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The user's guide to Sri Lankan transport

Royston Ellis
So you've made it to Sri Lanka. Here's how you get around
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It could take a while for new visitors to Sri Lanka to become accustomed to getting around Colombo and travelling on to Kandy and Hambantota for cricket matches. Nothing is as straightforward (or as concerned with health and safety) as in many other countries.

Realisation sets in on arrival at the airport (visas in advance through www.eta.gov.lk.) There is no dedicated airport-to-Colombo bus service, and no longer is there a train connection. If transport hasn't been arranged by your hotel, it's best to book and pre-pay for a taxi at the taxi counter located in the arrivals hall (after customs clearance), before leaving the airport. Touts offering taxis are not to be relied on, even if they lurk inside the arrivals hall.

Once safely ensconced in hotel or guest house, it is advisable to use the property's recommended taxi or chauffeur-driven cars (at a declared fixed rate per hour or per kilometre), so there is some guarantee of getting where you want to go and back again without aggravation.

There are several radio cab services, among them Ace (Tel: 94-11-281-8818) and Kangaroo Cabs (Tel: 94-11-250-1501). These charge Rs 68 per kilometre. The cost of longer journeys, such as to Kandy (116km) or even to Hambantota (238km), can be negotiated with them.

For short journeys around Colombo, a new service has been introduced, using small Indian-made Nano cabs. They're a bit cramped if you're tall, especially in the back seat, but cheap and cheerful and more reliable than the ubiquitous three-wheeler taxis, or tuk-tuks, to give them the popular name borrowed from Thailand. Some of the popular mini-cab companies are the metered Nano Cabs (Tel: 94-11-267-6767) and Budget Taxis (Tel: 94-11-729- 9299). Rates are quoted as starting at Rs 50 for the first kilometre, with each subsequent kilometre at Rs 32.

Tuk-tuks can be flagged down in the street. If they don't have a meter, and the driver speaks a bit of English, negotiate the price before boarding. If you're not sure what is reasonable, listen to what the driver tells you, say "No, thanks", walk away in the opposite direction so he can't follow you, and flag down another tuk-tuk. With an idea of the price from the first driver, you have an idea of a starting point for negotiation. The driver will usually build a tip into his quote, but if you're happy with the service, add between Rs 20 and Rs 50 when you pay.

When you find a good tuk-tuk driver who knows where you want to go and can communicate properly, use him exclusively. Do not, however, let him take you into any shops, as he will claim a commission on whatever you buy. He will do the same if he takes you to a casino. (By the way, casinos will provide free transport on request if you are going to play.)

There's less hassle when it comes to paying a tuk-tuk if you take a metered one. These have rates beginning at Rs 50 for the first kilometre, with Rs 32 for every subsequent kilometre.

Buses are not recommended for getting around town as they are usually packed with passengers. There are no underground or sky trains in Colombo.

If you are daring and have the patience to tolerate the illogical interpretation of the Highway Code (for instance, a flashing right-side indicator can mean the vehicle in front wants you to overtake, not that he is turning right), try hiring a car to drive yourself. Hertz operates in Colombo from an office in the Galadari Hotel complex (Tel: 94-11-236-9333) and has rates starting at US$50 per day, unlimited mileage. They also have chauffeur-driven vehicles with a maximum of 100km per day at US$60, and extra charges for driver's nights away from base. A local driving permit (show your International Driving Permit) is necessary and can be obtained through the Colombo Automobile Association's office (Tel: 94-11-242-1528) for Rs 2500.

Travelling out of Colombo need not be difficult. There are long-distance air-conditioned private buses operating from the Pettah bus station near the Colombo Fort railway station. Avoid the all-stopping government buses that are packed with standing passengers. To travel south there are now long-distance air-conditioned buses (route number EX-01) that use the new Southern Expressway to Galle. These leave from the Kottawa bus station (itself a 45-minute bus ride away: take route 138 from Pettah, or a tuk-tuk) and run to and from Galle every 20 minutes throughout the day. Seats can't be reserved; the fare is Rs 470 and the journey takes about an hour. From the Galle bus station to Hambantota will involve another bus journey, and take about four hours.

The best way to Hambantota independently is by train from Colombo Fort to Matara. There are two good departures from Colombo, at 8.35am and 10.30am. The second-class fare is Rs 230. From Matara, it's about 70km to Hambantota by bus or taxi, and another 30km to the cricket ground.

Since there are no places to stay within walking distance of the stadium, which is close to the small town of Sooriyawewa, an option would be to stay in the vicinity of Tangalle, which is about 61km away. There is a Nano mini-cab service (Tel: 94-71-381-6381) operating from there for Rs 45 a metered kilometre, or by negotiation. Transport can also be provided by the Ranna212 and Turtle Bay hotels overlooking the Kahandamodera beach.

From Colombo to Kandy there are much better travel options: air-conditioned buses or trains, with information available by telephoning the Government Information Centre on 1919. Train timetables can be found here.

The best trains are the two Intercity departures (at 7am and 3.35pm) to Kandy. Seats can be booked by going to the Colombo Fort railway station booking office no more than ten days in advance. More comfortable and more easy to get is a seat in the privately run carriages attached to Kandy bound trains. One is operated by Exporail, with tickets at Rs 1130 one way and Rs 2200 return, that can be booked online. Breakfast or a snack and unlimited tea and coffee are included in the price. Another is run by Blue Line, with a special a/c carriage attached to evening departures from Colombo to Kandy (one-way fare, Rs 950).

Since the stadium at Pallekelle is only 9km from Kandy, transport from any hotel in the town or nearby villages like Digana (by taxi or tuk-tuk) is easy to arrange.

Travel by taxi, bus or train - or simply walking - is largely safe and enjoyable (although walking is hot) as long as you keep your wits about you and are prepared for delays, and for those wonderful serendipitous moments that make travelling in Sri Lanka so fascinating.

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