Table of Contents
- How to Get Around in Sri Lanka: Travel Tips
- Get Around in Sri Lanka by Bust
- SLTB mentorship
- Specialised buses
- Expenses, plans, and vacations
- Travelling by train in Sri Lanka
- Blue train in Sri Lanka’s mountainous country
- The railway system
- Different railway travel classes
- Tourist carriages and observation cars
- Charges and reservations
- Travelling by plane in Sri Lanka
- Using a car to go around Sri Lanka
- In Sri Lanka, self-driving automobiles are available.
- Hiring a driver and a car in Sri Lanka
- Using a Tuk Tuk to go about Sri Lanka
How to Get Around in Sri Lanka: Travel Tips
It is preferable to divide the story of Navigating Sri Lanka into two parts. Since colonial times, the creation of the island’s continually expanding road network has substantially enhanced Sri Lanka’s infrastructure and speed up access to many sections of the country. Recent railway modifications, on the other hand, have made huge intercity express trains fast and comfortable. However, travelling in Sri Lanka can still be a difficult effort in some locations, particularly if you avoid main highways and train lines.
Buses are the most popular (and typically fastest) method of transportation on the island, reaching even the most isolated areas. Trains are a more leisurely mode of transportation that will ultimately take you to other sections of the country. Hiring a car and driver in Sri Lanka may allow you to visit the island in relative comfort because it is a more practical and cost-effective option than dealing with the unpredictability of public transportation. If time is of the essence, internal flights provide quick connections between Colombo and other regions of the island.
Get Around in Sri Lanka by Bust
In Sri Lanka, buses are the primary means of transportation. Buses whizz by on the island’s main thoroughfares every few seconds, and connections to any municipality, no matter how little, are readily available. That is good news. The bad news is that bus travel in Sri Lanka can be dangerous at times due to the carelessness of some drivers. A normal bus trip in Sri Lanka is a stop-start affair, with stomach-tightening bursts of speed interspersed with creeping slowness. Every panel shakes to the deafening noises of mechanical protest combined with loud pop music and parping horns as the long-suffering bus rounds another corner. The brakes pound as expected, and everyone in their chairs lurches forward. And it gets much worse if you don’t have a seat. If you do, you will almost certainly wind up as an armrest for one of the innumerable unfortunates who were pushed into the aisle at the last minute.
Buses come in a range of shapes and sizes. The primary distinctions are the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB), which operates government-run buses, and commercial services.
The bulk of SLTB buses are typically red. These are typically sluggish vehicles on the road, but they can be significantly more comfortable than private buses because the driver is not under any pressure to get at the next stop faster than the competitors, which can frequently result in accidents. The conductor will not be under as much pressure to bring as many people on board.
There are various sorts of private buses. Private buses, like SLTB buses, are huge and stop everywhere. The only difference is that private buses are normally painted white and have stickers identifying the company that owns and operates them. Big buses, referred to as “semi-express,” “express,” or “inter-city” by some commercial operators, provide slightly faster services and, presumably, stop less frequently along the route.
When it comes to transportation, private minibuses are the quickest alternative. Although they are sometimes referred to as “luxury” or “express” services, these labels should be used with caution. Despite the fact that these are smaller cars with air conditioning and tinted, curtained windows, they can be more unpleasant than SLTB services due to the tiny seats and restricted luggage space (your bags will most likely land up on your lap or between your legs), especially if you’re tall. Express minibuses are designed to make brief stops at major bus terminals, but where they stop, how long they remain, and how many passengers they’re willing to cram in are all up to the driver and/or conductor. If there is enough capacity in the car, you could try buying an extra seat to store your bags on. The conductor may even advise you to do so.
Expenses, plans, and vacations
Bus rates are extremely low on both SLTB and private operators. On the latter, be aware that depending on where you get off, you may be compelled to pay the whole fare for the duration of the bus travel. If you want to get off the bus before it arrives, notify the driver or conductor when you board.
Fixed timetables apply to services on longer and/or less frequently served routes. When travelling on shorter or busier routes, services normally terminate when the bus is fully loaded. Longer routes typically have a higher morning departure rate, which decreases in the afternoon. Seat reservations are essentially non-existent, with the exception of Colombo-Jaffna routes.
Another issue with Sri Lankan buses is that it can be difficult to locate the necessary service. Most buses indicate the destination in both Sinhala and English, but knowing which Sinhala characters to look for helps. Although they are not always obvious, every bus stop has one or more information booths staffed by personnel who can give you directions and the most up-to-date schedule information. If you arrive at a larger terminal via tuktuk, ask your driver for assistance in locating the correct bus.
Express services frequently only stop at bus terminals or other designated locations. When a passenger needs to be picked up, other services normally stop where the passenger is and simply stand with their arms out by the side of the road. The final risk of riding it is getting aboard a bus that you’ve flagged down by the side of the road. Instead of stopping altogether, drivers frequently slow down long enough for you to get on. When the bus arrives, be prepared to move quickly to avoid it from leaving without you, and stay alert, especially if you’re carrying a lot of stuff.
Travelling by train in Sri Lanka
After a decade of significant upgrades to Sri Lanka’s train network, travelling around Sri Lanka by train is no longer a slow process. For the first time, the British established a train network in the nineteenth century. It has developed from a delightfully old but essentially pointless remnant of a bygone period to a pleasant and, on some routes, pleasantly speedy mode of transportation. The system has entered the twenty-first century with the arrival of contemporary rolling stock (clever new AC carriages on intercity routes) and track renovations throughout the island. The routes to Jaffna and Mannar have reopened after being closed for several years. The trains on the gorgeous Sri Lanka hill-country travel route move at an extremely slow speed.
Blue train in Sri Lanka’s mountainous country
The Sri Lanka hill country train is the most popular rail ride in Sri Lanka because it allows visitors to see one of the Sri Lanka’s most attractive areas. The hill country train travel is regarded as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. Because there is a great demand for hill country train tours, the railway administration of Sri Lanka has established a unique, luxury train for tourists called “Ella Odyssey.” A hill country train trip can be done from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya and extended up to the popular hill country resort of Ella. The Sri Lanka Hill Country train ride is included in many multi-day Sri Lanka tour packages, such as Seerendipity Tours‘ Kandy-Nuwara Eliya 2-day tour.
On some routes, travel times fluctuate significantly between express services that make few stops and slow services (such as night mail trains), which stop at practically every station along the way. Standard intercity services, on the other hand, make more stops.
The most recent train schedules are available at railway.gov.lk and slr.malindaprasad.com. More in-depth assessments on the newest developments in Sri Lankan railways can be found at the excellent seat61.com.
The railway system
The network is divided into three main lines: the coast line, which starts in Puttalam in the north and goes south along the west coast of Sri Lanka to Weligama and Matara (completed as of 2023, extending as far as Kataragama) via Negombo, Colombo, Kalutara, Bentota, Beruwala, Aluthgama, Ambalangoda, Hikkaduwa, and Galle. From Colombo to Kandy, the hill country line continues to Hatton (for Adam’s Peak), Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya), Haputale, Bandarawela, Ella, and Badulla. The northern line begins in Colombo and travels via Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, and Vavuniya before ending in Jaffna. This line has three further branches that run to Madhu Road: Mannar, Talaimannar, Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa, and Batticaloa.
Different railway travel classes
There are three classes on trains. On most routes, only second- and third-class carriages are available. Actually, there isn’t much of a distinction between the two: second-class seats have slightly more padding and fans in the carriage, and seats in both classes can be reserved on select trains. The main advantage of booking beforehand is that standing is not permitted on reserved trains, which helps keep them from being overcrowded. Second-class unreserved carriages are slightly more expensive, but the main benefit is that they are usually less packed.
In first class, there are numerous seating options available, but they are only available on select trains and must always be requested in advance. First-class seats in air-conditioned cars are available on intercity trains, hill country trains, and northern routes (albeit you are essentially locked off from the outside world and cannot open the windows). for hill country railways, first class also includes the observation car and (quite squalid) sleeping berths for overnight journeys.
Because the island is small, there are few overnight trains. Normal chairs, first-class sleeping berths, and second- and third-class “sleeperettes,” which are really just reclining seats, are among them.
Tourist carriages and observation cars
Intercity services occasionally include a “observation car” over the hilly route that connects Colombo with Kandy and Badulla. It is usually situated in the back of the train and has very worn armchair-style chairs as well as big panoramic windows with a 360-degree outlook. Every seat is reserved, and they go quickly, especially on the busy Colombo-Kandy route.
Charges and reservations
Train rates in Sri Lanka have recently increased significantly across all train routes. It was a significant rate increase, comparable to the increase in fuel prices. Even with the most recent price increases, the tickets remain reasonable when compared to other modes of transportation, such as taxis.
It is now possible to reserve all three classes of railway seats in advance. In-person reservations at major stations are accepted up to fourteen days before travel. If you have an Etisalat or Mobitel account, you can also make reservations over the phone. While the Sri Lankan Railways do not provide internet booking, a variety of independent companies do. Seerendipity Tours, for example, offers the ability to book train seats through their headquarters.
The bad news is that bookings for many services tend to sell out as soon as they become available, particularly first class when it is offered. Even the lower classes can be reticent at times. As a result, using the services of a travel agent to book more than two weeks in advance is undoubtedly worthwhile. It’s fantastic news (kind of) that practically every train has some second- and third-class unreserved coaches. There is no limit to the number of tickets that may be purchased for them, and they can only be purchased on the day of departure—sometimes not even an hour in advance. This suggests that receiving a citation is unavoidable. When a train is proclaimed “sold out,” it signifies that all reserved seats have been taken. It also implies that carriages can become congested from time to time.
Travelling by plane in Sri Lanka
Domestic aviation services are an unforgettable experience in and of itself, in addition to providing a speedy alternative to lengthy road or train trips. They also regularly provide breathtaking aerial views of the island. Private firms provide domestic air services to and from Katunayake International Airport, Koggala, Dickwella, Weerawila (near Tissamaharama), Kandy, Castlereagh (near Adam’s Peak), Sigiriya, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee. Water’s Edge is located on Colombo’s southern tip. The prices aren’t cheap, but the flights are breathtaking. The fact that many routes feature landing or taking off from water adds to the thrill.
Using a car to go around Sri Lanka
Although the majority of Sri Lanka’s roads are in decent condition, driving can be difficult in many regions due to risks such as erratic cyclists, mad bus drivers, suicidal dogs, and big groups of pedestrians. Driving on the island requires three things: “good horn, good brakes, and good luck.” Furthermore, Sri Lankan motorists adhere to a bizarre system of traffic restrictions.
A vehicle with a well-trained tourist driver is recommended if you plan a road trip in Sri Lanka. Travelling with a local driver is convenient and secure. On the downside, it may be more expensive than other popular routes of public transportation. Most tour providers, such as Seerendipity Tours, keep a fleet of luxury automobiles on hand. They organise all forms of Sri Lanka vacation packages with their comfortable automobiles.
In Sri Lanka, self-driving automobiles are available.
If you plan on driving yourself, you will need an international driving licence. To drive in Sri Lanka, you will also need a second permit, which you may obtain in Colombo from the Automobile Association of Ceylon (office hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday). Permits are issued instantly and have a maximum validity of one year.
Equipping oneself with a reliable map or atlas—or a similar device, such as a tablet or smartphone—is another excellent alternative. In terms of traffic legislation, keep in mind that in Sri Lanka, if a bus or other larger vehicle is moving faster than you, the driver will normally expect you to move out of the way. Furthermore, many vehicles accelerate past hazardous areas such as blind curves without stopping. You should be prepared to deal with other vehicles that drive recklessly and rapidly.
Hiring a driver and a car in Sri Lanka
Due to the problems of using public transport in Sri Lanka, many visitors choose to hire a car and driver, which can be less expensive than you might think and provides unrestricted flexibility. While some drivers solely serve as your driver, others are qualified ‘chauffeur-guides’ with government certification and a tourist board licence who can also function as guides at all of the country’s major tourist destinations and answer any questions you may have about the country.
If you want to be certain that you have a good driver, hire a recognised business (such as Seerendipity Tours or Sirilak Tours) that only hires chauffeur-guides who have been accredited by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board. Check sure your driver knows at least a little English, and be specific about where you want to go and where you don’t. Some drivers force their good nature on their passengers, sometimes inviting them to dinner and insisting on acting as tour guides and interpreters. If this is what you want, great; if not, don’t be hesitant to express your privacy concerns while you’re not in the car.
A high-end air-conditioned car will cost more than a non-air-conditioned minivan; quality influences pricing more than vehicle capacity. Rates for the smaller automobiles start about $50 per day, which includes living expenses and driver’s fees. Most premium hotels offer complimentary or low-cost meals and accommodations to drivers. If you stay in a low-cost or mid-range hotel, you will be responsible for your driver’s lodging and meals. To avoid misunderstandings and disagreements later, it’s always a good idea to try and set a daily allocation for this before you leave for your Sri Lanka trip. Your driver will almost certainly expect a tip, which, depending on how competent they are, can range from $5 to $10 every day.
You should also include in the cost of petrol, which is likely to be quite high given its current pricing in Sri Lanka and might greatly increase the whole budget. Furthermore, a few firms give a meagre 100 km of free mileage per day, which is insufficient for the island’s winding roads. As a result, you may have to pay more for additional distance. You might also rent a car and travel about the island for the day. Renting a car not only saves you money on petrol and lodging, but it also eliminates the need to pay for your driver’s meals.
The completion of the country’s first true motorway, the E01 Southern Sri Lanka Motorway, which extends from Colombo to Galle (and was later expanded from Matara to Hambantota in 2014), marked the much-needed upgrade of Sri Lanka’s nineteenth-century roadway infrastructure. The E03 Colombo-Katunayake motorway, the country’s second, was completed in 2013, connecting the capital city to the international airport. As a third motorway, the E02 Outer Circular motorway, which connects directly to the E01 but not the E03, was built in 2014. It also functions as a ring road around Colombo, and it is gradually being expanded. The E04 Central Motorway, which will connect Colombo to Kandy, and the E06 Ruwanpura Motorway, which will connect Colombo to Ratnapura and Pelmadulla, will both open in 2020.
When completed, the 350-kilometer network would change how people travel around the island. The southern highway has made the entire southwest and south coast of Sri Lanka more accessible than before; it has already reduced the difficult three-hour drive from Colombo to Galle to a pleasant hour’s drive. Similarly, the Central Motorway to Kandy is planned to cut current travel times by around two-thirds and drastically reduce future travel times to other hill country locations.
Using a Tuk Tuk to go about Sri Lanka
The most recognisable sight in Sri Lanka is the rows of motorised rickshaws that travel through every town, city, and villages in Sri Lanka. Tuktuks—also known as three-wheelers, trishaws or, in a more positive sense, ‘taxis’—are the preferred mode of transportation in Sri Lanka for short distances, primarily between towns. However, they are handy for long-distance travel in an emergency or for excursions if you get lost or do not want to wait for a bus. Hire one of the majority of the vehicles, which are Bajaj rickshaws. Their drivers frequently decorate them with bright stickers, miniatures, plastic flowers, and other funny or talismanic items.
In Sri Lanka, you never have to walk far before you come across someone seeking to court you for business. Rickshaws are incredibly functional and can even be entertaining—in a little frightening way—if you need a ride because they can go through traffic at regularly extremely fast rates. Because there are so many drivers in the area, you always have an advantage when bartering. If you are unable to achieve a mutually acceptable price, another party will always be willing to take your business.
Except in Colombo, most rickshaws in Sri Lanka are not metered; you can barter with the driver to get the fare you want. Never go without first deciding on a fare. While there are a few dishonest tuktuk drivers in Sri Lanka who would take you for anything, the most of them are trustworthy and you may negotiate a reasonable fee without even asking. It’s difficult to know where you stand with the wide spectrum of probity you’ll encounter. In Colombo, the standard fare for metered taxis is currently between Rs. 100 and Rs. 120 per kilometre. Although this is a good general rule, unless you are an experienced negotiator, you will almost certainly end up paying more, especially in large cities and popular tourist destinations. Remember that the rate per kilometre should decrease as the distance travelled rises. Furthermore, the quantity of rickshaws in tourist areas usually gives you the upper hand when bargaining; if you and the driver cannot agree on a reasonable cost, there will always be another driver prepared to accept your business.
Finally, be wary if rickshaw drivers claim they don’t have any change. When a driver claims to have just Rs. 50 or Rs. 60 in change, they may be speaking the truth and hoping you’ll accept a few rupees less. This could happen if you try to pay for a Rs. 120 transport using a Rs. 150 note. If you don’t have any spare change, make sure the driver has it before you depart. Instead of risking losing your fare, if you are honest about the situation, you can be confident that your driver will go out of his way to fetch you change.