The British School in Colombo
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The British School in Colombo
The British School in Colombo

Moving to Sri Lanka

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is about half the size of England and lies close to the southern tip of India and near the equator. From the coast, the land rises to a central massif more than 1500 m above sea level.

Sri Lanka's history has reflected its close links with the subcontinent and with South East Asia. The colonial European powers arrived in 1505. The Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British ruled Sri Lanka.

The most recent history of the country has been dominated by the war with the Tamil Tigers. The peace that has been achieved in 2009 has seen a rebirth of optimism throughout the country. The new era of peace also heralds new economic prosperity for the country as tourism and trade have increased.

Sri Lanka was severely affected by the tsunami on 26 December 2004, which killed some 40 000 people and displaced a further 400 - 500 thousand people along two thirds of the north-east, south and south-west coastline. Half the fishing fleet was destroyed, and a quarter of hotels in the affected areas sustained serious damage.

Sri Lanka is a very beautiful and  exciting country to live in! 


Colombo is a relatively easy city to find your way around. To the north is the Fort district, the country's business centre, which has department stores, bookshops, airline offices and is the site of the Central Bank, the World Trade Centre twin towers.

Colombo, the island’s largest city, is a vibrant, modern city

There are some wonderful sights such as the clock tower, a former lighthouse, the president's residence (known locally as Queen's House), Galle Face Green, Dutch Hospital shopping and dining complex, Independence Square, Vihara Mahadevi Park and some amazing classical colonial buildings and magnificent tress.

Immediately south of here is Galle Face Green, a seafront expanse of green graced by cricket games, kite flyers and trysting lovers. Cinnamon Gardens, further south, is Colombo’s most fashionable neighbourhood, with elegant mansions, tree-lined streets and the city's largest park. East of the fort is the pungent Pettah bazaar district. Walk through and marvel at the riot of goods - fruit, vegetables, meat, gems, gold, silver, brass and tin junk.

Culture buffs shouldn’t miss the National Museum, which has a good collection of historical works, the Art Gallery, which focuses on portraiture and temporary exhibits by local artists and the city’s many mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples. After familiarising yourself with Sri Lankan culture, check out the island’s fauna at the Dehiwala Zoo. The highlight here is an afternoon elephant show. The closest real beach is at Mt Lavinia, a slightly faded hut still very popular resort 10km south of the city.


Most parts of the country fall under the tropical zone with an average temperature of 27˚C, but the upland areas are comparatively cooler and milder, with temperatures going down to 16˚C at an altitude of 2000m in the central highlands.  Here tourists are advised to carry light woollen sweaters, shawls or jackets, for there is a sudden fall of temperature in the evenings. The sea breezes provide a cooling effect to the coastal areas.

A typical Sri Lankan day can be described as bright, sunny and warm.  Climatically, Sri Lanka has no off- season.  The south-west monsoon brings rain mainly from May to July to the western, southern and central regions of the island, while the north-east monsoon rains occur in the northern and eastern regions in December and January.  January is generally the coolest month and April/May the hottest.  However, climate change in recent years has made rainfall patterns more unpredictable.

Humidity is higher in the southwest and mountainous areas and depends on the seasonal patterns of rainfall. In Colombo, daytime humidity stays above 70% all round the year, even rising to almost 90% during the monsoon season in June. Discomfort from heat and humidity should not be underestimated, although most newcomers acclimatise after a certain period of time, normally a couple of weeks.


The following bar chart for Colombo shows the year’s average rainfall.



Light cotton or natural fabrics make best sense given the climate. There are many good clothes outlets locally but the quality of clothes can vary considerably. Major expat shops such as Odels or those in Crescat have a good range but they can be expensive. No Limit or House of Fashion provide more options and good shops can be found along Duplication Road and in Majestic City.

Be aware that clothes can fade swiftly and that some do not last as long as you might hope. Also try everything on, as sizes listed on a garment do not always reflect the actual size: do not leap to the conclusion that you have gained or lost weight rapidly, you are just admiring a wrongly labelled item!

Some clothing styles and colours are not for the fainthearted. Sarongs, saris and shalwar kameez make sense in the climate but you need to wear them with care and correctly if you are not to offend. Remember that this is a conservative country and large expanses of uncovered flesh can draw undesirable comments and attention as well as provoking offence. In temples legs and shoulders must be covered.

For school, staff should wear smart casual clothes. This excludes T-shirts, jeans and sandals. Men do not need to wear jackets and ties, except on formal occasions. Ladies should ensure that they dress in a manner suited to local customs (i.e. little bare flesh).



Broadband access is widely available in Sri Lanka. All students' laptop computers have internet access at school.


English is widely spoken in Colombo and on the West and South coast so it is not essential to learn Sinhala, although a few words may be useful every now and again.


National daily newspapers are published in English, Sinhala and Tamil languages and Magazine type editions during weekends. A comprehensive selection of International publications, newspapers, journals and magazines are available at newsagents, bookstalls and in hotel foyers.


Local Post Offices are good if slow.  Post takes about one week to the UK.  Important items can be sent by registered post or through international couriers such as DHL and FedEx.


The printed version of Hands on Colombo (also available online) lists shops and services and is essential for information. The Rough Guide is good for the country in general as is the local InfoLanka publication. However often staff know where to go and what to see and they know who to ask for discounts!


The Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation operates radio transmissions in 9 Languages - Sinhala, Tamil, English, Hindi, Nepali, Kannada, Telungu, Malayalam and Japanese to listeners between 05:30 and 23:00. TNL, SUN, YES FM, E and other FM transmissions are also available to listeners island wide. Check daily newspapers for programmes.


Landlines are perfectly reliable, and mobiles are increasingly popular, with prices for a handset a little lower than in the UK.  Skype is of course an extremely economical way of making international calls once you have an Internet connection at home.

When phoning a Colombo number from a Colombo number, ignore 011 and just dial the seven digit number. When phoning a Colombo number from out of town, dial 011 before the seven digit number. When dialling a mobile number from within Sri Lanka that begins with 07, always include 07.  For friends or relatives dialling Sri Lanka from overseas: 00 (international connection) + 94 (Sri Lanka) + 11 (Colombo) or + 7 (mobile phones) + the local number.

Time Difference

Sri Lanka standard time is 5½ hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.


Colombo has three major cinemas (Liberty, Majestic City and the Savoy), a number of decent theatres (most notably the British School and Lionel Wendt) and a number of smaller and school theatres which stage good productions. The British Council, Goethe Institut, Alliance Française, Indian Cultural Centre and BMICH also stage events. It is however sometimes hard to get information about events and you will need to scour the local papers and magazines for information.  Colleagues often know what is happening and you should also keep your eyes open for posters and adverts.

Colombo also has museums, gallery spaces and a (rather depressing) zoo to visit.  Excelworld is a US style mall with arcade games, shops and a bowling venue.

At night there are nightclubs at Legends, Kudos, Taboo, Zanziba, Water’s Edge and The Blue Elephant at the Hilton as well as others at major hotels.

Much enjoyable time can be spent browsing shops and eating out. It is also straightforward to get away at weekends; the area from Negombo to Kandy and down to Galle is easily managed. There is a wide range of accommodation options to suit all prices, and transport is fairly easy either using car hire, car and driver hire or use of the bus and train.

Some locals enjoy walking around parks and Independence Square and this is a good place to brush sweaty shoulders with the great and the good.

Cricket  matches  are  played  at  the  SSC  and  R  M  Premadasa stadium. There is a rugby club and a large number of gyms for private workouts. There are swimming pools in all the main hotels.

For those who like to stay in, there is a range of local channels free on TV, but these show relatively old programmes and you may feel stuck in a time warp where Nightrider and the Muppets still compete with Spiderman  for  supremacy! There  are  eight  local  television channels in operation - Rupavahini, ITN, MTV, TNL, Dynavision, Swarnawahini, Eye Channel, Sirasa, Rupavahini and ETV. A wide variety  of programmes  covering  various  subjects  are  telecast  on these channels which include news brief from the BBC, Sky News & CNN. Be prepared for a bit of Bollywood and a lot of cricket being beamed into your living room.

Satellite and cable TV is also available but expensive to install, allowing access to UK, US and Indian channels.  Be prepared to wait at least a month for a connection.

DVDs are very cheap to buy and, although they are almost all pirated copies, the quality is fairly good and in any case you can always return a faulty disc to the shop for a replacement.

The British Council provides a good range of services including a library (the school is an institutional member), lending of DVDs and CDs and English theatre and film performances. They also run beginners’ Sinhala classes.

Finance & Banking


There are numerous good banks in Colombo but many expats choose HSBC as it is a familiar global name. You will need your passport (with residence visa) to open an account and a fair amount of patience as there are quite a few forms to fill in.  Remember that your salary places you in a high income bracket so they will treat you as someone special!  HSBC has a wide range of branches across the island and also has an online option.

Once an account is opened, it should be available for complete use two weeks later, and you will be provided with a service card.  You might wish to apply for a credit card as well.  Inform the school of your account details as soon as possible to allow direct payment of your salary.

Transferring money home or from home is relatively easy, but the process is sometimes speeded if you can provide evidence of a UK bill/invoice needing to be paid, as there are some government restrictions on sending rupees out of the country: proof that you are being paid a rupee salary monthly will again help. Banks are open until 16.00 on weekdays and from 10.00 to 13.00 on Saturdays.

Credit and charge cards are widely accepted by shops in Sri Lanka. In some cases the shops may try to add a surcharge to the price of the merchandise purchased. This is not an acceptable practice and in such cases the card company should be contacted so that corrective action can be taken.

In all major tourist and urban areas ATMs are a common sight but you do need to take cash if you are going off the beaten track or even to the ancient sites of the Cultural Triangle. The east of Sri Lanka is particularly badly served by ATMs.

Food and Drink


Most western items are available, although for example you will not find the variety of pre-packed ready meals or fresh pasta that you can buy in UK supermarkets. Fruit and vegetables are highly seasonal and are more expensive in supermarkets than in roadside stalls. Bear in mind that fruit ripens and rots rapidly so you should either buy small quantities or, as locals do, buy some ripe, some nearly ripe and some yet to ripen.

Food is cheap but you can be intimidated by some strange looking vegetables. Ceylon Cookery by K Dissanayake is a good book to tell you what they are and what you can do with them.

Some items are expensive when compared with local prices as they are not widely eaten by locals, e.g. cereals, coffee, ready made sauces (e.g. for pasta) and dairy products. Branches of Arpico, Cargills and Keells are best for food. Your best bet is to buy what you know and gradually expand your repertoire by taking a few risks.

There is a wide variety of fish and seafood available and these can be bought fresh from roadside stalls (check where the locals buy).  Often the ugliest and least well known fish are the tastiest and the best.

You should drink bottled, filtered or boiled water, at least in your initial months in the country.  In some hill areas the water is safer but it is not really worth the risk.

It is worth considering hiring a maid to cook (as well as shop, clean, wash and iron). Locals often can half the cost of your shopping and make tasty meals from the vegetables you fear! Expect to pay around Rs 600 per day depending on hours and your needs. Maids can live in but this is a personal choice. You can also decide exactly how much help you require. Colleagues can sometimes recommend experienced and reliable maids who have served others well.

Eating out

Colombo has every type of food imaginable from German beer gardens to Japanese tea houses. The large hotels have excellent options but are more expensive than more local eateries. The Beach Waddiya restaurant has a fantastic fresh fish menu. Many restaurants are cheap and good, but alcohol can add considerably to costs. Hands on Colombo again has good listings and every member of staff has a favourite place to go.


Sri Lanka has a selection of excellent doctors and dentists but there is no certainty that any of them are well versed in English.  Colleagues will be able to recommend those who have provided good care in the past, and many prefer to go to those trained in the UK or Australia.  Basic medicines are readily available and chemists stock and sell over the counter medicines for which a prescription would be needed in Europe. Despite this you are advised to ensure that any prescription medicines you require are brought from home or details are provided by a doctor as the strength of medicines is variable.

You should consider the following inoculations:

•    Typhoid
•    Tetanus
•    Polio
•    Hepatitis A
•    Hepatitis B
•    Diphtheria
•    Yellow Fever
•    Rabies

These need to be begun ideally at least four months in advance of arrival, so you should consult your GP to discuss your vaccination requirements upon appointment. You might consider having inoculations for Japanese B Encephalitis and Tuberculosis.  You may also want to seek updated medical advice around six weeks before travel.

Malaria is present in Sri Lanka, but Colombo itself is free from it at present as are the districts of Galle, Kalutara and Nuwara Eliya; the risk is highest in the Eastern Province. You might want to bring medication with you or to obtain medication when you travel beyond the city.  Equally, taking basic precautions (using repellents and covering up especially at dusk) can massively lessen the risk of being bitten.

Colombo’s main mosquito borne disease is Dengue Fever. There are no inoculations against this and so basic precautions are required (e.g. nets, mosquito repellents and mosquito coils or mats [electric burners]). The disease is treatable if caught early but can prove fatal in extreme cases.

Stomach upsets are common in the early stages of your time here but, in the main, food is safe. There is also a risk of infection in bites, stings and cuts due to the heat and humidity, so basic hygiene is crucial. In addition the risk of sunburn or heatstroke is great and you should adopt the Sri Lankan approach by staying under cover as much as possible and even walking under an umbrella at the height of the day.

A key consideration is that many tropical diseases are brief but intense in their effects and can leave individuals drained and exhausted for a few days after their disappearance.

The school provides medical insurance cover and will in addition reimburse any bills for treatment in excess of insured limits. You are best to refer all medical issues to a hospital. Apollo (close to the school) has an excellent reputation.

Wildlife is abundant and intrusive. In forests leeches abound and there are always lizards, insects and snakes around. The basic advice is to look carefully and tread with caution especially in more rural areas.


Each month the full moon brings a Poya day when most shops, offices and banks close. No alcohol can be served on Poya days, and for the May and June holidays (Wesak and Poson) no fresh meat is sold for a week. Sri Lanka also has holidays for all Hindu, Muslim and Socialist festivals so you can anticipate a good deal of spare time in which to relax and explore.

Please refer to Our School Calendar for more information.


Local Laws and Customs

Locals find overt displays of affection in public strange.  This is not the case in parks and on beaches where courting couples happily smooch beneath umbrellas but there is an expectation that this should be hidden and furtive. This creates a strange double standard and can pressure some youngsters to go further than might be wise as they see romance as risk taking. This needs to be born in mind in school where parents expect students to show no outward romantic affection and more generally where the morals of western couples can cause offence.

If you are working here, you will be subject to local laws in Sri Lanka.

  • There are severe penalties for all drug offences and crimes related to the abuse of children. Convicted offenders may face lengthy jail sentences.
  • Use of video and/or photography is prohibited near military and government installations and can result in arrest or detention.
  • Same sex relations are illegal.
  • Do not enter a Buddhist temple wearing headgear or with bare legs or shoulders, and always remove footwear.
  • Avoid posing for photographs standing in front of a statue of the Buddha.
  • Nude or topless sun-bathing is generally not allowed.


You may believe you have entered a tropical paradise but in larger towns in particular your stay will sometimes be accompanied by bus, car and trishaw horns. Even beach resorts are not immune and you need to escape to the sleepy hills or Cultural Triangle for real peace and quiet.


Colombo has Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Islamic mosques and churches of every faith and creed. Staff are drawn from all faiths and can advise where there are supportive congregations and inspirational acts of worship.

Safety and Security

Crimes aimed against foreigners are very rare, although there are occasional reports of sexual offences and muggings. When travelling around Sri Lanka, you should make arrangements through reputable travel companies (ask for recommendations from colleagues) and exercise appropriate caution. As in other countries, women should take care when travelling alone.

As in many other parts of the world, thefts from hotels and guesthouses do occur and you should take sensible precautions to safeguard your valuables, especially passports and money.  

The most common form of nuisance comes from over-inquisitive locals. Some are genuinely interested; some are hoping for cash; You learn quickly to recognise the genuine interest from the financially motivated.


The variety of shopping decreases outside Colombo but there are still interesting places everywhere. Craft shops abound and vary from the excellent to the OK.  Galleries also sell works as do local artists at Victoria Park on weekends.  Department stores and shopping centres such as Odels, Majestic City, Liberty Plaza and Crescat all have a good range of outlets and are worth exploring. Also try No Limit, Romafour, Dillys, Beverley Street, Fashion Bug, Casuals, Cotton Collection and House of Fashions for style and clothes.

Paradise Road, Lanka Hands, Barefoot, Kandygs and Laksala are good for crafts.   Good bookshops are found in  Crescat, Unity Plaza and Liberty Plaza. Computer items are in Unity Plaza.

Basic electrical goods (kettles, irons, CD players and TVs) are available in major supermarkets such as Arpico. A wider range can be found at Abans and Singer Mega shops. Hardware shops sell convertors if you have UK plugs.

Most  Western  brands  of  toiletries  can  be  found  in  Colombo. However bear in mind that you may need to shop around and if you need specialist toiletries (e.g. for allergies, etc.) you may need to bring these with you for use before you find a local alternative.

You should also be prepared to bargain in markets and some shops where prices are not displayed, as you can be charged up to twice the real rate.

Travel and Transport

In Colombo most staff use trishaws (also known as “three-wheelers” or “tuk-tuks”). Many staff have trusted trishaw drivers who they use regularly and some are even contactable by mobile phone. In tourist areas (outside shops, hotels, etc.) drivers will try to charge much more and you need to haggle or simply move to another driver if you feel uncomfortable or that you are about to be ripped off.

Good online taxi services like Uber and PickMe are freely available. 

Buses are good and frequent but overcrowded; bus routes are listed in the A to Z. They are very cheap but simple journeys can often involve a number of changes.

For longer journeys there are good train services, but you need to book ahead for popular routes, for example to Kandy. Long distance air-conditioned buses are good but again crowded and some journeys will involve a change or two. Car hire is available in Colombo; stick with a firm that has been recommended to you.

If you intend to go further afield, there are scheduled direct flights from Colombo to the major capitals in South, Southeast and East Asia as well as the Middle East.


All utilities are billed monthly in the name of the landlord. They can be paid through banks and each bill has details of where and how to pay on the reverse in English.  Often payments at banks are slow to reach the supplier so keep all receipts and file them and check against the next bill.

The electricity supply can be interrupted. It is a good idea to have rechargeable lights in case. In some houses, generators are part of the rental package but these often run a limited number of appliances. Surges and spikes can occur and it is wise to keep sensitive equipment unplugged.


To begin the process you must send a clear photocopy of the first and last pages of your passport to the school for  submission to the authorities. The school will inform you when the initial stage has been completed in Colombo. You must then obtain an Entry Visa (valid for one month); a tourist visa will not suffice. You can download an Application Form IM32 . You must then visit the Sri Lankan High Commission (13 Hyde Park Gardens, London, W2 2LU). You will need to pay £38 (refundable by the school) and leave your passport and 4 passport sized photos.

Once you arrive, bring your passport to the school and your visa will be added in about a week. You cannot open a bank account without one so this needs to be done as soon as possible. Remember that you must renew it annually.