Railroading Across Sri Lanka

Ella Train

One of the themes of our travels has been the desire to visit countries never visited before.  In the most shallow of senses, we are chasing new stamps on the passport or tallies in our growing list of countries visited.  The truth for me is that I have a strong desire to experience new cultures and see different natural wonders.  For the Asia leg of our trip, of the 10 countries we visited, I had previously visited seven of them; whereas for Cecilia, that number was two.  And while this is largely due to the fact that I previously lived in Singapore for four years and traveled broadly across Southeast Asia in that time, I was happy to retread some of my favorite spots while discovering new corners of each country in my favorite region of the world.

One of the countries that I had not yet visited, but was dying to get to on this trip, was Sri Lanka.  For a tiny island, it packs a ton of variety – amazing mountains, incredible beaches, and arguably some of the best parks for safari outside of Africa.  Back near the end of 2018 when we were looking ahead to future locations, I had it in my mind that we would spend at least three weeks in Sri Lanka and try to cover most of the country.  All of that changed when a big event came up for a very close friend in the Netherlands that we really wanted to attend, and hence why we now find ourselves in Europe, desperately missing the warmth of southern Asia.  And also why our trip to Sri Lanka was reduced to five whirlwind days, much of it spent on trains in between our three locations of choice – Colombo, Kandy and Ella.

Ella hiking
One of the amazing hikes through the mountains surrounding Ella.

The trains in Sri Lanka have a near legendary status, known for the vast network throughout the country, much of it passing along beautiful shoreline or through incredibly lush jungle mountain passes.  We agreed that for our quick trip, we would focus on mountain passes with hiking-based destinations, as opposed to shorelines and beach-based destinations.  As soon as we had agreed on dates and a route, we immediately attempted to book our trains ahead of time, knowing the popularity of the routes we had chosen.  We utilized Visit Sri Lanka Tours to put in requests for tickets, and within about 24 hours of our slightly challenging online paypal transaction, we received word on our ticket allotment.  For Colombo to Kandy, we got reserved seats for the first-class observation car, the “golden ticket”.  We also managed first-class observation for Ella back to Colombo.  However, we received a sold out notice for the extremely popular Kandy to Ella leg – we would just have to try and purchase tickets on the day of travel, something that everything we read indicated was very feasible and actually part of the “authentic experience” of train travel in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka Observation
Cecilia peering out of the Observation Saloon.

We arrived early at Colombo Fort station on the morning of Thursday, February 28th, less than 24 hours after we had arrived in the country.  I immediately went out to the train platforms to perform an initial inspection on the trains.  They were nicer than I had expected.  While they certainly were not modern trains, they had a rustic quality to them.  Imagine the type of trains that you would want to ride in to feel like you are getting that authentic experience that writers have described for decades:  slightly rickety, nothing fancy, but plenty of comfort lending ample opportunity to both interact with your neighbor and watch out the window as we passed by the different sites.  The “Observation Saloon” was remarkably pleasant – large padded seats, plenty of luggage storage, and air-conditioning.  It was the last car in the train, with huge floor-to-ceiling windows at one end of the car, allowing the riders to stare out the back of the train to watch everything we were passing disappear into the distance.  It also came with a cabin for the train ‘guard’ whose job it was to ensure only those holding reserved tickets were allowed in the car.  I also inspected 2nd and 3rd class, and was surprised to find the number of foreigners in the cars, comfortably seated and eagerly awaiting their journey into the mountains.  I immediately felt much more comfortable that even if we did not have reserved seats, we would be more than fine for our next leg from Kandy to Ella.

The first half of the trip was fairly boring – we watched the city gradually turn to villages and farmland, while adjusting ourselves to the constant side-to-side rocking of the train.  We each decided that catching a little extra sleep was more desirable than taking in the views.  About halfway into the three-hour trip, things started to get significantly more interesting as the train started climbing up into the mountains.  We passed through numerous tunnels, carving our way through the different mountain passes.  We were amazed by how green it was – thick jungle on each side of the track, interspersed with the occasional village and tea plantation.  Huge banana trees, seemingly wild and not part of massive plantations, were visible everywhere.  I also noticed the distinct sight of jackfruit trees, with their massive fruits dangling perilously from the trunks, high up in the trees.  We arrived in Kandy by mid-morning, very happy with our first train experience in Sri Lanka, but really looking forward to the next leg.  We stopped at the ticket window as we exited the station in order to attempt to secure tickets ahead of time.  However, we were told by the station attendant that all of the reserved seats were sold out and that we should arrive slightly before 8am on the day of travel to secure unreserved seats.

We woke up early two days later and made our way to the train station – we were a little disappointed in Kandy and were excited to be going to Ella.  We arrived at the train station around 7:45am and immediately wished we had gotten there earlier.  There were already about 40 people ahead of us in line (most of them western travelers), hoping to secure a ticket on the train to Ella.  Once the ticket window opened, we all funneled through without much issue, easily obtaining third class unreserved seats.  We headed out to the platform and started waiting alongside a growing number of people who were waiting for the same train.  The number of people did not seem overwhelming, but you could sense that people were gearing up for the train’s arrival so they could fight their way onboard in the hopes of securing a seat.

Sri Lanka Packed Train
Enough space eventually opened up for the food vendors to make it through.

As the train finally pulled up, over an hour late at this point, the fear started to set in.  We could see the passengers, mostly Sri Lankans, hanging out of every car.  The first set of cars rolled by, allowing us to peak into the train, and we realized every seat was taken and people were packed into the aisles.  I debated calling off everything and hoping for better luck on the next train or perhaps finding a bus.  However, we decided to push on, and I ended up getting extremely lucky that the train halted at the perfect spot with an entrance door right in front of me.  A few people disembarked, and I fought my way onto the train, huge backpack on my back with my other bag in my hand.  I hardly made it onto the train when the movement of the occupants stopped – we had seemingly hit full capacity and Cecilia (and about 20 others) stood on the platform hoping they would still find a way onto the train.  People shouted and pushed and I saw enough space for at least Cecilia and her bags to make their way in.  I signaled to some of the men crowding the entry corridor to make room for Cecilia and they stepped in and helped her get on board.  I could sense the fear and discomfort in Cecilia as she was being pushed and shoved as she fought to get enough space for herself and her bag, but she signaled to me that we were not getting off this train no matter how uncomfortable it was.  We managed to get ourselves and our bags into the main cabin of the train, with Cecilia scoring a standing point that even got a little air from one the few functioning overhead fans.  Luckily, a nice family from Canada, who was already squeezing five people into a space meant for two, saw our predicament and offered to make a little more space so that we could set our bags down.

Turns out, not only was this an extremely popular route for tourists, but this was also a major route for locals looking to escape Colombo.  And, it just so happened that it was the Saturday morning of a long weekend with the Maha Shivaratri Hindu holiday coming up on Monday – it felt like a significant portion of the entire country of Sri Lanka was on that train.  We embraced the experience and set in for the long ride ahead.  The first couple hours were similar to the final portion of our ride into Kandy – deep green jungles and the occasional village or tea plantation.  The train kept climbing in altitude and you could sense that the views we had read about were not too far away.  Despite the cramped spaces, everybody on the train was in a good mood.  Some people had brought drums and a large group that dominated our car broke out into song. Additionally, as each station passed, more people got off the train than got on, and Cecilia and I were able to work our way further into our train and secure a little more space for ourselves.  

Hanging out of train
We finally got a seat and some fresh air!

About 3 hours into the trip, we struck gold.  The family we had been standing next to offered up their seats to us as they prepared to get off the train.  They were a young Sri Lankan couple, with a beautiful baby, and they took a liking to us as we made faces with their child in an attempt to keep him smiling.  Luckily for us, we also managed to get our seats right as the scenery started to crescendo.  We basked in the glory of having our own seats while looking out onto impossibly beautiful landscapes.  However, not long had passed before we pulled into Hatton station, the stop for Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s most famous trekking destination, and a lot more people got on the train.  Most of them were westerners and amazed at how packed the train was.  We decided to pay forward some of the goodwill shown to us and offer up one of our seats to two Swedish women who were traveling the country on break from their semester of school in Singapore.  We spent the rest of the train ride sharing stories about travel and the love of most things Singapore, pausing occasionally to look at the scenery.  We pulled into Ella a few hours after the scheduled arrival time, but early enough to have enough light to find our guest house before it turned dark.  We were exhausted, but also incredibly happy we had survived one of our most interesting and challenging travel days of our entire trip.

Sri Lanka Tea
One of the many tea plantations we passed between Kandy and Ella.

After two memorable days in Ella (the place is deserving of its own dedicated post), we boarded our final train back towards Colombo.  Admittedly, I felt much more at ease knowing we had reserved seats in observation class, especially considering this was the longest of our three legs – we were backtracking over what we covered on the first two legs combined.  Although the vistas were familiar, they were no less stunning.  This time, I was able to enjoy the space provided by a reserved ticket and spent a large portion of the ride standing by the open door, taking in all the fresh air and the occasional smells of jackfruit and smoke from smoldering crop fields.  Each subsequent doorway up to the front of the train was occupied with someone grabbing the entrance railings and hanging out of the train as far as possible, often times with a friend nearby shooting photos for the perfect shot.  I also was certain to get plenty of photos and GoPro videos of the ride – this was a ride I wanted to be able to remember forever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *