The Madness of Driving Sri Lanka
When we arrived in Sri Lanka we had a 30-day visa and no fixed plans. We travelled by bus and by train and quickly fell in love with the country!
We didn’t want to leave so we extended our visa, applied for a temporary SL driving licence and hired scooters. Our Wego scooters were only 110cc but more than capable, with good acceleration to get us out of tight squeezes...of which there were many!
Let’s make no bones about it: traffic in Sri Lanka is chaotic and can't ever be fully trusted. The rules of the road are guidelines rather than strict principles that are always adhered to.
There are two main rules: buses don’t slow down for anything (they barely stop for people to get on) and, if another vehicle is bigger than you, it has right of way - accept it and let them go.
The colours are as mad as the drivers
A good rule of thumb when approaching a blind bend is to expect something to be coming at you, in your lane, unwilling or unable to move. Have an escape plan and be ready to implement it at a moment’s notice. Basically get right over to the edge until you know exactly what’s ahead of you.
Also, don’t assume the edge of the road will be a drama free zone. Dogs, cows, potholes, maybe a band of toque macaques. Lovely! Bit dangerous though. The macaques are smart - they sprint across as quickly as possible. Dogs are a pain - they are unpredictable and everywhere. There are more feral dogs than humans in Sri Lanka! Cows are more predictable - they usually wont deviate from their path. Slow down and weave around them.
In a way, it’s beautiful; this writhing mass of objects, living and otherwise, all jostling for position like a knot of snakes in mating season. In another way, it’s utterly terrifying and I’m amazed more people don’t die in the insanity of Sri Lankan roads.
Sometimes I just wanted to gaze at the wonder of it all, but you can’t lose focus. Buses often brought me back to reality with the boom of their monstrous horns - frightening and surely unnecessarily loud. Even when you know it’s coming it’s a challenge to stop your body jumping out of its skin.
The vibrant colours and designs of the trucks and buses are gloriously flamboyant. Like big, chunky, metallic birds of paradise. But try not to get stuck behind them. The thick plumes of black, dust particle ridden, noxious smoke, stings the eyes and can’t be good for the lungs. There are no emissions standards here.
Some of the roads are actually very good - around Colombo & the south. Others are more pothole than road. They would be difficult to walk on, let alone drive a scooter, especially if you need to get to your guest house before dark, which you really do.
Driving at night time is genuinely unwise. It’s just as busy but there are very few street lights & somehow the road users are, if anything, a bit more mad than they are during the day.
Of course the dogs, cows and bicycles have no lights, but some of the cars and tuk tuks inexplicably don’t use theirs either. In all seriousness, it’s too dangerous to drive after sun down. Avoid it and your chances of seeing future sunsets will be greatly improved!
But don’t be put off. If you can survive (or avoid) the big cities, having your own transport is richly rewarding. The freedom to stop wherever you want, to watch the wildlife or gaze at the scenery, to have a tea/coffee or some delicious local food - these things make it all worth while.
The country drives are just wonderful. All the warnings about blind bends still apply, but the scenery is really exceptional. It’s a fantastically green country & I had to stop the bike many many times to take pictures of wildlife & landscapes.
You can also hire a tuk tuk for a different kind of authentic Sri Lankan experience. They may be easier if you have a lot of baggage (though you can store bags at hostels for 50rupees/day). They’re much slower, though, so covering any kind of distance will take a long time.
Driving Sri Lanka was a truly wonderful experience. Slightly crazy at times but highly rewarding. We drove 2195km in 6 weeks (after using public transport for the first 4 weeks) and saw most of the island - Jaffna in the far North, Trincomalee to the East, the tea plantations and nature reserves in the centre, the beautiful beaches of the South, Mannar and Adam's Bridge to the West, and much more. Truly, one of my favourite places on earth!
In my next post I'll write about the incredible wildlife of Sri Lanka.