Sri Lankan roadways can be heavy with congestion and noise. Rather than using mirrors and turn signals, drivers honk their horns* in order to let others know that they’re passing or turning, making for very loud, hectic journeys. Getting from point A to point B can be frustratingly slow in a country around the size of West Virginia, but along the way you may have some of your best experiences seeing the countryside and meeting locals.
If you’re visiting Sri Lanka, traveling around the country like a local is the best way to go. Although tuk-tuks are always around (really, you can’t get away from them), they tend to be much more expensive than public transportation and we made it a point to use them only when necessary. If you need to get to where you’re going quickly there’s really no better option and they are a lot of fun to ride in, although they don’t go that fast (which is probably a good thing, because they don’t seem safe!). We found that they charged around Rs.80 ($0.65) per kilometer, but prices are negotiable. Sometimes the people at your hotel will be able to give you a ballpark of what they should charge for well-known routes. Remember to agree on a price before getting in!
Buses are ubiquitous and cheap, but we rarely saw other tourists taking advantage of them. The bus network goes everywhere and you never have to wait more than five minutes for one to drive by. There’s one main highway from Colombo that stretches all the way around the southern coast, so getting from town to town is as simple as walking out to the road and hopping on. Bus stops are marked by blue signs and yellow paint on the road that juts out from the curb in a large rectangle. You can hail most buses but be prepared to get on quickly as they don’t always come to a complete stop.
Two people operate each bus. Along with the driver there is always a second person that collects the fare from passengers and helps the driver not to run people over as they’re getting on and off. The conductor also assists the driver in navigating through obstacles on the narrow streets.
Usually the ambiance of Sri Lankan buses is festive, filled with the sound of local music that is a nice reprieve from the late 90’s soft rock rubbish they play at the beach resorts. At times there are even music videos or strange soap operas. At the front of each bus are flowers and colorful photos of deities. Most have prominent gold-plated boards featuring various gods that are encircled by blinking LED lights. The consistent use of this particular type of décor makes us think that they’re state funded. The omniscient ornamentation isn’t always enough though, and it’s not uncommon for the driver’s assistant to hop off the bus and leave a quick offering at one of the thousands of roadside shrines that dot the country.
A few tips for riding the buses:
- If you have your pack with you, you’ll need to store it as soon as you board the bus. In many cases there was a space next to the driver where you can put it, but sometimes it has to go under your seat. In certain cases you’ll be asked to store it in the boot. If so, make sure the conductor remembers to get off and open it when you get to your stop.
- Seats at the front of the bus are reserved, which means that you may have to get up if monks, pregnant or disabled people board. If a monk does get on, women cannot sit next to them so if you’re of the fairer sex it’s better to sit elsewhere. It is also a common practice to offer your seat to the elderly so they don’t have to stand, and we saw many men offer their seats to women as well.
- Once you’re on the bus and situated, the conductor will ask your destination and collect your fare. Ask him to let you know when you’ve reached your stop if you aren’t sure where it will be. You can also ask a local, they’re usually happy to help. Pay attention to the shops you pass as they often have the name of the town in English, and keep a map as it’s a good to have some idea of where you’re going anyways.
- If you don’t catch the bus at the station, you may need to stand for all or part of your journey. Either way, make sure to hold on as the ride can be quite bumpy and the drivers have a tendency to accelerate and brake abruptly. Try not to stand near the doors as they are strictly for show and do not close.
- Personal space is limited. If you get knocked in the head by a handbag or two, it’s not intentional – the buses can be quite cramped and it seems like there’s always room for one more.
- If there’s no bus stop at your destination, there are small switches on the ceiling to alert the driver you need to stop. He will not stop the bus immediately, however, so make sure to let him know slightly ahead of time if possible.
- There are no toilets on Sri Lankan buses. Longer routes will make an occasional bio-break stop, but the facilities are usually unpleasant.
The cost to ride buses in Sri Lanka is negligible. As an example, the journey from Matara to Nuwara Eliya (220 kilometers/130 miles as the crow flies) was Rs.310 each ($2.50USD). But it did take 8 hours! BTW, we searched everywhere for this information so I’m going to put it out there for Google: There are two daily direct buses from Matara to Nuwara Eliya, and they leave at 6:10am and 8:00am.
Private bus companies are also affordable and have A/C, however, they may want to charge you for an extra seat if you have your pack. Overall we preferred the public buses.
*Just for fun, here’s a list of reasons drivers might honk their horns. We observed all of these, although given the amount of noise on the roads there may well be more!
Horns may be used to…
…alert people you’re turning
…alert another car that you’re passing
…warn pedestrians that you’re there
…say “thank you” after passing
…tell someone to get out of the road (including livestock)
…alert others that you are speeding around a blind corner in the wrong lane
…alert people that you’re driving down the road in the dark with no headlights
…just to honk. Sometimes we couldn’t discern a reason!