Until Sri Lanka I wouldn’t have considered myself much of a fan of rail journeys but the train ride between Kandy to Ella changed everything for me. It’s inspired more trips on tracks across Australia and India and plenty of posts where I wax lyrical about riding the rails in Sri Lanka.
What is so special about train travel in Sri Lanka?
This train journey from Kandy to Ella was the second we took on our Sri Lanka trip, having already travelled from Colombo to Kandy by rail too, and it was by far the most spectacular rail journey I have ever taken in my life.
Once safely settled in our assigned seats, myself and Nic – my travel buddy – took turns to sit in the one nearest the window. Resting my head on my arms, I poked my face out the open window and literally panted at the dramatic scenery rolling by.
Villages, plantations, waterfalls and hills rushed in and out of focus; the vegetation a lush shade of green that seemed impossible in this heat. From city, to jungle and forest, the backdrop changed as we wound ever further through the Hill Country, each scene no less beautiful than the one just before it.
Unlike in the UK where the train station always seems to be on the outskirts of town, the railway line took us straight through the heart of various villages. Farms and shops backed directly onto the line, locals walked along it as if it was a road.
Peppered along the track would be families waiting to cross, casually waving to the passengers passing by. The children would show a little more excitement, you could hear them before you saw them, appearing from bushes and buildings shrieking and waving like maniacs.
The train chugged along in this manner for 6 long hours but not once did I look away from the window.
I’m no train geek but this journey made me into one; I’ve never enjoyed a journey quite like it.
Tips for train travel in Sri Lanka
- Book in advance. We travelled in 2014 and had little trouble booking reserved 2nd class seating once we landed in Sri Lanka. Tourism has since exploded and the journey I’ve described from Kandy to the Hill Country is often packed. (I’ve seen pictures of people standing next to the toilets for the 6 hour journey.) The best thing is to reserve your seats as soon as you land in Sri Lanka, if you don’t yet know your plans, or better yet book online in advance. Even with online bookings you can expect to pay only £12 for a reserved seat in the 1st class observation carriage. Visit Seat61 for a detailed guide on how to book tickets.
- What is the difference between 2nd and 3rd class train carriages? A few cushions! We travelled from Colombo to Kandy in 2nd class and were relieved to find the carriage comfortable and cool due to the open windows and fans on the ceiling. There was ample space to store luggage overhead and most of the other occupants were also tourists. In 3rd class the only difference was the seat, which was a plastic hard one instead of a padded couch. We spent the 6-hour journey from Kandy to Ella in 3rd class but were too enamoured by the scenery to notice our bums. If it starts to get numb just go for a walk. There were more locals traveling in 3rd class, all of whom were really friendly and more than willing to share their food.
(Pictured is the 2nd class carriage from Colombo to Kandy)
- How much and how long? Prices have increased since our trip. According to Seat61 wxpect to pay £8 from Colombo to Kandy in 2nd class reserved or £10 in air-conditioned 1st class, for example, or £10 from Colombo to Nanuoya or Elle in 2nd class reserved, £12 in the 1st class observation car.
- Come armed with snacks and water. For the first part of the journey there were vendors at the station selling local snacks and drinks but as the journey went on and our supplies ran out there was no one around to buy more from. The only saving grace was the chai wallah who came through the carriage about 5 hours into the journey and saved my dry throat with an extra sweet milky tea.
(Snacks sold onboard at bigger stations)
- Pack wet wipes, loo roll and hand wash. Without being graphic the toilets on the Sri Lankan trains were far better than others I have seen in India and Thailand but you will still need to bring your own sanitary provisions.
- Keep hold of your ticket. It will be collected from you as you leave the station at the other end. If you want a souvenir of the journey maybe take a photo of it before you get off.
- Stick to the right. If your train is empty enough for you to have a choice try requesting seats on the right hand side of the train (as you face forward) when travelling from Kandy to the Hill Country. Although the scenery is sumptuous on both sides this side seemed to have better views of the valleys.
- Find a door. Maybe don’t copy the locals and travel on the outside of the train but if you can find an open doorway (and most doors will be unlocked throughout the journey) take a seat on the floor and watch the train wind around the track. Some of my better photos were taken while sitting in an open doorway (holding on tight with one hand, of course.)
How To Get A Visa For Sri Lanka
In 2012 Immigration introduced the ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) system so you can obtain a visa to Sri Lanka online. As long as you have your passport, a credit card and access to internet, you can make the application anywhere. The ETA is usually issued with 6 months validity and it is valid for 2 entries. For each entry, you are allowed to stay in Sri Lanka for 30 days maximum. If you have to stay longer than 30 days, there are different ways to do it: you can apply to extend the visa from Immigration in Colombo after arrival in Sri Lanka; or you can apply for a 60 days tourist visa from the local embassy prior to your trip; alternatively, you exit Sri Lanka after 30 days then come back again to get 30 more days with the 2nd entry.
If you are travelling to Sri Lanka I hope you get the chance to travel by train. It was certainly one of my trip highlights.