With public buses offering low-cost and frequent transport throughout the island, most travelers are likely to encounter bus rides at least once during their travel. That being said; traveling by bus in Sri Lanka is a quite unique experience on itself. From jam-packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, hot, sweaty rides to ever blasting music through large speakers, endless delays and a driving style that would simply put most people off. The bus, although cheap, can be a daunting and tiring experience. But don’t back out just yet! With the right preparation in mind, you might just be able to turn your ride into a lot more fun and enjoyable experience.
After having explored Sri Lanka’s public bus network extensively I’ve come up with eleven tips to make your journey more comfortable and to travel like a pro. For the (solo traveling) ladies among us; the last tip is for you 😉
1. Claim your seat
Unless specified bus companies don’t offer reserved seating. But to have a seat on a 4-6 hour ride is definitely something you want. Even seated you might have trouble keeping up with the speed, bends, and uncontrolled breaks. And while standing surely can give an extra dimension to the experience I’d strongly advice to claim your seat whenever possible. Your best chance of getting one is to board the bus at the beginning of its journey and even then by showing up a bit before departure time. You can easily claim your seat on a bus in Sri Lanka by simply putting some of your belongings on it and wait outside of the bus if it’s too hot inside.
2. Avoid the last bus in Sri Lanka
It will surely be jam-packed with people! Although it might be an interesting experience, it’s definitely not the most comfortable. Expect to have more physical contact with people than you’d ever wish for and to bend in circus-like positions you’ve never experienced before. Did I already mention the last bus in Sri Lanka often fits more people than it can?! Same goes for traveling in rush-hour by the way. Add on the traffic jams in city area’s and you’re surely in for slow, bumpy, waaaay to cozy, sweaty ride.
3. Check the last departure times
While Sri Lanka’s buses run nationwide on a frequent base it is advisable to check the last departure times to prevent yourself getting stuck for the night. My experience is that intercity buses often go from morning till late afternoon while local transportation generally runs until the evening. I almost got stranded twice as I assumed the bus in Sri Lanka would run all day. Both times I was ‘lucky’ enough to catch the last bus –see point two above 😉-
4. Bring earplugs, music, audio-books..
… or anything else that can ease your ears on a long journey. Almost every bus in Sri Lanka is equipped with a blasting sound system and comes along with 10+ hours music videos of Sri Lankan pop music. Initially, this is great. A little culture. And entertainment. But as soon as journeys are taking into 5+ hours the music, together with the honking, traffic jams and the roaring sound of the bus moving forward can be pretty annoying, tiring and uncomfortable at least. So do yourself a favor and bring something nice for your ears.
5. Expect to travel slow by bus in Sri Lanka
Looking at the small size of the Island, one might logically assume that destinations are in close distance to each other. And although that is certainly true, it doesn’t mean you will reach within a short time. Old public buses generally move slowly and with over-crowded roads in most cities, traffic also adds to the travel time. Let’s give you an example; the journey from Colombo to Trincomalee is only 265 kilometers, yet it took a long 8 hours to reach! To understand how long your journey will take you it’s best to divide the average driving speed of 35km/h for public buses by the distance you are traveling. A great way to save travel time is to plan your journey in a logical order.
6. Travel light
This tip has more to do with preparation in general than being for bus journeys specific, but Sri Lanka’s public transportation doesn’t offer much space for luggage storage. Light travel allows you to keep an eye on your stuff as you can place it on your lap or on the floor between your legs.
In the event that you do bring your large heavy backpack into the bus in Sri Lanka –believe me, most people do- be sure to leave them in the front, next to the driver. In this event, it’s also wise to carry a small bag with snacks, drinks, and cash to bring with you to your seat. With snacks and drinks for obvious reasons and cash to purchase your ticket once seated.
7. Wear proper clothes
Knowing Sri Lanka has an average temperature of 27 degrees it might sound like an excellent plan to hop on public buses in your shorts or mini-sundress. But considering that rides can be long, full and sweaty you’ll most likely end up either stuck onto the plastic seat coverings for most of the way or in closer-than-desired contact with the other passengers. The most comfortable option is, therefore, to cover your legs and shoulders when taking the bus in Sri Lanka.
8. Don’t get sick
Busses in Sri Lanka move around quite hectically as drivers pull up, break and turn in an uncontrollable, chaotic manner. People with sensitive stomachs might end up feeling uncomfortable or sick. Especially on early morning rides on rough terrain, it might be helpful to eat something light, non-oily before you take off. Driving on an empty stomach can worsen motion sickness. On the other hand, over-eating is also a bad idea. Sitting in front of the bus can also ease the symptoms. Another way to prevent feeling sick is to take medications as prescribed.
9. Don’t sit opposite the boxes
Another one in the category ‘save your ears’ I made the mistake once to take the seat opposite of the blasting boxes. A mistake that I will long remember. After listening to deafening music for about 1.5 hours I felt relieved when I finally got off. Busses are usually equipped with several boxes, so if you are in the lucky position to choose your seat, be sure to choose it wisely.
10. Bring something to support your head
Unlike busses in some other countries, the bus in Sri Lanka doesn’t really offer head support. Most busses are equipped with an iron bar. But, believe me, bumping your head against them isn’t really comfy. And even if it were supportive, be sure your neck would love some support as well on 6-10 hour journeys. One solution is to bring one of those fancy travel-pillows. But another option is to bring a large shirt, towel or piece of cloth to roll up and place it around your neck. It will provide your neck with support and allows you to take a quick nap once your body gets adjusted to the chaos.
11. Safety tip for (solo-traveling) ladies
As I read several warnings about sexual harassment in public busses it’s definitely advisable to wear something concealing. Additionally, it’s advised to take a seat in front of the bus, preferably next to another woman. In the unwanted event that you do encounter any type of harassment be sure to speak up, move away and ask help from fellow passengers. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with raising your voice and moving yourself to a safer place. In fact, social shaming is often a powerful solution.
Looking for other ways to travel around the island on a budget? Check out this blog post with Eight transportation tips to travel Sri Lanka on a budget
Did you experience traveling by bus in Sri Lanka? Or do you have additional tips? Be sure to tell me about them through the comment section below.