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