Getting Around Sri Lanka on Public Transport
Buses. Not for the faint of heart, but my favourite mode of transportation in Sri Lanka. Taking advantage of the public transport on the island is an integral part of the Sri Lankan experience. From stunning train rides to death defying bus journeys, getting from point A to point B on this island is an adventure in itself.
Sri Lanka is easily the cheapest place to get around that I have ever travelled to. Sri Lanka has an extensive network of buses, making it the easiest way to get around. And most buses are under 1 dollar! Don’t let the hustle and bustle of the bus stations intimidate you. The only thing you need to know is which city you’re heading to. The beauty of travelling by bus in Sri Lanka is that there will always be a bus heading the right way. There is no need for you to hop on google and attempt to find a bus schedule, there is no need for you to book a ticket ahead of time and there is no need for you to worry about hopping on the wrong bus.
Sri Lanka Public Transport: Finding the Right Bus
Ahead of your departure, always ask the front desk or barman at your hostel for advice on getting to your next city. They’ll usually be able to tell you how often there are buses, and how much you should pay for a tuk-tuk to the bus station or bus stop. Over the course of three months I took countless bus rides. I always rocked up to the station with the same strategy: ask a handful of locals and confirm with the bus driver where he is headed.
If you’re feeling shy, don’t worry! You’ll likely be asked where you’re headed alongside a beaming smile and an escort to the bus before you even get a chance to ask. Just make sure to always double check your destination with the bus driver himself. I can’t be the only traveller who often becomes convinced I’m on the wrong bus, heading in a completely different direction than planned. However, my strategy proved to be foolproof and I was never led astray. After all, isn’t one of the beauties of travel learning how to put your trust in strangers?
The network of buses here is so extensive that there will always be a bus leaving from where you are heading towards your next destination. This means that the destination plastered across the top of the bus you board may not always match your destination. Don’t stress. These buses are stopping at loads of cities en route to their final stop, so it is likely your stop is on the way. The buses also leave quite often. The longest I ever had to wait was half an hour. This gives you some time to buy some snacks and a bottle of water, and claim your seat. Get a window seat and make sure the window works. I suggest sitting in the middle of the bus for a smoother ride.
The Atmosphere on Board
Once you’re on board and the bus pulls out of the station, the real adventure begins. See, most buses travelling from city to city are privately owned. This means that one, they’re meticulously maintained (I’ve never heard of a bus breaking down) and two, time is money! These buses move fast. The driver’s livelihood depends on it. Manoeuvring through Sri Lankan traffic and navigating through the windy, narrow mountainous roads travelling at the speed of light sometimes means concentrating on not throwing up. I’m not exaggerating.
Oftentimes I found myself in disbelief at the speed at which we were taking these sharp turns, thinking surely the driver cannot maintain this speed the whole duration of the trip!? Spoiler: he can. And will. In fact, there is a legendary corner in Mirissa that people have sworn their bus took so fast, they were on two wheels! Through driving on the wrong side of the road to just narrowly missing other motorists, the speed is maintained as they compete for customers by racing to the next stop ahead and scooping up waiting passengers.
On Board Entertainment
Aboard the bus there are several entertainment options available. I personally enjoy the upgraded audio and visual packages that nearly all buses are equipped with. No need to download any Spotify playlists ahead of your journey- the music is cranked up so loud sometimes I couldn’t even hear myself think. Oh, are you at a disco? Nah, that is just the LED light display accompanying the blasting music. Enjoy a good bellydance or Bollywood flick? You’re in luck. Sometimes the bus driver opts to show a film. While 99 percent of the time you’ll be bobbing your head to local tunes and films, on occasion you’ll have the pleasure of listening to Justin Bieber’s greatest hits, or, once, straight Rick Ross for three hours. Which was made even more amusing by the fact that that particular bus was full of monks. If only they understood the lyrics.
The Ticket Man
Another form of entertainment is watching the ticket man navigate from the front to the back of the bus collecting fares, ripping off tickets and distributing change. Despite the amount of people packed into the aisles, he moves about the bus. I am certain that sometimes his feet don’t even touch the ground. How he keeps track of who gets on at each stop and who hasn’t purchased a ticket yet is baffling.
There’s no time to come to a complete stop, so passengers exit and enter the bus very swiftly. After each stop he will call ‘hari hari!!’ and the bus will take off again. Hari hari indicates ‘all good, let’s go’. He manages the traffic on board the bus, passing sleeping children down the aisles to follow their mothers, clearing front seat spots for monks who come aboard and making sure everything is secure overhead.
I always found the ticket man to be so fascinating to watch. He always remembers where you’re going and you get a nod from him when your stop is approaching. Also, there are typically a handful of stops within the bigger cities before you reach the station. I always showed the ticket man which hostel I was staying at on a map. Oftentimes it made more sense for me to get off a stop or two before the station. He’ll help you hop out at the closest stop to where you’re staying if you just ask.
Sri Lanka Public Transport: Bus Drivers
If you’re a thrill-seeker, you can also sit at the front of the bus for an added element of adventure. From here you get to watch the man behind the madness, your bus driver, in action. You’ll find yourself oscillating between being very terrified and very impressed. Chewing on betel leaves (a stimulant with effects similar to coffee or, apparently, cocaine depending how much you chew) and texting, blasting his horn as we take on sharp turns at the speed of light, coming within inches of buses zooming past us heading in the opposite direction.
Surrounded by LED lights highlighting his mini Buddha statues, he’ll occasionally spritz some water on the flower petal shrines on his dashboard or mess around with his USB flash drives until he decides what we should listen to. Keeping himself busy and occasionally glancing at the road. Yet somehow, always arriving safe and sound. I don’t know how they do it.
Without a doubt, the finest form of on board entertainment is simply taking in your surroundings. Every bus ride in this country comes with unreal views. From tea plantations to sleepy small towns, to rides along the coast and into the stunning mountains- staring out the window will always leave you in awe. The sights make even the most miserably long bus rides enjoyable. I found every bus ride a good opportunity to drop my shoulders, relax my jaw, exhale deeply and reflect on how lucky I am and how incredible it is that im sitting on a bus in Sri Lanka right now.
Hopping on a bus in Sri Lanka was always a guaranteed adventure. Getting across the island for a whopping one dollar makes buses a go-to option for backpackers. So, treat yourself to a bag of sliced mangoes, nab a window seat and enjoy the ride.
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