The Mythical Airport Bus.

The Katunayake Airport. Photo by indi.ca

The Katunayake Express

It is virtually impossible to get to the Katunayake Airport by public transport. At least that’s what most people believe. Anyone who has ever been to the country’s only international airport has surely noticed the absolute lack of a high-speed rail service, a dedicated slow-speed rail service(they did try this for a while but it seems to have been abandoned) or even a shuttle bus.

Getting from the airport is even worse as hoards of jetlagged, disoriented tourists are left with little option but to fall easy prey to the various unscrupulous taxi companies based in the arrivals lobby and the even less scrupulous touts who lurk at the roadside pickup area.

Ultimate proof of the complete failure of airport public transport is the fact that taking a private taxi or using a driver isn’t simply an indulgence for tourists or the moneyed, even the most humble migrant worker off to toil in Kuwait seems to make some sort of arrangement with fellow travelers to share a van or tuk tuk. Obviously this is because it’s impossible to get to the airport using public transport.

Or is it?

Anyone who has made it past the first row of waiting family members, the second row of predatory tour companies and the final phalanx of hustling van and tuk drivers will have noticed a grimy, blue prison-like bus perpetually parked at the far end of the collection point.

With its barred windows and prominent rust patches I’ve always assumed that this was a conveyance for unfortunate airport workers or maybe some antiquate lepers’ transport as those using it seemed to be both generally ashamed and shunned by others on the platform. On a recent trip to the airport however I discovered that the vehicle in question was in fact the airport bus. So for a handful of diehard travelers – the bafflingly impoverished and people without even the friends and family to share a van with- this is Colombo’s version of Shanghai’s 400km/h Pudong airport maglev express.

Once I discovered the busses purpose I pitied the poor souls using it and didn’t give it much further thought until last week when, needing to make a rush trip to Singapore, I managed to book a single ticket to the lion city for Rs. 6000, thank you Tiger Airways. With taxes it came to Rs 7500. Given I was spending Rs. 7000 to go the 2000 kilometers to Singapore spending Rs. 2500 (standard airport taxi fare) on the 25 kilometers to the airport seemed absurdly expensive. A tuk tuk can be hired for Rs 1500 but inhaling the fumes of the odious Negombo road didn’t seem worth it, which is when I remembered the bus.

Now not knowing anything about the airport bus service other than that I had seen one waiting outside the arrivals terminal once, at 6 PM (five hours before my flight) I set off for Pettah on the understanding that all busses must at some point pass through this mecca.

Carrying one of my mother’s old handbags (the low fare was for 7kg of cabin baggage only), it was that or a torn lap top bag, I tried to navigate the chaos of the pettah bus stand. Careering langama busses everywhere, a near infinite number of vendors and even more pedestrians but no one seemed to know anything about an airport bus.

Not here they said at the central bus stand. Maybe round the corner was the word at the Gunasinghapura bus stand. Finally I was told to wait at the pedestrian overpass opposite the Fort railway station. Indeed after a short wait a 187 airport bus appeared. I jumped on thinking that I had quite efficiently freed myself from dependence on Kangaroo cabs but no, when I asked for a ticket to the airport the conductor said he was only going as far as Ja-Ela and let me off near Keyzer street saying another 187 would soon pass by. None came.

Things were getting desperate and my effort to reach Singapore via the pavements of Pettah was beginning to seem futile. The man at the sarvath stall behind me seemed amused. But just as I was beginning to lose hope I caught sight of a dilapidated 187, though it failed to respond to my outstretched hand I pursued it determinedly. While the chase ended with me cursing as it sped off into the distance I finally found myself at the correct spot- outside the Bastian Mawatha bus stand, before the bo tree junction, next to a truck selling juice; the 187 sweet spot. I just had to watch, wait then leap through traffic and clamber frantically onboard when I saw the next one coming.

I was finally on the airport bus. My sense of relief though was dulled by the sensation being wedged between seven people at once on a particularly creaky bus in bad traffic. The confused expression on the conductor’s face when I asked for a ticket to the airport was also not reassuring, but in the end he asked me for Rs. 50 (take that Rs. 2500 Kangaroo Cabs).

Looking up at my fellow passengers saris, shirts and faces clearly not anticipating a few days shopping in Bangkok I realized the 187 is an ordinary commuter bus that plies the Negombo road and just happens to terminate at the airport. Everyone else was just going home. This meant that after a certain point, I think it was Wattala, the crowding eased and I was able to sit down and arrange my hand bag.

With a good window seat and the bus now speeding along things were finally looking up. In no time in fact I saw the old Airport Garden Hotel. Not a bad ride, hardly an hour and half, I prepared a triumphant text message, but there was one final hitch – the airport bus doesn’t go to the airport. It goes to a dusty clearing somewhere near the airport which, like the terminus of most local bus routes, contains a pack of stray dogs and some idling tuk tuk drivers.

The tuk wallahs demanded Rs. 200 to take me to the airport but as the whole point of my expedition had been to cut costs I decided to save the money, orient myself, and walk. I found the last stretch of the airport access road just a few meters away and, while the guards were surprised to see someone ambling onto the airport compound, in only 20 minutes I was at the terminal. Dusty, disheveled not quite primed for champagne on the Concord but the journey took just over two hours (plus an hour of 187 hunting in Pettah) which wasn’t bad and cost Rs 50 which was great. Most importantly, I discovered that you really can take a bus to the airport.

Would I recommend it? Well once you pass Wattala it’s a perfectly decent bus ride, the problem is tracking down the 187 but now I know where to wait I might be inclined to do it again. For the pleasure of not giving into cabs and saving Rs 2500. At 7500 net for a single, three airport bus trips and you save enough money for another trip to Singpore!

(I have to admit though that on my return to the mother island I shelled out for a cab)

Remember- The Bastian Mawatha bus stand is the sweet spot.

Note – As this bus didn’t in fact take me to the airport compound I began again to question the purpose of the rickety blue bus that waits outside the arrivals terminal is. One authority told me its just a shuttle to the bus 187 bus terminus but given how fluid things are I am going to have to get on it to be sure… Next time.

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