UPDATED JUNE 2019
When one thinks of Sri Lanka, images of varied landscapes come to mind: tea plantations, mountains, cityscapes, ancient ruins and coastline. This safe and friendly nation has everything you could imagine. To bridge these diverse landscapes, one has to travel somehow. And now, I might be a little bit biased, but I believe that a Sri Lanka train journey is the most enriching way to see the island.
Over a period of almost three weeks, I slowly explored the hill country of Sri Lanka, purposefully soaking up the culture, cuisine, and landscapes of the region. Sri Lanka’s hill country is dense with potential journeys and natural wonders to explore, and, perhaps most importantly, it has abundant tea. The cooler climate and afternoon rains made it a pleasant change from the humidity and hectic-ness of Colombo. When I made this journey a few years ago now, it was a peaceful and introspective adventure. I sincerely hope it hasn’t changed too much since the Instagram boom. My memories of these slow blue trains and sharing moments with locals within the carriages are ones I will treasure for a long time.
My journey consisted of going from Colombo to Kandy, and then onto Nuwara Eliya and Ella, all of which was done on the slow, rhythmic trains. The journey took me past hundreds of kilometres of breathtaking landscape, involved enthusiastic waves to wide-eyed Sri Lankan children, and many hours spent hanging out the windows with the wind in my hair. The sound of conversation filled our ears, and the nostalgic chug of the train was a permanent reminder of the journey I had embarked on.
Trains never seem to be boring as the scenery is always changing and you are able to see human life in a way not possible by some other modes of transport. It’s fast enough to get somewhere quickly, but slow enough to enjoy the tapestry of life pass out the window. Quite an amazing way to travel, really. The old British-style trains, stations and railway paraphernalia are reminiscent of an age gone by and seem rather familiar. Whether you are heading down to colonial Galle, or up through the Tea Country, seeing Sri Lanka by train is guaranteed to give you a journey you won’t forget.
SRI LANKA TRAIN TRAVEL BASICS
Language: Sinhala, Tamil, English
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee ($1AUD = 115LKR, see updated conversion rates here)
Visas: required for Australian visitors and most Western countries. The process is easy if you get an e-visa in advance from www.eta.gov.lk.
SRI LANKA TRAIN MAPS AND TIMETABLES
BUYING YOUR SRI LANKA TRAIN TICKETS
You are unable to buy tickets for Sri Lankan railways online so everything has to be done at the station. I found it best to figure out my entire journey and then buy all the tickets in advance from Colombo Fort Station upon arrival into Sri Lanka to guarantee seats. Since Sri Lanka has become a touristy destination, and doing the train trips are one of the most popular attractions, seats are harder and harder to secure.
If you want tickets for the unreserved 2nd and 3rd class carriages then it is just that: unreserved. Tickets are only available at the station on the day of the train departing (this could mean the whole day that the train departs, or just an hour before leaving – it can vary). If you like winging it then just rock up before your train, buy a ticket and get on. Unreserved sections are less likely to sell out; however they can get crowded and you will probably have to stand, especially in holiday times. Despite this, if you travel to mingle with locals and have authentic experiences — this is the way to make memories.
RESERVED 2ND AND 3RD CLASS
Some trains (generally longer distance ones) will have reserved 2nd class cars and some even have reserved 3rd class trains. You can book these up to 30 days in advance. Stations like Colombo Fort Station and Kandy Station are able to do this for you. Tickets for reserved cars are likely to sell out in advance by other travellers and sometimes tour groups, so get in as soon as you can to secure a seat.
RESERVED 1ST CLASS
Again, these tickets sell out fast so try and book them in advance if you can. These tickets are hard to come by as often larger groups of travellers will book these carriages out. Tickets in reserved 1st class are the most expensive and, as discussed below, I’m not too sure that the extra money is actually worth it.
When I did my Sri Lanka train journey I managed to experience all the different carriage classes for various reasons. If you can do this, I would recommend it so you get the full experience of Sri Lankan train travel. In reality, there is not a whole lot of difference between the classes it is just that securing a first class/second class reserved ticket means you are less likely to be dealing with crowds and overbooking of carriages. But hey, I loved each and every class because they all had their own charm and benefits.
1ST CLASS AIR CONDITIONED
This is a carriage that is high quality and is equipped with air conditioning, reclining seats, etc. It felt very Westernised and not what I had expected for the journey, given I was envisioning hanging out of train windows and sitting on wooden bench seats. For those who like comfort and want to avoid crowded carriages then this is the class for you. Keep in mind that because there is air conditioning the windows do not open in 1st class so you cannot hang your head out.
2ND CLASS RESERVED
This was my favourite option for several reasons. In second class reserved you get the peace of mind of having a booked ticket, knowing that you have a seat, and not having to worry about things being too crowded. But alongside this you are still able to have the full Sri Lankan train experience by being able to hang out windows and doors. The seats here were still comfortable and it was easy to meet other people and have interesting conversation.
2ND CLASS UNRESERVED
Again, the seats are still comfy in 2nd class unreserved you just may not be guaranteed to have one. Crowds are more likely here in unreserved carriages so be prepared particularly in busy travel periods. Luckily when I tried this carriage class it wasn’t a busy time and there were spare seats available, but I have heard different experiences from others.
3RD CLASS RESERVED
There is not a whole heap of difference between 3rd class reserved and 2nd class reserved, to be perfectly honest. The seats are not as comfortable and you share with more people but it is still a great train experience. If you are looking to save some cash on your travels, I would just go 3rd class reserved over 2nd.
3RD CLASS UNRESERVED
This is a bit different, purely due to being unreserved. You lose the comfort of the seats and the fans rarely work, but these are minor problems when there aren’t many people because you can just open a window and enjoy the view and fresh air. However when it gets crowded, 3rd class unreserved is very crowded. If you are in Sri Lanka during any festival time then I would not recommend taking 3rd class unreserved. There is no limit to the tickets sold so they basically cram as many people in as possible which isn’t the most pleasant experience.
COLOMBO TO KANDY
This 2.5 hour journey was done in air-conditioned first class (for only $5) and was a wonderful journey. The character-filled train slowly made its way out of Colombo through the outer suburbs, which morphed into smaller colourful towns, rice paddies and then into mountainous jungle.
The scenery was breathtaking, but it was oddly frustrating and intriguing to be shooting through these areas unable to stop and fully explore. The train slowly chugged through the jungle, traversing farm land, winding through mountains, and past families washing vibrant clothes in the rivers. Snaking ever upwards through the mountains, I enjoyed all the greenery out of the windows which was a welcomed change from the Colombo metropolis.
The train stopped at several stations along the way, and I sat watching a host of different people get on and off and wondered where their journeys were taking them. All the while, the TVs on the walls consistently blared dramatic and musical Sri Lankan sitcoms, which despite the language barrier were rather entertaining. Soon enough, the train pulled into the station at Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, and I was keen to put my backpack down and be out of transit.
KANDY TO NUWARA ELIYA
It is impossible to deny that this train journey is one of the most spectacular in the world. I was admittedly apprehensive when I was told at the station that “there is only 3rd class left”. Before doing this journey myself, I hadn’t heard much about travel on Sri Lankan trains and my mind jumped to conclusions. There was no choice but to purchase the tickets and embrace the adventure.
However, my worry about no toilets and big crowds in the sweltering heat were for nothing. When I handed the ticket to the officer he told us that because we had booked in advance I actually had a reserved seat. Not entirely sure how that happened. Although there was less leg room, the journey was honestly barely different. With my eyes glued to the scenery passing the windows, it not at all bothered me what the carriages were like inside. I sat opposite a retired French couple and swapped travel stories and advice in broken French and English. Because there was no air-con the windows opened so everyone could hang out which was exhilarating.
I passed the 3.5 hours with my head out the windows and sitting out the doorways, retracting quickly if I could see any kind of protruding rock or tree coming at full force. There was something quite freeing about doing this. Pre-Instagram, there wasn’t a worry about the doorways being crowded with influencers, it was instead a meeting place of interesting backpackers and friendly local kids, all just enjoying the scenery.
The train was slow, covering only 67km in the entire journey but it meant everyone could fully appreciate the amazing views. There were mountains, valleys and oodles of lush tea plantations. It was exactly what I was hoping for – and the blue skies made it all the more magical. As I swung out the doors waving at children doing the same thing in other carriages, I realised that these incredible journeys is what travel is all about.
NUWARA ELIYA TO ELLA
After a wonderful few days in Nuwara Eliya, an old colonial hub referred to as “Little England” which was used to escape the heat of the lower-lying regions, it was time to move on to Ella. If the stunning national parks and tea estates of Nuwara Eliya were anything to go by, the train journey towards the next destination was going to be breath-taking. This time I opted to try 2nd class for the 3 hour journey, and it was definitely my favourite class and provided the best all-round experience. The large opening windows, fans and opening doors made it a spectacular adventure.
The train wound its way up to the highest station in Sri Lanka, and then back down again until we reached the destination. The journey was in the late afternoon, so the evening mist and rain had truly set in. It made it all a lot more mysterious, as most of the time I could not even see the end of the train due to the thickness of the mist. The train passed many small towns and we all waved as people sat under their dripping awnings watching the train pass, an undeniably exciting part of the day. The rain added to the tremendous amount of water passing through the rough natural waterfalls dotted throughout the jungle.
Through forests (with a surprising amount of gum trees!) and past valleys, meandering through towns, temples and tea plantations, the slow blue train eventually pulled into Ella as the sun had set and the cracking rain had settled in for the evening.
MY TOP TIPS FOR SRI LANKA TRAIN JOURNEYS
- If you know your rough itinerary, try to book your tickets in advance from the first station you visit in Sri Lanka. This will ensure you have a seat for your journey.
- Travel in second or third class carriages to be able to open the windows and enjoy the atmosphere.
- Avoid travelling in busy periods and on Sri Lankan holidays
- Bring plenty of snacks and water if you are planning on a longer journey
- Don’t catch a train if you have a tight schedule — they frequently run quite late or encounter delays
- Speak to people in the carriages, it is the perfect opportunity to learn about local life
- Stay safe and don’t hang out of the carriages if there is any sign of danger, it’s not worth the risk