souvenir stalls — Aluvihara Rock Monastery in Matale, Sri Lanka

Paying the Price for Civil War

Souvenir vendor - Lanka Rama, Sri Lanka
A souvenir seller at Lanka Rama told us a story about how his father created all his wares.

Every tour guide, souvenir salesman or monument caretaker is quick to let us know that the civil war in Sri Lanka has caused a dramatic decrease in visits to every single tourist spot in the country. As such, when we arrive anywhere we are instantly bombarded by people anxious to show us around, give us a full tour or provide information about what we are looking at. While we love the knowledge, it is usually the same info our book provides and very rarely requested by us.

The worst are the old men and women who latch onto us and, in broken and heavily accented English, proceed to tell us the same things we heard at the last five sites. Unfortunately, the only way to get rid of them is to be stern and downright mean, which is very tough when they begin giving us the sob story about the lack of tourism and when we just want to pinch their cheeks they are so cute.

Souvenir vendors Adam's Peak, Sri Lanka
A father-son vendor team on Adam’s Peak

Of course we can’t be mean so we let them continue, knowing full well that when their shpeal is done the donation is expected. If we have it we give them a few rupees, if not we quickly walk away with our heads hung low. In the end though it’s not about the money: usually it’s only a few cents and helps them more than it helps us. The problem we have and what bugs me the most is that their service is completely unsolicited and we really can’t say no…and they know that.

The souvenir sellers are also ruthless. After the 75 year old is done talking and gets his tip, they come over with the same replica statues we have seen everywhere else. Amazingly, everyone tells us that their fathers made these and they are not available anywhere else. They are also happy to give us a very good price because tourism is so bad and they have to feed their families.

We don’t doubt that tourism is bad and that business is down, and we honestly do feel bad for all of them and want to help out every single one. But the fact of the matter is, we just can’t help an entire country ravished by the effects of a civil war, no matter how much we want to.

Even when we get away from archaeological sites and temples, the guilt trip continues. Hotel owners throw it at us when we try to haggle; three-wheeler (taxi) drivers use it to justify a price triple what the locals pay. It just never ends.


Empty souvenir stand - Sri Lanka
Empty souvenir stands like this one by the Samadhi Buddha in Anuradhapura were a common sight