Tips for getting around in Sri Lanka

Getting around without hiring a driver or taxi in Sri Lanka is easier than you think. Don’t be intimidated by not knowing the language, or not being familiar with the system. Here are my tips to guide you through taking the major modes of Sri Lanka transport, with some details and costs from my trip in January 2017.

Me on a train in Sri Lanka

Me on a train in Sri Lanka

Getting around by train

Most long haul trips can be made via train. You can buy first, second, and third class reserve tickets up to 10 days in advance at the train station. You can often also buy tickets for train journeys leaving from stations other than the one you are booking from. Some non-reserve tickets are not available until 30 minutes before the train time.

Trains vary in price from around 90 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) (0.60 USD) to 1000+ LKR (7+ USD) depending on length of trip and class. For reserve tickets, you can usually buy a ticket the day before and sometimes the day of if they are not sold out yet. When you are standing on the platform, look for signs showing you where your car will be. The inner doors between non-reserved cars and reserved cars may be locked, but you can hop out at the next major train station and find your car.

For train times, check out this website. Trains may be late by as much as 15 to 30 minutes. Announcements on the platforms are made in Sinhalese and English.

Trains I took on my trip

  • Negombo to Puttalam train – 4+ hours, 90 LKR, non-reserve tickets.
  • Galle to Weligama train – 70 LKR, non-reserve.
  • Ella to Kandy train – 6+ hours, 600 LKR for 2nd class reserve. (1200+ LKR for the 1st class reserve on this train, 1000 LKR for the observation car. 300 LKR for 3rd class reserve. I don’t think first class or observation is necessary to get the views. You can always stand by the open doorway to get photos. Be careful to watch your belongings if you do!)

Pro tip: On the Ella to Kandy train route, there are waterfalls on the west side of the track in the first 2 hours of the journey. Plus, don’t miss St. Clair’s Falls which is on the east side of the track just after Talawakelle station. You’ll pass it within 5 or 10 minutes of leaving the station if you are heading north.

The buses

There are public buses, vans, and non-public/charter buses that go everywhere in Sri Lanka. Public buses are cheap, with the most expensive I took being around 300-400 rupees (approx. 2-3 USD), but most are less than that. Vans and private/charter buses will be a little more expensive, but still ok even if you are on a budget. They’ll usually have clearly marked signs with English lettering, and you can always ask the driver where they are going.

Public buses are the rickety, old school looking buses that have doors at the front and at the back of the bus. You can typically get on at either end, and the conductor will come by and ask you where you are going so you can pay for a ticket. The public buses go between towns, but within towns and villages serve more like public transportation for commuting and the like. This means if you are getting on at or after a popular stop, it may be hard to get a seat or even just get on at all.

Pro tip: Don’t be afraid of the public buses! If you are lucky to get a seat, and if you don’t have too much baggage, public buses are a great way to get around.

Non-public/charter buses are usually the more comfortable kind of bus, with comfy seats and air conditioning (aka AC). These are most common going to and from Colombo or the airport.

Vans with AC go on specific routes, such as Kandy to Anuradhapura. I’m not sure what the cost is, but it will likely be just a little more expensive than the bus.

For info on bus routes, check out this website.

Bus station in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Bus station in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Buses I took on my trip

  • Colombo to Galle express bus – I took an express bus from Colombo to Galle. It goes on the new expressway, and makes only a few stops so it is very quick. It cost 350 rupees (2.32 USD) and took about 2 hours. This was a comfy AC bus, complete with music videos playing on the screen at the front of the bus!
  • Matara to Ella public bus – I took the public bus from Matara to Ella. I was staying at Mirissa Beach at the time, and took a tuk tuk from there to Matara for 600 LKR. The tuk tuk ride was about 10 minutes. The bus from Matara to Ella is the bus that goes to Bandarawella. There is a stop in Ella at the Curd Shop. It’s not marked, but it is the first town after the waterfalls on the left side of the road. You can also ask the people seated near you if you aren’t sure. The trip takes about 6 hours. Be prepared, though, because there aren’t any rest stops to stretch your legs or get refreshments. Other than that, it’s totally doable and cheap. The bus ticket was 250 rupees (nearly 1/3 of the tuk tuk ride to the bus station).
  • Matara to Colombo airport charter bus – The Matara bus station also has a bus that goes directly from Matara to the Colombo airport for 750 rupees if you need that! It leaves from the big parking lot area across the street from the public bus station. It was a comfy charter bus with AC and cushiony seats. (I didn’t take this, but I left a friend there who did.)
  • Kandy to Dambulla to Sigiriya public buses – It’s 100 LKR (0.66 USD) from Kandy to Dambulla, and 34 LKR (0.22 USD) from Dambulla to Sigiriya. Tuk tuks from Dambulla to Sigiriya cost about 700 LKR (4.65 USD).

Hired cars and taxis

Although I would highly recommend planning your trip so you don’t need to hire a car, if you are short on time then this will be the best way to get around. If you are going with a group of people, you might want to get a driver and a van for certain parts of your trip, especially if you have a lot of luggage. It’ll cost you a pretty penny though! You should budget about 7,000+ or more LKR total per day (50+ USD). (I didn’t get one, but did mooch off of 3 French people I met for 2 days, and the estimate listed here is borrowed from this blog).

A taxi from the Negombo area to the Colombo International airport will be around 2,000 LKR (14 USD). For trips like Colombo to Kandy, it should be about 6,000 one way. To get a private taxi/car from Kandy to Anuradhapura, it looks like it would cost about 12,000 LKR.

Pro tip: If you need a taxi in the Colombo or Negombo area, get an Uber! It’s about 1/4 of the cost of a taxi service and is very convenient. My Uber from Negombo to the airport was 25 minutes and cost about 400 LKR (3 USD). You can book it while you have WiFi, and then look for the license plate. Usually the first 2 letters on the plate are very small, and then there are 3 letters that are bigger and then 4 numbers. (P.S. Many locals who offer taxi services aren’t clued into Uber yet, so it might be a delicate topic. They aren’t aware that their rates are being undercut, but the Uber drivers I’ve met were all very happy about Uber!)

Other tips

  • Definitely plan to chill on travel days. If you are sitting on a bus or train for many hours, don’t expect to do much sight-seeing in the same day.
  • Bring water and snacks. There will be people selling food and drinks on most trains, and some buses, but don’t rely on it. (I got peanuts and yogurt on the train from Ella to Kandy. The peanuts were home roasted and had some spices and cost 200 LKR. Super tasty! The yogurt cost 50 LKR. The most common items being sold are samosas and other pastries, tea or coffee and cold drinks.)
  • Plan your pee breaks if you are taking a bus. Buses will not have toilets on them! Public buses won’t stop for long, so you’ll have to hold it pretty much until your destination.
  • Some names in Sri Lanka will be very similar to each other. Learn how they are spelled, or look them up in Sinhalese, so you can show them to someone if you need help. Ask your guest house host or tuk tuk driver how to pronounce things if you are unsure. If you have a smartphone, you can record them saying the name of the place or directions in case you need it later on.
  • If you are taking public buses, make sure you have some small bills so that you can pay for your ticket. Conductors may not have change for bigger bills.
Trains in Sri Lanka

Old Sri Lankan trains

Final thoughts

I think getting around in Sri Lanka by bus and train is the best way especially if you are on a budget. If you have the time, plan for at least 2 weeks or more so that you don’t have to rush from place to place. I think 3 weeks is a great amount of time to see all the major sights, spending a few nights in each place and taking 1 day to travel in between.

Don’t be afraid to travel the way the locals do! People will help you out if you are lost and help you find your way. Some will even offer you to move their children onto their laps so you can have a seat.

Are you headed to Sri Lanka? What are your plans for Sri Lanka transport?

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Transportation in Sri Lanka