Using public transport in Sri Lanka, while maybe not as convenient as hiring your own vehicle for tourism purposes, has its own merits. Read on to learn why you should try the public transport. Know tips and what to expect in advance – schedules, route maps, time tables, fare price, luggage storage and more.
Public transport in Sri Lanka
Public transport in Sri Lanka, which includes buses, trains and tuk tuks, is a great way of experiencing Sri Lanka. Being a relatively small country, you can easily traverse the western, northern, southern and eastern parts of the country through its public transport network.
Why use public transport in Sri Lanka? First, it’s cheap. Second, it gives you a glimpse of the Sri Lankan way of life by interacting with the locals or just by people watching. Third, public transit moves more people in one go, thereby, helping reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and fuel consumption.
Sri Lanka transport network may not be as efficient, of course, as public transport system in western or more developed countries. However, it’s fairly easy to use as long as you know where and how to get reliable information. I find Sri Lankans are really helpful people and for most of our time in Sri Lanka, we asked from our guesthouse how to get to their place or how to get to our next destination.
For those who want to plan a little more ahead and want to get familiar with Sri Lanka transport schedules, routes, available public modes of transport, cost of travel, ticket reservations and luggage storage, then you’ve come to the right place. I have put together as best as I could everything you need to know in order to plan your trip using public transport in Sri Lanka. Read on below.
1. Sri Lanka Transport - Train
The Sri Lankan railway system was first developed in the 19th century by the British. Aside from being a cheap option, some of the train routes offer scenic views of the central hill country across pine forests, tea plantations and mountains. Popular scenic train routes along the hill country are the Colombo - Kandy - Nuwara Eliya - Ella - Badulla line. Likewise, the train route from Colombo to Galle will take you to seaside views of the vast Indian Ocean.
Trains are operated by the government through Sri Lanka Railways (SLR). Exporail and Rajadhani trains are privately operated trains which are not operational as of this writing due to pending finalization of their tender agreement with Sri Lanka Railways.
Sri Lanka Railway Map
Below is a Sri Lanka Railway map by https://lanka.ru/.
The Sri Lanka railway map shows that there are nine railway lines eventually connecting Colombo to Jaffna and Mannar in the north, to Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the west, to Kandy, Matale and Badulla in the central highlands, and to Galle and Matara along the southern coast.
If you plan to visit Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Yala National Park (famous for spotting leopards), Bundala National Parks (a bird watcher’s haven) and Udawalawe National Park (known for elephants), you will notice that there are currently no existing train lines along this path. Hence, land travel by bus will be your best options to reach these places by public transport.
Sri Lanka Railway Schedule
The best way to check the Sri Lanka railway schedule is through the official website of the Sri Lanka Railways. In this site, you can check the schedule between any two stations, available classes, travel time, frequency, train type, ticket prices and total travel distance. Refer to the Sri Lanka railway map above if you are unsure of the station names.
Prices for first class tickets, which offer only reserved seats, are not shown in the above link. You can check Sri Lanka railway schedule and prices for all train classes here: http://slr.malindaprasad.com/. It is best to verify the schedule at the local train station if you find that any information between these two sites do not match.
Classes of trains (1st, 2nd, 3rd class)
Train sections are designated as 1st, 2nd or 3rd class. Find out below how these classes are different from one another to help you decide which class to purchase.
Not all trains have 1st class seats. First class seats are always reserved seats, meaning, these can only be bought in advance at any train stations. However, you can also reserve tickets through phone reservation or online purchase (more on this later). Not all routes offer air-conditioned first class seats. Some first class seats are not air-conditioned, but there are fans available. As for me, I wouldn’t mind a non-air conditioned car when traveling at the Tea Country route where the climate is cooler.
The advantage is having a guaranteed seat and less crowded space since no passengers will be standing along the isles. The major disadvantage in first class air-conditioned cars is that it will be difficult to fully see the sights outside because the car is sealed. It will also be hard to take good photos of the sceneries outside, especially because it’s difficult to focus behind glass and even more so when the train is moving.
Likewise, since the gangway doors are closed to control access to 1st class car, food vendors may not have access as well. As such, bringing your own food is highly recommended.
1st Class Observation Saloon
A 1st class observation saloon is also on a reserved seat-basis. It is attached at the train’s rear end and has larger windows designed for viewing sceneries along the track. It is non-aircon so windows may be opened if you want to take pictures. Do note that the seats face the back of the train so if moving backwards bother you, this may not be an option for you. There were reports, however, that only a number of seats have unobstructed views.
Not all trains and routes have 1st class observation saloon. Sri Lanka Railways with 1st class observation cars are express trains plying Colombo to Kandy, Colombo to Batticoloa and Colombo to Nanuoya.
Second class cars are either reserved or unreserved, except trains bound to Galle, which have unreserved seats only. Like in 1st class, seats are padded and come with seatback tables. Compartments also come with fans and toilets. We bought reserved 2nd class tickets for the train ride from Ella to Kandy. This route passes through the highlands so heat is not an issue. Windows could be opened, which makes it ideal for photography.
It wasn’t as crowded at that time and I had the luxury of changing sides of the train, whichever side the views look more scenic. You can also sit by the door to watch the sceneries outside, just be careful to make yourself comfortably steady if you don’t want to be part of sceneries outside.
This is a 2nd class carriage, as indicated in the "2" mark by the gangway
Like 2nd class, 3rd class seats are not air-conditioned. Blue trains have reserved third class cars, while most of the 3rd class cars are unreserved seats. Having unreserved seats means that it allows standees and can accommodate as many passengers as it can, hence, it can get crowded.
Different train types
Intercity Express/ Express
This is the fastest train type because of fewer stops. Because it is faster, these trains are expectedly more expensive than other train types.
These are night-time express trains. First class 2-berth compartments are available for reservation. Sleeperetts or reclining seats can be reserved for 2nd and 3rd class night mail carriages. Unreserved 2nd and 3rd class seats are available as well.
Routes with 1st class berths and reserved 2nd and 3rd class sleeperetts include Colombo to Badulla, Colombo to Batticoloa, Colombo to Trincomalee and Colombo to Vavuniya.
Suburban trains or also known as Colombo Commuter Trains has the slowest travel time because the train stops at each station on the route. These trains are meant for commuters traveling to and from Colombo. Seats available are unreserved 2nd and 3rd class, but mostly 3rd class only.
This type of train is best suited for daily commuting to and from Colombo, and is commonly used by locals to travel to and from work. Hence, it tends to get crowded at peak hours.
Check out The Man in Seat 61 if you want to see photos and have an idea of what each type of train and class are like. You will also find other useful Sri Lanka train travel information in this site.
The cost of train tickets will depend on the train type, which class you are booking, and whether you are booking online or at the train station in advance.
Colombo Fort Train Station
Unreserved tickets can only be bought on the day of your trip and do not sell out. Thus, you can expect unreserved cars to be more crowded than reserved cars. To buy unreserved tickets, just arrive at the train station at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled trip. Be aware, however, that train arrivals and departures can sometimes be delayed.
In Colombo Fort Station, different ticket counters are designated for different destination areas. Check first the boards posted at different windows before queuing up. Smaller train stations will usually have fewer ticket counters, so it will be easy to find the right window.
Reservations can be done 30 days prior to the date of the journey. Note that not all trains and routes offer reserved seats. Colombo to Galle line and Colombo Commuter Trains, for example, offer unreserved seats only. Click here to check for Sri Lanka Railways route where reserved seats are available.
Seat reservations can be done in three ways.
Visit Railway Stations
You can book in advance tickets for any destination at any train station. If the ticket officer tells you that the train is fully booked, that means all reserved cars are taken. You can still take the same train schedule by buying unreserved tickets at the day of your journey at the specific train station.
At Colombo Fort Station, buy your reserved tickets at Counter 17. Unlike the other counters, you will enter a small room at Counter 17, situated at the left side when you’re facing the station. Your ticket will indicate your reserved seat number. In other stations, this counter is labeled as Intercity. If you are not sure which counter to go, asking any railway employee is your best bet.
Reservations for popular routes can easily be sold out, so booking ahead as soon as booking is open is recommended. Some of the popular routes are the scenic Colombo - Kandy – Nanuoya – Ella – Badulla line.
The scenic route from Ella to Kandy
Call Mobitel Call Center
You can use this method if you have a Mobitel mobile phone. This method is only available for the Colombo to Kandy Intercity trains. Note that reservations can be made only on weekdays between 8 AM to 4 PM at Kandy, Badulla, Anuradhapura and Vavuniya stations, and 6 AM to 12 PM and 12:30 PM to 2:00 PM at the Colombo Fort Station. Check telephone numbers and calling procedures here.
Just dial 365 and indicate your journey details. You will receive your Reference Number through SMS. Collect your ticket at the Mobitel Billing Center or at the Station Master. Colombo airport has a Mobitel center at the Bandaranaike airport and is open for 24 hours.
Online booking can be done through a third party agency as Sri Lanka Railway does not offer direct online booking services. The following sites are currently available:
Because this method entails paying more, I recommend booking online only for the popular long distance routes that easily sell out. If you can book at the stations within 30 days prior to your planned journey, then, you can do so at the stations and avoid paying more. However, if you are staying in Sri Lanka for shorter periods and during the peak season, then booking online in advance is recommended.
Check schedule, price and seat availability of popular Sri Lanka routes here:
Unfortunately, signages or boards indicating the proper platform you should be waiting at are not that user-friendly or sometimes they aren’t there at all (or I may have just missed it, I don’t know). This will not be difficult for small stations but for major stations such as Colombo Fort, it is important to alert yourself of the correct platforms. The best thing to do is ask the ticket checker at the platform entrance.
Colombo Fort Station
You can place your luggage at overhead racks above the seats or you can just put it on the floor in front of your seat if it small enough to fit. If you have unavoidably large trolley bag, which is really not recommended if you’re moving from one public transport to another, you will have to place it somewhere on the floor, but not obstructing the isle.
Overhead rack for luggage
You might also find these travel guidebooks useful:
2. Sri Lanka Transport – Bus
Aside from being the cheapest mode of transport, a bus ride will give you the opportunity to get in touch with the locals, figuratively and literally (think rush hour). Most of all, it’s fun! Once inside, you will see a display of Sri Lankan culture. Small Buddha statues or images at the front, or a local music video playing at the television that will keep playing in your head even when you’ve gotten off the bus.
Traveling by bus in Sri Lanka is actually an easy task that will require the help of friendly locals (which is not difficult to find). In my experience, the guesthouse or homestay owners are the best resources if you want to get an idea of Sri Lanka bus time table, which bus to take and where to catch the bus.
Considering Sri Lanka bus driving, Buddha images inside buses would give respite as you plead for safety on the road
I usually message the guesthouse representative prior to my planned arrival to ask how to get to their place by public transport. Once there and before checking out, it will be easy to ask how to get to my next destination.
Unfortunately, the connectivity of Sri Lankan bus system is not that efficient yet. Sometimes, you need to transfer to one or two buses if there are no direct routes to your intended destination. Anticipate waiting times between transfers to stretch your total travel time.
Types of buses
Buses in Sri Lanka are either government-run, or run by private companies. Government-run buses known as Sri Lanka Transport Board or SLTB buses (formerly CTB) are red-colored, while private buses are blue or multicolored.
SLTB bus, normal class
Private and SLTB or CTB buses basically have the same bus fares. Differences in fares and services depend on the different classes of bus:
Most of the buses we used during our trip to Sri Lanka are non-air conditioned ones, allow stops almost anywhere and allows standees along the aisle. The aisle is also narrow which makes standing more uncomfortable. We went at the end of March until early April and found non-air conditioned bus acceptably comfortable since the open windows keep the air inside cooler.
Other private-run air conditioned express buses are available with guaranteed seats. However, the aisle will also accommodate passengers through a folding chair, making the space cramped if the bus is full.
Colorful private bus (semi luxury, I think)
There are also air conditioned minibuses, which looked like a cross between a small bus and a coaster. We’ve tried it twice on our trip from Kandy to Dambulla and Dambulla to Anuradhapura. It has 1+2 seat arrangement, with a foldable seat at the aisle. Hence, it can get really crowded.
Living in Asia and commuting most of the time has given me the credentials to endure, even enjoy, bus rides in Sri Lanka. I’ve experienced worse in my more than 10 years of experience commuting along EDSA (in the Philippines).
Traveling by bus in Sri Lanka is not for the faint hearted. I don’t want to generalize but in about 80% of our bus rides, the drivers seem to have a different concept of the word safety. The speed at which they drive will keep you at the edge of your seat. Overtaking by driving onto the other lane with oncoming vehicles and shifting back to the right lane only when the oncoming vehicle is inches away looks like a skill that is already mastered by Sri Lankan bus drivers.
Driving in Sri Lanka reminds me of its neighboring country, India. Read about the 10 Things I Learned in My 10 Days in India, if you want to know why.
And Sri Lankan passengers? They don’t seem bothered at all. Seeing them relaxed, I just chose to go roadside sightseeing as my mind drifted with wonder whether my travel insurance covers local transport accident.
In most of our bus rides in Sri Lanka, I have observed that we are the only tourists aboard most of the time. It makes me think that many of the visitors, especially those with kids in tow, are maybe using the luxury buses over the normal ones safety and convenience-wise.
Bus routes - Sri Lanka
Below are links where you can find information about bus routes. Sri Lanka is a fairly small country and getting around by bus is not too daunting.
Municipal Council of Colombo - You will find here bus routes from Colombo, Kandy, Anuradhapura and other routes. Route numbers are indicated per route in this site. Route numbers are posted above the frot windscreen of the bus.
National Transport Commission – The site contains information on bus routes, route numbers and Sri Lanka bus time table (time table is of limited use because it is written in Sri Lankan). By clicking through the route map, you will be directed here, where you can choose a route from the dropdown list. The route map, distance and bus fare will appear after choosing the route.
http://routemaster.lk/ - A growing database of Sri Lanka bus route maps. It uses a filter for selecting Express, Intercity, Colombo and suburbs, International airport and Domestic airport routes. I find this site more user friendly because it shows all the route maps on the home page, which is useful for checking point to point destinations. This is particularly useful when you want to check whether there are routes from Point A to Point B, where Point A or Point B are not the first station or the terminus.
If you are unsure which bus to take, as I’ve already mentioned, the locals are your best sources of information. You can ask the guesthouse staff or the information desks at some bus stations.
Bus station in Tangalle
Sri Lanka bus time table
Sri Lanka bus time table are not published, though buses do leave the terminals at monitored times, especially those serving longer distance routes. That is why it is best to ask the locals who use the same bus routes or are familiar with the frequency of bus arrivals. Locals usually say that buses arrive more frequently in the morning than in the afternoon. If you happen to catch the bus at the station rather than the intermediate bus stops, there are information desks or booths to ask information about Sri Lanka bus time table.
Where to catch a bus
Most of the big cities in Sri Lanka have a bus station. Again, the guesthouse staff, tuk tuk drivers or any local could tell you where the bus station is. Do tell them where your intended destination is since some big cities will have more than one bus stations. In Colombo, long distance private buses have terminal in Colombo Private Bus Station, whereas SLTB buses depart from the Central Bus Depot in Colombo Fort. In Kandy, the bus station is called the Good Shed bus station and is close to the train station.
You can hail normal and semi luxury buses almost anywhere along the route, but getting one from the bus station is recommended for a better chance of seating. In Sri Lanka, they call areas with assigned bus stops as bus stands, where you can also get normal buses.
Bus stand in Galle
Getting bus tickets
You get your bus tickets after you get on the bus. Sri Lankan buses have conductors who will approach you. Just say where you want to get off, wait for your ticket from the conductor, check the bus fare indicated in the ticket, and pay in cash. For your convenience, always prepare small bills to make sure the conductor will have change for you. As of 2018, normal bus fares for distances less than 100 km ranges from LKR 100 to less than 200.
There are some Super Luxury buses that allow online bus reservations. We haven’t tried this but you can check out the following sites. Additional charge is expected when you book online. I haven't tried these online booking sites and could not recommend based on experience. Do exercise good judgement when choosing agencies to reserve bus tickets.
Space for luggages is generally limited in Sri Lankan buses, especially the normal and semi luxury buses. Luggage storage space is restricted to overhead rack and the small luggage space beside the driver. Always keep an eye on your bag though as a precautionary measure. If your bag isn’t that large and heavy, you can just carry it on your lap. If you are standing, your bag is better off at the front beside the driver. If you have large luggage, you can opt to pay extra seat for the luggage.
Luggage section is limited to the space beside the driver
Don’t be surprised if bus drivers ignore you even if you try to flag them down, when they see that you have large luggage. Your luggage will be a disadvantage for them because it will eat up space that could have been occupied by one or two more paying passengers.
Getting off at your destination
Offline maps plus your phone GPS come in handy when you want to have an idea whether you are already close to your destination. I always use Maps.Me, a free mobile app that allows you to download a specific country map or regional map (if the country is big) on your phone. Once you have downloaded, the map will be available offline.
While you get your ticket from the conductor, that’s a good opportunity to tell him to inform you when you’ve reached your destination. Some buses have buzzers at the sides that you can press to signal the bus driver to stop. Otherwise, be alert as the driver will shout the place of the bus stop upon approach. You can also say, “bahinawa” to signify that you are getting off.
In our experience, the conductor usually remembers that we are non-Sri Lankans (though I am mistaken as a Sri Lankan most of the time before they hear me speak English), probably because we are the only tourists in the crowd. In almost all of our bus rides, the conductor would motion us to come near the front door as we are approaching our stop, without reminding them where we are getting off.
3. Sri Lanka Tuk tuk
Sri Lanka tuk tuk is a three wheel vehicle that is common in the country. It is also called auto or rickshaw, and looks much like the design of tuk tuks in India. Tuk tuks are ideal for short distance travels such as getting from bus or train stations to your nearby accommodation. A tuk tuk will comfortably accommodate two to three persons per ride.
Tuk tuks are usually everywhere when you’re within the town center or touristy areas. You will have no problem finding them, as they will be the ones to find you, especially in train or bus stations.
The longest tuk tuk ride we had was an 83-km ride from Tissamaharama (or Tissa) to Ella. Our guesthouse in Tissa sales talked us into doing this ride. Bus is definitely a way cheaper option but the available bus routes will entail two or three bus transfers. There is a direct bus route from Tissa to Ella but the bus runs once only at 6:30 AM, as the guesthouse staff told us.
Sri Lanka tuk tuk fares
Sadly, some Sri Lanka tuk tuk drivers, especially in major cities such as Colombo and Kandy will try to overcharge you. On the other hand, we have observed that in more rural areas, tuk tuk drivers are usually consistent with their price offers, and will not try to rip you off.
To avoid being ripped off, what I found useful was to communicate with the guesthouse representative prior to arriving to ask them what the normal tuk tuk fare is from the station to their place. If the driver insist on their overpriced fare, politely leave them and go to the next tuk tuk driver. Be sure to agree on the price prior to accepting the ride.
We went in March 2018 and tuk tuk fares ranged from LKR 150 to 250 for a 1 kilometer ride. As with buses, be sure to have small notes when taking a tuk tuk ride.
Luggage can be placed at the back of the passenger seat. Smaller backpacks can fit the passenger seat if you are traveling in two’s.
Tuk tuk tours
Tuk tuks for half or full day tour are commonly offered in guesthouses or in towns/ cities along the Cultural Triangle. Going by bus or bicycle (recommended in Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura) are cheaper alternatives. That is why going on tours by tuk tuk will generally be less recommended cost-wise.
We did try the tuk tuk to see the sights from Dambulla to Sigiriya. Buses are easily available from Dambulla to Sigiriya but we took the offer from our guesthouse owner for two reasons: 1) the route will include a visit to Kandalama Lake and Randeniya Lake, which are outside the normal route taken by most tourists, and 2) we like the family who runs the guesthouse (okay, this one is a right-side-of-the-brain-based decision). The grandfather of the family is also the tuk tuk driver.
We also went around Anuradhapura by tuk tuk because we only have less than a full day to explore the ancient city. Points of interest are quite scattered in a big area. Cycling would have been a good alternative but this is so if you have at least one full day to go around.
Our tuk tuk tour from Dambulla to Sigiriya, Pidurangala, Kandalama Lake and Randeniya Lake cost us LKR 3,500 for a whole day tour shared by two, two way. For our half day Anuradhapura tour by tuk tuk, we spent LKR 2,500, also shared by two.
The advantage of using tuk tuk on tours is that you can tell the driver to pull over (as long as it is safe to do so) for say, toilet breaks or photo ops. Likewise, tuk tuk drivers can also double as your guide. Interacting with them can also give you insights into the daily lives of Sri Lankan people and give you an opportunity to appreciate them.
If you are going with kids, tuk tuk is not recommended as there are no seat belts. The sides of the passenger seats are oftentimes open, which will be a safety issue for kids.
Also check out these travel essentials for your Sri Lanka trip:
4. Colombo airport transfer
Since most foreign visitors will likely come from Bandanaraike International Airport, also known as Colombo International Airport, I have included in this guide the available public transport in Sri Lanka to and from the airport.
For your Colombo airport transfer, airport buses are available from 5:30 AM to 9:00 PM. Buses depart every 30 minutes, the last one from the airport leaves between 8:30 PM to 9:00 PM. Express bus Route 187 – E03 is air-conditioned and passes through expressway E03 connecting the airport and the city. Colombo is around 35 km (22 miles) away from the Bandanaraike airport. Travel time takes about one hour. Fare is Rs 120.
There is also a minibus, with Route No. 187, which passes through road A3 instead of the expressway. Travel time will take longer at 1 hour and 15 minutes during non-rush hours (9 AM – 4 PM and 8 PM – 6 AM) and as long as 2 hours during rush hours (7 AM – 9 AM and 5 PM to 8 PM). Fare is also Rs 120, but travel time will take longer.
Same bus routes will be available from Colombo going to the airport. You can catch airport buses for your Colombo airport transfer from Colombo at the Pettah Main bus station.
If at least two of you are traveling, you can hire a taxi and get to Colombo city from the airport in less than an hour, if there is no heavy traffic. Taxi service should cost around Rs 2,500 to 3,000. You can save yourself from any hassles and book online at 12Go for transfers from the airport or use Uber mobile app. You may also check with your hotel if they offer taxi service from the airport.
There goes my extensive guide on public transport in Sri Lanka. I hope you find it useful.
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