I wanted to try the waves out at the beaches on Sri Lankas east coast’s famous point, Arugam Bay so I booked a room ahead of time at a place called “Beach House” and figured the journey out there wouldn’t be too difficult… There was very little specific information on how to get here directly from Colombo so I wanted to post this guide in hopes that it helps someone else in the future. You can get a direct 7-9 hour taxi from the airport but I don’t have the money for this so here is my alternate (more fun) route.
I landed at Colombo International Airport around 2pm on a Tuesday. After clearing customs you leave the airport and reach an area where there are people being picked up, dropped off, and plenty of taxi drivers asking where I wanted to go. To find the local bus, as you exit the terminal, head left and there is a small parking lot. At the front of the parking lot there were several buses that said Fort/Pettah which is the main bus station and transportation center for the city. 120 rupees and I was on my way in an A/C bus. The trip took 20-30 minutes.
Upon getting to the main bus station, I noticed a tourist information stand. My hotel in Arugam Bay told me there were two ways to get to Arugam Bay — taking a nicer overnight bus that I had to book in the morning (but they provided no information on how to book this) or take the “local bus” in the evening. Seeing as I came in during the afternoon, my only option was the local bus. It couldn’t be that bad could it? The tourist information stand directed me to where I could buy a ticket.
I bought a ticket for the 8:30pm bus because I knew it took 9-10 hours and I didn’t want to get in too early in the morning. I wandered down the street west towards the water as I had a few hours to kill. Colombo isn’t that interesting of a city, but I did find a decent restaurant for dinner. Quick tip: “Hotel” means restaurant here so look for a “hotel” for dinner. Everyone spoke enough English in Colombo so I had no problem getting around. Around 8pm I went to the bus station and found my “local bus”. It basically was an very old school bus, no a/c, and they pack as many people in as they can:
Unless you’re really looking to save a few bucks, I would avoid this local bus option for an overnight trip at all costs.
Thinking it wouldn’t be that bad, I paid the man 460 rupees and got on. I was one of the first people on, and the bus just continued to keep filling up with people over the next 10-15 minutes. Pretty soon the reality set in that this was going to be an extremely uncomfortable night and I decided to get off and just spend the night in Colombo. Before we left the station, I told the driver I was going to get off and said he could keep the money. The cost was so low it wasn’t even worth it for me. I headed down the street from the bus station and found the local YMCA which was really really bad even for a well seasoned traveler like me, but if you need a cheap room, it seemed like the only cheap place in town.
After failing to ride the local bus, the next morning I got a little more organized and went to the train station which has a tourist information office open from 9am-5pm everyday. The train station was just a few meters down the road from the bus station and nearby the YMCA. No need to get a cab anywhere. The tourist information office helped me figure out how to purchase my train ticket. The train has first class sleepers that you can book in the morning or perhaps in the afternoon depending on availability.
There are two ways to Potthuvil/Arugam Bay. You can take the train overnight to either Badulla or Batticaloa. The tourist info office recommended Batticaloa. I bought a ticket first class sleeper berth leaving Colombo at 7:15 pm to Batticaloa. 8-9 hours travel time. It was 1,200 rupees which is quite cheap for train travel. I chilled out in the area around the train station for the day – there isn’t much to do – but if you need to kill time, you can go to a cafe called The Pagoda Tea Room. The music video for Dan Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” was filmed in this cafe. If you know it, its the scene where he flips the table. All the video was shot in Sri Lanka actually, but this cafe is famous for that one scene. The cafe doesn’t have A/C or internet — this is Sri Lanka after all — but it does have amazing cake and iced/hot coffee for very cheap prices.
By the evening it was time to head to the train. I easily found my platform by asking the security guard, and I waited for the train. The sleeping berth was quite nice and comparable to trains in Asia. It was only two people to a room and you have an attached bathroom that you share with one other two person room.
I was awoken suddenly when we arrived in Batticaloa by the conductor. I quickly got dressed and was approached by a man on the platform asking where I was going. I said Arugam Bay and he said the buses going there are waiting directly outside the station. I hurried out the front of the station and hoped right on a bus. Some guidebooks will say you need to go to the Batticaloa bus station, but the drivers obviously know the train is arriving early in the morning and people will be wanting to ride buses so just pick them up at the train station rather than 1 km away at the bus station. Makes perfect sense. To find the right bus, just walk up to a bus driver and say Arugam Bay. The first one I asked happened to be going there. If not, the drivers are very helpful and will point you in the fight direction. I paid 80 rupees for about a 1:30 ride to a small bus station where the bus route finished. I was instructed by a man from the first bus that I needed to change over to this other bus now to continue on for Arugam Bay He walked me over to it as well. Sri Lankan people are really nice like that and go out of their way to help you.
The second bus was another 80 rupee and took another hour or so. It arrived in Potthuvil at 7am and I easily got on a tricycle and was delivered to my hotel. The tricycle was 200 rupee which is a pretty standard price. Check the price before you get on though.
All in all, this would have been a lot easier if I had a guide, but once I figured it out myself by asking the tourist information staff, it was really straightforward and easy. Plus Sri Lanka has an amazing bus system. The buses aren’t great, but there are always buses going in every direction making it really easy to get around.
Here is a quick recap:
- Go to Fort/Pettah train station and purchase a ticket on 1st class sleeper to Batticaloa. The few extra rupees for first class is 100% worth it.
- Get abruptly awoken in the morning in Batticaloa and catch a bus bound to Arugam Bay right in front of the station exit.
- Transfer buses as advised by friendly people (just keep saying Arugam Bay).
- Take tricycle from Potthuvil to hotel.
I wrote this post several years ago, and it is still by far the top viewed article on my blog. I guess there still isn’t a comprehensive guide yet on travel to Arugam Bay! I hope this helps you find your way. Happy travels!