Successfully using public transportation in Sri Lanka requires a bit of a learning curve. So here we will share some learnings as well as the magical story of our “adventure” getting to the airport on our last day.
I would definitely recommend the train in Sri Lanka. It’s a super-fun experience, relatively quick, and goes along most of the major tourist routes. For a multi-day trip with stops we hired a private driver (it’ll cost you!!), but for little intercity jaunts like Galle to Matara, Mirissa, Dickwella (lolz) then it is a lot faster and easier to just hop on the local bus.
The local buses can be th-th-th-thumpinggggg. We liked it because we were only ever going for a couple hours at a time, but we’ve heard some people hate it. The thumping Sri Lankan pop songs really add a little something special to the trip. Some of our buses had some added #swagger along the front by way of colourful posters and/or light-up religious signs that changed colours.
Buses run all the time, in every direction. There are bus stops but you don’t really need to bother with them – you can flag down a passing bus once it is close enough to read the destination on the front. Once on you simply grab a seat (or more likely: wedge yourself in between the school kids and other locals and hang on to… whatever you can reach) and soon enough a ridiculously hard-working billet collector will come along, ask you where you are going, and take your money.
These guys REALLY hustle. Not only do they make it up and down the aisles despite the hundred sweaty bodies, they also somehow remember who they have hit up for cash and who is new, all the while also hopping on and off the bus to take luggage and signal when
everyone is on board the last person’s foot has lifted off the road.
Pro tip: If you are traveling solo I would recommend bringing your bag on the bus with you, not putting it underneath. Even with the three of us we twice had some scary moments where the bus started moving without us getting our luggage out. Our strategy was to leave behind a tribute (me) on the bus to yell and scream. Success.
When you see your stop you press the button on the roof and your driver will
pull over slow down momentarily for you to hop off.
We were “foreigner priced” a couple times, we think, but when the cost runs between 40-100 rupees (40c to $1CAD) for an hour-and-a-half trip, you don’t really complain. We watched what bills other people were giving the collector, then tried confidently handing him a sum and kind of daring him with our eyes to ask for more.
So now, I will tell you about our magic trick. For today’s magic trick: all we want to do is get from Mirissa to Colombo in time to catch our 10pm flight to Kuala Lumpur. 150 km, 11 hours. Easy? Let’s find out.
11:00am – Adventure #1: Obtain transportation to Polwathumodara Railway Station.
Out on to the street, knowing we are headed generally towards Weligama, laden with all our worldly possessions and three can-do attitudes, we start walking and peeling our eyes for the light blue city buses. One block, two blocks. Hmm… strange. We stop at a little squat shop and ask the store woman: where is the bus stop?
Oh no, she explains, all the buses are on strike today because of the new laws. No bus, no cab. Maybe no train. Maybe no tuktuk.
Credit to us and years of traveling between us: no one panics. If nothing else, navigating travel transportation overseas teaches you problem solving. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time**
Part of the reason we don’t panic is likely because we just don’t really believe her. Although… we didn’t see any buses today except for these strange red government ones which are absolutely filled to the brim with people…
She hails down a tuktuk for us. Best plan is to just get to the train station and see what’s up there.
Now, a warning about the tuktuks… I like tuktuks as much as the next backpacker, and I’m not making any generalizations about Sri Lankan people at all but Sri Lanka is the only country where we have been outright lied to by tuktuk drivers and it happened literally every day. You read about tuktuk drivers lying in Thailand as well: “No, your hostel burned down last week, but I can take you to my brother’s place, it’s very nice” – so much so that some hotels in Thailand say on their websites “Disregard anyone who tells you we are no longer in business” – but we never experienced it in Thailand. In Sri Lanka: everywhere. So you see why we didn’t buy the “country-wide transportation strike” story.
Our tuktuk driver tells us that the trains don’t run today. Well, take us there and let’s see. I’ll have to take you to the farther away train station. OK. Oh, they do run. Super.
This guy ended up being pretty nice in the end and walked in to the train station with Marc to show him where to purchase tickets. On the way he explained the tensions between tuktuk drivers and minibus drivers, why he couldn’t drive us all the way to Colombo himself, and the reason for the strike: the government changed the fines for dangerous driving from 500 rupees to 2,500 rupees overnight. For a bus driver who might only make 5,000 rupees per month, this would be catastrophic to get a fine. These fines are for things like driving with more than three passengers (tuktuks), crossing into oncoming traffic, driving without a license.
No one asks the obvious question: could you just, like… not drive dangerously?
11:45am – Adventure #2: Board train to Colombo
At the ticket office Alison and Marc stake a claim on a bench and I wait in line at the ticket office – 3 to Kandy, first class? No first class. Ok, second class?
I’m handed three purple cardboard tickets, about 2x1inches that were hand-stamped in a 1800’s style iron punch with today’s date. Kewl, no computers.
Tickets are 200 rupees each, less than $2CAD. A great deal at twice the price.
Alison uses the “Women’s rest area”, Marc the men’s. A sign over the window reads “Please be decent“. There are water fountains, fish aquariums with dark coloured fish pacing the length and potted ferns – this is all par for the course in a Sri Lankan rail station.
Pro tip: Find out which end of the platform your train car will be on, since the train just stops for a few minutes.
We jump on a quick as possible and ended up accidentally in third class, so have to scoot off and back on again at the next station, and get a few of the last seats. In Sri Lanka there is 1st class A/C (we never took it), 2nd class reserved with fan (we like these cause there aren’t any people standing and the windows open, so you can take fun photos), 2nd class unreserved (which we are on for this trip, and they oversell), and third class (bench seats with open windows, very comparable to 2nd class unreserved).
We pass the hours to Colombo reading our books, looking out at the ocean, chatting to other passengers. There aren’t as many snacks for sale on this train. Hmpf!
5:14pm – Adventure #3: Exit the train
As we get closer to Colombo the train becomes more and more crowded. People standing in the aisles start making deals with us to let them have our seats. Suits us fine, not sure why we need to be complicit in where they sit after we leave.
On pulling in to the station we see why it’s a big deal. Hands are reaching in through the open windows and “claiming” our seats the moment our butts lift off the seats by shoving through bags and backpacks. Those in the aisles push past us to get our seats and push back the bags. Through all of this, and with only a few minutes to spare, we need to get off the train. This part was stressful – no one seemed really that concerned with us being out of their way before they sat down, and if I hadn’t been with Marc (all elbows) I might not have made it off in time.
6:15pm – Adventure #4: Bus to the Airport
Out of the station, with (what we thought was) plenty of time to spare, we stop for some final kotthu before leaving the country then make our way in the general direction of the bus station. We decide if the buses aren’t running here either then we will just have to pay for a car to take us the final leg to the airport. For a 10pm flight we should arrive at 8pm latest to check our bags, so we have about an hour to find a bus.
We find the bus station, but can’t find the bus. All around it’s just those red government buses which were brought in because of the strike. We ask a bunch of people and are pointed each time in a different direction. Finally we find a stanchion with “Airport” and “A/C Tourist Bus” printed over it. Promising.
We are among the first few people in line. There is a Sri Lankan man who lives near the airport and commutes every day. He says this bus runs every hour usually, but only until 6:30. Holy crap, we made it just in time!
But then it’s 6:30. Then 6:45. Then 7:15. Our local friend says he isn’t worried, but seems quite worried when talking to his wife on the phone. And he keeps stepping out into the street to look at the buses that are coming towards us, then stepping back in when they aren’t the one for us. The sun has gone down, the lineup is way longer than the number of humans that would fit on a bus, and now people are lining up in the street in front of us, pushing us further back in line.
Soon a few of those red buses go by and they are more packed than anything I’ve ever seen. There are even people hanging out the doors, with only one foot on the actual bus. Uhm.
We are making all kinds of deals amongst ourselves: 10 more minutes and we will go look for a car. We will leave when the local guy leaves. We will leave at 8.
Finally our bus pulls up – one of those plushy long-distance tour buses. We all breathe a sigh of relief.
7:30pm – Adventure #5: Ride the bus to the Airport
Know this: Marc hates people who cut in to lines. Like, he can really lose his cool. The people who are loitering hopefully three-deep on the street hoping to get onto the airport bus when we have been waiting an hour and a half don’t know him like I do. We’re gonna have a rumble.
Thankfully the bus driver semi-holds back the people on the street and gives preference to those in the stanchions, but only for a couple of minutes. By then we are seated on the bus, and the bus is almost full. But people still come on. All the people, all the backpacks, all the rolly luggage. It crosses my mind that an over-full bus like this is certainly the kind of thing you could get a fine for…
A gaggle of three Chinese women make an absolute scene screeching at people to move back, move back (there is no room to move back) and repeatedly hitting me in the head with their handbags. The woman sitting behind me holds her infant son to her chest while her husband physically shields her with his body. This is literally bananas. Once the women are onboard and semi-settled (screeching “go, go!” to the bus driver) we take off… and stop. We are now in lurching stop-and-go traffic. Suuuuuper fun.
All in all we roll in to the airport at about 8pm, just in time to check in to our flight and grab a snack before boarding. It’s been an exhausting day, but we all kind of took it in a stride. We travel well together as a team but, really, this is the first moment where I feel like I could call myself “well travelled”.
** One should never, never eat an actual elephant.
Two days after Adam’s Peak and we still can’t really walk straight. When we get up from bed or from our tables at the restaurant we all kind of hobble away duck-footed for 10 steps or so until the muscle gets going again. I catch a couple locals grinning at us – either they have seen this before or find it mildly amusing without knowing why. Continue reading
On our arrival in Colombo, Alison tells us what we need to eat in Sri Lanka: Kotthu Roti. She makes a chopping motion with her hands – apparently this will help us to communicate what we want (update: it does). Continue reading
Done it once: No expert. But we talked to a lot of people in preparation, and here’s what we have to share:
Choose a route
There is more than one way to climb the mountain. We chose to start our pilgrimage from outside Hatton, in the town of Dalhousie (753m below the summit). This trail is the shortest at 7 km total, but also the steepest. Continue reading
So in short, the journey up Adam’s Peak so far was… DIZZAMN!
And now, under the rapidly heating sun, it is time to go down. All the way down.
Walking down a mountain takes a whole different set of muscles, and almost always takes longer than you think it will. Especially if you are with someone who likes to stop every few meters and take a photo of the same waterfall. (Looks over shoulder) Who, me?
The sunrise is moving, it’s perfect. And we are all together. A niggling regret in the back of my mind: it would have been nice to see this from inside the temple… the guide books say to look to the East and the West during the sunrise. But I wouldn’t trade these moments for anything and that’s enough. Continue reading
I can’t relay much between the time Alison left us (sorry to phrase it that way Al) and when we saw her again. It was just walking. That’s all there is to tell. Marc and I ate the rest of the chocolate. What? She made her choice. Continue reading
Here we are again: waking up before the sun to climb a Sri Lankan rock. Well, this time it is extra special. Because this time it is 2am when we leave our hotel. And this time we won’t just be seeing any old sunrise, or a 1,500 year old palace on a boulder. We will be seeing the first place Adam set foot upon being kicked out of Eden. Continue reading