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transportation in sri lanka road chaos

Traffic And Transportation In Sri Lanka: Survive In Chaos

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Sri Lanka is a relatively small country but it’s stuffed with attractions and interesting things to do. Whether you come here for rock climbing, elephant safaris, or wonderful tropical beaches of southern Sri Lanka, you’ll need to find a good way of getting around this amazing island.

This post won’t give you bus timetables or flight numbers, as you can easily find this info on official government-provided resources. Instead, it will tell you what to expect from traffic, which method of transportation in Sri Lanka is the best for your needs, how to negotiate the prices and much more!

All of this advice comes from my personal experience of spending a month in Sri Lanka! During this time my husband and I visited a lot of beautiful places and were able to test different types of local transport. There were many things we weren’t aware of and nobody seems to tell you this before you go!

Are you ready to hear all the insights? Let’s jump right in!

Road traffic is crazy and seems like there are no rules whatsoever

First of all, in Sri Lanka, they drive on the left. For me personally this was the first country I visited with the left-hand traffic and, to be honest, I didn’t get used to it even after a full month of traveling around the country.

girl driving a car right side

Seeing a driver on the right seat instead of the left or changing a well-fixed habit and having to look to the right first when crossing the road – this is not something I could easily get used to do. Can’t imagine how hard it must be for traveling drivers!

Second, the traffic itself is crazy! You might have heard about this already, but it literally feels like there are no transportation rules in Sri Lanka at all. Buses, cars, three-wheelers, scooters, and pedestrians go both ways with the priority to whoever needs more. There is no strict road marking lines and for a local driver moving into the oncoming traffic lane in order to overtake someone is par for the course. A tuk-tuk driver will use every opportunity to fit his vehicle in between two others.

And the bus drivers are just crazy and so frightening! Bus doors are always open and the buses themselves make a lot of very loud sudden beeps that make you jump scared to the edge of the road.

All this chaos brings me to my next advice regarding transportation options!

Renting a car with a driver is the best transportation option to get around Sri Lanka

Considering the traffic I just described, you most certainly don’t want to drive in Sri Lanka yourself.

It is much easier, safer and faster to hire a car with a driver – and very common in Sri Lanka. The local experienced drivers know how to navigate in this road hell – and, best of all, will take you wherever you need whenever you need it.

The cool thing is that you can find such car hire services right in the international airport when you arrive, discuss a round trip through the country according to your plan and journey length and don’t worry about your transportation ever again. They can also create a route specifically for you if you didn’t plan anything in particular for no extra cost! This includes some suggestions on where to stay in Sri Lanka, where to eat, and even organized safaris and stuff like that. Prices are similar to renting a car to drive yourself: the basic price is around $50 per day, but we were able to negotiate down to as low as $33 per day.

Our experience renting a car with a private driver in Sri Lanka

For our first two weeks in Sri Lanka, we hired a nice English-speaking driver, Ajith, who was more like a local friend to us. He picked us up at the airport at five in the morning, spent ten days with us taking us through half the country and making stops whenever we needed a supermarket, an ATM or just wanted to take a photo. He drove us to all the attractions we were interested in, gave some advice on what else to see and do in every area, showed us some viewpoints we probably wouldn’t find otherwise and even climbed the Pidurangala hill together with us! As a bonus, he would also talk to locals in Sinhala for us when we would probably struggle without him.

hire a car with driver sri lanka
Our rented car with driver in Sri Lanka

As our journey was packed with activities and many many different places, it would be much less convenient to look for buses all the time (with luggage!) and much more expensive to call a taxi for every spot.

With that said, hiring a car with a driver is to my opinion the best and the most comfortable transportation option in Sri Lanka. It takes away a lot of stress and danger and gives you a lot of spare time instead. Unless you are a broke backpacker with only a couple of stops on your itinerary – in that case, a bus might be exactly your option.

There are no pavements

Sri Lanka is all beautiful and green, but not at all suitable for pedestrians.

Although, I must say, the roads themselves are much better than in our home country, Ukraine.

But there are rarely any pavements so if you choose to go on foot, you have to use those small spaces on the sides of the road. Or, in many cases, you just walk on the carriageway as close as possible to the edge, letting the vehicles go around you. Moreover, you need to walk in single file for maximum possible safety, which is not very convenient for long walks as you can’t really talk to your friends or partner.

rumassala road before the hotel

This road on the picture is from the Unawatuna region. As you can see, there isn’t much space for walking. It looks narrow and it is. But the traffic there actually goes both ways and any bus that happens to appear here creates a traffic jam, especially on the corners.

Another thing worth mentioning is Sri Lankan landscape.

The island is all hills and up-and-downs. Once we stayed in a hotel that had words ‘Highest View’ in the name and absolutely lived up to it! Our driver struggled to get us to the entrance as it was quite a steep rise and at some point, I was afraid that our car will roll back down.

tiny narrow road in sri lanka
Narrow road to one of our stays – not suitable for a car

It’s not uncommon for a car to not be able to handle the road elevation or narrowness, but in most cases, it’s a piece of cake for a tuk-tuk! Which is why my next advice is…

Tuk-tuk is the best transportation option for short distance and one-day trips

Oftentimes you don’t need a car. If you only stay in one or two places for your whole journey and plan a couple of short visits to explore the nearest beaches, renting a car is probably not worth it.

This is where tuk-tuks come into the picture!

green tuk tuk in talalla sri lanka

Tuk-tuk is a very common type of transportation in Sri Lanka. As a matter of fact, you’ll see many more tuk-tuks than cars on the roads. Another word for this is a three-wheeler but I’ve never once heard anyone calling it like that.

Unless you are in a very remote non-touristic village with no beaches and other attractions, you can always look around and spot a couple of tuk-tuks ready to take you wherever you need right this moment. They usually wait in groups near every popular site, beach or hotel all around Sri Lanka.

An average Sri Lankan tuk-tuk can fit 3 people with backpacks or 2 people and 2 medium-sized luggage items. Of course, (and it’s somewhat typical for Asia) we saw overloaded tuk-tuks a couple of times with 5 or more people inside, but it’s not comfortable and probably not legal. You can often get to places for $1-3 dollars, so it’s cheap enough to just take two vehicles if your group is bigger.

Although it looks like there is no trunk and no luggage can possibly fit in there, you might be surprised (I was!). This is exactly what we thought at first which made us order a taxi a few times when tuk-tuk apparently would do the trick. And Sri Lankan taxi is sometimes twice or thrice as expensive.

By the way, tuk-tuks have no doors and love high speed! Should you happen to have long hair, prepare that it will be flying all over you and your travel buddies all the time!

One important advice I can give you is to always agree on a price before jumping inside a tuk-tuk. This way you can make sure that you have enough money on you and avoid the unpleasant situation when some driver tries to overcharge you. If the price is too high (and it usually is), negotiate it or reject and don’t go.

orange tuk tuk on the road sri lanka

Also, if you go to the beach or somewhere else for only a short period of time, you can agree with the driver so he comes back to pick you up in a few hours and gives you a ride back. You may find this very convenient for less-known destinations where there are no constant tuk-tuk drivers waiting for tourists.

My next point might help you better understand the price ranges for transportation in Sri Lanka in case you find yourself feeling lost with the foreign currency and unfamiliar numbers.

Always check Pick Me app first

Unless you have a driver, chances are you’ll need to take a local Sri Lankan taxi or a tuk-tuk at some point. From our experience, a local app called PickMe is the best option in terms of comfort and price.

Unfortunately, it’s not available everywhere. Mainly they operate in Colombo, but I strongly recommend you check for vehicles anyway because you may get lucky! Sri Lanka is not that big and drivers often pick up some independent gigs to take tourists from one part to another. Someone can happen to be around just in time for your trip!

taxi service sri lanka

It was more than once that we were lucky like that and you can’t possibly beat their prices! If you want an example, to get us from Rumassala to Hikkaduwa tuk-tuk driver asked for 2500 LKR, but we were able to order a car through the PickMe app for only 1100 LKR! And it was a cool air-conditioned car, not a tuk-tuk.

More than that, our PickMe driver was afraid to come for us because of the high competition of tuk-tuks in the area. It turns out, this is a huge problem in Sri Lanka: tuk-tuk drivers hate PickMe and Uber drivers, sometimes can become aggressive, hit or follow them away and threaten their lives. Really scary. Luckily, this wasn’t the case near our remote hotel.

I should add, Uber exists in Sri Lanka too but it is more expensive and we never once ordered it. Maybe you can try it in Colombo as that is their main hub.

Keep your head on a swivel to not miss anything

Sri Lankan culture is rich and unique!

Don’t keep your eyes glued to your smartphone all the time – look around!

Absorb the culture: see what local people wear, get used to the chaos on the roads, enjoy the stunning views at the mountains and tea plantations all over the country. Ask your driver to make a stop to buy some red bananas at a roadside fruit market. By the way, the prices are nothing compared to the markets near tourist attractions!

Look outside your vehicle as much as possible as you never know what you might encounter. Proof below!

We were on our way from one city to another when Ajith suddenly pulled over and pointed across the road. What do you think was there?

elephant near the road sri lanka

Yes, an elephant! Standing just like that on the side of the road where the pavement should have been instead. Can you imagine this in Europe or US? Me neither.

That’s why we travel – to get a fresh perspective and to realize how totally different the life can be! Like, when there are elephants casually walking along the road.

Read Also: Most Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Sri Lanka: Elephant Transit Home

Always have a map if you don’t speak Sinhalese

I have a terrible sense of direction so I have Google Maps with me at all times. But in Sri Lanka it wasn’t just me.

Sometimes you may find yourself in a less touristic area with all the signs and even hotel names written in Sinhalese. Having a way to navigate there is of huge help as locals rarely speak good English and can hardly advise you with directions. That’s where you’ll be glad you have downloaded offline maps.

looking at google maps transportation sri lanka

Also, it was much easier to show our driver how to get to each of our accommodations around the country – as he couldn’t possibly know by heart all the property names and addresses in every city. Google Maps directions feature also comes in handy when you need to discuss the price with a tuk-tuk driver in advance as it shows the approximate time and distance from A to B.

In general, it’s always safe to know where exactly you are at the moment and if you are headed in the right direction.

GPS Navigation is not common

As we noticed, Sri Lankan taxi drivers, private rented car drivers, and tuk-tuk drivers almost never use GPS navigation. They usually either know the place and we direct specific locations on the way or they ask for a hotel’s phone number, call by themselves and request directions.

Though PickMe and Uber are the obvious exceptions as navigation is a part of the app’s functionality.

Avoid public transport in Sri Lanka if you are a single female traveler

The last thing I wanted to mention in terms of transportation is safety.

I travel with my husband so I can’t talk from personal experience but I’ve heard and read a lot about this, so I think I should warn you too.

single female traveler

Many Asian countries and Sri Lanka among them are not very safe for single women. Grabbing and groping in crowded public places is not uncommon and I’ve heard cases of tuk-tuk drivers or even tour guides taking advantage of a single female tourist. So here are some basics.

First, don’t ever go out alone at night. Try to make acquaintance with another single woman or a group of friends and travel together with them, especially to remote and less-known places. Avoid jumping in a tuk-tuk from the street alone – try to use apps like PickMe or Uber instead. It’s safer as in the app there is driver info and plate number and I think they won’t risk it. Another option is to ask the owner or manager of your accommodation to arrange all your transportation in Sri Lanka – they should use trusted services.

crowded transport in sri lanka

If tuk-tuk happens to be your only option, always discuss the price in advance. Moreover, check your map on the way to make sure you are moving in the right direction. Try to avoid buses and train rides as they are often overpacked and you can’t control the distance between yourself and other people. Also, overnight trains is not your option.

In any case, have common sense and don’t worry too much about this. Cover up enough to not provoke anyone, avoid exposing yourself to obviously dangerous situations and you’ll be fine! After all, we only had great experience with Sri Lankan people and I remember them as one of the most kind and hospitable nations.

Conclusion on transportation in Sri Lanka

I hope this gave you some insight into transportation options and traffic realities in Sri Lanka. Now you are probably much more prepared for a trip than we were! What was one thing you didn’t know before reading this post?

In case you still have some questions, don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments! I’ll do my best to respond, whether it’s to help you decide on an itinerary or to share our driver’s details.

Sri Lanka is absolutely beautiful and worth visiting. Wish you the most amazing journey and a lot of fun in the process! Here is some inspiration for your trip planning!

Pin this post or save to your bookmarks and come back later to refresh your memory!

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24 comments

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Chelsea April 27, 2020 - 3:53 pm

I have not been to Sri Lanka but I have been to many asians countries in which I can totally relate to the crazy traffic! You feel like you’re on the brink of death every time you are on the road! Haha! What’s so crazy about the whole lack of road rules is that every driver seems to know what’s going on!
I can also relate to the driving on the other side of the road thing. I am Australian and we drive on the left hand side but I am now living in Canada. It took me like a year to get used to driving on the other side! Haah

It’s great that you included safety tips in this article as often people assume heavy tourist destinations are safe but as you mentioned, this is not always the case!

You’re article gives me huge wanderlust!

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter April 28, 2020 - 6:20 pm

Exactly! They probably teach the topic how to drive in chaos when you are getting a drivers license there 🙂
Hope you haven’t had any accidents during that year! I don’t drive so I can relate, but it seems even harder for me lol
Thank you so so much for your kind words, Chelsea!

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Mary Antonette June 29, 2020 - 4:45 pm

I love how you still find beauty in chaos. Pictures are amazing Juliet ☺️💛

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 4:13 pm

Thank you so much Mary! You stop noticing it after a while because there are so many good things in Sri Lanka that grab your attention!

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Moshe Huberman June 29, 2020 - 7:16 pm

Great post. When I was in Sri Lanka we didn’t rent a car. We used a private shuttle (for a group of 8) for long distances, and tuk tuks for short day trips. Sri Lanks is so much fun!

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 4:16 pm

Yeah, for a big group private shuttle is probably a better and less expensive option! Thank you for sharing 🙂

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Jamie June 29, 2020 - 8:14 pm

Thanks for sharing your experiences with traffic and renting a car with a driver; definitely seems like the smartest way to get around! Though tuk-tuk is a mode of transport I have been keen to try! Great advice with the map, I do this a lot when I travel to countries where my grasp of the language is poor.

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 4:17 pm

Would you like to drive tuk-tuk by yourself? I recently read that some people actually do this, although we haven’t seen any tourists behind the wheel during our month in Sri Lanka.

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Rudy @ Backpack & Snorkel June 30, 2020 - 3:52 am

This is very timely as I am still planning our Sri Lanka trip. We have hired personal drivers in rural China before and it seems that this is the best mode of transportation for Sri Lanka too. Your idea about the PickMe app is great. We tried to use Uber in Colombia, but the driver insisted on being paid in cash. How is that in Sri Lanka?

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 4:22 pm

Glad it’s useful, Rudy! We haven’t used Uber as it was always more expensive than PickMe, but for PickMe rides we always paid by connected card in the app. Never had any issues with that. But other than these apps, Sri Lanka is very cash-oriented country. You should always have cash on you and tuk-tuks are cash-only too.

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Carly-jo Rosselli June 30, 2020 - 1:01 pm

Thanks for the tips! some really great suggestions here and so nice to hear that you had such a lovely driver at the start of your trip!

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 4:24 pm

Thank you Carly, I hope it helps you when you get to plan your trip to Sri Lanka! We can share our driver’s Whatsapp number if you need.

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Sandy N Vyjay June 30, 2020 - 5:10 pm

This is a really comprehensive post about transportation in Sri Lanka. We have visited Sri Lanka only on a flying visit to Colombo while transiting, I like the fact that you have also covered the safety aspect which is so important especially for solo female travelers, anywhere.

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 11:51 pm

Thank you Sandy! I’m glad it’s useful 🙂 You should come to see Sri Lanka properly, it’s an amazing country!

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Travel with Mei and Kerstin June 30, 2020 - 6:35 pm

Wow! Good to know about all this! It seems like it’s really quite a challenge to drive in Sri Lanka! Driving on the left side is simply a no go for the both of us! We would make SO MANY accidents! haha… So it would be best for us to hire a driver, like we usually do when traveling in and around Asia.

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 11:53 pm

Well, I don’t even drive, but I’m scared to be a part of this traffic anyway 🙂 With a driver, you just sit back and relax while he takes you through this craziness!

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Subhadeep Mondal June 30, 2020 - 9:22 pm

Srilanka is next on my destination list. Your article will be really helpful. Thanks

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 11:53 pm

Happy to hear that, Subhadeep! Happy travels 🙂

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Smita June 30, 2020 - 9:40 pm

I grew up in India and now live in Europe so I can see how the traffic would come off to you! Sri Lanka seems no different than India, haha. But the luxury of having a car with a driver is awesome!

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 11:55 pm

We were actually going to India when pandemic happened and we had to go home instead… Hope to see it anyway one day, at least the traffic won’t be a surprise anymore haha

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Kez June 30, 2020 - 9:55 pm

Sri Lanka is such a beautiful country! I didn’t have to worry about transport when I was there, because I have a local friend who also happened to be on holiday while I was there and drove me all around the island!

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter June 30, 2020 - 11:56 pm

Wow, you got lucky, traveling with a friend is so much better! Especially a local one 🙂

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Josy A July 1, 2020 - 9:45 pm

I see what you mean about walking! Those roads must be scary to walk on if there are vehicles going in both directions. I would even be a bit worried on a bike.

p.s. I know what you mean about switching the side of the road you drive on. It is sooo hard at first isn’t it!?

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Juliet Dreamhunter
Juliet Dreamhunter July 2, 2020 - 3:20 pm

Right? I can imagine driving in this chaos by myself! And to drive on another side of the road you literally need to do the opposite of what your brain is used to…

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