There are two simple but golden rules for self-driving (as a tourist) in Sri Lanka:
1. Count on the average speed of 30-40 km per hour
2. Download Google maps for offline use (on your mobile device)
Traffic in Sri Lanka is left-hand which, according to my man, is not a big deal. Apparently, a driver gets it pronto. The big deal is that the traffic is by no means segregated to that of vehicles, that of bicycles and that of pedestrians. Everybody, literally everybody, is on the same road: cars, bicycles, three-wheelers, buses, pedestrians, lorries, vans, motorcycles, dogs, cattle, school children. (In bigger towns there are, of course, pavements for pedestrians.)
Motorised traffic all over Sri Lanka is moving swiftly, drivers are manoeuvring ruthlessly their way through, especially the bus drivers who are quite presumptuous. The buses are many and massive, so what’s it to them, eh? Motorcycles, on the other hand, may carry whole families: grown-ups, babies, children, luggage, shopping bags.
The roads in Sri Lanka are not as bad as we anticipated but simply bad. Some places very bad, some places surprisingly good. Bad means there may be holes and the edges are quite high (which makes it hard to pull back). Roads off the main ones tend to be in a good condition but this is not a rule. Mostly, they’re very narrow but of course traffic runs in both ways. We witnessed many incredible situations of vehicles meeting on a two-metre road and we all got by without a scratch.
Everybody is overtaking all the time no matter how fast (or slow) the traffic, how thick, or what’s ahead. So, the choice of a powerful car is smart. Considering the overall condition of the roads (narrow) and the velocity of traffic, you can do with a regular car just fine (no need for a fast, large, spacious car) but according to my man it’s essential to have a car that’s reliable in terms of acceleration. Once you get a grip on the road, you want to overtake just like everybody else.
Nobody is hurting the dogs, thank goodness, so they’ve learned it’s not necessary for them to move off the road which means you have to circumnavigate them when they nap on the asphalt during the day. The dogs are many everywhere and practically harmless as much as we could tell. During the day they don’t seem to move much: typically you see them sleeping by or on the roads, though they seem to come to life once the sun sets and it cools down. Which is another aspect to consider: the night-time driving.
The night in Sri Lanka, similarly to that in any developing (or under-developed) country, is black. As black as soot. Once we experienced a drive in the night, we avoided it. As is the norm at the equator, the night falls quickly and relatively early. In the northern hemisphere, where we come from, we expect warm, sunny days to be longer simply because it is the way of the summer (daylight definitely lasts longer during warmer part of the year as opposed to really short winter days and long nights). Sri Lanka doesn’t lie at the equator but near enough, so around 6.30 p.m. it’s pitch-black.
The one time we experienced a night drive was when arriving to the Tea Country from the Cultural Triangle. The road got narrower by the metre, the number and angle of the curves increased, the daylight was vanishing fast, first the mist set in then it turned into the true dense fog and it was as dark as it gets. You see nothing apart from the road ahead of you and the eventual tree growing next to it. When we finally reached our destination, it seemed to have been situated in the middle of nowhere. Only the next morning we found there were many groups of little houses and cottages dotted around, some located only a few metres from the road, but practically invisible from the road in the night.
Don’t bother with old-school paper maps: not of any help at all. We burst into laughter many times during our driving around Sri Lanka when we remembered I specifically went to buy a paper map from our local bookstore beforehand just to make sure. The traffic suddenly and unexpectedly increases around populated areas and moves rapidly, so there won’t be time for decision making where to turn. The junctions are not as obvious as you’d expect.
Google maps are indispensible for they provide you with every path, not only street or road, so you can casually and carefreely decide to make a detour if you feel more adventurous. We did that many times because we like to take the minor roads: the traffic slows down once off the main roads and enjoying the surroundings is much easier.
Furthermore, the calculation of time needed given by Google maps is quite accurate. Since you can’t forecast what the traffic will really be like (especially through towns) do add a bit of time nevertheless (I’d recommend adding 20% on average – you’ll be very happy if you arrive to your destination sooner anyway.) Still, 30 to maximum 40 kilometres is what you will make in an hour – full stop. Accept it the minute you sit behind the wheel and you’ll be fine. You’re on holiday after all.
Long driving times seem shorter owing to the variety of countryside in Sri Lanka. The drives are never boring because the surroundings change frequently: there are rice fields, then the forests, the jungle, tea plantations, the ocean, the mountains.
Don’t rely too much on signposts as well. Not that there aren’t any or don’t come written in Latin alphabet (because they do – don’t believe the others scaring you that reading the signposts is impossible without Sinhalese alphabet knowledge), it’s simply very difficult to understand where exactly to turn and if the turn is actually to the destination you’re heading to (I, as a co-pilot, found the geographical names quite puzzling; they looked too familiar between themselves). The Western logic doesn’t work here.
Now that several months have passed since our astonishing trip to Sri Lanka, we think fondly of our attempt to self-drive through that wonderful land. We like to think we were welcomed with even greater glee because of it. You don’t see many foreigners around on their own. We only spotted one. In addition, maybe we were lucky but we saw not a single accident. It might seem like a reckless, crazy action going on on the roads of Sri Lanka but obviously everyone is careful enough in that logic of theirs.
There are no rent-a-car parking lots at the Colombo airport but they are located in the vicinity of the airport. Rent your car in advance through the web and company’s representative will seek you out (watch out for people holding a sign with your name written on it) at the airport and drive you to their offices. Upon your return home, the car is left at the rent-a-car office and they drive you to the airport.
Also, the International Drivers’ Permit is not mandatory. We arranged everything holding only a regular drivers’ licence issued in our home country. If you haven’t arranged for Sri Lanka Recognition Permit (which allows you to drive in the country and is issued by their ministry) prior to your arrival through the car hire company, the rent-a-car employees will see to it on the spot when you arrive. The only downside is you’ll “lose” a few hours time for bureaucracy. We found it quite amusing though to be directed from one administrator to the other (accompanied by a friendly and efficient rent-a-car man) but everyone was obviously doing their job and we got the papers without a problem.
Apropos Sinhalese script: not that I tried to figure it out (it is impossible even for a foreign language talent) but it’s confusing because you see elephants and monkeys in the letters/signs which is lovely and pretty and all but I mean, what can it mean?!