Sri Lanka is a country that took us by surprise! The small island nation is home to a huge variety of landscapes and experiences – you can experience long beaches and palm trees, and a few hours later be in the cool climate of the Hill Country. With temples, national parks, beaches and cities to choose from, planning your time helps you get the most out of Sri Lanka.
Planning where to go
We decided that we had too little time to give everything a reasonable go, so we stuck to exploring the Sri Lankan Hill Country and tea plantations over two weeks. It was incredible and not at all rushed. The trains run through the Hill Country, and also up near the old temples of Polonnaruwa, the famous rock Sigiriya and National Parks, and down the coastline as well. It’s up to you what experience you choose and how much you want to cram into your time.
We felt like two weeks was a good amount of time for our specific journey, but most people recommend a month or three weeks to see all the various regions.
Booking the train trip
The booking system is difficult to navigate and cannot be done online unless you wish to go with a private train company – which are ExpoRail and the luxury Rajadhani Express. The private train companies will cost you more, and it’s actually just a private carriage attached to the normal train so it is not faster. This is still a viable option for those who want to guarantee a comfortable spot in an air-conditioned carriage and be organized.
If you want to catch a normal train, you must book tickets from one of the railway stations and it is ideal to book a few days in advance to ensure you get a seat. Trains for any route can be booked at a station, so for example if you are at Colombo Station you can book a train for Kandy to Ella in advance.
The trains are very cheap and provide a lot of beautiful scenery. The prices for our trains were:
Colombo to Kandy
- Travel time: three hours
- Cost: First class air-conditioned InterCity Express – 500 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs) each
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
- Travel time: three hours
- Cost: Third class reserved – 400Rs each
Nuwara Eliya to Ella
- Travel time: Two and a half hours
- Cost: Second class reserved – 600Rs each
Ella to Colombo
- Travel time: Ten hours
- Cost: First class air-conditioned – 2500Rs each
Train fares differ depending on the class and length of your journey. It does cost slightly more to reserve your seat ahead of time, but showing up at the station last minute is quite a nightmare as even if you are lucky enough to get a seat, it will be in the very cramped in an unreserved third class carriage.
We tried every class on the trains and found that second class offered the best value. It was often a lot cheaper than first class and it had windows that open so you can take photographs and hang out the windows, whereas first class had sealed windows due to the air-conditioning. Second class is more comfortable than third class reserved and significantly more comfortable than third class unreserved. The biggest difference in class was between third class reserved and unreserved.
There do not seem to be any official timetables and fare schedules online, but they can be found in the stations and there are a few blogs with very detailed information about train times around the country.
Traveling by train
The train ride is a majestic experience that is more than just a commute. As you wind through the scenery in the old blue trains it feels like something out of an old-school movie. The trains move fast enough to be satisfying, but slow enough that you can see Sri Lankan life go past the window in detail.
On the trains between Kandy and Ella, the views are mind-blowing. Hills full of neat rows of tea plantations are dotted with the white bags filled with freshly picked tea, and then soon after there are deep valleys with temples and beautiful villages. The luscious greenery and colorful evidence of human life made this a spectacular journey to remember.
Vendors hop on and off at various stations and offer tea, coffee and snacks to recharge you on your journey. If you stick your head out the window you will see the train winding around the corners and dozens of others hanging out too. On the trains there are plenty of interesting people to converse with and exchange valuable travel tips.
Trains are a great way to travel because you are able to move around, socialize, see the scenery and still get to your final destination. In Sri Lanka, trains are a fantastic way to see parts of the country you may not otherwise be able to easily reach. It’s a cheap option and far more comfortable than the buses, and it’s a memorable experience that we would recommend. If you are lucky enough to visit this beautiful and diverse country, you should do it by train.