Sri Lanka By Train: Getting Around on Sri Lankan Railways
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Sri Lanka By Train: Getting Around on Sri Lankan Railways

Sri Lanka by train


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. Although in order to bridge these landscapes, one has to travel somehow. Now, I might be biased, but exploring Sri Lanka by train is the most enriching.

 

Over a period of almost three weeks, I explored the hill country of Sri Lanka. This region is dense with culture, history, and (very importantly) tea. The cooler climate and afternoon rains made it a pleasant change from the humidity and hecticness of Colombo.

 

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 blue 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.

 


READ MORE: Quick Guide To Colombo 


 

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 by train
Nostalgic and colourful platforms on the train to Ella

 

Sri Lanka by train

 


“Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversation than a moving plane, ship or train” -  Alain de Botton The Art of Travel


 

Basic useful information

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.

Best websites for train information: www.railway.gov.lk (run the trains), www.seat61.com (good for train information everywhere)


 

Maps and timetables 

sri lanka by train
Map of the Sri Lankan railway

 

Official timetables are available at www.railway.gov.lk but the website can be a little confusing. Use www.seat61.com for really good quality information on timetables. Be aware that trains rarely run on time and most journeys will take a lot longer than you may expect; just enjoy the journey.


 

Buying 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.

 

Unreserved

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 - it can vary). So if you like winging it then just rock up before your train, buy a ticket and get on. Unreserved sections are likely to not sell out; they are crowded and you will probably have to stand. But these carriages are where the best memories are made.

 

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. Tickets for reserved cars are likely to sell out so get in as soon as you can.

 

Reserved 1st class

Again, these tickets sell out fast so try and book them in advance if you can.

 

Sri Lanka by train

 


Carriage classes

When I travelled Sri Lanka by train I managed to experience all the different carriage classes. If you can, then this is something that I would recommend so you get the "full experience". In reality, there is not a whole lot of difference between the classes it is just that booking a first class/second class ticket means you are less likely to be dealing with crowds.

 

 

1st class air conditioned

This is a carriage that is high quality and is equipped with air conditioning, clean seats, etc. It feels very Westernised. For those who like comfort and do not want crowds then this is the class for you. Keep in mind that because there is A/C the windows do not open in 1st class so you cannot hang your head out the window.

 

2nd class reserved

This was my favourite option. You get the luxury 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.

 

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.

 

3rd class reserved

There is not a whole heap of difference between 3rd class reserved and 2nd class reserved. The seats are not as comfortable and you share with more people but it is still a great train experience.

 

3rd class unreserved

This is for the hardier travellers. You lose the plushness of the seats and the fans rarely work. But it really isn't too bad when there aren't many crowds. 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.

 


Colombo to Kandy

Sri lanka by train
A train pulling out of Colombo Fort Station

 

Sri lanka by train
Starting the journey at Colombo Fort Station

 

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 shanty 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. I felt pangs of guilt chugging through shanty towns in this air-conditioned bubble as I watched women labouring to wash clothes and grow vegetables in the hot climate outside. The train continued to snake upwards as I enjoyed all the green out the windows – a change from the dusty metropolis of Colombo.

 

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. Soon enough I was in Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka and was keen to put my backpack down and be out of transit.

 

Sri Lanka by train
Chugging past the outer sprawl

 

Sri Lanka by train
It may not quite be tea plantations, but the train to Kandy has some spectacular scenery of its own

 


 

Kandy to Nuwara Eliya

 

This train journey is probably one of the most spectacular in the world! I was very apprehensive when I was told at the station that ‘there is only 3rd class left’, and had no choice but to purchase the tickets and try to embrace the adventure. I had seen the 3rd class carriages before, with people cramped like sardines in the corridors and children getting some relief from the crowds by hanging out the windows – and no bathrooms! Surely this cannot be good, I thought.

 

But to my surprise, when I handed the ticket to the officer he told us that because we had booked in advance I actually had a reserved seat – hoorah! Despite spending the journey sitting backwards with  minimal leg room, 3rd class was a great adventure. 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 amazing.

 

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 me full force.

 

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.

 

Sri Lanka by train
The incredible vistas never seem to end

 

Sri lanka by train

Sri lanka by train

Sri lanka by train

 


 

Nuwara Eliya to Ella

After a wonderful few days in Nuwara Eliya, a colonial hub (often called “Little England”, but I felt that was a bit of a stretch) and home to many national parks and tea estates, it was time to move on to Ella. This time I decided to try 2nd class for the 3 hour journey, and it was definitely my favourite class. 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.

 


READ MORE: Quick Guide To Ella


 

Sri Lanka by train
The train ride to Ella was eerily beautiful through the mist

 

Sri Lanka by train
Keep your eyes out for waterfalls!

 

Sri lanka by train
There is nothing more exhilarating than doing this journey hanging out the window!

 

Sri Lanka by train
There is an abundance of plantations to admire

 

 


Have you explored Sri Lanka by train or have questions? Comment below! I would love to hear from you 


Other useful articles from around the web about Sri Lanka: 

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Lucy is a 21-year-old medical student who wants to cure disease, but not her travel bug. She is addicted to caffeine, documentaries and jetting off around the world, and one day wishes to set foot in every country. She writes to help other young people find the inspiration and information necessary to explore the world and its cultures.

2 Responses

  1. […] home to some very varied scenery and activities. From the rolling hills and tea plantations of the Hill Country, to the awesome surf beaches, all the way to the inland temples. And best of all, it is crazy […]

  2. […] food, accommodation and activity options it makes for an excellent stop for people exploring Sri Lanka By Train. The great vibes around Ella mean that you could stay for a day or a month and you would still have […]

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