Travelling in Sri Lanka

Thanks to a decade’s worth of upgrades, travelling in Sri Lanka by train is no longer as slow as it once was. The British pioneered the modern railway system in the nineteenth century. It has transformed from a beautifully old but largely useless remnant of a bygone period into a pleasant and, on some routes

Travelling in Sri Lanka

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Travelling in Sri Lanka

Navigating Sri Lanka is best told in two parts, each covering a different time period. Since colonial times, Sri Lanka’s infrastructure has been substantially enhanced because of the island’s continually expanding road network, which has facilitated faster travel to many parts of the country. Recent improvements to the rail system, however, have made overnight trains between cities both quick and pleasant. If you go away from the major highways and train lines, however, travelling in Sri Lanka may still be an extremely exhausting task.

One of the most common (and frequently fastest) ways to travel around the island is by bus. Taking a train is a more leisurely way to get from one part of the country to another. When compared to the unpredictability of public transport, hiring a car and driver may be a more practical and cheap choice, allowing you to visit the island in relative comfort. If speed is of importance, you can go from Colombo to other regions of the island quickly through an internal aircraft.

Travelling in Sri Lanka by Bus

Travelling in Sri Lanka by bus is extensively utilised. Regular connections to even the smallest of the island’s towns may be found along the main thoroughfares, where buses rumble by every few seconds. That’s some encouraging news. Unfortunately, certain reckless bus drivers in Sri Lanka can make bus rides uncomfortable. Bus travel in Sri Lanka is typically choppy, with times of creeping slowness interspersed with times of stomach-clenching bursts of speed. Every window shakes in unison as blaring pop music and honking horns join the chorus of mechanical protest as the long-suffering bus rounds yet another corner. The brakes pound as usual, and everyone in their seats leans forward. Even more so if you don’t have anywhere to sit. One of the many unfortunates who were crammed into the aisle at the last minute is likely to use your arm as an armrest if you do.
There is more than one style of bus available. The primary distinction is between government-run bus services like the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) and private companies.

SLTB role model

Red is the most common colour for SLTB buses. Although the driver won’t be under as much pressure to get to the next stop as quickly as the competition, making them slightly more comfortable than private buses despite their slower speed, the conductor will not feel as much pressure to fill the bus.

Special bus service

There are many variants of private buses available. Private buses, like SLTB buses, are big and make many stops. They are identical in every way except that private buses are often white and sport stickers advertising the company that owns and operates them. Large buses marketed by some companies as “semi-express,” “express,” or “inter-city” tend to make fewer stops along the route and travel at a slightly increased speed.
When time is of the essence, private minibuses are your best bet. Despite their common labelling as “luxury” or “express” services, users should exercise caution. Smaller cars with air conditioning and curtains over the windows can nonetheless be less comfortable than SLTB due to cramped seating and no overhead storage space (your bags will probably end up on your lap or between your legs). Despite the fact that express minibuses are only allowed to make brief stops at major bus terminals, the driver and/or conductor can decide where to stop, how long to remain, and how many passengers to cram in. An extra seat can be useful for stowing luggage if your vehicle has enough spare seating. It’s possible the conductor will recommend doing this.

Travelling in Sri Lanka: Expenses, Schedules, and Vacations

Low-cost bus rides are available from both SLTB and private companies. On the latter, depending on your final destination, you may have to pay the whole fare for the entire trip. Please inform the driver or conductor upon boarding if you intend to exit the bus before it has completed its route.
Fixed schedules apply to services on longer and/or less frequently served routes. When routes are shorter or more heavily used, it is common for services to cease once the bus is full. The departure frequency of longer routes is often higher in the morning and lower in the afternoon. Seat reservations are nearly nonexistent on services other than those between Colombo and Jaffna.

The inaccessibility of certain bus services is another issue when using buses in Sri Lanka. It is helpful to know which Sinhala characters to search for; however, most buses will have signs with both the Sinhala and English names of their destinations. Despite their lack of signage, all bus terminals feature information kiosks staffed by locals who can point you in the right direction and offer you up-to-date schedule information. If you take a tuktuk and arrive at a huge terminal, have your driver help you locate the right bus.

The majority of express routes only make stops at designated bus stations and other locations. In contrast, most services that pick up passengers just stop wherever the customer is and wait by the roadside with their arms outstretched. The final risk of taking a bus is boarding one that you’ve flagged down on the side of the road. Rather than stopping entirely, most drivers will merely slow down for you to get on. If you’re carrying a lot of stuff, you should be extremely alert and prepared to make a quick dash for the bus when it arrives.

Travelling in Sri Lanka by train

Thanks to a decade’s worth of upgrades, Sri Lanka train travel is no longer as slow as it once was. The British pioneered the modern railway system in the nineteenth century. It has transformed from a beautifully old but largely useless remnant of a bygone period into a pleasant and, on some routes, surprisingly quick mode of transportation. The system has been upgraded with cutting-edge technology, including brand-new AC carriages on intercity lines and updated rails across the island. The roads to Jaffna and Mannar have reopened after being closed for several years. Trains on the stunning route through Sri Lanka’s hilly highlands move at a snail’s pace.

The Blue Train of the Sri Lankan Hill Country

Tourists love taking the Sri Lanka hill country train because it takes them through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. The excursion through the hilly region on the train is widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful train rides. Seeing as how many people are interested in taking train rides through the hills, the Sri Lankan railway authority has introduced a new luxury train called the “Ella Odyssey.” Many multi-day Sri Lanka holiday packages include a train ride across the country’s hill country, like Seerendipity ToursKandy-Nuwara Eliya journey.

Timetables

There can be large time disparities between slow services (such as night mail trains) that stop at practically every station along the route and faster express services (which make fewer stops). Standard intercity services, on the other hand, make more stops along the way.
Railway.gov.lk and slr.malindaprasad.com both have up-to-date train schedules. If you want to learn more about the recent improvements to train travel in Sri Lanka, you should check out seat61.com.

Rail lines and systems

The Puttalam Line, which begins in the north and travels 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 is one of the three main lines that make up the network. From Colombo, you may take a train to Kandy, and from there you can go to the hill country, where you can visit Adam’s Peak, Nuwara Eliya, Haputale, Bandarawela, Ella, and Badulla. The northern line begins in Colombo and travels north to Jaffna through Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, and Vavuniya. The cities of Mannar, Talaimannar, Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa, and Batticaloa are accessible via three additional lines that connect to Madhu Road.

Train rides with varying degrees of luxury

There are typically three car types on trains. On most routes, you can only take a second or third class car. There isn’t much of a difference between them; certain trains allow you to book seats in either class, and second-class seats just have a little extra padding and fans. The main advantage of making a reservation is that standing is not permitted on reserved trains. There is a slight upcharge for riding in an unreserved second-class carriage, but the main benefit is that these cars are typically less congested.
First class offers a variety of seating options, however these cars are limited to select trains and require advance reservations. First-class seats in air-conditioned cars (albeit you are virtually locked off from the outside world and cannot open the windows) are available on intercity trains, hill country trains, and northern routes. On hill country trains, first class passengers have access to an observation car and, on overnight trips, to (very squalid) sleeping compartments.

Due to its size, the island has a limited number of trains that run nightly. There are regular seats, first-class sleeping berths, and “sleeperettes,” which are essentially just reclining seats, in economy, business, and first-class.

Carriages and observation vehicles for tourists

The “observation car” is a special carriage used on occasion by intercity trains to transport passengers over the mountainous terrain between Colombo and Kandy and Badulla. Located towards the rear of the train, this car features worn armchair-style seats and large panoramic windows that provide a panoramic view in every direction. The trip from Colombo to Kandy is quite popular, thus every seat is reserved, and they go fast.

Payments and reservations

All train fares in Sri Lanka have climbed significantly in recent times. It was a significant rate increase, on pace with the cost of diesel. The fares may have just increased, but they are still cheaper than other forms of transportation like cabs.
All three fare categories of railway seats can now be reserved in advance. Major stations accept reservations made in person up to 14 days before departure. Bookings can also be made by phone using an Etisalat or Mobitel account. Even though Sri Lankan Railways does not provide an online booking option, some other companies do. Seerendipity Tours, like many other tour operators, lets customers reserve train seats through their headquarters.

The bad news is that seats in the first class section of many services quickly fill up after they go on sale. Even the lower classes can be incredibly reserved at times. As a result, it is wise to employ a travel agency and plan ahead by more than two weeks. Good news (kind of): practically all trains provide unreserved coaches for passengers in second and third class. Tickets for them can be purchased in an infinite quantity on the day of departure (sometimes within an hour of the scheduled departure time). What this means is that acquiring a ticket is essentially certain. When a train is said to be “sold out,” all of the tickets for that train have been purchased. This, of course, also means that there may be times when the carriages are overcrowded.

Travelling in Sri Lanka by plane

Travelling in Sri Lanka by plane is not only a time-saving option to slower modes of transportation like driving or taking the train, but also a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Amazing bird’s-eye views of the island are a common perk. Katunayake International Airport (CMB), Koggala, Dickwella, Weerawila (near Tissamaharama), Kandy, Castlereagh (near Adam’s Peak), Sigiriya, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee are all served by regularly scheduled flights operated by commercial companies. The southernmost point of Colombo is known as Water’s Edge. The prices aren’t exactly low, but the planes pass through some stunning landscapes. The fact that many flight paths involve touching down on or taking off from water only adds to the thrill.

Travelling in Sri Lanka by car

Travelling in Sri Lanka by car is very conveneint due to the fact that most roads in Sri Lanka are in good shape, but drivers will still face challenges owing to hazards including distracted cyclists, irrational bus drivers, potentially dangerous dogs, and crowds of pedestrians. Sri Lankan drivers adhere to a bizarre system of traffic restrictions, including the adage “good horn, good brakes, and good luck.”

A vehicle with a certified tourist driver is recommended for any road trips in Sri Lanka. Hiring a local driver is a safe and relaxing option. On the negative, it could be more costly than other common forms of mass transportation. Luxury automobiles are standard issue for tour companies like Seerendipity Tours. Using their spacious vans, they set up tours of Sri Lanka for tourists.

Driving on your own in Sri Lanka

To drive alone, you’ll need a valid international driver’s licence. For additional driving authorization in Sri Lanka, you can visit the Automobile Association of Ceylon in Colombo between the hours of 8 am and 4 pm local time, Monday through Friday. Instantaneous permits are issued for a maximum of one year.
A reliable map or atlas, or a similar device, such as a tablet or smartphone, is another excellent choice. Keep in mind that the driver of a bus or other larger vehicle in Sri Lanka will likely expect you to get out of the way if they are moving quicker than you. Furthermore, many vehicles accelerate through hazardous areas, such as blind corners, without coming to a complete stop. There are a lot of fast and unstable drivers out there, so you need to be prepared.

Sri Lankan automobile rental with driver

Many visitors to Sri Lanka rent a car and driver instead of relying on the inconvenient and often expensive public transport system since it allows for greater freedom of movement and convenience at a lower cost. Some drivers will merely act as your driver, while others will also act as guides at all the major tourist locations and answer any questions you may have about the country thanks to their training as “chauffeur-guides” and official tourist board licences.
Engaging a reputed firm (like Seerendipity Tours or Sirilak Tours) that only uses chauffeur-guides who have been accredited by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board is the best way to ensure that you have a reliable driver. Make sure your driver can communicate with you in English, and be very clear about where you want to go and where you don’t want to go. Some drivers are so friendly that they force their customers to act as tour guides or translators or even eat dinner with them. If this is what you want, then great; if not, then don’t be shy about expressing your desire for solitude while you’re not in the car.

Morals

Vehicle capacity has less of an effect on pricing than quality does, therefore a high-end air-conditioned automobile will cost more than a non-air-conditioned minivan. The cheapest cars cost around $50 per day, which includes petrol, parking and the driver’s salary. The majority of five-star hotels provide drivers free or discounted room and board. Your driver’s lodging and meals at a modest or low-priced hotel will be covered by your budget. It’s always a good idea to try and organise a daily allocation for this before you travel to Sri Lanka to avoid misunderstandings and disagreements. Your driver may additionally expect a daily gratuity of $5 to $10, the amount dependent on how satisfied you are with their service.
You should also include in the cost of petrol, which, given the current pricing in Sri Lanka, is likely to be rather high and might greatly increase the total expenditure. In addition, some businesses only provide a meagre 100 km of free daily mileage, which is not nearly enough for the winding roads of the island. Extra mileage may result in additional costs. You might also rent a car for the day and drive it around the island. If you rent a car, you won’t have to worry about feeding your driver, saving you money on both gas and lodging.

Highways

The E01 Southern Motorway, Sri Lanka’s first actual motorway, was completed in late 2011 and stretches from Colombo to Galle (it was later expanded from Matara to Hambantota in 2014). This marked a much-needed improvement to the country’s nineteenth-century roadway system. The E03 Colombo-airport motorway, the country’s second motorway, was completed in 2013 and now connects the country’s capital to its primary international airport. In 2014, a third motorway, the E02 Outer Circular motorway, was built; it connects directly to the E01 but not the E03. In addition, it extends as a ring road for the city of Colombo. The E04 Central Motorway between Colombo and Kandy and the E06 Ruwanpura Motorway connecting Colombo, Ratnapura, and Pelmadulla are both scheduled to open in 2020.
Once completed, the 350-kilometer network will revolutionise how people get around the island. The previously difficult three-hour journey from Colombo to Galle is now a comfortable hour’s drive, thanks to the newly constructed road to Southern Sri Lanka. Similarly, the Central Motorway to Kandy is projected to cut travel times to other hill country locations by a similar amount in the future.

Tuk-tuk travel in Sri Lanka

Motorised rickshaws in neat rows are a common sight in every major city and small town across Sri Lanka. Tuktuks (also known as three-wheelers, trishaws or, in a more positive sense, ‘taxis’) are the primary mode of transportation in Sri Lanka over short distances, especially those between cities. However, in the event of an emergency or if you just don’t have time to wait for a bus, these vehicles come in handy for long-distance transport. The majority of the available vehicles are Bajaj rickshaws, which you can rent. Common forms of decoration utilised by its drivers include colourful stickers, miniatures, plastic flowers, and other fanciful or talismanic objects.
In Sri Lanka, you will constantly be approached by salespeople offering their services. If you ever find yourself in need of transportation, a rickshaw is a convenient option because of its ability to weave in and out of traffic at breakneck speeds. Since there are so many drivers in the area, you can easily haggle for a better price. There is always someone else who will gladly do business with you if you two can’t come to an agreement on terms.

Outside of the capital city of Colombo, rickshaw fares in Sri Lanka are negotiable with the driver. You should never leave without first settling on a fare. Some tuktuk drivers in Sri Lanka are dishonest and will try to overcharge you, but the vast majority are honest and will offer you a fair price without you having to ask. It’s tough to know where you stand because to the vast variety of veracity you’ll meet. Currently, a ride in a metered taxi in Colombo will cost you between Rs. 100 and Rs. 120. Although this is a good rule of thumb, unless you are a skilled negotiator, you will almost certainly spend more, especially in major cities and tourist hotspots. Remember that the price per kilometre should decrease as the trip lengthens. Furthermore, you have the upper hand in negotiations because there are always other rickshaw drivers who will take your business if you and the first one can’t come to terms on a fair rate.

Finally, when rickshaw drivers indicate they are out of change, you should exercise caution. A driver who claims to have just Rs. 50 or Rs. 60 change may be speaking the truth in the hopes that you will accept a somewhat lower amount. It’s possible that this would happen even if you tried to pay for a ride that costs Rs. 120 with a Rs. 150 bill. Make sure the driver has cash if you don’t have any change. Instead of gambling with your fare, you can probably trust that your driver will make the extra effort to obtain you change if you are upfront about the situation.