See The Most Beautiful Places in Sri Lanka: Explore By Train

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When we talk about travelling by train in Sri Lanka the first thought that comes to mind is the iconic Kandy to Ella route. We’ve all seen the photos. Hanging out of the carriage, back arches, head thrown up to the heavens. A bend in the tracks in the distance, taking the rustic carriage with it, and a landscape of jungle greens. Oh, and the person is always captured mid-laugh or else looking triumphant (did we miss the memo – is this the Hogwarts Express?). But are trains really the best way to see the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka?

What is travelling by train like?

Snipes aside, the glamourising of travelling by train in Sri Lanka has resulted in some misleading expectations – which was the case for some of the other travellers we met on our trip. In this post, we’ll write about what you can expect when catching a train in Sri Lanka – with no mention of the famously scenic Kandy / Ella route.

That way, you’ll have a clear (and more accurate) picture. You can thank us later.

We should say, our route was centred around the Hill Country region, so our experience of travelling by train isn’t a countrywide one. It could be the case that there are some differences the further north or south you journey. Bear that in mind before you read on.

Buying A Ticket

Do yourself a favour and sort this out online before you travel. If you try to buy at the station on the day, then you’ll meet crowds of other people trying to do the same thing. You can imagine all of the pushing and elbowing. By the time you reach the counter there may be no tickets left. All that for nothing.

Our suggestion: book your ticket online and collect your ticket at the station.

Here are the average costs for each of the carriages (more on this later). These may vary slightly depending on the route you take.

1st Class: 2,000LKR (6,2 euro)

2nd Class: 1,200LKR (3,7 euro)

3rd Class: 900LKR (2,8 euro)

Schedules

Trains run infrequently in Sri Lanka, so it’s wise to check schedules before you travel. We travelled from Negombo to Habarana which we thought was a popular route. Apparently not. There were only three trains to choose from and one was an overnight train. Turning up at the station with the hope of catching the next available one wouldn’t be your best idea.

And while we’re on the subject of schedules – trains often run late, so don’t be surprised if you’re having to wait for an hour – it’s not uncommon.

Train Stations in Sri Lanka

Two foreign women with nose rings and tattoos – we knew there’d be some staring. We got more than we bargained for. Some were the curious kind. And others weren’t. We’re sure we don’t need to go into details about the ‘other stares’. We’ll just say that they came from a certain demographic and that they lasted far too long. Although this demographic (i.e.‘men’) stared for a while it never seemed to be directed at our faces. Go figure.

Of course, we could’ve just had bad luck… multiple times. Maybe other women travellers have different experiences entirely. If so, we’d appreciate hearing from you to get a fuller scope of people’s first hand experiences.

Toilets

On a slightly off topic note – the station toilets. Avoid them like the plague, because you’re sure to get one if you use it (or gag, like Ellie did). No doors, so everything is out in the open so to speak. No toilet paper – that’s a luxury. And no Western toilet – yes, you’ll be using a squat in a cubicle that has probably not been cleaned at all this century.

The Train

You’ve got three classes to choose from 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

1st class: there are three varieties which you’ll notice when booking the tickets: observation saloon, sleeping berth and coach. Observation saloon is the favourite. With vintage interiors and huge windows for viewing the landscape – it’s understandable why. You’d be best off booking one of these carriages several weeks in advance.

2nd class: padded seats make for a comfortable(ish) journey. Seats can be reserved in advance though this will depend on what route you take.

3rd class: seats have little padding and it’s a mad rush to find yourself a seat. We took a third-class train several times and we’ve not got any outrageous complaints. The Colombo Fort to Habarana train wasn’t all bad, but we were travelling at a quieter time. We haven’t heard the best stories about the Colombo Fort to Beliatta line.

For the carriages without AC (2nd and 3rd)- it’s bearable. Windows are pulled down, ceiling fans are in operation but with all of these bodies crammed together it certainly has a challenge on its hands. Stating the obvious but prepare for this. Loose clothing and water. If you can, opt for an early morning train so you can avoid travelling at the hottest times of the day.

The Mad Rush

When the train arrives expect a mad rush. We’d compare it to someone feeding pigeons in London – that immediate swarm as soon as the breadcrumb touches the ground. And in this situation, you just have to roll with it. Solo women travellers- be mindful. Those men we mentioned earlier, some will use this as a means to edge closer to you than necessary. If you can, tag along with some other travellers. It’s what we did. Not only does it make for a safer experience it means you’ve also got a couple of new friends by the end of the journey.

The Places in Sri Lanka

The landscape in Sri Lanka is one that is difficult to grow tired of. Time passes wonderfully when you’re staring out of the window. Maybe it’s just us seeing as we both live in cities and our daily dose of green is hard to come by. We think it makes the hassle worthwhile.

Wrap-Up / TL;DR

There you have it. An honest account of riding the trains in Sri Lanka and what to expect. For the skim readers;

– Book a ticket in advance here and find out the schedule

– Expect some delay waiting for the station

– The stations and trains are not as charmingly vintage as Instagram would have you believe.

– You’re in for some spectacular scenery.

Let us know about your experiences and safe travels!

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