Explore Exotic Sri Lanka on a Royal Enfield 0438 264 632

Motorcycling Advice For Sri Lanka

Overview

Sri Lanka is similar to other Asian countries which have high population densities, congested cities and where everything that can move usually ends up on the roads. This presents challenges to people who have been riding in western countries.

The cliché ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ is particularly relevant when motorcycling in Sri Lanka. Please keep this foremost in your mind when riding in this country.

Why should you listen to me?

This is a very valid question since I have been living in Australia for 27 years and before that I lived in America for four years. That’s 31 years since I lived in the country of my birth!

Seriously, what advice can I give you about riding in Sri Lanka?

 Well, I was born in Sri Lanka and completed my schooling there. After that, I worked for eight years before I went overseas in 1984.

 For about six years I rode a motorbike to many places in beautiful Sri Lanka. The only areas I didn’t ride a motorcycle were in the north of the country. Concurrently, I also drove a car for about 11 years to most parts of the island.

Important Lessons

There are some very important lessons I learned while driving and riding in Sri Lanka. These have helped me escape serious accidents and injuries in America, Australia and Sri Lanka and I want to pass these on to you as well.

  • Always expect the other person to make the wrong move. Obeying road rules and caring for other road users is not at the top of the Agenda of many drivers. They are used to suddenly weaving or turning without using their indicators. They will try to overtake on either side of a motorbike and most dangerously they will cut in front of a motorbike when turning out of a side street without much regard for the motorcyclist. That also means not going round blind corners without having sufficient distance to come to a halt because there is every possibility that there will be some clown approaching on the wrong side of the road.
  • Size matters. The bigger the vehicle, the more the driver thinks he or she has the right of way. In this game, you as a motorcyclist are always going to be a loser. And the highest stake in this game likened to Russian Roulette is your life. The tintop driver will probably survive an accident with a motorbike but you will probably be seriously injured or even lose your life. You just don’t need to put yourself in that situation.
  • Live on your horn and your brakes. Remember, always expect the other driver to do something wrong. Use the loud horn on the Royal Enfield to make sure drivers ahead of you know that you are there and ALWAYS have your right hand and right foot ready to slam on the brakes. The rear brake on the Royal Enfield is not effective, so you will have to depend on the front brake. Be careful in wet and slippery conditions because the bike doesn’t have electronic aids such as ABS to keep you upright.
  • Keep your headlight on high beam. Make yourself visible! Most motorcycles in Sri Lanka don’t have a headlight that comes on automatically when you switch on the ignition. This is a requirement in western countries, but not in Sri Lanka. You must physically switch on the small running lights and then the headlight on the Royal Enfield. NEVER ride without your headlight on and keep it on high beam. You will encounter many drivers of vehicles, motorcyclists and even people walking on the road flashing their lights or gesticulating that your headlight is on. A nod or a wave of acknowledgement is always polite, but keep that headlight on at all times you ride as you need to be clearly seen by other road users.
  • Ignore the turn indicators on other vehicles. You will quickly realise that many vehicles travel with their turn indicators constantly blinking, especially on the right side of the vehicles which invariably means they are about to overtake another vehicle. However, that is often not the case and it is better to ignore those signals altogether and be prepared to find the vehicle turning in the opposite direction to what the turn signals are indicating. The most important thing to remember is to give a few blasts of the horn just before you overtake vehicles ahead of you so that the drivers know you are there. 

Keeping Safe

This is sometimes not considered a fashionable subject but it needs to be discussed. We don’t rent our bikes to people who just walk off the street. We rent them to motorcyclists who respect motorcycling.

  • Always wear full motorcycling gear. Sri Lanka is a hot and humid tropical monsoon country so expect those weather conditions. But that doesn’t mean you should discard your professional motorcycling gear. You may see many tourists riding around bare bodied with only shorts but don’t emulate them. Yes! That is easier said than done, but many “unprofessional” motorcyclists end up getting injured or even dying because they don’t ‘respect motorcycling.’ We only rent our bikes to riders who know and appreciate what motorcycling is all about and it is a requirement that our customers wear full motorcycling gear at all times. You may think we are like an old fashioned, rigid, unresponsive bureaucracy but we believe that ‘safety comes first.’ Good motorcyclists will recognise the importance of this as they respect the art of motorcycling.
  • Don’t ride in the night. If you are out of the big cities, then you must be aware of wildlife. And the wildlife in Sri Lanka are big critters – Elephants, Buffalos, Wild Boar, Deer, Bears, Leopards and even large Pythons who have been known to crush and swallow humans. And there are goats, cattle and even donkeys that sleep on the roads making them very difficult to see, especially if they have a skin colour that closely matches the bitumen. You don’t want to encounter these creatures while riding a motorcycle, so make sure you are safely in your accommodation by 4:30 p.m. the latest.  

Weather Conditions

Sri Lanka is a tropical country which experiences monsoonal weather so be prepared for rain when you ride. It is not pleasant to ride in the rain but I always remember the motorcycling quote: ‘If you don’t want to ride in the rain, then don’t ride.’

The island is divided into two distinct zones – the south-west parts of the island which receive the “South-West Monsoon” and the north-east which receives the “North-East Monsoon.” The South-West Monsoon blows from May to mid-September while the North-East Monsoon is from mid-October to mid-January. In between monsoons, there may be scattered inter-monsoon rains.

There is generally a drought in the north-east parts of the island when the South-West Monsoon is active but the south-west areas too receive some rainfall during the North-East Monsoon.

Sea bathing is best off the north-east during the South-West Monsoon while the opposite applies when the North-East Monsoon is blowing. In fact, it is inadvisable to get into the sea when the monsoon is active in that particular section of the island.

  • Carry wet weather gear which can be easily put on. ‘It is always raining somewhere in Sri Lanka’ is a phrase that might be stretching the truth, but it is better to be prepared for encountering rain when you ride in Sri Lanka. The showers can be pretty sudden and drop quite a lot of water in a short time, so you need to be able to stop and don your wet weather gear quickly otherwise you will be surprised at how soaked you can become in a very short time. Many times the showers disappear quickly and the sun comes out but on other occasions it can rain the whole day.
  • Beware of greasy roads. The roads in Sri Lanka are often coated with a thin film of diesel and petrol and this can quickly become a slippery surface particularly after a light drizzle which doesn’t wash this muck off the road. Be very careful in these conditions because the Royal Enfield is no sports bike and has no electronic aids such as anti-lock braking (ABS) or traction control. And the rear brake is almost useless which makes you rely on the front brake and this can cause the bike to have a slide very easily. Ride carefully and gingerly after a light shower.

Road Network

Sri Lanka has an extensive road network connecting all parts of the island. But all road widths and surfaces are not the same.

  • Major roads have carpeted surfaces. This might surprise many people, but the road surfaces on many of the major roads in Sri Lanka are better than the roads in Australia. However, you always need to be prepared for roadworks in unexpected locations.
  • Roads are used by anything that moves. The sad saga of the re-development of Sri Lanka’s road network is that the roads weren’t sufficiently widened. This was because of the human habitation along both sides of most roads. So, anything that moves (vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles, bullock carts, humans and animals) all use these usually narrow roads as a means of getting from one place to another. This presents problems for motorcyclists because you have to constantly pre-empt the motives of all these road users.
  • Secondary roads have varied surfaces. There are some wonderful secondary roads in Sri Lanka but the road surfaces are of varying quality. Some are downright dangerous while others have a better surface quality than the major roads. And roadworks cause mayhem, not to mention the danger to motorcyclists. It is always recommended that advice be sought from local people about the condition of the roads on which you wish to travel.
  • Beware of unmarked speed humps. These “sleeping policemen” are generally constructed before and after roadworks and especially bridge works and are often not painted. They are virtually invisible as they are covered in bitumen which is the same colour as the road surface. Hitting them at speed and particularly at an angle, such as when they have been installed around a corner, can cause a crash. Be vigilant for these.

Traffic Laws

In many respects Sri Lanka is similar to other Asian countries with heavy traffic of all types – buses, trucks, vans, cars, tuk tuks, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and even bullock carts. And they appear to move as if there are no traffic rules; but there is a method to this perceived madness.

  • Ride on the left side of the road. The British colonial influence is apparent because you drive on the left side of the road. This is the same as in England, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Be prepared, however, to see some vehicles travelling on the wrong side of the road as ‘size matters’ and motorcyclists don’t count for much.
  • Most drivers obey road rules. Unlike some other Asian countries, a heavy police presence and a crackdown on bad driving has instilled a respect for road rules. Sadly this doesn’t apply to everyone as bus drivers flagrantly disregard the road rules and so do people who have influence with higher authorities. Always expect the other person to do the wrong thing and be ever vigilant for these misdemeanours.
  • Never cross an unbroken white line in the middle of the road. The police lurk near places where drivers cross onto the wrong side of the road and are quick to pounce on any wrongdoing. Motorcyclists are prey as it is easy to succumb to the temptation of zipping past slow moving vehicles by briefly crossing slightly onto the wrong side of an unbroken white line. Just make sure there are no police hiding there before you do it.
  • Don’t dare to even think about crossing double unbroken white lines. This is a definite No! No! And if you get caught you will be in big trouble. You can rest assured that there would be police somewhere around these places. Stay on the left side of the road.
  • Overtaking where there are zig zag lines is dangerous. The zig zag lines denote school zones and approaches to pedestrian crossings. There are often no other signs warning motorists that you are in these zones. The police crackdown heavily on any offences in these zones and they are always around during school starting and finishing times.
  • Be aware of speed limits. The maximum speed limit in Sri Lanka is 70 km/h but this drops down to 40 km/h in towns. The speed limits are marked on signs which show the maximum speed for different categories of vehicles. The police strictly enforce these limits and some of them are equipped with speed cameras. Be careful because they hide behind trees, vehicles and man-made structures and before you know it they have jumped onto the road and signalled for you to stop.

Stopped by the Police

The police, and sometimes the military, often pull over vehicles to check drivers’ licences, registration and insurance. Don’t be alarmed if you see them signalling you to stop even if you haven’t done anything wrong. These are routine checks, particularly as the country has only recently emerged from a near three decades long terrorist war.

  • Documents the Police ask for. Have your International Drivers Licence and the motorcycle registration and insurance documents handy to give to any police officer who stops you. Normally this is a routine check and you will soon be on your way if you haven’t broken any road rules.
  • Always produce your International Drivers Licence. Never give your original licence as they can take it away and it is an almighty headache to get it back. You have to go back to the police station nearest to where your licence was taken and sometimes even go to the judicial court in that area. I carry photocopies of my International Drivers Licence and produce this when needed. If they want the original International Drivers Licence, then I will produce that. And I don’t really care if they take that because it won’t bother me too much. But never, ever, give your original drivers licence or for that matter produce your passport.
  • Lift up your visor when you see police or come to checkpoints. Most police and military personnel are not interested in foreigners, especially if you have a fair complexion (I hope this is not taken as a racist comment but it is a fact of life). Give them a nod and a wave which will be appreciated as you continue on your journey.
  • Always speak in English. Even if you can speak the native tongue, talk to the police officers in English. Most of them can understand basic English and those who don’t will let you go. When stopped say “Hello Officer” and that should be sufficient for them to understand that you are a foreigner.
  • Don’t make eye contact. This is very important if you think you have done something wrong and find a police officer looking at you and in your mind you know that he is thinking of stopping you. Don’t make DIRECT eye contact but force yourself to focus on the road ahead. In most cases this doesn’t lead to you being pulled over.
  • Pull up next to the police officer to ask for directions. If you think a police officer is going to stop you, for whatever reason, the best advice is to ride up to him before he stops you and ask for directions or help. This often works and saves much hassle. And most of them will go out of their way to help you.
  • Pay your way out of an infringement. I very much dislike having to write this, but it is important to understand. You don’t want to fight an infringement in the Sri Lankan judicial system as it means going back to the area where you were charged with the infringement. This is a nightmarish situation you don’t want to be ensnared in. Be  prepared to pay your way out of an infringement!  

Asking for Directions

Road maps, Google maps and GPS systems provide valuable information but these are not easily accessible to motorcyclists and are not always reliable. There is nothing like getting correct information from people who know the local roads.

  • Ask a tuk tuk driver for directions. There are tuk tuks everywhere in Sri Lanka and the drivers of these vehicles have a very good knowledge about the local roads and more importantly the road conditions. Many of them may not know English, but if you show them a road map they will probably be able to help you. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you are unsure of where you are going or you are lost.
  • Ride up to a police officer and ask for help. Most police officers expect drivers to give them a wide berth. So imagine their surprise if someone rides up to them, stops, and asks for directions or help. I have done this many times and I can assure you that they will go out of their way to help, even if they can’t understand English. And if you stop near a motorcycle police officer, he will be very interested in the Royal Enfield bike you are riding and that makes him your friend.

Travel times

Sri Lanka is a small country, about the size of Tasmania. But don’t think that the short distances between places, as indicated on maps, equates to short travel times. This is because the island is heavily populated and traffic generally moves at slow speeds.

  • Travel time is more important than travel distance. In Australia we generally work on the assumption that 100 kilometres can be ridden in one hour when out of the major cities. This rule of thumb just doesn’t hold good in Sri Lanka because of the population on the roads, the slow average speed of vehicles, the low maximum speed limit (70 km/h) and the narrow roads. A 300 kilometre journey can take over 10 hours to complete. So adjust your travel plans accordingly.
  • Plan your journey according to travel times, not distances. This is where you need help from motorcyclists who understand the topography of the country, road conditions and travel times. Ask for help BEFORE making travel plans.
  • Get out of major cities early in the morning. Traffic in the major cities of Colombo, Kandy and other populous centres can be horrendous. The best time to leave these cities when riding a motorbike (or even in any other vehicle) is early in the morning. This would mean leaving around 5:00 a.m. in the morning to escape from the suburbs of Colombo and Kandy. This would also mean that you can be riding when it is cool and escape the morning school and work time peak traffic hours.
  • Sundays and public holiday mornings are best to travel on some routes. Most people sleep in late on Sundays and public holidays. These are the best times to leave the big cities. I assure you this makes a huge difference not only to travel times but also to the stress that you will experience.
  • Avoid some heavily trafficked routes. There are some routes that you really don’t want to travel on because of the traffic congestion. The worst would be the Colombo – Kandy road which is about 120 kilometres but often takes about 4.5 hours or more. It is a nightmare and should be avoided at all costs, even though the climb or descent of Kadugannawa is a wonderful experience. The second worst roads are from Negombo to Colombo and from Colombo to Galle. Remember the advice about getting out of these cities early and preferably travelling on Sundays and public holidays.

Riding in Traffic

  • Lane filtering is quasi- legal. Filtering past slow moving or stationary traffic is common and this includes riding on both the left and right of vehicles. Often motorcyclists ride on the opposite side of the road when there are long queues of traffic, especially approaching traffic lights. Frequently they cross an unbroken white line which is illegal. When in doubt, follow a few motorcycles as it would be difficult for the police to stop more than a couple of riders at a time. Lane filtering is desirable because you don’t want to be stuck behind vehicles and breathing diesel and petrol fumes.   
  • Get to the front at traffic lights. Most motorcyclists try to get to the front of vehicles which are stopped at traffic lights. This enables them to zip off before the tintops get moving. Keep your eyes open when approaching vehicles stopped at traffic lights to find a path to the front. But when taking off on the “Green” light, beware of any vehicles trying to beat the traffic lights from other directions.
  • Beware of tuk tuks suddenly cutting across the road. Tuk tuks can turn in a very short radius and this makes them particularly dangerous as they often swing across the road without looking back. They are also known, frequently, to turn in the direction opposite to which their traffic indicators are blinking! One of my motorcycling friends ploughed into the side of a tuk tuk which toppled over. Miraculously he didn’t fall but the front of his bike was damaged.
  • No motorcycles on Expressways. There are only two Expressways (toll roads) in Sri Lanka at the time of writing this book. Motorcycles are not permitted on these Expressways which is a shame if you have a big bike as these can easily keep up with the other traffic. Do not turn on to the entry ramps to Expressways because it is difficult to get back to the road against oncoming traffic.

Travel Insurance and Medical Expenses

It is very important that you take out travel insurance when travelling overseas. Make sure you know what it covers and what is excluded.

  • Coverage of motorcyclists. Not all travel insurance policies cover you for accidents that happen while riding a motorcycle. Please check with your travel insurance company before purchasing a policy. I use “1Cover” travel insurance which covers me when riding a motorcycle but not for any damage to the motorcycle.
  • Have access to money to pay for medical treatment. Sri Lankan hospitals and medical centres will require you to pay by credit card or cash for any treatment before you are released. You will need to keep all your hospital/medical bills and bring them back to your home country and then claim reimbursement through your travel insurance policy. 
 

Book A Tour