I really can’t stress this enough: when it comes to Sri Lankan transportation, you can’t rely on Internet information. I’m telling you this as I fester in a broken plastic chair at Pettah Bus Station, swatting away flies like an irritable cow. According to “the Internet,” there is a Kalpitiya-bound bus leaving from here once an hour.
This, of course, is a lie. Armed with this misinformation, I assume I can arrive at the bus station whenever I please and have less than an hour to wait before I’m on my way.
“Kalpitiya? No, there’s no bus to Kalpitiya.” The tiny man in greasy overalls is all smiles as he juggles a pile of wrenches from one gnarled hand to another.
Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic…
“…not until 11:00.”
An interested group of men appears in front of us, as an interested group of men always does when one is discussing how to get from Point A to Point B.
“11:00,” the youngest in the group agrees. “This bus right here.” He points to the shiny blue hulk in front of us with the flashy prismatic paint job.
More men join the discussion. One points further down the platform. “That way.” He’s the only one not smiling.
The rest of the group erupts in chatter, contradicting No Smile in Sinhalese I don’t understand. I take a seat on a filthy plastic chair and try not to be pissed that I got up at 6am for nothing. I’m stewing about missing out on an afternoon of lounging by the pool at my lagoon-front hotel.
After a few minutes, the youngest member of the group approaches and indicates that I actually should follow No Smile’s directions and head further down the platform. Apparently they’ve been arguing about it this whole time.
In the distance, I see a grimy yellow sign written in an alphabet I can’t decipher, with one word I do understand: Kalpitiya.
The bus driver at Bay #7 smiles as I approach. “Where are you going?”
The smile fades. “Sorry, madam. There is no bus to Kalpitiya.”
“Not until 11:00, I know.”
He nods gravely. “Not until 11:00.”
“That’s OK, I’ll wait.”
This is, apparently, an unheard of proposition. It’s just past 8:30. He calls over another driver to help talk some sense into me.
“You can take this bus to Puttalam,” New Driver explains. He’s gesticulating as wildly as a man in a loud suit, hawking plastic crap in an infomercial. “Have the driver drop you off by the church before you get to the roundabout, then you can walk to the other bus station and take a different bus to Kalpitiya!” (What could possibly go wrong?)
I’m definitely not doing that.
“But the 11:00 bus goes directly to Kalpitiya? No changes?”
He reluctantly admits that it does.
“Ok, I’m going to wait for that one.”
He looks at me incredulously and shrugs at First Driver. ‘She’s clearly an idiot; I can’t help you,’ that shrug says.
I should note that only the red buses in Sri Lanka are government owned. They are generally considered to be ratty and inferior, and they pick up in a different place than privately owned buses. These are generally considered much nicer; some even have Wi-Fi. But because they’re privately owned, there is competition, and individual drivers will try to convince you to change your travel plans, even if it isn’t convenient for you. Stick to your guns unless you’re a lot more adventurous than I am.
Other things to know about taking the bus in Sri Lanka:
- Unlike the train, you don’t need to buy a ticket in advance. Just get on; an employee will come around and sell you a ticket at some point after the bus departs.
- Bus rides are ridiculously cheap; my 4.5 hour trip to Kalpitiya cost 198 rupees, which is a little over a dollar.
- That cheap bus ticket came complete with 4.5 hours of Bollywood’s latest and greatest on the TV mounted above the driver’s head. Bring earplugs or headphones unless you hate yourself.
- The “official” bus route might show few or no stops, but don’t kid yourself. They’re stopping at every bus stop they see and cramming on as many passengers as they can shove in. You won’t have that seat to yourself for very long.
- Eating and drinking is fine on the bus; if you forgot to pack your own snacks, don’t worry. Vendors hawking drinks and food will randomly hop on and wander down the aisle. You can get a bottle of cold water for 50 rupees, awesome fried snacks, and maybe a large bag of coconuts.
- Bus schedules for government owned red buses can be found on the National Transport Commission website here, but you’re still better off just asking someone.
In the end, I get to Kalpitiya mid-afternoon, in plenty of time to get in some pool-lounging time. Well, it would be plenty of time, except I immediately get sick with some kind of rare Dengue Fever-like virus and do nothing all afternoon except lie in the dark and pray for death. What else did you expect?
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