Travelling on public transport is therefore mostly a choice between buses and trains: both are cheap. Trains can be crowded, but it’s nothing compared with the seemingly endless numbers of passengers that squash into ordinary buses. Trains are a bit slower than buses, but a seat on a train is preferable to standing on a bus. Even standing on a train is better than standing on a bus.
On the main roads from Colombo to Kandy, Negombo and Galle, buses cover around 40km to 50km per hour. On highways across the plains, it can be 60km or 70km an hour. In the Hill Country, it can slow to just 20km an hour.
All public transport gets crowded around poya (full-moon) holidays and their nearest weekends, so try to avoid travelling then.
Options for flying within Sri Lanka are limited and there is no domestic connecting service at Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo, although this may change with the opening of Mattala International Airport on the south coast.
Very limited domestic service operates at times from Ratmalana Air Force Base, 15km south of Fort. If you are flying from here, consult with your airline for transport options to/from the airport.
Helitours (www.airforce.lk) The commercial arm of the Sri Lankan Air Force was conducting limited passenger flights – on military planes – primarily between Jaffna’s Palali Airport and Ratmalana Air Force Base. Sri Lankan Airlines Air Taxi (www.srilankan.lk) The national airline flies services using floatplanes offering scenic jaunts between various lakes in the country.
Cycling around historic areas such as Anuradhapura and Sigiriya are the best and most enjoyable ways to see these important sites. More and more accommodation has bicycles guests can hire (rent).
» If your accommodation doesn’t hire bikes, they can usually hook you up with someone who does. Many places rent bikes to nonguests.
» Bikes available for day use typically are not suitable for long-distance riding. Bike- rental shops offering quality long-distance machines are rare. Consider bringing your bike from home if you plan serious cycle touring. » Expect to pay US$125 to US$350 for a new bike, depending on the quality. Most are made in India or China. There are several bike shops (rentals not available) along Dam St in the Pettah market area of Colombo.
Tour and outfitting companies organise cycling tours of Sri Lanka and may also help you get organised for independent travel.
Adventure Asia (www.ad -asia.com), Adventure Sports Lanka (www.actionlanka.com) Eco Team (www.srilankaecot ourism.com)
» Keen long-distance cyclists will enjoy Sri Lanka, apart from the steeper areas of the Hill Country and the busy roads exiting Colombo. When heading out of Colombo in any direction, take a train to the edge of the city before you start cycling.
» Start early in the day to avoid the heat, and pack water and sunscreen. Your daily distances will be limited by the roads; be prepared for lots of prudent ‘eyes down’ cycling as you negotiate a flurry of obstacles from pot- holes to chickens. Remember, too, that speeding buses, trucks and cars use all parts of the roadway and shoulder, so be very cautious and wear very visible clothing.
» If you bring your own bicycle, also pack a supply of spare tyres and tubes. These suffer from the poor road surfaces, and replacement parts can be hard to obtain. The normal bicycle tyre size in Sri Lanka is 28in by 1.5in. Some imported 27in tyres for 10-speed bikes are available but only in Colombo and at high prices.
» Keep an eye on your bicycle at all times and use a good lock.
» When taking a bicycle on a train, forms must be filled out, so deliver the bicycle at least half an hour before departure. At Colombo Fort train station you may want to allow up to two hours. It costs about twice the 2nd-class fare to take a bicycle on a train.
Bus routes cover about 80% of the nation’s 90,000km of roads. There are two kinds of bus in Sri Lanka:
Central Transport Board (CTB) buses These are the default buses and usually lack air-con, they ply most long-distance and local routes. You’ll also see buses with a Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) logo.
Private buses Independent bus companies have vehicles ranging from late-model Japanese coaches used on intercity-express runs to ancient minibuses on short runs between towns and villages. Private air-con intercity buses cover some major routes. For long-distance travel they are far more comfortable and faster than other bus services. Note that completion of the Southern Expressway has sparked the introduction of new express services in fully modern air-con coaches. Expect more of these services as roads are completed.
Bus travel in Sri Lanka can be interesting and entertaining. Most locals speak at least some English, so you may have some enjoyable interactions. Vendors board to sell snacks, books and gifts on long-distance routes. Note, however, that women travelling alone may be hassled.
Important considerations for bus travel:
» Important routes willhave service several times an hour during daylight hours.
» Finding the right bus at the chaotic bus stations of major cities and towns can be challenging, although almost all buses now have part of their destination sign in English.
» There is usually no central ticket office; you must locate the right parking area and buy your bus ticket either from a small booth or onboard the bus.
» You may be able to reserve a seat on a bus in advance; check at the station.
» ‘Semi-comfortable’buses are run by private companies and have larger seats and window curtains compared to CTB buses, but lack the air-con of the best intercity buses.
» Most people at bus stations and on buses will help you with your questions.
» Luggage space is limited or non-existent; you may have to buy a ticket for your bag.
» The first two seats on CTB buses are reserved for ‘clergy’ (Buddhist monks).
» To guarantee a seat, board the bus at the beginning of its journey.
» When you arrive at your destination, confirm the departure details for the next stage of your journey.
» It’s expected that private bus companies will proliferate in the coming years and that more services such as reservations will be offered and that buses will get more comfortable.
In most cases, private bus companies run services parallel to CTB services. Intercity expresses charge about twice as much as CTB buses, but are more than twice as comfortable and usually faster. Fares for CTB buses and ordinary private buses are very cheap.
Car & Motorcycle
Self-drive car hire is possible in Sri Lanka, though it is far more common to hire a car and driver. If you’re on a relatively short visit to Sri Lanka on a midrange budget, the costs of hiring a car and driver can be quite reasonable.
When planning your itinerary, you can count on covering about 35km/h in the Hill Country and 55km/h in most of the rest of the country.
Motorcycling is an alternative for intrepid travellers. Distances are relatively short and some of the roads are a motorcyclist’s delight; the trick is to stay off the main highways. The quieter Hill Country roads offer some glorious views, and secondary roads along the coast and the plains are reasonably quick. But you will have to make inquiries as motorcycle and motorbike rental is nowhere near as commonplace as it is in much of the rest of Asia.
New expressways are revolutionising how people get around Sri Lanka. Throughout Sri Lanka, Mw is an abbreviation for Mawatha, meaning ‘Avenue’.
An International Driving Permit (IDP) can be used to roam Sri Lanka’s roads; it’s valid for three months to one year and is sold by auto clubs in your home country. Note that many travellers never purchase an IDP and have no problems.
Hiring a Car & Driver
A car and a driver guarantee maximum flexibility in your travels and while the driver deals with the chaotic roads, you can look out the window and – try to – relax.
You can find taxi drivers who will happily become your chauffeur for a day or more in all the main tourist centres. Guesthouses and hotels can connect you with a driver, which may be the best method. Travel agencies also offer various car and driver schemes, although these can cost considerably more.
Various formulas exist for setting costs, such as rates per kilometre plus a lunch and dinner allowance and separate fuel payments. The simplest way is to agree on a flat fee with no extras. Expect to pay Rs 5500 to 7000 per day, excluding fuel, or more for a newer, air-con vehicle. Other considerations:
» Most drivers will expect a tip of about 10%.
» Meet the driver first as you may sense bad chemistry.
» Consider hiring a driver for only two or three days at first to see if you fit.
» You are the boss. It’s great to get recommendations from a driver but don’t be bullied.
» Unless you speak absolutely no English or Sinhala, a guide in addition to the driver is unnecessary.
Drivers make a fair part of their income from commissions. Most hotels and guesthouses pay drivers a flat fee or a percentage, although others refuse to. This can lead to disputes between you and the driver over where you’re staying the night, as the driver will literally wish to steer you to where the money is. Some hotels have appalling accommodation for drivers; the smarter hotels and guesthouses know that keeping drivers happy is good for their business, and provide decent food and lodgings.
Recommended drivers include the following (there are many more; the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is a good source of driver recommendations): Milroy Fernando (077 857 0343; milroy@ancientlanka .com) Dimuthu Priyadarshana (077 630 2070; dimuthu81@ hotmail.com) Nilam Sahabdeen (081 238 4981; http://srilankatour .wordpress.com/)
Colombo-based company Quickshaws Tours 011- 258 3133; www.quickshaws.com; 3 Kalinga Pl, Col 5) offers self-drive car hire. A Nissan Sunny costs US$266 per week, while a larger Toyota Corolla costs US$280 per week. Both have air-con and include 700km per week.
You may see a number of accidents during your time on the road; driving requires constant attention to the road. Country roads are often narrow and potholed, with constant pedestrian, bicycle and animal traffic to navigate. Note, however, that Sri Lanka’s massive road-building program is improving roads across the nation. Punctures are a part of life here, so every village has a repair expert.
It’s dangerously acceptable for a bus, car or truck to overtake in the face of oncoming smaller road users. Three-wheelers, cyclists, or smaller cars and vans simply have to move over or risk getting hit. To announce they are overtaking, or want to overtake, drivers sound a shrill melody on their horns. If you’re walking or cycling along any kind of main road, be very alert.
» Speed limit 56km/h in towns, 72km/h in rural areas and 100km on the new expressways.
» Driving is on the left-hand side of the road, as in the UK and Australia.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don’t recommend it. In any case, Sri Lanka’s
cheap fares make it an unnecessary option.
Sri Lanka’s railways are a great way to cross the country. Although they are slow, there are few overnight or all-day ordeals to contend with. A train ride is almost always more relaxed than a bus ride. Costs are in line with buses: even 1st class doesn’t exceed Rs 1000.
The Sri Lankan Railways (www.railway.gov.lk) website has a useful trip planner.
There are three classes on Sri Lankan trains:
» 1st Class Comes in three varieties: coaches, sleeping berths and observation saloons (with large windows). The latter are used on the line east from Colombo and are the preferred means of travelling this scenic line. Some have large rear-facing windows and vintage interiors. Reserve 1st-class seats in advance.
» 2nd Class Seats have pad- ding and there are fans. On many trains these seats can be reserved in advance.
» 3rd Class Seats have little padding and there are no reservations. The cars accommodate as many as can squeeze in and conditions can be grim.
In addition private companies have begun running comfortable train cars, which are attached to regular trains (Colombo–Kandy is the first route, fares average US$12). Although the 1st-class observation cars are more charming – and cheaper – these private cars offer air-con, snacks and may have seats available when regular trains are already fully booked.
» You can reserve places in 1st class and in 2nd class on intercity expresses.
» Always make a booking for the 1st-class observation saloons, which are very popular.
» Reservations can be made at train stations up to 10 days before departure. You can book a return ticket up to 14 days before departure.
» If travelling more than 80km, you can break your journey at any intermediate station for 24 hours without penalty. You’ll need to make fresh reservations for seats on the next leg.
Many Sri Lankan towns are small enough to walk around. In larger towns you can get around by bus, taxi or three-wheeler.
Local buses go to most places, including villages outside main towns, for fares from Rs10 to 40.
Sri Lankan taxis are common in all sizable towns, and even some villages. Only a few are metered (mostly in Colombo), but over longer distances their prices are comparable to those of three-wheelers, and they provide more comfort and security. Radio taxis are available in Kandy and Colombo. You can count on most taxi rides costing around Rs 60 to 100 per kilometre.
Three-wheelers, known in other parts of Asia as tuk-tuks, bajajs or autorickshaws, are literally waiting on every corner. Use your best bargaining skills and agree on the fare before you get in. Some keen drivers will offer to take you around Mars and back, and we’ve heard of travellers who have gone from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya in a three-wheeler, which would be a slow five hours or so.
As a rule of thumb, a three-wheeler should cost no more than Rs 100 per kilometre, but this can prove elusive depending on your negotiating skills. Note that three-wheelers with meters are becoming popular in Colombo.
Three-wheelers and taxis waiting outside hotels and tourist sights expect higher-than-usual fares. Walk a few hundred metres to get a much better deal.