This is the second post in a two part series talking about the pros and cons of living or traveling long term in Sri Lanka. Rob and I moved there in April, with the intention of staying for either six months, a year, or forever. Obviously that didn’t work out. Yesterday I posted all the awesome things I love about Sri Lanka. It really is a great place. There’s just a few worrying things to consider before making the plunge and committing to a long term stay.
Repeating from the last post, I want to make it clear that most of the following impressions, both in
this post and the next, are based from our time living in Ratnapura, in the southern part of the island. We
also spent about one month traveling through Colombo, Negombo, Kandy,
Newara Eliya, Galle, and Anuradhapura. In total, we spent about 4 months traveling, living, and working in
It’s also important to note that we would not have left if not for some unfortunate turns of events. However, as time passed and we became more familiar with the country, there were a few things that were beginning to make me uneasy about our future there. Here they are.
This is a big one, and anyone interested in moving to Sri Lanka long term should definitely take note of this fairly recent development.
When Rob and I first started considering purchasing some land last September, it was still legal for foreigners to own land outright. You had to pay a 100% tax on the land or figure out some dodgy way around paying (bribes, etc), but you could still own land.
Traffic is Horrible
Once you get to your destination in Sri Lanka, you never want to leave. That’s not just because where you are is so wonderful – it’s because traffic throughout the island is the worst I have ever experienced for intra-city travel. It’s like a Bangkok that goes on forever.
is probably the worst thing about Sri Lanka. There is currently one highway
along the Galle coast, which makes getting from Galle to Colombo easy.
Going anywhere else is a nightmare.
The roads are
narrow, single lane tracks that wind through mountains and small
villages. It sounds picturesque, and it would be if you weren’t so busy
holding in your lunch and hoping that the driver isn’t about to slam
into the excuse for a vehicle in front of you.
motorcycles, bicycles, lorries, buses, and tractors all vie for the
same space. Faster moving vehicles dart around the slower ones,
alternatively accelerating and slamming on the breaks as they inch through the queue.
This means that going anywhere by road is
painfully slow. In a private vehicle, the 75 km from Ratnapura to
Colombo takes 2.5-3.5 hours. By one of the smaller, air-conditioned buses,
it’s 4 hours. By the normal, public bus it’s 5-6 hours of hell.
The only comfortable way to get around is by train, which has a limited track. The train does not run to Ratnapura.
a lot of things are so cheap in Sri Lanka that the average janitor Joe from any
western country could vacation like a king. However, if you’re trying to live a few pricy items might have you reeling from sticker shock.
In particular, cars and other motor vehicles are ludicrously expensive. This is mostly because the Sri Lankan government has placed an incredibly high import tax on vehicles. Since Sri Lanka does not manufacture any vehicles, all are imported and the inflated price is passed on to consumers. This includes used vehicles.
As of March, 2012, the tax on new, gas-fueled cars was 189 to 275 percent of the value, depending on the engine size. Diesel cars have an even higher tax, 250 to 350 percent. This means that one of the cheapest cars like a Volkswagon Golf, priced at around $18,000 USD, would cost $52,000 USD in Sri Lanka with the lowest tax of 189 percent. Considering how horrible the traffic is already, it’s probably a good thing that purchasing vehicles is out of reach for most of the population. But that does make it difficult for anybody who wants to live outside of Colombo.
Even motorcycles have a tax of 61-100%, depending on make and model.
Once you’ve paid for your overpriced car, you’ve got to pay for gas. Gas is also not very cheap. As of February, 2013, gas cost 162 RS a liter. In USD, that’s $1.238 a liter or $4.68 a gallon. But the price of gas doesn’t really matter, because it’s not like you really want to go anywhere – as I mentioned above, traveling by road in Sri Lanka is an achingly slow and frustrating process. The only reason to purchase a vehicle is if you want to live outside of Colombo.
Monsoons Are a Big Deal
I knew before we moved to Sri Lanka that the country experiences two monsoon seasons, with heavy rain from April-June and again around September. But thanks to the durian’s relationship to the monsoon, I’ve now experienced the rainy season in more than 10 countries. That, and I’m from Oregon. Rain? No big deal, right?
Wrong. It was the monsoon that ultimately led to us leaving Sri Lanka. In late May, a heavy storm and winds washed out the road leading to the land Rob was working with, demolishing the buildings too. We weren’t the only ones. As I mentioned in my post about why we left Sri Lanka, thousands of homes and other buildings were destroyed all over the country.
I still think that the monsoon isn’t reason enough to avoid an area, but it is something to be aware of when choosing a property or building a road, or anything else for that matter.
Currently, not many ex-pats choose
Sri Lanka as their permanent equatorial home. Sure, there are is a small, cozy ex-pat community in
Colombo and many Europeans have vacation homes on the coast, but in Ratnapura where Rob
and I were staying, we were the only people with white faces.We stuck out like sore thumbs.
takes considerable effort to make friends, because in addition to being
different from everyone else, there’s the whole language barrier to
deal with. Very few people speak English in Ratnapura. So we did our
best to learn Sinhala (the local language), and Rob even joined the Ultimate Frisbee
team. The man we buy vegetables from invited us to dinner. Rob made some
friends at the local pool hall, and I planned to try to join the girl’s
soccer team when I returned “home” from Thailand.
think with time we could have bonded and made friends, but it takes work
and the willingness to put yourself out there into situations that are
completely unfamiliar and even a little scary. It’s not easy, and to be honest it might never be possible to 100% integrate into a foreign culture and community.
Which brings me to a minor draw back of traveling in Sri Lanka.
In Thailand, every backpacker’s hole is suped up with internet. You might have bedbugs and take your shower in a bucket, but you’ve got a great wi-fi connection. This is not the case in Sri Lanka.
Outside of Colombo, even mid-range hotels are not likely to offer free wi-fi to guests. Internet cafes are few and far between. This might not be a big deal to you. I, on the other hand, am an internet addict. More than a few days away from this blog and I get shaky. This makes staying at very budget accommodations require a bit more planning than our usual style of just seeing what’s there when we arrive.
On the plus side, hotel staff won’t be too preoccupied with facebooking friends on their cell phone to help you.
Lack of General Infrastructure
Along with the lack of country-wide wi-fi, there is a general lack of infrastructure. This isn’t a big deal if you’re just visiting, but could be extremely annoying if you plan on living in Sri Lanka long term.
Power outages are common. Other than the Colombo-Galle Highway, roads are in poor condition. If you want to a build a house outside the city, you will probably need to build a road as well or make some serious repairs. There is running water in the city, but it’s not safe to drink. Everyone drinks bottled water.
If you’re someone who likes organic produce or health products, you’ll need to stock up before you come to Sri Lanka. Malaysia or Thailand have plenty of large supermarkets and even small natural health food stores with imported items from the USA or Australia, but you won’t find these in Sri Lanka.
Like I said, not a big deal, but something to seriously consider if you want to make Sri Lanka your permanent home.
Lack of Diversity of Fruit
This is only really important to fruit freaks like Rob and me. So if you don’t depend on fruit for the majority of your calories or you honest-to-buddha don’t like fruit (then why are you reading this site???) skip this section.
In Sri Lanka, coconuts, a variety of bananas, pineapples, and papayas are easy to find, really good, and very cheap, all over the island. Anything else is not. For example, you’re not going to find jackfruit unless you know someone with a tree. Even my favorite Sri Lankan fruit, wood apples, can only be found for a few months each year.
As far as fruit goes, the best place in Sri Lanka is Kandy. There you’ll find a good diversity of custard apples, durians, mangosteens, rambutans, soursops, and plenty of other goodies in the central market. You’ll even find a longer availability of mangoes and a wider selection of bananas. Outside of Kandy, get used to coconuts, bananas, pineapples, and papayas. It’s not the end of the world, and the quality is excellent, but it’s something to consider if you’re someone who lives primarily on fruit. The diversity may not be what you are accustomed to getting at western supermarkets.
The Recent Civil War
Everything seemed fine and chill where Rob and I were, but I do think it’s important to keep this little factoid in mind.
Remember that until 2009, Sri Lanka was in the throes of a bitter 20
year civil war with the insurgent group, the Tamil Tigers. That was only
four years ago.
I still love Sri Lanka, and someday hope to return. I’m not certain anymore though, that I want to live there.
Rob and I moved to Sri Lanka knowing that making a home there was going to be difficult. We hoped to give some weight to the projects of fruitarian Michael Arnstein, who at one time had a dream of attracting other fruit-minded people to the area and forming a sort of eco-friendly, fruit loving ex-pat community. It seemed like a far out dream even in April, but like I’ve said, we’re the kind of people who are willing to take risks and try new things.
Recent developments, however, have made me question whether any sort of community-building projects will ever happen in Sri Lanka. There are some major barriers, with land ownership issues and ridiculously high government import taxes among them.