Buses in Sri Lanka

Every terrifying thing you’ve heard about the buses in Sri Lanka is true.

I originally drafted this post right after I’d got off a bus in Sri Lanka so I could share my experience before I got on the next bus the next day and risked my life again…

Buses in sri lanka

Braving the buses in Sri Lanka

The Buses in Sri Lanka

Driving in Sri Lanka in general is more or less courteous and tends to be quite pleasant. The roads are far better than in many other Asian countries. The experience is normally a good one.

Except when you are on a bus.

The bus journey that prompted me to write this post was after we’d travelled from Ella to Rawana Falls – a journey of just 15 minutes. The longest 15 minutes of my life.

I seriously felt, with every twist and bend at breakneck speed, that I was going to lose my grip on the strap that I was clinging to for dear life and fly out the wide open back door.

As you will have realised, that didn’t happen.
What did happen is that we were dropped at the waterfall and I scrambled down from the bus massaging the hand that I now couldn’t feel and staggered around like a drunk. When the guy at the food stand offered me samosas I could almost feel myself turn green so I quickly headed to the other side of the road to see the waterfall.

Dalhousie Walk

In Sri Lanka, bus is king

On the roads in Sri Lanka the bus is king. When you see a bus coming you MOVE OUT OF THE WAY.
That is unless of course you are feeling brave enough to hop aboard.

When the bus stops for you (or slows down – buses in Sri Lanka never come to a complete stop) you jump on either the front door or the back door, it doesn’t matter. You find a seat and sit as quickly as you can. For the most part the locals will squidge up for you to sit down. Otherwise just squeeze through them – there’s no such thing as personal space on Sri Lanka’s buses. If there’s no seat you’ll have to stand.

As soon as you are on, the bus will set off and it will hit breakneck speed immediately. Hold on tight.

Don’t worry about paying just yet; the conductor will find you later and collect your money.

The buses have one speed: breakneck. The driver puts his foot to the floor and his hand on the horn. And if you are a tuk tuk or a pedestrian you better watch out because once the foot is to the floor it stays there.

Dalhousie Walk

If you’re a tuk tuk you’d better watch out!

There are different levels of bus driver madness on Sri Lanka’s roads: plain crazy; certifiable; and has a death wish.

If you get a plain crazy driver you are in for a potentially enjoyable ride which will be a bit like a long, fun rollercoaster ride. Unfortunately these drivers are few and far between.

The first time I went with a driver with a death wish was on my way back to Habarana from Polonnaruwa: a drive that was supposed to be an hour took just 40 minutes and I couldn’t have been happier when I got off.

dalhousie iphone 2016_ - 8

Driver with a death wish

Before travelling to Sri Lanka I had read all about the buses – mostly scary stories about white-knuckle rides. But simply reading the words on a page couldn’t prepare me for how terrifying the buses in Sri Lanka can actually be. When I was on that bus from Polonnaruwa to Habarana I actually thought I was going to die. I seriously thought that there was a good chance that we could go off the road and make international news.

This bus was completely full when we got on. Luckily after 10 minutes a more sensible woman got off and I sank gratefully into her seat right in the front row. This is a front row view to a show you don’t want to watch.

Poor Toni had to stand up during that whole ride. I had one arm wrapped around his leg, trying to help steady him each time the bus lurched, and the other hand holding tight to the bar in front of me to prevent myself from nutting it.

The buses with a certifiable driver and with a driver with a death wish have music blaring out of the speakers into the bus so loud that you can’t speak over it. Most of the time it is seriously heavy Hindi techno that belongs in a rave club where everyone is on drugs, not on a bus filled with sweet old ladies and Buddhist monks.

On that Polonnaruwa to Habarana bus the passengers were subject to Barbie Girl at full blast. Not only did I think I was going to die; I though I was going to die to a Sri Lankan version of Aqua’s Barbie Girl. As if the original version of the song wasn’t bad enough!

Dambulla Caves Temples, Sri Lanka

A front row seat to a show you don’t want to see

The front part of the bus where the driver sits is often very gaudy and trimmed up with decorations, small Buddha figures and posters or gaudy Hindu garlands depending on which deity the driver (and all the passengers) would be praying to to keep them safe.

Most of the time it was a mixture of both Buddhist posters and Hindu garlands, as here the two religions have fused together over time and the lines between one and the other are blurry.

And because, let’s face it: these drivers need all the help they can get.

Dalhousie Walk

Stand-off between two buses

Despite all the negative things I have mentioned here, travelling by bus is a big part of any traveller to Sri Lanka’s itinerary because the buses are simply so convenient. They are very frequent and they go everywhere.

The only thing is you’ll be hard pressed to find a timetable. I researched this Sri Lanka trip for months and I was in the country itself for three weeks and I never once laid eyes on a timetable; not printed nor online.

As I came to learn, the buses are so frequent that you don’t need a timetable. Just go and stand by the road and wave your arms. When in doubt ask a local. In all my travels I’ve never met a people so keen to help.

The buses are also insanely cheap. The most we ever paid for a journey was 200rs (1.25€) each and that was a four hour journey between Ella and Tangalle. That particular journey was actually the most enjoyable. We had a driver that was almost normal: he took care when taking the bends with a bus packed to the rafters with passengers and luggage. That, along with the gorgeous landscape, made the ride a pleasure.

So it’s not all bad on the buses in Sri Lanka.

So get your backpack ready, prepare to jump on when it slows down and go on a true adventure!

I would like to remind you that all the photos used on InMyShoesTravel.com are my own unless otherwise stated.
You can see my whole collection of Travel Photos here.

Filed Under: asiafeaturedSri Lanka

About the Author: Based in Mallorca, obsessed with the world and have a lot to say about both... Step into my shoes and join me on a journey...

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  1. jonny says:

    Hi Lisa, loved the article.

    Going to Sri Lanka next month and the lack of timetables for buses rather resonates!!

    I noticed that you mentioned you took the bus from Ella to Tangalle, which is exactly the itinerary I was hoping to do.

    Any chance you have some information on this to hand based on your trip? is it just one bus or is a change required, and are they also then presumably fairly frequent?



    • Lisa says:

      Hey Jonny,
      Thanks for reading. I’m glad this was useful for you. Have you read my post about the actual journey between Ella and Tangalle?: http://inmyshoestravel.com/how-to-get-ella-tangalle-bus/
      I’m afraid I can’t find much info for you regarding the bus times (what’s new). What I can remember though is that there were always loads of buses wherever you wanted to go. Personally I would recommend taking the bus that we took at 8:30am, getting you to Tangalle at about 1pm. And no, we didn’t need to change on this occasion; it was a straightforward journey.
      I hope this helps a little. If you have any other questions, get in touch. Good luck and remember: even though it’s so hard to find clear information when you are planning, it is super easy to arrange everything once you are there.

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