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Two ways to travel around Sri Lanka

South coast, Riding the busesSri Lanka is a small country but not a particularly easy one to travel around. Train travel is limited and difficult to book in advance; bus travel is not very inviting; and there isn’t the shuttle-van network that you often find in similar destinations.

Some resolve this by hiring a car and driver through a travel company for the whole trip and many hotels have places where the drivers can sleep. But if you want to be more independent there are other options such as hiring drivers as you go along or toughing it out on the bus system.

Ron Perrier, a fellow Canadian I met in India, travelled most of the country by bus. He describes the buses as “not express, constantly picking up and dropping off people and always full. At times passengers were packed in like sardines with standing room only.”

Sylvia's way, Riding the busesI hired drivers as I went along, usually through the hotel where I was staying. The cost to hire a car and driver for a day was about US$60 and I spent about US$350 in total on transportation. When I arrived, I found the taxi stand at the Colombo airport and it cost about US$75 for a ride up to Dambulla, where my journey started. Both Ron and I took a train in the hill country and that is a not-to-be-missed experience, no matter what class you are in.

I booked my hotels in advance through Agoda and spent about US$50 a night for a clean, air-conditioned room with breakfast. Many properties were already booked before I started my search so choice at times was limited.  Ron, on the other hand, found places as he went along; they were generally inexpensive with no air conditioning and sometimes not even a mosquito net.

Train travel, Riding the busesMy route from the Colombo airport was Dambulla City (in the cultural triangle near Sigiriya), Kandy, Nuwara Eliya (the hill country), Tissamaharama (Yala and Bundala National Parks), Tangalla, Galle (the southern coast), and Negombe (near the Colombo airport). I spent three nights at each place other than Tangalla (four nights) and Negombe (one night).

Ron wanted to see all the UNESCO World Heritage sites and also to hike some of Sri Lanka’s famed peaks. He has written a blog about his experiences and highlights are presented below with his permission.
Travel Sri Lanka
Ron Perrier’s trip around Sri Lanka

Ron flew to Colombo from Delhi via Chennai. Within “20 minutes of landing”, he said, “I had my luggage, Sri Lanka visa ($35 payable by credit card), gone through immigration, visited an ATM for some Sri Lankan rupees, and replaced my SIM card for free with a $4 recharge which will probably last me for my entire stay”. The first night he stayed in Negombo, “a west coast city only 10kms from the airport” where he “stayed the night in oppressive heat”.

Historic Kandy, Riding the busesKandy
Kandy, a “three-hour, 115km bus ride” through “an impossibly green landscape of rice paddies, palm trees and banana plantations” was next on Ron’s itinerary. There he went treking in the Knuckles Range, “so named as the peaks look like a closed fist.” He went with a guide from Sri Lanka Trekking for $75. “We took a tuk tuk 2 1/2 hours each way [and] climbed to the top.  The heat and humidity were oppressive and I only got about 10 leeches.”

Adam’s Peak
Ron “took a bus south to Hatton, and then 2 more buses to Dalhousie, the access town for Adam’s Peak (elevation 2247m), a lofty peak that has been a focus for pilgrimage for over 1000 years. In the pilgrimage season from December to May, the 7km of cement stairs to the top are illuminated at night. Most start the 2-3 hour walk around 3am up the 5200 steps in order to reach the top before sunrise,” he says.

Highlands, Riding the busesHorton Plain National Park
He then “caught 2 buses east via Hatton to Nuwara Eliya. The main attraction of the area is Horton Plain National Park, [which is] set under the second and third highest mountains in Sri Lanka. This is the only national park in the country that allows you to walk on your own. I was picked up at 5am and drove the 1 1/2 hours to the park entrance. After paying the $30 entrance fee, I hiked the 4km to World’s End, a stunning escarpment that plunges 880m, and then looped back via Baker’s Falls to the entrance. I have never walked on more eroded trails in my life with gullies up to 6 feet deep and trails braided up to five wide in places.”

Cultural Triangle
After the hike, “I was dropped off at a train station close to the park to return to Kandy after a pleasant, slow motion train ride. I caught the bus 2 hours south to Dambulla to see the temples. “ Then up to Sigirlya, “the premier site of the Cultural Triangle”.

Dambulla, Riding the busesThe next morning, “I caught the bus back to Dambulla, and then another 2-hour bus north west to Anuradhapura, another World Heritage Site collection of dagobas, soaring brick towers, ancient pools and crumbling temples. The major sites require a $25 fee that must be used on the day of purchase.”

“Up early, I caught the 7am bus to go 3 hours east to Polonnaruwa, an Ancient Cities must see. I arrived at 10, checked into my hotel, rented a bike and ate, then began a hot, humid day to see my last ruins.”

East Coast
I took the bus one hour west to Habarena, and changed buses to go two hours northeast to Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka. The real draw of the area is Pigeon Island National Park. It has a shallow reef with great snorkeling and diving to see corals, reef fish and turtles.” However, after contacting two local diving schools and realizing it would cost him $110 for a 3-hour snorkel, he decided to keep going south along the coast. A popular destination is Arugam Bay, which is said to be the “best surf spot in Sri Lanka” but it was out-of-season. So he continued for many hours to Matara, in the south on the Indian Ocean where he splurged and “got a very spiffy room with air conditioning (my first) for $14. It also had a mosquito net.”

Sri Lanka's lushness, Riding the busesSinharaja Forest Reserve
He caught a 4:30am bus north to Deniyaya, “the gateway town to Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the last major undisturbed area of rainforest in Sri Lanka”. There he took a guided hike with a German family and a Dutch PhD student. “The park has a wild proliferation of flora with canopy trees up to 45m high and a sub-canopy of 30m. We saw all the wild varieties of spices, several snakes including the venomous green pit viper, lizards, three kinds of monkeys (one, the purple faced langur), two giant squirrels, many spiders, a giant carpenter bee with iridescent wings, many birds, and butterflies. We all dangled our feet in the water while small fish ate the dead skin off our feet, a real fish spa.”

The next day he took two buses southwest down to Galle, the main city on the south coast and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having then visited all of the 8 sites in Sri Lanka. “It is a wonderful place to stay and the colonial buildings are magnificent”.

Sri Lankan markets, Riding the busesFinally, he caught the bus for a three-hour ride back to Colombo and the airport.

Ron compares travel in Sri Lanka and India. “Sri Lanka is a welcome change from India. There is no garbage and it seems incredibly clean. No cows. Very few horns blaring. No unfinished projects (nothing in India seems complete with holes and piles of dirt and nobody working on them). People don’t stare and nobody wants to shake your hand, be your friend, or take pictures with you. It is appreciably more expensive than India, especially the hotels, which are at least double the price. Food is about the same and the buses may even be cheaper.”

So here are two very different ways of seeing this wonderful country. But Ron’s way is not the toughest for I kept running into a “senior” from Europe who was slowly making his way, in rain and in fog, up and down the hills on a bicycle.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2013

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3 Responses to "Two ways to travel around Sri Lanka"

  1. Tom Carden says:

    Interesting comparisons from Ron to India — I’d say all those things are the same in Sri Lanka, if not worse! (Particularly the rubbish – but I did spend a lot of time in Kerala which is I think the cleanest Indian state).

    Also surprised he didn’t elaborate on the nature of bus travel over there – can be extremely scary! I wrote an article of some of my experiences:

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom. I’ll send your comments on to Ron. I enjoyed reading the article about your experiences.

      Kind regards,

      Sylvia Fanjoy

      1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

        I heard back from Ron and this is what he said: “That was so long ago now (4 years) that I can hardly remember, but I do remember that Sri Lanka was cleaner and more organized. I also rode tons of buses and they drive like this all over the world – can’t recall them being much different. The fastest drivers anywhere are easily in Central Asia. But they are amazingly polite and stop for all pedestrians. It’s different anywhere.”

        – Sylvia

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