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A First-Timer’s Guide to Using Public Transport in Sri Lanka

Taking public transport in any country is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint (especially after you’ve taken an international flight to get there), and Sri Lanka’s transport system is pretty easy to navigate. In addition to being extremely cheap to use, the country’s public transport can be pretty comfortable over long distances (or as comfortable as a long journey could be, all things considered). If it’s your first time visiting and you’re hoping to hop onto a bus or a train to get to where you need to go, here’s a guide that can help.

Buses

Buses are the cheapest way to travel across the country, and are heavily used by the locals. Watching them zip past on the streets of Sri Lanka can be terrifying, but you’ll feel a lot safer on board. They are generally pretty crowded, so it might not be the best option for you if you’ve got a lot of luggage – but if you’re determined, the conductor will usually try to accommodate your bags.

Types of Buses

There are two types of buses: Private- and State-run. State-run buses tend to be painted red on the outside, while the privately owned buses can appear in blue, pink or green. There are more seats on private buses, which generally means they are more crowded. The fare for either bus is about the same, don’t worry about which one you should pick. Those heading to the south coast from Colombo have the option of travelling via the Southern Expressway on the specially-assigned highway buses. These buses run direct from one city until the destination and are much more comfortable for those heading to Galle, Mirissa or even Hambantota. Should you even wish to travel further to access Yala National Park, you can hop on one of these buses to get to Kataragama, the closest city.

Which Route to Take

In larger cities, such as at Colombo or Kandy, you can head to the information desk that’s available at the main bus stations and ask an employee for help. They should be able to tell you what to do and which bus to get on. If you’re not going to be at one of the bigger cities, the front desk of your accommodation will generally know the bus routes in the area and should be able to guide you. On top of that, the people of Sri Lanka are known to be very kind and hospitable to tourists, and will be glad to help you get to where you need to be. Simply ask one of the locals at the bus stop about your destination. Most Sri Lankans will know enough English to help – or if they don’t, they will still be able to point you in the right direction.

Buying a Ticket

Once you’re on the bus, find a seat (or you might have to stand, if there are no seats available). The bus conductor will come up to you and ask you where you’re headed – tell him your destination, and he’ll let you know what the fare is. Once you pay, he’ll hand you your ticket for the journey.

Getting off the Bus

As the bus rumbles onward, you’ll hear the conductor shouting out the names of the next stops. When you hear your stop called out, simply push the button that’s on the ceiling of the bus (or if there’s a rope, pull it), which will let the driver know it’s time for you to disembark.

Trains

The train network in Sri Lanka is pretty extensive, and it’s the more comfortable option for public transport in the country. Fares are pretty cheap – you pay a little bit more than buses – and the journey on some train routes are stunning enough to be an attraction on their own. Luggage can be placed on the overhead racks, as well as under the seat in front of you – try to keep the aisles clear so as not to impede the vendors that move through at regular intervals selling hot food and drink. The train ride through the misty mountains of Sri Lanka are particularly breath taking, whether you’re heading to Nuwara Eliya, Kandy or Ella!

Timings

You can check train timings from the official Sri Lanka Railways website, or at the train station itself on the day.

Carriage Categories

Most trains are divided into Reserved First Class, Reserved Second Class, Reserved Third Class and Unreserved Third Class carriages. Seat reservations can be made up to 30 days before departure, but these seats sell out quickly. If you’re unable to reserve your ticket, don’t worry – the Unreserved carriages never sell out, and you’ll always be able to board the train you need.

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