Sri Lanka by Tuktuk: Everything You Need to Know
I spent much of August self-driving a tuktuk around Sri Lanka. It was by far the best, most flexible way to explore this spectacular country and I know I’ll be shouting from the rooftops about the adventure for years to come. Here’s everything you need to know!
But Beth, I didn’t even know you could hire a tuktuk?! Me neither, my friends! I stumbled upon the idea by total accident as I was researching public transport and route options. It sounded like a crazy adventure so naturally, I became set on it.
How to Rent a Tuktuk in Sri Lanka
I rented my Tuktuk through Tuktuk Rental. The experience from beginning to end was absolutely faultless and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Firstly, Tuktuk Rental are an ethical company who hire out vehicles owned by local families rather than simply buying a fleet of their own. That means $10 a day of your rental cost funds a sustainable income and supports positive travel practices. Yay!
Secondly, they are a brilliant, organised and responsible company. Customer service and response times are great, as is on the road support and entire operation feels very slick.
Essentially, you get the best of both worlds: funding sustainable travel whilst enjoying the ease of a professional company. They were far better than any of the campervan rental companies I’ve dealt with in Australia and New Zealand.
Tuktuk Rental made life really easy. From sorting the required documents to learning to drive, route advice and on the road support, it was an entirely stress free experience.
You’ll even get added to a WhatsApp group of tuktukers who are exploring Sri Lanka at the same time as you do you can share tips, ask questions and swap recommendations.
Sri Lanka by Tuktuk: Driving License and Requirements
To drive a tuktuk in Sri Lanka you will need an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) or a full license from your home country. You’ll also need a Sri Lankan driving license!
It sounds like a lot of administrative hassle but actually, I just filled out a form with our UK license details and emailed across a passport style photo to Tuktuk Rental and they took care of the rest.
My shiny Sri Lankan driving license was there waiting for me. It makes a great souvenir!
Learning to Drive
Sri Lanka drives on the left, so easy peasy for us Brits.
Tuktuks are manual hand-gear, three wheelers. If you know how to drive a manual motorbike or moped then you’ll have some advantage! I learnt to ride a moped in SE Asia but as it was an automatic, it wasn’t of much use aside from understanding how to hand accelerate.
If this all sounds terrifying to you, have no fear! Tuktuk Rental provided an incredibly comprehensive driving lesson on pick up. It was far more thorough than I ever expected and I immediately realised there was absolutely no way they were about to let anyone walk away with the keys unless they were confident in their ability. Phew!
It’s really not that difficult. The driving instructor was brilliant and patient and after a day or so off on our own, we both felt really competent. It soon became as second nature as riding a bike or driving a car!
Obviously if you’ve only ever driven an automatic you’ll have a little more to learn, but it’s definitely not complicated.
What about the Sri Lanka traffic?
People told me I was crazy and several scoffed or warned me to watch out for absolutely mental Sri Lankan roads. As such, I’d anticipated that it would all be a bit mad but figured that a combination of driving a car in London and a bike in Thailand, Vietnam and Bali would stand us in good stead.
I needn’t have worried! The roads were honestly absolutely fine. Even in Colombo, the capital city, it never felt particularly dangerous, just busy. Sure, there’s not much in the way of lane control but at points it’s so congested that everyone is too slow to really worry about anyway.
Outside of the city and towns, the roads were often virtually empty. We would pootle along quite happily with the cows for company!
Although a Tuktuk can go up to about 90 kmph, the law in Sri Lanka caps them at 40. Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating when the road is long and empty but through the towns you’d never be able to exceed that pace anyway.
The main thing to keep an eye out for is buses and large trucks because they’ve got no shame in overtaking or assuming right of way. They’re so heavy on their horns though that it’s easy to move over to the left.
In fact, everyone is really horn happy! There’s no road rage though; they’ll beep to tell you they’re there, beep to ask you to move, beep to overtake then beep to say thank you! Sometimes they’re just beeping to say hello or because there’s a horn symbol in front of them and they can’t just can’t not press it.
Everybody is far more patient than at home. There’s no anger if you stall or drive slowly; our gears once got jammed in the middle of a busy road and nobody batted an eyelid as we sat stationary!
The benefit of a tuktuk is that it’s small and able to weave. You can also park almost anywhere! Maybe I need one at home…
Cows, cops and the Elephant Corridor
Self-driving a tuktuk in Sri Lanka is a bit like a constant free safari. Cows in the road are commonplace and there are plenty of cheeky monkeys to stop and watch too! So many in fact that the novelty will actually wear off. One thing to genuinely keep an eye out for is elephants.
Yep, you can be cruising along only to find an elephant in the road. How amazing is this country?! There’s a road in the south called the B which is so notorious for it that it’s nicknamed the Elephant Corridor. Unfortunately it didn’t fit in our route and time constraints! Of course seeing a wild elephant on your journey would be incredible but do be mindful that these beautiful beasts are a helluva lot bigger than a Tuktuk…
There are traffic police at semi-regular intervals and I believe the intensity has stepped up since the April terrorist attacks. The majority of the time they didn’t bat an eyelid. We got stopped twice; once by someone in a military outfit trying to sell rally event tickets (weird) and once by the police. It turns out they just wanted to shake our hands and welcome us to the country! That’s Sri Lanka in a nutshell.
Other vehicles are excellent at flashing if there’s anything coming up in the road so you’ll almost never be caught by surprise by the police. Obviously I’m not telling you to speed. I’m just saying, you’ll likely have advanced warning. You’ll know you’re an honorary Sri Lankan driver when you start doing the flashing yourself!
The locals absolutely loved it. Some would stare, most would laugh, lots would wave and smile and cheer! Often we would get caught in a conversation in traffic with another Tuktuk, desperate to learn about our journey. Wave and smile back, Sri Lankan’s are the most heart-warning, welcoming people.
Bare in mind that seeing tourists, particularly whites females, driving around is not commonplace. I only had friendly reactions; definitely don’t mistake any staring or shock with rudeness!
Sri Lanka by Tuktuk: Taking the Ella Train
One thing I definitely didn’t want to miss out on was the iconic Nuwara Eliya to Ella train. Thankfully, Tuktuk Rental offer a service whereby a driver will come and meet you at one station and reunite you with your Tuktuk at the other end! We were even able to leave our big backpacks in the vehicle and just took our valuables.
Comfort and Luggage
Look, travelling by Tuktuk isn’t the cushiest ride of your life but it was significantly more comfortable than I had anticipated. Occasionally you get bounced around a bit by broken roads but at one point I even managed to have a two hour nap in the back!
The breeze from driving keeps you at a comfortable enough temperature, though you can expect a very sweaty back when you stop.
Tuktuk Rental provide a phone holder so that you can use it as a satnav and there’s a cigarette lighter that you can put a USB port and charging cable into. You can even rent a speaker from them or use your own portable one, but we never bothered.
It’s loud but not unbearably so and there’s plenty to look out at to keep you entertained. At points I read a book and even wrote blog posts on my phone in the passenger seat.
The luggage rack at the back is deceptively big. Two 55L backpacks and a daypack comfortably fitted into the Tuktuk. Others on the road had two adults and two children in one! Pack sensibly and opt for a backpack over a suitcase.
There are rain covers that you can drop down if it’s ever wet (hello Nuwara Eliya, you soggy, cold fiend). This was actually my only gripe: the way they attach in the back is really poor. I was often wrestling with them and being driven mad by the flapping about until I eventually constructed a sort of harness system using bag straps!
Security and what to do with your luggage when you’re parked
My main concern pre-rental was luggage safety. Realistically, it’s rarely an issue as you’ll drive from A to B and unload your bags at your accommodation. The only time you’d need to consider the security of your luggage is if you want to stop somewhere en route.
Having spent three weeks in Sri Lanka, my concern for theft diminished a lot. It just doesn’t seem rife at all. If you need to, you can take your valuables and just leave backpacks with clothes in the back of the Tuktuk, and even drop the rain covers so they’re hidden.
It’s also fine to ask a local fruit stall owner to keep an eye on your stuff (buy some fruit and give them a tip) and if you’re really worried, you could take a bike lock and attach the bags to the Tuktuk whilst you’re gone.
The cost of renting a tuktuk via Tuktuk Rental works out approximately at the below. For a truly accurate quote you’d of course need to go on their website and put your dates in!
- Rental cost: $14-29 per day depending on trip length
- License cost: $40 for Tuktuk Rental to arrange for you (double check your license type/that you meet requirements)
- Transfer for Ella train: $49
Our total petrol and oil spend was £38.37 over three weeks.
Pros & Cons
- Total flexibility
- Cheaper than a driver
- An adventure!
- Ability to stop spontaneously (like for cute monkeys playing on the side of the road)
- Can be slow
- Tuktuks can at times be frustrating (sticky gears, rubbish rain cover)
When I go back to Sri Lanka (not if!) I will absolutely hire a tuktuk again. It was an amazing way to travel and explore and allowed me to experience the country more like a local. My only regret is not making time for a longer trip! I’ll be sharing my route soon…
Tuktuk Rental Discount Code: