What is it like to drive in Sri Lanka?
We booked a ‘self drive rent a car’… I don’t think I had ever heard of that phrase before I started looking into driving in Sri Lanka. Driving to explore Sri Lanka is not uncommon, but almost all tourists book a car with a driver.
Now in some countries, I completely understand that. In most of India for example, I find the traffic much too hectic to drive in. But I had visited Sri Lanka twice before, I knew that the roads had gotten even better than they already were and outside of capital city Colombo I never found Sri Lankan traffic too crazy.
So, for our 30 day trip to Sri Lanka, we decided to go for a self drive rental car to explore Sri Lanka by car. It’s been an interesting trip and there are definitely both pros and cons to driving in Sri Lanka, which is why I wanted to share what I have learned about renting a car in Sri Lanka…
14 Things to Know About Driving in Sri Lanka
1. You Need a Special Permit to Drive in Sri Lanka
This is the most annoying thing about renting a car in Sri Lanka. Just having a drivers license, or even getting an international drivers license in your home country, is not enough. You need to get your non Sri Lankan license “verified” in Sri Lanka before you can drive.
If You Want to Drive in Sri Lanka You Have Two Options:
- Obtain a temporary driving permit at the Department of Motor Traffic
- Get your International Driving Permit endorsed by the Automobile Association of Sri Lanka (AA)
We went for the first option.
How to Get a Temporary Driving Permit in Sri Lanka
To get a temporary driving permit your driving license needs to be in English. Well, or you need to get a legal translation of your non-English driving license, but by that time you are better off going for option number 2, about which I will share some information later.
You’ll have to go to the Department of Motor Traffic to get your temporary driving permit and I would recommend getting there early. It shouldn’t take you more than an hour, but it can get quite busy and you will be sent to several counters. Thankfully everyone speaks English and will help you make sense of it all.
You can find the location of the Department of Motor Traffic here on Google Maps, together with the opening hours. You might find other locations if you search for the Department of Motor Traffic in Colombo, but the link above is the one you need.
Things to Bring to the Department of Motor Traffic
To get your Sri Lankan temporary driving permit you will need to bring the following to the Department of Motor Traffic:
- Your passport plus one hard copy
- A hard copy of your Sri Lankan visa
- Your driving license plus one hard copy
- 1000 Rupees (around US$ 6)
In the end, it’s all pretty straight forward. The people at the Department of Motor Traffic are very helpful and will tell you where to go and what they need from you. With the congested traffic in Colombo though, it will most likely take you half a day.
Now, with the obtained temporary driving permit you can go to any car rental agency and pick up a rental car.
Driving in Sri Lanka with an International Drivers License
This is the second option I mentioned above.
You can get an International Drivers License or International Driving Permit (IDP) in your home country. If your driving license isn’t in English this is the way to go. Check in your home country how to obtain an IDP, but it shouldn’t be difficult.
With the IDP you could go to the Automobile Association of Ceylon, located in Colombo, to get your driving permit endorsed. The cost for this is 4400 Rupees (around US$ 25). But, with an IDP most car rental agencies can also take care of this for you. So I would highly recommend letting the car rental agency do this! This way you could avoid having to drive in Colombo, with its crazy traffic (see below about driving in Colombo).
Another advantage of going down this route is that you will receive a driving permit that is valid for the duration of your IDP (normally 1 year) whereas the driving permit you get at the Department of Motor Traffic is only valid for the duration of your tourist visa (normally one month).
Note: in many other Asian countries they say you need an international driving permit but many people drive without it. For Sri Lanka I have seen websites suggesting the same but all the rental agencies we spoke to required the Sri Lankan driving permit. And, we were stopped by police more than once so I am very happy we could hand them the required documents.
2. In Sri Lanka They Drive on the Left
Sri Lanka is one of a surprising (or at least it was surprising to me) 76 countries and territories where they drive on the left.
When you aren’t used to driving on the left that in itself can feel a bit stressful at first. And this also means that if you rent a car in Sri Lanka your steering wheel will be on the right, which definitely takes some getting used to…
3. Traffic in Colombo is Intense
Intense or insane, whatever word you prefer 😉
Ok in all honesty, traffic in Colombo is nowhere near as bad as in some other Asian cities such as Jakarta, Hanoi, Mumbai or most cities in China….
That being said, if you are anything like me (and like most people I spoke to about driving in Sri Lanka, including Sri Lankans) you won’t love driving in congested Colombo.
It’s just very chaotic. Tuk-tuks, scooters, bicycles, cars, and trucks all share the same road and none of them seem to stick to a specific lane (for as far as it’s clear where the lanes are anyway) or use turn signals when you expect them to.
My recommendation is to avoid driving in Colombo altogether, but especially when you just arrive to the country. Many car rental agencies have offices in Negombo (the much less congested town close to the airport) or can, if you have your local driving permit, drop off the car at the airport. Go for one of those options! This way you can get used to driving in Sri Lanka in more relaxed conditions.
Outside of Colombo, traffic is really not that congested at all (we found many completely empty roads all over the country). That doesn’t mean however that there aren’t any crazy drivers or that you won’t find yourself in some confusing situations, but it’s nothing compared to driving in Colombo.
4. The Roads are Generally in Very Good Condition
They really are! I would go as far as to say that most roads are in better condition than many of the roads I drove on in California! (Sorry California, I was just shocked about how bad some of your roads are).
All main roads are tarmacked, generally with perfect markings and they are mostly very well maintained. The only downside we found is that, although in good condition, many roads that allow two-way traffic really are too narrow for two cars to pass each other, let alone a car and a bus! Sri Lankan drivers seem to think differently though… They would just pass us at full speed, while barely even moving to the far edge of the road, meaning we would be the one driving halfway into the bushes to avoid what we say as a near-collision.
5. Sri Lanka Charges Toll on Highways (Expressways)
Since 2011 Sri Lanka has highways, or expressways as they call them, where they charge tolls.
These roads are great! They are near empty most of the time, well maintained and you can drive 80-110 km/hour. There are toll booths at the entrances and exits of the expressways where you can pay in cash. We paid 200 or 300 Rupees (around US$ 1.10 to US$ 1.70) for about a 20 to 30 minute drive on the expressway.
You can find the expressways on Google Maps as E-roads.
6. People Honk to Let You Know They Are There
This took us a few days to get used to when we started driving in Sri Lanka. I don’t know about you, but when someone honks at me I think I am doing something wrong. That is not necessarily the case in Sri Lanka.
Whether it’s a tuk-tuk driver, a van or a bus, they all honk a lot more frequently than I do and seem to largely do so just to make you aware of their presence. And actually, this habit is quite useful. We learned to appreciate drivers letting us know they were behind us and getting ready to overtake us.
And, we adopted the habit. Since especially tuk-tuks just seem to move in whatever direction they want, whenever they feel like it, honking at them to let them know you will overtake them is the perfect way to make sure they know you are there.
Additionally, we honked in anger when oncoming traffic judged it completely appropriate to take over our lane to overtake a car, bus or truck right as we were ready to drive into them (and this happened ALL THE TIME). But for some reason Sri Lankan drivers seemed to find this a lot less “honk-worthy”…
7. Turn Signals & Brake Lights
Picture this: you are sharing the road with cars, scooters, tuk-tuks, tractors, buses, trucks, pedestrians and the occasional cow, goat or dog. All are moving at different speeds and seem to find it appropriate to break or turn in places you would never expect them to…
Now that is when turn signals and brake lights become very valuable!
I have to admit, most vehicles use their turn signals to let you know they are turning left or right. They sometimes use their turn signals to let you know they are going to overtake a vehicle (or a cow). But they only every so often use their turn signals to let you know they are (half) pulling over at some random spot you didn’t deem suitable to park.
Brake lights would come in handy here! Unfortunately, we have seen numerous buses and vans with brake lights that didn’t work. It really was what made us nearly crash into them on several occasions… each day.
8. Buses Stop Frequently And Often Without Warning
Buses stop frequently and not only at signposted bus stops. So please be aware of that! And they are the ones who most often have brake lights that don’t function or forget to use their turn signals.
Also, there are several buses to watch out for. You have the big, obvious ones you can’t mistake for anything but a bus, and then you have minivans that don’t necessarily look like buses but do stop almost as frequently and often without (enough) warning.
9. If They Feel You Drive Too Slow They Will Overtake You on the Left & Right
Because the roads are shared by so many different types of vehicles who all drive at different speeds, people want to overtake each other nonstop.
And if they feel you drive slower than they do, they won’t wait for a (what I would consider) safe time to pass you, no, they will pass you immediately, on whatever side of you seems easiest to them.
I lost track of the number of times we were overtaken by buses, who then stopped immediately in front of us to let out passengers…
It feels very chaotic at first, especially when a bus overtakes you on the right and a tuk-tuk overtakes you on the left, AT THE SAME TIME, on a narrow road, but you get used to it surprisingly quickly. And, the more used you get to driving in Sri Lanka, the better you will keep up with traffic and start being the one who overtakes.
Do be careful though. Sri Lankans seem to be very willing to risk their lives overtaking without having the slightest view of oncoming traffic. I wouldn’t recommend copying that behavior!
10. There Aren’t Enough Speed Limit Signs
There are speed limits in Sri Lanka and they are enforced. That being said, buses must be exempt or something because they seem to stick to speed limits the least!
Often we were confused about the speed limit because there aren’t that many signs (although you do see them somewhat regularly on main roads). Drivers generally seem to drive at the speed they feel comfortable with which, in general, isn’t all that fast.
When you start driving in Sri Lanka I would recommend sticking with a speed that you feel comfortable with, even if it’s well below the speed limit. Once you get more comfortable driving in Sri Lankan traffic you’ll start driving faster and have to keep an eye out for the signs to keep track of the speed limits.
11. There Are a Lot of Police
We got pulled over by the police twice.
Once by a police officer with a hand-held radar gun. And yes, we were speeding – did I not just mention there aren’t enough speed limit signs? Thankfully he seemed to find it so entertaining to see two tourists driving in Sri Lanka, that he, after laughing a lot and asking us some random questions about which sights we had seen so far, let us go without a ticket.
The second time we got pulled over it seemed to be for a random check. But again the officer looked so surprised to see tourists driving that when we asked if he wanted to see our car papers he just smiled, said no and proceeded to chit-chat about Sri Lanka a bit.
The police, as most other Sri Lankans, seem very friendly and helpful. They largely appear to be standing alongside the road for random checks or speed checks. Occasionally you will see them directing traffic as well and most of them will smile when they see foreigners driving.
12. Google Maps Works… Most of the Time
There were a couple of instances where Google got confused giving us directions while driving in Sri Lanka, but in general, Google Maps worked pretty perfectly. Almost every single road, no matter how small, can be found on Google maps.
Of course, or unfortunately, Google Maps doesn’t tell you when roads are sandy, in bad condition or really narrow, so do keep that in mind when planning routes in more remote areas.
13. Dogs Don’t Understand Cars Can Kill Them
And neither do cows, goats, and some pedestrians.
But seriously, what’s wrong with Sri Lankan dogs?! They constantly cross the road right in front of cars or just sit and chill in the middle of the road… Cows do the same but at least they are bigger and easier to spot. Goats and sheep normally stick to the side of the road and so do pedestrians most of the time. Although some pedestrians seem to find crossing the road without looking a good way to keep life exciting…
14. Check if You Can Actually Reach Your Accommodation by Car
I know I mentioned before that the roads in Sri Lanka are in good condition. And they are. But, if you are anything like me you will use driving in Sri Lanka as an excuse to visit more remote parts of the country and look for more ‘off the beaten track’ accommodation.
Now that’s where I went wrong a couple of times… I found this cute homestay in Udawalawe and an incredible beach cabana in Komari. But, not for a second did I think to ask if we could actually get to these places with our tiny rental car… Both accommodations were located at the end of a long dirt road filled with potholes. Thankfully it hadn’t rained for a while so we made it to both places eventually, with the car still in one piece. But, I think things might have worked out differently if it had rained recently or if the road had gotten just a little bit worse.
So my advice: check where your accommodation is located and if it’s not on a main road just ask the property owners if you can get there by car. Very few tourists drive in Sri Lanka and therefore property owners don’t think to inform you about road conditions. And although in the end we reached every place we wanted to get to, there definitely are certain places that are better reached by tuk-tuk or 4-wheel drive.
Why Choose to Drive in Sri Lanka?
The main reason to drive in Sri Lanka is because of the freedom it gives you.
You are free to explore whatever part of Sri Lanka you want and stop wherever you want for however long you want.
I really enjoyed this freedom and feel we have seen a lot more of Sri Lanka in 30 days than we could have if we would have used public transport.
Of course the comforts of having a car to put all your luggage in, instead of having to drag it to the nearest bus or train station, is a nice bonus and makes your travels around Sri Lanka a lot more convenient.
Do I Recommend Driving in Sri Lanka?
Now this is a much more difficult question.
I consider myself a seasoned traveler and have seen much crazier traffic than I saw in Sri Lanka. Yet the first few days I had several near heart attacks and was convinced we wouldn’t make it 30 days without at least a couple of minor accidents.
But then we got used to Sri Lankan traffic and Sri Lankan drivers.
Outside of Colombo traffic really isn’t bad, the roads are in good condition and people don’t drive all that fast meaning that even if someone would hit you it’s less likely to do any serious damage.
So my answer is a “Yes, if…”. Yes, I recommend driving in Sri Lanka if you really appreciate the freedom to go where you want to go, whenever you want to, and the comfort of having your own car.
Sri Lanka’s public transport isn’t bad and tuk-tuks and taxis are cheap so you definitely don’t need a car in Sri Lanka. You can easily reach all major places by train or bus and then take a tuk-tuk or taxi from there to your hotel or the site you want to visit. And to get to the few places that are more difficult to reach by train or bus you can always hire a car with driver for the day.
If you do decide to rent a car in Sri Lanka, I would recommend renting a smaller car. Some streets are so narrow that a smaller car just makes it much easier to pass oncoming traffic. We were somewhat worried about whether our small car with its small engine would be able to deal with the steeper hills inland, but it was perfectly fine!
And, even with a rental car I would advise using tuk-tuks locally. City centers and town centers are more congested, beach towns often have very narrow roads, so just park your car at your hotel and enjoy exploring the surrounding area either on foot or by tuk-tuk.
Self Driving in Sri Lanka vs Renting a Car With Driver
The biggest difference between self-driving and renting a car with driver is, of course, the price.
Most travelers in Sri Lanka will only rent a car with driver for the day, to visit several sights conveniently or to get to a place that is harder to reach by public transport.
Maybe this is just me but I have always found it a bit strange to be driven around by someone else. Perhaps it’s the very visible colonial history in Sri Lanka and me coming from the Netherlands (one of the countries that controlled parts of Sri Lanka for some time), but it makes me feel uncomfortable.
At the same time, though, the drivers, if they speak English, are also a great source of information. I have learned a lot about Sri Lanka from both private drivers and tuk-tuk or taxi drivers.
And of course, renting a car with a driver is a lot less stressful than driving in Sri Lanka yourself. So, if you have the budget, don’t mind being driven around and you are looking for the most comfortable way to explore Sri Lanka, then renting a car with a driver is definitely the way to go.
Self Driving in Sri Lanka vs Public Transport
Like I said before, public transport in Sri Lanka isn’t bad. But of course it is a lot less convenient than driving. You’ll have to figure out which trains and buses to take, at what times, where they stop, etc.
Plus, trains in Sri Lanka go slow, train times are somewhat limited and train tickets do sell out. Buses are often packed which means you might end up standing for most of the journey.
Yet there are definitely things I love about public transport. Towards the end of our road trip in Sri Lanka we both agreed we had missed the interactions you have on trains and busses. It makes me feel part of local life more. In our car we were more stuck in our own (comfortable) bubble.
And obviously, public transport is more environmentally friendly. That is, if you don’t take too many polluting tuk-tuks to get from the train or bus stop to where you actually want to go…
I feel we were able to see more of Sri Lanka by car than we could have seen by public transport. Not because you can’t reach places by public transport though. It’s more because it would have taken us a lot more time and planning to see everything by public transport. And, we wouldn’t have been able to stop randomly when we saw something nice along the road.
Cost of Renting a Car and Driving in Sri Lanka
We paid around $12 per day for our small rental car, on a monthly rental plan. If you want to rent a car in Sri Lanka for a shorter period of time you will, of course, pay more per day.
Gas is cheap. We spent just under $100 in 30 days and drove every day, circumnavigating practically the entire island.
We used toll roads only a handful of times (do use them whenever you have the choice, they are great!) and the only other expense was the Sri Lankan driving permit.
One Final Tip For Driving in Sri Lanka
Make sure you have a working phone (get a local sim card) and your car rental agency’s contact details. If anything happens, phone them for help!
Enjoy Sri Lanka and if you do decide to drive, drive safe!
- 1 Month in Sri Lanka: Places to Visit & Places Not to Visit
- Tips for Driving Abroad for the First Time
- Interview With An Expat About Colombo, Sri Lanka
- Where to Stay in Bentota, Sri Lanka – Review of Centara Ceysands Resort & Spa
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The majority of the pictures in this article were taken by my travel partner and photographer Sean Webb