Colombo, Sri Lanka Report of what it's like to live there - 03/02/21
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?
I have also lived in Japan and China.
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?
My home country is Canada. The trip to post is extremely long (24 hours or more), via either London (with a long stopover) or via Dubai. It is not easy to travel to Sri Lanka.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
Almost three years.
5. 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?
I live in an apartment building relatively close to the mission. The vast majority of diplomatic staff live in apartments of varying quality. Commute times to work are not bad, perhaps 10 to 15 minutes, though commuting in Colombo in general can take a very long time depending on traffic.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries and household supplies are more affordable than in my home country. However, selection is very limited. Produce tends to be your best bet. Local meat is of poor quality.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Ship anything you can't do without. Don't assume that it will be available at post.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a small number of high quality restaurants, cafes and bars. You will probably find four or five places that you like and rotate between them.
Uber Eats is a convenient way to order food and groceries.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Insects, particularly ants, mosquitoes and cockroaches, do tend to find their way indoors sometimes. Of these, be particularly careful around mosquitoes, which can carry the Dengue virus.
Several people I know, including my wife, contracted Dengue here at post. It is very serious and can kill you. Be vigilant about mosquitoes.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I use diplomatic mail bags to receive mail and send very little. The local post is adequate but chaotic.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is very affordable and available. Many expats employ housekeepers, nannies, and/or drivers.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a gym of high quality in my apartment building. I see occasional roadside advertisements for fitness centers, but have never used one, and so cannot say whether doing so would be a good idea.
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 increasingly widely accepted and generally safe. Outside of Colombo you may have more difficulty. Always carry some cash.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I am not a religious person, but my understanding is that most religious faiths have some sort of service available locally. In particular, Christians, Muslims and Hindus will not have any trouble finding something.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You don't need Sinhala or Tamil at all for daily living.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Most certainly yes. There are very few if any measures taken to accommodate those with disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
For safety reasons, we are not allowed to use the buses. They drive like maniacs and break down constantly. The train is affordable and reliable, but usually very crowded. Uber and Tuktuks are viable and affordable modes of transportation within the city.
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?
Bring something with high clearance that drives on the left side of the road. Check to see if parts are available locally before you arrive.
Vehicles are extraordinarily expensive in Sri Lanka because of insane taxes, so if you are a diplomat, avoid that by buying from another diplomat or importing a vehicle.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet at home is available and relatively reliable. It takes a very long time to install and companies may not do anything until you call them multiple times. Unlimited data plans do not exist in Sri Lanka, so if you are a heavy internet user, your bill may be very expensive.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Use a local provider. Dialog seems to be the most popular and your best bet.
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?
None of the apartment buildings that my mission uses allow pets.
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?
A spouse may be able to find work at mission, an NGO, or an international school. Those are essentially the only options as local salaries are very low.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Unfortunately, I can't really comment as I'm not aware of anyone here who volunteers.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress code at work is business casual. In public places people tend to dress a little more conservatively than in a western country. Traditional clothing is still often worn and makes the city look colorful and vibrant. Formal dress is very rarely required.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
I was here for the bombings in 2018. Before that happened I would have said that there are no security concerns, but since then it's clear that there is still some underlying tension. In general, I would say that things are very safe from a security standpoint.
Traffic is a safety concern and buses in particular drive like maniacs. There is a high rate of drinking and driving and rules are not enforced. Many people die every year when struck by vehicles overtaking on blind turns.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Diseases are a serious concern and you should assume that you or someone you know will contract dengue at some point. Local hospitals are of poor quality, so any major surgery or procedure has to be done outside of the country. Cars do not make way for ambulances.
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 generally good. Sometimes pollution accumulates when farmers burn their crops.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Cashews are present in a lot of foods.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Personally, I find this post very difficult from a mental health standpoint. It is hard to make friends, isolated, and there isn't much to do. Especially since the onset of COVID-19 it feels like living in Groundhog Day.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very hot and usually humid.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is one international school in particular which is used by the children of all mission staff, called Overseas School of Colombo. They are pretty good, relatively on par with international schools in other countries.
There is a French international school, but it is not up to Canadian standards and so it is not used by mission staff.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is very small and seems to consist of two groups: surfers and parents.
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?
It's difficult to meet people. You might try a cricket team or a yoga studio.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
In my opinion, this is not a good post for single people. There are few to no nightlife options and Sri Lankans do not tend to date.
I think this is an okay posting for couples if you are very good at keeping each other entertained. I also feel this is a good posting for families. You will find it easier to make friends with other parents and can find affordable household help.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It's difficult to socialize with locals. Sri Lanka is a country wherein "who you know" is often the key factor in life, so locals who are interested in making expat friends are often doing so only because they are hoping for some benefit to themselves.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No. Sri Lanka does not recognize Common Law marriage and homosexuality is not legal or commonly accepted.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a lot of racial tension in Sri Lanka, particularly against Muslims.
Gender roles are very traditional.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Traveling around the country and staying in small villas, diving, safaris. Sri Lanka is an incredibly naturally beautiful place.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Colombo is not an interesting city. You will quickly discover which are the nice restaurants and shops; there are no real "hidden gems."
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
This is not a shopping post. Wooden antique furniture is relatively available and affordable.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The city is fairly safe, very affordable, and offers a jumping-off point to explore the rest of the country.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I had known how little there is to do here, and how difficult it is to socialize.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No, I would not.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Cold weather gear, bicycle.
4. But don't forget your:
Mosquito repellant, sun screen, and anything else you can't live without.