Getting Around in Sri Lanka
Some useful points to consider when getting around Sri Lanka:
- Domestic flights in Sri Lanka are quite limited, distances are not vast and new expressways are shrinking travel times.
- Travelling on public transport is a choice between buses and trains: both are cheap. Trains can be crowded, but it’s nothing compared with the huge number of passengers that squash into ordinary buses. 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 and to the North, 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 very limited.
Bandaranaike International Airport has connecting domestic flights provided by Cinnamon Air. It offers a limited schedule of expensive flights to destinations that include Batticaloa, Dikwella, Sigiriya and Trincomalee. Service is on small planes, some using airforce bases, others with floats that land on lakes and lagoons. It also offers charter flights to points around the country at fares which start at US$3000.
Colombo Airport, Ratmalanae (www.airport.lk/rma), 15km south of Colombo, is an airforce base with a terminal that handles some domestic air charters.
Cycling around historic areas such as Anuradhapura and Sigiriya is the best and most enjoyable ways to see these important sites. Bikes are also an ideal way to explore the North and East via the lightly travelled roads typical of these regions.
More and more hotels and guesthouses have bicycles that guests can hire.
Simple, cheap mountain bikes make up many of the rentals you’ll find in guesthouses and hotels. Rates average about Rs 500 per day.
- If your accommodation doesn’t hire bikes, it 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 on serious cycle touring.
- 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 potholes to chickens. Remember, too, that speeding buses, trucks and cars use all parts of the roadway and shoulder, so be cautious and wear 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.
- 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.
With the exception of ferries used to reach the islands southwest of Jaffna, there are no ferry services of note in Sri Lanka.
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 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 more comfortable and faster than other bus services. Note that completion of the Southern Expressway has sparked the introduction of express services in fully modern air-con coaches between Colombo and Galle.
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.
Bus travel in Sri Lanka can be interesting and entertaining. Many locals speak some English, so you may have some enjoyable interactions. Vendors board to sell snacks and gifts on long-distance routes.
Important considerations for bus travel:
- Major routes will have 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.
- Many buses operate on fixed routes with a route number, which makes it easier to locate the correct bus.
- 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 on board the bus.
- You may be able to reserve a seat on a bus in advance; check at the station.
- ‘Semi-comfortable’ (or 'semi-luxe') 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 nonexistent; 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.
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 rental is nowhere near as commonplace as it is in much of the rest of Asia.
- Throughout Sri Lanka, Mw is an abbreviation for Mawatha, meaning ‘Avenue’.
Sri Lanka’s New Highways
Various new expressways are opening over the next few years. Most will be toll roads, with relatively cheap tolls.
Colombo–Katunayake Expressway Greatly reducing travel time between Bandaranaike International Airport and the city. From its start 4km northeast of Fort at Kelani Bridge, you can reach the airport in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, during the day the city streets remain as congested as ever between Fort and the entrance.
Outer Circular Expressway Completed in 2017, this belt road runs through the far eastern suburbs of Colombo. It links the Southern Expressway to the Katunayake Expressway, which means you can drive from the airport to Galle in well under three hours, a huge time saving.
Southern Expressway The first new expressway completed. It is 161km long and runs from Colombo’s southern suburb of Kottawa, near Maharagama, to Matara via an exit near Galle. Until linking roads are complete, it can take as long to get from Fort to the expressway entrance as it does from there to Galle – or even longer. Plans call for the road to eventually be extended to reach Hambantota.
Colombo–Kandy Expressway Approved in 2012, this road is expected to reduce travel time to close to an hour, but as yet there is no confirmed opening date.
An International Driving Permit (IDP) can be used for driving in Sri Lanka; it’s pricey, 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 8000 to 11,000 per day (US$60 is a good average), 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. Drivers are known to dissuade travellers from visiting temples and other sights where there are no commissions.
- Unless the driver speaks absolutely no English, 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 companies with drivers include the following (there are many more; the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is a good source of driver recommendations):
Colombo-based company Shineway Rent a Car offers self-drive car hire. You'll find other local firms as well as very small operations in tourist towns. You can usually hire a car for about US$30 per day with 100km of included kilometres. But it is still uncommon to see visitors driving themselves in Sri Lanka.
Motorbike rentals run about Rs 1500 per day across the country.
Driving in Sri Lanka 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, especially in the North and East.
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, and 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 busy main road, be very alert.
- Speed limit 50km/h in towns, 70km/h in rural areas and 100km/h on the new expressways.
- Driving is on the left-hand side of the road, as in the UK and Australia.
Several companies offer guided motorcycle tours of Sri Lanka; Hoi An Motorbike Adventures is one reliable operator.
Hitching is never entirely safe, and Sri Lanka’s cheap fares make it an unnecessary option. We don’t recommend it, and travellers who do choose to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
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 Rs 10 to 50.
Sri Lankan taxis are common in all sizable towns, and even some villages. Only some 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. You can count on most taxi rides costing around Rs 60 to 100 per kilometre.
Hotels and restaurants can usually get you a ride for a modest cost. In Colombo you can count on taxis dispatched via apps such as Uber.
Three-wheelers, known in other parts of Asia as tuk-tuks, bajajs or autorickshaws, are waiting on nearly every corner. Use your best bargaining skills and agree on the fare before you get in. Some keen drivers will offer very extensive tours; use your discretion.
As a rule of thumb, a three-wheeler should cost no more than Rs 200 per kilometre, but this can prove elusive depending on your negotiating skills. Note that three-wheelers with meters are somewhat prevalent 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 better deal.
Sri Lanka Railways runs the nation's railways, and trains 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. Most stations have helpful information windows where English is spoken.
In addition, a couple of companies run private air-con train cars, which are attached onto regular trains. Although more expensive and less atmospheric than the 1st-class observation cars on Sri Lanka Railways, these private cars offer air-con and snacks and may have seats available when regular classes are already fully booked. Rajadhani Express runs to Kandy, Badulla, Galle and Matara, while Expo Rail serves Kandy and the Hill Country.
There are three main rail lines in Sri Lanka.
South from Colombo A scenic delight. Recently renovated, runs past Aluthgama and Hikkaduwa to Galle and Matara.
East from Colombo To the Hill Country, through Kandy, Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) and Ella to Badulla. A beautiful route, the portion from Haputale to Ella is one of the world’s most scenic train rides.
North from Colombo Through Anuradhapura to Mannar and also to Jaffna. One branch reaches Trincomalee on the east coast, while another serves Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa.
Other Lines The Puttalam line runs along the coast north from Colombo, although rail buses run between Chilaw and Puttalam. The Kelani Valley line winds 60km from Colombo to Avissawella.
Trains are often late. As traffic surges and efforts at upgrading the system struggle, long delays of an hour or more are not uncommon.
Two good independent references for Sri Lanka trains:
www.seat61.com/SriLanka A good overview.
http://slr.malindaprasad.com Schedules and some fares.
There are three classes on Sri Lankan trains (although many have no 1st class):
1st class Comes in three varieties: coaches, sleeping berths and observation saloons (with large windows). The latter are used on some trains east and north from Colombo and are the preferred means of travelling these scenic lines. Some have large rear-facing windows and vintage interiors.
2nd class Seats have padding and there are fans. On some trains (but not to Galle) 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.
The air-con train cars run by private companies are slightly more expensive than regular 1st class; fares average around US$12.
- You can reserve places in 1st class and 2nd class on many intercity expresses.
- Always make a booking for the 1st-class observation saloons, which are very popular. Sleeping cars also book far in advance.
- Reservations can be made at train stations up to 30 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.