Are you the type of person who likes to view the world with a little window glare and motion blur?
I fully buy into the romanticism of train travel.
I’ve watched the sun rise over the bays between Washington, D.C. and Boston on the Northeast Regional, cruised the Surfliner across California’s famous beaches, and wound through hilly tea plantations in Sri Lanka. My conclusion is always the same: Trains do a better job of showing off the countryside than expressways ever could.
If you’re a train person like me, you will absolutely delight in traveling Sri Lanka’s railways.
Experiencing Sri Lanka Train Travel
It’s well reported that Sri Lanka’s train system is one of the most scenic in the world. Sure, you can see lush green farmland, colorful villages, tall peaks, and pristine beaches from the tracks in other countries. But you’ll be hard pressed to find them in such a compact and accessible area.
Within five hours, you can be transported from the dense urban environment in Colombo across the sunrise to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.
Over seven hours, you can travel from Kandy to Ella on what is widely considered to be the most beautiful train ride in the world.
And if beaches are more of your thing, take the coastal train up the west coast from Galle to Colombo.
Perfecting Slow Travel
The thing is, in order to travel by train, you can’t be in a hurry. Sri Lanka’s train system is all about the journey: There is so much to see between each destination, you’ll want to take it slow to soak in all of the stunning countryside along the way.
Though it’s difficult to get anywhere quickly in the country, the train is particularly slow. You have to factor in a full day to get from Kandy to Ella and Badulla, despite the relatively short distance between many of the cities in the hill country.
It is often slower to travel by train than by bus, and always slower than by car. The advantage is that you’re guaranteed to be treated to beautiful views, friendly conversation, and waves from locals the entire way.
Comfort and Conditions
The Sri Lankan Government has made numerous updates to the aging railways over the last couple of decades. They’ve most recently improved the coastal line that was damaged in the 2004 tsunami, as well as the railway in the north that sustained damage during the country’s prolonged civil war.
The newer blue trains have interiors that are roughly equivalent to what I’m used to in the United States. The more vintage red railcars are still quite comfortable, and undoubtedly more charming.
The toilet situation appears to be the same across the board: squatters. Thankfully the trains move slow, but your best bet is to use the toilet when the train is stopped at a station to avoid any sudden jolts and undesirable, errr… splashing.
Vendors will walk through the railcars between stations to sell snacks. There are no formal café cars.
First class air conditioned cars with upgraded seats are offered on many of the newer trains for a slightly higher ticket price. Second class “non-aircon” cars still remain pleasantly cool with the circulating air that comes through the windows.
The best way to experience the Sri Lanka’s trains, however, is not to sit in a seat at all.
Instead, make your way to the nearest open door. If you’re not concerned about your clothes getting dirty (I wasn’t), take a seat on the floor and dangle your feet out of the car as it bobs along the tracks.
If you’re more daring, clutch the handrails and lean out into the breeze.
This is what turns a train ride in Sri Lanka into magic.
I probably spent five of the seven hours between Kandy and Ella swinging my feet over the tracks, breathing in the dewy air, and gazing out into the distance.
Tickets and Logistics
I found Seat61.com to be a great overall resource for train routes, times, and ticketing information.
Purchasing train tickets is easy: Just show up 30 minutes to an hour before the departure time to secure your spot. For more popular routes like Kandy to Ella, or if you want to reserve a seat in a first class car with air conditioning, you’ll want to purchase your ticket further in advance.
Tickets are available up to 30 days in advance from the train station or by calling the Sri Lanka Railways reservation number.
Online train reservations are not available as of this posting. However, a service called Visit Sri Lanka Tours will purchase tickets for travelers in advance for a small fee. I used this service for two of my three train rides and picked up the tickets at the Colombo Airport upon my arrival. It was extremely easy and gave me peace of mind knowing I had tickets secured for the two most important journeys of my trip.
Train tickets are very inexpensive – between $1-$10 USD depending on where you are going and what class of ticket you reserve. Only bus travel is cheaper.
I hope that this has been a helpful primer on Sri Lanka train travel. If you have questions or would like more information, let me know in the comments!