Learning to Drive in Sri Lanka

As the Sri Lankan Airlines flight descended into Colombo I could see green lands punctured by dirt roads beneath us. The thought, “we’re not in Kansas anymore , Toto” crossed my mind.

A short sharp blast of the horn caught my attention on the drive from the airport to hotel, as the driver was weaving through traffic; no, not quite weaving as the car was pottering forward metre by metre along the dirt road. There seemed to be no rules to this dance we took part in as horns blared, lights flashed and every inch of the road was utilised; in some cases two lanes became three or four. 
I buried my head in my phone, seeing the pot holes – soon to be paved over by a new highway -and knowing we were going over them made me feel a little bit car sick as I bumped around the back seat.

Something bright passed my window, way too close for comfort, as I glanced up and a scarlet tuktuk was pottering beside us, a string of fresh white flowers swaying from the rear-vision mirror. A little girls hand waved from the tiny back door, her face obscured; I waved back to the still flapping hand.

Contrasting with the dust and the dirt was the green, glorious fields that seemed to continue almost until the city. Bamboo, palms, rice and king coconuts – I got lost in the sea of shades of green. Another short blast of the horn and we had passed them by.

Soon buildings began to rise as we ventured further into the city centre. Dozens of tiny stores packed side-by-side, the overwhelming scrawl of Sinhala – the local language – adorning each store, and people gazing curiously through the window of the car.
 There were beggars at a stop light, one of the few traffic lights I had seen, as one tap tapped at the passenger side window with the foot of his crutch to get the drivers attention; he ignored him. The car behind let out a short beep and just like that we moved on.

As darkness began to fall high beam lights were a must. Each driver seemed to know the secret – from me – the language of safe driving at night. There were beeps and flashes. I tried to work out the pattern.
It seemed that three beeps were for a car overtaking from behind, one to signify your presence and two to signify your intention to overtake. High beams flashed to indicate presence when a honk wouldn’t suffice. With one final honk, we turned into the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel, my first experience of warm Sri Lankan hospitality as I was greeted with juice and a cool towel that was much appreciated after my flight. Just like that my first foray into driving in Sri Lanka was quickly over, but there were more lessons to be learnt the next day.

Alongside the shops and cafes are buildings from a bygone Colonial era. Standing proudly on the corner, the Portuguese inspired buildings creators would be proud of the changes to the port-side city as across the road sits a steadily growing dockyard. I tried to cross the street – a tuk-tuk appeared blaring its horn at me as if saying “WATCH OUT!” and I stepped back onto the dirt curb waiting for another person to step into the traffic to act as a guide.


From the city streets to the fields where safaris took place, the road rules didn’t change. Thankfully, elephants roamed free in Kaudulla National Park so horns weren’t sounded but the drivers seemed intent on taking the road that was, well let’s say it was the more adventurous trail. Getting bogged in the mud and one car getting a little too close to the elephants that they were charged after feeling that their young may be threatened, the drivers zoomed over the bumpy landscape; even some of the most adventurous among us choosing to remain seated, a little nervous of standing up in the fast moving, bumpy jeep.

This photographic safari was our first Cinnamon Experience, and the trip gave me a new appreciation for the vast land and creatures that inhabit this marvellous country that I will barely get to scratch the surface of over the next week.
Of a herd of 800, we saw around 200 elephants that day as they picked, cleaned and ate their food while the babies bumped, trumpeted and played in the mud.

The jeeps jostled for the perfect photographic position, inching closer and closer, even if it meant driving through the great patches of water – the drivers seemed to enjoy the challenge. Our guide left no question unanswered, something I was grateful for as I constantly pressed him to repeat information – multi-tasking is not a strong suit of mine and my brain was solely on enjoying the sight of these giant, humble creatures.
The hour disappeared quickly and we needed to head back to Chaaya Village Habarana – Cinnamon Hotel & Resorts cool, boutique four-star sister property – all too soon.
After the jostling journey it was a welcome relief to enjoy a quick swim in the huge pond-like pool, try a sample of each Sri Lankan curry on offer at the buffet dinner and then relax in our comfortable bungalow twin room I shared with Becki for the trip.

During the night, I headed out onto the street in search of a sweet treat and the hotels staffs guided me, even offering to send someone with me should I wish to be guided. As I walked along the dirt pavements buses whizzed by, a short blast of the horn signalling they were stopping as people jumped from the bus before it roared to life again and raced off down the street.
The local people were friendly and curious, directing me to an English speaker if they couldn’t help or greeting me with “Aayubowan“, their hands pressed together in a prayer position; I returned the greeting each time. One young girl raced out of the shop and brushed her dark skinned hand over my right forearm as I walked by; she giggled and I smiled.
I was offered a ride back to the hotel in a tuk-tuk, but I turned down the request preferring to walk after the long days on public transportation. My first tuk-tuk ride could wait as my feet guided me home. I was ready to enjoy a deep sleep amongst the fluffy pillows left on my bed.


We still have two days left of tuk-tuks, trains, highways and adventure, but there are other ways to experience these lands if horns and bumps aren’t quite your thing. While our journeys overland have been long, as the new highway system is still being developed, Cinnamon Air would be my preferred way to travel across this land with daily scheduled flights from most of the countries major cities.
Up in the air I wouldn’t need to worry about the blaring horns, the jeeps ups and downs or learning a new set of road rules because it’d be just me and the green landscape that stretches across the entirety of the country and the sound of the Cessna prop planes propeller whirling into life. Maybe, with my journey time halved, I would have had more time to enjoy my Cinnamon Experience and enjoy the sight of the herd of elephants roaming wild.

Now it’s over to you

What country have you visited that has road rules
that you’ve had trouble understanding?

Would you like to see elephants in the wild?

Have you visited Sri Lanka?

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I visited Sri Lanka for TBC Asia (Travel Bloggers Conference Asia).
Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts are a sponsor of the event.
This post is an entry into a competition being held.

All thoughts and opinions are, as always, my own.

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  • Reply
    November 17, 2014 at 8:44 am

    That is awesome! I am super jealous. What a very well written post! It totally transformed me as if I was there.

  • Reply
    November 17, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    Oh I am jealous (in a perfectly pleasant way, that is…). I would love to go to Sri Lanka, next on the bucket list…I made my first trip to India this year and loved it! Our driver told us the only rule to understand driving in India was “there are no rules…” It was crazy and so much fun – now driving in Italy; there is a story for another time…

  • Reply
    November 18, 2014 at 1:28 am

    Sounds like you were on a roller coaster that transformed into paradise.

  • Reply
    November 21, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    AMAZING! 🙂 Your posts are so inspiring. Totally Jelly of your adventures.
    I havent actually done the driving thing too much in other countries, so no real issues understanding the rules.
    Yes, all the yes to seeing elephants in the wild. I love elephants.
    And I’ve never been to Sri Lanka, but its on the list.

  • Reply
    December 2, 2014 at 9:17 pm

    This looks like a fantastic adventure. I got a little too close to an elephant in Tanzania – it came into our safari camp to eat leaves on a particular tree. I haven’t been to Sri Lanka but definitely want to do so.


  • Reply
    December 5, 2014 at 5:36 am

    I’m from Sri Lanka and the only place where I’ve seen driving worse that Sri Lanka is in India. However a Tuk Tuk is probably not the most safest option for a tourist, especially one who’s not use the complexities of driving in Sri Lanka.

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