Driving in Sri Lanka – What to Expect as a Tourist

When I visited Sri Lanka, I knew immediately that I wanted to drive myself vs. taking the public transport route.  I didn’t want to go to the same places that everyone else visits and wanted to have my own experience. I wanted to see all the unique and different aspects of Sri Lanka vs. seeing the same thing everyone else sees from the passenger car of a train. 

Driving in Sri Lanka is nerve wracking.  It’s tough if you’re like me and used to driving on the other side of the road but it’s also tough to get used to the traffic, honking, and people.  However, it’s a great experience that will allow you to visit some out of the way areas and do that on your own terms. If you have the opportunity, I’d recommend trying to drive yourself vs. hiring a driver or going the train route.  

International Driving Permit 

The first thing you’re going to need is an international driving permit.  From the US, you can easily go to your local AAA office, fill out the form, and pay the $20 to get your international driver’s permit.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Once you’re in Sri Lanka, you’re going to need a driver’s permit from the Sri Lankan auto association.  You can get this done via the car rental company that you’re using or you can go to the auto club office yourself in Colombo. Since my flight landed at 4am, I had the car company take care of it for me so I didn’t have to go into town and wait for the office to open at 8am but that’s up to you.  

Sri Lanka Driving
Relatively wide road compared to others and even this one is barely wide enough for one car.

Remember that an international driving permit doesn’t give you a full driver’s license for that country.  It only offers a translation of your driver’s license into different languages. That doesn’t really help much since it doesn’t translate it into Tamil.  But most people have some knowledge of English.  

So know that driving in Sri Lanka is on the left.  If you’re anything like me, that takes some getting used to.  The other issue is that the roads are incredibly narrow in many spots (where you’d think there’s only space for one car but in reality, it’s meant for two) and you’ll have to navigate those streets in all kinds of conditions.  

If you’re pulled over, you’ll need to understand that you’ll need to pay your fine at the local post office, and then go back and get your license from the officer and show proof of payment.  I’m not sure what all the traffic violations are, but I was very lucky since I wasn’t actually ticketed for the two times I was pulled over. Now to be honest, I still don’t know what I did wrong the first time and I honestly didn’t know what the officer was trying to tell me.  I didn’t have a Google translate from English to Tamil so I didn’t know what was going on.  

I will say that the officers were really nice and tried to explain what I did wrong.  I was willing to pay the fine as well since I assume I was in the wrong but unfortunately, there was too much of a language barrier for us to understand each other.  I just couldn’t figure out how it worked. It wasn’t until I asked some hotel staff how the fines worked that I fully understood. Maybe it was just me but I’ll say that as long as you’re not a full jackass and you give an honest answer to understand and comply with what’s going on, they’ll probably let you leave without much trouble.  I imagine that a tourist isn’t worth the trouble of ticketing a tourist.  

Car Rental 

I went to Cason’s car rental but you can go with whatever company you want.  However, I would suggest a few things for your rental. 

First, I would suggest you rent an automatic car if you’re not familiar with a stick or if you’re not comfortable driving stick on the opposite side.  Although I can drive a manual, I’d never driven one with in a right side drive vehicle. I’m glad I didn’t try it since there’s just too much to think about as is.  

Also, check the mileage allowance for each rental company.  If you’re going to drive all over the island, you’ll want to make sure you have a large mileage allowance.  During my 12 days there, I drove close to 1200 kms (about 745 miles). It actually turned out to be perfect for me since I had a 100km a day allowance and each kilometer I went over, I would be charged a fee.   That said, some rental companies had a lower daily allowance (thus a cheaper quote) so that would have cost me quite a bit if I had gone with another company. 

You’ll also want to know where you’re expected to pick up and drop off the vehicle.  I don’t believe there is a rental lot like we have in the US at many airports so depending on the company, you may be asked to go into the city to pick up your car.  Cason’s did bring the car to the airport but told me not to return it (saying they would contact me the day before to tell me where to drop off the vehicle). They never contacted me and so I ended up just calling them to tell them I was already at the airport when I had to drop it off.   I can’t say it was a very professional or pleasing experience especially when I’m trying to catch a flight.  

Finally, I don’t know if this is indicative of all rental companies or just Cason’s but when I got the vehicle, the tank was empty.  I mean the light was on and I wasn’t sure if it would make it to the nearest gas station empty. The rental guy came with me to tell me what kind of gas to put in and things like that but it seriously looked like someone had siphoned the gas out of the tank before they handed me the keys.  But, you also aren’t expected to return the car full of gas either.  

Hired Drivers

If you’d like the experience of going places on your own but without the hassle of driving, you can also hire a driver for the length of your stay in Sri Lanka (or any portion of your stay).  Hiring a driver is more expensive but it isn’t prohibitively more expensive so if you don’t want to drive, it’s a very doable option. Just know that you’ll need to provide some sort of stipend for meals and places to stay (both costs may be factored into the price depending on the company).  

A lot of hotels in Sri Lanka have “driver’s quarters” which are separate from the main hotel where you’ll be staying.  I don’t know how they work but I’m sure they’re just very basic rooms where the drivers have a place to stay. They’re usually really cheap to stay in and if the hotel doesn’t have a place for drivers, your driver will probably be able to find a place to stay.  The cost isn’t that much per night but if you’re going to use a driver for 10 days, that could add a good bit to the final bill.  

Google Maps

Google maps is going to be your best friend and worst enemy here.  Although it’s true that Google is sending you down roads, it doesn’t always look right and sometimes it’ll send you down an idiotic path to save half a mile on the journey when remaining on the main road would be faster and easier.  

To be fair, a lot of the roads in Sri Lanka are dirt paths or what you’d think are pedestrian only passages.  There’s also a good chance that many of the roads may not even have names. However, they are actual roads. You’ll just have to drive through on them and trust Google Maps. 

I will say, there will be times when it there might be a fork in the road that isn’t listed on Google maps.  In those cases, I’d recommend taking it slow and maybe even getting out and walking a bit to see which way Google really wants you to go.  You’ll want to make sure you make the right decision because if you go down the wrong path, you may not get an opportunity to turn the car around (meaning you’ll have to go down a narrow, winding road in reverse).  Trust me, that’s a mistake you make once and avoid at all costs later.  

You’ll probably have an option to get a GPS with the rental but I’m not sure how much better that’s going to be.  But, you can certainly get it if you feel more comfortable. I thought my phone was enough but it certainly took me down some stupid roads sometimes. 

What to Expect

You’re going to deal with all kinds of traffic.  Scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, tuk tuks, busses, tractors, and stray dogs are just some of the things you’ll have to navigate.  And everyone is either going to want to pass you or you’re going to want to pass them.  

Sri Lanka Driving
You never know what you’ll see on the road.

Basically the one thing you’re definitely going to want to avoid is the busses.  For as big as they are, they will absolutely mow down everything as they zoom down the street.  I actually liked driving behind the busses because everyone got out of the way (on both sides of the road) and they drive amazingly fast down the narrowest of roads.  Now if I had one behind me, I’d usually pull over and let the bus pass cuz they were just moving way too fast for me.  

You’re definitely going to pass other vehicles and experience other cars driving straight at you while they try to pass other vehicles.  To say it’s nerve wracking is an understatement since they will wait until the last possible second to move back to their own lane. I found it really difficult not to turn the wheel to the left to get out of the way as a knee jerk reaction.  Unfortunately, it also meant my left mirror took a beating at the beginning until I got used to it.

It’s actually really easy and very scenic when driving in the city and not near cities.  I found my heart rate usually went way up whenever I was passing through a city because there were more people, cars, and overall mayhem.  Cities were the toughest because people would cross the road wherever they wanted and even walk in the streets which made the roads narrower.  Whenever I had to leave, I would try to leave as early as possible because that would mean I could drive through the city with minimal traffic.  That didn’t help when arriving, but it was certainly easier to deal with.  

One thing that I was really unprepared for was the number of stray dogs that are in Sri Lanka and just how many of them will lie in the middle of the road expecting the cars to move around them. You’ll see so many strays it’s actually amazing there aren’t more dogs killed. There’ll be times when it’ll be all you can do to avoid hitting the dogs just running around or lying in the middle of the street.

Also know that if you’re driving at night, you’ll want to take it really slow.  A lot of the streets do not have street lights so it gets incredibly dark. When driving at night, you’ll also have a tougher time seeing all the potholes and bumps so taking it slow is going to be a necessity.  

Another thing I noticed is that most signs aren’t lit at night.  Basically, you’ll see signs that say “AA Hotel turn right in 300 meters” that you’ll see just fine during the day.  However, those signs aren’t lit up at night. Even hotels that are located on the main street but set in a bit and have entrances and clear hotel signs aren’t lit up at night.  It doesn’t really matter if you have GPS in that case since you won’t be able to see where to turn since you can’t see the sign and don’t know exactly where to turn.

If you’re going to be driving south (for example to Galle), pay and use the toll road.  It really isn’t a lot of money and I think I drove somewhere close to 170kms for about $6.50 USD total.  That’s a steal if you ask me. The toll roads are well paved, easy to drive, and have limited access so you won’t have to worry about people walking across or the tuk tuk just puttering along.  I thought it was great and if the whole country only had toll roads, I would’ve gladly paid to drive them every day. The amount of money you’ll save by not taking the toll road is lost when you consider the stress and extra time it’ll take to get somewhere.  Take the toll roads, you’ll thank me later.  

Sri Lanka Toll Road
Driving on the toll road in Sri Lanka. Not another car in sight!

Basic Road Rules

Use the horn and use it liberally.  It seemed like every time I got passed or I was passing someone, I had to honk to let them know I was passing.  To be honest, it’s kind of useful to have them honking when they pass since you know they’re there. It’s easy to blindly move into a lane without being fully aware of all the cars around you so honking really helps.  

When passing, really be mindful of where you are and aren’t allowed to pass.  There are a lot of winding roads (especially in the mountains) and you’ll see different lines on the road.  I think a double solid line means you can’t pass at all. But you’ll see a dash line and a solid line side by side as well.  I THINK that means you can pass if you’re on the dashed side of the line but you can’t pass if you’re on the solid side.  

Your best bet is to just wait until you feel comfortable enough to pass on a long piece of straight road.  It really didn’t feel safe or necessary to try and pass when I couldn’t see past the next bend but you’ll be amazed at how many will pass you at those times.  

Also, don’t expect to be pulled over by the police here.  I was stopped/pulled over twice and the first time, I don’t know what I did wrong or how they knew but I’m assuming it was done by radio to let them know I had done something wrong.  The second time, I knew I had screwed up since I was pulled over immediately but I tried to pass without looking at the street and by the time I noticed, it was too late.  

Final Thoughts

Driving in Sri Lanka may be a bit daunting but it’s certainly doable.  I’d recommend using a lot of common sense and just taking it nice and slow, especially in cities.  It is certainly a different experience than driving in the US where we’re used to wider streets and well paved roads but you’ll get to see parts of the country that most people will never see since they’ll be taking the same train to the same towns like everyone else. 

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