Arugam Bay is host to awesome right-hand point breaks and an addictive cruisy vibe which makes it hard to leave - It’s not that easy to get to though. While only a short skip and a jump from the newly built yet abandoned Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, the crescent-shaped bay sits on the opposite side of the country from Bandaranaike International Airport. A-bay is fast becoming a mecca for travelling surfers but for board toting travelers on a budget it can be an uncomfortable schlep to get there.
Once the Westerlies pick up and the craving for some good food from Hideaway Blue becomes too much to resist, the team at HABU Global make frequent pilgrimages to Arugam Bay. We’ve been around long enough to know the best way to get there but thought it would be fun to task Joe, our in-office frothing kook, to try and get from Colombo to Arugam Bay for under $10 (Rs.1500). Is it possible? Is it even worth it?
Colombo to Arugam Bay for under $10
Read on for Joe’s step-by-step account to see if he made it for under $10. Or skip to the next sections for our travel suggestions and links to bus information.
"I stumbled into the Colombo Central Bus Stand overwhelmed and soggy from today’s downpour. The day started at 9:00 a.m. when I got kicked out of an a/c van, handed a quad fish 6’2” surfboard, and watched the HABU team drive off on the expressway. It was Friday the 13th. What could go wrong?
If you were travelling from the airport, you would have taken the Bus No. 187 (Rs. 110) to get to the Colombo Central Bus Stand. As of now, every transaction will be counted against the Rs. 1,500 budget. Great. Let’s get started.
I knew all trains to the east were simply out of the question. Unless you reserve a first-class ticket beforehand, you will certainly lose the war for a seat with local commuters. That’s an 11-hour journey I had no interest in attempting.
So I already knew not to trust eager strangers, especially in the transit centers. Sure, it’s a harsh blanket statement but I promise that you’re better off ignoring anyone insisting to help in these areas. My backpack, surfboard, and dumbfounded gaze might as well have been a neon sign that said, “super green, take a bite”
I was immediately approached by two guys who offered no information about bus routes to Arugam Bay yet insisted that I follow them and purchase “good marijuana”. I declined. Although, I did have the munchies so I spent Rs. 260 on some chips, water, and a yogurt for later. To prevent additional advances, I suggest my signature move: put in headphones and ignore everybody.
I made my way to the information desk to ask about buses to Arugam Bay. The attendants quickly told me that the only bus to Arugam Bay didn’t leave until 9:00 p.m. and required a reservation. I rephrased the question stating that I did not require a direct route and asked about bus routes to the larger cities closer to Arugam Bay like Hambantota or Pottuvil. They did not change their response.
I wandered around the Colombo Central Bus Station for an hour before I decided that I would not wait for the night bus to Arugam Bay. I spent Rs. 20 to use the bathroom then used my “phone-a-friend” lifeline to call the HABU luxury liner. They were generous enough to set down their champagne and homemade Ottolenghi wraps (I assume) to help make a new plan: get to Moneragala and grab a bus to Pottuvil from there.
They were more than halfway to Arugam Bay at this point…
A bus to Moneragala from the Colombo Central Bus Stand would take over 7 hours to cut through the hills of central Sri Lanka and wouldn’t arrive for another hour or so. Alternatively, I could travel to Matara via the expressway (2 hours) then take a bus to Monarangala (4 hours) from there. Time was no longer on my side; It was 3:00 p.m., my phone was at 50%, and I hadn’t even left Point A. I let out one huge sigh and grabbed the first tuk tuk outside the station.
I assumed the driver was going to strap my surfboard atop the roof. Instead, he shoved the board inside the vehicle requiring us both to duck as the board leaned atop our upper backs. It started to rain again so the driver swung around to put the rain cover down and punched me square in the face. It was an accident albeit a very painful one. My legs and back began to cramp beneath the surfboard as we dodged countless rainy collisions.
The journey took over 40 minutes because the driver confused “Maharagama Bus Stand” with “Galle Face Hotel”. I wish I was making this up. I decided not to fight the metered charge of Rs. 800 due to the surfboard and I immediately got on the express bus to Matara. Naturally, the seat I chose had an unsealed window resulting in 2 hours of Chinese water torture when the rain picked back up.
Once in Matara, I hopped off the bus and brushed off the numerous people trying to chat or misguide me. The info desk attendant didn’t understand English so I quickly found a willing translator. Apparently, the next bus to Monerangala wasn’t until 11 p.m. which I found difficult to believe. I began to wander the stalls and thought about grabbing a room for the night. Beckoned by the Pizza Hut sign, I began exiting the station when a bus to Moneragala appeared. Finally, a bit of a luck! I chose progress over pizza and quickly jumped in.
The bus was completely full so I had to stand in the open-door stairwell clenching the surfboard in one hand and the overhead rail with the other. I looked like a dog trying to stand in a car and was charged for two tickets because of the surfboard (Rs. 450). Let it be known that right around this time is when the HABU van (with 4 extra seats) arrived in Arugam Bay.
I jerked back and forth by the driver’s sudden accelerating and braking for about an hour until the bus reached Dikwella. There was a sudden exodus of passengers including an elderly woman who stepped on my backpack. The joy of finally being able to sit was short-lived when I discovered the yogurt bottle exploded in my backpack. Cheers Grandma!
With hours to go, I decided to watch a movie on my phone. This drew the attention of a guy a few seats forward. Having intentionally brushed aside many people all day, I figured I’d invite him over to watch the movie with me. Although he didn’t understand English, he very much enjoyed Alicia Vikander’s robot tits in “Ex Machina.”
We arrived to Moneragala around 11 p.m. and I was met with the same ol’ shit as before. “The bus to Pottuvil won’t arrive until the morning”, claimed two separate tuk tuk drivers. After explaining the purpose of the trip and stating I would not travel in their tuk tuks, one driver pointed me to the Pottuvil bus just a few stalls over…
I bought a vegetable rotti and some water for Rs. 180 then hopped on the bus.
Despite plenty of seats available, I had to crouch in the stairwell again as everyone was sleeping along or below the row of seats. At this point, I was so mentally and physically exhausted that I became emotionless. In fact, I was so content that I barely flinched when the bus grazed the mirror of a passing vehicle causing fragments of glass to spew throughout the aisle.
I arrived in Pottuvil just after midnight. If you’re travelling with a surfboard in Sri Lanka, it’s common that the bus will begin moving before you can get your nose out the vehicle. Although the journey to the hotel was less than 5 km away, I had no room to negotiate with the tuk tuk driver when he asked for Rs. 1000. The ride should have been half that amount even this late at night. He demanded more money upon arrival so I tipped him with expletives instead.
I snatched my room key from the very congratulatory HABU Mandarins then slept through the morning surf the next day.”
The final total:
Rs. 2,810 ($18.28)
So, is it possible?
So, can you travel from Colombo to Arugam Bay for less than $10? The answer is a really hesitant yes.
If Joe got an earlier start and replaced the two tuk tuk rides with buses, he would have arrived in Arugam Bay having spent just under $8. Or, if Joe would have waited for the night bus, he could have slept the whole way for $7.20.
That being said, money is not the only factor to consider when travelling from Colombo to Arugam Bay; time and energy is just as important. Choosing to delay your trip by 9 hours or spending 16 hours riding public buses may save you a few dollars, but…
Is it even worth it?
Our answer: absolutely f*cking not! Certainly if your only objective is to get to A-bay. Fancy taking in a bit of the island with no rush on the timeline, then it can be a whole different experience.
Transit hubs in Sri Lanka are often unreliable and if unprepared or inexperienced it’s easy to be taken advantage of or make the mistake of accepting the first answer. It is rare that your surfboard will get you barred from taking a vehicle. Saying that there is no real awareness of boards, or provision for traveling with them (outside of the surf villages), so it’s likely you will end up holding on to it the entire journey. Joe’s 6’2” was manageable, a longboard might not be feasible. Either way a forced marched is a schlep. We’ve known this for years which is why we thought it would be hilarious to send Joe to prove it. It was.
The worst way to get to Arugam Bay
The worst way to get to Arugam Bay is to simply try and wing it like Joe. If you’re going to use public transportation, don’t be Joe. Plan ahead, for trains and direct night buses-reserve your seats and try to take the guessing game out of timetables. If you are not in a rush, public transport can be much more fun but don’t try and do too many bus transfers in a day.
The best way to get to Arugam Bay
The best (quick) way to get to Arugam Bay is to hire a van. Frankly, it’s just stress-free and it takes just over 6 hours from Colombo. Compare that to the 10-11 hours via train (with an extra 2 on the bus) or 8-10 hours via direct bus where a seat isn’t always guaranteed. Not to mention the comfort provided by a van, Joe was able to experience the very real luxury of being able to control the temperature, music, food stops, and bathroom breaks, on the way back from the bay- needless to say it put the trip over in sharp perspective.
Factor the van hire into your surf trip budget. If you’re travelling in a group it should only be a few thousand rupees extra per person and you can find even more people to share with online. For ride shares, check out the following Facebook groups:
Joe suffered so you don’t have to. Don’t feel too bad though, Joe was compensated with plenty of beer, an a/c room in Arugam Bay, the surf was good and he got to ride shotgun the whole way back.
For more information on bus routes, check out these helpful links from ArugamBayTraveller.com.
- Bandaranaike Airport to Colombo
- Colombo to Arugam Bay by Bus
- Colombo to Arugam Bay by Train and Bus via Ella or Badulla
- Colombo to Arugam Bay by Train and Bus via Batticaloa
- Colombo to Arugam Bay by Luxury Bus via Akkaraipattu
- South Coast to Arugam Bay by Bus
Look, every surfer has a story about nightmarish transportation. The budget journey from Colombo to Arugam Bay is not ideal but well worth it for the waves and relaxation. 16 hours of buses might even sound like a breeze in comparison to some of the pilgrimages you and your friends have survived. As much as we love these stories, we’re just saying your surf trip to Sri Lanka doesn’t have to be one of them.