Sri Lanka isn’t that big, but the roads are few, usually not well maintained and traffic is crazy so driving there yourself can be tricky. This means that unless you can afford a private driver, public transport is your primary means of getting from place to place. Luckily there’s plenty and all of them are an experience by themselves.
Travelling by train is the cheapest and arguably the most scenic option. There are three main lines connecting the most densely populated areas. Most trains offer two classes and tickets for first class seats need to be reserved. This can be done up to 30 days before departure, but they need to be made at the train station and they’re usually gone very quickly. So unless you’re travelling veeeeery slow and have a lot of time to spend in Sri Lanka, second class is where you’ll end up, and you should!
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While definitely not the most comfortable, it is absolutely the most fun way to travel by train. The second class carriages have open doors and since the trains move slow you can hang out of the doorways to fully soak up the most amazing views and take cool daredevil pictures.
The track going over Nine Arch Bridge near Ella is one of the most famous and considered to be one of the most beautiful train trips of the world. But we enjoyed the less touristy coastal train going from the southern coast to Colombo at least as much. Whichever train route you take, keep in mind that the train is also used by locals for their daily commute and most tourists take the morning train. So if you’d like a chance for a window seat or spot close to a doorway we suggest you take the afternoon train to avoid being packed like a can of sardines.
One of the main reasons why Sri Lankan roads are so dangerous is the many maniacally driven buses. But as bus routes cover about 80% of Sri Lanka’s roads, you’ll probably hop on a bus more than once. Generally speaking you have two options here; The Central Transport Board (CTB) buses or private buses. The (CTB) buses are ran by the government, are very basic and usually lack aircon. But they do travel according to a semi reliable schedule and the drivers usually adhere to at least some traffic rules.
Private buses are a whole different story. The bus itself varies from luxurious with aircon, lots of leg space and even tv screens to overpacked and speeding rust buckets that seem to lose components at every bump in the road. While private buses, especially the luxurious ones, are more expensive than the CTB buses, they run far more often and between many more locations, making them one of the quickest ways to travel in Sri Lanka. On top of that, sitting in a bus with disco lights on and big-ass tv screens playing music videos is very entertaining.
One that can’t be missing is the famous tuktuk. You’ll definitely get approached by pushy tuktuk drivers offering you rides 500 times a day which isn’t for everyone, but as soon as you can see through that you’ll realize that they’re actually very handy. Most spots worth a visit are not in towns itself and too far to walk, making tuktuks an easy way to get around. It’s fun to see how drivers have decorated their tuktuks and if you’re lucky you might even come across a party tuktuk complete with stroboscopic lights and soundsystem. Be prepared to haggle as they usually try to charge tourist at least double the going rate.
Then there’s the fourth option, and our favorite for traveling within the area; the scooter! Renting a scooter is cheap, easy and it gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want. On a scooter you can squeeze through busy traffic and you can get almost everywhere. Reasonable prices are anything between 800 and 1000 Sri Lankan Rupees a day but don’t be afraid to haggle for a lower price. When you’re driving keep in mind that in Sri Lanka they drive on the left side of the road, and other road users usually honk before they overtake, so don’t be alarmed when that happens.
Elephants are obviously not an acceptable method of transport
While not technically public transport and a lot more expansive than all the other options, private drivers are still worth mentioning as they are hassle free and get you from place to place quickly. Well, as quickly as Sri Lankan roads and traffic allow. Finding a private driver is easy as there are many of them. Usually your accomodation can recommend one or a quick google search will show you a few. They cost around 10.000 Sri Lankan Rupees per day but it is common to tip your driver another 1000-2000 Sri Lankan Rupees per day on top of that.
Just take it easy
Train, bus, tuktuk, scooters and private drivers all have their upsides and downsides but we suggest trying each of them as they are all good fun! Whichever type of transport you pick, they’re all equally chaotic and moving through Sri Lanka is always slow. So be prepared to reserve a good part of your day when traveling from one place to the other.
Let us know about your experiences with public transport in Sri Lanka and tell us which one is your favourite (or least favourite) in the comments!