Beautiful Sri Lanka. Endless blue skies, vivid turquoise ocean, swaying palm trees and delicious food. Sounds perfect, right? But behind all this perfection something sinister lurks. A traveller’s nightmare. The tout!
I travel on the cheap. I take local busses, stay in low cost lodgings, hardly ever book in advance, and dine in local eateries. This way of travelling not only makes my money go further, but it enables me to interact with the people who live in the places I visit much more than I ever could if I was on a tour or wrapped up in the safety blanket of an expensive hotel or eating in western-style restaurants. I like travelling this way. But the downside is that it leaves you wide open to touts and in Sri Lanka we often felt like fish in a pond, trying to avoid getting hooked by one of the local fishermen.
There were a few places that were tout central and the hassle we encountered slightly soured our experiences of them.
Tout tales from Sri Lanka
Safari shysters in Tissamaharama (aka Tissa)
Tissa is a lakeside town in the far South and gateway to the famous Yala National Park, home to spectacular Sri Lankan wildlife. We didn’t intend to do a safari in Tissa, having weighed things up it was just too much for us to spend on one trip. But we decided to stay in the town for a night on our way to the hill station of Ella.
A couple of stops before arriving in Tissa some passengers boarded our busy bus and I noticed a group of guys who seemed to shuffle down towards our seats. One of the new passengers started chatting to us, asking things like “what are you reading?”, “why are you going to Tissa?”, “what do you want to do here?”, “what jobs do you do?” Seemingly harmless chit chat. After 10 minutes of conversation he casually mentioned that his sister had a guesthouse in Tissa if we were interested, we said it was too far away from the centre of town and he pushed it no further. He also dropped in that he had a safari tour company, but didn’t push any tour offers on us, which both surprised and impressed us. The bus arrived at Tissa and we said goodbye, thinking nothing more of the conversation.
As soon as we got off the bus, a swarm descended upon us trying to sell tours, hotels, taxi services, you name it they had it. One offer caught our attention – a cheap room close by. We took the bait. The guy said it was his father’s guesthouse but when we got there the people running the guesthouse didn’t seem to have any familial connection to him. The room was indeed cheap (albeit a bit crappy) so we stayed. But this was not a no-strings attached room, we had to endure the full-on hard sell for a safari. The guy offered us a ridiculously cheap price for a tour going the next morning. Only two other people would be with us, leaving plenty of room in the jeep for our bags too. Sensing we still weren’t sold, he also offered to have the driver drop us off at a bus station, miles out of the way, so that we could get the direct bus onto Ella, he even had the alleged driver on hand to discuss and confirm where we would be dropped off. We ummed and erred about it over dinner and then decided to do it, the price was too good to turn down.
My suspicions that something was up were piqued later that evening when we got back to the guesthouse. A group of guys were hanging around the terrace area and I could have sworn I recognised them from the bus journey earlier. The man we had agreed to the safari with, and whose father owned the guesthouse, wasn’t there and so we refused to hand over any money until morning.
4:30am rolled around and we ripped ourselves from our bed and duly stood at the side of the road waiting for our jeep to turn up. 30 minutes later and it finally arrived and who should appear from the driver’s seat but the very first guy who had approached us on the bus. What the actual? It then transpired that the jeep wouldn’t be taking just two others, no, there would be another six others! So if we wanted to take our bags we would have to sit on them for then entire day – they are 60 litre backpacks, they ain’t small! He also claimed to know nothing about our agreed drop off point and didn’t want to know either. It seemed like the whole group of touts, on the bus, outside the bus and at the guesthouse, had been working together to get us to take the safari bait.
Seeing how everything was about to go to shit we grabbed our bags and bailed on the tour, consoling ourselves with the fact we hadn’t handed over any money. They may have wasted our time but at least they didn’t get our cash. We went and watched sunrise over the lake instead. Silver linings and all that.
Travellers 1 – 0 Touts
Wannabe trekking guides in Ella
A visit to Ella Rock was another occasion when we got entangled with a tout. We woke up at ridiculous o’clock to start the 5km hike up to Ella Rock for sunrise. We’d found a route and just had to navigate the forest hills in the darkness – simple! Along the way every frigging dog in the area seemed to wake up and we were surrounded by a chorus of barking. I fully blame the dogs for alerting the touts to our presence and suspect their commission is supplied in the form of chicken bones and belly rubs.
A young man appeared from the darkness and asked: “where are you going?” (he knew full well where we were going). We said we didn’t need any help and carried on. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer and insisted on trailing us for ages, every now and again telling us we were going the wrong way. We kept telling him to go away and that we didn’t want a guide, he replied by telling us that he wasn’t a guide and wanted no money. We began to doubt ourselves; maybe he was just a helpful local?
Eventually he wore us down and we said ok, show us which way we need to go, insisting again that we didn’t want a guide and asking how much money he wanted to show us the right direction. He acted slightly taken aback that we would even suggest that he wanted to be paid, simply saying “as you wish.”
We couldn’t shake him off and he ended up coming with us all the way to the top. You can guess what happened next – “you need to pay me for this.” We were pretty furious as we’d asked so many times about the money and he had flat out lied to us. We ended up giving him some money but only a fraction of what he was demanding.
The upside of the situation was eating breakfast (some brown bananas, watery watermelon and slightly mouldy woodapple) with a knockout view of Ella from the top of the rock.
Travellers 0 – 1 Touts
Tuk tuk hustlers in Anuradhapura
Another city, another unpronounceable name. This one is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight (a status which instantly increases the price of visiting) in North Central Sri Lanka. The town is one of the country’s ancient capitals, it ruled for some 1,300 years before being abandoned after an invasion in 933 AD. It’s a sprawling site, with fascinating ruins hidden amongst dense jungle.
Our train arrived late in the evening and as everyone in Sri Lanka seems to go to bed by about 9pm we knew it might be a challenge to find accommodation. We were greeted at the station by the usual welcoming committee of tuk tuk drivers chanting a chorus of “where are you going?”, but these guys were pushier than any we’d encountered so far. They were offering bargain basement fares for a journey (this never happens), or to take us to their brother/sister/mother’s hotel for free with no obligation to stay if we didn’t like it. As it was late we agreed for one guy to show us his brother’s hotel; it turned out to be in the middle of nowhere and too expensive (he’d lied about the price to get us there). As we didn’t want to stay he took us to the new town area for a pre-agreed price.
We made a beeline for some guesthouses whose names we’d noted down earlier and were followed much of the way by tuk tuk drivers trying to convince us that we wouldn’t find a hotel open and so we should go with them. Essentially, they wanted us to go to their chosen place so that they would get commission, they could then work with the hotel owner (their brother or whoever) to get us to spend money on tours and services.
After telling the drivers to go away (no one seemed to understand that we’re happy to walk to places) we roamed the deserted streets for a while and managed to get one of the places we had noted down to open up and let us stay.
The next day, all around town we were flooded with offers to take us on tours of the ruins and the sounds of “where are you from?” “where are you going?”.
There are two ways you can visit the ruins, the legit way or the tout way. The legit way means paying a $25 entry fee to the park and usually paying a driver to take you around the sights because they’re so spread out. This was way out of our price range. The tout way, means paying a dodgy tuk tuk driver, directly or via your hotel, to take you on a tour of the sights. These drivers have a deal of some kind with the security guards which means that you and your driver can bypass the entry gates of the various attractions without having a ticket. We weren’t comfortable with this option either. So, we ended up hiring a couple of bikes and cycling around the sights, some of which we could see without a ticket, some of which we could sneak in the back of and some of which we just didn’t get to see.
I’d rather not see sights than put money in the touts’ pockets!
Travellers 1 – 0 Touts
What to watch out for – the three species of tout
From my experience there are three main species of tout roaming the streets of Sri Lanka:
99% of the time the inquisitors will start a conversation with the same two questions:
“Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?” (usually said in quick successsion).
These two questions are basically primers for the tout to figure out how to sell their specific service to you. At first we didn’t spot this tactic, but we got better as time went on and sadly it ended up making us suspicious of anyone who opened a conversation with these two questions. On one occasion someone asked us these questions in good faith and because of our experience with touts it completely ruined what could have been an interesting and insightful conversation with a local and probably gave him the impression that foreigners are complete arseholes. It’s frustrating and annoying and often slowed us down as we got tangled up in conversation with the touts.
The smooth talker
These ones are much harder to spot, they’ll talk to you like they’re genuinely interested in you, asking about you and your journey in Sri Lanka. Subtly testing the waters to see what you’re about. Then bam! Before you know it they or their accomplice is trying to sell you a safari trip to a national park or a city tour that you’ve no interest in taking and the offer seems so good that you start to fall for it. They’ll promise the Earth and likely deliver very little. Once again you’re left feeling like losers for not catching on sooner. Face palm.
These guys pose as friendly locals whose main concern is to help out a floundering tourist. You’ll ask them if they’re a guide and they’ll deny it, saying that they’re only trying to help you. They’ll make you feel like the bad guy for even insinuating that they’re aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their own heart. You cynical bastard you.
They will be pushy about helping you, to the point of being obnoxious. In the end they’ll grind you down and you’ll wearily accept their help, as they rub their hands with glee behind your back. As you say your farewells and thank them they suddenly mention that there is a price for this assistance – to pay or not to pay? That is the dilemma.
Sri Lanka is stunning place with so much that’s worthwhile seeing and experiencing, and on the whole the locals we encountered were lovely un-touty people. But I guess wherever you travel they’ll often be someone trying to rip you off.