The Lonely Planet says that Sri Lanka is the best place to visit in 2013. Since many people may follow these words of advice and be planning to visit soon, I must let you know about the scams that are going on in the city of Colombo. Right now, I feel anguish and like I’m on the worst vacation I’ve ever been on. I am hoping this will change, but my first impression of the people here or at least the tuk tuk drivers is that they aren’t to be trusted. I think that one of the worst things that can happen is to be lied to. Today on the six hours I spent outside my hotel rooms, I was lied to, cheated, and preyed upon, traveling as a single woman on her own.
This morning as I ventured out, a tuk tuk driver asked if I needed a ride. I had read to take the ones with the meters, but I didn’t see that he had one. So I negotiated what I thought was a fair price, $4, but found out later, that it should have only cost $1 to get to where I was going. But the thing, is the tuk tuk driver didn’t take me to where I had asked. I was trying to show him on the map that he wasn’t going where I wanted, but he just acted like he was lost and didn’t know the way. C’mon, it’s my first day in your city, and I know the way, and you don’t, and you are a driver that has been here for years? He finally got me to the right place, and tried to tell me that I now owed him $7 because it took so long. I argued, and finally just gave him $5 to be done with it.
The next thing that happened was far worse. This was a scheme so well planned out that I had no idea that I was being taken, quite literally, for a ride, and a scary one at that. It also took my trust away in the people here and made me feel violated and attacked. I was walking in the Fort area of Colombo to the lighthouse and had several tuk tuk drivers trying to get me to ride with them and trying to take me on tours. I persistently said no, as I wasn’t walking very far. I then had a man come up and introduce himself and ask where I was going. When I told him the lighthouse, he told me that today was a very important holiday in Sri Lanka, and that it was being celebrated at the Buddhist temple. I told him that I had absolutely no interest in going. He then told me that there were going to be a lot of elephants. I then told him I definitely had no interest in going, as I didn’t want to support anything that supported elephants being held in captivity. He then told me he worked at the fancy hotel we were walking in front of, and that he thought of me as his daughter, and wanted to look after me while I was traveling. He said he was just taking a break from his work. As I rounded the corner to make my way to the lighthouse, he said, “You know, the lighthouse will always be there, but this celebration is very special, and you are lucky because you are here today. It’s starting in just five minutes. If you hurry, you can take a tuk tuk there, and see it, and come back to the lighthouse.”
He said, “Since I think of you as my daughter, I will make sure you get a government tuk tuk that has a meter, and not one that will cheat you.” Oh, and look, just at that second one pulled up. He talked to the guy who promised to use his meter. Well, I thought, being the adventurer that I am, “It’s not far. I can go, and then come back to the lighthouse. ” As I started to get in the tuk tuk, I saw no meter, though. “Where’s the meter?”, I asked. “Up there.” the man pointed in front of the driver. Well, I just thought I couldn’t see it, so I said OK. Well, the man who had been talking to me all along now said he was going somewhere on the way, and asked if he could ride. I said, “No problem.”, and let him in.
We rode along, not very far, and then I found myself on an abandoned street. The man said, this was his stop, and could I pay for him. I said, “No problem.” and waved goodbye. He said, “No, you have to pay for me now. And, oh, can you give me money for a Coke.” I said, “No, I won’t give you money, but I will pay your way. He then said it’s 2,000 rupee for me,the equivalent of almost $20 US dollars.” He thought he had my trust and that I would just pay it. “I don’t think so.”, I shouted. I went twice this distance earlier for 400 rupee. I will pay 200. The two men started ganging up on me, and shouting at me, and saying that I would pay the 2,000. I said “Show me the meter.” Of course, there was no meter. I then started feeling very unsafe. They were getting very close to me. I threw the driver the 200 rupee and said that is all you will get from me. Then I used the only weapon I had, my voice. I screamed in a very deep and loud voice. “YOU WILL NOT CHEAT ME.” I then sucked in the biggest breath of air all the way to the bottom of my stomach, and proceeded to scream in a very loud and low voice. Not a shrill scared voice, but I felt like I sounded like a lion roaring at the time. It may sound silly, now, but in the moment, I felt like my weapon was to show them my anger, not my fear, and to maybe make them think I was a bit crazy. It worked, they both allowed enough distance for me to jump out of the tuk tuk. The driver yelled out “F*** You” and drove off.
I consulted my map and wasn’t far from the temple. I went and found out today, of course, there was no Holiday. And it broke my heart to see a lone elephant, chained up and clearly not happy.
Things only proceeded to get worse, as when I left, I had another tuk tuk driver who kept pulling over to yell lewd comments at me. I told him he was creepy, and to get lost, only to have him pull up his shirt to show his unzipped pants, and yeah, you know. I was horrified. This had been after avoiding over thirty beggars all day, mostly children, asking for money. Many of these children were well-dressed and playing in the street in front of their homes. They had just been trained to ask any foreign looking person for money. This was not turning out to be my type of place or day at all. I finally decided to do what I do anytime I am not feeling safe in an area. I did the touristy thing and went to the fanciest hotel in town (no, I didn’t take a tuk tuk, I walked) and drowned my sorrows in a beautiful king coconut, which was even sweeter than green coconut juice, and was the one bright spot in my day. The waves calmed my fears. I am hoping things will get better in the new places that I visit, but if Sri Lanka wants more people to visit, they are going to have to do something about the dishonesty and harassment from its people. I can’t imagine that I am the only one to have three bad experiences with tuk tuk drivers all in a matter of just a few hours. Be warned, or maybe just avoid Colombo altogether on your visit to Sri Lanka.
If you want to find out more about travel scams in other countries, you may like my other website www.travelscamming.com