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Sri Lanka - Travel and visas
Nationals of all countries except for the Maldives, Singapore and the Seychelles require an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA), which amounts to the same thing as a visa. The ETA costs US$35 at the time of writing and can be applied and paid for by credit card at eta.gov.lk. The application must be made within 30 days of your intended date of arrival and usually takes up to one day to process, whereupon you’ll be emailed a letter that you can print out and show upon arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport to guarantee entry. If you don’t have an ETA, you can buy a visa on arrival, but this means joining a tiresome queue at a special desk in the airport, and carries a small risk of being refused entry for some or other reason. Until recently, the online ETA application process was exclusively for tourist visits, but as of November 2016, business travellers can evidently apply on the same website.
Practically all international flights to Sri Lanka land at Bandaranaike IInternational Airport, which stands in Katunayake some 30km north of central Colombo and 10km southeast of the popular resort town of Negombo. Bandaranaike is serviced by a good selection of international airlines offering non-stop and/or reasonably direct one-stop flights to most capital cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. These include the national carrier SriLankan Airlines, which operates direct services to London, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Moscow, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Canton, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Karachi, Kuwait, Riyadh, Jeddah, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Dubai, Malé and several cities in India. Coming from Africa or the Americas, the flight of least resistance is generally a one-stop routing through the Middle East with Emirates, Qatar or Etihad. From Australia or New Zealand, the most convenient option is through Asian cities such as Tokyo or Singapore.
Distances in Sri Lanka are relatively short and the limited but useful rail system is supplemented by a network of well-maintained surfaced roads connecting allmajor towns and most other points of interest. This means it is very easy to get around, whether you travel with a rented car and driver, or depend on public transport, which includes an inexpensive and all-but-comprehensive bus service and an equally affordable rail network. In addition, a plethora of reasonably priced three-wheeler tuktuks can be found almost everywhere for short urban hops or local excursions.
Established in the colonial era and vastly upgraded following the end of the civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has a useful rail network comprising four main lines out of Colombo. These are the South Coast line running to Matara via Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Galle and Weligama, the Hill Country line running to Badulla via Kandy, Hatton and Ella, the East Coast line running to Trincomalee via Kurunegala, Maho and Gal Oya Junction as well as to Batticaloa via Kurunegala, Maho, Gal Oya Junction and Polonnaruwa, and the Northern line to Jaffna and Mannar via Kurunegala, Maho and Anuradhapura. This means that most of the country’s established highlights are accessible by train, or lie within a couple of hours of the nearest railway station by bus.
The Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) operates a comprehensive network of red buses covering pretty much every road countrywide, though most travellers prefer to use trains where the choice exists. SLTB buses adhere loosely to formal timetables, stop wherever passengers want to embark or disembark, and are seldom packed full. On longer hauls, buses generally depart every 30 minutes to 2 hours starting at around 05.00, but services tend to peter out in the late afternoon so as not to be driving into the night. On shorter routes, the buses typically depart every 15–60 minutes throughout daylight hours. On more popular routes, the SLTB bus service is supplemented by more comfortable and modern private express coaches.
Also known as three-wheelers and ground-helicopters, motorised tuktuks are the most ubiquitous form of transport in Sri Lanka, swarming and weaving between larger vehicles in every town and village, and usually sitting waiting at any strategic junction countrywide. In Colombo, most tuktuks are metered and the first kilometre incurs a charge of Rs50, with subsequent kilometres at Rs32. Elsewhere, tuktuks are unmetered and rates are negotiable, but you shouldn’t be paying more than around US$1 per 3–4km, though in some cases you might need to factor in waiting time, or the fare for the driver to return empty.