Traveling Sri Lanka by Tuk-Tuk: An adventurer’s guide
Key information at a glance
|Price for rental:||20USD/day; 40$ fixed payment; 150$ deposit|
|Documents needed:||International drivers’ license, Sri Lankan drivers license|
|Best time to travel:||December to March|
|For you if:||you love an adventure; you are a seasoned driver|
|Not for you if:||sometimes chaotic traffic scares you|
|Important Notes:||Maximum speed for a Tuk-Tuk is 40km/h; Tuk-Tuks cannot be driven on highways, your rental company will get a Sri Lankan driving license for you|
If you are a seasoned traveller, you have likely already driven in a Tuk-Tuk. They are one of the most notorious means of transportation not only in South East Asia - small and adroit, used to transport people, goods and livestock, and always honking.
However, have you already sat in the drivers’ seat of a Tuk-Tuk?
Driving a Tuk-Tuk through Sri Lanka is an unforgettable experience that is at the same time incredibly fun and incredibly challenging. It will give you the freedom to explore gorgeous landscapes at your own pace, bring you up close with the people you meet on your way, but also needs some preparation and one or two words of caution.
If you are trying to determine whether driving a Tuk-Tuk through Sri Lanka is for you, how to do it, and what to watch out for, read on!
Things you should know before deciding to rent a Tuk-Tuk
You can drive (almost) anywhere:
One of our worries before renting our Tuk-Tuk was whether we would be significantly restricted in our route due to only being able to drive our Tuk-Tuk on well paved roads. Even though many roads in Sri Lanka are very steep and rough, our Tuk-Tuk somehow always managed. Sometimes it was exhausting driving these roads, but the Tuk-Tuk always managed. The only time the three-wheeler met its match was when we picked up two fellow backpackers and tried driving four people plus their backpacks up the steep mountain to Horton Plains – three of us had to walk up the mountain on a few of the steepest parts of the road. One important note: Tuk-Tuks are not allowed to drive on highways in Sri Lanka, but that never was a problem for us – the whole purpose of renting one is to get off the beaten path :)
Driving a Tuk-Tuk is more exhausting than it sounds – for both driver and passenger:
Sri-Lankan traffic can be exhausting after a few hours. A Tuk-Tuk fits in almost any free gap between two cars, but it is also at the bottom of the motor vehicle food chain, so if a big truck or bus gets on your lane, you better move out of the way. That being said, we always felt safe – even though there is a lot of honking, everybody seems to be aware that something unexpected could happen at any minute, which regulates the traffic organically. Unfortunately, the passengers of a Tuk-Tuk get worn out after a while as well. It’s very windy in the back and especially if you are driving longer stretches, you start to feel like sitting in a wind channel too long. Consider this when planning your route, alongside the maximum speed of 40km/h! Some Tuk-Tuks do feature covers though, which improve the comfort quite a bit.
Everybody can repair a Tuk-Tuk:
If something on your Tuk-Tuk happens to break, do not worry. There are so many people in Sri Lanka that own a Tuk-Tuk, that there is always someone around that can repair it. After one of our tires burst between two villages on our drive back to Colombo, it took only a few minutes until we were surrounded by locals, and after 5min, our tire was changed and we were on our way again (some people can also do it while driving the Tuk-Tuk).
Driving a Tuk-Tuk is a bit more expensive than taking public transport, but worth every cent:
Let’s face it, driving a Tuk-Tuk is not the cheapest way to get around Sri Lanka (by far). Getting around by bus and train will cut much less into your budget. Nevertheless, we think that the money invested in driving your own Tuk-Tuk is well worth it. We loved the independence – being able to stop anywhere we liked – but also the uniqueness of it. On top of that we met a couple that joined us for the trip to Horton Plains – we happily offered them a lift in our Tuk-Tuk 🙂
Are you excited yet? Great, now that we convinced you to go for this experience, here are the five steps to take before actually hitting the road:
First, sort out the paperwork
Sri Lanka requires you to present a Temporary Driving License, issued by either the Automobile Association of Ceylon (AAC) or the Department of Motor Traffic. Most Tuk-Tuk companies support you in obtaining one for a small fee. Like this, you will not need to worry about filling in the paperwork yourself and we highly recommend you choose this option.
To apply for the Sri Lankan license, you’ll need your original driving license and an international driver’s license (IDL) with a type B endorsement. TukTukRental.com has a good overview of the different options and requirements that you will face.
When you get the IDL from your local authorities, make sure that it explicitly includes 3-wheelers! In Germany, this is the license B1. We ran into trouble with a police officer stopping us, who inspected the license and wanted us to pay a fine as it didn’t feature a B1 endorsement. While the AAC only requires a B endorsement to issue a Temporary Driving License for Sri Lanka, Police Officers apparently do not necessarily deem this sufficient. Luckily, we had a phone number of the rental company, who convinced the officer that the driving license from the AAC is actually sufficient.
Second, choose a rental company
Renting a Tuk-Tuk is still not as popular as renting a moped or a car, but as of 2021, there are many vendors that offer Tuk-Tuk rentals, especially in Sri Lanka.
TukTukRental.com is a good choice, as they support the local community with their rentals and offer different options (including caravan Tuk-Tuks 😎). The rates start at 14 USD per day - if you plan to rent more than 2 months – up to 25 USD/day for a couple of days. Another option is Srilanka Ts Tours, which is based in Negombo, 1 hour north of Colombo. Their rates start at 10 USD per day.
In addition to the rental fee, you’ll have to pay a deposit of about 150 USD and get a local license which will cost you about 40 USD. Most vendors will get this license for you and will have it ready when you pick up your Tuk-Tuk.
For a 7-day Tuk-Tuk adventure, you can expect to pay around 200 USD + 150 USD deposit.
In the end you will pay a similar amount as for a rental car, but you get one wheel less and double the fun 🙂
Third, pick a route
When planning your route, bear in mind that you are not allowed on highways and legally speaking, 40km/h is the maximum speed you should drive your Tuk-Tuk. Sometimes we drove a bit faster than that, but the sounds from your motor and the force of the wind in the back will quickly make you understand why driving significantly faster than that is not such a good idea.
That being said, we found that on a “travel day” – where the days’ goal was just getting from A to B – we could manage to drive around 170km in one day. That would take us around 5-6 hours total driving time, depending on the road conditions, with several breaks in between to eat or visit sights or simply relax from having wind in your face constantly. 5-6 hours driving might not sound like much, but believe us, when driving a Tuk-Tuk, it is.
This is the route we took – we travelled for 14 days from end January to mid-February. You can check out the itineraries and highlights here to come up with your own route or refer to this article that has the complete breakdown of our 14-day journey through Sri Lanka with recommendations on hotels and restaurants.
Fourth, when in Sri Lanka: Get a Tuk-Tuk Crash Course
If you thought riding a Tuk-Tuk is as easy as jumping on a moped and pulling the hand throttle, think twice. Most Tuk-Tuk’s feature a grip shifter, like the ones you find at older Vespa models. While it is not rocket science either, you’ll probably take some time to get used to it, if you have never tried it before.
Luckily, most rental companies will give you a short crash course before you hit the road. Be sure to take a video of your first steps, it probably looks quite hilarious 🛺
Fifth, hit the road!
You did it! You rented a Tuk-Tuk and are ready to go.
There is one last thing you should do before you can get started: Don’t forget to give your Tuk-Tuk a proper name (after all it will be your travel companion for the days to come). We named ours Tuk-ankhamun (or King Tuk), after the Egyptian Pharaoh.