I didn’t get to fly much as an adolescent. Between immigrating to Canada at 9 and up to my second year university at 19, I don’t recall getting on an airplane except once back to Taiwan when I was 12. Travelling at the time mostly involved driving to the US and within Canada, so my understanding of the tourism industry was limited.
But even as I did begin to travel, I’ve only gone on a single guided tour when I was around 23 that involved sitting in a tour bus for lengthy amount of time, only to get out and take pictures for 15 minutes at some tourist attraction before we got back on. I didn’t think much of the experience except that I definitely was not interested in tour bus trips.
When I started working, I had better means to fly and by then, Internet was ubiquitous; between my friends, family, and the web, self-guided trips for a week or two was pretty much the norm for me. Thus, when I went to India for the first time for work, with a trip to Sri Lanka in between, I did not really understand how to have trips that required a guide.
We had a two-day engagement in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2014. We flew from and to Bangalore and was spending the weekend in Colombo. Unlike in Bangalore where I had my coworkers to guide me around, we could not depend on our clients in Colombo.
I think one of the first things you need to know about Sri Lanka is that it had recently ended a two-and-a-half-decade-long civil war in 2009 that had cost $200 Billion USD. Needless to say, domestic infrastructure was unattended and due to the violent nature of the war, it was dangerous to get around the small island. Its citizens were unable to travel even within the country, let alone allowing tourists to come into the country. So when the war had finally ended, the effort to increase tourism has been significant.
When we arrived in Colombo, most of the beaches were under development with large resorts and casinos being built and there really wasn’t much to see.
Our clients had taken us to a gorgeous beach that wasn’t being developed, to have dinner on the sand, literally next to the waters of the India Ocean with fireworks above us. But in terms of tourist attractions, nothing was really being offered in this industrious capital.
On the weekend, I looked up places I could go visit, but most of these places involved getting there via a car. As I had previously mentioned, the tourism industry has not been fully developed so we were staying at a rather sumptuous hotel (there wasn’t much choice) and because we had no contacts in Sri Lanka, our only option was to inquire the hotel on hiring a driver/car. Rather than pointing us to private drivers who can take us around based on our whim, the hotel insisted for us to go through their internal tour guide office.
We did not want to take a usual tour-guide route and had our own requirements: I had wanted to ride an elephant, while my colleague wanted to go to a cinnamon farm to pick cinnamon. After much negotiating, the hotel finally assigned us a driver who said they were going to take us where we wanted to go, at least that’s what we were told.
Going to the Pinnewala Elephant “Sanctuary” was easy and our first stop. My assumption was we were going to get dropped off and wander around, but that was not how they do it.
The driver first took us to a restaurant facing a gorgeous backdrop of the Oya River, telling us that we need to be there to watch the elephants bathe. The driver than leaves us there to order lunch (doesn’t matter if we didn’t want to eat there) while he sneaks into the back to get his free meal and other kick-back from the hotel-restaurant.
The elephants, then, saunter down the road into the river, while workers there drag on-lookers into the river to help and take pictures – and then ask the lucky person for an absurd about of “tip” after the fact.
I got pulled down because I looked like a foreigner who would pay money. Watching them poke the elephants with their hook to force them to look at my camera broke my heart.
Once this was over, we were dropped off at the “sanctuary” itself, where the elephants are kept in what seems to be a very in humane condition. They basically hang out and eat within an enclosed area all day long with their poop and their food until they are needed to be in a show for the tourists – whether that is going bathing, being fed, or doing some tricks.
Disheartened by their condition, I insisted that we leave without riding on a elephant, disappointing the driver as he would not be able to get kickbacks.
“Let’s head over to the Cinnamon farm now,” I tell the driver. He says okay, and then he turns into a tea manufacturer and insists that we get out of the car.
“Umm…Why are we here?” I asked, half irritatedly and half nervously.
“Sri Lanka is known for its tea! You need to see this – trust me you will like this.”
He ushers us out of the car against our wishes and we are led by a guide who took us into a factory that wasn’t even running so he can explain to us how to make tea.
After walking through the dark and seemingly no longer functioning tea plantation, they made us go into a room and made is try their tea while trying to sell their tea at quadruple the price of supermarkets.
When we walked out empty-handed, our driver was unhappy. But so were we.
“Take us to the Cinnamon Farm!” I said.
Rather than taking us to a real Cinnamon Farm as we have requested, the driver dropped us off at the Surathura Spice Garden. When we got out of the car, we were confused and then furious and demanded that the driver take us to a real farm.
However, the driver insisted that we can buy cinnamon at this farm and ushered us in. Again, we were led by another tour guide we took us around the garden, telling us information about the the plants they grew in the tiny garden, and their medicinal properties, and then into a dark pharmacy that tried to sell us things like migraine reducing tea for $40.
The only thing that I found entertaining was my first discovery of the plant called, “Touch me not” – they shrivel when you touch them!
When we asked if they sold cinnamon, they gave us a tiny package of store-bought cinnamon and asked for $10 for it.
After we left the farm, again, empty handed, the driver was getting increasingly upset and so were we. My colleague asked if we were actually going somewhere to get real cinnamon and if not, we want to go back to the hotel, the driver reluctantly stopped along the side of a grocery shack and told us we can get cinnamon there.
We ended up going to the supermarket later to get cinnamon. The driver charged us over $200 USD for the day and we ended up tipping him very little – which probably made his day pretty infuriating. I didn’t even mention that he took us to all these random “rest stops” and urged us to buy random stuff along the way as well.
The only autonomy we had was asking him to park at side of the road so we can buy some road-side king coconuts. I take terrible selfies…
All in all, this was the first time I learned that if you are in a developing country with no local contacts, you really are at the hands of those around you – kinda scary. Unfortunately, this was the first time, but not the last time.
Have you guys ever felt scammed by a local guide you have hired? If so, let us know your experiences too!