STANDING ROOM ONLY – TRAVELLING SRI LANKAN STYLE
by Ian Mackenzie
1 September 2015
by Ian Mackenzie
1 September 2015
“Have you tasted a Sri Lankan lady yet?” the elderly gentleman asked me as we journeyed on the government bus from Tangalle on Sri Lanka’s south coast to the hill country town of Ella. His expression couldn’t have been more deadpan if he’d tried, so I assumed his question was serious. I’ve no doubt that Sri Lankan ladies are extremely flavoursome but, to be honest, the only tasting I’d been planning was for a pot of cardamon tea and a plateful of Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous ‘rice and curry’.
“Can I introduce you to my wife, Nicky?” I replied, pointing to the lady-in-question in the seat behind, who was at this point completely oblivious to the direction the conversation had been heading.
Changing the subject quickly, my new buddy for the four-hour journey proudly told me about how Sri Lanka has operated successfully under “the British system” and how British Leyland had left its mark on the enormous fleet of government-run buses that were now crisscrossing the country. I got the impression he was trying to make up for his earlier faux pas but the guy was seriously pro-British. Which was not surprising as he went on to tell me that his father, who in the 1930s had his own truck business (British Leyland, naturally), had provided the British army with a number of trucks during World War II. And, in recognition, he’d received a hand-written letter from King George V thanking him for his support. But I’m not sure if he was more proud of that or his garage full of spare British Leyland truck parts from the 1920s and 30s.
Yep, bus and train journeys in Sri Lanka are not only long, crowded, incredibly cheap and consistently traverse through the most beautifully dramatic countryside, but they’re also places where you’re likely to meet a whole range of characters that make the journey infinitely more interesting.
A train journey through the hill country of Sri Lanka is arguably more interesting and scenic than actually wandering around it on foot. Not surprising then that reserved tickets for the extremely popular Ella to Kandy trains have to be booked days in advance – simply because locals and tourists alike want to get the best seats to take in the dramatic views along the winding six-hour route through verdant green valleys, choc-full with tea plantations, coconut trees, and the odd waterfall or two.
So it was that we managed to get to the ticket office for the Kandy train when all the reserved tickets for first and second class seats had already gone, and we ended up jumping in with everybody else in third class. And it really did seem like everyone else!
We quickly determined that the prized “seats” were not the obvious ones inside the train carriage itself, but the open spaces where the carriage doors should be – which were typically occupied by tourists armed with cameras on selfie-sticks. In fact, as the train pulled into the station we had the bizarre sight of what seemed like hundreds of cameras and mobile phones pointed in our direction from every train window and doorway.
But once our journey got underway, and the train chugged its way along the track at little more than pedestrian speed, I could appreciate why those doorway seats were so prized. On what’s widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys it was a magical way to enjoy the cooling breeze while gazing at the variety of green, lush landscapes and waving at the locals as they went about their daily work in the fields. We thought our third class train ride in Thailand was pretty special but this was at another level altogether.
A pity though that there was a constant bombardment of litter being thrown out through the carriage windows.
Nevertheless, this is a great way to see a part of the country that’s enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. And, for 50 rupees (less than 25 pence), a ridiculously cheap way to do it, too.
If we thought the trains were busy, the buses were just plain crazy. We got the impression that pretty much the whole country is constantly on the move, and buses are an important means of getting around.
The way they work is like this….
You can pick up a bus from any town bus station, or just about anywhere on the road if you flag one down. Prices vary for similar routes depending on which quality of bus you go for – let’s call them “no-frills”, “semi-luxury” and “luxury”.
The no-frills service really does live up to the name we’ve assigned to them. As they’re loading up with passengers at the bus station there’ll be the conductor and/or the driver drumming up business outside. Once it’s full – and by “full” I mean there’s very little or no standing room left – the bus inches its way out of the station. It then stops regularly to pick up, even more, people, irrespective of whether there’s actually any more space left until there’s a situation where passengers are literally standing in the open doorway.
There’s also a general onboard etiquette that passengers who are sitting down should gratefully receive luggage, handbags, and shopping bags to hold on their laps for those passengers who are standing up. Which is fair enough, although I can’t imagine that catching on anytime soon on the London tube.
But of course, Nicky being Nicky, instead of being presented with a shopping bag on one journey, she received a small child on her lap instead.
Strangely, and also slightly disturbingly, the bus conductors would often ask locals to give up their seats for western tourists. This happened to us on one occasion, but despite our protestations that there was no need, two local guys got up from their seat and shepherded us into them.
The bus journey itself would then be played out to the apparent road philosophy of “the only rules are that there are no rules”. Buses jostling for position at break-neck speed, horns blaring everywhere, tuk-tuks weaving in and out of the traffic – and the kind of over-taking I last witnessed watching the chariot race in “Ben-Hur”.
In fact, horn-blowing seemed to be an art form in itself. Even a distinct language between drivers. “I’m so close behind you that I’m about to obliterate the back of your tuk-tuk” warranted a particularly loud three-note ditty, while “I’m overtaking you on the wrong side of the road and on a blind bend, so do me a favour and slow down” was a more terse, single note affair. Which, when you’re standing up sardine-like in an aisle with thirty-odd other people, is a particularly scary thing.
At the other end of the scale are the “luxury” buses, which are kitted out like borderline executive coaches – not surprisingly they cost three or four times as much. But, when you want to get from A to B in the quickest time possible these are your wheels of choice, as we found when we caught the luxury bus from Matara to Colombo to catch our flight back to Kuala Lumpur.
Ah, those ubiquitous three-wheeler taxis that roam the streets of so many Asian cities and towns. And of course, outside every airport, train and bus station.
And in Sri Lanka, just as it is pretty much everywhere else, there’s the regulation haggling over price to go through before you actually set foot in one.
“How much to our guest house at such-and-such-a-place?”
“Well that’s 6km away up a really big hill, madam – and with it being holiday time we’re very busy – so I can do it for 600 rupees”.
Nicky’s haggling expertise, honed at various outposts in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, was more than a match for some of these entrepreneurs, though. “I think you’ll find it’s 2km away up a slight incline – and I’m not interested in whether it’s holiday time or not – I’ll give you 250 rupees”.
And so, after an initial rejection from the tuk-tuk driver, we’d start to walk away, only to be hailed back with a firm “Come – 250 rupees”.
Harsh, you might think as the guy is only trying to make a living out of what would have only been a £3 taxi ride. But by now we’ve taken so many tuk-tuk rides that we can generally tell the difference between the “going rate” and quite literally being “taken for a ride”.
The journey, of course, would then be an adventure in itself, particularly within the busier towns and cities, as we’d weave through the traffic, only narrowly avoiding other tuk-tuks like we were on a super-sized version of one of those bumper-car rides we used to enjoy at the fairground.
But without them, we simply couldn’t have got around with our backpacks, and they remain just as much part of our memories of Sri Lanka as the beautiful train rides and the chaotic bus journeys.
Indeed it became increasingly obvious to us as we travelled around Sri Lanka that the transportation system is in effect the lifeblood of the country, ferrying people to work, markets and temples for mere pennies. True, it’s hectic at times, and there’s an almost complete lack of regard for health and safety, but if you want to experience Sri Lanka as Sri Lankans do then don’t miss out on what could be one of the journeys of your lifetime!
…or visit our Sri Lanka page.
What did you think? Have you been to Sri Lanka? How did you get around? Or maybe you’re thinking of travelling there soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
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Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.
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