Talk to the locals
When you are a Colombo bus newbie, the best way to get to know the routes and the bus colors and numbers is to ask the locals. There are a few websites that can help but since the timing is never exact and the stops are not marked, it is best to learn from the experts. Ask someone to tell you how to get to one place from where you are and start exploring the routes that way. Write down what bus you took where so that you can take it again another day. If you get lost, ask a local!
Expect to wait
When you get to a bus stop (or a corner) be prepared to wait. The bus might arrive in five minutes or in half an hour. Ask a local again if you are in the right place for the bus you need. Take the opportunity to chat to the other people waiting for the bus, that’s what travel is in the end. Getting to know the people. Using the bus is a great excuse.
Be prepared to run
If when you see your bus it doesn’t slow down getting to the corner you are going to have to flag it down and might even have to chase it a little. If there are lots of people taking the same bus then the driver might stop completely. If you are the last one on, hold on tight because the bus will start as soon as your foot is on the step.
Wear closed toe shoes if possible
You won’t know if the bus you are taking is going to be busy and wearing flip flops on the bus can often get your toes stepped on. Also some buses are so old that the metal floor is a bit slippery. Better be safe and wear closed toes shoes for better traction and toe protection.
Always have change
Have coins or small bills on hand to pay the fare. The driver or the person taking the fares will not have change for big notes. Non AC buses are cheaper than AC buses but they are still below 100 rupees so try and have bills and coins that are smaller than that. A 500 or 1000 rupee note will get you nowhere.
Have upper body strength
Buses will go fast when there is no traffic. They will also break abruptly or make turns at great speed. If there are no available seats when you get on you will have to travel standing up. You will need upper body strength to hold on to the handrails or seats.
Wear modest clothing
This tip is for the ladies. Protect yourself from unwanted advances or touching. People will stare no matter what you wear, but that is a Sri Lankan thing and there’s nothing you can do about that. Simply put, don’t take the bus in a skirt or shorts, and make sure your tops cover cleavage and preferable the shoulders as well.
Expect to get stuck in traffic
When there is traffic the buses move at a snails pace. The slowest traffic times of day are when schools let in around 7:30 – 8, when the schools let out between 12.00 and 2 pm and then again in the evening when work ends and people are going home. Fridays are particularly slow after midday due to Friday prayers and it stays slow until the evening. If you are in hurry during these times of day, it might be better to not take the bus.
Take small kids only if they are used to bus travel
Sri Lankan children take the bus all the time. They are used to the running to get on, the jumping to get off and the swaying inside the bus. If you have small kids and they are not used to bus travel, it might not be a great idea to take them. They could fall really easily and get stepped on. If you want your kids to get accustomed to bus travel, start with easy routes outside of peak hours.