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May 11 2016

The Reality of Travelling Around Sri Lanka by Bus

The Reality of Travelling Around Sri Lanka by Bus

I wasn’t completely sure how I would get around Sri Lanka before I arrived, but I suspected it would be by bus rather than train for two main reasons:  Firstly, I knew that I would have to book tickets in advance if I didn’t want to travel third-class, and I had no intention of doing that, having travelled on a third-class sleeper train years ago in India.  Secondly, I was aware that Sri Lanka doesn’t have an extensive rail service around the country and only a limited number of trains run per day, which necessitates finding other means of travelling around the country.

If you travel in a similar way to me, with merely a vague plan of your trip, you won’t want to book a train ticket in advance, nor will you want to be restricted by where the train goes.  In that case, you will have to find another way to get around.  There is an extensive network of local buses in Sri Lanka, so it is a great way to travel around the country.  It’s also an interesting and challenging way to travel.  Knowing I would have to travel around for some or all of my trip, I envisaged a mix of comfortable, air-conditioned buses and local buses with the odd train journey, perhaps.  As it turned out, I didn’t get a single train, and I ended up on only one air-conditioned bus, which wasn’t the comfortable bus I had imagined.

Talk about jumping in with both feet, after stepping off the plane, with no clear idea of how I was going to get from the airport to Kandy, I ended up squashed on a local bus, like a sardine, with a bus load of locals for four and a half hours.  That was my introduction to Sri Lanka, and what an amazing introduction to the country it was.  My adventure had begun.

The journey is often as or more interesting than the destination itself.  That is certainly true when travelling around by local bus in Sri Lanka.  From my short but extensive experience of travelling around Sir Lanka by bus, I have a few tips and observations that I thought are worth sharing.  To be forewarned is forearmed, as they say!

It’s crowded, so be prepared to stand

When I say crowded, I mean crowded – as in sardines.  They pile people onto each bus.  You are basically nose to nose.  Have you ever been on the Tube (the London Underground) during rush hour?  If you have, it’s like that but worse.  I’m not kidding.  When you think there is no way they can fit anyone else on, they somehow do.  There’s a bus conductor who squeezes everyone on.  The thing is, getting everyone on the bus is one thing, but getting off is another.  That’s when the fun really begins because everyone standing has to be somehow contort themselves so those getting off the bus can weave their way through.

Tip: Get on the bus at a bus station.  It isn’t always possible, but if you can, it means you can bugsy a seat.  When travelling for a few hours, you’ll be grateful you did.

Time isn’t of the essence

I only had a week in Sri Lanka, which isn’t long enough, however you travel around.  Nonetheless, I still used the local buses as a means of getting around.  Often, you won’t be able to get a direct bus, so that takes even longer.  You need to be prepared for that.  Sometimes, there will be a direct bus, but they won’t necessarily tell you.

Tip: Ask if it is a direct bus to your destination.  That’s important because otherwise you might end up having to change buses once or twice when there is no need.  

It’s the perfect time to interact with locals

Travelling by bus might take time, and be a wee bit challenging, but it is really interesting, and you will mix with locals who will be curious, especially if you are female and travelling around with a backpack.  Locals will, more than likely, strike up a conversation with you.  I had a conversation with a local on every bus journey I took in Sri Lanka.  I even managed to get a place to stay while travelling on a local bus to Ella.

Admire the outstanding nature beauty

Sri Lanka’s scenery is stunning, especially in the Hill Country with all the tea plantations.  I had read so much about the trains and how the journey from Nuwara Eliya to Ella, in particular, is one of the best in the world.  I’m sure that’s  true.  I didn’t have the opportunity to check that out for myself on this occasion, but the scenery by road is pretty spectacular, too.

Hang on tight!

Seriously, I’m not kidding.  Sri Lankan bus drivers are nutters.  No offence intended, but they are.  They drive as if their lives depend on getting to their destination on time.  They beep like crazy, overtake at every opportunity, and are like racing drivers.  I noticed that they seem to have 3 different types of beeps which seem to mean different things:

  1. Don’t even think about it!
  2. Look out, I’m coming through whether you like it or not!
  3. Get out of the way, NOW!

Travelling light is a must

This is essential because you often have to get on a packed bus with your luggage.  It is often left up by the driver.  The locals who are sitting might offer to hold any bags you are carrying if you are standing up.  At first, I thought it was people who knew each other, but that wasn’t the case.  People offered to take my daypack, so it seems to be normal practice.

Tip: Travel light; carry your valuables with you; and don’t have anything breakable.  Obvious, I know, but still worth pointing out, I think.

Bus don’t wait for no man, woman, or child

Unless they are trying to pack people on the bus, the driver will stop for seconds before moving off, just enough time to get on or off the bus.  The day I arrived, as I was about to get on my first bus, I wasn’t aware of this.  While the bus conductor was putting my backpack in the boot (the only time that ever happened), the bus driver started moving off slowly.  I had visions of watching the bus in the distance, from the side of the road, waving goodbye to my backpack.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Have your say

Have you travelled by bus in Sri Lanka?  If so, do you have any other tips or observations you’d like to share?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

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