Let me start this post by saying that when we first decided to go to Sri Lanka, I was only mildly excited – little did I know this was going to become one of my favourite places in the world.
Following our day trip to Sigiriya and a night in Kandy, we got on a train from Kandy to Ella to take in some scenic countryside views of the heart of the island.
It’s worth noting we did this journey a bit differently than most – we hired a driver for the “sightseeing” portion of our trip, because we were staying at 3 different hotels in as many nights, and we didn’t want to deal with luggage while on the train. With only a phone and a bottle of water in hand, our driver dropped us off at the boarding station and picked us up at our destination.
Additionally, we pre-booked our tickets about a month in advance, so we didn’t have to fight for seat availability with all the other adventure seekers.
Train schedules in Sri Lanka are notoriously unreliable so our driver went early in the morning to the train station in Kandy to check on the departure time. He was told the train was going to be 40 minutes late, so we indulged in a little bit of extra sightseeing.
I think you can guess where this is going – we missed the train, by about 10 minutes – and our driver who was visibly distraught by the mistake literally raced us to the next scheduled station.
Luckily, the train moves at the leisurely speed of 20 kmh, so it wasn’t improbable that we could make it. Mind you, the roads in Sri Lanka are not exactly the most accommodating when it comes to being in a rush – narrow, winding, crowded and full of equal number cars, people and cattle.
Built by the British in the nineteenth century to facilitate the transportation of tea, Sri Lanka’s railroads and signature blue trains have become a tourist attraction in their own right, the Kandy to Ella route a particular favourite. The journey through the island’s highlands, carpeted with tea plantations and scattered villages, is only about 150km but it takes about 7 hours.
Trains usually have 2 or 3 passenger classes. All the stories I had heard about the “authenticity” of travelling in third class where you would share a seat with people travelling with their chickens and goats was admittedly a bit much for me.
I am a creature of comfort, so unsurprisingly, we opted for the $15 first class ticket. What does a $15 train ticket buy you in Sri Lanka? A comfortable assigned seat and air conditioning!
Second and third class tickets are unreserved and therefore cannot be booked in advance – so, you have to show up at the station and depending on availability, purchase a ticket for your desired time and route. I am a little too neurotic (read “major control freak”) to leave things to chance, so first class suited me just fine 😉
In all honesty, I think I spent a total of about 15 minutes of the entire 7 hour journey in my actual air-conditioned seat. Even if you don’t know what you are in for, the excitement of the people around you is palpable.
Those who know how breathtaking the views are going to be, start looking for a “good spot” from where to enjoy and capture the amazing vistas and colourful people of the Sri Lankan highlands.
So, what do I mean when I say I spent so little time in my assigned, comfortable, air-conditioned seat? Well, I’m glad you asked – I opted for sitting on the floor by the open door of our carriage with my feet hanging out of the train. As time progressed I graduated to fully hanging out of the train when we slowed down or came to a stop at one of the many stations along the way.
Just to be clear, I am in no way advocating for other people to do this but for me it was one of the best experiences of my life. Safe? Hardly. Exhilarating? Thoroughly!
Perhaps the best part of the actual journey, aside from the views, was the people we got to meet on the train.
We had beers and veggie samosas with some of the train engineers whom we had made friends with. Their job is to fix the train if it breaks down in between stations (which happened to us once), and also assure that no clumsy tourists fall out of the moving train while attempting any variety of photo-op daredevil stunts.
We had decided to split our train journey in two separate days. So, on day one we got off the train at Nanu Oya/ Nuwara Eliya which is the area with all the tea factories and plantations in Sri Lanka. We spent the night at a delightful factory converted into a boutique hotel but that’s a story for a different day.
The question on most people’s minds who ride this route is which side of the train has the best views. I will say with complete confidence that from Nanu Oya to Ella the better side is definitely the left.
Trust me when I tell you this – this is a trip you do not want to miss out on. If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka and you haven’t looked into the train ride, it’s not too late. This is one of those experiences I will carry with me for the rest of my life and I cannot wait to go back to Sri Lanka again. (Hopefully as soon as next year!)
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Awesome writeup, reminds me of Peru… Looks like another destination has been added to my shortlist.
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Thank you, Ian! I have been really thinking of doing a Peru trip and if you say that Sri Lanka reminds you of Peru, then you really helped me make up my mind 🤩
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