The Best Train Journey in Sri Lanka and possibly the World?
The train from Kandy to Ella, in Sri Lanka, is supposed to be one of the most scenic and beautiful journeys in the world. If you’re a regular reader of our travel blog you’ll know we are both particularly fond of train travel and have made some exciting journeys as part of our current around the world trip. Here we share our experiences of this very special train ride.
The Train Journey from Kandy to Ella via Nuwara Eliya
The train journey from Kandy to Ella takes approximately 6 hours, in our case just over 7 hours. We took the 8.20am train from Kandy, and made a scheduled change at Peradeniya junction fifteen minutes later (this journey was included in the price of our ticket purchase). Here we changed trains for our reserved seats for the 8:40am departure. We arrived in Ella at 3:30pm.
A one way ticket from Kandy to Ella, in the first class private car, cost 1100 LKR in February 2013. If you get a seat in the observation car this is only 460 LKR.
Where to get train tickets from Kandy to Ella?
This route is very popular with tourists and travellers, for many, including us, this is one of the highlights of your trip to Sri Lanka. You can purchase tickets from the main train station in Kandy, or enquire at the main train stations in any of the main cities in Sri Lanka. Some of the private train operators, who operate carriages on state owned train lines have the tickets for sale on their commercial sites.
Train information, train timetables, and train ticket prices can be found on the Sri Lanka Government Train Information website, which has an English version, and other useful links. There are around three trains a day, there is an observation car, private first class and second class carriages. We travelled on a private first class carriage, this was extremely comfortable, and despite being air-conditioned it was thankfully never used. As soon as we got on board everybody opened the windows and the natural breeze is ample ventilation as the train rides through the mountains. Its also much better for photography.
Kandy Railway Station is located near to the market and is a 5-10 minute walk from the small city centre and lake. The train station itself is a little bit of a gem architecturally speaking. It has an art deco flavour and oozes character. Its design also allows for some great natural ventilation and is a great place to hide from a balmy hot day. It’s quite easy to imagine yourself in a bygone era as the station master carries and rings a huge brass bell to announce the imminent departure of the next train.
There are plenty of friendly staff around to assist, should you need any help, dressed in the brightest white uniforms you will probably ever see. Queues are long, but as with most places in Sri Lanka it doesn’t seem to bother you, as you will find yourself constantly exchanging smiles with others which helps the time pass by quickly.
Routes to Kandy from Ella and Colombo
There are several trains a day departing from Kandy and the starting point of this journey at Colombo (some changing at Peradeniya for the Kandy line).
Sri Lanka Railways Observation Car Tickets
Tickets for the observation car sell fast so booking in advance is necessary. Most visitors to Kandy only spend two or three nights here, and this won’t allow enough time to book a seat in the observation car, you usually need to book a minimum of 4-7 days in advance to secure a place in this special train car. There doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue with private first class seats if you book around 3 days in advance, but the sooner you book the better! You can book your tickets at the main railway station in Kandy or Colombo.
Ticket prices for the observation car are good value at around 460 rupees for a journey to Ella from Kandy. However, the comfort levels are not as good as in private first class which is more spacious and has more comfortable seating. However, the observation car seems more comfortable than second class as it is less crowded, but I did struggle to easily understand the difference.
The main difference being is that the observation car has a large glass window at the end of the carriage, which is for exclusive use for those travelling in this car. However, if you plan to take photographs of the journey then you’ll probably find this feature superfluous, as the quality of your images won’t be great when taken through dirty glass, much better to hang out of the window or the doorway.
Smoking on the Train from Kandy to Ella
If you’re a nasty smoker like us, don’t worry, you can further endanger your life by hanging out one of the doors whilst the train is moving. The train guards and other passengers don’t have a problem with this. Or if you’re a little more adverse to risk taking, jump off at one of the many stations that the train stops at on its very leisurely ride through the countryside.
Beware though, I actually got locked off the train on one of the quieter platforms (I’d gone off, without telling anybody, to explore the observation car). After hurriedly returning, the train door to first class had been locked and there was no way to open it from the outside. As there was nobody around I had to run down the platform, as the train started to slowly pull away, before the train was stopped and the door unlocked – how embarrassing!
Kandy Train Food and Drink Prices
See the image in the gallery for first class menu prices which we thought were incredibly reasonable all things considered. If you’re on a budget like us, there is also no problem taking your own packed lunch and snacks.
There are also hawkers selling fruit and snacks to passengers at the windows at a few station stops, but not as many as you’d want. The roasted peanuts are incredibly good though and are a regular item for sale.
The Train Experience: Tea Plantations, Mountains and Waterfalls
Hot to chilly, sunny to cloudy, dry to wet, this sedate and slow paced journey takes you through so many different habitats.
Amongst the relaxing hues of green you’ll see every colour of the spectrum from the wide variety of flora along the route. Large blooms and petite flowers shimmer in the sun and light up the shade as you pass through mountain terraces, rock formations and forest woodlands.
We passed through thousands acres of tea plantations, saw waterfalls and felt as if we were in the clouds at the highest summit of this railway.
Local people use some stretches of the track as pathways, making walking easier in some of the more difficult terrain. Therefore, you are never too far away from a smile and a wave as they give way to let the train pass.
The greenery and the fresh air of this train ride is very relaxing, inducing many into a nap. This isn’t from boredom; if I blinked I feared I would miss the next natural wonder.
Which is best? Should I visit Nuwara Eliya or Ella?
We weren’t sure whether to stay a couple of nights in Nuwara Eliya or take the train direct to Ella. After some research we decided to go directly to Ella from Kandy as this suited our Sri Lanka itinerary better. We don’t regret this choice, as Nuwara Eliya is much closer to Kandy it seems to be more popular with tourists making a whistle stop tour of Sri Lanka. Ella seems to be a bit quieter and still offers an excellent place to relax and hike in the surrounding hills.
The train significantly empties after Nuwara Eliya, when most those travelling on the train from Kandy depart. It is worth noting that the main train station for those visiting Nuwara Eliya is called Nanu Ooya and is located 6km from the town.
There are some other interesting destinations that travelers may want to consider along the train route, between Nuwara Eliya and Ella. They appear to be much less touristy and offer those seeking more seclusion an interesting alternative for a laid back couple of days in a local guest house or home-stay or some isolated trekking, whilst visiting temples and waterfalls.
We were really happy we decided to stay in Ella, but more about that in a later blog post.
Train Travel Tips for the Journey to Ella from Kandy
- Ask for a window seat at the time of booking your train tickets.
- If your a tea or coffee addict take a flask. If you buy on the train, the cups are massive but contain little refreshment, due to the bumpy ride, it just wouldn’t last a minute in a cup. Note there is no free water (hot or cold) available as you find on some other trains around Asia.
- Make sure your camera batteries are fully charged, sounds obvious I know, but this is a very scenic route and you’ll be clicking away frantically wanting to capture every moment for posterity.
- There is ample overhead storage for backpacks and luggage so don’t worry too much if you have a few big bags.
- The train ride is pretty bumpy in places, so if your not travelling in first class, you may want to take a small cushion.
- Try and catch an earlier train, rather than one of those departing mid morning. The weather is very changeable here and can quickly turn and we’ve found the light is much better in the morning, before the afternoon clouds set in. Also you be much better placed to find accommodation before others arrive in the evening time.
Our Final Thoughts on this Trip
We thoroughly enjoyed this trip, even more when most of the tourists departed the train about four hours into the journey at Nuwara Eliya. As we practically had the entire carriage to ourselves, except for a few friendly traveler types and some of the staff who managed to grab forty winks (give the guy a break, it was the day after Sri Lanka’s National Day of Independence). This meant we could easily seat hop to take advantage of the next jaw dropping vista.
We rate this trip as one of the top train journeys we have ever done and would strongly recommend that visitors to Sri Lanka try to make time in their travel itineraries to include this. However, as we’ve recently come to realize we are biased, and definitely have that geeky ‘trainspotter’ gene, which remains dormant until we arrive at a railway station.
Some more incredible train journeys we’ve taken around the world
We try to use the train whenever possible. It tends to be the most environmentally friendly mode of transport, and usually is the best way to comfortably travel on a low budget, especially over longer distances.
Here are some of the highlights of other train journeys we’ve taken which are particularly memorable to us.
- Our epic train rides in Australia on The Ghan and The Indian Pacific train between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Sydney.
- An exhilarating journey on the Maglev, China’s high-speed train in Shanghai.
- In Myanmar (Burma) we took the sleeper train from Yangon to Mandalay, which was a slightly surreal experience as we were the only people in the carriage and completely outnumbered by the lovely train staff.
- Taking a bullet train in Japan and using the Japanese Rail System to visit places like Osaka and Hiroshima.
- Having used trains extensively throughout Asia more frequently in India, Thailand and Vietnam, our most unusual train journey would have to be one in Cambodia on a bamboo train.
If you have a great train journey you’d like to recommend, let us know by leaving a comment, as we’d love to try it out as part of our around the world trip.