Sri Lanka is an island with a landmass four times smaller than the UK, but with a population almost the size of Australia. It is well served by a number of different modes of transit, but getting around can take longer than expected as in many areas speeds average between 20 to 40 km p/h. The public transport system is extensive and can be a great way to see some spectacular sights and meet friendly locals. After a few months traversing the country, here are some of our tips and tricks for getting around.
Travelling by train around Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful and cost effective ways to see the country, acting as more than just a means of transport, but as an amazing experience in and of itself. The trains run regularly enough (though not always to schedule) and are very reasonably priced, often costing less than the price of your tuk-tuk to the station.
The most popular journey for travellers is between the beautiful towns of Ella and Kandy (with spectacular views through the hills), but our highlight was the train from Colombo to Marata. This four-hour route winds down along the coast through Galle and many other popular beach hot spots. It is a great way to see the coastline especially if you have just arrived in Sri Lanka (though if you’re looking for something cooler and quicker: the A/C bus does this journey twice as fast).
There are a few different seating options available within the train world and it all boils down to your comfort level:
- First class: (not something we have experienced yet) comes in three varieties; coaches, sleeping births and observation saloons (with large windows). First class is not available on all routes, but when it is you will be guaranteed a seat and sometimes air conditioning. The pricing is often a lot more than second or third class, but rarely exceeds 1000 LKR (unless you’re reserving online, see reservations). However, if you want to hang out of the doors and get the wind in your hair, second class might be the way to go.
- Second class: Far more reasonably priced, usually padded seats with overhead fans and plenty of legroom. Toilets are plentiful (BYO toilet paper) and there is sufficient room for standing just in case you don’t find a seat right away.
- Third class: The seats are often bench-style so as to fit as many people as possible. This leaves less space to stand so on really busy days (weekends/Poya) it can get crowded. However, as most of the carriages on a single train are dedicated to third class we often found there to be more seats available in third than second class, so have a wander down if you’re curious.
You will have no shortage of food and drink on your journey as there are plenty of men (yes, always men) walking up and down the aisle selling short eats, ice-cold water and even hot tea.
Ticket prices are dependent on your destination and carriage. For example Colombo to Galle; 1st class: 340 LKR, 2nd class: 180 LKR, 3rd class: 100 LKR.
You can reserve tickets, but bare in mind only a small percentage of tickets are made available for reservations. You can get these either in advance from the station or online, and often overseas travel agencies buy these up and sell them online for ten times the price. The remaining (majority) of tickets can be booked at the station, on the day, 30 minutes before the departure time. So don’t stress.
Side note: In our five months in Sri Lanka we have never reserved a ticket. Only once or twice have we been left standing/sitting in a doorway and this was only for a short time before seats were made available.
The exception is travelling to the north: The direct train to Jaffna requires seat reservations and they do have inspectors checking tickets. If you would like a seat (even in 3rd class) you must reserve one in advance. Reservations can be made on the day at the station but often only from particular stations such as Colombo. Research your route and check online for more details.
There are two types of busses in Sri Lanka. The first, and most common, is the bright and booming chicken-bus style public bus, otherwise known as the Central Transport Board (CTC) bus. These are very regular (especially on popular routes such as Galle Road that runs right along the south-west coast) and extremely cheap (ranging from 10 LKR for a couple of stops or 200 LKR for a couple of hours). Bear in mind they can be slow, often crowded and will be without a doubt blasting Sri Lanka’s greatest musical hits at maximum volume. If you’ve got the patience it can be a very cheap and effective way to get around, and most locals are more than happy to help if you’re unsure which bus to catch or where to get off.
Once you’re on, take a seat (or standing space in the aisle) and wait for the bus conductor to come to you – they will ask where you’re going and provide you with a ticket – so don’t be fooled into paying someone at the bus stand.
Bare in mind these busses have very limited space for baggage. Getting on at a bus terminal is the best way to ensure you get a seat and you can sometimes put your luggage in the rear storage compartment, but if you’re hopping on from the road-side you will probably be asked to leave your pack at the front with the driver. Side note: the first two seats on CTC busses are reserved for clergy (Buddhist monks).
Our personal favourite combination of ease, price and speed, independent bus companies cover most major routes in Sri Lanka. This mode of transport is not always a necessity but it is often faster, more comfortable and just as affordable as the public buses. They are about 100 to 300 LKR more than CTC buses and usually come with more space, air conditioning and (uniquely) some peace & quiet. Our favourite is the express coach from Colombo to Matara, a modern A/C coach that departs every 20 minutes for just 500 LKR. At 2.5 hours, it’s by far the quickest mode of public transport to get to the south coast.
These whippy three wheelers can be seen all over Sri Lanka. Perfect for two people, they are equipped with 100% natural air conditioning (when you’re not stuck in traffic that is). They’re extremely useful for getting around with big bags (to and from the station) or on shorter day trips (costing far less than a taxi or van). A tuk-tuk is also the best way to budget travel with a surfboard (though expect to pay a little extra and pack a board bag to avoid dings).
Be mindful of the tourist tax, as prices can vary drastically depending on the driver/location/time of day/how much Sinhalese or Tamil you can speak. A little bit of bargaining is acceptable and walk away if you think the price is unreasonable, though remember at the end of the day the extra 50 LKR probably means a lot more to the driver than it does to you. Whatever you do be sure to establish a price before you get in, or better still ask your homestay or hotel to arrange one for you.
If you’re in one place for a while and find a good driver, make sure to get their number so that you can find them again (via whatsapp); good drivers who know the local area are worth their weight in gold!
If you’re travelling in Colombo, take advantage of the metred tuk-tuks which are extremely reasonable (300 LKR for a 20 minute trip), though for long journeys across the city we prefer Uber or PickMeUp. A lot of the buses and trucks have exhaust pipes that blow black smoke right into the cab of your tiny tuk-tuk, so for not much more money it’s more comfortable to get a taxi with doors and windows!
For those who are a little adventurous, you can also rent your own tuk-tuk for your stay, they can be as little as $20AUD per day so it is worth looking around if this is how you’d like to roll. For more info check out tuktukrental.com.
By far the most comfortable way to get around Sri Lanka is in an air-conditioned private vehicle. There is no shortage of taxis and friendly drivers willing to drive relatively long distances. A lot of high-end accommodation will provide drivers’ accommodation, so if you’re on a holiday and want a driver for the duration, you can do so with ease.
Taxi’s can also be a great way to get between places if you’re in a hurry, and understandably on short trips you will want to make the most of your time. While travelling with my mum, we travelled from Matara to Yala National Park to Ella in one day for 13,000 LKR, but this journey saved us over 8 hours on public transport. We had a great English-speaking driver and having a car meant we had a safe place to keep our bags while we were on safari.
If you’re in Colombo for a while, download the PickMe App. Basically a Sri Lankan Uber… though Uber has also recently arrived in Colombo city and we use it regularly. The cars from either app are small but usually air-conditioned and offer welcome respite from the busy smoggy streets. They’re also extremely reasonably priced (about 400rs for a half hour journey across the city).
Finally, if you’re really feeling adventurous (the traffic can be very unpredictable) you can also hire a car for your own road trip. But note that Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that require you to get your licence verified in the country before you can drive. This means driving on an International Driving Permit or a foreign national licence is illegal. Check out this great post on how to get your hands on a licence: https://tuktukrental.com/how-to-get-an-international-licence-in-sri-lanka/
Things to consider when travelling on public transport
- Travelling in the day is usually a little safer.
- Take extra care as a single female traveller, you might be more comfortable sitting with other tourists or Sri Lankan women.
- Take water with you but bear in mind toilet stops may be few and far between.
- You will need close to correct change – large bills like 5000, 1000 and even 500 LKR can sometimes be problematic.