Getting around Sri Lanka: Transportation Tips
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Getting around Sri Lanka is very much a tale of two halves. The construction of the island’s ever-expanding expressway network has given Sri Lanka its biggest infrastructure upgrade since colonial times and speeded up access to some parts of the country immeasurably. Equally, recent railway improvements mean that major inter-city expresses are now both swift and comfortable. Away from the expressways and major train lines, however, getting around many parts of the island can still be a frustratingly time-consuming process.
Buses are the standard (and often the fastest) means of transport, with services reaching even the remotest corners of the island. Trains offer a more relaxed 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, domestic flights operated by Cinnamon Air and Helitours offer speedy 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, with stomach-tightening bursts of speed alternating with periods of creeping slowness. This is 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. The inevitable slamming-on of brakes which follows 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.
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 rust buckets 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.
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 Colombo- Jaffna services.
Another problem with Sri Lankan buses is the difficulty of finding the relevant service. Most buses display their destination in both Sinhala and English, although it’s useful to get an idea of the Sinhala characters you’re looking for. 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, originally built by the British during the nineteenth century, has seen massive changes over the past decade, meaning getting around Sri Lanka by train is no longer conducted at a snail’s pace. It has been transformed from a charmingly antiquated but not particularly useful relic of a bygone era to a comfortable and, on some routes, refreshingly fast way of getting around. The lines to Jaffna and Mannar, closed for decades, have been reopened, while islandwide track improvements and the addition of modern rolling stock (including smart new a/c carriages on intercity lines) have brought the entire system into the twentieth century. However, many of the old rust-red-coloured colonial carriages remain in use, and trains on the gorgeous hill-country line are as grindingly slow as ever.
Timings for journeys on some routes vary massively between express services (making only a few stops), standard intercity services, which make more stops, and slow services (such as night mail trains), which halt at practically every station en route.
Latest railway timetables can be checked at railway.gov.lk and at slr.malindaprasad.com. Check out the excellent seat61.com for more detailed coverage of Sri Lanka’s railways and latest developments.
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 now largely complete). 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 Jaffna. Three additional branches run off this line: the first to Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa, the second to Trincomalee, and the third to Madhu Road, Mannar and Talaimannar.
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 have a bit more padding, and there are fans in the carriages, and both second- and third-class seats can be reserved on some trains. The major benefit of pre-booking a seat is that no standing passengers are allowed in reserved carriages, so they don’t get overcrowded. In unreserved carriages, the main advantage of second-class is that, being slightly more expensive, it tends to be a bit less packed.
First class covers various different types of seating available only on selected trains and must always be reserved in advance. You’ll find first class seating in a/c carriages on intercity trains, as well as on hill-country and northern lines (although you can’t open the windows and are rather shut off from the outside world). First class also includes the observation car on hill-country trains and (rather grotty) sleeping berths on overnight services.
The island’s compact size means that there are relatively few overnight trains. These comprise first-class sleeping berths and second- and third-class “sleeperettes” (actually just reclining seats), plus ordinary seats.
Some intercity services on the hill-country route from Colombo to Kandy and Badulla carry a special carriage, the so-called observation car, usually at the back of the train and with large panoramic windows offering 360-degree views and seating in rather battered armchair-style seats. All seats are reservable, and get snapped up quickly, especially on the popular Colombo to Kandy run. The fare between Colombo and Kandy is currently Rs.800 one way.
Rajadhani Express also run special tourist carriages which are attached to a few of the main hill-country and south coast express trains. Although comfortable, the carriages have small windows and limited views.
Despite recent price increases, fares are still extremely cheap. You can travel all the way from Colombo to Jaffna in third class, for example, for around just Rs.335, while even a first-class berth on the same route only costs about Rs.1100.
Trains now have seats in all three classes which can be booked in advance. Reservations can be made in person at major stations up to thirty days before travel. You can also book by phone if you have a Mobitel/Etisalat account. Sri Lankan Railways don’t offer a web-booking service but it’s possible to reserve tickets online through a number of private operators.
The bad news is that on many services, reserved seating (particularly in first class, where available), tends to sell out as soon as it goes on sale, and even lower classes may be booked solid. So it definitely pays to book more than a month in advance using an online service. The good news (sort of) is that virtually all trains have at least some second- and third-class unreserved carriages. Tickets for these are sold only on the day of departure, sometimes not until an hour before departure and there’s no limit on the number of tickets sold. This means you’re guaranteed to get a ticket. If you’re told a train has “sold out” it just means all the reserved seats have gone. It also, of course, means that carriages can sometimes get packed solid.
Domestic air services provide a superfast alternative to long journeys by road or rail and are memorable in their own right, with frequently beautiful views of the island from above. The main operator is Cinnamon Air, which has regular scheduled flights out of Katunayake international airport and from Water’s Edge (on the southern side of Colombo) to Koggala, Dickwella, Weerawila (near Tissamaharama), Kandy, Castlereagh (near Adam’s Peak), Sigiriya, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Fares aren’t particularly cheap, although the flights are wonderfully scenic. Also, on many routes you’ll either take off from and/or land on water, which adds an extra pinch of fun.
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. You’ll also need an additional permit to drive in Sri Lanka, which you can get from the Automobile Association of Ceylon in Colombo (office is open Mon–Fri 8am–4pm). Permits 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) – or a smartphone or tablet equivalent. 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.
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; others 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 (such as DSL Tours or Sri Lanka Driver Tours) 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.
Prices depend more on quality than size of transport – a posh air-conditioned car will cost more than a non-air-conditioned minivan. Rates start from around $40 per day for the smallest cars, plus the driver’s fees and living allowances. Most top-end hotels provide meals and accommodation for drivers either for free or for a small additional charge. If you’re staying in budget or mid-range places, you’ll have to pay for your driver’s room and food. As ever, it’s best to try to establish a daily allowance for this at the outset of your trip to avoid misunderstandings and arguments later. Your driver will probably also expect a tip of $5–10 per day, depending on how highly trained they are.
You’ll also probably have to pay for fuel – now pretty expensive in Sri Lanka – which can add significantly to the overall cost. In addition, some companies only offer a decidedly mean 100km per day free mileage, which doesn’t go far on the island’s twisty roads, so you may well have to stump up for some excess mileage as well. Alternatively, you could always just hire vehicles by the day as you go around 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.
Sri Lanka’s nineteenth-century highway infrastructure received a long-overdue upgrade in late 2011 with the opening of the country’s first proper motorway, the E01 Southern Expressway from Colombo to Galle (subsequently extended from Galle to Matara in 2014, and with a further extension to Hambantota currently underway). 2013 saw the opening of the country’s second motorway, the E03 Colombo–Katunayake Expressway, linking the capital with the international airport. A third expressway, the E02 Outer Circular Expressway (serving as a Colombo ring-road and linking directly to the E01 – but not the E03) followed in 2014, and is also now being extended. The E04 Central Expressway from Colombo to Kandy is due to open in 2020, while there are also plans for an E06 Ruwanpura Expressway, connecting Colombo to Ratnapura and Pelmadulla.
The 350km network will, when finished, transform travel around many parts of the island. The Southern Expressway has already reduced the three-hour-plus slog from Colombo to Galle into a pleasant hour’s drive and made the whole of the southwest and south coasts accessible as never before. Similarly, the Central Expressway to Kandy is also likely to cut current journey times by about two-thirds and significantly reduce onward travel times to other places in the hill country.
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.
Except in Colombo, Sri Lankan rickshaws are unmetered; 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 reasonably honest, and you may be offered a decent fare without even having to bargain; a small minority, however, are complete crooks who will take you for whatever they can get. Given the wildly varying degrees of probity you’ll encounter, it’s often difficult to know exactly where you stand. A basic fare of Rs.40–50 per kilometre (which is what metered taxis in Colombo currently charge) serves as a useful general rule of thumb, though unless you have ironclad bargaining powers you’ll probably pay more than this, especially in big cities and heavily touristed areas. Also bear in mind that the longer the journey, the lower the per-kilometre rate should be. In addition, the sheer number of rickshaws in most tourist centres means that you usually have the upper hand in bargaining – if you can’t agree a reasonable fare, there’ll always be another driver keen to take your custom.
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.
Top image: Train on the Nine Arch Bridge in Sri Lanka © alex_alladin/Shutterstock