The Ultimate Guide to Transport in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, as the pearl of the Indian Ocean, is fairly restricted in terms of availability of land. Hence the congestion on narrow roads due to pedestrians, tuk tuks, cyclists, public and private vehicles. While public transport such as buses, trains and tuk tuks are available for those on a budgeted holiday in Sri Lanka, we also have private and comfortable luxury vehicles arranged by tour agents to take you around the island. The fastest way to get to any part of the country is of course air travel. Sri Lankan air taxis are available along with helicopter rides that offer unbelievably scenic aerial views.

Getting back to the point of this article: an ultimate guide to transport in Sri Lanka, let us discuss each mode one by one.

Buses

Buses are a staple mode of transport in Sri Lanka and even the remotest towns are served with fairly regular bus connections. There are a few different forms of buses available, the main distinction being between the government and private sector.

  • Government buses – Also known as SLTB buses, these are the oldest buses in existence and are usually painted in red.
  • Private buses – similar to SLTB ones but are painted white and offer services such as semi-express, express and intercity (which relates to how fast each bus route is).
    Private minibuses are also available, which are referred to as express or luxury services, and are the fastest way of getting around in a bus. These buses have the luxury of air conditioning, stop only at major bus routes, are slightly smaller in size compared to the regular buses, and will not be overloaded with passengers.

 

Timetable…

Services that run on longer routes have a certain timetable and are more frequent in the morning than the afternoon. Buses on popular and frequent bus routes usually just take off as soon as they are full with passengers. Seat reservations are not a thing in Sri Lankan buses, except the ones going from Colombo to Jaffna.

Fares…

As for bus fares, have some change money in hand to be given to the bus conductor when he comes to you. A general rule of thumb is that an intercity bus will cost double the rate of a regular one. There is a minimum fare of 10 LKR currently prevailing for a distance of just one bus halt or from one zone to the next. Fares increase as per your distance of travel. Simply hand over the cash to him and say the name of the halt where you wish to get off. If any balance is due, he will give it to you before your halt arrives. If he doesn’t, just remind him about your ‘maaru salli’ (translation of ‘balance due’) a few minutes before you have to get down.

Getting down…

If you are not aware of when your destination will arrive, just inform the bus driver and he will give you an alert. If you know where you have to get down, just walk to the front or back door a few seconds before your halt appears and ring the bell or say ‘bahinawa’ and the driver will make sure he stops there.

Train

Built by the British during the 19th century, Sri Lanka’s railway network remains much the same since then. Tourists often enjoy a train ride in the scenic hill country of the island, and this is often a priority item on their ‘to-do list’.

The rail network…

There are three main lines that connect the Lankan rail network as follows:

  1. The coast line: begins from Puttalam in the North and runs south along the west coast through Negombo, Colombo, Kalutara, Bentota, Beruwala, Aluthgama, Ambalangoda, Hikkaduwa , Galle, Matara and Kataragama.
  2. The hill country line: runs from Colombo to Kandy, Hatton, Nanu Oya, Haputale, Bandarawela, Ella and Badulla. This is the most scenic rail route in all of Sri Lanka.
  3. The northern line: begins from Colombo and runs through Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Vavuniya,Omantai, Kilinochchi, and Jaffna. On this line there are two additional branches that can take you to Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa and Trincomalee.

Train types…

The seats in Sri Lankan trains are of three types: 1st class, 2nd class and 3rd class. Most trains consist of only 2nd and 3rd class seats. Between these two categories, the difference is that 2nd class seats are a bit more padded and comfortable, fans are available in the carriages and the carriage does not get too crowded.

1st class seats are available on selected trains only. Mostly the inter-city ones have 1st class seats and these seats in some trains are the air conditioned ones (Anuradhapura, Batticaloa and Jaffna), while the sleeping berths on overnight trains are referred to as 1st class, and the hill country trains have the observation seats that are 1st class.

Fares and booking…

Compared to private transport by car or air, train prices are extremely cheap. To travel from Colombo to Jaffna in 2nd class seats would cost about 800 LKR, while 1st class seats would be about 1500 LKR. 2nd class and 1st class seats can be reserved in advance while 3rd class seats can only be bought on the day of travelling. It is advisable to make sure you have reserved your seats in advance in order to avoid disappointment, particularly for hill country and northern route tickets. Tickets can be booked at the Fort Railway Station or through online services such as mobile ticketing and web ticketing.

Auto Rickshaw

Tuk tuk, three wheeler and auto rickshaw are all one and the same in Lankan lingo. Every corner of Sri Lanka is populated with auto rickshaws that are the most convenient form of transport for travelling short distances as fast as possible. These Indian made Bajaj rickshaws are well decorated by their drivers with stickers, flowers and painted in all sorts of colors.

The tropical heat in Sri Lanka can often make it difficult to walk short distances; hence tourists prefer the alternative of auto rickshaws as a convenient and fun option to get around town. Since of late, almost every auto rickshaw in popular cities such as Colombo and Kandy has a meter that calculates the amount that you have to pay for your ride. Hence there is no negotiation involved and no fear of being overcharged. The basic fare is 50-60 LKR for the first kilometer and about 30-40 LKR for every additional kilometer. Auto rickshaws in other parts of the country function on negotiation basis.

Several three wheeler networks have been introduced within Colombo city limits for the convenience of the public. Simply install an application on your smart phone such as PickMe or OnlineCabs and you can have an auto rickshaw at your doorstep within minutes.

Taxis/Cabs

Uber is something you must have definitely heard of…? Sri Lanka has an Uber network along with other private companies such as PickMe and more that put together a collection of cars and vans for hire for short and slightly long distances. The smart phone application allows the convenience of seeing if there are any cars or vans within your vicinity that you can summon to your doorstep for pickup. Cars and vans are more costly than three wheelers but are a good option when 4-5 people are travelling on a sharing basis.

Air Travel

For those who have very limited time in their hands but yet want to see all parts of the island, and also for those looking for a uniquely luxurious travel option around Sri Lanka, air taxi services are offered by Sri Lankan Airlines and other private companies. These are high speed connections that can take you to many places in the island including Colombo, Kandy, Dambulla, Beruwala, Hambantota, Arugam Bay, Nuwara Eliya and Batticaloa.

Convenient lakes and lagoons are where these water planes land, not requiring a fixed runway as such. In addition to taking you from one place to another, scenic air taxi services are also available from Colombo, Kandy and Dambulla to show you around the aerial view of beautiful Sri Lanka. Charter services are also available for private planes or helicopters to take you and your family around the island as per your request.

Private car hire – Self Drive

To be able to drive in Sri Lanka, you will need a valid international driving license, a driving permit (which can be obtained from the Automobile Association of Ceylon – Colombo 03) and a GPS enabled smart phone. A few road rules about driving on Sri Lankan roads will also help make your journey a smooth one. For example: remember to give way to vehicles such as buses and auto rickshaws as drivers of these are quite impatient.

Private car hire with driver

Many visitors to Sri Lanka opt to tour the country by way of private transport arranged with the help of tour agencies such as Blue Lanka Tours. One major benefit of doing so is that you have unlimited flexibility during your holiday. You can leave at your own convenience and don’t have to depend on timetables and advance reservations. Comfort is the next major benefit that beats bus, rail and rickshaw modes of transport.

By going through tour companies to arrange private car hires, you have the plus point of being driven around Sri Lanka with a knowledgeable English speaking driver who will also act as your tour guide. Not only will he give you brief introductions to all the tourist attractions that you choose to visit, he can act as your translator when language becomes a barrier, he will take you around to the right places for meals and shopping, and also answer any questions that you have.

Which one should you choose?

The answer to this question depends on a lot of factors:

  • Budget
  • Number and age of passengers travelling with you
  • Comfort levels needed
  • Luxury levels needed
  • Time available

After compiling the above details, you can decide which modes of transport you can use for touring different parts of Sri Lanka. A combination of options would be ideal; after all, how can you leave Sri Lanka without trying a scenic air taxi ride or an adventurous tuk tuk, bus and train ride?!

Spot Sri Lanka’s spectacular Big FIVE mammals

With Sri Lanka’s natural heritage, the country can offer wildlife safari’s similar to what one would expect in African countries like Kenya and Tanzania, but of course in a smaller scale as Sri Lanka itself is small. Just like Africa’s Big Five mammals – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and cape buffalo, Sri Lanka too has its counterparts – blue whale, sperm whale, leopard, Asian elephant and sloth bear.

All these five mammals can be seen if you spend some time at National Parks and other wild areas in the country. These animals are not isolated, but patience is indeed required if you want to spot the spectacular Big Five. While planning your itinerary for a holiday in Sri Lanka make sure you target the places where these animals are most popularly seen.

Blue Whale and Sperm Whale

Blue Whale is the biggest living animal on the planet and is visible 9 out of 10 times (during peak season), off the coast of Mirissa in southern Sri Lanka. Nowhere else in the world can Blue whales be seen with such ease and in so many numbers.

The sperm whale is the biggest toothed whale species in the world and is a must see animal during your tour of Sri Lanka. In fact you can see the sperm whale and the blue whale both in the Indian Ocean that is accessible from the southern coast of Mirissa. Sri Lanka ranks under one of the top ten places in the world for seeing sperm whales.

November to April are the best months to go on a whale watching cruise offered by many service providers in Mirissa.

Leopard, Elephant and Sloth Bear

The leopard is the biggest cat in Sri Lanka (3rd biggest in Asia) and it would be a thrill to see such a thing up-close. Leopards are the main attraction for tourists to visit Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Sloth bears often look dopey but be careful not to get too close as they can slit you open in a split second. The elephants in Sri Lanka are slightly smaller than the ones found in Africa but are still the largest in Asia and are very fast and intimidating when the mood strikes.

Yala National Park is probably the best place to sight these three animals in one location. January to June are the best months to visit and you need to schedule about 2-3 days at one of the many luxury camping sites at Yala National Park if you want to explore the park in detail and catch a glimpse of these animals. Sighting them all in one day is almost next to impossible.

Yala National park is said to be home to about 30-35 leopards, 150 elephants, sloth bear, buffalo and many more bird and mammal species. Other parks such as Wilpattu National Park and Udawalawe National Park are also popular locations to sight the Wild Asian Elephants, while the Wilpattu National Park is a good location for viewing sloth bears.

8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka

1. Ancient City of Sigiriya (1982)

Also known as “The Lions Rock”, Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress constructed in the 5th century by King Kasyapa. The entrance of the palace is built in the form of an enormous lion, which gives the site its name – Lion’s Rock.

Highlights: colorful frescoes decorate the rock, a mirror wall engraved with verses as old as the 8th century and some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.

Tip: Climb the Sigirya Rock and enjoy the view of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle from the top.

2. Sacred City of Anuradhapura (1982)

Anuradhapura is where ancient civilization began in Sri Lanka and is the hub for Buddhism. Several well preserved ruins of monasteries, monuments and other ancient places are explored by tourists.

Highlights: 2000 year old holy Bo Tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment and also, Anuradhapura has discovered most number of Buddha’s relics according to historical records.

Tip: The ruins are quite scattered so if you are on a quick tour, do your research and select a few sites you want to visit.

3. Ancient City of Polonnaruwa (1982)

After Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa is the second most ancient Kingdom in Sri Lanka. The city is known as an expertly planned archaeological relic site.

Highlight: fabulous art, amazing medieval architecture, fantastic irrigation facilities, green environment, Brahmanic monuments, monumental ruins of the garden city constructed in the 12th century.

Tip: A bike will help cover all the sites faster with less walking required.

4. Sacred City of Kandy (1988)

Also known as Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, Kandy is home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic which is visited by Buddhists worldwide and other tourists too.

Highlights: Temple of the Tooth, Esala Perahera (Procession) held in July/August as an annual ritual of the Temple, Kandyan cultural dance, natural beauty such as forested hills and tea plantations.

5. Southern city of Galle and its Fortifications (1988)

Galle is a popular city and port on the southern coast. Initially built by Europeans, there is plenty of evidence to show the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions.

Highlights: Dutch Fort, Dutch and British colonial architecture, Dutch Reformed Church and the National Maritime Museum are popular landmarks in the fort area.

Tip: Get on top of the fortress walls at dusk for an unmatchable view of the sunset on one side and the old town on the other.

6. Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988)

A popular national park in Sri Lanka is the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, translated to “Kingdom of the Lion” in Sinhalese. This was declared a Biosphere Reserve as it plays a major role in the country’s ecosystem.

At Sinharaja you will find several rare endemic species of birds, mammals, amphibians, butterflies, fish and reptiles.

Tip: Drier months (August, September, and January to April) are preferable for visiting Sinharaja and making animals slightly easier to spot.

7. Golden Temple of Dambulla (1991)

The Cave Temple in Dambulla is the largest and best preserved rock cave temple in Sri Lanka with a height of 600 feet and includes 5 caves and 157 statues of Lord Buddha, all dating back to the 1st century BC.

Highlights: Delicate and intricate paintings decorating the caves and temple walls.

Tip: Remove footwear before entering the complex and keep your socks on to avoid pain from the rocks.

8. Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (2010)

The UNESCO nominated central highlands of Sri Lanka consist of three wet-zone parks:

  • Horton Plains National Park
  • Knuckles Conservation Forest
  • Peak Wilderness Protected Area

 

Highlights: Adam’s Peak which is the highest point, giving you an amazing view, and is also a popular center for Buddhist pilgrims. Also look out for endemic and endangered species such as purple-faced langur and the Sri Lankan leopard at the Horton Plains and Knuckles Range.

Tip: January to April is the best time to visit and enjoy the cool and dry climate.

7 all time favorite waterfalls in Sri Lanka

Laxapana falls – Maskeliya, Nuwara Eliya

This beautiful waterfall is popularly associated with the hydro-power plant as the water from here is used to generate electricity in Sri Lanka. Laxapana Falls is 413 feet high and is the 8th highest waterfall in the country.

Getting to Laxapana Falls is a 4 hour drive from Colombo and the easiest route to get there is to go via Malabe, Avissawella, Ginigathena and then get to Norton Bridge. It is difficult to get there with public transport. An easier option is to hire a private vehicle through one of the many tour agencies in Sri Lanka as there is a lot of driving around involved.

St. Clair’s Falls – Nuwara Eliya

Commonly seen on the Hatton-Talawakelle road in Sri Lanka’s beautiful hill country, the twin St Clair’s Falls is the widest in the country. Cascading over 3 rocky outcrops and surrounded by beautiful tea gardens, this waterfall is a picturesque site indeed.

Ravana Falls – Ella Highway

Another one of the widest falls in the country, Ravana waterfall is also a popular sightseeing attraction in Sri Lanka. The 25 meter high waterfall is visible from the Ella railway station and can also be seen during your hike to Mini Adam’s peak in Ella.

Aberdeen Falls – Nuwara Eliya

The 322 foot tall Aberdeen Falls is very close to the popular Laxapana Falls that we spoke about earlier. But you’ve got to have some intense energy levels if you want to get to both waterfalls in a day. Aberdeen Falls has got two ‘pools’, the more beautiful one being the bottom one. Be extremely cautious when walking through the rocks in each pool as they are extremely slippery.

Sera Falls – Matale

The rainy season is when this waterfall is in full bloom, giving it the best views ever. Getting to Sera Falls is quite easy from Mini World’s End and requires private modes of transport. While the views are picture perfect, the pool is incredibly deep so be careful if you don’t know how to swim. The atmosphere at Sera Falls is quite peaceful actually as the pool is set amidst walls of rock and trees with the water smoothly flowing into rocks below.

Diyaluma Falls – Batticaloa Highway, Koslanda

Hikers will love this location of Diyaluma Falls that is set a little way from Ella. The climb takes you through beautiful fields of lemongrass that acts as a natural air freshener. Stand at the fall head and look down 263 meters for a stomach churning view indeed! A few rock pools connect to the base pool of Diyaluma Falls but it is very dangerous to be in during the rainy season.

Thudugala Falls

This waterfall lies in an estate that was once owned by a British national, wherein which a bungalow still remains. A village known as Thudugala in the Kalutara District is where the beautiful Thudugala Falls are located. Bathing here is very refreshing as the natural swimming pool is surrounded with plants, creepers and birds. Look out for the tunnel here that runs under the waterfall and comes out from the top corner of the falls.

7 best water sport activities in Sri Lanka

The island of Sri Lanka has an abundance of beaches where water sports are carried out. Let us talk about which ones are most thrilling and what is the best place in Sri Lanka to enjoy each sport.

1.   Surfing

If you are looking to surf sand-bottomed point breaks all day long in 30 degrees bright and shiny weather, Sri Lanka is the place to be.

Surfing is more of a hobby or a pleasure activity that is loved by many. To enjoy surfing the most, you need to be on a beach that has beautiful crashing waves that you can surf against. Of course, in the sport of surfing, patience is of utmost importance as you have to wait for the wave. Also, you should be willing to take chances at massive waves and keep calm if in case things get hectic.

Arugam Bay, in the east coast, is the ideal place for a surfing holiday in Sri Lanka. Hordes of surfers, particularly from wave-starved European countries love the ripples on the coastline. In this area, you will find surfers mostly in the intermediate range but if you are a beginner, surfing lessons are available to help you out. June to October is the best time to visit places like Passikuda and Arugam Bay for surfing on the east coast. Places like Unawatuna in the south-west coast are also popular for surfing during the months of November to May.

2.   Jet skiing

Jet skiing is very much like a motor bike ride, but on water! The thrill of riding a motor bike on water can only be experienced through a Jet Ski ride in Sri Lanka. Jet skiing is possible in several parts of the island, including east, west and south coast beaches as well as man-made lakes lagoons around the country.

A water sport lover is sure to enjoy drenching themselves on a jet ski while negotiating with the water movements and performing air-water jumps. You can explore deep into the ocean if you are confident enough on a jet ski while also making speedy movements around big waves.

Bentota in the south-west coast has a water sports center that offers jet skiing. In addition to that, Unawatuna beach, Negombo beach, Negombo lagoon, Kalpitiya beach, Passikudah beach and Gregory Lake in Nuwara Eliya are a few places in Sri Lanka where jet skiing is popular.

3.   Scuba diving/snorkeling

Snorkeling and scuba diving are very similar activities through which you can explore the marine life around the island of Sri Lanka. Equipment such as masks, fins and snorkels are provided by the center, along with a guide who will swim around with you. Pigeon island in trincomalee, Hikkaduwa Unawatuna beach and Kalpitiya beach are a few places where you will find the services of snorkeling. During your snorkel experience in Sri Lanka, be prepared to observe beautiful tropical fish and coral reefs that decorate the deep seas.

4.   Kite surfing

Kitesurfing is an adventurous activity that combines the aspects of snowboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding, and gymnastics into one activity. A large power kite is needed to harness the wind power and direction. This is attached to a kite board on which the surfer is held firm with the help of foot straps.

Due to its consistently windy conditions and the narrow sandbar that separates the lagoon from the ocean, creating perfect waters, people love kitserufing in Kalpitya. Not only does Kalpitiya have the best beach for kitesurfing, it also has a line of schools that will provide you with the equipment and teach you how to kitesurf. Once you get the hang of the sport, you will not want to leave the water and neither will you want to let go of your kitesurfing gear. An addictive sport indeed!

5.   Deep sea diving

Challenge yourself to partake in this extreme sport of descending into the deep waters of the Indian Ocean, of course with the help of breathing apparatus and a guide around you at all times. Batticaloa, Nilaveli, Negombo and Unawatuna are popular destinations for deep sea diving in Sri Lanka.

6.   Sailing

The ocean is Sri Lanka’s primary resource. Explore Sri Lankan coasts in style with a sailing cruise. You could choose either the east, west south or north coast to explore depending on which time of the year that you are visiting. With a sailing holiday you have access to stunning landscapes and pristine beaches. Sailing as an activity is also available in Sri Lanka in places like Bolgoda Lake, North-East coast and Southern coast.

7.   White water rafting

The beautiful Kelani River in Kitulgala, Sri Lanka is where the thrilling activity of white water rafting takes place. Go with a group of 3-6 people and one of the many rafting service providers will assist you with the necessary equipment and guide you on how to maneuver your boat on the rapids and minors of the river. Confidence jumps, stream slides and river camping are also some activities that you can enjoy here.

Best places to dine in Sri Lanka

Be prepared for a gastronomic explosion when tasting authentic Sri Lankan cuisine!

Similar to its dynamic colonial past, local cuisine in Sri Lanka is a lovely mix of global cooking styles added with fiery spices and flavors. For those who are particular about spicy food, I’d advise you to eat with care in Sri Lanka. But those who love spices and flavor in their food are sure to have a delicious holiday in Sri Lanka!

While dining at local cuisine restaurants, you will notice that the food is strongly influenced from the neighboring country of India, while there are also traces of British, Dutch and Portuguese favorites brought together to create unique dishes.

Local food in Sri Lanka is known to be one of the world’s most dynamic cuisines.

So what is the kind of food that Sri Lankan’s eat?

Our staple dish usually consists of rice and curry cooked with a blend of spices and a generous amount of chili. These spices are very similar to those used in South India, but a few local ingredients like coconut and Maldive fish is used to make it a signature dish.

Colombo

For food lovers, Colombo is the best place for eating out in Sri Lanka. While many high end restaurants offer international cuisines including local food, the best place to try the authentic flavor is at one of the many independent eateries. National dishes such as Kottu Roti, String Hoppers, Kiribath and Hoppers are found in the most authentic sense here. You could also try some mouth-watering quick eats such as pastries and rolls from these roadside cafes such as Fab, Sponge and Family Baker.

If you still want a fine dining option to take some guests out for a Sri Lankan meal, The Palmyrah Restaurant at Renuka Hotel or Kaama Sutra at Independence Arcade are good options.

Colombo is also well known for serving delicious Chinese cuisine. Places like Loon Tao, Chinese Dragon and Flower Drum are well known for a great Chinese meal. Additionally, The Lagoon at Cinnamon Grand is particularly known for its amazing seafood options.

Kandy

Kandy has its own flavor of food and is popular for Sinhalese treats such as Kavum and Kokies, as well as a traditional sour fish curry known as Ambul Thiyal. Just like in Colombo, Kandy too offers a selection of cafes in the busy town centre that offers quick snacks and savory items. Hotels in Kandy cater to both Sri Lankan and Western cuisines. Interesting dining options in Kandy are:

  • Helga’s Folly – fusion
  • The Muslim Hotel – local
  • Kandy House – European fusion
  • Devon Restaurant and Bakery – quick savories, Chinese, local

 

Galle

Galle is known for its café style culture as well as the high end fine dining at boutique hotels such as Amangalla and Galle Fort. Due to the great location on the coastline, these hotels also serve fantastic seafood.

For café style dining options, visit:

  • Royal Dutch Café
  • Mama’s Galle Fort Café
  • Rampart Hotel
  • India Hut
  • Seagreen Restaurant

 

Jaffna

Jaffna is one location that is strongly influenced by South Indian food, yet has a distinct taste of its own. Prominent ingredients are mutton and seafood cooked with local spices. Crab curries, Rasam, and the tradition Idli, Dosai and Vadai are popular in Jaffna restaurants:

  • Cosy Restaurant
  • Mangos
  • Nila Restaurant

 

Tips for dining out in Sri Lanka

  • Delicious food at incredibly cheap prices can be found at street vendors.
  • If you are not a fan of spicy food, simple request for less chili in your dish.
  • When at restaurants, look out for western menu for mild spiced options.