy has to go shopping, but has forgotten his money at home. All he needs is 1000 rupees, and if you lend him the cash, he'll repay you at the hotel. Asking the man to verify what hotel you're staying in won't do you much good, because the swindler will probably have been watching you.
You could just say that you haven't got enough money with you and get rid of him that way. But if you want to see him squirm for a bit, then why not suggest that you help him do the shopping and then return to the hotel together ;-)

"powdered milk for mummy"
Very popular in Galle, and recently spread to Hikkaduwa: you're strolling through town when you suddenly realize that you have acquired a companion. What starts off as small talk soon gets to the point: your companion has just visited his mother in hospital, bad operation, but she's recovering. However, the food in the local hospital just isn't good enough. What mum really needs to get her on her feet again are some vitamin tablets.
Your companion will now assure you that he is not a beggar. Instead, he will ask you to buy the vitamin tablets. If you actually buy this poor man the tablets then you will have done a good deed, but to him and not his mum. Guess what happens the minute your back is turned? There are shops that sell the same packet of vitamin tablets over and over again.
The ill mother can also be replaced by an ailing grandmother or between three and seven hungry children; infant formula or medicine is a popular alternative to vitamin tablets - the main thing is that it is something expensive.

On the other hand - if you buy a coconut on the beach and pay with a 2000 rupee note, then don't be surprised if you never see the vendor or your change again. 2000 rupees will feed a family for quite some time.

Don't mistrust everyone you meet just because of these few examples: use your common sense and instincts. Just ask yourself what you would do in the same situation at home. Would you trust a complete stranger you had met only 3 days previously and give him 30 or 40 Euro to buy cigarettes for you?