Take A Trip On A Sri Lankan Bus, They’re Far Out, Man
Sri Lanka truly is a cultural wonderland. Full of unique sights, sounds, tastes and sensations, the pearl of the Indian Ocean is a sensory marvel to behold. One of its most undiscussed yet stand-out features is its long-distance busses. Take A Trip On A Sri Lankan Bus
Owned and run by private owners, these small gangs of men often go to great lengths to customise their rides. The result typically resembles a highspeed disco driving at speed along the opposite side of the country’s roads.
If you have ever been to Sri Lanka and witnessed these drivers in action, you will understand how certifiably insane they can be.
So impressed was I that I spent three days in Colombos Long distance bus station to document these impressive vehicles and the men that drive them. So sit back, buckle up and Take A Trip On A Psychedelic Sri Lankan Bus. They’re Far Out, Man.
For those old enough to remember the 90s film Speed, featuring Keanu Reeves as a young cop attempting to save the passengers of a bus. Which, if its speed dropped below 50mph, would explode. Then, by picturing yourself a passenger on it, you’re halfway to understanding what it’s like to journey in a Sri Lankan long-distance route bus.
However, to build an encompassing picture, you need to throw in nightclubs worth of neon lighting, a temple worth of religious iconography, and the body odour of a large gang cooking for several hours in a metal container in temperatures over 35 sweltering degrees.
Oh, and don’t forget to include the speakers from that nightclub. And the soul-piercing soundtrack of obscure Sri Lankan artists. With instruments that miserably pierce the eardrum and pinch nerves to the base of the spinal cord.
A Wild Ride
Choosing to trip on one of these buses is as intense, colourful and sweaty as dropping LSD at Glastonbury Festival. Although, for those that like to inhale a little smoke while taking a psychedelic ride, there is no option to smoke cigarettes on board. However, there’s usually enough incense burning at the front to give you something to take back.
Or, if you are after something a little more potent to cocktail with, you could always ask the driver to share some of his Betel Nut with you. A natural stimulant taken from the seed of the Acera plant and chewed for the closest thing to cocaine a Sri Lankan salary can afford.
Not every bus on the road in Sri Lanka resembles that of a psytrance tent at Boom. However, for the ones that commit to customising their rides, the experience is as close to it as you will find here.
But most of these guys go all out. And how can you blame them? With shifts consisting of three days on and three days off and up to twelve hours a day in the seat, they are practically homes on wheels.
If you are from the West, you may ask yourself: “How do these drivers get away with making so many modifications to these vehicles?”. Or if you come from any country with state-run public transport, this is a reasonable question. However, in Sri Lanka, not all buses are run publicly.
Though, there are the red state-run busses which operate in small areas such as in and around the countries population hubs. It is the job of private contractors to connect the major towns and cities across the country.
These contractors must secure their routes by winning government tenders that are released on a bi-annual basis. A sneaky way for the government to outsource its responsibilities of building stable infrastructure to its shaky economy. Although, it does still maintain control over things like timetables, prices and safety regulations. But, after one tourist reported her bus losing a wheel and veering off into a field at top speed, I imagine they are enforced as loosely as that tyre.
This combination of private ownership and loose regulations means the owners are given free rein over how they decorate and run their vessels. Which is why most end up looking like psychedelic disco temples. A perplexing dichotomy of contrasting values, to say the least.
Because no matter how much religious symbology you pack a bus with it is hardly going to win any favour from the gods when you’re overtaking blind on corners at over 80kph. Nevertheless, I cant questions these mens faith…
But, regardless of the danger a windshield full of glowing tassels and eye-watering smoke may entail, one cannot deny how bloody cool these things look. So cool I decided to spend 3 nights at the long-distance bus station in Colombo to share these magnificent machines with you. Which was an experience in itself.
The Disco Depot
The station from which these busses arrive and depart is modest in size. It consists of three bays from which passengers will board from one side. Each of these pays measures roughly 100 meters and can accommodate six to eight busses at any moment.
Surrounding these bays is an array of vendors and service providers offering food, water, and Teddy bears. I understand the necessity of snacks and liquids, especially for the longest 12-hour journey to Jaffna. However, the positioning of a few stalls was questionable. Perhaps the teddies make great travel pillows?
There are no live timetables updating passengers on arrival and departure times. There are no timetables at all. To find your way to the correct bus, one must listen to the drivers shouting the names of their routes at the top of their lungs. It is a crude system indeed, but it works.
Class A Palette
Alternative modes of transport are also available for those with a few extra rupees to spare for their journey. It is possible to take a small AC bus or large AC coach for just a few extra euros, dollars, or pounds. The latter also benefits its passengers by taking the highway. That is if you are fortunate enough to live along one of the country’s three expressways.
And speaking from experience, I can attest to the value of this decision. Because, while it is an experience to take one of the cheaper customised busses one or two times. The novelty soon wears off. And after two hours into an 8-hour journey, one is likely to spend the remainder of their time longing for the escape from the blaring speakers and moist human sandwich.
So, if you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka or find yourself here in the future, I highly recommend taking at least one bus. It will only further your authentic experience of the country. Just be sure to ask for a printed ticket from the conductor because they will almost certainly try to rip you off!
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