Colombo, Sri Lanka Report of what it's like to live there - 09/28/17
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?
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?
Birmingham, AL - The trip from the Atlanta Airport is about 18-20 total hours flight time. Close to 30 hours travel time. Connections in Amsterdam and Dubai or Mumbai
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?
We live in a home that is surrounded by a wall and bars on all windows. That being said, I have never felt unsafe in the city. We live about 3 km from the embassy so we walk often. Traffic in the city makes travel times very long sometimes. Our house is large and comfortable. Many expats also live in apartments that are a nice size but often lack storage.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
After some time you will be able to find most of what you need in Colombo. If you tend to eat more like the locals i.e.: curry everything. You will find groceries inexpensive. If you tend to eat like a westerner, they are a little more pricey. Fresh produce is available and inexpensive. Items like toilet paper and paper towels are available, but we have them shipped over from Amazon. We use local cleaning supplies for some things, and I use a lot of white vinegar that I brought with me. It's here but it's pricey. Beef is not a good quality here, although you can find some from Australia but it is pricey. Chicken is our main staple and there is seafood, of course. Overall, we spend slightly more on groceries here than we did back home but that is because I have a tendency to cook more American-style foods.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I didn't ship enough shampoo, conditioner or peanut butter. Sri Lankan's hair is different, they use heavy conditioners and for my oily hair, I haven't found a local shampoo that I like. Also, tampons are nonexistent in this country. So if you are a woman and those are important, bring or ship them.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Everything delivers here. The grocery store, the bakery, Indian, Thai, Chinese, pizza, McDonalds, Domino's, you name it and they deliver.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We have ants... all the time. Everywhere. Geckos are all around but they eat mosquitos so we let them live ;)
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic pouch. There are postal facilities, but my friends who aren't with the embassy say it's difficult to work with them.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is available and very inexpensive. We employ a housekeeper full-time and a gardener part-time. Many of our friends that have cars also employ a driver.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are everywhere and are also inexpensive. Approximately $400.00 for the year.
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?
We use our credit card most places. We don't use ATMs but many of our friends do - they tend to use the ones at banks or inside hotels. I don't use my credit card if it's being taken off somewhere other than at hotel restaurants. I use it when it's being charged in front of me.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
The country is mainly Buddhist with some Hindu. We are Christians and have found several churches that have an English speaking church service.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Most people speak some English. I get by fine and really only know a few words in Sinhalese.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
They would have trouble. There are some sidewalks but they aren't always maintained, and traffic is tough to cross sometimes. Many spaces aren't ADA accessible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We are here without a car. I don't recommend using the local bus - they're dangerous. Trains are really cheap but are very very basic - like standing room and no AC unless you reserve ahead of time for first class - but those are more for longer trips not everyday use. Uber is here and is affordable, there is also another Uber-like taxi service called Pick me and then there are Tuk Tuks. They're cheap and readily available.
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?
I would not advise you bring a large car or a new car. Things are small in Sri Lanka ;-) and traffic rules are virtually nonexistent, so expect to get dings and scrapes on your car.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High-speed internet is available but it is not unlimited. Everything works on "island time," so internet set up is not bad, but to get a repair or make changes or even get an accurate bill is really an inconvenience.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We brought unlocked iPhones, and purchased a SIM card as soon as we arrived. It was quick and easy - just have your passport handy to get the SIM card. Cellular Data is VERY cheap here.
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?
We didn't bring an animal, so I am not sure of the restrictions or vets.
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 spouses are either employed by the embassy or they telecommute. However there is a 10 1/2 hour time difference (give or take an hour depending your home time zone) so that needs to be considered when keeping your job in the states. Local pay is low and I don't know anyone working in the local market.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Volunteer opportunities abound. Sri Lanka is a developing nation and rely heavily on the charity of others especially when there is a natural disaster. The stray dog population is huge, there are many orphanages or daycare agencies that rely on volunteers for help. Whatever your passion, there is a place for it.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Saris are still very popular dress for locals and sarongs for men. So, you can be a bit more casual, however, in the embassy many tend to dress in suits and women dress in business attire as well. In public it is still taboo to show shoulders and knees in much of Sri Lanka, however, in Colombo and the coastal tourist areas, it is fine. Just err on the side of being conservative.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Some people report being harassed by tuk-tuk drivers or passers by. Sri Lankans stare. They don't mean anything by it most of the time. They are generally very warm and welcoming. They love babies and love to touch them.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Air quality is not so great, and neither is health care. Any person with medical conditions outside of the usual basic needs should be medically evacuated. That being said, one of my friends had a cesarean section here and said it was a great experience.
Dengue fever is rampant. It's carried by mosquitos, and really needs to be take seriously.
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?
See above - air quality is relatively poor inside of Colombo. Most people deal with sinus issues at some point.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
We don't drink the water, and I don't eat salad outside the home. We wash all our fruits and veggies in vinegar. Health standards aren't as stringent here.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
No winter, so no problem here. However, many people do experience a mild depression at one point. I truly don't know why, but I have experienced it myself. Things are a little harder here and sometimes all those little things just add up. Sri Lanka is beautiful, and its fun, but also hard.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's hot, year round. Two rainy seasons one in the "fall" ending late October and one in the early summer - beginning in May. Even in the rainy seasons, though, there are periods of sun, it's just when the rain comes, it comes hard and fast.
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 is where most embassy families go. It is a great school, preK-12 are offered with many after school activities. The commute to and from school by bus is the only negative in that it can take over an hour in the afternoons for the kids to get home because of so much traffic. However, the school itself has been one of the best experiences of our time in Colombo.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
There is learning support for children with milder learning disabilities. The school is not equipped for handicapped children, as there are many many stairs and no elevators.
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?
The Overseas School has a preschool, and there is an American preschool that many embassy families use.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are local sports available. Many through the school but some kids are in swimming, soccer, and tennis. There is also dance, gymnastics (although very limited) and even some karate.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There is a large expat community. The IEA (international expat association) is large and very active and an excellent resource.
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?
See above - IEA. Many hotels also offer events.
The Community Liaison Office (CLO) at the embassy is wonderful at coordinating things for the American community.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think it's good for all. Something for everyone.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Can't say. Sri Lanka is generally very conservative, though.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
We are Christians, we haven't experienced much prejudice, none by Buddhists - which is the main religion. Men rule. Women still care for children, prepare meals, etc... even if they work.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The beaches are endless, picturesque. Seeing the monkeys and elephants abound have been wonderful experiences.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Too many to list, Sigaryia Rock, Horton's Plains, Mirissa for the whale watching, Kandy, tea plantations, you name it... you won't run out of things to do.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Beautiful handicrafts. Teak is everywhere, pottery, masks, art...
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's cheap to live in Colombo, and there is a movement of organic goods. There are several markets that are like hidden gems. EVERYTHING delivers!
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Everything is just a little bit harder in Sri Lanka. Everything takes a little bit longer, and everything is a little bit dirtier...
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I have enjoyed living here but I don't see myself coming back after our tour has ended.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
American expectations for getting things done efficiently. Things are very inefficient in Colombo. It's hard to see how things could be made so much easier and really see that they just don't care. Also, do not expect the "customer is always right" mentality. They care about the financial bottom line. If you have poor service or a bad experience you will readily receive an apology... but that is all.
4. But don't forget your:
Sense of adventure, bug spray and sunscreen, AND WATER BOTTLE - take it everywhere!