If you have ever traveled to Asia, you probably remember seeing tuktuks during your trip. Despite the increasing availability of taxis and public transport, these little three-wheel motorised vehicles are still one of the most affordable ways to move around in many countries in Southeast Asia and Asia.
In Sri Lanka, tuktuks are not only a popular attraction for budget travellers and a convenient way to get from point A to B. Until today, they also remain the main means of transport of the large majority of the local communities. Did you know that in Sri Lanka over 70% of tuktuks are owned by people on low incomes? That means that by renting a tuktuk you are not only exploring Sri Lanka like a true local but also making a financial impact for a local family! A win-win!
Although there are several rental agencies popping up offering the hire of Tuktuk’s to tourists, it is still not a mainstream way to travel the island as a foreigner. However, looking back at our incredible experience, we bet that it will become one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka very soon!
HOW WE GOT THE IDEA TO RENT OUR OWN TUKTUK
A couple of days before our flight to Colombo, we met a travel couple in New Delhi that visited Sri Lanka before their trip to India. When we asked how they liked Sri Lanka and if they had some recommendations for us, their response was “Sri Lanka was amazing! We did pretty much everything there is to do besides renting a tuktuk!”
We were intrigued but didn’t look further into it at this point in time. It was only after stumbling over an ad in our hostel in Colombo that was promoting the rental of tuktuks, that we were so curious about this unique experience that we got in touch with one of the rental companies. And we are so glad we did! Within a couple of hours we had everything arranged, picked up our red tuktuk, and hit the road. Looking back, the 4 weeks that followed became the absolute highlight of our round the world trip so far!
EXPERIENCES YOU GAIN ONLY IF YOU RENT A TUKTUK
Sri Lanka is a diverse country that has so much to offer! It’s the ideal combination of history & culture, beach destinations, and incredible wildlife! We will never forget spotting whales during sunrise in Trincomalee, swimming with turtles in Polhena, getting lost in tea plantations around Nuwera Eliya, or tasting some of the most delicious curries we have ever tried.
One of the most touristic Sri Lanka experiences is the famous train ride from Kandy to Ella. It is a very scenic route and you’re guaranteed to see beautiful tea fields and lush green mountains. Unfortunately, due to social media, the train has become an overcrowded experience and we didn’t feel like spending 7 hours squeezed between sweaty tourists, trying to battle your way to the open doors to get that one perfect Instagram picture. Although you have the option to return your tuktuk in Kandy and even pick it up in Ella again, we decided to do skip the train ride and make the route in our tuktuk. We had the most fun ride along the famous 18 bends road and were able to enjoy what the ride is supposedly all about – the beautiful scenery.
We would not have created some of our most unforgettable memories if we had chosen the traditional way of bus or train over our tuktuk.
PRO #1: You get to see the entire beauty of the island. The landscapes kept on amazing us every single day! From tropical palm trees and lagoons stretching along the road to breathtaking mountain views, driving at 40km/h in your open air tuktuk will allow you to take in the nature with all your senses! Slow down, stop, take pictures, everything at your own pace and at your own time. We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets in Sri Lanka by a lagoon on our way to the less crowded back entrance of Wasgamuwa national park straight from our tuktuk – a view we will never forget!
PRO #2: You see things that other tourists miss. There are so many things to do and see off the beaten path, which will remain hidden to you if you don’t have your own vehicle. Taking a little detour to take a refreshing dip by a waterfall or visiting an off the beaten track temple. Two of the hidden gems we visited were Bomburu Ella Falls and the Ambuluwawa tower temple. We saw hardly any other foreign tourists and got some really unique photo opportunities there.
PRO #3: You won’t get any closer to real wildlife. Safaris are awesome but what about having your own personal encounter with an elephant just on the side of the road? During our 4 weeks trip, we passed 3 wild elephants with less than 5 meters distance and spotted an entire group of over 10 elephants taking a bath in a little lagoon just off the highway! We also saw peacocks, land monitors, monkeys, and water buffalos – all this without paying for safaris!
PRO #4: You get the chance to mingle with the locals! Nothing made us feel more welcome than excitedly smiling and waving kids when they saw us passing by in our tuktuk! They could spot us “foreigners” from far away and were always amused seeing what they would regard as “rich tourist” driving a poor people’s vehicle. People were very friendly and eager to help with any questions or issues we had, and stopping by small local restaurants for lunch we enjoyed delicious home cooked meals at the cheapest rates.
IS RENTING A TUKTUK THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR YOU? – A CHECKLIST
We enjoyed our trip so much that we became big promoters of traveling Sri Lanka by tuktuk! However, there are some factors you should keep in mind to decide whether this experience is something for you.
You should feel comfortable driving in Asia. Although the infrastructure is very developed and traffic is rather moderate outside main cities, it helps if you had experience before driving in an Asian country. It’s a little more chaotic and you should not lose your cool when you hear honking around you. Especially buses tend to feel like they are the kings of the road – don’t let them intimidate you. Keep in mind, in Sri Lanka you drive on the left.
Count in some extra time for arranging the documents or book ahead. To rent a tuktuk you will need to arrange a local Sri Lankan drivers license and get a little driving lesson to learn how to drive and maintain your tuktuk. This is something your rental agency will help you with, just make sure you count in an extra day into your itinerary. We rented our tuktuk with TuktukRental and had a very good experience. We love that they are a social enterprise and they have a great customer service.
Be prepared to spend a little more. We won’t lie, renting a tuktuk is not the cheapest choice of transport and is definitely more expensive than moving around in local busses. For us this adventure was worth every cent and the benefits clearly outweighed the cost.
OUR BEST OFF THE BEATEN PATH SUGGESTIONS
We spent 4 weeks in Sri Lanka in our tuktuk and summarised our itinerary in a dedicated post. Depending on your time and preferences, you can chop it up and shorten it down to make it the best fit for you. However, we would like to suggest you some of our favourite off the beaten track spots that we wouldn’t want to miss out on!
TIP #1: Spot whales in Upuvelli by Trincomalee. Not as famous as it’s Southern beach cousins but definitely the best place for spotting or snorkelling with whales and
dolphin or diving! The beach is incredibly peaceful, the village town is super laid back and has plenty of food and drinks options, and you can get a cozy beach hut for a very good price.
TIP #2: Feel on top of the world at Ambuluwawa tower temple – One of the most unique temples we have seen. Climb up the steep stair case and enjoy a spectacularly view of the rich biodiversity of the area. Definitely not for the faint hearted though!
TIP #3: Swim with turtles in Polhena beach – Only 20 min outside popular Mirissa lies the biggest gem for wildlife lovers! We got the recommendation from a local and had one of the most memorable experiences of our life swimming with turtles – absolutely for free! Surprisingly, the beach is not touristic and there you have the best chances to spot the turtles in the shallow water in the morning time.
TIP #4: Get close to elephants in Weligama national park – Reading many reviews about safaris in Sri Lanka, we were concerned about the amount of jeeps in popular parks such as Yala and Uduwalawe national parks. Based on a recommendation from our tuktuk company we decided to visit Weligama national park. The twist: We entered from the back entrance in the South of the park. Besides one other jeep, we were the only visitors in the park and saw tens of elephants very up close! Definitely a secret tip!
We hope that this guide convinced you to explore Sri Lanka like a local in your own tuktuk and you will love this experience as much as we did! One thing is sure, you will have a unique story to tell! How many of your friends or Instagram followers can say they traveled an entire country in this authentic way? It will be an adventure you will never forget and others will always be curious to hear about.
We are Anastasia Schmalz & Tomer Arwas, a couple from Amsterdam that decided to make our bucket list dream a reality and travel the world full time! We gave up our jobs and comfortable life to create the life story we will be proud to tell one day. You can follow our journeys and the discoveries we make about the world and ourselves on generationnomads.com or our Instagram @generationnomads.