Laughing, carefree tourists, fall prey to touts, perverts : Is Sigiriya losing its serenity? | Sunday Observer

Laughing, carefree tourists, fall prey to touts, perverts : Is Sigiriya losing its serenity?

An elderly foreign tourist being ‘escorted’

During a recent visit to one of the magnificent monuments in Sri Lanka - the Sigiriya Rock fortress I was ashamed to see what unfolded right in front of my eyes – the shameful conduct of touts and perverts harassing foreign tourists.

We witnessed how this menace has grown into alarming proportions and the black mark it must have created among the respectable foreign visitors who are here to indulge in the serenity and beauty of this tiny island.

As we, a group of friends and family, entered the Sigiriya fortress premises passing the barricades and a gate manned by the Cultural Triangle officials, each one of us had to produce our tickets. Not just at the gate, the tickets were checked again as we entered the famed frescoes after a steep vertical climb. It was a mystery how these touts and rowdies bypassed the officers’ vigilant eyes to enter the restricted area. Would it be unfair to think they had some sort of secret pact with the ‘gate keepers’?

Before the unpleasant sight, we watched in high spirits as carefree foreigners in large groups passed by, smiling and laughing, enjoying the scenery and the magnificence of King Kashyapa’s secret hiding place. They seemed highly elated with what Sri Lanka had to offer a globe trotter, perhaps, thinking their hard earned money was not spent in vain.

It was not long ago Sri Lanka was a destination blacklisted among tourists because of a brutal terrorist war and thereafter, due to bad publicity overshadowed by war crimes charges. It seems the country has regained its past glory. The thought made us happy.

But, as we got closer to the stone steps at the base of the Rock, the picture began to change. A sign board read ‘the way to tourists’ parking area’. There was a bit of commotion here with many tourists and locals mingling together.

A closer look told me that the commotion was not created by the visitors who were trying to pass through, but instead, by the discourteous touts trying to engage with a potential client. In high voices and faulty English ( more like Gibberish) they were demanding the foreign visitors to hire them as guides. Their innocent prey were the elderly and the females.

As we watched, a young man in his late twenties started to stalk an elderly Japanese tourist, haughtily explaining the history of the rock castle and I could clearly see that the visitor was not pleased at all. The gentleman was immaculately dressed in a pair of trousers, a well ironed Hawaiian shirt and a hat. He could very well have hired a genuine guide. Suddenly, without invitation the tout held him by the upper arm, in a gesture of assisting him to climb a rock stairway. That was the last straw.

In order to wriggle off the pestering boy, the tourist took out several one hundred rupee notes and handed them in with a firm ‘no’ to his unsolicited assistance. I could see the boy’s eyes scanning the gentleman’s wallet. In a triumphant mode, he walked away to his friends to brag about his ‘windfall’.

Next, we could not help but notice a middle aged man, clearly a tout, carrying a big black umbrella. Sigiriya was experiencing intermittent showers on the day of our visit. The man was stalking pretty young women. He was interested in sheltering and escorting foreign girls. Apparently, he was not deterred by the fact that the lady had a husband or a partner. He was seen trying to hold foreign ladies by their hands and pull them up the stairways. While some fell prey, others flinched and took off. Finally, the husband of an Indian lady confronted him.

The wealthy looking Indian couple was ushered by their own guide and the husband stopped the tout short in his unwanted acts, and scolded his own guide. “Tell him that he cannot do this (grab my wife’s hand).”

In another instance, a youth in his late twenties clad in worn out trousers and a ragged blue shirt was giving a hard time to an elderly European woman who could have been in her 70s. With a chain around his neck he reminded me of a beach boy. The lady was visibly shaken by his rude mannerisms. These are just a few of our experiences that day.

The touts were making loud exchanges and there was no one to control their bad behaviour. These men operate in groups. With weird hair-cuts and clothes, they are an eye sore to the otherwise serene ambience of the area.

How they enter the restricted areas and operate unobstructed, is a mystery that needs to be urgently probed.

However, the serenity we once experienced at the Sigiriya Rock seems to be fast evaporating. Apart from the touts and perverts harassing foreign tourists, the long path leading to the fortress is a vision of hell, especially, during the rainy season. Not to mention the local visitors’ car park in its poorly state, there is a filthy washroom that has never been cleaned, a line of dilapidated dust covered shops and a shabby tube well.

Would it be a costly project to construct a few washrooms and pave the car park?

Moreover, the three wheelers that do the trips between the car park and the Sigiriya Rock rob people in broad daylight.

For locals, they charge Rs.300 to cover the mere 1 km stretch. It is a luxury, which the elderly who visit as part of their pilgrimage tours, can hardly afford. Tourism is one of the biggest expectations of the government. Despite good efforts to portray Sri Lanka as a paradise destination for tourists and tap the high-end tourist market, their dreams are sure to be shattered if words are not followed by action.

At least, the world renowned and famed historical places in the country must be developed to serve the visitors better. On our way back, we suffered the misfortune of running into the touts we passed earlier and overhear their jubilant banter, including that of the one who harassed and robbed the elderly Japanese gentleman.

The group was retiring after a ‘successful’ day’s work and a red colour scooter was waiting outside to take the rowdiest of them to his abode while we toiled the one kilometre stretch to the car park, braving a heavy downpour.

20 kilos of waste in one trip

Moradena Pathiranalage Nimal of Pelwehera, Dambulla perhaps is unaware of the important role he plays at the Sigiriya Rock fortress to preserve its beauty for generations to come. Sporting a friendly smile he said, he climbs the rock twice a day to collect the plastic waste thrown around by visitors to the historic site.

“This is my second trip up the rock today. After the first round, I visited a friend’s house to pluck coconuts, and thereafter made this second trip. I am used to this life now,” aged 58, he said, with a broad grin on his face while we still stretched our aching feet.

Employed by the Cultural Triangle, he and another man, Abeyratne, take turns to climb the steep stairways, right up to the rock surface and walk down with heavy bags filled with plastic water bottles and shopping bags. He collects up to 20 kilos of waste in one trip.

“The locals have no regard for the place, but foreigners, especially, the tourists from Western countries are very much concerned about the plastic waste. The Chinese tourists on the contrary are least concerned. I’ve seen them throwing away empty water bottles all over the place,” he said.

He said, December is the high season for Sigiriya with local and foreign visitors flocking to see the majestic ruins of the Sigiriya Fortress. They are tasked with cleaning the top of the rock while there are other workers to look after the area below the lion’s feet.

Pic: Manjula Fernando and Sigiriya Spl. Cor. Kanchana Ariyadasa 


This valuable information should bring to the attention of the minister of tourism for immediate action to protect the local and foreign tourists.