Colombo, Sri Lanka Report of what it's like to live there - 04/03/20
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?
This is our sixth overseas assignment. We also lived in West Africa and throughout Southeast Asia.
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?
Our home base is on the East Coast. It takes about 24 hours to get home from Colombo. There is no direct flight.
3. How long have you lived here?
About a year.
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?
People can often choose between a house or an apartment. The houses tend to be roomy and have some green space, but they are often older and require a lots of maintenance. The apartments are new and modern, with excellent amenities (pool, gym, etc.). Commute time between the apartments and the US Embassy is about five minutes by tuk-tuk. It's longer from most of the houses in the housing pool, but still probably fewer than 30 minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are modern grocery store chains (e.g., Keells, Cargills, Arpico), specialty markets, and wet markets. You can find most things if you look hard enough, but probably not all in the same place. Food is not particularly expensive, with the exception of imported items.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
There's not much I can't find a replacement for or live without. I am glad I shipped sensitive-skin laundry detergent and dishwasher detergent.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Uber Eats is a popular delivery service. There are lots of fast food options (e.g., KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Subway). Local food is very inexpensive. High end international restaurants tend to be in the better hotels (e.g., Cinnamon, Shangri-La, Galle Face Hotel, Kingsbury, etc.) and the prices are comparable to the USA.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
I can't speak to the houses, but my high-rise apartment is mostly bug free.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We are fortunate to have diplomatic mail privileges, so we can use the Embassy mailroom (pouch and DPO) to send and receive mail.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Full-time help (housekeepers, cooks, drivers, nannies, gardeners) are usually paid between $175 and $250 per month. Most expats employ at least one person, full- or part-time. Some expats have several people on staff.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There's a gym at the Embassy and at the apartment complex where many expats live. There are also private gyms. Popular options include Cross-Fit and Prana Lounge (yoga).
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?
Credit cards are widely accepted. I tend to get cash from the Embassy cashier or the on-site ATM, but there are ATMs at the big banks. As far as I know, they are safe to use.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It's not necessary to speak Sinhala, especially in Colombo. About a quarter of the population speaks English fluently.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I suspect it would be challenging but not impossible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Buses can be dangerous and we are discouraged from riding them. Tuk-tuks are everywhere and affordable. Taxis generally take the form of Ubers and Pick-Me (an Uber competitor); rates are low. Trains are popular with Sri Lankan commuters and international tourists. They are cheap, but can be slow and crowded.
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?
We bought a right-hand drive car at post. It's nice to have an SUV for trips around the country, but the roads can be narrow. Gas is expensive. Driving is a hair-raising experience, so expect occasional scrapes and bumps. Fortunately, the speeds are usually slow enough to avoid serious injury.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. The Embassy often sets it up before arrival.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I have a US phone number through Google FI and a local SIM card (Dialog) on the same phone. It might not be the most elegant or economical approach, but it works well to ensure that I can make/receive local calls and also receive two-factor authentication passcodes that are sent to my US phone number.
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?
Unknown. Pets are not allowed in the apartments.
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 quite a few EFM jobs at the Embassy; this is the first post I've been to where supply matches or exceeds demand. Some spouses retain their US-based jobs and telecommute. Local salaries are very low, so the only expats I know who work on the local economy own their own businesses or have expat packages with private sector companies.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Sri Lanka is a middle-income country. I'm sure there are volunteer opportunities, but I don't know of many. I have a teenager who wanted to do some volunteering, and we had trouble finding the right organization.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Smart casual in public places and business/business casual at work is usually appropriate. Sri Lanka is a fairly conservative country, so I don't wear shorts, except at home. Formal dress is only required for the Marine Ball, at least in my world.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not that I'm aware of. I feel safe.
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 a concern. In my limited experience, medical care isn't great in Sri Lanka. I tend to get routine medical care (dentist, annual physical, routine follow-ups) in the USA or elsewhere (e.g., Singapore, Bangkok), whenever possible.
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 moderate.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Sometimes the island feels claustrophobic. Airfares can be high, making regional travel an investment.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's always warm, ranging from comfortably warm to uncomfortably hot. The seasons differ on the west and east coast. In Colombo, it rains frequently from May to October. The other half of year can be quite dry.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are quite a few international schools. Most of the Embassy kids go to The Overseas School of Colombo (OSC) in Battaramulla, in the outskirts of the city (it can take up to an hour to get to school on the school bus.) A few young kids go to the new Singapore School, which is more centrally located.
2. 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?
Preschools are available. Day care tends to take the form of a nanny. OSC provides after-school care in the form of free after-school activities on most days, except Wednesdays (early dismissal day).
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Most sports teams and activities are affiliated with the schools. The sports teams are not particularly competitive. There's at least one private soccer club (TAFA), but there aren't (m)any other leagues/teams to compete against. There are private cricket clubs. Kids can take private swimming and tennis lessons. Music lessons, particularly piano, seem hard to come by.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community isn't particularly big. Morale is high.
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?
People tend to social informally. It's a friendly community, both in the Embassy community and the larger expat community.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's not a bad city for anyone, but it can be quite dull. You have to make your own fun.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Unknown, but if I had to guess, I'd say no.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It's not particularly difficult to make friends with locals, but expats tend to stick together. Some locals who were educated abroad (e.g., USA, Australia, the UK) straddle both worlds and are integrated into the expat community. The divide between expats and locals tends to be primarily socio-economic.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
The Sri Lanka war is over and the country seems committed to healing old wounds, but I get the sense there is some lingering tension between ethnic groups, which was exacerbated by the 2019 Easter bombings and the recent elections.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Sri Lanka is a great place to be a tourist, from beaches to tea plantations to cultural sites, there's something for everyone. It's a great place to learn to surf, see animals, and hike, but be prepared to spend all day in the car to get most places, except the southern beaches.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Compared to many other places I've lived, Sri Lanka is not a shopping post. You'll spend lots of money on travel, but probably not on local products.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's relatively easy living.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Sure, but only for two or three years.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Preconceived ideas. Sri Lanka will surprise you. It's a combination of modern and ancient, friendly and guarded. It's changing rapidly.
3. But don't forget your:
Patience -- on the road, at restaurants, at work. They don't call is "island time" for nothing.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
There are many. Elephant Complex is a good place to start.