How to Travel in Sri Lanka: A Transportation Guide

Sri Lanka, ‘a land like no other’ they say. When you’re visiting the island you will realise for yourself that this is true. Beaches stretching for miles and miles with golden sands, mountains capped with evergreen forests and cheery-faced locals who would always invite you for a cup of tea when you visit them. Travelling here is a wondrous adventure but not if you’re not quite informed about the local travel modes it can be quite frustrating. So, here’s a guide to transportation in Sri Lanka.

Let’s start off with the cheapest mode of all. Taking a bus ride in Sri Lanka has both pros and cons. The biggest pro is that it’s super cheap. Depending on the distance you’re going bus rides can cost from as low as 09 rupees (0.06) to as much as 500 rupees (3.28 USD). There are two types of buses, ones that are red in colour are run by the government and these do not have many crowds. The private buses, on the other hand, are usually white in colour and these can become packed like sardines especially during rush hour times. One of the biggest cons of buses is that they are a hunting ground for pickpockets and gropers, so if you’re going in one make sure to keep your valuables safe and to be on alert.

Sri Lanka is quite famous for having some of the most scenic train rides, especially ones that take you to the hill country. The train network here features three principal lines; the coastal line, the hill country line and the northern line. The coastal line runs through the length of the west coast from Puttalam to Matara. The hill country line, as we mentioned earlier was the most scenic, begins from Colombo and goes through the evergreen tea country of Nuwara Eliya, ascends to the summit at Pattipola which is at an astounding 6,226 feet above sea level; before finally pulling into the station at Badulla. The northern line starts from Colombo and runs through the cities of Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, and Vavuniya before the final stop at Omantai.

To book a train ride you must choose between three classes; first, second or third. The first is the most comfortable and expensive of all, as these feature air-conditioned compartments and sleeping berths for overnight train rides. There are three different types of seating in first class. Second class seating also has comfortable, padded seats however; air-conditioning is replaced by overhead fans. Third class train rides have no air-conditioning, no fans and a lot rustic seats. Whatever class you decide to travel in, train rides in Sri Lanka are quite cheap. For example, a train ride from Colombo to Kandy in second class costs Rs.190 while an overnight journey in first class to Colombo to Batticaloa costs Rs.900. You can book a train ride through the government website or go to the Fort railway station (if you’re in Colombo) and book prior to your journey to avoid overbooking, especially during holiday times.

By Car
This is by far the safest mode of travel. Rent a car in Sri Lanka and you have the chance to explore the island in complete freedom. Be sure to choose a verified place like Casons Rent a Car, so that you’re assured of a good service. Read up on reviews and compare rates. Vehicles usually range from small economy cars to luxury vehicles like jeeps, sedans, and vans. If you’re travelling with a large group you can also hire a mini bus.
There are two options when hiring a car in Sri Lanka. One, you can rent it with a chauffeur. The pros of this would be that you have an expert driver who knows the best routes and shortcuts to take. Another advantage is that a veteran driver would know to safely manoeuvre the vehicle through tough roads while avoiding reckless drivers of private buses and tuk tuks. The cons would be that you need to pay extra for this service as well for the driver’s accommodation.

The second option is to drive the vehicle yourself. In order to drive in Sri Lanka, you need to first obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP). This can be a little bit expensive. The permit can be valid for three months or one year, depending on your requirement.

Tuk Tuks
Tuk Tuks are undoubtedly the most popular mode of transport among both locals and tourists. These odd-looking vehicles run on three wheels which is why they are also referred to as ‘three-wheelers’. They can also seat only up to three persons at a time. Do not try to accommodate for as it is illegal. If you need a quick ride, tuk tuks are the go-to option.

The most important thing to know when going on a tuk tuk is to always and always check if there is a meter and if there is ask the driver if it’s in working condition. This is because many tuk tuk drivers try to swindle their customers especially the tourists. There are even instances where they would charge poor, unsuspecting tourists with exorbitant amounts as much as 1000 rupees for a ride that would have only cost about 100 rupees. Check with Google maps if the route that your tuk driver is taking you on is the correct one because instead of going on the correct path they would take a roundabout way to put more miles on the meter.