The Sight Guides of Sri Lanka

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By: leelefever on March 14, 2006 - 6:09am

Guides are big business in Sri Lanka. The government’s tourist board licenses them and they are useful and interesting part of seeing historical sites such as Anuradhapra and Polonoruwa. With the help of Nimal, we hired quality guides ahead of time and didn't regret it. They are essentially interpreters; describing the historical significance of the sites along with some amusing anecdotes.

 Here are our guides for the ancient cities, all of which we enjoyed:

This is R.P. Chandrasa (cell: 0722-925997) specializes in bicylce tours of Anuradhapura.

Our guide for Polonnurawa:

And our guide for the amazing Sigiriya. This guy spoke 5 languages.


There seem to be two types of guides: hired ones (above) and leeching ones. With the hired ones, the relationship is clear – for a few dollars, they will be your guide. The leeching ones can be useful, but you should be leery of their agenda.

As we saw many times in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the guides will sidle up to you, start a friendly conversation and then start to lead a walk describing every plant. These guides may or may not be certified and their business is to provide a guide service in exchange for a tip to be given at the end of the walk. The problem is that this relationship is not clear in the beginning. It’s very easy to assume the guide is a friendly park employee, paid to provide the service. It’s not so and a simple “no guide please” will send the message and they will leave.

Other “guides” however have a different agenda. As we approached the entrance to the Tooth Shrine in Kandy, a young and honest looking guy came and said that we should see the “free” temples before entering the Tooth Temple. He was obviously a leech guide, but we figured we’d see what he had to say. He led us around a bit and said that for one particularly interesting-looking temple, we would need to make a small contribution. We entered the temple and on the way out another man approached us about what appeared to be a visitors book. In the book were the names and addresses of travelers from all over the world followed by amount of contribution. Each person had apparently given from $10-20US (a lot for a “contribution”). I signed my name and told the man that I would not contribute that much. I contributed about $2 and left, much to his chagrin. Upon leaving that area, we tipped the young guide and entered the Tooth Temple.

Looking back, it was clear what had happened. The young man was not just a leech guide – he was in cahoots with the contribution guy, ensuring a flow of naïve tourists were entering the second-tier and “free” attraction, where their cash could be efficiently extracted. That book I signed either contained a list of suckers (me included) or it was designed to relate the desired amount of contribution for those unsure.

Either way, it worked on us and we learned a lesson. I don’t think the guide was completely dishonest, but the scheme was designed to prey on people like us, who struggle with not knowing how much to tip or contribute in all the situations where it is appropriate. It’s a daily battle and we just want to do what is appropriate, which is often very hard to know.

Post From: Colombo, LK