Hiring a Car and Driving in Sri Lanka


One of us had the brilliant idea to hire a car in Sri Lanka. If only it was as easy as that.

Our Story:

We called the car hire companies and it turned out that it’s not possible to drive in Sri Lanka as a tourist with a license from another country. Even if you have an International License you still have to go to the AA (Automobile Association) in Colombo. This is still relatively stress-free, the cost is nominal and your validated license is handed to you within the hour.

We, of course, happened to be in the group of people who didn’t have an International License. As a punishment for being so lax, the process for us was a lot more long drawn. We had to get a “Temporary Sri Lankan License” which required us to go to the Department of Motor Traffic in Boralesgamuwa. A town that’s not even in Colombo but some 15 kilometers outside of it. We were told the whole process takes an hour but I can assure you that’s not true. 

First, we shuffled around from desk to desk filling forms.  Then our passport details were checked against the form we’d filled. Our forms were checked just like my primary school teacher would correct our tests: with little tick marks. I’ll have you know, we scored full marks at copying our passport details down. Then we had to stand in a queue for someone to sign against all those tick marks while people who were either best friends, relatives or neighbors of the guy inside kept walking in, right past us. After we succeeded in getting the signature we went back to the guy who’d checked our forms earlier. He went through our papers yet again lest somewhere along the way we’d been reissued a new passport and our details had changed.

Can we please be done with these forms already?

That bit done, we went to another set of desks where they actually entered our details into the system. It turns out we had to have photocopies of our passports to proceed. Again, of course, we didn’t have any but we needn’t have worried because just outside the premises were a whole host of photocopiers benefiting from troubled license applicants like us. Once we returned with all the copies, the man who required them had disappeared and instead another man required us to repeat our details all over again. Guess what he didn’t require, though? The photocopies.


Finally all that was left for us to do was to pay up and get out of there but now it was time for lunch. All three cashiers decided the best way to handle the crowd was to leave for lunch at the same time. About an hour later one of them made an appearance, took our money and handed us our temporary license. Just like that. No 1 day wait to validate papers, no “come tomorrow” and no need to see if we can even drive a car . I was surprised that after all that fact checking and time wasting, it was actually that simple to get the Temporary License.

“That’s it”, I asked,  holding the stack of papers I’d been handed.

“Yes, just keep all those papers in your dashboard and show them to the police when they ask”, replied the cashier and with that, we were dismissed with a wave of her bangle laden hand.

After three hours of five desks, pointless photocopies, lawless queues & 1300 LKR later we were finally on our way out of the ominous sounding Boralesgamuwa.

Just hangin’ out. Sometimes hiring a car might mean missing out on stories. Credit: Hasitha Kulasekera

Personally, I love public transport and think it adds a lot of adventure and memories to my travels. Having a car, however, also had its advantages. For instance, we weren’t bound to any place by transport timings, always had a place to keep our bags whilst on the road and could reach harder to access places where public transport wouldn’t take us. Also in our case, we were looking for secret surf spots, we’d only vaguely heard of and having a car to carry the surfboards around was almost a necessity.

Oh and the best part?

After all that, we were never, not once asked for our license the entire three weeks we drove around the country.

I guess for the sake of our mental peace and to not live in a mortal fear of police people our entire journey, it was worth it.

Sort of.

Getting the License Low Down:

Step by step guide:

Have an International License?

  1. Go to the AA office in Colombo near the Galle Face and get your license validated. The office is right next to Ramada Hotel



Don’t have an International License?

  1. You’ll need your passport along with your home country’s license.
  2. Then you need to go to the Department of Motor Traffic, Horana Road, Boralesgamuwa. It is about 15 km from Colombo center and takes half an hour to get there depending on traffic.
  3. Once there you’ll need to fill a form, verify your details at a couple of desks and finally, you’ll be asked to go pay the cashier 1300 LKR. This whole process can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours.
  4. Walk out with the required papers in your hand feeling extremely proud of your massive achievement.
 

P.S: Take photocopies just in case

Note: The Department of Motor Traffic does have a website but there doesn’t seem to be any information regarding a Temporary Tourist License.

Hiring a Car:

To hire a car, forget all the international companies who charge the earth for car rentals in Sri Lanka. Instead hire from local companies whose charges are a lot more reasonable. We hired a car for three weeks from a company called HC Rent A Car ( hcrentacar@yahoo.com ) and arranged to pick it up from the owner’s house which was on our way down south. Within the hour, we’d had tea with the family, paid a deposit, signed the papers, got the keys and were off. It cost us 1500 LKR a day for a very comfortable Nissan automatic with a reverse camera et all. I am terrible with car models and I still don’t know what was the car we drove around for over three weeks.

If you’re in Sri Lanka for just a short while another alternative is to hire a car with a driver so you don’t waste time running around for a license. If budget is a constraint and you don’t have a surfboard/tremendous amount of luggage you can consider hiring a motorbike which would also mean you can easily maneuver your way through traffic .
 

Driving in Sri Lanka:

Driving in Sri Lanka is hard work but if you’re used to driving in countries like India,  Morocco, Indonesia or anywhere else as chaotic, you won’t have a problem. If not, it might be difficult to comprehend the lack of rules and it probably won’t be worth the near death experiences. That said, one-half of “us” comes from a country with extremely strict road rules and had never before driven a car on roads sans rules and lanes. So hey, I guess anyone can do it as long as they don’t get flustered easily, stay calm and drive slow.

Sri Lanka’s road bullies

Remember in Sri Lanka, the buses rule the roost and will often drive on the wrong side of the road at breakneck speed. You’ll just have to get out the way. Nothing will be achieved by being stubborn about the rules because really, no one is following them. ALWAYS get out of the way of the buses. Basically, once you’ve got into the swing of things and bowed to the supreme power of local buses, you’ll be driving Sri Lankan style in no time.

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