Posted: April 30, 2023 | Last Update: 26. Jun 2023
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Sri Lanka's world famous scenic train rides
Train rides are for Sri Lanka what gondola rides are for Venice or Colosseum-visits for Rome: you simply cannot miss these must-do activities.
Any traveller to Sri Lanka should therefore plan at least one train journey along the world famous Kandy to Ella route. The train ride through jungle, remote villages and tea plantations was definitely one of the highlights of our Sri Lanka tour, as you get to admire the beautiful scenery and the life of the locals from a different perspective. And the experience is so inexpensive it really won’t break the bank.
This is one of my favourite photos of our Sri Lanka vacation. It’s a shot of me during an epiphany: the moment I realised how great train rides can be. Sri Lanka has taught me that panoramic train rides are a fabulous way of getting to know the scenery as well as the people of a destination while still getting from A to B. This experience has been a true eye opener for me and therefore one of my favourite memories of the trip.
The most scenic train route: Kandy to Ella
Without any doubt, the most beautiful train route in all of Sri Lanka is the world renowned rail journey between Kandy and Ella/Badulla in the Central Highlands.
It was built during the British colonial times to convey the most valued commodity at the time: tea.
Even though the steam trains from olden times are no more, you can still feel the very British flair in the colonial train stations.
Covering the full 100miles stretch between Kandy and Badulla however takes a good eight hours: if you don’t have a full day at your disposal, we recommend simply doing just a section of the route.
Before sharing our personal experiences with you below, I have compiled a quick and handy guide for you:
Know before you go: a guide to train rides in Sri Lanka
Train ride costs: Ticket prices
Train rides in Sri Lanka are affordable for everyone.
As you can see on the picture of the ticket prices below, most routes cost barely a handful of dollars even in the more expensive 2. class (conversion rate at the time was 320 LKR = 1 USD).
How and where to buy train tickets:
You have two options for purchasing a train ticket in Sri Lanka:
a) At the ticket counter at the station
b) through your tour operator.
The advantage of the latter is they can also get you a seat reservation.
This won’t be possible at the ticket counter nor online, because as soon as the seat reservations are published online, they are gone.
Our guide explained to us that some people buy them in bulk and then sell them on the black market.
Advantage of seat reservations
There is a whole carriage dedicated to reserved seat tickets, where you don’t have to fight for your seats or, worse, stand.
First, second or third class train ticket?
Not all trains have a first class, usually that’s only available in the fast trains. However, first class carriages are air-conditioned, hence cold, and the windows cannot be opened - that is not really the authentic experience we are looking for.
We were lucky to get ‘2nd class reserved’ tickets through our guide. Second class carriages have padded and wipeable seats that are arranged in groups of four with a table.
Comfort in third class is definitely lower - expect wooden benches or having to stand.
Comfort and cleanliness on Sri Lankan trains
You might find it strange that I even mention this, but we were unsure of how clean and comfortable the trains might be.
Here is what we learnt:
The modern blue trains are very clean (at least in second class) and have wipeable faux-leather seats. The more dated rust coloured trains only have wooden benches of questionable comfort and looked less well maintained.
Temperatures and what to wear on a train ride
Will it be hot? Will I be cold? What shall I wear? Those are relatable questions when embarking on your first train journey through Sri Lanka.
The temperatures on board the train are pleasant and not too hot. There is always a bit of a draft due to the windows being open. In case it gets too hot, you can also turn on the ceiling fans.
If taking a train to or through Nuwara Eliya, it will get a bit chilly. I recommend bringing a jumper.
Now you know how it all works in theory, we want to share our real life experience with you:
I had heard and read about the far famed, world renowned train journeys in Sri Lanka even before our journey, and made sure it was included in our itinerary.
The plan was to stay in Haputale to visit Lipton’s Seat and take the train to Nanu Oya.
Imagine our disappointment when we found out the day prior to our train ride that there was a strike and rail service was not going to run. Oh no, just what are the chances of it happening on that exact day? Just our bad luck, eh!
To add insult to injury, rainy and foggy weather made our visit of Lipton’s Seat less than amazing, too. Really not how we had envisioned our trip.
There’s no way around it, I have to change our plans!
I know there is no way I won’t forever kick myself for not having been able to tick these two experiences off my bucket-list.
So I get in touch with our tour operator and ask them to re-shuffle our itinerary: shave two days off our beach stay and add the two nights to our stay at the amazing Melheim Resort in Haputale.
The following morning greets us with clear blue sky and the news outlets confirm the strike is over, rail service is resumed - the markings for a perfect day on a train.
Starting in Haputale, we hop on the train and head north.
As the train gathers speed (that sounds a lot more exciting than it is, because it’s really not that fast), the beautiful scenery of Sri Lanka’s central highlands unfolds before our eyes. Green hills, lush forests, waterfalls and tea plantations roll past. The scenery is breathtaking. Onwards we ride, passing villages sometimes consisting of just a handful of huts and a temple - THIS is the Sri Lanka of our dreams.
Wherever the train stops, business ensues.
Produce farmers whose fields we just crossed sell their harvest right on the train tracks - bargains and purchases are made through the train windows, which appears to be a standard way of shopping groceries in Sri Lanka. The locals on the train confirm there’s no cheaper and fresher way of purchasing fruits and vegetables.
Meanwhile at the stations, the local street food vendors wait for trains to pull in. With baskets full of freshly baked snacks like samosas, roti and dal cookies, they are ready for a quick sale: it all looks and smells so delicious we can’t let the opportunity pass, either.
Two samosas and two filled rolls set us back by barely 2 US$.
The landscape gets increasingly hillier as we draw closer to Nuwara Eliya. That is Sri Lanka’s most elevated city, at an altitude of 6128 feet - and also its coolest, with a mean temperature of 16°C / 60°F. Given the open windows, it is now getting chilly on the train, and we are glad we brought a jumper.
Making friends with the locals
As we leave Haputale, the train carriage is mostly empty but for us and a Sri Lankan family of nine (whom we will make friends with in due course).
Riding the train together is the ideal opportunity for an ‘intercultural exchange’: the locals are just as curious about us as we are about them.
But - how to start a conversation?
The simplest way to get chatting is by just asking them where they are going.
Or you just do like we did: we had brought a bag of wine gums from home which I passed around and offered to everyone - while they were shy at first, they soon learnt it was a genuine offer and soon all four generations grabbed some of the yummy treats.
Such a great ice breaker, I wholeheartedly recommend you try it for yourself.
Once we arrive in Nanu Oya, the train starts filling up. More and more passengers hop on and the ‘not reserved’ carriages are almost full. We are lucky our carriage is still fairly empty and comfortable, but most seats are taken now. Not to worry - more opportunity to get to know some more of the locals.
Are train rides in Sri Lanka worth the hype?
YES, the train rides are definitely a MUST-DO activity during your time in Sri Lanka. Do not miss it!
Four hours after our departure from Haputale, our train pulls into Hatton station. It's time for us to continue our journey by car, which leaves us a bit sad.
The train ride in Sri Lanka is one of our favourite memories from the trip - and one that will last us for a lifetime.
When booking your tour to Sri Lanka, we definitely recommend making sure you spend as much time as possible in the Central Highlands and include a train ride - you won't regret it. Check out the amazing choice of tours offered by TourRadar*
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