Colombo, Sri Lanka Report of what it's like to live there - 03/20/17
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?
Colombo was our 5th post following Gimbie (Ethiopia), Tegucigalpa, Port-au-Prince and Oslo.
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?
We are nomads, however our R&R and home leave take us to Southern California and Northern Virginia - every time! Usually the flight to Colombo involves a nonstop from Washington to Doha, Dubai or Abu Dhabi (13 hours) and then following a brief (or intended) layover, another 4.5 hours to Colombo. It is a long haul, but not terrible and with Emirates, Qatar and Etihad, all are great airlines!
3. How long have you lived here?
We lived there from 2012-2015.
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?
Typical houses in Colombo are great. You usually have a choice of living in a high-rise apartment building within 10 minutes walking distance to the Embassy or USAID (located on Galle Road), or a stand alone large home, that often doesn't have a lot of outdoor space, although most have some. The majority of apartments are located in Colombo 3 (near shopping, tourist hotels and the ocean), whereas stand alone homes are in Colombo 7 and 5 - both great neighborhoods, with 7 being a little more posh, but also located in the vicinity of lots of local schools so traffic at pick-up time becomes hectic.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find almost anything in Colombo. The US embassy has a commissary which supplies some great additions to what is available on the market. I would definitely say go local! The fish, seafood, fresh vegetables and fruit are out of this world, so take advantage. There are grocery stores all over and on a side note, you can pay your mobile bill, Internet and cable at any big chain grocery store - don't wait in line at the designated mobile phone shop!
Local cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, etc are available although more expensive then the US. This was a consumables post for US government employees, though I am not sure if that is still the case. If so, bring your favorite brands of shampoo, soap, cleaning supplies and snacks. What is available here is coming out of the UAE and Thailand and not what you are used to - if you need that!
Sri Lanka is not a big dairy consumer, however they do make great ice cream (Il Gelato near Odel) and mini cups of ice cream located near the mosque and Galle Road. Cheese imported or average, milk is UHT but one can find fresh, local milk suppliers if you want.
There is a great fruit/veg local market called Kolpetty. It is more expensive than others (like the one on Kirimandala going to Nawala), but it is close and fresh and you will find surprising things there! Upstairs from the fruit/veg part is fish and above that are 2 grocery stores that have a lot of specialty items! Beema's and Brana's??
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Happy we had consumables, as I think we saved a lot on cleaning supplies. We go through a lot of peanut butter and pancake syrup; like most places in the world, you can usually find what you need or adapt!
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There have been lots of restaurants coming up, post 2009 - Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian, Chinese, etc. Plus there are some great coffee shops and cafes too. There is a great site for review on everything in Sri Lanka, yamu.lk.
Take out is available almost anywhere and make sure you keep your eye on new openings of events, venues and restaurants!
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Expect your ants, cockroaches and flying bugs to visit you frequently while living in Colombo, but all of these can be managed with your personal cleanliness in the kitchen and bathrooms. Mosquitoes can be a problem so make sure your doors and windows (or get screes) are closed during dawn and dusk. There is no malaria but there is dengue fever - our whole family had it at one time or another!
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The postal service in Sri Lanka is not terrible, but it does take a long time. The US embassy has a pouch option, but anything over 2 pounds gets charged heavily, as many posts do!
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is fabulous! Of course you need to interview well and find someone that fits your needs, but cleaning and cooking can be combined into one or if you want really exclusive cooking, you may take a person for each of these jobs. Additionally, a child minder can be found that meets all your needs, living in or out and can babysit and work weekends - if you pay them right ($200-300/month).
We had a part-time gardener who we paid approximately $50/week (working 2 days a week), and a cook/cleaner who we paid $200 for full time work. Both were men and they were fantastic! Additionally, I hired an English speaking tuk-tuk driver who was awesome and super with the kids, to do the school pick up (our kids were in the French school), and took them to all their activities - back and forth) I paid him and kept him on retainer $225 per month. This way our vehicle was available for either my husband or I to use throughout the day.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The US Embassy has a small gym which is pretty good. There are gyms all over town, however we did not have a membership (except for the kids to take swimming lessons on top of the gym at the Racecourse). I believe it would cost you around $100 per month for a membership.
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?
Yes. You can use cards most anywhere, however we preferred to get cash (ATM at Embassy or a well-lit, large bank ATM in town) and use cash instead!
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are several along Galle Road, the signs indicate when English services are provided, however I am not familiar with the specifics.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
If you learn some Sinhala, you will be greatly appreciated! Even some Tamil as there are many in the businesses and resorts that speak Tamil. However if you only know English you will do okay! Most tuk-tuk drivers know a little and can get around and most shops you will frequent will speak some English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, probably. Sidewalks are improving as are wheelchair ramps, etc, but overall it would not be easy to have any physical disabilities here.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are great and reliable, especially for longer distances in town, like the airport or out to the overseas school. However, tuk-tuks are definitely the way to do for cheap, short distances! They are a little crazy, but if you know the price for various distances, you won't be taken. It can cost .25-50 for short, < 2 km rides or maybe $1 for a few km.
The train should be taken at some point, either to Galle or Kandy, although it is not a speedy, super clean affair.
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?
If you are just planning staying in town, a simple 4WD is fine - CR-V, Rav4, etc. Most people we knew had Toyotas - Prado, Land Cruiser, etc. They know how to fix these cars and have the parts. Any Nissan, Mitsubishi, etc would be great too.
If you want to get out and have some fun wandering all over the country, then you most certainly want a sturdy, 4WD vehicle with high clearance.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The Internet was pretty good. Sometimes the rain would take out cable tv and internet, but if you got the right number you could usually get service back in a timely way. If I remember it was around $50 for a pretty good connection. We had Dialog for our mobile phones, internet and DsTV connection.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Dialog, although there are other companies, I think this is what most go with. For the mobile phone, I would recommend buying a pre paid card and just topping up with you get low for both the calls/messages as well as your data. It's much cheaper that way.
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?
Veterinarians can be improved upon significantly! We never had a problem, but five families during our three years at post lost their dogs for fairly mysterious or unknown reasons. Many say the odd combination of sea air, pollution (although not bad), and humidity can cause detrimental effects on your electronics, anything rubber or plastic, and by virtue of this, maybe the health of the animals. The doctors seem well qualified and we always used PetVet located in Colombo 5.
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?
There are some EPAP positions at the embassy and other EFM jobs. I think most people who wanted to work were able to find something. There is the opportunity to do a lot of volunteering with church organizations, orphanages, self-help type projects, etc.
There are some NGOs in Sri Lanka and one might be able to find employment with them, but only with prior connections.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Sri Lankans dress nicely - very professional, however not over the top. Prepare for nice pants and blouses or dresses and for men nice shirts and pants (suits and ties only necessary when meeting with government officials and dignitaries). Spaghetti straps and short-shorts or short skirts are not looked upon favorably. Plenty of tourists go that route because of the heat, however they draw lots of attention because of their lack of respect for the culture.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Petty crime, some home burgleries, although most homes have alarms which should be used.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is pretty good, with good diagnostics and clinics throughout Colombo. You wouldn't want to get in a really bad car accident too far away from Colombo though, as services dwindle quickly.
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?
Air quality is really good in the sense that there is often a coastal breeze and the city is not that big. However there is something in the air that does destroy many of the items in your home that are made with rubber and plastic!
Anyone who suffers from allergies will likely face them in Sri Lanka. I took Claritin during the pollen time of year and was fine.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Nor really! It does get REALLY humid and hot in April and May, but some people live for that!
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot and hotter, humid and a little less humid! It is a tropical island, so you get what goes with that and what makes it so green!
It rains from May to September, more or less. However leading up to that, from March to May it is extraordinarily hot! But it is the same in most places in this region.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The Overseas School of Colombo (OSC) is where most expat kids attend, who have the money and want the costliest school in the city. Overall I think it is pretty good - I know people who both love and hate it, so hard to say. Our children went to the very small French school. However our kids were young at the time and it worked for them. If your kids are over 13, you might want to consider somewhere else.
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?
Plenty of preschools, two specifically that most expats send their kids to: the American Preschool & a Montessori school (can't remember the name).
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are lots of after-school activities tied to the schools. There are tennis lessons, swimming facilities and soccer clubs that all ages can participate in, depending on the area of town that you live, you will want to find the closest one.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It is pretty large - there are many who have fallen in love with Sri Lanka and have moved there permanently or return frequently. Lots of Sri Lankans leave to get a good education in the US, Australia or the UK, and many find themselves returning. So there is a good combination of expats and locals to socialize with.
2. 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 is a International Expat Assiciation (IEA) that meets monthly. This is a good place to start. There are book clubs, concerts, parties and any number of activities that if you keep your eye out for, will connect you with many people. Of course many people find themselves at a hotel for the use of their pool or at the embassy recreation center on the weekend to socialize and eat. It is what you make it.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It is a great city for everyone. There is plenty to do. There are lots of late night clubs and dances venues for singles or young couples. There are parks and "baby groups" for any young families and for older kids, they make their own fun with friends.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
You would probably do fine if you weren't overtly flamboyant with your lifestyle. I knew Sri Lankans who were gay, however it is not a widely accepted lifestyle.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
This is a Buddhist country! That said the Muslims run many of the businesses and the Tamil's and their Hindu are also very present. Within their own society there is lots of prejudice between the classes and religious beliefs, however on the surface one wouldn't really notice, especially as an expat.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We were able to travel all over the country while there: The national park lodges, if you can book them, are in spectacular locations and very affordable (Yala, Gal Oya and Wilpattu National Parks), a train trip to Kandy, visiting the tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya, Dambulla & SIgirya, a visit out to Mannar, kite surfing and frequent visits to Kalipitiya, north of Trinco and out to Pigeon Island, the history in Jaffna and of course Galle!
Plus you can get fairly cheap flights to India and Bangkok, which enabled us to see Goa, Bangalore, Rajasthan, Delhi, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore and Borneo.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
See above, however there is a yachting club south of the city, you must wander through Pettah market several times, visit the old city hall in Pettah, get ice cream at Il Gelato, witness the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, the Vesak festival on Beira Lake and MUCH more! Renting the real estate agent, Mimi Weerasinghe's, beautiful home in Wadduwa and Sunday brunch at Mt Lavinia hotel or just tea in the middle of the day!
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Lots of great art, ceramics, woodwork, tea and antiques!
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It is small enough that you can easily get around and get to know the city well. You can walk safely in most places and use a tuk-tuk right off the street. There is plenty to see and do and it is easy to get out of the city and wander the country and region! Take advantage of the millions of things to see and do in Sri Lanka - it is small, but stuffed full of unbelievable wonders!
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
We did a lot of research and knew some Sri Lankans who we questioned endlessly! And once we got to Colombo we never said no to any invitations and took park in any and everything we say - this positioned us to love the people and country quickly.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely! Our 3 years were full to the max with adventures and excitement.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Desire for perfection, your impatience and your scratch-free vehicle.
4. But don't forget your:
Sense of humor, fleece and boots for your trip to Nuwara Eliya, and your kite!
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
If you are interested in how these cultures still remain as they do and the last days/months of the civil war, read "The Cage", but former UN worker, Gordon Weiss; also find "Island of a Thousand Mirrors", by Nayomi Munaweera; "Anil's Ghost" is interesting and anything by the handsome Ashok Ferrey gives an insight into the daily lives in Sri Lanka.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Fabulous posting, but make the most of it. Day-to-day life, like anywhere, can be frustrating as you learn to love the culture, but the Sri Lankans are lovely people, welcoming and warm and hospitable especially if you extend your activities and interests beyond just the expat groups and integrate yourself!