Even I wasn’t sure it could be done: a tourist driving all around Sri Lanka in a car. Not a car with a driver. A rental car! Lots of Sri Lankans laughed… no…the drivers, they said, were too bad. But I was determined and I’m so glad I persevered. Rented a little car and headed out to semi-circumnavigate Sri Lanka.
Here are some tips and tales from my experience in February 2019.
Picture a developing country – a country of people in a rush to be prosperous, working hard and catching up to their neighbors after 30 years of civil war, but still pretty primitive in places. Jungles and mountains, rice paddies and nature reserves, congested cities and equally congested villages. Temples everywhere. Amazing vistas. So much to distract a driver.
Your driving rules do not apply here. You must learn quickly, adapt and be fearless. Here are my tips for driving Sri Lanka.
Don’t overthink. Just do what everyone else is doing. Forget all the proper things you practice on European highways or North American cities. Relax. It’s like a video game and you win by being cautiously flexible and occasionally daring. No guts, no glory!
In Sri Lanka, vehicles drive on the left side of the road. That can throw you if you’ve never done it, but as I say, don’t overthink it. You may find yourself opening the passenger door ready to settle in and drive… at least for a while.
Rent a reliable car from a reliable firm – with insurance, road-side assistance, and emergency numbers. Murphy’s law – if you don’t have them, you may wish you’d paid the extra; if you have, you can relax and possibly never need them. Every person you encounter at first in Sri Lanka will want to rent you a car – don’t do it. You have no protection and it’s an amusing but challenging world out on Sri Lankan roads.
Originally I thought I needed a bigger car – as you would in the Middle East where everyone drives very large vehicles very fast. But the little car was quite perfect maneuvering the narrow roads and busy streets and miniscule parking spots.
Set yourself up with satellite-based GPS, Google maps, and one or more paper maps for when the internet fails you deep in a mountain valley or what seems to a tough choice. Be sure to have 3 or 4 navigation options because they will seldom agree but one may be right. And get a new map. My map had some main highways that had essentially ceased to exist when newer roads were built.
Setting out, you discover every destination name has 4-7 syllables. Find a way to shorten how you say the destination so that you can communicate with anyone else in the car. Anuradhpura, Mugathuvaram, Tissamaharama, Mahiyanganaya, Kumbukgahawatta. I have a theory: if Turkey can drop six zeros off its currency so that the million liras become smaller and sensible currency denominations, then Sri Lanka could drop the middle 3 syllables in a place name. My dear Sri Lanka friend was horrified at the thought, but she could see my point.
So what’s out there on the road with you? Not so many cars, actually, when you are outside a city. Country highways are mostly buses, trucks, tuktuks and cows. Cities are mostly delivery trucks, tuktuks, motorcycles, and buses.
None of them have evil intent towards you, although it may feel that way sometimes. In 3 weeks of driving, we only saw two accidents – a head-on collision between two heavily-loaded trucks, and a tuktuk overturned in the ditch. The thing is, they all drive by their own rules and at different speeds, so you must learn to anticipate based on their styles. There actually are rules… you need to figure them out quickly.
Buses are the biggest challenge – there are 3 or 4 categories – but the beat-up blue and red buses believe they own the road. They are always in a huge rush, like they are behind schedule or something. They stop VERY suddenly and don’t practice a rolling stop, so don’t get too close. Stay back a bit, too, because when they take off, there is a blast of vile black diesel smoke. Buses do, however, allow you to pass when they’re stopped, because, of course, they enjoy rushing up behind you and almost forcing you off the road again and again. Hold your ground. They are actually not murderous.
KEY TIP: Learn to prioritize your competition for the road. When taking quick decisions, you learn you can ignore motorcycles because they can maneuver easily around you. You partially ignore tuktuks because they are smaller and slower and can stop quickly. Never ignore buses because they’ll ignore you. Treat big trucks like big friends and work out where you each want to be with little toots and signal lights. Never let them see you sweat.
Your horn is your communication tool – a short toot as you begin to pass a motorcycle or tuktuk so that they are aware of you, a long toot if you want to say hello or fuck off. Drivers can be very aggressive. Then you realize, the toot behind you was not in malice, it was another driver telling you he was seriously wanting to dangerously try to pass you. Same with lights flashing: like a stage-two horn, lights flashed at you mean “I’m coming through. Really.” That’s when a two-lane highway suddenly becomes 3 lanes – everyone squeezing to accommodate the raging bus or lumbering truck or silly sportscar with the flashing headlights. Motorcycles and tuktuks don’t do it, because nobody would pay them any attention. Emergency vehicles try valiantly but get little respect.
And then there are the human indicator lights – the man standing in the open bus door waving to drivers to back off or swerve away or stop instantly or whatever. The driver cannot see you and doesn’t care. Take the flapping arm seriously.
Never let your eyes leave the road. A thousand things can happen, so be sure to have a photographer with you because you won’t see much scenery. You may be dodging (in approximately this order):
- tuktuks – they are easily the most common vehicle on the roads, they can be erratic and rude, unpredictable risk-takers but charming nonetheless
- cows – thousands of cows, walking or sleeping or itching themselves on the pavement – but they are predictable – if they are walking, they mostly keep walking, in the same direction
- roaring convoys of buses with the horns blaring and human signal lights waving out the front door, suspension often skewed to the left from serving
- dogs – hundreds of mangy deranged feral dogs standing confused in the middle of the road or sleeping or mating on the shoulder – try not to stop where the dogs are hanging out because they have families to feed
- Beautifully painted lorries always in a rush it seems
- motorcycles and scooter drivers that seem to feel invincible – they really are king of the road
And then, lots of
- pokey farm tractors with trailer-loads of rice in sacks
- straggling groups of schoolkids in uniforms
- driving students tentatively poking along
- tiny cars doing outrageous maneuvers worthy of a race car
- VIP land cruisers driving importantly down the middle of the road
- capricious goats always changing their minds
- the occasional peacock or horse, but not often
- beautiful silky spotted Trincomalee deer
- languid monitor lizards waiting for the last moment to race on tiny robotic legs
- long-tailed monkeys who cross in troops that never seem to end
- the odd elephant if you are very very lucky
- bicyclists of all ages on vintage bikes
- Traditional bullock carts
- work crews, tree fellers, farm workers, survey crews, rice packers, road repairs
- fish sellers, pot makers, flower and fruit vendors, rug makers
All of these come at you individually out in the countryside, but in the city? All at one time!
Out in the countryside, you will often encounter people making other use of the road, like drying rice on the tarmac.
Lots of police checkpoints.… it seems they are just checking papers and I did stop for the first two but then I discovered if I didn’t make eye contact (focusing intently on the road, of course), I could just cruise past.
The road conditions are pretty good. There are all classes of highways, but generally, I avoid freeways because they are boring. Which would you choose?
Secondary highways are usually smooth, with small shoulders, but never straight for more than a few hundred meters – the roads in Sri Lanka are serpentine whether in the highlands or out on the flatlands. Mostly, engineered with smooth curves but never more than 80 kms per hour.
Sri Lanka is a driver’s dream! But road signs are often more distracting that help.
And in conclusion, there are some things I don’t know about: drunk drivers, I just had no experience; women drivers, very seldom seen; insurance claims, none! I heartily encourage anyone to drive Sri Lanka.
And now for the tales.
While I had originally planned to circumnavigate Sri Lanka, that didn’t seem practical as I really want to experience it all – the lowlands and rice paddies, the ancient cities and water tanks, the highlands and tea plantations, the beaches and the towns of all sizes. So I made a plan and called it Circumnavigating Sri Lanka because it was a big loose circle.
2000 kms in total – 27 days.
I invited my friend along as navigator, and we started out from Negombo Where Sri Lanka Begins and Ends.
I determined to drive north first because it was mostly flat and in the opposite direction from Colombo, saving it for last. Driving Colombo scared me. For 3 days, we used Dambulla as a base to explore the Cultural Triangle, the Home of the Ancient Moon Stones of Sri Lanka. That’s where we came upon an elephant on the road, so magical that I turned around to pass by it twice more.
Then we headed up northeast, Driving East Coast Sri Lanka – Trincomalee and Batticolao.
To this point, the roads were pretty flat, uncongested except for in the cities – Kurunegala, Dambulla, Anaradhapura, Trincomalee and Batticoloa. But then we headed towards the center of Sri Lanka, along a highway that degenerated to a single track road half way along our route.
I was glad that the police stopped me to check my papers because then I could ask if the road actually continued or … it was a long way to go back! A long drive to the center of the mountains was where I found that Kandy is Eye Candy
Of course, we parked to explore Kandy, but really? It is more manageable than I remembered from previous trips. Maybe I was becoming more expert? Nope! Leaving Kandy was a nightmare of continuous decisions and sudden turns. It seemed that the city went on forever! But at last, we were Driving over the Top of Sri Lanka.
It was glorious. We climbed continuously, past tea plantations and villages, to Nuwara Eliya at 1890 meters above sea level where it was cool and damp in the day, and cold and damp at night. The roads were a mix of tolerably good and tolerably bad. It was very hard to find good pull-out stopping spots not already inhabited by tuktuks, so I don’t have nearly as many photos as I’d like.
Both going up and down, I often shifted the transmission to low gear to save the engine and the brakes. Those trips up and down Jebal Akhdar in Oman served me well! We often had the feeling of being lost, but then the road suddenly went from a track to a full-fledged highway with a signpost.
Passing through Ella, we carried on down to the coast at Hambantota where the Chinese have built a huge airport and seaport, both of which are underutilized but both of which merited superhighways. I was really sick with food poisoning, but it passed and we moved on to Tangalle to Galle – The South Coastal Road.
It was never-ending villages and resorts and very slow going, with jungle to the right and glimpses of the beach to the left. Finally… we arrived to enjoy Fabled Fort Galle – Something for Everyone. Again, the car was parked and we walked the intriguing little city inside the fort.
But time was running out and we need to head north to Colombo. There is a super freeway heading north, but I hated the idea. So we determined to drive up through the hills and around through Ratnapurna – the gem center of Sri Lanka. This… we tried this.
It didn’t look easy but the hotel owner in Galle told me, rather dubiously, that it was doable. His words still ring in my ears: ” stay on the main highways, do not take shortcuts.” But Siri was determined that we must take shortcuts and she kept us going around in circles over the tiniest roads and mountain passes and hillside villages. Highway A17 disappeared – literally. The jungle closed in, the sun passed over to afternoon, we were still wandering and consulting maps. SHUT UP Siri! We had to return to Galle and take the super freeway after all. My windows and mirrors were dirty and streaked. Night was falling and our tempers were frayed. That day, I drove 11 hours, and it was probably the most dangerous driving I did. But not quite.
Conquering Colombo from south to north was THE most dangerous and I DID IT!!!!
And then we were Coming full circle – back to Negombo.
The little rental car – our mobile suitcase – was returned without a scratch. I did it and you can too!
I honestly don’t believe you see or know a country until you’ve driven there. Countless tourists enjoy Sri Lanka from the vantage point of hired cars and trains and local buses – the same ones that routinely harassed me! For me, it’s the road where life happens. I cannot wait to drive in China!