How to get from A to B: Transport in Sri Lanka

While the weather here in Bentota is rather rainy and all of us are waiting that the clouds clear up, I might introduce you into the crazy world of Sri Lankan transport. The country itself isn’t big and most of the distances are not longer than 150 – 200km. But: the roads are old and crappy, the buses too and the whole traffic system, especially in cities, confusing. Like Namal, my TukTuk friend in Kandy told me with a calm smile, “Well, it’s always around 5 hs. That’s Sri Lanka.” Except hiring a car or motor bike I tried all the means of transport, most distances on the bus and well, here are my experiences.

Car / scooter rental:
Since it is the (for me) wrong side they are driving on, and there are uncountable cars, TukTuks, Scooters and stuff on the road, I wouldn’t recommend hiring and going privately. The Sri Lankan system is just chaos for us and the blow horns make us aggressive. While we are used to use them only as a means of warning, they use it for every kind of signal: hello, go away, go faster, go aside, be careful, come on in, get out and so on. Be aware that most of the rentals are rather of poor quality compared to Western standards, if you still go on your own.

Private driver / taxi:
When you are traveling in a group, this might be a good choice and probably the most effective way to move around. You have an air conditioned bus or van, you go with company and you are fast and independent. But as a solo traveller, this way of transport is just too expensive when you use it every day or for longer distances. Compared to buses or trains, it often costs 100 times the fee you pay for public transport, if not more, if you don’t have anyone to share.

Riding a bus in Sri Lanka is a true experience. They put so many people in there that you sometimes have the feeling there is simply no air for breathing. In general, there are state-owned buses or private ones (the white buses, or sometimes even air con mini buses). I always tried to take the private ones. Since buses cost more or less nothing and go everywhere, also the private buses (mostly double the mini fee of a state-owned one) are crowded. Be at the bus station very early. If you have luggage, sometimes you are lucky and you can put it into the back of the bus (just have a nice look on the ticket man) – but then don’t forget to put the rain cover over your backpack if you have one, because it’s very dirty in there. Sometimes they also put stuff next to the driver. If you have bad luck just pay for a second seat to put your stuff onto. Costs nothing and gives you a veeery little private space when they overload the bus again. Ah, and you will never find out how long a bus ride really takes, since you of course never know how many stops will happen for people hopping on and off.

Besides the classic railway ride from Kandy to Ella, the train is also a good and cheap way to move around. But of course, the railway network isn’t that developed as for example the bus grid. Also the trains are full but I had the feeling that it was a little better than in the buses. They are always late. Sometimes you can book second or first class tickets with even seat reservation too (for the Kandy ride and the observation wagon you definitely have to do so), but there are not always trains with different classes. And just because you have a ticket for the second class doesn’t mean you will have a chance to seat down when it’s a busy route.

Probably the best way to get around on shorter distances. Always talk about the end price first, I only saw metered ones in Colombo. TukTuks can be very fast, so some people also used them for longer distances (I met people going by TukTuk for 4,5 hs), especially when the driver loves to race the buses. The best thing about TukTuks is that the drivers love conversations and you get a lot of information no travel guide can offer you while chatting with the guys.

I only had one bike ride and that definitely was enough. Since most of the people here are rather small, the bikes are too. I for example got a kid’s bike when I followed the advice to use a bike to discover Anuradhpura. And I can tell you one thing: hot, dirty, stressful. Once was enough….

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