ultimate guide to transport in sri lanka

Sri Lanka Transport Guide – How to Take Sri Lankan Buses, Trains & Tuk Tuks

A lot of foreign visitors to Sri Lanka are here for two weeks. They hire a driver and zip between cultural attractions. That’s a pretty common way to see the country. My driver hiring days ended on February 1st 2014 when we decided to take the slow lane and see the world on an attempted US$50 a day.

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Here in Sri Lanka we’ve taken trains, buses and four different types of tuk tuk. Oops, I might have told a little porky, we even hired a driver for the day while were in Anuradhapura. Oh and we took a minivan with another couple up to Horton Plains National Park when we were staying in Nuwara Eliya. Anyways… Moving swiftly on…

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We’ve driven past landslides, we’ve had a tyre blow out, we’ve had the gear box fixed with twine (ok Mum and Mum in law – Olive and Edith – , perhaps you should have stopped reading before this bit..) and we’ve almost bounced off the train track. It has been a transportational blast. Mind you, when we were in Myanmar, we actually lost part of the train (it fell apart)

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Now that it’s over I can look back through rose tinted glasses and say it was fabulous. Then, sitting on a bus for 7 hours, with no end in sight, I found myself wishing for a Chinese bus and the comfort that brought. Oh how far we’ve come..

Trains
We took our first train within two hours of landing in the nation’s capital, Colombo. We’d received our Ministry of Defence permission and were heading directly to Jaffna in the Northern Province. Why? Well just because we could.

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The Man in Seat61 and the BBC had told us that the rail lines north had just reopened in October 2014, being rebuilt after the civil war that tore apart the country for 30 years. The civil war didn’t end until 2009 and it’s possible in Jaffna to still see a lot of war damage.

We took the 7am train from Colombo Fort Station to Jaffna – buying tickets from the Colombo Fort station.

There are two types of tickets you can buy on Sri Lankan trains. Reserved seat tickets and just tickets. When it comes to reserved seat tickets your options are then the observation car (more on this later), first class and second class. If those options are available on a particular train of course. There’s no online booking here. There is however, a useful board in the Colombo Fort Ticket Office that indicates if you’re likely to be able to buy a reserved seat ticket for certain trains.

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You can also buy tickets for second and third class and just join the scrum to get a seat when the train pulls in.

And while the Sri Lanka railway website –  is very good in providing timetables and costs, you can’t book online as yet.

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The Observation Car
The only reserved seat tickets left for our trip north to Jaffna were in the Observation Car. It cost us 1100 LKR each. (GBP 5.55, US$ 8.37) This car sits at the back of the train and all seats face backwards.

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There’s a big picture window at the back and windows that open at the sides.

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This is the observation car we took to Jaffna

Fans are mounted on the ceiling. The best seats to have are right at the back. Or the front. Well, the ones in front of the big picture window. If you get what I mean. We had the second row, which was actually pretty darned good.

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We ate our first Sri Lankan food on this train – short eats and then rice and curry out of newspaper – and it was SO GOOD and started my love affair with Sri Lankan food.

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We also bounced our way north. Most folks got off this train at Anuradhapura and we were left in the observation car with Sri Lankan train enthusiasts (this line is only recently re-opened) and we were the only Westerners – permission is now required from the MOD to visit the Northern Province and while the line has been rebuilt for part of the way, there’s still some old track here.

The track is bouncy. I mean seriously bouncy. Bags fell off the overhead racks. We all clutched seats. Stopped doing what we were doing and contemplated that we might actually bounce off the tracks. You could see folks wondering what to hold onto if we actually did.

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(We didn’t, but the first thing that James, an Australian we met in Jaffna and again in Kandy, said to us was ” did you nearly bounce off too?”)

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Second Class is also good
We took second class reserved seats south to Anuradhapura. And that was good. Fan cooled, with the switch controlled by the seat behind you, it meant that you didn’t want to annoy your neighbors.

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There were trains with good views and trains with great views as we climbed into hill country – taking second class unreserved seats and third class too.

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We gnashed our teeth in Hatton, when no one who worked for the railway knew when we could buy a ticket, or where the various carriages would stop, meaning that most folks ended up running along the platform to join the scrum for seats.

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We clambered on halfway down the track to the local train that stopped for everything else, including having our engine do some shunting mid trip.

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We waited for the points to be shifted manually.

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We jumped out of one carriage at a station I can’t remember, when we realized we were in the wrong class (there was no way through internally) , and ended up running along the platform and clambering into the guards van onto a moving train and this with 10 kilos of Osprey pack on my back trying desperately to throw all the weight forward before I hit the fence at the end of the platform. It worked, I’m still here.

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In third class, I learned, that while you might move to let other folks in, you never concede space. Sri Lankan ladies are better even than little old Chinese women when it comes to absorbing space. I spent the journey between Hatton and Haputale with one bum cheek in space because a tiny tiny little woman took up twice as much space as I did and just grinned at me toothlessly whenever I tried to shuffle back onto the seat. She never did move.

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For a Westerner, the trains are of a bygone age. But they ain’t ‘alf cheap to travel on. They’re fun, they’re noisy, they’re crowded. I’d hate to be in an accident on one.

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The track is a mess.

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Old sleepers, often rotten, misaligned rails. Subject to landslides, we took two buses, as the December 2014 floods that killed more than 20 people also took out part of the railway line.

People walk along the track all the time. Sometimes it’s the only way to get somewhere. Take hiking Ella Rock, in Hill Country – the prescribed route is along the track for about 40 minutes. Despite the sign that says it’s prohibited, the station master sends you that way when you ask for directions.

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Although you will have to jump out of the way of trains occasionally..

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Organizationally it feels like a disaster. I hope that’s not what the British left behind. We could never find anyone to answer questions. The website and online timetables bore only a little resemblance to reality. All trains run consistently late and to the same level of lateness (just change the bloody timetable already!).

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Oh but they’re a wonderful, lovely, slow but sure way to see this glorious country. There’s one train on the west coast of the island that has a tragic history dating from 2004. The train was swept from the tracks during the 2004 Tsunami. There’s a small museum now near where this happened and if you’re there, I recommend a visit.

The Bus
Ah. Yes. The Sri Lankan bus. We took many buses during our month in Sri Lanka. There were only two that were “air-conditioned” – the first from the airport to Colombo Fort Bus Station, the second from Anuradhapura to Kandy. All the others were very local and very very cheap.

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The driver gets to pick the music. And there is always music. There is also always a representation of Buddha on board. Often several. Usually brightly lit.

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On our bus from Anuradhapura to Kandy we screeched to a stop not long after we’d set off, so that the conductor could take a little money from the driver and make an offering at a roadside shrine before the journey could commence. (Olive and Edith, I told you to stop reading..)

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There are always horn blasts. Always. And this ain’t no regular two lane highway. Sri Lankan roads aren’t really hopping unless your bus is being overtaken by another bus while you’re overtaking a tuk tuk. All three of you blasting on the horn.

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One bus broke down. We were sat at the front and you could hear there was something wrong with the gears. We coasted to a stop and the engine covering was pulled off. The tool kit – a wrench and a rag – were pulled out. And something was replaced with a piece of twine. Yes, Olive and Edith, there are somethings that you really don’t want to know the answer to.

Repairs...
Repairs…

The buses feel fast. Although that’s just a sense you get. Because none of the gauges actually work. Mind you, anything feels fast when you’re hurtling towards stationary traffic, or you’re on the wrong side of the road overtaking another bus and there’s a mirror image situation coming towards you at similar gauge-less speeds.

Rules to picking a seat on a Sri Lankan bus:

  1. Try and get on early, and dump your big backpack on top of the engine cover. Wedge it in, or tie it on.
  2. Don’t sit in a “reserved for Clergy” seat. Because if a monk gets on, you’ll be standing in the aisle.
  3. Don’t sit on the front row, especially on the left hand side. There might look like a lot of legroom, but this is actually standing space for about 8 people. You’ll get squeezed past here constantly.
  4. Don’t sit on the back seat. There are six seats across the back. There’s probably room for four normal sized human beings.
  5. Don’t sit opposite the rear door. There are no arm rests. Buses corner quickly, seats are slippery. This is actually the “launch yourself down a mountain gorge seat”
  6. At least once stand on the steps and enjoy the ride.
  7. Get used to the idea that it’s going to be full and squeezing past is just what happens. Keep your elbows sharpened for inappropriate squeezing.
  8. Try sitting somewhere in the middle for the least bumpy ride, especially if you’re going all the way to the final stop.
  9. No matter how far ahead you plan, you will never have enough time to get from the middle of the bus, pick up your bag and get off if you’re not at the final stop, so TRY and plan ahead.

Our cheapest bus was from Ella in Hill Country to Matara. We’d originally planned to get off a Tissamaharama and head to Yala National Park, but when it continued to rain we decided to stay on to Matara on the south coast and run for the beach resort of Mirissa. That bus cost 160 LKR each. (GBP 0.80 US$ 1.22) to Tissa. The conductor never asked for more money, when we asked to stay on. We traveled 170 kilometers. An entire day’s entertainment and lower leg edema for just over one US dollar.

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This was also our second bus that broke down. We were sat in the middle. We’d moved after almost launching from the opposite the rear door into the gorge by Ella Gap. You could hear something was wrong. It sounded serious. It sounded like something about to shear off. Worse, it sounded underneath us. In the end the tyre burst.

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We just pulled into a garage and they changed the blown tyre for the bald spare as we all sat watching. 10 minutes later we were on our way. Feeling so much more secure. Not. Still there eh Olive and Edith?

There was only one accident that we saw. And actually we just saw the aftermath. A minivan had rolled off the road down a steep hill on the road from Lipton’s Seat, near Haputale. The crane brought in to haul it back up the hill blocked the road. Well that and all the bystanders from blocked buses, cars and tuk tuks.

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Mostly public transport in Sri Lanka is crowded. Very crowded. The first time we took the bus from Kandy to the Pallakelle Cricket stadium to watch one of the One Day Internationals (ODI) I stood on the steps as I couldn’t get any further into the bus. Another time, the conductor made Nigel sit on top of the engine as he was too big and getting in the way.

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And there are those folks who want to stand a little too close. Even when there is space. There’s nothing worse than the man in the short sarong rubbing himself up against you when there’s more than enough space. It wasn’t me who had the problem, this happened to Nigel!

After our second ODI in Kandy, when Sangakarra scored his century, we wandered out of the ground to stuffed bus after stuffed bus. Tuk Tuks were nowhere to be seen. A Sri Lankan family from Colombo in a minivan stopped and asked where we were going. An hour of wonderful conversation later, they’d dropped us on the outskirts of Kandy, some 17 kilometers away. No matter how wonderful we found the country, we found the Sri Lankan people more so.

Buses are frustratingly slow. They stop everywhere and in between. Our 75 LKR ((GBP9.38, US$0.57) bus from Delhouse (where we climbed Adam’s Peak) back to Hatton Train station might have been cheap, but we sat on it for an hour before it left, despite us being ahead of schedule for the 11am bus. Then it took two and a half hours to travel the route that had taken an hour less on the way UP the hill!

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There are vendors on trains and on buses. For food – especially short eats (the term that Sri Lankans use for snacks, usually deep fried), for games, for toys, for lottery tickets. There are often beggars. There are men who will sing you a song and then ask for money.

Buses are bumpy. Very very bumpy. And they’re a tight squeeze. There are usually two seats on one side of the aisle and three on the other. Even the Sri Lankan’s struggle to fit into these spaces.

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If someone with a child gets on, seats are given up. Or if the child is walking, then they’re hauled up onto someone’s lap. Friend or stranger is makes no difference. Did I tell you yet, that I love this country?

Tuk Tuks Rule in Sri Lanka

If I come back to Sri Lanka, I’m renting a Tuk Tuk and driving it round the country. It would be an amazing way to see the country, but for this trip I had to contend with being a passenger in a variety of tuk tuks.

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There are four different types of tuk tuk in Sri Lanka. There’s the four stroke TVS. There’s the two stroke Bajaj, the four stroke Bajaj and then there’s the Piaggio Ape. To the laymen it’s relatively easy to figure out the difference. The two strokes are usually the ones that everything else overtakes.

And the Piaggios?

The Piaggios sound very distinctly different. They’re loud, they’re more rattly, they’re tinny. They’re Italian.

And there’s clearly a program out here called Pimp my Tuk Tuk, because some folks go all out.

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There’s no meter on tuk tuks. Or if there is its well hidden. Negotiate your rate before you get in. And beware the 15 or 50 confusion.

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Tuk tuks are fabulous contraptions. If I could take one home I would. They’d be marvelous to drive on a road without bumps or scary big buses hurtling towards you on the wrong side of the road.

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In a lot of ways they’re like a London Taxi, they can turn “on a sixpence”, they’re recognizable and their drivers will talk the hind leg off a donkey.

They have curtains for when it rains. Hey, we were in Sri Lanka in December 2014. It rained A LOT.

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They have bottles of hard stuff. Although I was told on more than one occasion that it was “just water”.

There are cars that you will want to see too
If you do make it to Jaffna then there is a surprise in store for you. Sri Lanka emerged from a civil war in 2009. You didn’t read that wrong, yes, 2009. During that time many imports were banned. One banned import was new cars. What you’ll find in Jaffna are the most delightfully well maintained old cars. We spotted a few. Just thinking of them brings a smile.

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We didn’t see all of Sri Lanka, the rain pretty much put paid to that, but we did see a lot. And seeing it through the eyes of public transport means you get to see a lot more. What I did see what busy, full, crowded. But it was amiable, friendly and easy going. It was pretty much Sri Lanka to a T.

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Travel Tips for Exploring Sri Lanka

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