Sri Lanka transportation – a guide to how to travel the island
Traveling to Sri Lanka? Landing in Colombo can be overwhelming but doesn’t have to be. Travel in Sri Lanka can be stress free if you know how to get around. Whether you are headed for your next big surf trip or just to soak up the beach sun, study our ultimate Sri Lanka transportation guide to best enjoy this Indian Ocean island paradise.
Sri Lanka transportation – a guide to how to travel the island
The Sri Lanka train system is old-school and can range from dreamy rides through the mountains with a whole car to yourself, to being packed in like sweaty sardines, unable to sit for hours. The most iconic ride is between Ella and Kandy, which takes you through incredible mountain and tea plantations views and Horton Plains National Park. It is perhaps the most beautiful train ride in the world. You can start east of Ella if you want to ride over the Nine Arch Bridge, or just hike there from Ella town to get your picture. Trains are separated into first, second, and third classes. First class tickets can be bought online and you get a guaranteed seat. Second and third class are similar and you can purchase them at the ticket office no more than 15 minutes before the train arrives. You might get a seat, you might not. Once on a packed train we sat in the doorway with our legs out the side of the train the whole journey. Despite sore butts from sitting on the floor the whole way, it was a great way to enjoy the scenery!
Local buses go everywhere in Sri Lanka. If you are traveling for a long time and/or on a budget, this is your best bet. Find the blue signs along the road which signify stopping points; they are every few hundred meters. Be prepared to jump on while the bus is still moving! The ticket sellers will sometimes try to over-charge you. Once inside hold on for dear life, as the drivers are notoriously psychotic and get paid by the trip, not by the hour. Bus fare in Sri Lanka are around 20 LKR (Sri Lankan Rupees) for a short trip or near 200 LKR from Colombo to the south coast (~5hrs). For busing to/from Colombo, check out the special section in the bottom of the page. Throw your backpacks in front by the driver or in the storage space in the rear, depending on how helpful/hurried the ticket guys are at the moment. Buses are by far the most popular form of Sri Lanka transportation with the locals, so ride them at least once for the experience.
These three-wheeled motorized rickshaws are a Sri Lankan transportation staple and you will find them all over the island. They are fun to zoom around in, but the drivers are pushy and you always have to ask the price up front and negotiate; just please don’t be a dick because the price is 50 LKR higher than you’d like. A good tourist’s tuk tuk fare is 75 LKR per kilometer, but expect to pay more late at night. They have room for three people but will sometimes let you take more (for a tip) and generally have room for your luggage. Check out the Tuk Tuk Safari that we did, which featured the nicest tuk tuk we’ve ever seen! In Colombo there is a great app called Pick Me that you can use to summon your tuk tuk rides.
Buses and tuk tuks get old fast, and sometimes you just want t stop and get a coconut (or an ice cream). Renting a motorbike is a nice change of pace and lets you explore more remote and off-the-beaten-path destinations. Prices range from 800-1200 LKR per day. In our opinion, this is the most fun type of Sri Lanka transportation. Technically you need an international drivers license, along with your home country’s ID, and a special permit only obtainable in Colombo. Most tourists who rent motorbikes do not have all or any of these documents, so just expect to pay a fine if you are stopped by the police. Watch out for police roadblocks in every town. We generally see them coming and hide behind the car in front of us. The police aren’t trying to work too hard, and won’t chase you.
Taxis are useful in Colombo, or if you are on a quick trip/higher budget. A trip from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport to the south can cost between 7,000 and 12,000 LKR so be sure to do some negotiating. If you have a hotel reserved, have them arrange a taxi for you, as they will get a better price and your ride will be waiting on your arrival. If you need a ride to/from specific places, post sometime on one of the Sri Lanka traveler Facebook groups and many taxis will message you with deals. Uber is a good option, but only works in Colombo. Taxis don’t normally have signs in Sri Lanka, because they are usually are just some dude with a Prius.
Getting to/from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport:
Keep in mind that Sri Lanka only has one international airport, located in Colombo. Most travelers choose to skip Colombo or leave it until the end of their trip, after getting more comfortable with the country. Leaving the airport is one of the most expensive parts of travel in Sri Lanka. There are several options to get you where you need to be:
Bus – When walking out the main exit during daytime hours, you will see a blue bus directly in front of the exit. This takes you to the main bus station (150 LKR – 1hr) near the Colombo Fort and train station. This main bus station is for local buses which depart to all parts of the island for a very cheap price. However, if you’re headed to the south we’d recommend taking the highway bus to Matara (500 LKR – 2hrs) which is air conditioned and gets you there in half the time of the local bus. These nicer buses leave from a different bus station called Maharagama in south Colombo. They depart every 15 min or so when full. There are also highway buses directly to Galle, although they leave less often than the Matara buses. To get to Maharagama either take a bus from the local bus station, or taxi/Uber straight from the airport (45 min, recommended).
Taxi – If you are only in Sri Lanka for a short time and your first stop is outside Colombo, we recommend just taking a taxi straight from the airport to your destination. Set it up with your hotel in advance to save money and have someone waiting for you. Keep in mind that if you are arriving late at night or early in the morning, taxi or Uber might be your only option for getting anywhere.
Tuk tuk – if you are spending the night in nearby Negombo, you can take a tuk tuk to your destination. The tuk tuks are not allowed into the airport pickup area but you just need to walk across the street to flag one down.
Sri Lanka transportation is easy, however sometimes it can be crowded and hot. We call it “character building” as my favorite athlete Alex Honnold would say. Just keep your cool and everything will be fine! What’s to worry, if all else fails while traveling Sri Lanka, you’ve still got your Chevrolegs and your thumb!
Don’t want to worry about anything while traveling in Sri Lanka? Check out our upcoming Sri Lanka Surf & Yoga retreat through Bigger Life Adventures! We take care of everything so you can focus on the fun!
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