Public transportation in Sri Lanka has ups and downs, like in any other place. Good news: You can easily see the whole island only by using trains and busses without loosing (too) much time. Bad news: I wouldn’t recommend it if you plan a short holiday.
We’ve spent three months in Sri Lanka, and we’ve got the chance to be there before and after the bomb attack. What changes did we notice? Locals are much more desperate and willing to scam tourists to compensate for their financial loss.
Public Transportation: Trains
The advantage of using trains while traveling is that it’s very simple, budget-friendly and you won’t get scammed. You can check yourself the schedule online on this website or at the train station.
Most of the times, trains have delays, but not big ones. You can simply arrive at the station and buy your ticket 15-20 minutes before departing. Make sure you have cash on you, as they don’t accept payments by card. Also, it’s better to arrive there a bit in advance in case people are queueing to buy tickets.
Important: Keep the ticket until reaching your destinations because sometimes you need to show it in order to exit.
Sri Lankan trains have (theoretically) three classes: 1st, 2nd and 3rd. By theoretically I mean most of the trains don’t have 1st class available.
1st Class: Most of the times, it has AC and always closed windows. The ticket comes with a reserved seat, so there won’t be people standing around.
2nd Class: Instead of AC, there are fans on the ceiling and windows that you can open. You can reserve seats or even buy a ticket on the spot. The only thing is that no one guarantees you will find tickets available for 2nd class on the same day of departure.
3rd Class: You cannot reserve tickets for 3rd class and it’s not mandatory to have a place to seat. Most of the times it’s very crowded.
Recommendation: I traveled 2nd class almost all the times, except for when there were no more available tickets. The trains look very decent, some might even have tables and restaurant.
You can even book 3rd class when you know for sure you will get a seat, as there aren’t many physical differences. In case you’re leaving from a smaller station or at the beginning of the route, you can choose 3rd class to spend less and have more or less the same conditions.
Overall, trains are a nice way to travel around Sri Lanka, as the prices are low (probably there isn’t a ticket more expensive than 1500LKR/7,40€) and the journey comfortable. The only negative aspect is that they’re very slow.
Public Transportation: Buses
Now this is a tricky subject. It has so many ups and downs that I couldn’t even decide which side weights more.
- They’re old. And by old, I mean that probably the British people brought them when they colonized the country.
- They’re very uncomfortable. They’re the most uncomfortable transportation I’ve ever used. The seats are suitable for kids, so you end up becoming one with the person next to you.
- They’re very loud. Seriously, there’s a party going on on each bus. The first rides are fun but after a while you just want silence.
- They’re very fast. Those drivers are absolutely crazy. I’m not recommending you to look straight at the road because you might get a panic attack.
- They’re very cheap. You can easily travel for 3,4 hours and pay less than 1€.
- They’re very frequent. All day long until late in the evening, there are buses going from everywhere to everywhere.
- You might get scammed. In most busses, they asked your destination and then you receive a ticket with all the details and pay accordingly. In other busses, they either refuse to give you a ticket or they give you one that says “luggage”. If you receive a luggage ticket, it’s for sure a scam. You should check beforehand the prices with locals or on the internet to have a back-up in case you don’t get a ticket.
- They’re good for short rides. You guessed why, because you get there in no time.
- Keep your belongings close to you. All busses have trunks, but I wouldn’t recommend that. They’re very dirty and unsafe (Andrei’s trekking shoes got stolen from there). Leave your backpack next to the driver and try to find a seat from where you see it.
Furthermore, I actually encourage you to hop on a blue Sri Lankan bus and get the most out of it, as for sure you won’t see anything like this in other parts.
How to know which bus to take? Well, again, half tricky question.
There are two kinds of buses: governmental and private. The governmental one is red, while the private ones are blue, green or pink and highly customized.
Most important, I think you should check online the routes before leaving. The majority of the buses have their destination written on top and the main stops on sides. In case the name it’s not in English, you can ask locals and they’ll show you around.
Important: Don’t trust anyone who’s saying there are no more buses going that direction or suggesting you another bus that goes “very close” to your destination. Stick to your plan, and if no one is cooperating, search for an information office and ask there.
To sum it up, I would say you need to spend some time preparing the exact way to move around using public transportation in Sri Lanka. Some parts of the country are better connected than others. In case you’re not willing to stress yourself with all these aspects, you can hire a driver to join you on your trip. This is actually a very popular way of visiting Sri Lanka.
Are you planning to use public transportation to visit Anuradhapura, Dambulla or Sigiriya? Check out this article to find out why I’m not recommending these 3 places in Sri Lanka.
Have you used public transportation in Sri Lanka? Or do you prefer hiring a driver to make things simple?
Keep in touch,
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