We Went on One of the Most Beautiful Train Rides in the World — With Sri Lanka Railways
Lush tea plantations, sweeping jungles, picturesque rolling hills and cascading waterfalls — you can admire this incredible scenery on the train from Kandy to Ella, one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Having chugged along from Cusco to Aguas Calientes in Peru, from Switzerland to Italy and through the jungles of Malaysia (and countless other, less exciting train trips), I've only taken a handful of truly stunning train journeys. But I found Kandy to Ella's seven-hour ride via Sri Lanka Railways to be one of the most intriguing.
Figuring out the Sri Lankan train system was rather confusing at first. After careful research, I realized that it was essential I travel during daylight to see all the best scenery, and hanging out the windows and the doors was the way to go, meaning traveling in first class with A/C would actually hinder the experience. The trains had three classes to choose from:
- First class: It came with air-conditioned cars, but the windows and doors didn't open. Reservations were accepted in advance, and tickets were approximately $6.
- Second class: There was no A/C, and the windows and doors could open. No assigned seats were given, and you had to be prepared to stand, though there were actual seats (two on each side of the aisle). Tickets could be bought the day of travel and cost approximately $4.
- Third class: This came with no A/C, and the windows and doors could open. These cars offered bench-like seating that couldn't be reserved. You could expect to travel not just with people but with goats, chickens, fresh produce, cats and more. It was highly unlikely you'd get a seat, and even if you did, you'd probably be sharing it with all of the aforementioned animals/people/items. Tickets could be bought on the day of travel and cost approximately $2.
After digging deeper, I realized that the train did have one car where you could reserve second-class seats (and sometimes one car with third-class reserved seats), pending availability. The rest of the second-class cars didn't have seats you could reserve.
Since the trip was seven hours long, it was important for me to get a reserved seat, but I really wanted that fresh-air experience, making it clear that the one second-class reserved car was my best bet. But Sri Lankan trains don't have online purchasing, so how could I book?
I dug around and found an agency to help, since I couldn't very well head to the train station 30 days in advance to purchase in person. I filled out the form on Sri Lanka Tours and paid about $16 to the company — had I gone in person, it would have been about $7. Still, it was cheap considering it was a seven-hour journey. Plus, I'm fairly certain someone from that company actually had to go in person to the train station to purchase the ticket, so it seemed fair enough to me. I did this about 35 days before my journey.
The agency website explained that tickets could be requested up to two days in advance of your journey, and if your chosen class or route wasn't available, you would be refunded. Approximately three weeks before my trip, the agency emailed me, saying my tickets were purchased and that I would need to visit the train counter on the day of my trip with the reference number and my passport.
The cool thing was that you could go to any train station in Sri Lanka to get your tickets printed, not just the station in your departing city (Kandy, in my case).
So I went to the station in Colombo to get my tickets a few days before. I waited in line at the counter for about 15 minutes, showed the staff my passport and reference number and, voila, I had my ticket. Judging by the number of trains I saw listed as full on the board, I was relieved I'd thought this out and found a way to purchase in advance.
On exiting the train in Ella, I was required to hand in my ticket to a staff member to leave. I didn't realize this was required and had to dig for it in my bag. So keep your ticket handy until you arrive at your destination, because you'll likely be asked to turn it in. Luckily, I snapped a quick photo before handing it off.
The reason it had the name of the city of Badulla on it is that that was the last stop on the line, shortly after Ella.
I arrived at the station around 8:15am to catch the 8:47 train. I was told if I hadn't had a ticket, I should have arrived around 7:30.
When I eyed the long line to buy unreserved seats, I mentally patted myself on the back for splurging on the reserved seats. I was able to head straight to the track and asked a worker which car I was in. He directed me to the end of the platform.
The platforms were crowded with both locals and tourists. I noticed the station had bathrooms reserved especially for foreigners, which seemed to be the case in many different tourist spots in Sri Lanka.
As the train arrived, the pushing and shoving began. The unreserved cars were packed, and locals and tourists alike were furiously trying to squeeze in. Some people were not able to board the train even though they had purchased a ticket.
If you do spring for the unreserved tickets, there are bars and handles to hang onto if you stand, and of course, you can hang out the doorways. Prepare yourself; it will definitely be an adventure!
The doors to enter the reserved second-class car were locked when we boarded until a station employee came over and unlocked them. They did this so people with unreserved tickets wouldn't board the reserved cars when they realized how crowded their cars were.
Seat and Car
The seats were not fancy but were comfortable and provided enough legroom.
The car was reasonably clean, and I noticed fans attached to the ceiling for airflow.
I was just happy to be in a seat, with my backpack safely secured above me and the breeze flowing in through the open windows.
Once we started moving, the train was very bumpy. I wasn't planning on napping (I didn't want to miss a thing), but keep in mind that napping conditions aren't ideal unless you want to be tossed into your seatmate's lap at some point. It goes without saying that a window seat is the way to go, and since I was traveling with my husband, we took turns.
Both locals and tourists were seated in the car, and I was excited when a few guys pulled out a drum and started singing and clapping to provide the car with cool Sri Lankan background music.
The car was full for some of the trip, but several people got on and off, so there were times when I was able to sit in a different seat to check out the view from the other side. Both sides had awesome views at different moments of the journey, so you really couldn't go wrong on either side.
There wasn't a dining car, but at the stops vendors got on and walked through the aisles selling water, tea, nuts and snacks. Don't be afraid to purchase peeled fruit or snacks, but use the same caution you would when purchasing street food. Each seat had a tray table with cup holder.
The temperature of the car was actually perfect. The ride started a little late at about 9:00am, and it was still pleasantly cool. The fans were turned on, and the breeze from the open windows was refreshing. As the train slowly edged toward Ella and gained altitude, the weather cooled off a bit, and I was absolutely fine without the air conditioning. At one point, it got chilly and rained for a few minutes, so we closed the windows. I even put on a sweatshirt. If you go, bring layers so you can adapt to the temperature changes that may occur during the journey.
Although there were signs prohibiting smoking and drinking, a group of guys stood near the open door and smoked. As the breeze was strong, the smell wasn't bothersome, but I was surprised the rules weren't enforced.
At one point, someone came to check my ticket, and as I mentioned earlier, I had to turn it in at the end of the journey, so keep it handy through the trip.
The car I was in came with two bathrooms, which were old but not as dirty as I had imagined they would be. One was a Western-style toilet and the other a squat toilet. I wasn't expecting much, and it was fine for the seven-hour journey. I recommend bringing your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer, though.
I spent most of the trip looking out the window, with the occasional trip to the doors. At first, some of the doors were locked so that other passengers in different cars didn't try to enter, but as the ride went on, these were unlocked, meaning we could hang outside and enjoy the scenery.
It's definitely important to note that hanging out the train doors is not safe. Yes, I did it. Yes, everyone else did it. But it's essential that you hang on tightly and only do this while aware of the risk! There were tunnels, trees, rocks and branches that could have caused... issues... if you were dangling off the ledge, so be prudent. One girl on my train cut her foot sitting on the edge when the train passed through branches, and I can't imagine what could happen if you fell off.
Now for the views. The variety of landscape was truly stunning as we rode through jungles, tea plantations and mountains shrouded in mist.
Children waved at me, and I watched tuk tuks and scooters stand still and wait for the moving train to pass so they could cross the tracks. The contrast of the bright blue train against the tropical green plants was simply gorgeous, and I found myself enjoying the dazzling variance every time the train went around a curve.
I admired small, colorful villages as the train rumbled over bridges and past dogs, birds and monkeys.
When the scenery wasn't particularly beautiful, it was still intriguing, like watching locals fix the engine of a tractor, or little kids fly kites over rice paddies. There was never a dull moment, and the whole trip seemed idyllic and special.
Ride this train! It's truly a bucket-list item and one of the most unique and special train trips I've ever experienced (though I'm still waiting to ride through the Canadian Rockies). Although figuring out the system and purchasing the tickets was a little tedious, the experience was well worth it. For more information, I highly recommend doing careful research and purchasing your tickets through Sri Lanka Tours ahead of time for ease. Ella and Kandy are both incredible cities full of culture, history and stunning natural wonders — this train made the journey just as memorable as the destination.