After doing some Instagram hashtag stalking we found out that there was a world-famous train ride to experience while in Sri Lanka. This train ride is a long one, filled with breathtaking views of the Sri Lankan countryside: gorgeous hills of terraced tea plantations, local houses, and waterfalls.
Before we knew about this train ride, we’d already paid for a hotel for a week in Kandy. I think if we’d known about the train ride, we may have planned our hotel itinerary out differently. Knowing what I know now, the best way to do this ride is to have enough days to enjoy it. We have two small backpacks and two huge backpacker bags. This means going on a train ride for multiple hours or days and frequently switching trains and cities isn’t easy for us.
Option #1 (Best plan, IMHO)
If I were to do this again, I would:
- Get a hotel in either Ella or Kandy for two days. The first day you’d just enjoy the town you’re in, the next morning you’d check out and board the train.
- Get up early to ride the train.
- The entire ride, one way is 7-8 hours long. The train goes very slow – hence you are able to enjoy the views, it’s not too fast.
- Arrive in either Kandy or Ella and go do the rest of your trip through Sri Lanka.
Because we did not want to pay for two hotels at the same time, and because we did not want to ride another 8 hours back to Kandy in one day, we “revised” the experience of this trip. If you are crunched for time and must stay in one location the entire time you’re in this region, do what we did:
Option #2 (If you’re crunched for time.)
- Take the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. This is the town located exactly half-way through the eight-hour ride.
- Once in Nuwara Eliya see the sights; they have nearby tea plantations, golf courses, spas, pubs, and waterfalls.
- After you have lunch or do a tourist site, find a driver to drive you back the 4 hours to Kandy.
- Bring your Dramamine if you get car sick. The first hour and a half of this car ride will make you disgustingly car sick. FYI that’s what happened to me. The first hour or so is constant, sharp weaving of the car down the mountain road.
- Another option is to take the train ride four hours back to Kandy. But beware – when you get off the train, you may not be able to buy a return ticket that leaves soon. Like you may have to wait 6 hours in Nuwara Eliya.
How to you buy tickets for the train ride?
- Tickets are $1.00 USD. If you go with a tour group it’s $64.00-$100.00.
- You must go to the train station in either Kandy or Ella and buy the train ticket in advance. There is no online buying option, unless you book through a tour guide company. If you don’t buy in advance you risk not being able to get on. Because this ride is so popular with tourists and Sri Lankan people use it to get to and from home/work/whatever it is a packed train (unless there is an off-season).
- If you don’t get the tickets ahead of time, wake up early and buy the ticket morning of. You may not get a first or second class seats.
- If it sounds like a headache to you, you can pay extra to have this experience with a tour guide company, priced at $64.00 – $100.00. These packages sell out quick so buy it a month before you intend to ride.
A note on the different classes:
- 1st Class: If you want a very comfortable (in my opinion “sterile” experience) do first class. First class offers you a guaranteed seat in a train car with AC.
- 2nd Class: Second class seemed like the most popular option. This is a designated seat, but no AC.
- 3rd Class: Third class is the cheapest option. You have no designated seat and when you get on there may be no seats left. You will most likely stand the entire time until a seat near you becomes available. There is also a possibility that chickens will be seated next to you – not exaggerating.
- We did third class because first and second class were sold out. Paul and I managed to find one empty aisle seat and switched off during the 4.5 hour ride. We met a friendly young British couple from London and chatted with them for a while. You will meet lots of travelers on this train. I found third class to be fine for the “experience.” It wasn’t comfortable, but I wouldn’t say that’s the point of the ride. As long as you can see out a window, you will get to see the views everyone writes home about. For some fantastic photos, unlike mine, see some very good photos here: https://www.journeyera.com/kandy-ella-train-scenic-train-sri-lanka/
When the train pulls up to the platform it is like what I imagine a “Black Friday” shopping mall experience to be – no I’ve never been to one. All the tourists line up to the edge of the platform gunning for their seats. Once the train stops people are pushing and shoving with their big backpacker bags to get a spot for themselves and the bags.
Don’t Fall Off The Train
A popular thing to do is to hang your head out the window, or stand in the doorless doorway of the train and take a picture. This produces beautiful shots. There is always a crowd near the doorway.
At one point during the ride our train suddenly halted and we were sitting for about 10 minutes. A train on the track next to us had also stopped. The windows were open and a girl began talking to us from the other train.
“Someone fell out the door of our train. They’re injured and we had to stop the train.”
So, reader, if you do choose to ride the train, please don’t try too hard to get the “perfect shot” because you may not complete the ride.
Final thoughts …
Again, the views are worth the uncomfortable ride, but I couldn’t help thinking this experience was an example of tourism ruining something once very special. I’m positive this ride was way better in the 1990s. Less tourists knew about it then and it was probably more peaceful, less crowded, more genuine. Now it’s more about everyone getting the best Instagram picture.
We ended up having a pretty good time on the ride. We were plopped in the local culture, saw breathtaking landscapes and scenery. If I did it again, hands down I’d book this experience through a guided tour. It’s much cheaper to do it our way, but I wouldn’t like riding in third class for 7-8 hours.
Arriving at the final station: