Driving in Colombo – Part 00001

I love driving in Colombo. It is a truly liberating experience. Especially compared to the terrifying orderliness in the roads of first world countries. So many rules to remember and fines that inflate your insurance when caught. You only realise it when weaving through other chariots like a piranha in your 4 wheeled trishaw.

Such freedom can kill you. All it takes is one distraction – like trying to find YFM on the dial – and you fail to notice the on coming private bus. Less fatal but far worse is getting maimed. Or you could kill or maim someone else. And yes the are “fines” for being careless too.

There’s a definite ring of truth to Vogvib Slabotnique’s maxim “Colombo’s streets are a video game and all its drivers merely players”. Actually that’s the only interesting thing he ever wrote – a stationary bullock cart in Pettah fatally (some may say thankfully) immortalised him some time back. Yes yes I have veered off topic but that’s driving in Colombo, Sri Lanka or most places in the third world. Its all about veering swerving improvising amidst chaotic conditions.

Its all seat of your pants/sari/sarong/sari/skirt driving (nudist drivers – left out as I doubt there are many of you on Colombo road – correct me if you want). Road rules are merely rules of thumb. Points of departure for an open ended discussion about what side of the road you should drive on. Mostly its the middle. In a superficially Buddhist country like Sri Lanka, that’s about the closest most people get to the “middle way”. Mostly because half of each lane is taken up by pedestrian traffic and parked vehicles. There’s even a helpful white line painted on the road to centre you.

Yet such cheap religious symbolism rarely distracts from the fact that the only right of way is yours. But you must snatch it from the other vermin on the road. Cruelly and without mercy like Mongol capture of Baghdad. In a city where practically everyone seems to know each other this is one of the few occasions you can be anonymously rude. Unless you REALLY want to shock someone by being polite. Try it – its fun 🙂

Politicos naturally have their way with jeep loads of goons to shoo lesser beings off the road. Its a good thing to get out of their way since these thugs do get bumped off. It is inconvenient to get in the way of politician killing shrapnel which I have overhead as being described “good for the country”. Amazing what you overhear at parties when you stick to EGB. Anyway back to the topic.

Excrement like us have to rely on loud noise, beam lights and the girth of our chariots to bully our way through. A LOUD horn is as essential as functional brakes for Colombo’s roads. Particularly for the minority who value life over ego like you and me. Its not an option like fully inflated tires, working indicator lights or seat belts.

Without a horn, other drivers may not believe that you exist. Specially when they are Banzai charging directly at you. Flashing beam lights help but makes you look weak without an angry honk to back you up. Size has its drawbacks. A hefty gas guzzler might bully a tiny Maruti off the road but is hopeless when the road become a parking lot. Smaller chariots can squirm through the cracks of the traffic jams into those secret Colombo short cuts everyone pretends not to have.

Welcome (abrupt stops are part of the experience) to the end of this post – though not the topic. I’ll be posting more tomorrow or whenever I get around to (hopefully tomorrow). Till then, safe driving and thank you for reading this far down. You are one brave Colombo driver 🙂

Postscript: If you found the jerky swerving writing in this post nauseating, I hope it will at least discourage the Lakbmianews newspaper from lowering its standards to steal it. I know I know how naively suspicious of me 👿


29 thoughts on “Driving in Colombo – Part 00001

  1. Middle Man My my that was quick 😉

    Glad you got through that incident in one piece. At least in Colombo the clogged road keep people from speeding. Most of the time…


  2. I actually hate driving in Colombo. Primarily cos the street conditions are just shit. I actually take a longer route just to avoid streets like Duplication Rd, Ward Pl, and Union Pl. Baseline Rd or the Galle Face stretch late at night, on the other hand is great. I much prefer driving outside Colombo where the ‘highways’ are in fairly good nick.

    But I disagree about driving in the First World, or at least in Europe anyway. If you’ve ever hit a deregistered stretch of Autobahn, you’d know what I mean 😉

    But I agree about Canada. The 100kmph limit is ridiculous.


  3. I find the most satisfying act of rebellion to perform on Colombo’s streets is to stop for pedestrians at zebra crossings. It makes drivers behind you livid and you are often rewarded with a look of utter bewilderment from the pedestrians before they take their first tentative steps to crossing a road legally.


  4. You *LOVE* driving in Colombo? Dude thats not funny even when its sarcastic 😀 I prefer atrocious public transport to atrocious road conditions. Benefits: No one blames you when things go *CRASH* and you have a better view of the “sights” 😉

    On a positive note: Thats a post fit for Lonely Planet @ least 🙂


  5. oh i love driving.. ok OK being driven.. around colombo. the only thing i hate is the road blocks for pretentious politicians. and it always puzzles me why people here dont use the damn horn.


  6. aahh yeah.. i think i have to jump on this band wagon. i love driving in cmb as well. its always interesting and a couple of weeks of driving there and you can come back to the states and drive with one had tied behind your back and still be a good driver 🙂


  7. I have to admit that David‘s reasons for hating Colombo traffic are totally rational (and mine for “loving” it aren’t 😉 )

    The weird part of it is that I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’ll be late (manage to avoid that by heading out ridiculously early). I can even relax when I’m stuck in the afternoon sun with a busted air con 🙂 Emptying the bowels and the bladder before hitting the road is also helpful 😉

    But insanely I don’t mind having to wait. I look at the vehicle graphics or enjoy the tuition class posters. Perhaps do a bit of mental blogging and feel thrilled that the car in-font of me hasn’t blown up.

    I also get to be deviant by stopping for pedestrians and rattling people (As deshan describes) by letting drivers stuck in traffic wiggle through to side roads.

    What scares me are busses. They get stuffed like the cattle cars to Auschwitz.


  8. IdeaSmith Thank you 🙂 You ought to drop by – though its always good to check the political weather (unpredictable events are permanently in the forecast).


  9. One negative aspect of driving C’mbo iz lack of road space and overpasses which severely hampers traffic but, whe ya get to the outskirts it get better somewhat(like David Said).
    But, Colombo really needs a Freeway really bad and fast too ! Still that doesnt solve any traffic jams ! The Belt way system works well for Colombo cuz, more traffic avoids the congested areas easier the flow !(I think mates).
    But, I get stuck in Traffic where I live and it’s bad fellas and…… it’s an Island much smaller than Lanka ! Now Go figure that guys !


  10. Each of us has a few moments of our lives that stand out as moments of supreme achievement, of great peril overcome, or of impossible circumstances forged to our will against all odds. I’m not talking about life markers like wedding ceremonies or graduation days or things like that. I’m speaking of those heart-pounding moments when a life or death possibility was thrust upon us suddenly and we were forced to make the correct decision. Without telling you all of my secrets, I will tell you that one of those moments came upon me in India when I was forced to cross the road. How could such a mundane event as crossing the road measure up to one of the supreme moments of my life? I’ll tell you how. It’s hard to decide which precise incident made the greatest emotional imprint on my memory but it was definitely a “crossing the road” moment. At this point, just to gain personal reality on what I’m talking about, you should watch this video clip of someone in India crossing the street. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9DLlMMXhKg
    It isn’t me in the video, although it could have been since I have crossed that very same road in 2003 in Hyderabad, India and I’ve crossed similar roads in Chennai (Madras), India and in Colombo in Sri Lanka. Watching the video and feeling every emotion rise up within you, you can almost feel your whole life flash before your very eyes as your breath catches and you struggle to control your flight instinct. Fear and the desire to freak-out rise up within you as you watch but the truth is that in real life it is ten times worse. The sounds, smells and eddies of turbulent air thrown at you by rushing trucks belching black smoke add to the confusion and you grasp for some idea or plan that will let you survive. What you need is good luck I’ve been told. If you’re a Buddhist and you’ve accumulated enough Merit, as the Sri Lankans call it, you’ll get across that road unscathed. Earning that Merit could include a pilgrimage to the tomb of Buddahs tooth, (just about the luckiest thing around in Sri Lanka) so you’ll have it made. Frankly the concept of a lucky tooth to get you safely across the road runs quite contrary to my upbringing to say nothing of my keenly honed reflexes for fight or flight.
    As a youngster growing up in England, I got my introduction to the technology of crossing the road in school. In my first grade class, the government mandated subject of “Crossing The Road” was given due respect taught as safety first for children. With baited breath and wide eyes, we learned about the Belisha Beacon and the Zebra Crossing and that their sole purpose on earth was to save pedestrian lives. A Zebra Crossing is a pedestrian crossing of alternately painted black and white stripes (vague but child-friendly reminders of a zebra’s stripes). The Belisha Beacon is a black and while painted pole with a flashing orange ball on the top. It was named after Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Minister of Transport in England who started putting them up in 1934 and they’ve continued to this day. The Zebra Crossing with Belisha Beacons became the favored object of my earliest forays into artwork. With reckless abandon, I painted them at every opportunity to gain admiration and approval from any teacher or parent in the vicinity. Never-the-less, I knew what was good for me should I ever be called upon to cross a real road. I had learned by heart the mantra for road crossing children in England, “Look left, look right, then look left again before you cross the road.” This we repeated in class as often as any multiplication table and we drilled it on the playgrounds until we were experts. I can at last reveal my secret. As a youngster I was never certain as to which was left and which was right without looking at the tags of L and R on my mittens. So I hoped never to have to cross a road when it was too warm for gloves. Remember the cover photo of The Beatles, “Abbey Road” album? They were specially educated too.


  11. Nah. My comment on the Street Racing post was longer 😀

    I love driving in Colombo too. Generally late at night. Very late at night. Driving (crawling) during the day in the hot sun is not recommended in a black car like mine. Tho not Duplication. In all honesty, that has to be THE worst maintained road in Colombo. Damn Uniflow screws things up a lot tho.
    Tho David is right. You need to go outside Colombo to find good roads. A5 from Kandy to NE, Ratnapura-Pelmadulla-Balangoda-Diyathalawa, Tissamaharama-Katharagama, The Puttalama road, Pelmadulla upto the turnoff to Uda-Walawe, Kandy-Walapane winding round the Victoria reservoir.


  12. Pericles: A close finish no doubt 🙂 Inspiring comment there… As a late night rider – is it true that the traffic Police go off duty after 3am in Colombo? or is it a myth?


  13. I don’t normally get THAT late 😀 When I have, however, I have seen cops around. The long arm of the law is always vigilant when I break the law, even when it means crossing the single line on the road, even though it conveniently misses everyone else. I’m convinced they have some kind of personal vendetta against me. It also means I don’t break the law a whole lot 😀
    Checkpoints are manned. Random traffic cops, however, do appear to go off even before 3am. However, if I speed, I’m sure one will drag himself out of the woodwork with a speed gun to catch me. Latest I have been caught was 2am for doing 60kmph on an absolutely deserted Baseline road coming back from the airport. Which is pathetic. I was just coasting down the flyover on the 5th, not even trying. Damn thing just picked up speed going downhill, and there is a cop with a damn speed gun.


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