Getting around Sri Lanka – how to travel with just 5$
In this post, you’ll find an overview of different ways of getting around Sri Lanka. Although we only spent 2 weeks on the island, we traveled a lot (roughly 1200km) and therefore would like to share the experiences we made getting around Sri Lanka by bus, train, taxi, and tuk-tuk. You will learn why it will be your best decision to go on a train ride while in Sri Lanka, and that it’s not that bad after all to ride the local bus.
Please feel free to share your expertise with us as well! We’d like to extend the post in case you have made more or different experiences while getting around Sri Lanka.
In general, transport in Sri Lanka is a lot slower than we are used to in Western countries. However, once you have traveled to South-East Asia or South America, this won’t surprise you… For example, the train ride from Ella to Colombo, approx. 250km, took 10 hours. And this was the “express” train. 😂 There are some faster trains though, too.
On the upside, it’s incredibly cheap (as low as 2$) to use public transport in Sri Lanka!
Traveling by bus
Before heading to Sri Lanka, we mostly read complaints about the bus rides there. Good news: Traveling by bus in Sri Lanka is not that bad at all!
Here’s our summary for you:
- It’s the cheapest way to travel (train is also quite inexpensive though)
- It offers an excellent network across the country – there are busses to every small corner. Therefore, traveling by bus is particularly handy when going to less touristy areas.
- Sometimes it’s the only flexible and at the same time low cost option you will have: For example on our route along the East Coast, there would have not been any other inexpensive travel option besides bus rides.
- Provided you can secure a seat next to the window or close to the door, the heat will be ok due to the airflow. (However, your face will be dusty afterwards). Anyways, you will sweat. But it’s still not that bad 🙂
- Naturally, we recommend to only travel with very light luggage. In case your backpack is huge though, you can either store it in the front (next to the driver), in the trunk, or buy a ticket for a 2nd seat…
- Once the bus arrives, simply hop on. There will be a guy asking for your destination and then you will pay and get a ticket from him.
- Don’t sit in the front row. It’s reserved for clergy.
- There’s no bathroom on the bus 😉
- The bus driver will drive like crazy and therefore, the ride is also quite bumpy.
- There are partly breaks. Some tuk-tuk drivers will want to talk you into getting on their tuk-tuk instead of continuing your journey on the bus. Don’t be fooled by them (they will tell you the break lasts for hours).
- Check Google maps from time to time, so you know when to get off.
- Finding the right bus in the bus station: That can be quite tricky, but eventually, with asking several persons, you will find the bus.
- Busses are often late, some might not come at all.
- As always, being amongst locals, you will be immediately noted as foreigner. To go along with their culture, we recommend to wear “proper” clothes that cover your legs and arms.
Traveling by train
While in Sri Lanka, we think it’s a must to enjoy a scenic train ride! It’s an unbelievable, matchless experience of getting around Sri Lanka.
The rail network is covering most of South-Western Sri Lankan cities, and in particular Colombo-Fort is well connected with the main other cities. For details and schedules on train rides in Sri Lanka, we always used the website of “the man in seat 61“ which is incredibly helpful.
Be aware, there are no tracks along the East Coast! Therefore, we recommend to stick to the bus.
You should definitely plan at least one train journey whilst in Sri Lanka. There are some very scenic train rides, in particular around Elle, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. The train ride in this area offers stunning views of the lush green landscape with its tea plantations and surprisingly hilly area.
Plus, once again, it’s very good value for money. Our 10 hour ride from Elle to Colombo was 700 rupees for the two of us (that’s roughly 5$).
Our train rides were:
- Colombo Fort –> Kandy
- Elle –> Colombo Fort
- Colombo Fort <–> Galle
For traveling by train, here are our recommendations:
- Carefully check train timetables, as there are only a few trains a day.
- You don’t need to take 1st class or the observatory cabin, you’ll be completely fine with 2nd class. 3rd class might be too crowded though. Also, when we traveled, the observatory deck was too crowded as well. The view from the window seats (or the open train doors 😅) will be stunning everywhere.
- Actually, some of the 1st class cabins we saw were climatized and it wasn’t possible to open the windows. Therefore we were lucky to sit in the 2nd class.
- Do get ear plugs or your Spotify playlist in case your ears are very sensitive.
- You might also want to bring cleaning towels. Similar to riding a bus, dirt will be blown into your face.
- Also, definitely bring water and some snacks. There will be vendors, but only randomly.
- We never booked in advance, simply got our tickets around 20 to 30 minutes before the train left. You can buy it at the counter directly in the station. There are different queues, for the various classes.
- Riding the train is exhausting. In case it’s possible, you should split your rides to 3 to 4 hours per ride maximum.
- You will be able to store luggage in the overhead compartments.
Traveling by taxi
In case you like your travel to be private and convenient, and don’t care about the amount of money spent, taxi is your way to go.
Well, also when you’re traveling with 2 or 3 friends, it might be worth to take a taxi, in particular in areas where the only other option is the bus.
Although the bus will bring you almost everywhere, it might take a long time and several bus changes. Therefore, after a long day, it might be a clever option to travel by taxi.
However, be aware that you should negotiate the price before you start your trip.
We used a taxi once and that was from Arugam Bay to Ella. Our plan was to catch a bus at around 11 but this one never arrived so we kind of stranded in Pottuvil (next to A-Bay). As usual some people were trying to sell us stuff and some taxi rides. We were quite persistent in denying those offers as they wanted around 3000 to 5000 rupees for the trip to Ella. We said that we could only offer 2000 and in the end they found some taxi driver who was on his way back to Ella after bringing some guests to Arugam Bay.
This was one of the best travel decisions we made in Sri Lanka as we cut the 5 hours bus drive to around 2 hours by taxi. So you see, negotiating a bit holds benefits in Sri Lanka.
Did you score a good deal?
Traveling by tuk-tuk
“Helloo Sir, hello! You need tuk tuk?”
That’s probably the one sentence you will hear in nearly every major or minor city in Sri Lanka. And while that may sound funny it is definitely a good point you should reconsider. Riding a tuk-tuk is a quick and easy way getting around Sri Lanka on shorter distances. We would not recommend it for longer rides as it is not as fast and comfy as going by bus or by train and it will become more expensive at some point.
The longest drive we had was about 30 minutes from Matale to one of our hotels. It was dark, raining like the big flood was coming (well it actually did in 2016 ) and neither the driver or we knew where to go. In the end we did arrive safe with some help of Google Maps and asking other people on the road but it was quite an experience.
Of course, we are eager to hear about your experiences getting around Sri Lanka!
Do you have anything to add to our list, or did you make different experiences?