19th June 2017

Public transport in Sri Lanka: A guide to getting around on a budget

I always try to take public transport when I travel.

In Sri Lanka, I wanted to do exactly that.

Not only is travelling by public transport a great way to save money, it also gives you an insight into the daily lives of the locals around you. Perhaps you’ll find yourself sat with elderly ladies deep in conversation, or beside a young man or woman on their daily commute to work, or amongst a group of schoolgirls, chatting and giggling as their long braids sway.

Public transport in Sri Lanka can open your travels to a whole range of new experiences all whilst saving you money as you travel the country – and luckily, it’s very easy to use!

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

A train crosses Demodara Bridge in Ella

I’m always a bit nervous before using public transport in a country where I don’t speak the language. What if I can’t tell them where I’m going, or where I’m getting off? What if I somehow buy the wrong ticket and get fined? What if I end up in the completely wrong place?

However, taking public transport in Sri Lanka is very simple. Once you’ve taken a couple of journeys, you’ll feel at ease and will be able to easily navigate the country with its great network of buses and trains. It helps that the local people are incredibly friendly and are always happy to help you get to where you need to go.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Train timetables are simple in Sri Lanka

If you’ve been following the blog lately you’ll note that a lot of my recent posts focus on responsible travel. Taking public transport in Sri Lanka is one of the easiest ways to lower your carbon footprint (a great idea following your gas-guzzling flights to arrive in Colombo!). It also helps the local economy as your money will keep these great routes running, instead of all your rupees going to one person if you hire a driver.

In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know about taking public transport in Sri Lanka, from how much your journey should cost, to where to put your luggage, and how to buy tickets or reserve seats. If you have any questions, leave a comment below and I’ll add the answer into this post!

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Tuk tuks in Colombo

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

A train pulls into Bambalapitiya station in Colombo


Sri Lanka by Bus

This is by far the cheapest way to travel in Sri Lanka and although it can be daunting at first, once you’ve taken a few journeys by bus you’ll soon begin to feel more confident, and you’ll save so much money travelling this way that it’ll be so worth any confusion at first!

What to know

Buses are cheap but often crowded and uncomfortable (you won’t get much sleep on them!). The seats aren’t quite big enough and you’ll find your shoulders squashed up against someone else’s.

They run from the very early hours until darkness – the same way most things seem to operate in Sri Lanka. I am not sure if overnight buses exist; we didn’t use them during our trip if they do.

The interiors of buses are beautifully decorated with lights, posters of Buddha and decorations. With this, expect very loud Sri Lankan music for the entire journey, as well as music videos is there is a TV on the bus.

Sometimes you may need to take more than one bus to reach your final destination. For example, we went from Ella to Arugam Bay, which required a change in Monoregala. Locals will be more than happy to help you.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Monkeys climbing on a bud in Polonnaruwa

How to know which bus to take

The first thing you need to know is of course which bus to get on!

If you haven’t heard it elsewhere, the people of Sri Lanka are very kind and helpful; they are genuine and will offer you the correct answer in 99% of situations! Only once did James and I take a private air-conditioned bus instead of a local bus, this was because we were told (by the driver) that the local bus wouldn’t be leaving for another hour (which probably wasn’t true but oh well.)

In larger cities such as Kandy, there are information desks at the bus stations where you can ask an employee which number bus to take. The buses are generally lined up outside, with long-distance buses on one side of the stand and city-buses on the other. Guesthouse owners are also very knowledgeable on which routes to take. If you are in a more rural area, chances are there will be buses heading along one of the main roads to the next city. Although there are designated bus stops (marked with road markings on the tarmac), you can generally flag a bus from anywhere along the road.

I used my Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guidebook for reference throughout my trip. The information on routes was mostly up-to-date but the prices were occasionally a little different.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Buses have lots of decorations in Sri Lanka

Private vs State Run

The first thing to note is that buses in Sri Lanka are either run by the state or by private operators. Usually state-run buses are red and have two seats on either side of the aisle, privately-run buses are generally blue, pink or green and have more seats, meaning they are more crowded.

We didn’t find a huge difference between the cost of state-run and privately-run buses, however sometimes private ones were the only option for some journeys. Drivers seem to drive at higher speeds on the privately-run ones. However, the system for flagging them down and paying your fare is the same on both.

Some popular routes are also operated by smaller minibuses, often with air conditioning, which are focused towards tourists. These are more expensive than the two options above.

The conductor

Every bus has a conductor on it. The conductor is the person who you will pay your money to. The conductor shouts out the names of the next stop as you’re travelling along and shouts the final destination out of the door to people waiting for the bus.

How to pay your fare

In Sri Lanka, unlike in the UK, you don’t pay for your ticket as you get on the bus.

First, you get on the bus and find a seat; stand if there are no seats left. The conductor will then approach you; you just need to say your destination and the conductor will tell you how much the journey costs. This is when you pay.

Normally you’ll get a ticket in return, which is usually a printed ticket on private buses and a handwritten one on state-run buses. Try to have small notes in case the conductor doesn’t have change.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

A traffic warden stops the traffic in Kandy

Luggage

It’s common knowledge that you should always keep your valuables on your person or in a small rucksack that you can keep with you. Keep it on your lap or in the rack above. If you’re standing, put it between your feet or on your front. Keep your eye on it at all times, just in case.

Your large rucksack is normally left at the front with the driver. There’s an area at the front where bags are stacked and strapped into place. If there is no room here, the conductor may ask you to put your luggage in the boot/truck of the bus. They won’t ever turn you away because of your luggage.

How to know where to get off

As I said before, the conductor will normally shout out the name of the next stop. Push the button on the roof of the bus or pull on the rope which rings the bell by the driver, to signal that you would like to get off soon. If you’re the only tourists on the bus (very likely), the conductor will usually remember where you are disembarking and will beckon you when you’re approaching the stop. If you’re unsure you can always ask!

I use HereMaps when I travel, it’s a free app for iOS and Android and works as an offline map so I can see when I’m nearing a destination.

Other tips

Women should sit next to other women if travelling alone; men next to men or standing. Men don’t generally sit next to a woman who is travelling alone and never in the aisle seat if she is sitting in the window seat.

As a woman who likes to wear shorts, I felt a lot more comfortable take a sarong or long skirt to cover my legs in case I found myself stood up on bus journeys.

If you find yourself having to stand (which is very likely!), here’s how the locals avoid falling all over the place: turn to face someone who is seated, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold onto the handles on the sides of the seat (behind the passengers’ heads). This way you are facing the window and travelling sideways but you have a lot more grip in case of braking and turning!

People in Sri Lanka often use their smartphones on bus journeys so don’t feel like you cannot use yours if you want to. When we first arrived, I was a little worried about “flaunting my wealth” (so to speak), but locals generally aren’t really bothered about this. No one batted an eyelid when I used my iPhone and James’ camera was a great conversation starter with curious locals!

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

The buttons to signal to the driver that you would like to disembark the bus are on the roof


Sri Lanka by Train

We took the train whenever we could on our trip; it’s probably my preferred method of public transport in Sri Lanka. The country has a great rail network which is reliable and affordable. And travelling by train is also one of the best ways to see the country – particularly in the highlands as you watch the endless fields of tea plantations out of the window (or hanging out of the door!)

How to check train times

We got into the habit of checking the train times (and sometimes booking) our onward train when we arrived at the station. For instance, when we arrived in Kandy we booked our train from Kandy to Hatton for the following day.

To check train times, visit the official Sri Lanka Railways website. Seat 61 also has some really useful information.

Luggage

Your luggage will fit on the overhead racks above your head. Even if you don’t manage to get a seat, try to find space for your luggage on the racks as it’ll save valuable corridor space! Like with the buses, keep your valuables in your smaller rucksack and keep it on you at all times.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Third Class train journey

Types of Class and the differences between them

Sri Lankan trains typically have Reserved First Class, Reserved Second Class and Reserved Third Class carriages, and almost every train will have an Unreserved Class (which is also third class). Not every train will have First Class carriages and the trains on the Colombo – Galle line only have Unreserved Class carriages.

I found it a little difficult to tell the difference between the classes despite the class number and carriage number being displayed on the outside of the train. If you aren’t sure, ask a guard.

The differences between the classes are minimal in my opinion. Third class has benches, whereas second and first have individual seats. There isn’t air conditioning in any carriage, but the windows open and there are fans on the ceilings. Doors are often locked in Reserved carriages and left wide open in Unreserved carriages.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

First Class en route to Jaffna

Unreserved Seats

As the name explains, unreserved seats cannot be booked in advance. These carriages are generally very crowded because tickets don’t ever sell out for them.

To get on the train without reserving a seat, you need to buy a ticket from the office on the day of departure. Sometimes tickets don’t go on sale until a couple of hours before the train leaves, so arrive promptly in case there is a queue.

When you get on the train, make sure you head to the Unreserved carriage and find a seat or stand. If you find you have to stand, try to position yourself near a door; you’ll appreciate both the views and the breeze!

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

A train ticket from Galle to Bentota cost 50Rs per person in third class unreserved

Seat reservations

James and I only realised on our penultimate train journey in Sri Lanka that you don’t actually need to reserve a seat on trains.

If you want to sit in Reserved First, Second or Third class (i.e. if you want to reserve your seat), you’ll need to book your train in advance. These trains are available to book from 30 days before departure. Your seat number will be printed on your ticket (an A5 sized sheet).

At stations, reservations can be made at the ‘Intercity’ counter. If there isn’t this specified counter, you can go to the normal counter. If you’re unsure what to do or where to go, ask an official or at any counter.

Both First and Second Class Reserved cars get sold out very quickly on certain scenic routes such as along the Kandy to Badulla line (includes stops at Hatton (Adam’s Peak), Nuwara Eliya and Ella).  If you are planning on taking this route and want a guaranteed seat, either book your journey as soon as you arrive in Sri Lanka at Colombo Fort Station, or online through an agency (I don’t have experience with this but Seat 61’s post gives lots of info.)

Note that if you are told that a train is fully booked when you try to reserve tickets, this just means that all of the seat reservations are sold out. You’ll still be able to get the train in the Unreserved Third Class carriage.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Train fares

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Train timetable

Other things to note

You can book any train journey at any train station.

Departure boards and the like are not overly common on train platforms. The best thing to do is ask which platform your train will be on when you buy your ticket, or when you go through the foyer onto the platforms. If in doubt, locals are friendly and helpful and have some level of English.

Take snacks and lots of water with you. There are vendors who will come up and down the train selling rotti, samosas and other snacks etc as well as drinks, but I don’t recommend relying on them as you never know when you’ll see someone!

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Tea plantations en route to Ella

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Tea pickers spotted from the train window


Sri Lanka by Tuk Tuk

Tuk tuks are a real novelty in Asia and you have to take one at some point during your trip to Sri Lanka!

If you’re unfamiliar with what a tuk tuk is, it’s basically a three wheeled truck with motorbike-like handlebars to steer, accelerate and brake. In Sri Lanka they come in all colours.

Luggage

Yes, you can take your luggage with you! There is space in your rucksack or suitcase behind the passenger seats in the back. Both of mine & James’ rucksacks fit in this compartment. You can probably get three people in the back of most tuk tuks so there’s extra room for luggage if there’s only two of you. Keep your valuables in a smaller backpack and keep hold of it in case of grab-and-runs.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

A tuk tuk in Jaffna

How to take a tuk tuk

Usually you can just flag a tuk tuk from the road – they are everywhere.

Guesthouse owners can organise tuk tuks for you for tours (some of which I don’t recommend – read this post) or for transport to the train/bus station etc. Their prices are perhaps slightly inflated.

Note that drivers may approach you outside tourist sights and at bus or train stations. Their price is usually slightly inflated, so we found that we could get a better price by walking a few hundred meters away and flagging down a tuk tuk driving past.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

A typical Sri Lankan scene: cyclists, tuk tuks and cows on the road!

How to pay

In my opinion, tuk tuks are only advisable for short distances because they can soon become quite expensive. To avoid surprises, always agree your price before you get inside the tuk tuk. Pay when you reach your destination. Try to have correct notes or the driver may struggle to give you the correct change.

How much does it cost?

A tuk tuk should cost on average 150 rupees per kilometre, but local buses are still cheaper. A 25 rupee bus journey from our accommodation in Kandy to the city centre cost us 300 rupees in a tuk tuk.

We found haggling tuk tuk drivers in Sri Lanka much more difficult than in other parts of Asia – but maybe it was just us?! Drivers just outright refused or only accepted 10-20 rupees lower than their asking price. I think their prices are a lot more genuine than in other parts of Asia; they aren’t trying to rip you off – hence why they won’t budge!

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

View from the tuk tuk in Anuradhapura


Ready? Let’s go!

I hope this post will put your mind at ease when using public transport in Sri Lanka. It’s understandable to be a little nervous before your first journey, but remember that the local people are more than happy to help you if you are unsure of what to do.

Public Transport in Sri Lanka - spinthewindrose.com

Have you used public transport in Sri Lanka or elsewhere on your travels? Do you prefer to take public transport or hire a driver?

Thanks for reading and happy travels!

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13 responses to “Public transport in Sri Lanka: A guide to getting around on a budget”

  1. I really want to travel Sri Lanka but would have to do it solo. The public transport really put me off. Would you it is dangerous or not for women travellers?

    • It’s no more dangerous than anywhere else – remember than anything could happen anywhere in the world. If you keep your wits about you, you’ll be fine. I never felt threatened in Sri Lanka.

  2. Great tips! I think it would be an incredible experience to try out all the forms of transportation and I really think this is the best way of “getting local”, blending around and getting to know a country and its people. Will keep this for later since Sri Lanka it’s really on my list.

  3. jin says:

    what a very informative write up! I was in Sri Lanka 6 years ago, and traveled through the country with only a hired driver and a tuktuk. But loved how you tried to travel like a local for the most part. Definitely all part of the experience!

    • Agreed! We didn’t even consider a driver due to being on a tight budget, but we had one in India and I must admit it was great to have more freedom to stop when you want to etc!

  4. Lyndsy says:

    Holy crap!!! Look at those monkeys! I will get so lost in Sri Lanka. Saving this for my future trip!

  5. Brenda says:

    This was an amazing piece of information! Sri Lanka has always been a dream for me, but I’m a bit scared of do it on my own.

  6. Ana says:

    Thank you! This is really helpful!
    Did you take buses in the evening? I was thinking that, since it gets dark around 6 PM, I could use the evening to travel to my next destination. Not sure if buses run so late and if it’s safe, as a solo traveler.

    • You’re welcome! I didn’t take buses in the evening; I travelled in the early mornings mostly. Buses start at around 6am so I usually arrived mid-morning/ lunch time which meant I still had half a day in my new destination. And if you are to travel in the evening you’ll need to keep your luggage with you or store it until you get the bus. I think buses normally run until around 8pm in the evening but it’s worth checking with your guesthouse. I personally didn’t travel at night and I travelled with my ex in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is somewhere I would be happy to travel by myself and I saw many other solo travellers while I was there, but for my own safety I think I would travel during the day. Hope this helps!

  7. ashlesha says:

    Hi anyone travelling to SriLanka in the first week of April 2018

  8. Arta Abasina says:

    Thanks for the article! We are in Sri Lanka at the moment and your blog helps us a lot. I just wanted to note that I disagree with the average price you have listed for tuk-tuks – my friend who was here for 2 months and I so far have noticed around 50 rupees per km on average, including a journey from the airport to Colombo. Also, a big tip is to use PickMe app in bigger cities – it’s their Uber/Grab and works like magic – no haggling, lots of drivers and cheap price

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