Sri Lanka travel: time saving route to ancient sites lonely planet doesn’t know about

Traffic/road conditions from Colombo to Sri Lanka’s ancient sites at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya or Dambulla can stretch travel time to take up the whole day. This post describes a less congested alternative route via Sri Lanka’s under-utilised secondary roads. Hopefully it might help some one avoid wasting their holiday in traffic.

Mrs Cerno and I found that this route got us from Colombo to Dambulla in just under 3.5 hours at an unhurried pace. We managed this despite a delay caused by a frantic search for reasonably priced roasted cashews on the Ja-Ela road, stopping to ask for directions along the way, and a leisurely Nescafe break at the half way point.

First some context

Most of the congestion on route to Sri Lanka’s ancient sites occur along the A1 and A6 roads between Colombo and the transit hub of town of Kurunegala. The Colombo-Kurunegala road is one Sri Lanka’s mostly two lane colonial era “highways” (also called “Trunk roads”). It shares the traffic to/from Kandy (up to the turn off to Kegalle), the outer suburbs of Colombo and the commercial traffic between Colombo & the northern parts of the country. Particularly lumbering cargo trucks linking Colombo with the produce markets of the north central province. Holiday traffic adds to the clog whenever long weekends are “created” by a public holiday (Sri Lanka has quite a few). Cricket matches at Dambulla stadium is also a major traffic generator.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the A1, A6 “highway” become the main street of each small town it passes through. The military and politicians use this route adding a security consideration into the mix. Another obstacle to the traffic flow are checkpoints. Road repairs or an accident will slow and back up traffic even further.

The usual method to the avoid traffic on “A” class roads is to leave Colombo at 3-4am. Such an early wake-up has its own problems along with the video game of night driving in Sri Lanka. It is a time when speeding truckers and inpatient express busses hit the road.

The Map

The solution is to use Sri Lanka’s “B” class secondary roads. Specifically the route described in the map below:
Colombo - Kurunegala via Dambadeniya 

You have to head north out of Colombo towards the International airport to reach the turn off to this route at Ja Ela. A short drive along route A33 gets you to route B15 at Ekala. The B15 takes you through the un-congested towns of Minuwangoda, Divulapitiya and Giriulla. At Giriulla you switch route B27 that takes you via Narammala to Kurunegala. From Kurunegala, you join the A6 to Dammbulla and beyond.

There are a few draw backs to taking this road.

Perhaps this could be an issue with secondary roads. Finding public toilets is a big one. Specially if your bowel control isn’t very good. Those squeamish about pubic facilities in Sri Lanka may not find any to be squeamish about. The only option to going behind a tree is trying your luck barging into a roadside shop.


Food is another factor. We have yet to find the equivalent of a rest house along this route. If there are boutique hotels they are certainly well hidden. We have stopped at two cafe/snack bar places. One is the “Wijewikrama Pastry Corner” near Giriulla. The other is a kiosk attached to a function hall outside Narammala. Both times it was not for a main meal. Luckily the short travel time on this road will make holding on to hunger pangs a lot easier.

Roadside assistance is another big unknown. Most likely you’ll have to ask the help of friendly locals to haul your stalled chariot to the nearest “garage”. Perhaps someone who knows more on this will chip in. Ideally the best way to avoid roadside break downs is to making sure your chariot is in good working order. Otherwise postpone the trip, get it repaired or get another chariot. Something that was totally ignored on road trips in my parents’ generation.


Writing about this route is not a guarantee of its safety or even its road conditions. The disclaimer on the map applies to description was well.

In all the years I’ve travelled in Sri Lanka – I’ve never been mugged. I’ve yet to hear about such an experience from anyone I know. Highway robbery is something that I’ve only heard about in relation to retail. The terrorism factor should be a natural consideration when planning travel. For Sri Lankan, it is subconsciously integrated into any all aspects of life. A new added danger could be the vigilante factor. Visitors to the country would need consult associated travel warnings etc.

There is another route along the north western coast on route A3 via Wilpathu park to Anuradhapura which runs into risks from terrorist attacks. The Australian government has a travel warning (dated 10 May 2008 ) against taking this route. The warning also mentions route B33 from Chilaw and Wariapola in Kurunegala district. I have no idea why. I suppose this eliminates the other route to Anuradhapura from Kurunegala via the A10 and A28 through Wariapola. I have never been on either of these routes.

Best part about the route I have described (to end this post on a positive note):

It takes you through an alternate Sri Lanka. No checkpoints or signs of war (this may change based on the prevailing political weather). You can actually enjoy the lush scenery scrolling past the window without worrying about the threat of maniacs on the road. It is a refreshing change from the scenery along the “usual” route – which has been ground to bland familiarity by countless trips since childhood.

Read a more detailed account of travelling down this road (mostly based on the first time I used this route).


16 thoughts on “Sri Lanka travel: time saving route to ancient sites lonely planet doesn’t know about

  1. Cerno,
    thanks for this, as always a very interesting post. there are many good eating/pit stop places in and around Giriulla Narammala, some of them function as guest houses/Reception halls so they do serve regular b’fest/lunch and have been quite popular with the tourism industry both local and foreign so , you can assume the staff at most of these places are sensitive to needs of the travelers!
    interesting map, where/how did you get it/do it? pls lets have a post on that. can be useful to us all !!!
    thanks again for the great post.
    p.s- how about ‘Cerno’s Travels’ ?


  2. Ravana:Thank you. Much appreciate the confirmation. Feel free to post a comment on this post is anything on the route changes. 🙂

    tinker: Thank you 🙂 any recommendations? I usually end up travelling loaded with supplies to hold on till Kurunegala 😉

    The map was banged out in an ancient version of Adobe Illustrator. A legal version at that. Something of a relic from another life long ago.

    To make the map I just traced over the roads I wanted using an image of the road network I found somewhere on the web. The current version is overkill for drawing a simple map. Open source apps like Inkscape would do quite nicely. Perhaps I’ll “upgrade” to Inkscape if I managed to get around to it… 🙂

    Interestingly inkscape has a tutorial blog that can do a better job than I can 🙂


  3. We almost always use the route you’ve described when going to A’pura, and then take the turn off at Padeniya/Wariyapola and head north on the A28, which has much less traffic than the A6 and A9… 🙂


      1. well, nothing much. it goes through some very impoverished areas (and dry too) and I can’t recall seeing any stand-alone toilets (although there are a few restaurants along the way). The road conditions though are pretty good! (being an A grade road) 🙂


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