How to travel on Sri Lanka’s most beautiful railways – all you need to know before you go!
How to travel on Sri Lanka’s most beautiful railways is one of the most asked questions by travellers to Sri Lanka. Their railways have become something of a icon over the last few years, with imagines of rolling hills and open doorways. Things tend to become popular becaise they’re good, and travelling on Sri Lanka’s railways is a truly unique and special experience that you won’t want to miss out on, no matter how ‘touristy’ it’s become.
A Little History
Sri Lanka’s iconic railways were actually built by the British in 1864, as a way of transporting tea from the hill country to the capital of Colombo. The Sri Lankan rail network is a whopping 1,508 km long and is now used as one of the main public transport systems in Sri Lanka. It remains an extremely cheap but impressive way to travel around Sri Lanka and is a definite highlight.
What Are Sri Lanka’s Most Beautiful Railways?
Any train journey you take in Sri Lanka will be beautiful in its own way, but the iconic photos of the blue train roaring through tiered tea fields are taken in Sri Lanka’s hill country. The most famous and arguably most beautiful railway line runs between Kandy and Ella, two towns you will certainly want to visit (read why in my two week itinerary). If you travel the whole line from start to finish it will take around 7 hours but there are numerous worthwhile stops along the way. Nuwara Eliya and Haputale are two places you should consider stopping if you have time.
Another option, if you are staying in Ella, is to take the shorter ride to Badulla. There are numerous sights to see once you reach Badulla and the train ride there is meant to be breathtaking.
If you are heading to Sri Lanka’s beaches you should still consider travel by train. Instead of tea fields you will have coastal views for much of the journey, a lovely sea breeze coming through the open doors and windows, and the space to walk around and stretch your legs.
What routes can I take?
Frustratingly it isn’t possible to travel the whole of Sri Lanka by train. If you want to experience both the beaches and the hill country then at some point you will have to find an alternative method of transport (or go all the way back to Colombo).
Tip: I found the most useful information for train travel in Sri Lanka on the Seat 61 website. There is a map clearly detailing the possible routes and a wealth of other useful information. Another great website is the Sri Lankan Railways site.
How do I get tickets for travel on Sri Lanka’s most beautiful railway?
It is not possible to book second or third class unreserved coach tickets and some ticket offices don’t sell tickets until an hour before your journey. We turned up at the station and bought our tickets on the day, about an hour before we travelled (or in some cases a few minutes before!) We never had a problem getting a second class ticket, even when we travelled from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya on a national festival day. The train was packed but we still managed to buy a ticket without reserving.
If you don’t fancy second class, or you want to be a bit more organised than we were, then you may want to pre-book your ticket. Most trains have a ‘reserved car’ for second class and sometimes third class travel. You can do this up to 30 days before the date you wish to travel when they tend to sell out immediately.
Tip: If using one of the sites below make sure you book more than 32 days before travel so they can buy your ticket as soon as they become available.
In a reserved car you are guaranteed a seat and there is no standing allowed, so it won’t be crowded.
Several online websites will take early bookings. These listed have a good reputation.
- 12go.asia-a website that will book tickets for lots of places in Asia. Book 32 days in advance, and consider selecting the ‘flexible’ option so that they can book you onto a different class if yours sells out too quickly. Note that you need to pick the tickets up in Colombo, or pay to have them delivered to your hotel.
- VisitSriLankanTours-another online ticket booking system with good reviews. Here they may arrange ticket collection from the station (check with the website before booking, as they have introduced a new mobile ticket collection system).
Tip: If you weren’t organised enough but can’t stand the thought of travelling without a seat, there is a small possibility that you will be able to get a late release ticket. Try asking at the station the day before you travel, or ask at your hotel or bnb.
How much can I expect to pay for my train journey in Sri Lanka?
Fares obviously differ depending on the distance of the route you are taking and the class of seat you choose. Prices range from £1 for 3rd class, to £3 for 2nd class and up to £7 for 1st class. You can find out details of ticket prices at the Seat 61 website.
If you book your tickets through one of the websites above expect to pay a slightly higher fare of around £10-£15, to cover booking costs. The late release tickets are also sold at a higher rate.
How to get a doorway ‘seat’ on Sri Lanka’s most beautiful railways
One of the things people always ask when they are planning a train ride in Sri Lanka is ‘How do I get to sit in the doorway?’
I’m not big on recreating other peoples shots (because I look awful in tiny shorts and I never get up in time to put on make up!) but there was something really special about sitting in the doorway of the train as it whizzed through tea fields and tunnels. Perhaps it’s because it feels forbidden, something you never would have dreamed of doing as a child. So whether or not you want to for photo opportunities, I would definitely recommend trying to get a doorway ‘seat’.
You will find that people get on and off constantly through your journey. If you wait patiently near the door and you’re prepared to push forward a little you will get a seat there at some point. Remember though that everyone wants the breeze from the open door, so make sure you take turns!
If you manage to find a doorway with a tourist in it they will almost certainly ‘give you a go’, sharing’s caring right?!
As the train from Kandy gets nearer Ella, it also gets emptier. So just be patient and you shouldn’t have any trouble.
What about food!?
We stocked up on drinks and snacks before we boarded but there was little need. Sellers come through the train constantly with Sri Lankan snacks and drinks, and near every station there are sellers off the train. Part of the fun of the ride is choosing a strange treat that could be anything from spinach and paneer to spicy chicken. They were also selling popcorn like goodies that we missed the chance to try. The trains tend to hang around for a little while at the stations too, so you will have time to nip off and grab what you need if you so desire!
Tip: Remember the snacks are very ‘local’, so if you have an allergy, or you hate spicy food like me, then be prepared and buy what you want before you travel.
Sri Lanka train travel during national holidays: What to expect!
We were lucky enough to travel on one of Sri Lanka’s many national holidays. During these it is common for Sri Lankans who work and live in the bigger towns and cities to travel home to their families and train seems to be the transport of choice for many.
We boarded at Kandy, where we had no trouble buying a second class ticket about an hour before we travelled. Right before the train arrived the station became packed. We struggled to squeeze into the carriage with our bags in the mad rush onto the train and found ourselves squished into the carriage along with hundreds of others. There was no room to move and the train was HOT! Once the train started moving though we were greeted with a refreshing breeze, and the mood of the locals was infectious with everyone in the holiday mood.
A group of boys travelling together bought out a drum and serenaded us through the journey with Sri Lankan tunes and the obvious classics from Greenday and Papa Roach! Gradually through the journey people got off and by the time we reached Nuwara Eliya there was sitting room.
If you find yourself travelling on a national holiday be prepared for it to be busy, but also a fantastic experience. You can plan around it by checking out their public holidays here.
Travelling on Sri Lanka’s beautiful railways was one of my favourite experiences in Sri Lanka and a real must do. The stunning scenery, bustling stations and colourful, friendly locals make train journeys in Sri Lanka one of the best ways to experience the ‘real’ Sri Lanka.