Hanging out of trains, haggling for tuk-tuks and surviving the crowded buses
Travelling through Sri Lanka can be the best part of your trip, as long as you know how. Here are my tips for getting around this beautiful island.
"Where are you going tomorrow? I have a friend! He will take you!"
When you're travelling around Sri Lanka, these three sentences - uttered by a tuk-tuk operator, taxi driver, or just a man on the street - will become extremely familiar. If you're willing to pay up, there's no part of this beautiful island the locals won't help you to explore.
Using private guides is not my favourite way to travel, but it proved invaluable in Sri Lanka. The country's rail network is relatively limited and the buses can be uncomfortable, so sometimes you have to pay a little extra in order to get off the beaten path.
Here I'll share my tips and tricks for navigating Sri Lanka, ensuring you don't miss out on an unforgettable experience while you're waiting for the bus.
Take the "most beautiful train journey in the world"
Sri Lanka is home to the so-called "most beautiful train journey in the world". The route takes you from the sacred city of Kandy, up through the island's luscious hill country to Ella - a tiny, ethereal village nestled amid verdant mountains and tea plantations. And yes, it is seriously beautiful.
Not only is a journey aboard the pale blue locomotive the prettiest way to travel between Kandy and Ella - two highlights of the tourist trail - it's also the easiest.
Whatever your route around Sri Lanka, make sure you schedule in time to experience this breathtaking journey. The train trundles past forests of tall firs and endless palms swaying under the clear sky, alongside rustic villages with smoke rising from bonfires. It continues its journey above deep valleys where gentle waterfalls trickle over golden rocks, before pushing on through the damp greenery of tea plantations dotted with grandiose colonial buildings.
Travel third class and hang out of the train doors
Sri Lanka's rail system operates on a class system. Train doors are emblazoned with a bold 1, 2 or 3 on their sides, and - depending on which you choose - you can enjoy very varied experiences.
First class is mainly populated by tourists, and is sometimes called an "observation car" in instances where the carriage is fitted with large rear-facing windows to give a panoramic view of the stunning surroundings. These cars have comfortable seats and are air conditioned - which, for some, is a dealbreaker in the intense heat.
There's not that much difference between second and third class. These cars are admittedly a little less comfortable than first class, and tend to be laid out in booths rather than two-by-two, meaning personal space is not quite as easy to come by. It's also a lot busier and there's therefore less room for your luggage - and for you!
However - I highly recommend you give second or third class a go at some point on your journey. We had intended to exclusively travel first class on our trip, but a tuk-tuk driver who was helping us to buy some train tickets bought us third class ones instead. When we boarded, we were quite worried for our safety, but by the end of the journey we were so glad the mix up had occurred.
The busy carriages make for a much more vibrant travel experience than the cool, calm first class cars. For example, whenever the train goes through a tunnel, the people in second and third class make a sort of howling noise, which echoes throughout the tunnel to uncanny effect!
You also get food vendors jumping on and off at each station - a tasty addition to your journey that the first class experience is sadly missing. On our third class journey, we shared a packet of rip-off Pringles with a Sri Lankan man who, in exchange, pointed out all the famous sites we should take pictures of, and treated us to the famous Sri Lankan head wobble - a signifier of friendship - as he left.
If you don't get a seat - or even if you do - be sure to spend some time hanging out of the train doors, watching the gorgeous greenery trundle by. This is a truly joyful experience that simply would not be allowed back in the UK. Just make sure you get safely back inside the train when a tunnel comes rushing along!
Take in the fabulous tuk-tuks
Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. Each city or country in Asia seems to have its own style of tuk-tuk, from the gaudy vehicles of Bangkok with their glitter and flashing lights, to the wooden horse-drawn carriages on Indonesia's sandy Gili Air.
In Sri Lanka, the tuk-tuks are red, green and blue, with black coverings. But what really makes them distinct is the unique way the drivers choose to decorate their vehicles. Every other tuk-tuk you see in Sri Lanka is covered in merchandise from the film franchise Pirates of the Caribbean. When we asked one driver why this was the case, he explained, with a shrug, that it's simply a very popular film in Sri Lanka.
We also spotted quite a few tuk-tuks decorated with stuffed toys and declarations of love. It's definitely worth looking out for the more interesting decor when you're speeding through the streets of Colombo or Kandy!
Chat to your drivers
Our most interesting conversations in Sri Lanka were with our tuk-tuk drivers, people we met on trains, and our tour guides. Among other things we learnt about Sri Lankans' alcohol habits, the different religions in the country, and how to start a business selling shoes from China! Being in Sri Lanka, we also had many lengthy conversations about cricket.
If you have any questions about the sights and sounds around you, remember to ask your next driver about them. This will give you far more insight into life in Sri Lanka than merely reading a guide book.
Sample some spicy snacks on the go
One of the highlights of a trip to Sri Lanka is undoubtedly the cuisine; from the colourful fruit-heavy breakfasts and creamy dahls in ostentatious restaurants, to the nation's fast food of choice: kottu roti.
If you're in the lower class carriages on a train or riding one of Sri Lanka's bumpy buses, when you stop at a station, a group of shouting vendors will board the vehicle, offering a whole host of sensory delights. The food sellers typically don't have great English, so choosing what to buy can be a leap of faith - particularly since the warm snacks on offer are largely unrecognisable to Western eyes.
That said, I'd highly recommend sampling some of these treats, which come wrapped in old note paper or pages from textbooks. They're absolutely delicious - but tread carefully. They do tend to have a bit of a spicy kick to them, and locals seem to enjoy watching tourists - with our bland palates - choke down Sri Lankan spices while reaching frantically for our water bottles.
The golden rule: Book train tickets ahead of time
As far as is possible, book your travel ahead of time. Booking online will ramp up the price slightly, but taking even long journeys in Sri Lanka is so cheap that you really won't mind. I'd recommend booking your first journey before you arrive in the country, and then - when you disembark at your next destination - immediately booking your onward train tickets.
This will save you waiting in very long queues in hot rooms on the day of travel, and also negates the very real possibility that the train will get entirely booked up and you'll have to wait until the next day to depart.
Splash some cash on getting where you really want to go
Sri Lanka is a relatively cheap country to get around, but in order to get to some attractions, you'll be forced to hire a private car or tuk-tuk - as we did to access Sigiriya Rock.
This can cost you significantly more than public transport, but - if you're on a tight itinerary - it will save you a lot of time. Furthermore, the prices are still pretty cheap. Tuk-tuks will be the least costly option, but if you're going a significant distance, it's definitely worth splashing out on a car or van in order to save time and ensure a more comfortable journey.
You won't have any trouble finding a guide - pretty much every driver or waiter or hotel receptionist you meet will have a number of friends who they will recommend to take you. As in many countries, you might find yourself going a rather roundabout way to get to your destination - we were, despite our protests, taken to an ornate furniture store on the way to Sigiriya - but it was so worth it!
It can be tempting to just stick to the train routes, but in a once-in-a-lifetime destination like Sri Lanka, you'll really want to explore the best the country has to offer. Our day trip to Sigiriya Rock was by far our most pricey day, but also one of the most memorable - and with the best views!
Prepare yourself for the bus experience
Sometimes, on your journey around Sri Lanka, it will simply make the most sense to get the bus. Buses are incredibly cheap, they're faster than tuk-tuks, and they reach more destinations than the trains.
However, you should be prepared before boarding a bus - particularly for a long journey. It is important to bear in mind that you may be stood up for some or all of the journey. You'll be packed in tightly with local people so it's essential to dress conservatively so as not to offend, and - while you can buy snacks on board - you will need to bring your own water.
Furthermore, the bus is likely to be very warm, loud Sri Lankan music plays over the speakers, and - while there may be the occasional bathroom break - you'll have no idea if or when it is coming.
Do it if you must - but be prepared!
Haggle, but be ethical
It is par for the course to haggle with drivers, guides and shopkeepers in Sri Lanka. With so much competition, it is easy to drive the price down by simply saying you already had a better offer.
However, do remember that this is how your driver makes their living, and that many people in Sri Lanka have to work several jobs to make ends meet. Don't allow yourself to be taken for a ride, but agree on a price that you genuinely think is fair for the adventure you're embarking on, rather than just getting the cost down as low as it can possibly go. And - if you've had a great time - tip generously.
Don't plan too much and enjoy the ride!
I'm a big believer in the journey being a large part of the adventure when travelling, and nowhere is this truer than in Sri Lanka. It's easy to get from A to B on the teardrop-shaped isle, meaning you don't have to rigidly plan your journey ahead of time. Absolutely create a loose itinerary, covering the places you want to visit - but leave a bit of room to explore things you see or hear about on the way. When we first arrived in Sri Lanka, we were unsure as to whether we should travel to the beaches of the east or the south. By keeping a flexible itinerary and listening to the advice of locals, we were able to make the best decision for us: to explore the sandy south coast, visiting Mirissa and Galle.
When I think back to our trip to this breathtaking island, the scenery rushing by as we sat by the train doors is the first thing that comes to mind. I've never visited anywhere with a more verdant or more beautiful landscape than Sri Lanka, and it was travelling around the country by train that really allowed us to immerse ourselves in its scenic splendour.