Getting Around

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.

By Bus

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. 

By Three-wheeler

The ubiquitous three-wheeler revolutionized budget transport in Sri Lanka on its arrival in the late 1970s, as it did in other Asian countries such as India and Thailand. Also generally known as a trishaw in Sri Lanka, and even ground helicopter in certain resort areas, the three-wheeler is noisy, gives a bone-shaking ride on less-than-perfect roads, and gets you soaked if it is raining unless there are side flaps that fit perfectly. What’s more, they don’t have a meter, which means you often pay almost as much as you would for a comfortable, air-conditioned taxi. Nevertheless, they have many advantages in Colombo traffic in particular, considerably reducing journey times and increasing the chances of finding a convenient parking place.             Visitors should be aware that it’s a hard life being a three-wheeler driver. Many cannot afford to buy a vehicle and are therefore forced to rent one at high cost by the day. That is why they have to charge comparatively high fares. Sometimes business is good – if it rains in the late afternoon for instance, when office workers are returning home, an empty three-wheeler is hard to find. On many days, however, three-wheeler drivers are more likely to be seen sitting idly in their vehicles at one of the many three-wheeler stands to be found throughout Colombo and most towns.


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.

Car Rental

 Conventional wisdom maintains that self-drive car rental in Sri Lanka cannot be recommended for visitors due to the unfamiliar and often intimidating driving conditions. While it’s true that driving can be particularly harrowing, and that it’s sensible to avoid stress while on holiday, self-drive car hire is nevertheless becoming an increasingly popular method of getting around Sri Lanka. If you decide on the car rental option, it is important to realise what driving in Sri Lanka entails. Extreme care must be exercised at all times. Unlike driving in the West, there are many potential hazards. Sri Lankans are generally less aware of traffic, especially in rural areas, and pedestrians often walk along the middle of the road in the absence of pavements. You need to take into consideration the plentiful non-motorised transport that is slow and less manoeuvrable than a car, whether it is a work elephant or bullock cart. You need to get to know the characteristics of the strange contraptions that also use the road, such as small hand tractors towing a trailer in which the driver and other occupants sit, and bicycles that have been converted into a travelling stall with a cumbersome glass cabinet, in which are displayed gram, sweetmeats, etc.     Above all, be cautious of buses, both coming up from behind as well as oncoming. As buses on the same route race to get to the next bus stop first in order to corner the custom, other vehicles travelling in the same direction at a slower speed will find buses sitting on their tail, blaring their horns and trying to overtake at the first opportunity. For vehicles travelling in the opposite direction, oncoming buses can be particular hazardous if overtaking, often forcing other drivers to take sudden and drastic action to avoid a collision.If driving at night, extra caution must be taken, for many bicycles do not have lights, and other vehicles’ lights can sometimes be defective or misaligned, thus temporarily blinding oncoming drivers. As there are few street lights, look out for meandering pedestrians, potholes, erosion of the side of the road, and other potential hazards.

 By Taxi

Two decades ago, almost every taxi in Sri Lanka was an English Morris Minor with a black body and a yellow roof (and usually a broken meter). If you were tall you had to crouch in the back seat, which would then slip forward, depositing you on the floor. If it rained you more often than not got at least your feet soaked due to corrosion holes in the floor, and sometimes your whole body if the window-winder was defective (a common fault). Now these Morris Minors have either been scrapped or reconditioned and sold to enthusiasts abroad. Instead there are fleets of radio-controlled, efficiently-metered taxis using modern Japanese vehicles in Colombo and its suburbs in particular. In addition, the more economical taxi-van has gained in popularity in recent years in the other main urban centre of Kandy.   However, in the resorts, smaller towns and villages, old-style taxis of various origin and vintage still operate, un-metered and unregulated. If you should ever   need to use such a taxi, make sure to negotiate the price in advance, having already ascertained the likely fare from your hotel staff. Taxis are often rented for private tours of several days duration, sometimes even longer.
By Car Hire with Driver

There are many travel companies that can supply a car and driver for a few days or a few weeks. This is the best option for the independent traveller with a reasonable budget. Having a driver can save a lot of hassle in many departments, and surprisingly it is cheaper than hiring a car without a driver. Most Sri Lankan drivers working in the tourist industry are very knowledgeable about their country, and can provide a valuable extra service as a guide (for which a reasonable tip is expected and usually given without hesitation). There is no need to worry about their accommodation, for most Sri Lankan hotels have free drivers quarters – you just pay for the meals, which are much cheaper than those served in restaurants.
By Motorbike

 The motorbike in Sri Lanka is often the family means of transport rather than a young person’s conveyance. That’s not to say that this machine is used by individual members of the family at different times. Rather, the whole family uses it at the same time. Hence you will often see motorbikes with the father driving and the mother on the pillion, with a child clinging on to the handlebars at the front, and another – sometimes two – wedged between the parents.    As with all travel on Sri Lanka’s roads, that by motorbike is subject to the road conditions and driving patterns prevalent on the island. Machines can be hired in resort towns such as Negombo and Hikkaduwa, and in the hill capital of Kandy. Driving a motorbike is subject to the same cautions as driving a car. Extreme care must be exercised at all times. Unlike in the West, there are many potential hazards. Sri Lankans are generally less aware of traffic, especially in rural areas, and pedestrians often walk along the middle of the road in the absence of pavements.Above all, be cautious of buses, both coming up from behind as well as oncoming. For motorbikes travelling in the opposite direction, oncoming buses can be particular hazardous if overtaking, often forcing other drivers to take sudden and drastic action to avoid a collision.By Bicycle

The bicycle is not as popular a means of transport in Sri Lanka as in other Asian countries such as Thailand. The chaotic traffic conditions, the ruthless attitude of drivers, and the generally poor state of Sri Lanka’s roads, means that cycling can be difficult and dangerous. Nevertheless, the bicycle can provide the visitor with remarkable mobility and independence. Indeed, there are those who bring their bike to Sri Lanka for a cycling holiday. Such cyclists recommend the island for its size, which means it can be covered in four to six weeks. However, they also caution that those planning a cycling holiday in Sri Lanka should bring a supply of spare tyres and tubes as these have a shortened lifespan due to the poor road surface, and good quality ones are not always easily obtainable. It is useful to remember that bikes can be taken on trains in Sri Lanka.      Visitors who wish to hire a bike by the day or possibly longer in order to explore their surroundings will find small firms that rent bikes in resort areas. However, the bikes they supply are mostly old, without gears and inadequately serviced – poor brakes are a frequent problem, for instance. Make a thorough check of a bike before hiring it.Riding a bike calls for the same prudence as driving a car or motorbike. Extreme care must be exercised at all times. Unlike in the West, there are many potential hazards. Sri Lankans are generally less aware of traffic, especially in rural areas, and pedestrians often walk along the middle of the road in the absence of pavements. Above all, be cautious of buses, both coming up from behind as well as oncoming. For bikes travelling in the opposite direction, oncoming buses can be particular hazardous if overtaking.
By Rail
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.




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