When you’re travelling around the island, keep some identity papers with you at all times. It’s a good idea to keep photo copies of your passport and other papers away from the originals in case of loss or theft. Correct and relevant documentation can save you a great deal of time and trouble for a hassle-free tour. When travelling in non-metered transport like trishaws, settle on a price before you get in and on trains and buses, keep your bags and packages close by.
British double-decker buses in their familiar red livery were plying Colombo’s roads just a few decades ago, a vestige of the colonial past. That was an era in which there were only state-owned buses of the Ceylon Transport Board operating in Sri Lanka, known as CTB buses. But then with a burgeoning population wanting to be increasingly mobile, the Ceylon Transport Board became unable to cope with new public transport requirements. In an effort to improve the system, private buses were introduced in the early 1980s. These range from the large modern air-conditioned coaches used on some intercity routes, to the small old minibuses (many badly maintained) that are used on shorter routes, mostly between town and village. Since the early 1990s there has been a third type of bus service in Sri Lanka. Known as Peoplised Buses, these are former state-owned buses that are now controlled by the workers under a privatization agreement.
In general, travelling by bus in Sri Lanka is the least preferable way of getting around, more especially if you have luggage. This is due to the fact that most buses are crowded and, as profit margins are small, private buses in particular are always vying with each other to pick up
passengers first, which is why they always seem to be travelling at break-neck speed, desperately trying to overtake the bus in front. Travelling by bus in Sri Lanka is definitely not for the faint-hearted, yet there are many with a limited budget or a penchant for thrills who brave them.
Many three-wheeler drivers in Colombo and elsewhere are prepared to accept long hires. For one or two people with light luggage, a three-wheeler trip from Colombo to a resort, or between resorts, can be a practical alternative to using the bus or train.
By Car Hire with Driver
Scheduled services There was a time, before the advent of the motor-car in Sri Lanka during the early 20th century, when rail travel was the principle means of transport for the increasing number of tourists who visited Ceylon by ship. In those days rail travel was a most comfortable, relaxed form of transport, and the train carriages were luxurious affairs, as Henry Cave notes in his railway guidebook, The Ceylon Government Railway (1910): These modern carriages, which are constructed of teak, are not of the Indian type, with their longitudinal seats, but of the English pattern, and are furnished with excellent lavatory accommodation. The outsides of the carriages are of varnished teak, whilst the interiors are of the same wood polished, picked out with satinwood, and adorned with photographs of interesting places on the line.With the development of the rail network in the island in the late 19th century, tourism within the island became practicable for the first time, as Cave points out: “Her railway now affords an easy and even luxurious means of reaching the most attractive parts of the country. It renders easily and quickly accessible the most beautiful scenery, the most interesting antiquities and all those fields of agricultural industry – the tea, the coconuts, and the rubber, which have brought about the advanced state of prosperity which the colony enjoys. No other country in the world can take you in spacious and comfortable railway carriages on a track of five feet six inches gauge, over mountains at an altitude of more than six thousand feet”.
Times have changed, the network has shrunk, and train travel is rarely luxurious, although there are various first class options available. Nevertheless, rail travel in Sri Lanka for the 21st century visitor is more comfortable and less stressful than journeying by bus. It also provides an opportunity to see some beautiful scenery – scenery that can not always be viewed from the road. Furthermore, rail travel gives a remarkable insight into island life where the tracks run though villages and alongside roads. Visitors will find that the space between the tracks is often used by villagers as a footpath.
There is always plenty to see on the train itself, and on station platforms. One of the main experiences of any rail journey in the island, past or present, is described in Bella Woolf’s guidebook, How to See Ceylon (1914): “The passenger will be interested to watch the native sellers of food and drink. Cries of kurumba (young coconuts), gehel-gedi (plantains), bullat (betel), and tay watura (tea water), are heard all along the platform. Kurumbas and plantains are the only safe things to buy. Many trays display the most fearsome cakes and drink”.
The railway in Sri Lanka has three classes. Some trains offer first, second and third class, some only second and third, some only first and second. Third class is obviously the cheapest – incredibly cheap by western standards – but it is generally crowded and seating is restricted to rough wooden benches (that’s if you can get a seat). Second class at least has padded – but nevertheless quite hard – seats. Moreover, it is less crowded and there are sleepers. Three first class options exist: air-conditioned coaches, observation cars (air-conditioned with large windows for viewing the scenery) and air conditioned sleeping berths.
Of course there are inevitable inconveniences to rail travel in Sri Lanka. Often the trains are quite slow (bad track maintenance and sleepy signals are usually the cause), they stop at many stations (for what seems an overlong period of time) and they can become very crowded at weekends and public holidays. Fortunately, though, train journeys in Sri Lanka are not that long, as they are in India, so such inconveniences are tolerable and tempered by the many visual delights encountered along the tracks.
The first railway line, between Colombo and Kandy, was opened in 1867. Naturally, Colombo is the hub of the present day rail network, which consists of 1,640 km of track.
There are other lines linking the capital to Matara via Galle in the south; Badulla via Nanu Oya in the central highlands; Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the east; Jaffna and Kankesanturai (via Polgahawela and Anuradhapura) in the north; and Puttalam on the north west coast.
The line beyond Kandy through the mountains to Badulla was possibly the greatest feat of construction by the British during their colonial rule. As Harry Williams comments in Ceylon: Pearl of the East (1950), “…the Colombo – Badulla line provides a view of most of the island’s varied geography.” It is a masterpiece of British engineering, crawling along ledges, boring through mountains, crossing ravines hundreds of feet deep, and climbing to a height of over 6,000 feet. Perhaps the finest appreciation of Ceylon may be obtained by taking the rail trip from Colombo to Badulla for it gives the newcomer a glimpse of almost every section of the island, and is frankly hair-raising in places. Sensation Rock for example, where the train crawls round sheer rock on a ledge just wide enough to permit the track with a drop of almost 2,000 feet, where if the train were to go over the ledge, is well worthy of the name.