Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel Tips

Stilt Fishermen in Sri Lanka: Just a Myth?

2nd November 2017

The tourism board for Sri Lanka really likes to roll out the photos of stilt fishermen hard at work. The iconic photo taken in 1995 by Steve McCurry shows the fishermen perched on wooden stilts out to sea. A newer photo of the practice in action features on the front cover of the Lonely Planet Guide to Sri Lanka.

Steve McCurry’s famous photograph

The History of the Stilt Fishermen

It’s a unique method of fishing that the Sri Lankans’s created during World War II when food was in short supply. The fishing spots were getting over crowded as everyone was trying to catch their dinner, so a few clever devils decided to try going out to sea. The fishermen started off by balancing on wreckages of ships and aircraft, eventually they constructed these wooden stilts in the coral reefs to perch on.

Sadly for the fishermen this method of fishing is actually dying out. After the tsunami hit and wreaked havoc on the coastline of Sri Lanka the access to fish using this method has reduced completely. It’s a shame, as obviously these men make their living from fishing. When Sri Lanka was recovering from the tsunami they re built a lot of homes much further inland. This means a lot of the fishermen have had to learn new skills in the form of farming.

Are they still for real?

Sadly the majority of stilt fishermen are now just posing for tourist photos. They need to make money and tourism is a huge source of income for the country, so I don’t blame them. If you can make more money posing for photos than genuinely fishing, I think we would all do the same.

The prices are all different, some charge per fishermen, some just charge a flat rate and you come over and snap away. They are placed along the southern coast between Unawatuna and Weligama. I spent a week surfing on Weligama beach and didn’t see a single one though, so it’s best to ask someone locally when you arrive for an exact location of the ones still operating.


If you do want to see some real fishermen in action I actually found some by accident. I was heading to The Doctors House in Matara and right outside were some fishermen out to sea. There was no-one around to charge a fee as this isn’t a particularly touristy area. It’s a bit further around the coast from Weligama and Unawatuna and not quite as pretty. I was still a little sceptical but once I asked around everyone seemed pretty convinced they were still the real deal, which I thought was nice to see.

Polhenna Beach, Matara

What do you think about the ‘acting’ stilt fishermen? Do you think it’s a con or would you be happy to support them by paying for a photo?

If you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka you might be interested in my other posts below!



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  • Reply Laura Doxsey 5th November 2017 at 11:52 am

    Love love loving all of this! I am writing everything down! Hope you’re having the best time xxxxxxxx

    • Reply Helen_Renners 5th November 2017 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks love!! Glad it’s useful, plenty more to come on Sri Lanka over the next week so keep checking back! Let me know any questions or ideas for posts that might be more useful and I can work on those too πŸ™‚ xxx

  • Reply Sri Lanka tours 27th February 2018 at 2:16 pm

    Nowadays most stilt fishermen in Koggala and Ahangama are pretending to be stilt fishermen. Because a large number of tourists gather to these places to see the awkward fishing style. When the tourist makes photograph they charge money. Still, there are many fishermen that are sitting on their poles and genuinely catch fish, these guys can be seen toward the southern part of Ahangama.

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