Recently (summer of 2019) I spent several weeks traveling through Sri Lanka. I did all transfers by public bus except the Kandy to Ella portion.
There are two types of buses, the red government buses, and the personalized private buses. If standing on the road take the first one that comes. If you are at a station with a choice it is often best to take the red government bus as it will leave if not full. They run on a schedule, a schedule nobody except the driver knows.
With very few exceptions there is no schedule posted anywhere. There is no way to buy a ticket in advance, there is no way to reserve a seat. This is not a problem. Buses to everywhere seem to go every few minutes. You need to go to the station to be assured a seat. Usually not getting a seat is not a huge deal as people get off and on so I did not have to wait long. The big exception is Colombo bound buses on a Sunday.
If there is no bus going where you want directly you will have to transfer. Don’t worry about this it usually does not take long. It is usually quicker to do a transfer than to wait for a less frequent direct bus.
Other than the town of Wellwaya (see below), people were extremely helpful. Bus drivers and attendents had no issue asking us where I wanted to go and pointing towards the proper bus or stop or seat. I was usually presented with a ticket, often electronically generated, and paid the appropriate price.
Why take the bus?
- Obviously it is much cheaper. If spending a month in Sri Lanka a private transfer every 3 days will likely add $600 or more to your trip. 10 bus trips for two people is only around $30. $570 goes a long way in Sri Lanka. I mostly choose mid-range accomodation and averaged $30 a night. With this simple move you have saved 19 nights lodging.
- You will mix with local people. This is a great opportunity to meet and talk with local people not involved in the tourist industry.
- It is an adventure. It is hot, crowded, sometimes slow, sometimes knuckle gripping fast.
- It doesn’t take much longer. I rarely waited more than a couple minutes for a bus and never more than 15. Transfers are quick and the bus moves quickly on the highway.
- They are colorful! Some of them are themed and have a unique style.
- There may be a live infomercial.
Additional Bus Notes
- Luggage. Unlike most of the world, people in Sri Lanka travel very light. There is no loading or unloading of goods or bags. I have no idea how people transport things. Most people carry only a small backpack. My bags are rather small and can even fit on the rack above which is tiny. If yours won’t fit they will have you put it by the gear shift or somewhere behind there is a compartment. I would not bring a rollaboard or large case.
- Wifi. Thee are lots of signs on buses saying free wifi. There is no free wifi.
- The elusive AC bus. It is no exaggeration to say I saw 3 times more snakes in Sri Lanka than I did air-conditioned buses. I was told by several people there was an AC bus between Dambulla and Kandy that ran on the same schedule as regular buses. I waited for half an hour but when the 5th no AC bus to Kandy came by, and there were seats, I admitted defeat and boarded.
- Police stops. A few times we came to army roadblocks. Everyone got out with their bags. Everyone except the elderly, people with small kids, and foreign tourists. So we got to stay on the bus. When the police got on we pointed to our bags. We got passports ready but they only asked once.
Watch out in Wellwaya!
I only had three incidents of men lying or trying to trick or cheat me. All 3 were in a short period of time while transferring in Wellwaya!
- Men asking where I wanted to go and insisting on taking me to an office. They tried to say there are no buses you have to take a taxi. I walked away and went to the other side of the office where there was a bus with the town I was going to written on it.
- The driver of another bus told me the bus was not leaving for a long while and I should wait on the sidewalk. I asked the bus driver instead, got on the bus, got a seat, and it left in 5 minutes.
- The bus attendant tried to charge me 400lks instead of 80. Buses in Sri Lanka are measured by distance. I don’t know the official chart but it seems to be about 2lks per kilometer. 400lks is an absurd price for a 40km ride and I could have taken a Tuk Tuk most of the way for that. I said no, and insisted on a ticket. I also explained that after weeks in Sri Lanka he was the first and only bus attendant that tried to cheat me. He seemed ashamed, “the only one? “. He then brought the ticket with 78 Lks written on it and even provided the 2lks change.