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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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?!