Colombo, Sri Lanka Report of what it's like to live there - 12/07/11
Personal Experiences from Colombo, Sri Lanka
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Second experience. Lived in Fuchu, Tokyo, Japan 2008-2009.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, DC to Sri Lanka via Dubai takes approximately 16 to 18 hours
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
U.S. government employees live in large old houses and in two or three newer condomimiums. Most of the condos are within a 10-15 minute walk to the U.S. Embassy. The houses are 20-40 minutes (depending on traffic).
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are grocery stores now - Cargill's and Keell's; and Arpico is a "super" market. They were building a new large Arpico when I left Sri Lanka; and the smaller markets were offering more western food choices. Household supplies are difficult to find, it is easier to bring these things with.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Baking supplies, toilet paper, cleaning products, cheese if I could figure out how to ship it.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are two McDonald's, one KFC, and two Pizza Huts in Colombo. Fast food in Sri Lanka is curry and rice which is available everywhere. Food quality is a big issue. The larger hotels all have restaurants, cost is reasonable in comparison to U.S. costs, although outrageously expensive in comparison to the local economy.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
Curry and rice is vegetarian. There were a couple of organic food providers that deliver.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Lots of insects as in any tropical country. Big problem with mosquitos, particularly those that carry dengue.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I frequently sent and received letters and packages through the Sri Lankan postal service. They arrived quickly and in good condition; the cost was quite reasonable.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very cheap, very available, but training may be required in hygiene and how to clean properly.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Some of the condos have small gyms, the larger hotels have gyms with memberships available to expats.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Don't use credit cards and ATMs. Credit card theft is rampant in Sri Lanka, even at the big name-brand hotels.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
The local cable service offered channels from SE Asia like AXN and WB which carry English language (American) programming.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It really helps to learn the basics in Sinhala - yes, no, thank you, (I) don't want it, it's too expensive, right, left, stop, etc.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would be extremely difficult for someone with physical difficulties due to the lack of sidewalks, broken paving/holes, drivers not stopping for pedestrians, etc. It is very dangerous to walk (or drive) in Sri Lanka.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The buses are very dangerous because of the crazy driving and because of pick-pockets (with knives).The trains are better, but we weren't permitted to ride at night. The local taxi services are safer as they have seat belts, however they are very unreliable. Trishaws (tuk-tuks) are very dangerous, but extremely convenient. A taxi costs less than a tuk-tuk though.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
To see the country, a vehicle is necessary; however driving is very difficult in Sri Lanka because of the lack of adherence to traffic laws (the only real rule is bigger rules; i.e. buses have right of way).The roads are not in good condition, two-lane, very crowded with buses, trishaws, motorbikes, cows, people, etc. all doing their own thing. Don't bring a nice expensive vehicle, buy one local that can get all dinged and scratched up.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
I paid $100.00 a month for sporadic medium speed internet - enough to phone someone using Skype, but not enough for video or for downloading. And it went out frequently.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
There is very limited coverage, no 3G or coverage for iPhones. Cheap unlocked phones are available, sometimes though they may be stolen goods.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
At the time I left the Sri Lankan government outlawed bringing in pet cats.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There is a reputable veterinarian in Colombo.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Most expats I met worked for NGO's or married Sri Lankans and opened restaurants.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
It's a conservative religious country so women should make sure their legs and arms are covered. Hot and humid weather means lightweight clothing.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
The civil war just ended in May 2009, there are still armed military checkpoints throughout the city; and very heavy security near Temple Trees on Galle Road.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Dengue fever is rampant, there are 4 strains - each worse than the last. The medical care is substandard by American standards.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The air quality is not good in Colombo because of all the buses and trishaws.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The climate is hot and humid year round. There are two monsoons - in the southwest from approximately April-July/August; in the northeast from November/December-February.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The Overseas School is quite far out of Colombo so the commute time for students is long. When it floods in Colombo (and it floods all the time) it closes down roads leading to/from the school.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
No experience with this as I am single; however I know most families have a full-time maid/nanny.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Cricket and football (soccer).
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Probably about 500-1,000 or so, mostly European (German, Italian)
2. Morale among expats:
It's a tough place to live because of the difficulties in getting certain basic food and household supplies, language difficulties, and the difficulty in getting out of town.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There are a couple of movie theaters in Colombo, although most movies are Bollywood. There is always a weirdly timed intermission in the movies.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It seems a better city for couples than for singles or families. There is not a lot for children to do once you've been to the elephant orphanage and the zoo. Although the city is on the ocean, the water quality is very poor and it is necessary to drive an hour to the north or south minimum to find a fairly clean beach. The night life for singles is sketchy at best, there are a handful of nightclubs that single expats frequent.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes, these problems contributed to the civil war. Sinhalese vs. Tamils/Muslims. Buddhists vs. everyone else. Women are highly discouraged from being out alone after dark.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Hiking to the top of Sri Pada (Adam's Peak), visiting the cultural triangle of Anuradhnapura, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa. The tea estates upcountry near Kandy are beautiful, and the climate is much cooler.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
An hour to the north or south there are acceptable beaches. For better beaches the drive is closer to 3-4 hours. There is an elephant orphanage about an hour inland on the road to Kandy. Lots of temples and archaeological ruins to see. Trips upcountry to Kandy.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
The local masks are amazing, lots of Indian-style brassware, there are great shops for very colorful fabrics - everything from pillows to silk sari material.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Sri Lanka's countryside is amazing - mountain ranges, tea plantations, white sand beaches. There are ancient ruins scattered throughout the country, and wild elephants.
11. Can you save money?
Yes because there's really nothing to do.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
It's an amazing country, the people are very friendly, the history and archaeology are fantastic, the beaches in the south are beautiful, the countryside is lush and almost pristine. Yes, I would still go.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes. It's hot and humid year round, and Columbia Sportswear has a factory outlet in Nuwara Eliya where you can pick up a new down jacket at 50-70% off!
3. But don't forget your:
Mosquito repellent, sun screen, and toilet paper.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
I found the Lonely Planet guide very helpful for finding my way around the island.