There’s a reason Sri Lanka has boomed onto the travel scene over the last couple of years, so to help you travel better in Sri Lanka, we’ve put together this Sri Lanka travel guide
Given Sri Lanka’s fairly modest size, getting around can be a frustratingly time-consuming process. The island’s narrow roads, congested with pedestrians, cyclists and tuktuks make bus travel laborious, while in many cases travel by rail is even slower. Even with your own vehicle you shouldn’t expect to make rapid progress. Getting from Colombo to Kandy, for instance (a distance of not much over 100km), takes around three hours by bus or train, while the bus trip across the island from Colombo to Arugam Bay takes at least ten hours by public transport for a distance of 320km.
Buses are the standard means of transport. Services reach even the remotest corners of the island, though they’re generally an uncomfortable way of travelling. Trains offer a more characterful, if generally slower, means of getting about, and will get you to many parts of the country – eventually. If you don’t want to put up with the vagaries of public transport, hiring a car and driver can prove a reasonably affordable and extremely convenient way of seeing the island in relative comfort. If you’re really in a rush, consider SriLankan Airlines’ network of “air taxis”, which offer speedy (albeit inevitably pricey) connections between Colombo and other parts of the island.
Buses are the staple mode of transport in Sri Lanka. Buses screech past on the island’s major highways every few seconds, and any town of even the remotest consequence will be served by fairly regular connections. That’s the good news. The bad news is that bus travel in Sri Lanka is almost uniformly uncomfortable and frequently nerve-racking as well, given the gung-ho driving styles of some drivers. The average Sri Lankan bus journey is a stop-start affair: stomach-tightening bursts of speed alternate with periods of creeping slowness, all played out to an accompaniment of parping horns, blaring Sinhala pop music and the awful noises of mechanical protest as the long-suffering bus careers around yet another corner with every panel rattling – before the inevitable slamming-on of brakes sends everyone lurching forward in their seats. And if you haven’t got a seat, so much the worse. If you do, you’ll probably find yourself serving as an impromptu armrest to one of the countless unfortunates standing packed in the aisle. The rear seats in large buses are the best place to sit, both because there’s usually enough legroom to stow luggage comfortably under the seat in front, and because you won’t have a very clear view of whatever craziness the driver is attempting.
Buses come in a variety of forms. The basic distinction is between government or SLTB (Sri Lanka Transport Board) buses and private services.
Almost all SLTB buses are rattling old TATA vehicles, usually painted red. These are often the oldest and slowest vehicles on the road, but can be slightly more comfortable than private buses in that the conductor won’t feel the same compulsion to squeeze as many passengers on board, or the driver to thrash the vehicle flat out in order to get to the next stop ahead of competing vehicles (accidents caused by rival bus drivers racing one another are all too common).
Private buses come in different forms. At their most basic, they’re essentially the same as SLTB buses, consisting of large, arthritic old rustbuckets that stop everywhere; the only difference is that private buses will usually be painted white and emblazoned with the stickers of whichever company runs them. Some private companies operate slightly faster services, large buses known variously as “semi-express”, “express” or “inter-city”, which (in theory at least) make fewer stops en route.
At the top end of the scale, private minibuses, often described as “express” and/or “luxury” services (although the description should be taken with a large pinch of salt) offer the fastest way of getting around. These are smaller vehicles with air-conditioning and tinted, curtained windows, though the tiny seats and lack of luggage space (your baggage will often end up on your lap or between your legs) can make them more uncomfortable than SLTB services, especially if you’re tall. (If the vehicle isn’t packed to capacity you could try paying for an extra seat on which to put your luggage – the conductor might insist you do this anyway.) In theory, express minibuses only make limited stops at major bus stations en route, although in practice it’s up to the driver and/or conductor as to where they stop and for how long, and how many people they’re willing to cram in.
Fares, timetables and stops
Bus fares, on both private and SLTB services, are extremely low. Note that on the latter you may have to pay the full fare for the entire route served by the bus, irrespective of where you get off. If you do want to get off before the end of the journey, let the driver/conductor know when you board.
Services on longer and/or less frequently served routes run to fixed timetables. Services on shorter or particularly popular routes tend to leave as soon as the vehicle is full. In general, departures on longer-distance routes tend to be more frequent in the morning, tailing off in the afternoon. Seat reservations are almost unheard of except on long-distance buses to Jaffna.
Another problem with Sri Lankan buses is the difficulty of finding the relevant service. Most timetables and signs are in Sinhala only, as are many of the destination boards displayed by buses – it’s useful to get an idea of the characters you’re looking for (see Sinhala place-names). All bus stations have one or more information booths (although they’re often not signposted) where staff can point you in the right direction, as well as providing latest timetable information. If arriving at a larger terminal by tuktuk, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of your driver in locating the right bus.
Express services generally only halt at bus terminals or other recognized stops. Other types of services will usually stop wherever there’s a passenger to be picked up – just stand by the roadside and stick an arm out. If you’re flagging down a bus by the roadside, one final hazard is in getting on. Drivers often don’t stop completely, instead slowing down just enough to allow you to jump aboard. Keep your wits about you, especially if you’re weighed down with heavy luggage, and be prepared to move fast when the bus pulls in – or risk seeing it simply pull off again without you.
Sri Lanka’s train network, built by the British during the nineteenth century and little changed since, offers a characterful way of getting around the island, and for many visitors a trip aboard one of these chuntering old relics (especially on the marvellously scenic hill country line) is a highlight of a trip to Sri Lanka. Travel by rail is, however, generally slower than by bus, and the charm of the experience often involves a fair dose of frustration – delays are the norm and progress can be incredibly laborious, and can seem even more tedious if you end up standing up in an overcrowded carriage. Nonetheless, Sri Lankan trains are worth experiencing, if only once.
The train network
The network comprises three principal lines: the coast line, which runs along the west coast from Puttalam in the north, heading south via Negombo, Colombo, Kalutara, Bentota, Beruwala, Aluthgama, Ambalangoda, Hikkaduwa and Galle to Weligama and Matara (with an extension as far as Kataragama currently under construction). The hill country line runs from Colombo to Kandy then on to Hatton (for Adam’s Peak), Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya), Haputale, Bandarawela, Ella and Badulla. The northern line runs from Colombo through Kurunegala to Anuradhapura and Vavuniya before terminating at Omantai. Two additional branches run off this line: the first to Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa, the second to Trincomalee.
Types of train
Trains comprise three classes. Most services consist exclusively of second- and third-class carriages. There’s not actually a huge amount of difference between the two: second-class seats are slightly more padded and comfortable, and there are fans in the carriages, but the main bonus is that the carriages tend to be (very slightly) less overcrowded. First class covers three different types of seating, which are only available on selected trains. These are seats on inter-city trains and in the observation car on hill country trains; seats in the air-conditioned carriage on trains to Anuradhapura and Batticaloa; and sleeping berths on overnight services. The smallness of the island means that, unlike in neighbouring India, there are only a few overnight trains. These comprise first-class sleeping berths and second- and third-class “sleeperettes” (fold-down seats), plus ordinary seats.
Fares and booking
Despite recent price increases, fares are still extremely cheap. A ticket from Colombo to Kandy in second class, for instance, is currently Rs.190, while even an overnight first-class air-conditioned sleeping berth from Colombo to Batticaloa costs just Rs.900. Advance bookings are only available for first-class seats and sleeper berths, and for second-class sleeperettes and seats on inter-city express services between Colombo and Kandy. Reservations can be made up to ten days in advance at the Berths Booking Office (Mon–Sat 8.30am–3.30pm, Sun 8.30am–noon) at Fort Railway Station in Colombo. You can also make reservations at other stations, though they’ll have to contact Colombo, so try to reserve as far ahead of the date of travel as possible. Tickets for all other types of seat can only be bought on the day of travel.
If time is of the essence, SriLankan Airlines’ air taxi service offers convenient high-speed connections between Colombo and many other places around the country. All these flights use Twin-Otter water planes (carrying up to fifteen passengers), which are able to land on convenient lakes and lagoons, giving access to destinations without a fixed runway. Scheduled flights currently run between Colombo and Trincomalee, Ampara, Arugam Bay, Tissamaharama, Hambantota, Dikwella, Koggala, Bentota, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Dambulla (with more destinations in the north and east planned). There are also 30-minute scenic flights from Colombo, Kandy and Dambulla. The only other scheduled domestic air services in Sri Lanka at present are Expo Air’s flights to Jaffna.
If money’s no object and you’re really in a hurry, you can charter a helicopter or private plane through Simplifly.
As Sri Lankans say, in order to drive around the island you’ll need three things: “good horn, good brakes, good luck”. Although roads are generally in quite good condition, the myriad hazards they present – crowds of pedestrians, erratic cyclists, crazed bus drivers and suicidal dogs, to name just a few – plus the very idiosyncratic set of road rules followed by Sri Lankan drivers, makes driving a challenge in many parts of the island.
If you’re determined to drive yourself, you’ll need to bring an international driving licence, and then acquire an additional permit to drive in Sri Lanka. These can be obtained from the Automobile Association of Ceylon. They are valid for up to twelve months and are issued on the spot.
It’s also worth equipping yourself with a good map or atlas (such as the Arjuna’s Road Atlas). In terms of driving rules, it’s worth remembering that, in Sri Lanka, might is right: drivers of larger vehicles (buses especially), will expect you to get out of the way if they’re travelling faster than you. In addition, many drivers overtake freely on blind corners or in other dangerous places. Expect to confront other vehicles driving at speed on the wrong side of the road on a fairly regular basis.
Car and driver
Given the hassle of getting around by public transport, a large proportion of visitors opt to tour Sri Lanka by hiring a car and driver, which offers unlimited flexibility and can be less expensive than you might expect. Some drivers will get you from A to B but nothing more; other are qualified “chauffeur-guides”, government-trained and holding a tourist board licence, who can double up as guides at all the main tourist sights and field any questions you might have about the country.
The main problem with drivers is that many of them work on commission, which they receive from some, but not all, hotels, plus assorted restaurants, shops, spice gardens, jewellers and so on. This means that you and your driver’s opinions might not always coincide as to where you want to stay and what you want to do – some drivers will always want to head for wherever they get the best kickbacks (and you’ll also pay over the odds at these places, since the hoteliers, restaurateurs or shopkeepers have to recoup the commission they’re paying the driver). If you find you’re spending more time stressing out about dealing with your driver than enjoying your holiday, find another one – there are plenty of decent drivers out there.
To make sure you get a good driver, it pays to go with a reputable company which employs only Sri Lanka Tourist Board accredited chauffeur-guides. Make sure your driver speaks at least some English and emphasize from the outset where you do and don’t want to go. Some drivers impose on their clients’ good nature to the point of having meals with them and insisting on acting as guides and interpreters throughout the tour. If this is what you want, fine; if not, don’t be afraid to make it clear that you expect to be left alone when not in the car.
Cars and drivers can be hired through any of our recommended Colombo tour operators, or from many other tour companies and travel agents around the island – we’ve listed the most reliable outfits in the relevant places in the Guide. Alternatively, most hotels and guesthouses can fix you up with a vehicle.
Finally, if this all sounds too stressful (and it can be, unfortunately), you could always just hire vehicles by the day as you go round the island. The actual vehicle-hire cost may be a bit higher, but you won’t have to worry about having to house and feed your driver, and they’re less likely to put pressure on you to visit their favourite shops, restaurants and spice gardens.
The lines of motorized rickshaws that ply the streets of every city, town and village are one of Sri Lanka’s most characteristic sights. Known by various names – tuktuks, three-wheelers, trishaws or (rather more optimistically) “taxis” – they are the staple means of travelling short distances in Sri Lanka, principally short hops within towns, although they can also be useful for excursions and can even, at a pinch, be handy for long journeys if you get stranded or can’t be bothered to wait around for a bus. The vehicles themselves are mainly Indian-made Bajaj rickshaws, often decorated by their drivers with whimsical fluorescent stickers, statuettes, plastic flowers or other items decorative or talismanic.
It’s impossible to walk far in Sri Lanka without being solicited for custom by the owner of one of these vehicles. If you do need a ride, rickshaws are extremely convenient and can even be fun, in a slightly nerve-racking way, as they weave through the traffic, often at surprising speeds. In addition, the sheer number around means that you always have the upper hand in bargaining – if you can’t agree a decent fare, there’ll always be another driver keen to take your custom.
Rickshaws do have their drawbacks, however. They’re not particularly comfortable for long journeys, and you can’t see much. In addition, tuktuks’ diminutive size compared with the buses and lorries they share the road with (and the often gung-ho attitudes of their drivers) can put you at a certain risk, and you’re likely to experience at least a couple of near misses with speeding traffic if you use them consistently for longer journeys.
Sri Lankan rickshaws are usually unmetered (although there are now growing numbers of metered rickshaws in Colombo); the fare will be whatever you can negotiate with the driver. Never set off without agreeing the fare beforehand. The majority of Sri Lanka’s tuktuk drivers are more or less honest, and you’ll often be offered a decent fare without even having to bargain; a small minority, however, are complete crooks who will (at best) simply try to overcharge you or, at worst, set you up for some kind of scam. Also bear in mind that the longer the journey, the lower the per-kilometre rate should be.
Finally, beware of rickshaw drivers who claim to have no change – this can even apply when trying to pay, say, for a Rs.70 fare with a Rs.100 note, with the driver claiming (perhaps truthfully) to have only Rs.10 or Rs.20 change, and hoping that you’ll settle for a few rupees less. If you don’t have change, check that the driver does before you set off. If you make the position clear from the outset, you’re guaranteed that your driver will go through the hassle of getting change for you rather than risk losing your fare.
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Author Nishith Lakshan
Reasons why wildlife enthusiasts fall for Sri Lanka, on a journey to Sri Lanka, you are guaranteed to identify the ‘Big Five’– leopard, sloth bear, elephant, blue whale and sperm whale. Sri Lanka tourist offers the very best of wildlife experience, courtesy its popular national parks, UNESCO-certified forest reserve, and abundant marine life.
Udawalawe National Park
Almost all tour plans to Sri Lanka consist of a see to Udawalawe National Park And with excellent reason! The location– about 200 km from Colombo– uses an amazing peek into the lives of Asian elephants in their natural habitat. Udawalawe also houses other fascinating occupants such as water buffaloes, sambar deer, monkeys, leopards, and abundant species of birds.
Yala National Park
Yala National Park is renowned for its leopards and sloth bears. Considered amongst the older national forests in the country, Yala– about 290 km from Colombo– is also house to elephants and many bird types.
However, if you are a birdwatcher, you must likewise go to Bundala National Park (hardly an hour away). You’ll be happy to view the magnificent program of colours across the skies!
Wilpattu National Park
A less-frequented haven for nature lovers, Wilpattu National Park is the best place to go outdoor camping, or on safaris, or night walks. Sri Lanka’s biggest national forest– about 180 km from Colombo– makes sure to give you a taste of the Big Game. Apart from deer, elephants, wild boar, sloth bears and leopards, the location is likewise blessed with thick jungles, cool lakes and peaceful white sands.
Sinharaja forest reserve
If you want a break from the jungle safaris, go to the Sinharaja forest reserve. The home of 95 per cent of the endemic birds of Sri Lanka, this world heritage website and eco-tourism destination is the last antique of the country’s tropical lowland rain forest spread over an area of 18900 acres. Trek through the rich rain forest to spot myriad types of mammals, butterflies, bugs, reptiles and uncommon amphibians.
Minneriya National Park
Minneriya National Park is understood not just for its unique residents, however likewise for an ancient tank– Minneriya Tank constructed in 3rd century ADVERTISEMENT by King Mahasena– where elephants concern shower and birds to feed. Here, you are most likely to spot the sambar deer, leopards, elephants, Painted Storks, Great White Pelican, Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot and Sri Lanka Gray Hornbill, amongst other unique animals.
Horton Plains National Park
Counted among the world’s finest nature reserves, The Horton Plains lie on Sri Lanka’s highest plateau, surrounded by rolling hills and covered in montane meadows. The major traveler attractions include Bakers Falls, Chimmini Pool and World’s End. That apart, the park is the home of 57 types of flora, 24 types of mammals and 87 types of birds.
For the love of the ocean, stopover at Mirissa on your Sri Lankan holiday. It’s the very best location to watch Blue and Sperm Whales, along with charming dolphins, in action. Not to forget, the fantastic beaches that beckon! And while you are here, don’t miss the Galle Fort, among Sri Lanka’s best architectural marvels.
Sri Lanka – A popular tourist destination Sri Lanka is a true paradise for the tourists, with lot of tourist attractions. The natural beauty of Sri Lanka’s tropical forest, beaches and landscape, as well as its rich cultural heritage, make it a world famous tourist destination. UNESCO has declared 7 sites in Sri Lanka as world heritage sites. Apart from this, the island holds natural harbours, sunny beaches, beautiful waterfalls, wonderful ancient cities, tropical forests etc. The official language is Sinhalese and most of them are comfortable with English. The Buddhist way of life had a major influence in Srilankan culture.
Sri Lanka has the greatest concentration of gems on earth and is ranked among the top five gem-bearing nations. Sri Lanka has a pleasant tropical climate and the average temperature ranges between 25-30 degrees Celsius. Most foreign tourists favour the period from December to March. July/August is the time of the Kandy Esala Perahera, the 10-day festival honoring the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, and also the time for the Kataragama festival in the South.
Major Tourist Attractions:-Kandy: – The cultural capital in the island’s centre is the second largest city in Sri Lanka. The temple of the tooth, where the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha is enshrined is the main attraction of Kandy. A large number of tourists visit
this city during Kandy Esala Perahera, the 10-day festival honoring the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. The beautiful city is surrounded by hills and valleys, rivers, lakes and cascading waterfalls. The Royal Botanical gardens at Peradeniya is an added attraction.
Colombo:- The capital city is the business hub of Sri Lanka. There are many famous Hindu temples and Buddhist temples situated in Colombo. Dehiwala Zoo, Dutch Period Museum, Fort Clock Tower, Gangaramaya Temple, Independence Hall and Mt Lavinia Beach are the main tourist attractions in Colombo.
Anuradhapura:-Located 128 Miles away from Colombo city, that was royal capital for 119 singhalese kings. The holy Bo-tree, which was grown from a branch of the Bodhi tree under which the Lord Budda achieved enlightenment,
is in the vicinity of this area. Other major tourist attractions in this area are Thumparama dagoba and Mihintalle. Galle:- Galle city built by Europeansin the 16th century is located 116 km to the south of Colombo. UNESCO has declared Galle as a world heritage city. Its ancient fort is the main attraction in Galle. Other major attractions in this area are National Maritime Museum, koggala, St Marys Cathedral
Yala National Park:- This park is located about 300km from Colombo and it is divided in to five blocks. Two of the blocks are open to public. Yala park covers about 1200 Sq.Km and it is well recognised in the world to observe and to photograph leopards. Huge number of elephants and birds and other animals can be seen in the park.
Jaffna Jaffna is probably Sri Lanka’s most historical city located at the northern tip on the country and 400 km from Colombo and the city from time to time had been passed under the rule of various kingdoms, governments and the armies. Some of its monuments include the Jaffna Fort, the Jaffna public library, Jaffna Palace ruins, the Nallur Kandaswamy temple and much more