The tuk tuk idea was first joked about on an unbearable train ride to Kandy. Read more about why I didn’t like Kandy here. Over the next few days whilst we climbed Adams Peak the joke turned into a plausible plan and before we knew it we were questioning tuk tuk drivers for prices. By the time we’d got back to Colombo we knew everything we needed to know about renting a tuk tuk in Sri Lanka.
The Tuk Tuk Team and experience.
We’d met in a hostel in Mt Lavinia, Colombo. In total there were three of us. Marianne from Holland, Reece an Aussy and myself, Richard from England. Nor Marianne or Reece had experience on a manual motorbike let a lone a tuk tuk (there very similar to drive). I was the ‘most experienced’ having ridden a motorbike through Vietnam along with a few drunken attempts at tuk tuk’ing in India.
The plan was simple. To rent a tuk tuk for an entire month and complete a full circle of the country stopping off at the ‘must see spots’. We didn’t bother to plan a route as the most enjoyable aspect of having your own vehicle is the freedom it brings. The only real decision we made was to head north first.
Learning to Drive a tuk tuk.
Learning to drive a tuk tuk is extremely easy especially if you can ride a manual motorbike. What you do to change gear with your foot on a motorbike is done with your left hand in a tuk tuk. Your left hand also controls the clutch and your right hand does the acceleration. The only job your feet have is to break. We paid a driver in Colombo 200 rupees each to give us a crash course in tuk tuk driving. This lesson lasted no more than 20 minutes each but it’s really all we needed. Please do this at your own risk.
International Driving Permits.
The next mission was getting our international driving permits.
Learn how to get an international driving licence in Sri Lanka here. This allowed us to legally drive a tuk tuk in the country although it was never once asked for.
Getting a tuk tuk.
Arguably the most important step of the whole plan was actually getting a tuk tuk. We ended up making this a lot harder and more expensive than it should have been. Follow this link to find out about everything you need to know about when renting a tuk tuk in sri lanka.
Don’t make the same mistakes that we did.
Our approach was pretty awful. We were just testing the water by pulling over tuk tuk drivers and asking if we could rent their vehicles. Many of them where very amused by the idea, some wanted to chauffeur us for the entire month, but the majority just seemed confused by the concept. However, we did manage to get about 3 numbers from people willing to rent their tuk tuks to us for 25,000 Rupees a month.
We collected those numbers on a Monday and Vesak fell right in the middle of the week creating a 2 day holiday for pretty much everyone. This meant that we couldn’t really achieve anything official until the celebrations where over. The best thing to do in this situation is just go with the flow. We spent the two days enjoying Vesak in Sri Lanka which was an amazing experience. I got super lucky too as the Indian Visa Service – IVS was only shut for one day and was able to collect my Indian Visa in Colombo.
It wasn’t until Saturday that we’d finally managed to get everything ready before we could legally drive in Sri Lanka. Our biggest problem now was trying to get hold of the drivers who’d agreed to rent us their vehicles. We’d spent the entire morning trying to track them down with little to no luck and by the afternoon we’d became desperate. Amazingly we’d managed to find one of the original guys who’d agreed to rent to us for 30,000 Rupees just driving down the road. Unfortunate he’d had a change of heart and told us that 30,000 Rupees wasn’t enough to provide for his family. He said that 40,000 Rupees would be enough… so eager to get going we agreed.
The route we took.
The journey started on the 22/05/2014 from Colombo with Marianne behind the wheel. We didn’t have a system for who was driving at what point. Most of the time it was just who ever felt like it. The route we ended up taking is listed below. It seemed to be a rather organic way around Sri Lanka and I feel as though we got to see a great deal of it. Just before we arrived in Arugam Bay our electronic taxi meter stopped working. This was our only means of telling us our speed and total distance. It cut out around the 2000k/m mark so my guess was that out total trip distance was close to 3000k/m
- Mannar Island
- Arugam Bay
- Tissamaharama – Yala National Park
How often did we break down?
Despite our tuk tuk being in appalling condition we only ever had minor break downs. The most sever was on the last stint heading to Colombo from Galle where the breaks decided to stop working. We pulled into the nearest petrol station where a mechanic tightened up a few bolts and we were off. The other problem we kept having was that as our petrol gauge didn’t work we’d often run out of fuel mid journey. This wasn’t a problem as we always carried a spare litre of fuel, however, it would cause the fuel to stop following into the engine. Again a very minor problem and once we’d worked out the remedy it was easily fixed. Disconnecting the fuel pipe, let some fuel run out and then reconnect. Simple.
Additional work done to the tuk tuk.
- A new key cut after it snapped in the boot lock – 200 rupees. This was the total cost of retreieving the other half of the key out of the lock barrel and re cutting it. They even re-cut the key on to a TVS key.
- It never had a horn so we got one - 400 rupees. Absolutely vital that you have a horn when driving in Sri Lanka. People don’t look for you they listen for you.
- The registration plate snapped off – 50 rupees to get it riveted back on. On the drive up to Jaffna the road was so bumpy it vibrated it off. A policeman watched this happen and just laughed about it.
- Tightening of all the clutch and breaks bled – 600 rupees. Marianne was finding it very difficult to change gears so we had this done. It made such a huge difference to the tuk tuk.
- Topping up the oil – 1400 Rupees. The old girl did tend to leak a bit of oil from time to time so we had to make sure we topped her up. Its 700 Rupees for 1 litre.
Costs of the Trip.
- Petrol – 15938 Rupees ($122USD)
- Break downs and repairs – 0
- Work done to the tuk tuk – 2450 Rupees ($18.80USD)
- Cost of renting the tuk tuk - 40,000 Rupees ($307USD) – We did pay far to much for our tuk tuk. Please click here to read how you should only pay around 25,000 Rupees for a month.
The overall trip including the tuk tuk cost us 58,388 Sri Lanka Rupees the equivalent of $448.8USD. Bearing in mind that we paid almost double for the tuk tuk this still works out to be a rather attractive $149.6 USD each. Although this isn’t the cheapest way to travel the country it is by far the most exciting.
Getting stopped by police.
The police will often run out in the road to stop you at various check points throughout Sri Lanka. More so in the north. What usually happens is they see that you’re a foreigner pull a shocked expression, laugh and then wave you on by. The only time we got our documents checked is when we decided to stop immediately after a check point for a coffee. Whilst we were sat around drinking a police man came over and asked to see our licences. I showed him my UK driving licences which seemed to cure his curiosity. He then asked to see the tuk tuk insurances and registration papers he approved as they were all in check. I went on to show him my Sri Lanka driving permit and he hadn’t got a clue what it was. He didn’t ask to see Marianne’ or Reece’ paper work and happily walked off back to his post.
Sri Lanka speed limits.
These change from place to place but there are sign posts. As a good rule of thumb stick to 40km/ph in towns and then 50 out side of town. We were told that the fine is 1000 rupees for speeding. Reece did once do a good 55k/m in a 40 k/m zone past a police man with a speed gun. We pulled over and as soon as they saw we were foreign just gestured for us to go.
- Drive with extreme caution – There doesn’t seem to be any order to the roads in most of Asia and Sri Lanka is no exception. Buses are the worst culprit and will frequently drive at break neck speeds on the wrong side of the road around blind corners.
- Enjoy it - At times it can be stressful and uncomfortable but you have to remember these are the times that you laugh about later over an ice cold Lion beer. Tuk tuking makes beer taste amazing.
- Take a extra bottle of fuel with you. At times you can go pretty far without finding a real fuel station in Sri Lanka. You’ll often come across small stalls selling bottles of fuel at higher prices but the problem there is you have no idea how old or how clean that fuel is. We only ran out once and within minutes a man on his motor bike was racing off to fetch us a fresh litre. The people are wonderful.
- Watch that extra bottle of fuel - Whilst we were out for a surf in Arugam Bay some one took it upon themselves to steel our extra bottle along with our road map.
- Mobile Phone Maps – Sri Lanka has unbelievable 3g coverage and it’s super cheap. You will get given a mobile phone sim card upon arrival at the airports. However if your phone doesn’t work on other networks you can always load maps on your hotel wifi before you set off. The GPS will still work. Try not to worry to much about this as its almost impossible to get lost in Sri lanka.
- Try not to get stuck in a place – Looking back I think we spent to much time in Trincomalee – a week in total. What we should have done is moved on and then came back once we’d returned the tuk tuk. However, I am a big advocate of taking a holiday within your travels. Its good to relax especially in such a beautiful place.
- Wild elephants crossing roads - This is something you actually have to watch out for in Sri Lanka!