The Kandy to Ella (or vice versa) train journey through Sri Lanka’s verdant hill country has been touted the ‘most beautiful train ride in the world’, and when I saw photos of the pastel blue colonial train lazily curling around endless hills of lush tea plantations, with passengers hanging freely out of carriages and heads peeking out of windows, I was sold. I wanted to hang out of the train, with my hair blowing in the wind.
The Kandy to Ella train journey
In Sri Lanka, trains are not a tourist attraction, they are simply an affordable way for locals to travel from place to place. Indeed, when I told locals that I had come to Sri Lanka for the purpose of taking the train from Kandy to Ella, they seemed surprised that someone would bother coming all that way to do something that probably didn’t seem all that special to them, something that was just another part of everyday life.
I took two separate train journeys: one from Colombo to Kandy (approx. 2.5 hours), and one from Kandy to Ella (approx. 6 hours). Although the Colombo to Kandy train journey only took 2.5 hours, it was incredibly lively as the next carriage was full of locals who spent most of the time singing and dancing and yelling whenever the train went through a dark tunnel. It provided for a fantastic atmosphere and their energy was infectious.
However, it was on my second train ride from Kandy to Ella that I had the most fun. You would think that 6 hours on a train would be more than enough time to spend in locomotion, but I happily spent the entire time gawking out the window—when I wasn’t hanging out of the train, of course.
Rolling tea plantations stretch beyond the horizon, the many shades of green only interrupted by occasional splashes of pastel buildings. Houses line the tracks in an untidy, but fetching, manner, allowing a glimpse into life along the train tracks: women in bright saris tending to their daily errands, men in sarongs walking pensively with hands clasped behind their backs, children playing merrily and waving enthusiastically as the trains roll past.
As the train slowly approached picturesque train stations, reminiscent of days gone by, people waiting on the platforms offered welcoming smiles to the passengers framed in the train windows; those living in the houses next to the stations waved cheerfully from their windows as the train departed, making it feel as if this was a novelty for them as opposed to something that happened each and every day. When trains passed each other on the tracks, arms would reach out from the carriages, trying to connect and interlink hands, if only for a second. The sense of community was palpable.
It’s such an incredible feeling of freedom, and dare-I-say-rebellion, to be able to hang out of the train—something you would never be able to do back home! At least, not without repercussions, and likely a hefty fine. Sometimes it’s fun not to have to adhere to such stringent safety regulations, to be free in the moment.
In the end, it wasn’t so much about the scenery (especially as the mist really set in as the train gradually ascended, making it feel like I had stumbled upon the set of Sleepy Hollow, and also obscuring the views of the plantations) as it was about the feeling of togetherness and emancipation. I loved it and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
I’m disappointed with all of my photos from the trip as none of them quite capture the beauty of the scenery and the sense of community due to a combination of my lack of photography skills and my failing camera (my 7-year old SLR doesn’t quite cut the mustard anymore). The photo below of this cute kid I befriended on the train would have to be my favourite shot from the train ride. Check out this blog post for amazing photos of the Kandy to Ella train ride that I wish I could have taken.
Booking tickets for the Kandy to Ella train journey
There are 3 carriage options: 1st class, 2nd class and 3rd class. You can reserve 1st- and 2nd-class tickets in advance. Third-class tickets can only be purchased on the day. There are also some unreserved 1st- and 2nd-class tickets available on the day; however, from what I had read, these can run out quickly, so I didn’t want to risk not getting a ticket.
I opted for 2nd class on both trips. The 1st class carriage is air-conditioned and the windows don’t open, although there is more space. The 2nd-class carriage allows you to open the windows, which is why I opted for this carriage—I was adamant about sticking my head out of that window! Third class has less space and as there is no reserved seating, it is a first come first served basis so if you don’t get a seat, you’ll be in the aisle or doorway (which isn’t a bad thing) for the entire trip. In hindsight, I probably could have done 3rd class in the Colombo to Kandy leg, as it wouldn’t have been too long to stand.
If you are more of a planner like moi and less of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of traveller, then you can reserve your tickets ahead of time through this site here. Make sure to leave plenty of time, as tickets can sell out ahead of time during the busy months. Basically, you need to pay for the ticket through PayPal and then insert the reservation number into the form on the website. Note, that if you are travelling on different days, then you will need two separate transactions, i.e. you will need two reservation numbers. Once you submit the form, a confirmation will be emailed to you within the next few days, which is what you need to show to the reservation counter at the train station.
Obviously, it costs more to reserve a seat in advance, but, even still, train travel is so ridiculously cheap in Sri Lanka.
Tips for train travel
- If you have reserved a ticket, specifically ask for a window seat at the reservation desk.
- Keep your train ticket until you exit the station; inspectors will ask for it when you get off the train.
- Sit on the right side of the train if you are going in the direction of Kandy to Ella. On a clear day, you’ll be able to get a glimpse of Sigiriya.
- Pack snacks and water. At Colombo station, there are a few eateries on the left-hand side of the station if you’re catching an early morning train. There is also a person who occasionally comes past to sell tea and snacks on the train.
- At Kandy Station, passengers hop on the train from both sides, so you can stand on either platform.
- Hang out of the train and enjoy the wind in your hair!
While in Kandy, I stayed at the Viyana Boutique Hotel, a cute guesthouse that was perfectly located on Kandy Lake and an easy walk to the Temple of the Tooth.
While in Ella, I stayed at the Ella Heritage, which was just a newly established guesthouse when I was there. While there were a few kinks to iron out, the hospitality of the staff is second to none and there are also some great eateries located nearby. I definitely recommend it if you’re after a low-key stay.
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