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A 30 day motorbike tour of Sri Lanka

Updated: Mar 7

Size doesn’t matter, right? Well, swapping my Kawasaki W800 for a 110cc scooter certainly hit my biker pride hard.


But as Sri Lanka limits two-wheeled engine size to just 250cc because of the quality of public roads, I didn’t feel like I was cheating on Saki too much.

Hello Wego 110cc

The Boyfriend and I encountered all types of surfaces on our road trip: the non-stick gravel terrain in most places outside of the cities, the water-filled-potholes (depth-unknown) sent to test your mettle and balance, national park paths where wild elephants roam, and rural mountain roads with a sickening number of hair pin turns.

But the greatest enemy of the biker is the local bus. A giant monstrosity of a vehicle driven by a reckless ego where right of way goes to the fast and the furious.

These blue beasts appear round corners in the middle of the lanes and will overtake anything slower (which is everything) regardless of safety or even making progress.


If you see one of these buses in the mirror, move over as far as possible and take your chances with the kerb.


Where to hire your wheels

Negombo offers the cheapest rentals of any town we visited. Of course, this depends on how long you are planning on hiring the bikes for and your negotiation skills.


We rented from Shane Tours in Negombo for 1000 rupees per bike per day (£4.25) for 30 days (extensions easily available).


Laws & regulations

You need an International Driving Permit (IDP) to rent a scooter in Sri Lanka legally and to keep your travel insurance valid. You can find places that will rent you bikes without this document but this will invalidate any cover you have.


If you left the UK without getting the IDP, then it is a very easy process to get a temporary driving permit in Colombo (full instruction here).


You must wear a helmet or face a fine.


Carry your licence and permit with you at all times.


There aren’t any speed cameras but there are a LOT of cops everywhere.


If you do get stopped by the police, you can often sweet talk your way out of a fine as they are generally more interested in you as a foreigner.

We avoided spot fines at least 4 times from the police: read about our first encounter here.


Route options

This itinerary is a redacted route based on the 6 weeks we spent scootering around the island where we covered 1364 miles (2195km).


It includes many of the key touristy places, incredible mountain roads, a forest reserve, two safaris, a National Park ride and ends with a few days on the beaches to relax after all the bumps you will have encountered.


It is a 30 day tour because that is the maximum UK allowance on the free visa-on-arrival. If you wish to extend your visa, you can do this simply in Colombo (full instructions: How to extend your Sri Lankan visa).


Driving hours

Given how close Sri Lanka is situated to the equator, there are almost exactly 12 hours of light each day, 6am-6pm.


It is perilous to ride after dark; the combination of nutters, evil buses, moody cows, stupid dogs, drunk cyclists and lurking potholes create deadly driving conditions.


As it reaches peak temperature between 10.30am-3pm each day, it's advisable to start at dawn to avoid burning to a crisp or getting sunstroke.


Driving speeds

Speed limit in town is 50kmph, outside it is 70kmph but do check signs.


However, the road quality and driving conditions can be pretty dire (don’t believe GoogleMaps) so a good rule of thumb is to think you’ll cover around 30km per hour on average (factoring in breaks).

Times given below will vary according to your skill, experience, comfort breaks and what level of speed freak you are.


What to pack
  • A good quality rain jacket which goes to your knees, with a hood.

Soaked through on the road to Jaffna
  • A paper map or download MapsMe if you don’t have internet on your phone.

  • One of those holders that attaches your phone/SatNav to the bike as it is unlikely to come with the bike. You can buy these cheaply from England and bring it with you. I use the Play Hard waterproof phone holder from Amazon which attaches to the arm of the wing mirror.

  • Snacks and water.

  • Local currency in small notes, nothing bigger than 1000r note if you can help it. Card is rarely accepted outside of cities.


Route planning

The routes are usually quite simple as there aren’t many options but if in doubt just use GoogleMaps or MapsMe for navigation (make sure to switch off motorways and tolls in the options).


Remember it’s illegal to use your phone while driving (not that anyone else seems to abide by that rule).


30 day biking itinerary

Day 1: Arrival - welcome to Sri Lanka!

Fly to Colombo International Airport and head to Negombo which is 5 miles (8km) away. You can go by tuk-tuk for around 1500-2000rupees, or use Uber like we did and the price is around 700rupees.


Recommended place to stay: 360 Beach Residence, £11 for a clean, double room with AC. You are at the quiet end of town with dozens of eateries to the north and dozens of scooter shops to the south.

Day 2 - Negombo

Organise your wheels in the morning and spend the rest of the day on the beach to reset your inner clock after a long flight. We used Shane Tours, see above for details.


Day 3: Negombo – Kalpitiya

Distance: 80 miles (129km)

Time: 6 hours

Length: 2 nights

Things to do: kitesurfing, water sports, dolphin watching


This will be the longest day of driving on the trip so aim to leave by 6am. Take the coastal A3 route north through Chilaw. Some nice driving through paddy fields, just watch out for the cow traffic.


Day 5: Kalpitiya – Wilpattu

Distance: 58 miles (93km)

Time: 3 hours

Length: 1-2 nights

Accommodation: Green Sapphire Guesthouse (£14 double room)

Things to do: Wilpattu National Park Safari


Leave Kalpitiya early and you can easily make it in time for an afternoon safari in Wilpattu (3pm-6pm).

Try and organise in advance with your host; alternatively, stay two days and do a morning/full day safari on the second day.


Day 6: Wilpattu – Anuradhapura

Distance: 22 miles (35km)

Time: 1.5 hours

Length: 1 night

Accommodation: Heaven Upon Rice Fields (£21 for double AC room with breakfast)

Things to do: cultural site tour


Leave Wilpattu early, then once you arrive, you can check in and head out to visit the key historical sites. Tickets are £19 (cash only).

You can cycle around to the places but it’s a long, hot ride and as you’ve already got two (motorised) wheels, consider using them.

Spend an extra day in Anuradhapura if you want but there’s not much more to do.


Day 7: Anuradhapura – Mannar Island (through Wilpattu National Park)

Distance: 78 miles (125km)

Time: 6 hours

Length: 2 nights

Things to do: visit the Donkey Sanctuary, Mannar Fort, Talaimannar Lighthouse, Adam’s Bridge, ancient baobab tree


This is NOT a drive for the feint hearted as it’s actually through Wilpattu National Park where wild elephants roam. It is legal (just) but the dirt track path is a bit tricky at times.

It is highly advised to arrive at the entrance after 9.30am as the morning elephant-traffic will likely have passed. I did see a sloth bear when we drove through here though!

Slideshow


Full instructions & travel details are here: A scooter Safari in Wilpattu National Park


Accommodation is limited on Mannar and only a few are registered on booking.com – if you’re interested in bird life, recommended is Palmyrah House who organise tours to see the flamingos (if they are around).


Day 9: Mannar Island – Jaffna

Distance: 85 miles (137km)

Time: 3.5 hours

Length: 3 nights

Accommodation: Yaarl Hostel (£5 per bed in mixed AC dorm)

Things to do: Visit Delft Island (average), fort, library, pretty parks, eat Jaffna speciality of curried crab


Very nice roads to Jaffna with petrol stations half way.


Day 12: Jaffna - Mullaitivu

Distance: 72 miles (116km)

Time: 6 hours

Length: 1 night

Things to do: Dark tourism – see the scars & memorials of the Civil War

Accommodation: Ocean Park Resort (Chalet AC rooms £30-£60); cheaper option: Sun and Sand (£22 AC double room with breakfast)


Today isn’t just for the ride and roads, it’s about seeing first-hand some of the remnants of the Civil War (1983-2009). Mullaitivu is the town in which the Tamil Tigers made their final stand against the Sri Lankan army.

On the way to Mullaitivu, you will stop at 3 memorials (from the 'winning' Sri Lankan side); unsurprisingly, evidence from the ‘other’ side has been recently sanitised so it is no longer possible to see the LTTE swimming pool, the submarines or the water tower.


An extremely informative website to read before you go is dark-tourism.com, plus it gives you the exact coordinates of sites.


Day 13: Mullaitivu – Trincomalee

Distance: 76 miles (122km)

Time: 4.5 hours

Length: 2 nights

Accommodation: SNP Star Guesthouse (£13 double room with AC)

Things to do: visit Turtle Island (check the season), diving, beaches


This was a refreshing, coastal drive after the busy roads of the north. We passed little villages and trees filled with Malabar Pied Hornbills.


Make sure to fill up before you leave as there are no petrol stations, although you can sometimes find a little shop selling petrol from a canister.

A bit of a tricky road in the middle, small and bumpy, right next to a little river which is just waiting for you to fall into.


You’re now halfway through your trip so take a couple of days to relax and recuperate by the beach or in a swinging chair at Fernandos.


Day 15: Trincomalee – Habarana

Distance: 88 miles (141km)

Time: 2.5-3 hours

Length: 1 night

Accommodation: A4 Villa (£19 room with two double beds, AC, half board & a swimming pool)

Things to do: Afternoon safari in one of the National Parks

It is a pleasant green drive to Habarana along the A6. We saw a wild elephant on the side of the road so be careful as they often walk out.

There are 3 National Parks around Habarana: Hurulu Eco Park, Minniriya and Kaudulla.


When we visited Hurulu, The Boyfriend and I actually were quite disgusted with the behaviour of the jeeps and tourists there so be quite clear with your driver about your expectations. Perhaps the other parks had better manners towards the animals.


Read the full account here: 5 solutions to the shameful Sri Lankan safari culture


Alternatively, if safaris are not your thing, you could skip Habarana and go straight to Sigiriya (11 miles further on).


Day 16: Habarana – Sigiriya

Distance: 11 miles (18km)

Time: 30 mins

Length: 2 nights

Accommodation: Danara Homestay (£5.50 for double room & breakfast)

Things to do: Climb Pidurangala Temple Rock (sunset) and Sigiriya Rock (sunrise)


Two big rocks. One with the ruins of an old royal enclave at the top. You’ll probably need a night to recover after climbing Sigiriya Rock (aka Lion Rock) in the morning unless you’re a superhero, in which case head on after lunch to Wattegama.


Day 18: Sigiriya - Wattegama

Distance: 50 miles (80km)

Time: 3 hours

Length: 2 nights

Accommodation: Hotel Rahas Ella (£23 double AC room with breakfast)

Things to do: Hiking, glorious riding through paddy fields, tea plantations and forests


Depending on your schedule (and fitness), you can do one of two hikes: gentle and easy to Mini World’s End in Riverston or up Dawatagala Peak. You can’t do both in one day.

The rides to both are absolutely stunning – it’s hard to focus on the road when the scenery is so picturesque.

Allow extra time for photograph stops or waterfall swimming.


Full instructions for hiking routes here: Hiking in Knuckles Forest Reserve


Optional day: Wattegama – Kandy

Distance: 8.6 miles (14km)

Time: 30 mins

Length: 1 night

Things to do: Temple of the Tooth, Udawattakele Forest Park


Kandy is renowned for being the City of Kings but for me it was the City of Crows, the disappointing ‘highlight’ of the place being a visit to the Temple of the Tooth. This is an expensive hour spent in an ostentatious building not seeing the alleged tooth of Buddha.

There was an elaborate ceremony and this man rushed out of the inner sanctuary with something wrapped on a cushion.... was this the molar?

If you are not religious then this has no meaning and it’s probably better to stop in Kandy for lunch and head straight to lovely, temperate Nuwara Eliya, thus swapping a day in a big, dirty city for something nicer at the end, like a beach!


Day 20: Wattagamma - Nuwara Eliya / Ella

Distance: 56 miles (90km)

Time: 5 hours

Length: 2 nights

Accommodation: Luxe Villas (£80 whole villa with breakfast and very English feel)

Things to do: Ye Olde England, Lake Gregory, Horton Plains; day trip to Ella (hiking)


It’s chilly in Nuwara Eliya compared to the rest of the country as it’s so high – if you’ve not brought anything warm, then you can buy something from the stalls on the roads.


After arriving, visit the town and enjoy Little England in the afternoon and evening. The following morning, leave the scooter and take a train to Ella for the day – this is one of the most scenic train journeys in Sri Lanka (try and sit on the right hand side of the carriage for the most spectacular views).


In Ella, walk into the little town strip for a bite to eat, then head up Little Adam’s Peak.

You can also visit the 9 Arch Bridge if you’re into architecture or you want an original Instagram picture of you on a railway track.


Head back to Nuwara Eliya in the evening (sit on the left hand side for the return journey).


Day 22: Nuwara Eliya - Hatton

Distance: 24 miles (39km)

Time: 1 hour

Length: 1-2 nights

Accommodation: Tea Queen’s Bungalow (£25 double room)

Things to do: Hiking Adam’s Peak, relax in nature


This is a fun, twisty road to Hatton - make sure to stop at the two waterfalls on the way there: St Claire's Falls and Devon Falls. You can have a tea break at St Claire's and an ice lolly at Devon!

Adam’s Peak is a pilgrimage site for Christians, Jews and Hindus who all claim it to be of religious significance to them. It is a very crowded walk up 5000 steps to what, I’m told, is a marvellous view.


Many people go for the sunrise walk, leaving at around 3am… not for us!


We just enjoyed the peace of the countryside at the guesthouse – you can take some lovely walks through the tea fields there and watch the sunset.


Day 24: Hatton - Balangoda

Distance: 41 miles (66km)

Time: 4 hours

Length: 1 night

Accommodation: Umaya Rest Inn (£8 basic double room)

Things to do: Nothing! Rest stop only.


Route: Leave Hatton and go through Dickoya, pass close to Castlereagh Reservoir, through Norwood and Campion – choice to go through Pinnawala or go longer route via Pahanthudawa Waterfall.


This is one of the most splendid, challenging rides of the whole trip. Even though it’s only 66km, it is one tight mountain turn after another, so sheer delight and sheer drops off the edge if you don’t concentrate.

Balangoda is just a midway point. The road surface was well-maintained so if you had a good bike and an indifferent backside, you could continue straight on to Deniyaya but that would be a really long, tiring journey and definitely not for an inexperienced rider.


Day 25: Balangoda – Sinharaja Forest (Deniyaya)

Distance: 65 miles (105km) on the A4 & A18 (through Kahawatta)

Time: 4-5 hours

Length: 1 night

Accommodation: Deniyaya Guesthouse (£10 double room with breakfast)

Things to do: forest trek, waterfall walk


Another fun day of riding through beautiful vistas of mountain roads and tea plantations, ending at a nice little guesthouse by some paddy fields. From here, you can organise a forest trek into Sinharaja which is a primeval piece of nature with incredible endemic species of mammals, reptiles, birds and flora.


Just don’t do An Illegal Night Trek like we did…


If you like, instead of coming straight to Sinharaja, you can stop at Udawalawe National Park for a night, do a safari and then head to Deniyaya the following day.


Day 26: Sinharaja – Bentota

Distance: 68 miles (109km)

Time: 4.5 hours

Length: 3 nights

Accommodation: Bentota Home Stay (£18 double room with AC and breakfast)

Things to do: beach, water safari, day trip to Galle (35 miles south along the A2 coastal road)


For your penultimate stretch of riding through the forest reserve, you are rewarded with lovely, quiet, relaxed Bentota beach. Idyllic Sri Lankan waters with few tourists, beautiful sunsets and a very photographic train station.

You can take a water safari which is great fun through the mangroves – your guesthouse can organise for you or you can drive to the boats yourself and negotiate there.


Day 29: Bentota – Colombo/Negombo

Distance: 49 miles (79km) to Colombo or 72 miles (116km) to Negombo

Time: 2-4 hours

Length: 1-2 nights, depending on your flight

Accommodation: Island Hostels are surprisingly great for a hostel option – friendly staff and other tourists

Things to do: city sightseeing in Colombo or relaxing on Negombo beach


Peak traffic time in Colombo is 6am-10am. This is the most dramatic of south Asian driving you will experience but as long as you are steady, check your mirrors every few seconds, don’t blink and use your horn instead of breathing, you’ll be just fine.


Day 30: Depart beautiful Ceylon

Safe travels home.


Next post (The Hunter and the Thrush)

Previous post (Culture shock: welcome to Sri Lanka)

· a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single gear change ·

About Kelly

Kelly lives by the philosophy of:

'You're more likely to regret the things you didn't do than the things you did do'.

Which is a good way to giggle about the ridiculous situations she often finds herself in...

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© 2019 by Kelly

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