Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel Tips

Getting Around a Bit: Transport in Sri Lanka

18th October 2017

Like any country Sri Lanka has your usual modes of transport; trains, taxis, buses and aeroplanes. It also has the Asian gem of a tuk tuk to add in the mix. So what are the best ways for you to get around?

Now please bear in mind I am writing from a solo female point of view, so without being dramatic I think this is the hardest position to be travelling from. Groups and solo males don’t have the same ‘vulnerability’ attached to them. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t feel vulnerable at any time, but people will try their luck when you’re a girl travelling by yourself even if it’s just adding a few hundred rupees on the ticket price. So stay savvy!

Don’t be alarmed by all the beeping while you’re driving around – the roads are insane, just go with it! They beep to let the person in front that they are behind them, or at the side of them, or about to pull out in front of them. But it works for everyone over here so try not to worry about it!

The Tuk Tuk:

Easy! You literally can’t walk down the road without being offered a tuk tuk, the drivers will watch you get out of one at your hotel and offer you a ride anyway! I found in Sri Lanka they were a lot less persistent than other Asian countries, if you say ‘No thank you’ politely they just drive away. No more pestering which is so much better than other places where they keep harassing you.

The draw back is that the drivers don’t always know where you want to go, and I found myself sitting in the back using Maps Me and directing them around on many occasions! Not ideal when you don’t know the country, the roads, or where you are. It can make for some confusing journeys where you may go around in circles!

The prices can be super cheap or crazy expensive, you need to know roughly what your trip will cost and agree a price before getting in. Generally when you get off a train with your big bag and ask to go to your hostel they will massively up the price thinking you’re brand new and wont know any better. I would roughly expect to pay 100 rupees per km of your trip. So if you check Maps Me and the hotel is 4km away from where you are, suggest 400 rupees as the price. As a general rule this works but some drivers will hustle harder than others. Put a smile on your face and make your point, it’s all part of the fun!

They will also drive into gaps no British person would, so just either close your eyes and remain oblivious or just hold on tight and enjoy the ride!

Taxis:

Air con … luxury!!! I only got three taxis my entire trip and they were pretty expensive.

First was from the airport to my hostel, I landed at 11pm and knew I would be knackered so I had booked in online with my hostel before I left the UK. I didn’t want to be messing about when I landed and wanted to get straight to bed.

Next up was a trip from Colombo to Galle, it was outrageously expensive (looking back) but I was with my friend who just landed and it was lovely to have a few hours stress free and catching up. We agreed the price once we were in the taxi and already moving and got ripped off, but in terms of English money it was still cheap so we’re letting it go!

The third taxi was again booked by my hostel to take me to the airport. As I have mentioned in my Confessions of an Overpacker post my bag is so big and heavy. I could have found a bus to get me there but I was losing the will to live!

Taxis are always available for longer journeys but there are much cheaper ways to get around. For example our trip from Colombo to Galle took 4 hours and cost 11,000 rupees. A bus would have taken 5 hours and cost less than 200 rupees. Depending on your budget you may want to take a taxi everywhere, or you may want to experience the public transport and save that money for more rotti’s on the way.

Taxis take a lot longer than tuk tuks, they get stuck in more traffic where as tuk tuks just go right for any gap they predict may open … sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but they always give it a go!

I don’t have a photo of a taxi, because … why would I take a photo of a boring old taxi?!

The Bus:

Oh my lord, what can I say about the bus!

The first bus I got on was from Matara to Ella, it left at 6:15am but my hotel got it wrong and thought it left at 5:45am. This meant I was crazy early and first one at the bus station, I got on the bus at around 5:30am and got myself a seat near the back so I could watch the madness I had been warned about.

The driver got on and fired up the engine, he also fired up the neon flashing Christmas lights draped around the front and down the middle of the isles, and the big TV behind his head that was playing a Bollywood movie at absolute full blast! It was quite the wake up call. The music didn’t stop the whole journey and when I got off in Ella my ears were still ringing.

The bus from Matara to Ella

Now getting on and off the bus, there are bus stops along the road as there are in the UK. The only difference is that Sri Lankan drivers don’t stop, they simply slow down and let people jump on or off from a door at the front or the back! If they see a foreigner they will stop as they know you aren’t used to the process, so don’t panic if you’re planning on hopping on with your backpack.

They will store your backpack either in a locked boot at the back of the bus, or put it at the front by the drivers gear stick. Either way don’t worry, there is a conductor on each bus and he will look out for your stop and kindly help with your bag.

In the UK once a bus is full the driver isn’t going to let anyone else on, that doesn’t happen here. The more the merrier. People will squash themselves on the bus and be hanging on for dear life out the back door if they have to, and the conductor will still shove his way down the isle making sure everyone has paid for their ticket – it’s CHAOS!

The cost of the bus is crazy cheap, I went on a 7 hour trip for 240 rupees, which is less than £1.50! Another day I ventured from central Kandy to the Botanical Gardens and it was 17 rupees each way – that’s 8pence per trip. A tuk tuk would have charged me minimum 1500 rupees each way.

One thing to point out from the solo female angle is that you will more than likely be the only westerner on the bus with all the locals. Which means you may get a lot of looks from the men. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately, long skirt / trousers and a t shirt. If the bus is full when you hop on try and sit next to a woman or an older man. It sounds awful to say it but I was warned before I went that this would make me feel more comfortable and it did. A couple of times a younger man would get on and sit next to me but uncomfortably close – don’t be afraid to ask him to move back along the seat! People will generally want to talk to you too which is fine, obviously be polite and some of these people may be amongst the most interesting you will speak to. But again if it gets too much, speak up!

One man sat behind me and was getting a bit much so I put my headphones in and turned away, I have a tattoo on the back of my neck and to get my attention he started stroking it. This is massively overstepping the line between friendly conversation and being a creep so I was polite but firm and told him to back off, the next thing the bus conductor came over and asked him to get off the bus. I’m not trying to give a horror story here – just a word of advice that you don’t need to be made to feel uncomfortable, and for every creep there are 10 lovely people on that bus!

THE Train:

Before heading to Sri Lanka you will have heard about THE train! THE train is ‘the most beautiful train ride of all time’ and it runs from Kandy across the middle of the country to Ella.

Now the trains go pretty slow, and the doors remain open so you can sit on the step and watch the world go by. The views are just as beautiful as they say, you’re travelling through the middle of the country and there is so much beautiful greenery on each side. The tea plantations are perfectly manicured all over the hills, the plants are in such neat lines and you’ll often see the tea pickers out at work. There are waterfalls and fields of palm trees, areas full of flowers, small towns and just little odd houses that have been built by the side of the tracks. It was so relaxing to just put your headphones in and listen to music while watching out the window.

Both times I got the train from Ella – Nuwara Eilya and then from Nuwara Eilya – Kandy it was absolutely chucking it down sadly, so I didn’t sit on the doorway steps because knowing my luck I’d slip and fall off the train.

Both trips were around 4 hours and cost under 200 rupees – which is under £1! I got second class tickets but didn’t pay for a seat reservation and there were loads of seats. You store your bag overhead on a rack and there is plenty of room at your feet for a handbag.

If I can get my bag up there, anyone can get their bag up there!

Top tip: most people travel from Kandy to Ella, and everyone I met doing that route said the trains were really busy and it could be hard to get a seat. I travelled the opposite way and found the trains much quieter.

So there you go, your transport options for Sri Lanka!

Happy travels!

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