The Most Dangerous Job in Sri Lanka

Hey. Let’s talk about driving. Specifically, driving in Sri Lanka. Or as it should more accurately be called, defying death every single breath.

Sri Lanka road safety

I live just a short metro ride away from downtown D.C. in a very lovely, historic neighborhood with all the restaurants and shopping my little heart desires located just blocks from my doorstep. Literally, there I live two blocks from both a Trader Joe’s and a larger, conventional grocery store. I work from home, but when I did work in an office every day, I took the metro, which is an 8-minute walk from my house.

These days, when I have an appointment or something that necessitates I go into D.C., I usually metro or take Uber. Which is all just to point out that 1) I’m used to putting my life in the hands of transportation strangers, and 2) my driving skills have certainly not been tested in quite a while and are probably not honed into a fine laser beam of awesomeness, so I’m not judging any Sri Lankan drivers skills or finesse.

But, I will point out, we’ve been to lots of countries where there are few (if any) traffic signals and whole families zip around piled up on mopeds, slipping in and out of traffic like they’re being carried along a fast-moving river current. And while these road encounters were sometimes heart stopping, nothing prepared me for the calamity and chaos of Sri Lanka’s roads.

Sri Lanka buses

First of all, “roads” is a pretty generous term. Sri Lanka does not have the best road system. It’s pretty limited and seems to rely mostly on old cart tracks, some of which have been paved, a bit. Sri Lanka’s first major highway, the 80-mile E01, opened in 2011. For comparison, Smithsonian.com notes, the U.S. interstate system is 46,876 miles long.

But mostly, while in Sri Lanka, drivers like ours (Thilani, aka Tilly from SL Driver Tours) must navigate narrow, two-lane highways crowded with cars, trucks, buses, “collective” buses (private for-profit buses that compete with the city buses), “gypsy” buses (vans with people hanging on to the sides, the tops, the back), tuk tuks, mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles.

Tuk tuk artwork in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuk artwork in Sri Lanka

There are no traffic lights or signals (except in very big cities like Colombo or Kandy) and there appear to be no traffic rules whatsoever. People are honking and passing and overtaking nonstop.

By the way, these roads have no shoulders to pull over to or use for passing, so people use the middle of the road to pass, resulting in a head-on game of chicken as vehicles bear down from the opposite direction.

The sides of the road, meanwhile, are packed with stray dogs, food stalls with open fires, makeshift vegetable and fruit stands, and people walking (there are no sidewalks), including children walking to school as early as 4:30 a.m., when it’s still dark out. Overhead lights are few and dim, making for especially dangerous driving conditions at night. The first note in my trip notebook is “Driving is pretty intense.”

Sri Lanka delivery truck
Do you want to share a narrow windy road with this delivery truck?

Sure, we’ve been on worse roads (the 50 km rutted and congested road from the airport in Arusha, Tanzania comes to mind, as does the road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in Cambodia). But I’ve never been somewhere where none of the cars were blaring music or talk radio. It’s completely silent except for the sounds of honking and some yelling. It has got to be the most dangerous job in Sri Lanka. Maybe the world.

Tilly told us that four people die every day from road accidents in Sri Lanka, but actually, the number might be higher than that. In 2015, more than 2,700 people were killed in road-related incidents. Luckily, we didn’t see any accidents during our 10-day stay, but that’s probably due only to the skill of our excellent driver, Tilly.

Car from SL Driver Tours
My view for most of the trip. Tilly definitely provided premium service, without injuring or killing anyone.

The guys over at World Nomads also have a pretty good description of the driving conditions in Sri Lanka.

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Cambodian Tuk Tuks

Cambodian tuk tuks
Cambodian tuk tuks from above

We had a ritual when we were in Siem Reap.

Well, it’s sort of a ritual we have whenever we travel, really.

It goes like this: Run around like crazy people most of the day, soaking in all the history and culture and sights we can lay our eyes on, make comments on all the assorted smells and sounds, file them all away into our jumbled brains. Compare. Contrast. Compare. Contrast.

Then head back to the hotel in the late afternoon for a swim, a shower, some downtime. Get dressed  and head down to the hotel bar for a drink and a round of dominoes before dinner.

For the most part, this routine in Siem Reap was the same as on any of our other travels. What made it different was the going to dinner part. Because then my very favorite part of the evening would occur: the tuk tuk ride.

Cambodian tuk tuks

Tuk tuks are everywhere in Cambodia, and we rode them in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but my favorites were the ones in Siem Reap, where frugal travellers and bohemian student types would take them back and forth to the temples and/or Pub Street. A tuk tuk is kind of like a rickshaw. It’s basically a scooter with a covered seat attached to the back like a two-wheeled trailer. The sides are open, and there’s a roof overhead to shield you from rain or sun.

Cambodian tuk tuks

Each evening we’d go to the front of our hotel and the doorman would call us a tuk tuk. The sun would be setting and the gardeners would be lighting the lanterns in the trees, as some garish yet faded tuk tuk would pull up. To go from our hotel — Le Meridien — to downtown Siem Reap was about a mile, and would cost us $2-$3.

We’d pull out of the circular drive, pulling along the dusty shoulder of the road until our driver could find a gap in the traffic and nose his way in, the put-put of dozens of other tuk tuks and the chattering of the riders blending together.

We’d slowly inch our way along Charles De Gaulle road, past dozens of barely lit, open-air food carts, surrounded by customers and families sitting on plastic chairs. The smoke from the cooking would mix with the dust from the road and create a haze.

Siem Reap cooking

There did not appear to be any road rules or very many traffic signals. Drivers would just inch forward, give way, inch forward, hold back. Surprisingly, there really wasn’t much honking of horns, although, when there was, it was that tiny little non-threatening scooter horn.

We’d drive past a large circular, non-working fountain that nonetheless drew crowds of people sitting on its ledge and socializing, or picnicking on the sliver of grass between the fountain and the road.

tuk tuk ride

We’d make our way past what I think was a school, and next to that, a large building with an advertisement on the side advertising either an upcoming fight or a political race. I’m not really sure. Then the Angkor National Museum and the Royal Residence, where the air would finally clear of smoke and dust, and the smell of frangipani would hang in the humid air around you for a couple of blocks. This was my favorite part. I would breathe deep and try to fill my lungs with it, close my eyes and just hear the putter of the tiny scooter’s engine.

While waiting for passengers, the drivers would congregate and eye people walking by. We noticed that most of them wore pants, even though it was unbearably hot. We speculated it was to protect their legs from flying bugs, although a small bug hitting your leg at approximately three miles an hour seems very unlikely to cause permanent damage.

The drivers did, however, like to pull their shirts up over their bellies in a sort of half-shirt situation that reminded me of when I was a kid and my sister and I used to pull our t-shirt tails through our neck hole to make a sassy halter top.

Cambodian tuk tuk drivers
Cambodian tuk tuk drivers

Some nights we’d ride along the river, watching the traffic on the other side going the opposite direction, enjoying the brief breezes before turning down a small road or alley where there was no breeze and inevitably, a traffic jam.

Phnom Penh tuk tuk traffic jam
Phnom Penh tuk tuk traffic jam

On our way home from dinner, we’d often take the same or similar route, and the magic was still there. The controlled chaos of hundreds of little tuk tuks marching along like ants, ferrying tourists back and forth in the warm night air heavy with frangipani.

Siem Reap tuk tuks