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Plane, Train, Automobile and more: How to travel in Sri Lanka

A little larger than England, Sri Lanka's modest size makes it easy to travel around and, with a smorgasbord of ancient relics, lofty peaks, lush tea plantations and glistening beaches to discover, many visitors see as much as they can by travelling the island with a multi-centre stay.

Booking everything in advance is a good option if you'd like your holiday to be as stress-free and decision-free as possible but, preferring a little more flexibility in my plans, I booked most of my accommodation beforehand but left transport decisions until I got there.

Despite my concerns that trains and buses could be booked-up, or that taxis may be hard to come by, getting around Sri Lanka turned out to be a doddle. A perfect introduction to independent travelling, distances are relatively short and there's an array of transport options to suit every budget, most of which can booked last minute.

Hire a Car and Driver [£££]

Why? Easy, comfortable, stress free.

Why not? Most expensive option.

Driver accommodation by James Gagen @ Flickr

If you're new to independent travel, or simply prefer the ease and comfort of travelling about in a pre-paid, air-conditioned vehicle, then hiring a car and driver could be for you. A popular choice with travellers who aren't on a tight budget, your personal driver will chauffeur you from site to site, following a pre-planned route or recommending stops on a flexible itinerary.

Costs tend to start at £40 a day and most hotels offer free accommodation and meals for drivers - so you won't have to fork out for an extra five-star room if you're staying somewhere nice, but you may wish to buy your driver a meal or two on route. Drivers tend to double-up as tour guides and can be fantastic fountains of knowledge. They're also likely to be ready with recommendations for accommodation, restaurants and extra stop-offs, if your itinerary isn't set in stone.

An excellent option for covering lots of distance on a shorter trip, if you're planning to linger longer than a day or two at each location, like I did, a driver can become expensive. In this case, booking individual taxis may work out cheaper.

Taxis [££]

Why? Comfortable, convenient and affordable.

Why not? More expensive than public transport.

Taxis in Sri Lanka

For sheer ease and comfort, I started my Sri Lankan holiday as many tourists do, with a taxi from the airport. Easy to book in the arrivals lounge, 'fixed prices' save you the hassle of wondering whether or not you've been ripped off – although prices can still be haggled down a little. Choosing the cheapest option, my slower, non-air conditioned journey to Galle cost around 8,000 Rupees (about £40) and, although the train route along the coastline would have cost me no more than £1, it was hard to resist a door-to-door service and a comfy seat after an eleven hour flight from Heathrow.

Available almost everywhere in Sri Lanka, taxis are a convenient option when you're in a rush, have lots of bags to carry or simple can't be bothered with public transport. But once you've found your flow with travelling in Sri Lanka, there are plenty of far cheaper, more exciting transport options to consider.

Because of this, I took only two other taxi rides during my two-week stay: once back to the airport (on my way home with a migraine), and once when I travelled through apocalyptic monsoon rain – not the best time to travel by my favourite option: the tuktuk.

TukTuks [£]

Why? Lots of fun and cheaper than taxis.

Why not? Less comfortable and slower on long journeys.

Me with tuktuk

Tuktuk travel is a rite of passage in Sri Lanka. Also known as 'rickshaws', these nippy three-wheelers can be seen zipping through the cities, whizzing along the coast roads and even climbing hills or venturing off-road. Handy for short journeys, most tuktuk drivers are also willing to travel as far as a car would, although tall or fidgety passengers may find the little seats a tad uncomfortable. There's also baggage room to consider – two large backpacks plus a couple of smaller daypacks is about the limit for two passengers.

Aside from the fun of riding around in the country's favourite form of transport, tuktuks are spectacularly convenient for making stop-offs. Whether you want to pull over for a Sri Lankan 'roti', stop off to photograph the stick fishermen, or detour to a local landmark, pulling over for you to poke your camera lens out or explore further is never a chore for a friendly tuktuk driver.

Me driving a tuktuk

Many tuktuk drivers offer stop-offs as an extra service and, if you've got an hour or two to spare, taking them up on the offer is well worth it: during my first tuktuk ride was from Galle to Mirissa, we visited a turtle sanctuary, white tea plantation, freshwater lake and cliff-top Buddhist monument with views along the coast. For a few extra Rupees, these detours became some of the most memorable moments of my holiday.

Tuktuks go anywhere

From five-minute nips to the shops, to a half-day journey from Arugam Bay to Ella, I used tuktuks throughout my stay in Sri Lanka. Expect to pay around 150 Rupees per kilometre, or much less for longer trips, but be prepared to haggle if you think you're being overcharged. Tuktuks are almost always cheaper than taxis but, occasionally, if the route involves lots of uphill or a difficult track, the price can be inflated and the saving between tuktuk and taxi can shrink – check the prices first if you're sacrificing the comfort of a taxi for the price of a tuktuk.

Trains [£]

Why? Cheap, comfortable, stunning scenery.

Why not? Less frequent than tuktuks and taxis, can be slow.

Feelling the air at train door in Sri Lanka

Built by the British during the nineteenth century, Sri Lanka's trains are a nostalgic way to travel, and highlights like the Kandy to Ella route through the tea hills, or the Colombo to Galle coastal track are an adventure in themselves. With huge windows, 'Observation' class gives the best views, especially if you manage to bag the seats right at the back of the train, which have a cinema-style window through which to watch the world unfold.

View from observation class

Excellent value, a two or three hour journey will set you back a couple of pounds, and you'll have plenty of opportunity to meet and mingle with locals. If your train doesn't have an Observation class, avoid the ice-cold, first class air-conditioning and opt for second class instead, or go all-out and choose the dining cart with free meals and a viewing platform – these superior classes should be booked a day ahead but second or third class tickets can be bought beside the platform, minutes before the train arrives.

Tunnel View from observation class

If you're stuck in a seat without a view, do as the locals do and stand beside the open doors between carriages or, if you're feeling brave, sit with your feet dangling on the outside steps. Drinks and snacks are readily available, with everything from sugary biscuits and fizzy drinks to king prawn fritters, spicy lentil 'wadis' and huge flasks of sweet milky coffee sold by wandering vendors.

Buses [£]

Why? Extremely cheap, a true local experience.

Why not? Can be uncomfortable, slow and stomach churning.

Bus Sri Lanka by calflier001 @ Flickr

The best way to experience authentic Sri Lankan life, buses service even the most remote corners of the island. Most timetables and signs are written in Sinhala, so you'll need to memorise where you're going or ask locals for help. Journeys on the cheapest, slowest buses can cost a mere few pennies, and even the more modern 'Express' buses are still extremely cheap.

The price, however, comes with a cost: be prepared for blaring pop music, a stifling lack of space on busy routes, and a hair-raising ride as drivers swerve around bends and slam on their brakes. The few short journeys I took gave an exciting slice of everyday life but I could see how anything longer than a couple of hours could quickly wear thin.

Nonetheless, if you're travelling on a budget, buses are an excellent way to experience the island for next to nothing. For luggage storage, the backseats are a good bet, as you can slide your bags beneath the seats in front. Otherwise, luggage tends to be piled up at the front next to the driver, so you'll need to keep your eye on it.

Other ways to travel

Air Taxi

Air Taxi in Sri Lanka

Fly across the island in a light aircraft or helicopter and look down on wallowing elephants, ancient rocks and snaking rivers. Sri Lankan Airlines offer scheduled and chartered flights, or you could try Heli tours, Air Senok or several other companies for private aircrafts and helicopters.

Self Drive

If you have an international licence and are experienced in driving overseas, self-driving is an option but one that needs careful consideration. Standards and etiquette are a world away from the west, with aggressive bus drivers and lots of high-speed overtaking. If you're sure you're up for the challenge, you'll need to obtain a 12-month permit from the Automobile Association of Ceylon (011 242 1528) in Colombo.


Decent road map for biking

Travelling by bike can be a wonderful way to experience the island's spectacular scenery at a slower pace but, with average temperatures hovering just below 30 °C, be prepared for a sweaty ride. Organised tours are the safest way to travel, with experienced guides leading you along the quietest tracks to find well-known landmarks and hidden secrets. Self-touring is also an option but you'll need a detailed map, lots of planning and a decent bike – you're best off bringing your own or buying one rather than hiring.

Made for multi-centre stays

The beauty of Sri Lanka is in its fantastic diversity and relatively short distances. With such an affordable and accessible choice of ways to travel, you can taxi-ride between between colonial cities and tuktuk to ancient relics, or take a train to the tea hills and catch local buses to the beach.

Experienced travellers love the sense of adventure and flexibility this gives while, if you're new to independent travel, the English-speaking locals and fantastic range of transport options give the perfect introduction to tailor-made itineraries and multi-centre stays – in Sri Lanka, you can experience rustic jungle lodges, grand colonial hotels and chilled-out beach villas, all in the same trip. All you need to do now is decide where you want to go!

Lucy Grewcock

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Lucy Grewcock

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