After two years travelling Asia, Australia and the South Pacific, it was time for our very last country before we head home to Ireland to start our new life. We wanted to go out with a bang; have an amazing holiday, but with a little bit of a difference.
The one thing backpacking has taught me is there is no such thing as off the beaten track anymore. One has to work extremely hard to get away from the crowds, and with modern technology and the ability to make a destination “go viral” overnight, we knew this was going to be a challenge.
When booking our trip to Sri Lanka, we were eager to move away from the crowds and do our own thing. A while back, we road-tripped around Australia in our jeep and absolutely loved the experience. We loved the freedom the vehicle gave us and the opportunities that arose without relying on public transport were memories we cherished forever.
- 1 FAQs
- 1.1 What rental company did you use?
- 1.2 How much to rent a jeep?
- 1.3 How long can you rent for?
- 1.4 Which car did you rent?
- 1.5 Jeep or tuk-tuk?
- 1.6 Where can you pick up your vehicle?
- 1.7 What licence do I need?
- 1.8 Tax and insurance
- 1.9 Traffic police
- 1.10 Driving conditions in Sri Lanka
- 1.11 Traffic in Sri Lanka
- 1.12 Advantages of renting a jeep
- 1.13 Disadvantages
- 1.14 Fuel cost
- 1.15 Local reaction
- 1.16 Returning the jeep
We discussed the thought of road-tripping through Sri Lanka, and soon we became dead-set on the idea! No one could persuade us otherwise. Even when people told us we were crazy, we shrugged it off. Even when we read the horrific reviews on TripAdvisor, we weren’t put off. And even when we saw the flabbergasted looks on the Sri Lankans’ faces on our first day on the road, we trudged on.
So we’ve lived to tell the tale, and I’m here today to say, it’s absolutely fine!! Sure the driving is mental, but I’ll get to that later. Our self-drive road-trip across the country of Sri Lanka was the BEST travel experience I’ve ever had.
Below I’ve answered all the frequently asked questions I have received on social media, and also added in some tips I picked up along the way.
What rental company did you use?
We rented our jeep with Club Sha Lanka and found them excellent to deal with. They are recommended by TripAdvisor where we found them. We picked up our jeep in the Negombo offices.
Safety is their top priority and they changed the tyres in front of us before we set off on our adventure.
How to start the process?
We simply emailed Club Sha Lanka on firstname.lastname@example.org, requesting more information. We gave our desired travel dates, and the company were great at responding to any queries we had.
How much to rent a jeep?
To rent a jeep, the cost is €35 per day, though we got a discount. The longer you rent your jeep for, the more the cost goes down per day.
How long can you rent for?
You can rent for as long as you like, date and availability dependent. However there is a minimum of seven days rental for the jeeps. We rented our jeep for fourteen days – it was amazing!!
Which car did you rent?
We rented a Mitsubishi Two-Seater Turbo with a convertible roof. The convertible roof was definitely a challenge during the rain, but was worth it when we could take the roof off and cruise through the open plains of the Udawalawe National Park!
The one thing I would note with the convertible was the problem posed with locking the car. We were unable to leave any valuables in the car, as the convertible top could just be unzipped at the sides, rendering the door locks useless (a problem when suitcases were in the car and wanting to park up to take snaps, stretch the legs, or stop for food).
The vehicle is older than I am, with no air-con or radio and a gear stick straight out of the sixties, but the engine, gearbox, electrics and tyres are new. The shell of the car is the original part, giving the jeep a cool authentic safari look, but the internals have all come from Japan, brand new.
Jeep or tuk-tuk?
A big fad in Sri Lanka is to rent a tuk-tuk and drive across country that way. I’m stating the obvious when I say this, but a jeep is a thousand times safer than a tuk-tuk! The roads in Sri Lanka can be treacherous, and when accidents happen, tuk-tuks are first in the line of fire.
Plus, the jeep can go a lot faster, and can go off-road too, unlike tuk-tuks. The jeep is also more reliable as tuk-tuks frequently break down and need repairs done often.
Where can you pick up your vehicle?
Like I just mentioned above, we picked ours up in Negombo. However, this was one of the most challenging parts of the journey, trying to maneuver out of the city through the crazy traffic.
If navigating through city traffic isn’t your thing, you can arrange to have your jeep dropped to you at a more convenient location. Perhaps if you don’t want to miss out on the iconic train journey to Ella, ask to have your jeep delivered to Ella!
What licence do I need?
While most countries accept a foreign driving license from tourists, Sri Lanka requires you to have a temporary Sri Lankan licence. This can be obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles in Werahera, thirty minutes from Colombo.
Luckily, the gang in Club Sha Lanka sorted everything out for us, and made the whole process very easy…another plus to renting with them! We paid €35 for the licence and for the rental company to go to the DMV and wait in line for the license.
One thing to be mindful of, the DMV is closed at the weekend. So you can either wait around until it opens yourself, or you can go ahead on your trip and have your licence emailed to you, once the DMV opens. This is risky as you take the chance of being pulled over by cops without an official license, but we took the chance and got our licence on the Monday evening.
Tax and insurance
The price of the jeep includes taxes and third-party cover insurance, with no hidden charges. The rental company will show you all the relevant documentation and you should keep it safe in your car in case you have run-ins with police (next point below).
However, there is a deposit of $500 in CASH required, which is very steep. This can be given in USD or Sri Lankan rupee (86110LKR).
You should always have travel insurance while travelling, though your current policy may have to be updated to include driving vehicles, so best check with your provider first.
I was shocked to see such a huge presence of police in Sri Lanka. After spending so long travelling through South East Asia where law enforcement are infamous for their lack of presence, it was definitely a change of scenery to see so many cops in uniform, as well as the national army in the parts of the country where the civil war was prominent (mainly the east coast).
In two weeks, we were pulled over by the cops five times! Although, as our rental company explained, they were probably just being nosy, and were curious to get a look at the foreigners driving a big jeep through rural roads!
We were pulled over and fined for overtaking on a zebra crossing, which we found utterly unbelievable as the locals drive like absolute maniacs! A fine costs roughly $10 and must be paid at a local post office, not directly to the police.
The cop that pulled us over had little English, and as far as he was concerned neither did we! We were given an insider tip, that if you make the communication barrier evident (i.e.: pretend you don’t speak any English!), it becomes too much effort for everyone involved and the fine will be dropped. We stuck to this tactic and it worked! The cop let us off with a warning and tore up the fine!
If you are pulled over by the police, be polite and respectful, as with law enforcement in your own country and abide by their rules. Have your licence and documents ready to go, and remember, a smile goes a long way!
The police were a little bit intimidating in Sri Lanka but for the most part were fine and just a little bit perplexed to see us driving. One cop even gave us great tourism advice while in Sigiriya!
Driving conditions in Sri Lanka
I will admit, driving in Sri Lanka was a challenge. I was terrified, but Darren on the other hand, enjoyed every minute of it! We made a good team, he kept his eyes on the road, while I kept my head in Google maps! They drive on the left-hand side of the road in Sri Lanka, so being Irish that was a plus for us.
Driving along the west coast down from Colombo, to Mirrissa was crazy. This is the most popular region of Sri Lanka, with a huge number of buses and tuk-tuks everywhere. There are mopeds, rickshaws, overloaded trucks and ancient rattling buses all vying for space. Everyone drives in the middle of the road, and over-taking and beeping are the norm, no matter the road condition – EVEN on hair-pin bends!
Driving up the middle to Udawalawe was quieter and a very enjoyable and scenic drive. However, the roads here are very narrow, but living in rural Ireland prepared us for this! If you’re used to driving on dual carriageways, this may come as a shock to you.
Our favourite part of the road-trip was the east coast. It is much, much quieter over this side of the country, having only recently opened up to tourism due to civil war conflict. The roads are much emptier here, and even driving through the towns, they are more relaxed, with not as many buses.
Traffic in Sri Lanka
The pace of traffic in SL is not as bad as I’ve seen it in other parts of Asia, but the local buses definitely rule the roads. They are huge, old creaking buses bombing along the road at least 30km faster than everyone else. They have huge booming horns, that sound like something from the apocalypse. They thunder passed other cars like a bat out of hell and have absolutely no regard for oncoming traffic.
There is a saying in Sri Lanka: “the local buses have no breaks, only accelerators”, and you know what, I’d nearly believe it!!
Traffic at night time dies down considerably, however, the wildlife is something to be very cautious about! Cattle, goats, chickens and even elephants rule the roads and night at can be a hazard while driving. If you’ve ever driven in rural Australia and dodged dozens of kangaroos, you should be prepared for SL in the dark!
If you have driven in Asia before you should be fine. We did a road-trip in Vietnam, which brought us through cities, motorways, mountains and villages. We also road-tripped our way around Australia, while the driving there is very civilised, it definitely prepared us for longer days on the road.
If this is your first time driving a vehicle in Asia, I would NOT recommend driving in Sri Lanka for your first experience.
The one piece of advice I have after spending two weeks on the road in SL is, do not be influence by others around you. Just because the locals are driving like maniacs, does not mean the tourists should too.
Keep to the speed limit, letting the locals pass you out when necessary, and just enjoy the drive!
Advantages of renting a jeep
Do a road-trip independently was one of the BEST travel experiences I have ever had!
The obvious advantage of renting your own transport if the ultimate freedom it gives you! There is no better feeling than being completely independent when travelling around a country.
We loved pulling in and stopping whenever we fancied. We pulled over to admire an elephant on the side of the road, we stopped to admire a Hindu festival/celebration in a village (we weren’t too sure what it was!) and we would stop whenever we fancied, to take pictures of beautiful palm trees and breathtaking beaches. Also, not relying of public transport is pure bliss!
Off the beaten track
The biggest perk I felt of driving independently was how off the beaten track you can go. The problem with sticking to bus routes and train tracks is you go the same direction as everyone else. The best thing about having the jeep was we could swing left off the main road down a dirt road if we fancied, or we could drive onto a deserted beach thanks to the four-wheel drive.
You can also have a completely unique and private experience by doing a safari in your own jeep. You can hire your own guide and drive through the national parks independently. I will do a seperare blog post on this in more detail.
The main reason we began looking into a car was due to time restraints. We had a list as long as our arm to cover while in Sl, but only had fifteen days to see everything. While some train journeys take eight hours, we could drive there in less than three. We covered so much ground with the jeep in a short period of time, way more than we could have had while relying on public transport.
Probably the one disadvantage of going your own way is not getting to experience the amazing train journeys of Sri Lanka. A lot of travellers say the best thing bout SL is its trains and scenic routes! Although, as mentioned earlier, it is an option to get your jeep delivered to a specific location, like Ella, if you would like to experience a train journey.
Also, cost is an obvious disadvantage. For two weeks the jeep will cost about €380. However, this was one of the BEST travel experiences we both have ever experienced, and felt it was worth every penny! Also, the cost of diesel is something to take into consideration also – which brings me to my next point!
Our jeep ran on diesel and the fuel gauge was a little big dodgy! At roughly 56c a litre, to fill up our tank it cost roughly €25 to fill the tank of the jeep. We refilled the tank roughly every five days (about 3/4 times in two weeks).
This is by far the thing that baffled me the most about Sri Lanka – the staring!! The locals are so so lovely in SL, but they were so perplexed to see us Westerners driving along their local roads! People were craning their necks, hanging out of bus windows, doing double-takes from their car wheels and elbowing their friends to take a look at us! we saw even saw one guy nearly crash his bike he was straining around so much trying to catch one last glimpse of us!
We even had people come up and ask for pictures with us in the car! No matter what homestay, hostel or hotel we stayed in, all the staff came out to have a look at the jeep and ask questions.
The locals were all so lovely rand were eager to help if we looked lost. We once got caught in a sticky situation involving a muddy ditch and heavy rain, and soon an entire family ran to our aid from their house in the wet weather to see if we needed a hand!
Returning the jeep
On our last day, our flight wasn’t until that evening. We stayed in Sigiriya for our last night in SL and drove three hours to Negombo to return the car to the car rental company. The mechanics looked over the car from top to bottom and once everything was in order, we were handed our $500 deposit back, which we transferred back to euro in the airport.
We said goodbye to our taxi and got an Uber to the airport.
I will outline an itinerary in a later blog post so keep your eyes peeled! For now, I think that is enough information to cover the ins-and-outs of jeep rental in Sri Lanka! If you have any other questions about car rental you can ask your car rental company and they will be happy to help!