Thursday, 24 October 2013

Sri Lanka - Isle Of Gems And Spices

A grumpy old expat wearing a Father Ted t-shirt in a spice garden.

The two biggest tourist scams in Sri Lanka are spice gardens and jewellery showrooms. In each case, coach-loads of willing rubes are deposited by drivers who are paid to deliver their charges up to the operator of the dubious 'attraction' who will gouge them for as much hard cash as is physically possible. Both consist of a degree of 'show and tell' before the process of cash extraction commences.

In the case of the spice gardens, the idea is to show you around the spice garden and introduce you to a range of culinary and medicinal spices native to Sri Lanka. Nobody will mention the fact that no spice is harvested here unless you ask and then the answer comes with the clear inference that this is a facility operated by a larger enterprise with plantations deeper in the jungle that are too big to show people around. So this convenient facility helps to familiarise you with the riches of Sri Lanka.

It couldn't be further from the truth. Each spice garden (and they line the roads in their hundreds) is merely a small collection of spice plants together with some huts used for 'demonstrations'. You're taken around the garden and shown little patches of turmeric, pepper, nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon and other spice plants. Anybody with a basic culinary understanding of spice will come away knowing no more than when they arrived.

You're sat down and fed some spiced tea, given various bottles to smell and introduced to mixtures for this and that ailment. And then you're taken to the shop where, tada!, they're all on sale. At vastly inflated prices. We're talking roughly Dhs100* (Rs 3,000) for a small bottle of essential oil and Dhs13 (Rs400) for four cinnamon sticks. All of it has come wholesale in plastic containers and been decanted into those little branded bottles 'around the back'. They are all, of course, we are assured with many assurances, 'made on the premises'.

All of these dubious little displays are licensed by the government - essentially a concession scheme rather than a watermark of quality and integrity, which is what the license will be whipped out to prove if you question either. And the sell can get quite hard if you balk at this stage.

The Sri Lankan Gem Tour

The gem showrooms have variations on a theme. You're shown into the place, met by your salesman and taken to see an educational video about gem mining.

Incidentally, all mining in Sri Lanka is either pit, open cast or river mining and all three are carried out in the most basic, largely unregulated and - to the environment at least - damaging fashion possible. It's unbelievably manual, pit props are cut from rubber wood and lashed together with ropes, diesel pumps chug as they clear the water streaming from the fern-packed walls of the vertical shaft. In the bottom of a shaft typically about 30 feet deep, sloshing around in mud up to their waists, bare-footed miners dig up gravel to be hauled to the surface and washed in search of gemstones. The miners qualify for something like 2.8% of the take - you're looking at Dhs 1,500 or so if you're lucky, as a seasonal take home. The rough gems are then sold on by the license holder, often at a pre-agreed low price to avoid taxation. The trader will then sell the stones on at a much higher price and share the proceeds back with the owner who has paid the workers at the low price rate. The environmental impact of mining in Sri Lanka, particularly around Ratnapura, the town and area that contribute something like 85% of Sri Lanka's mining revenue, has been - and continues to be - severe.

But you don't care about all that stuff, you're starry-eyed from the video and you're being introduced to various gems in a demonstration room and perhaps walked through the workshop, where workers might be soldering jewellery or grinding stones. And then you're taken to the showroom with its staggering displays of precious and semi-precious stones. You can buy rings, bangles, pendants, earrings or simply bare stones. The choice is entirely yours, but by now your salesman has sized you up and knows pretty well where to guide you.

The prices are never less than outrageous and, unless you know exactly what you're doing, you're going to get majorly ripped off. Sri Lanka's most famous gemstones are its sapphires - the bluer the better - but you'll also find the world's rarest gem - the light sensitive Alexandrite as well as peridots, moonstones, garnets, rubies, topaz and many more gems of a bewildering and dazzling variety. Sapphires can vary enormously in value, particularly given whether they've been heat treated or not - sapphires' colouring can be corrected and altered through the use of heat, radiation and other treatments and only an expert can tell if a stone has been treated. Recently a chap was sacked from his job in a Colombo hospital because he was using the radiography department facilities to correct sapphires!

Can you tell a heat-treated sapphire from a natural one? Then don't buy a sapphire in Sri Lanka.

You'll be offered certificates for gemstones. These are unlikely to be worth more than the paper they're printed on.

There are something like 4,000 gem traders in Sri Lanka. Every one of them will be glad to welcome you into their showrooms. If you're hell-bent on buying a stone, you'll actually need to do your homework before you travel - and when you do decide on buying one, the National Gem and Jewellery Authority offers a free testing service.

We had enormous fun dickering over a particularly lovely 5 karat white sapphire we had no intention, frankly, of buying - blue sapphires are valued, white ones are not held in particularly high esteem. The price started at $12,000 and had gone down to $8,000 by the time we left. Its true value, an expert pal assures us, was likely less than half of the 'last price'.

Buyer beware!!!

I'm not saying, BTW, you shouldn't go on these tours - quite the reverse, do: they're fun. I'm just saying don't buy anything. You're perfectly well within your rights to refuse to be ripped off. They have merely gambled on you being a willing rippee...

* Exchange rates for the Sri Lankan rupee are amazingly diverse. UAE Exchange wanted to give us 29 Rupees for the Dirham, a popular Sri Lankan exchange off Sharjah's Rolla Square gave us 32 Rupees and if you bought a draft and cashed it in Sri Lanka, you'd get over 35 Rupees! We sort of went with converting mentally at a rate of 30 to the Dirham to make things mathematically easier, 'cos we're dunces.

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jacob said...

Genuine cinnamon sticks are costly and sri lanka is one of the top producers,just google cinnamon sticks cost.In india
it costs US $8 for 250 grams. Agree with the rest of the article.

Batty said...


What an interesting post. We are planning to visit Sri Lanka, and both these things were on our last. Is it possible to discuss this with you further to get some more insight about what to do and what not to do? it's rare to read such an honest review.


Beidi said...

Genuine cinnamon sticks cost me 1700 LKR per kilo the past Summer, when a Sri Lankan friend bought them for me. Each stick was 15-20cm long and the heavier ones weighed more than 20g each.

I agree with the blogger, the shops severely over-charged.

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