Exploring Sri Lanka: How To Get Around The Tropical Island

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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If you’re heading off to the fabled Teardrop of India this year and wondering what ways you can hop from the beaches of Hikkaduwa to the misty mountains of Ella, the buzzy streets of Colombo to the surf breaks of Arugam Bay, you’ve come to the right place. Cue our guide to exploring Sri Lanka, how to get around, and the different methods for getting from A to B.

We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how easy traveling from one place to the next really is on this island. For starters, it’s nowhere near as big as some other Asian nations, like India to the north, for example. On top of that, there’s pretty decent infrastructure, with high-speed motorways linking up the airport with many of the top resorts in the southwest and snaking train lines that date back to the era of British rule in old Ceylon to boot.

Here, we’ll explore the most popular ways to get around the island country for travelers in 2022. We’ve got the lowdown on the famous Ella train from Kandy (a bucket-list-busting must do!), the array of local buses that will hardly cost you a dime, and the ease of organizing tuk-tuk or taxi transfers from one place to the next. Let’s start…

Tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka, how to get around for like a local

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Tuk-tuks are everywhere in Sri Lanka. Step outside your hotel and the chances are that one will whizz right up and offer their services. Mhmm…it’s both helpful and irritating. But it’s more helpful, because it makes it super easy to catch short rides to pretty much anywhere you want to go.

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The cost of tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka varies from place to place. However, we will say that the starting price for short journeys is comparably high to other Asian countries like Thailand or India. Even for the quickest, one-kilometer romps down to the beach, the negotiations typically start at around the 400 LKR mark ($2). That might not sound like much, but longer trips of 10 kilometers usually only set you back about 800 LKR ($4).

Of course, you should never accept the first price offered from a tuk-tuk driver. They’ll go high; you should go low. We usually manage to haggle things down to about 200 LKR ($1) for a trip that’s within the same town. Expect to pay a little more than that if you want to bring along your surfboard (yes, tuk-tuk drivers do bring surfboards! They’re usually strapped, sometimes uneasily, to the roof, but it works well).

Tuk-tuks aren’t necessarily only for short trips in Sri Lanka, either. They are the number one way to get from beach town to beach town on the southwest coastline. That could be trips of 30 minutes to 1.5 hours in all. We actually prefer them to taxis because the breeze is cooling and you get to see way more stuff as you travel. They’re also cheaper (so long as you haggle hard).

Taxi transfers in Sri Lanka, how to get around in comfort

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

If you’d like a little more comfort or to pre-organize a pick-up from the airport in Colombo when you arrive, taxis in Sri Lanka are the best choice. We’ve had some wonderful experiences with private transfers, not just because they’ve simplified our trips from terminal to hotel lobby but because they’re a great chance to meet a local driver and get some local tips.

By far the best way to put the feelers out for different taxi quotes is to go online. There’s a whole website dedicated to it: Sri Lanka car and drive hire. That’s filled with drivers vying for custom. All you have to do is type where you’re headed and then the offers will flood in. Of course, it’s important to vet who you choose, which is made easy since they all get reviews and must prove they’re real by taking a selfie with the passengers (clever, eh?). 

Rates for private transfers will vary depending on the season and the driver. However, as a ballpark figure, you’re looking at around $80 for a trip from Colombo to the southern beaches of Tangalle, about $70 for a trip from the airport to Hiriketiya Beach, and about $50 for a trip from the capital to the cultural center of Kandy.

Private taxi drivers are one of the pricier ways to navigate Sri Lanka but it’s still not going to break the bank. Generally, it’s among the cheaper places to rely on transfers in South Asia. The ride is also very comfy. Cars are almost always air conditioned, most are equipped with soft top roof racks for surfboards, and, as we’ve mentioned, the drivers are often super friendly and fun.

One tip: Be sure to request that your driver uses toll roads. This will add a little cost to the total, but it’s never loads. What it will do is cut down your journey time on the west coast considerably since the motorway is much quicker than the traffic-packed beach road. Seriously, MUCH quicker!

Trains in Sri Lanka, how to get around the scenic way

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

The trains in Sri Lanka are nothing short of epic. There’s one journey here in particular that hits the headlines: The day-long ride from Kandy (a lovely cultural city in the foothills of the Central Highlands) to the tea town of Ella. It takes six to eight hours and brings you on snaking tracks built by the British in the 1800s, up, up and into the misty peaks where emerald tea paddies roll out on all sides.

We’d say it’s one of the musts of the island. However, you’ll want to try to get a seat with a window, and request to be on the right-hand side of the carriage. If you don’t, you might find that you spend the whole trip angling for a glimpse of the view through a gap between other peoples’ heads. Not fun. Not fun at all.

Of course, that’s not the only train on offer in Sri Lanka. There’s actually a pretty good network that covers many of the most popular tourist spots. The main route used by those who want to get to the beaches is the one that runs south from Colombo. It connects up places like Bentota, Galle, Unawatuna, and Ahangama, and there’s currently an extension in the works that will be able to take you all the way to Tangalle (for remote beaches and access to the national parks where leopards and wild elephant herds await).

Other popular connections include the cross-island route from Colombo Fort to Trincomalee, the western beach area that comes into season from June to August when the southwest coast is under the monsoon. There’s also a link from the capital to Batticaloa, where you can get a cheap onward taxi to the surf mecca of Arugam Bay.

One last piece of good news: Trains in Sri Lanka are cheap. We’re talking between 330-550 LKR ($1.60-$2.70) for a whole day’s ride from Kandy to Ella, and similar rates on other trains. That’s six hours of traveling for under $3! Be sure to book ahead, though, as popular connections can fill up real fast in the high season months.

Renting your own tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka, get around the fun way

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

A number of companies have popped up in recent years offering private tuk-tuk rentals to travelers. We’re not gonna’ lie – it looks like a very fun way of getting around. But you will need some confidence navigating Asian roads that are full of traffic. The streets in Sri Lanka can get busy and hectic. Buses overtake with just a horn for warning. Pedestrians step out onto the tarmac with little more than a glance.

If you’re a-okay with all that, then it’s worth considering, because a tuk-tuk of your own will give you the whole freedom of the island. You’ll be able to drive to the far-flung national parks and hit the beaches that others can’t get to. You’ll be able to seek out the hidden surf breaks and drive to small villages to sample firey local coconut sambal and curry.

But, before we get carried away, it’s worth noting that there are some practicalities you need to get sorted to rent a tuk-tuk in the Teardrop of India. In fact, you actually need to get a temporary tuk-tuk license. Don’t worry, there’s no test involved. You can get one so long as you hold a driver’s license in your home country and an international driver’s license to match. Then, it’s just a case of contacting the rental company and getting them to sort it for you – the fee is usually around $40.

The tuk-tuks themselves are simple to drive. They have automatic gearshifts and handle a lot like a scooter. Rental rates are usually between $14-20 a day but you can often get good deals on long-term hire periods.

Local buses in Sri Lanka, how to get around for cheap!

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

You’ll hear the local buses in Sri Lanka before you see them. They are huge, honking beasts of metal that hurtle down the coast roads and mountain bends faster than any other vehicle on the road. They are the choice of transport for the locals when going long distance, which means there are plenty of routes and connecting routes on offer that can take you practically anywhere on the island.

The ride isn’t the comfiest. We’ve been stuck on one of these bad boys for seven hours coming down to the surf breaks from the mountains, stood up the whole way, wedged between a samosa seller and the ticket checker. It wasn’t pleasant but it was an experience.

The real bonus of choosing a local bus is the price. These are probably the cheapest overall way to get around Sri Lanka. You’re looking at about $3 for a whole day of travel, covering hundreds of kilometers. Always make sure you’re getting the local price, though, as we’ve heard some rumors of bloated fares for foreigners.

Sri Lanka, how to get around the island – a conclusion

There are loads of ways to navigate your way around Sri Lanka. The island nation is actually one of the easiest to travel in South Asia, with everything from uber-cheap local buses to motorbike rentals at hand. The priciest and comfiest way to do it is to go for private taxi transfers, which can be organized online before you even arrive. However, the most common – and more fun – modes of transport include the scenic trains and the tuk-tuks.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.