Sri Lanka Culture and Traditions: 4 Etiquette Tips

Before you dive head-first into Sri Lankan culture, here are our top tips to avoid embarrassing yourself or disrespecting local customs and traditions.


Stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka. Photo © Getty Images/Andrey Danilovich

In Sri Lanka, cultural traditions and customs are held in high regard. The culture has long been influenced by Theravada Buddhism, and the religion is particularly strong in the southern and central regions of the country. Before you go, be in the know with these handy etiquette tips.

Using your hands in Sri Lanka

Like many people in the world, Sri Lankans don't use cutlery, instead eating with the fingertips on their right hand. For travelers who don't want to do the same, most restaurants will offer cutlery if you ask politely. But don't cause a fuss – join in the fun!

It's polite to use your right hand when shaking hands or handing money and small objects to someone else. Of course, you can use both hands for something large and heavy.

Tea and snacks served in Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Getty Images/Melinda Chan

Respecting Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka

Buddhism is the main faith in Sri Lanka, and more than 70% of the population is Buddhist. The remaining population follow Hinduism, Islam or Christianity.

Never touch or pat the top of the head of a Buddhist monk, including young children at temples. As religious leaders of the community, they are to be respected.

Do not turn your back to (or be alongside) a statue of Buddha that is nearby. If in doubt, look at the behavior of the locals around you. This includes posing for photos; it's okay to take a photo of a statue, but anyone in the photo should be facing Buddha, not standing beside or with their back to the statue.

Don't wear any clothing that features Buddha or any other deity. It is considered disrespectful and insensitive, and could incur the wrath of authorities. If you have a tattoo of the Buddha, keep it covered.

Always be polite to monks. Offer them a seat if you're on a crowded bus (unless you're elderly or disabled). But don't shake hands with monks, especially if you are a woman. Instead, you can give the traditional greeting (placing your hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bowing slightly).

If you're entering a temple, cover your shoulders and legs, and remove footwear and headwear before heading inside. You should also always remove your shoes before entering someone's home. 

Public photography etiquette in Sri Lanka

The vibrant colors and culture of Sri Lanka make it a photographer's paradise. However, there are a few things to consider before getting too snap happy.

Depending on where you plan to photograph, some sites require a permit which covers photography, filming, parking and entrance fee. These sites are generally only accessible between 6am and 10am.

Some temples prohibit photography. Avoid taking photos inside shopping malls and inside tea factories (outside is okay). Be especially careful in Fort, Colombo (except when you're on the beach). If local soldiers are standing guard, put your camera away.

Don't rely on signs alone, as sometimes they are old or misleading. For example, one end of a bridge may have a "No Photography" sign, but not the other. There have been instances where foreign nationals have been detained by the police after taking photographs of buildings or vehicles used by VIPs. These include numerous sites in central Colombo. Use of video and/or photography is prohibited near military bases and government buildings.

You might encounter snake charmers in Colombo, but for the welfare of the animals, never pay for photographs, as there is a worldwide movement to ban this cruel, exploitative practice (often the fangs are removed, and when the snake is finally released it cannot feed itself).

Social etiquette tips in Sri Lanka

Public displays of affection (PDA), such as kissing and/or hugging, may be frowned upon. In Sri Lanka, PDA is considered to be private behavior. Holding hands and affection between parents and their children are allowed.

Public nudity is illegal in Sri Lanka. So, if you were hoping to skinny dip and sunbathe nude or topless, stick to the private beach resorts which allow it (but ask first to avoid embarrassment).

LGBTQ travelers should be aware that same-sex relations are still illegal in Sri Lanka. 

Security checkpoints are common. You must carry a form of official photographic identification on you at all times, but keep them safe from potential pickpockets.

Our best advice? Behave as the locals do, learning from them is the best way to avoid offending someone, and potentially getting into trouble.

A tea plantation in Uva Province, Sri Lanka. Photo credit: Getty Images/Santiago Urquijo

Related articles

Travel Insurance

Simple and flexible travel insurance

You can buy at home or while traveling, and claim online from anywhere in the world. With 150+ adventure activities covered and 24/7 emergency assistance.

Get a quote


  • Kiera said

    I have been doing a little research about Sri Lanka and I'm falling so in love with the place and I'm definitely going to follow the customs!! I'm so disallusioned in western society and it just sounds so nice how people are more conservative and it sounds like from my research so far less arrogant and bitchy and just nicer and so cultured!! So beautiful! If it's like how it seems so far I'll probably want to live here. As a white person -who is not patriotic about it- I hate western society. People are dicks. That being said I am a female attracted to other females so that will prevent me from living there I guess... so crazy what people can think though. Sri Lankan women look beautiful... I really think white people are the least attractive race... we're literally melanin lacking mutants.... we look like we're on the verge of death. Anyways can't wait :)

  • Zainab said

    Hey Kiera, it's nice to know you love the Sri Lankan culture :)

    Don't be too disturbed by the "unacceptance" of same sex relationships in Sri Lanka..
    there always are people who don't fit into the legal aspects of a country, you're sure to find a beautiful (pigmented lol) Sri lankan woman.. (obviously keeping her "real" self hidden). have patience and be available :P

    furthermore, as you have read already PDA isn't appreciated in the Sri Lankan culture (which you love), so same sex relationship wont be a problem since all business will be taken take of indoors anyway.

    If not to stay in SL for good, visit the island for a holiday atleast :)

    A true, proud Lankan ^_^

  • Araliya said

    I'm Half Sri Lankan and currently live in NZ. I have been to Beautiful Sri Lanka twice. I personally think you should respect the country you are going to, you just want to enjoy the amazing country you are visiting so you should respect the country. They will be used to tourists.
    I hope anyone who goes can enjoy the amazing country
    have fun :)

  • Robbo said

    In other words, behave like a civilized human being, geez, has travel got to this point where you need to explain to people how to behave.

    I have lived in Sri Lanka for 7 years and here is another one for the ladies: Get rid of the shorty shorts and the skimpy singlets. Show some respect and cover up. And if that offends the feminists or snowflakes out there, don't come. Go elsewhere.

    And one for the boys: Just because you can drink in public in your place, don't come here and expect to do it. Show some respect. And if you don't like, stay away, go to Bali. LOL.

  • Niki M said

    You mention alcohol consumtion. Do they not have bars outside the resorts? What about resturants? Do some of the more expensive ones serve booze or is it not ususally drunk with a meal anywhere?

  • George said

    Wow. First - yes cover up, other than the beach. Drinking is everywhere, just walk to your nearby liquor store. Lots of, private, gay women, yoga fashioned. Didn't see gay men but got hit on by one. No prostitution seen as in Bangkok. Very tourististy but that's what you are, even in the hostel stuff.
    It's an Asian country act like you would in any budist area, show your respect.
    I am Canadian and the girl who spray painted the 13th century gate should go to jail. Drunk or not it doesn't matter. Do you carry a spray can with you?

  • stephanie said

    WOW... I really hope I don't encounter Kiera on my travels to Sri Lanka. *cringe*

  • jenna said

    Kiera, I'm curious, did you change your mind after visiting?

Add a Comment

Latest articles