The Best of Train Travel in Sri Lanka
Just the rails, glinting in the afternoon sun, a jagged slither of sand, and the crashing sea. For miles and miles along the coast.
That’s one of my lasting memories of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has always looked like the tear drop of India on the map to me. In reality, the country covers an area of over 65,000 square kilometres, is about half the size of the UK, and travel distances are often long. After years of being off-limits to travellers during decades of insurgence and bloody civil war, Sri Lanka has seen steadily increasing visitor numbers since 2008/9. In the last couple of years it has continually made the ‘Top 10’s and ‘must see’s’ of guidebooks and travel sites worldwide.
And with good reason.
In my view, train travel is usually one of the best ways to see a country: its landscapes, its backyards, and of course its people. Despite guesthouses and hotels trying to promote private drivers and advising us not to take the bus andtrain regularly during the trip, train travel in Sri Lanka is one of my fondest memories.
Here are three of the trips I took by train in Sri Lanka, and some tips for train travel in Sri Lanka.
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Colombo to Habarana by Train
For this journey, I was headed to Sigiriya, in the heart of Sri Lanka. Habarana was the closest train station, about a twenty minute drive from Sigiriya itself.
This journey was the longest of my trip in Sri Lanka, at around 8 hours. It was also the quietest. I boarded the train in Colombo Fort station in the early morning darkness at around 6am. The train was in darkness too and that’s the way it remained until dawn started to creep in. As we trundled slowly out of Colombo station, daylight started to illuminate the gloomy carriages. It seemed odd to me that the lights inside the train were not switched on, but this didn’t seem to phase the other passengers, who, on boarding, promptly went (back) to sleep.
We crawled through the drizzle and grey of Colombo suburbs to the north and east of the city, slowly snaking our way away from concrete buildings towards rice fields and palm trees, punctuated less and less frequently by corrugated iron rooftops. I tried to doze, leaning my head against the window, but as the train picked up speed, the noise of the rattling of the train and vibration through the metal of the carriages only increased, so as to make this a futile exercise.
As we rattled towards the jungle, the rain got increasingly heavy. The downpour added to the atmosphere. The drops drummed on the metal roof of the carriage and slushed everywhere outside, the drips for the most part avoiding the open windows.
The carriage was half full of Sri Lankan families, travelling for the weekend to see relatives in the countryside, but few going as far as Habarana. The train slowly emptied at intermittent halts which seemed to come out of the tropical greenery from nowhere.
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Kandy to Colombo by Train
In the centre of Sri Lanka, the ancient kingdom of Kandy is an attraction in its own right, and is Sri Lanka’s second largest city. At 500 metres above sea level it sits at the base of the knuckles mountain range and has a cooler climate than the jungle plains below. Kandy also serves as the gateway to Sri Lankan tea country. There are some tea plantations already up in the hills around Kandy, and these get more plentiful higher up in the hills, on the way to Ella.
On the three hour trip we passed through mountains and jungle. The track wound around the side of the mountains, hugging the rock on one side, and on the other offering dramatic sweeping views of the valley below. The valleys green from the recent rain but now glinting in the sun stretched on for miles against a smoky blue background of more mountains in the distance.
The route to/from Kandy to Colombo is one of the country’s most popular, and several trains run per day. Getting on the train that started in Kandy as opposed to the one that runs all the way from Badulla and Ella proved to be a lucky decision, as that meant seats were available when we got on the train in Kandy.
The train quickly filled up along the three hour trip and by the time we had nearly reached Colombo, the carriages were not only full with passengers sitting and standing, but with people hanging on to the outside of the train to via handles and whatever they could grab hold of. Just outside the capital a man passed his backpack through the open window onto the lap of the lady sitting opposite me, so that he could find space to hang on on the outside of the train. Giving my seat to an older lady who’d been standing next to me solicited a lot of giggling from bystanders—clearly regarding me as a stupid tourist for offering up my seat.
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Colombo to Galle by Train and Beyond
This is the one I’d been waiting for. When researching train travel in Sri Lanka, I’d read about this journey online, and seen the railway tracks of ‘The Coastal Line’ on my arrival in Colombo.
In Colombo itself, the railway line south runs between the city and the Indian Ocean from just beyond the famous Galle Face Hotel to the southern city limits and beyond.
Leaving Colombo for the second time, it was to a very different view than the first. The trains to Galle are Sri Lanka’s equivalent of the commuter line. Trains are full to overflowing, with every scrap of space (except possibly the high up luggage racks) taken with someone standing, sitting, or hanging on outside. But the crowding was easy to forget, if only for the reason that there was so much else to look at.
As the train runs endlessly past the sea, the boulders and rocks of Colombo’s shoreline turn into slivers of sandy beach next to beach shacks and huts. Standing in the open doorway, the salt breeze provided welcome ventilation for the packed carriages. Looking west out towards the ocean, the afternoon sun was edging its way downwards towards the horizon.
This same, seemingly blissful stretch of track was where the 2004 christmas tsunami hit Sri Lanka worst, and 1500 plus people died, on their way to Galle on the Matara Express train from Colombo to Matara which was hit by the wave. This was the largest single rail disaster in history. Repeated attempts to warn those on the train failed to reach them in time. The tracks, just 200 meters from the sea edge, were completely destroyed.
The line has since been rebuilt, and later upgraded to allow for faster journey times.
After just two hours, we arrived in Galle. Many trains terminate there, but there are some that run further along the coast to Unawatuna, Weligama, Mirisa and Matara. There the view from the train is arguably its most beautiful, over miles of sandy beaches, surf and palm trees. I stayed on the train until nearly the end of the line, which is much quieter too, with the majority of people getting off in Galle.
For anyone travelling in Sri Lanka, if you take one train trip, take this one. The view alone is worth the journey.
The Train Journey in Sri Lanka that I didn’t Take
I have one regret from my trip to Sri Lanka. That is, that I did not take the six hour train journey from Kandy to Ella. Ella is tea country proper, and the line from Kandy—although winding and slow—takes you through beautiful mountains and tea plantations. I hope to one day experience that. (Update: the Tea Train has since become crazy popular with travellers, so we’re actually not sure if we want to do this anymore! 🙁 )
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Train Travel in Sri Lanka – Planning, buying tickets and tips
Train travel in Sri Lanka is a fairly relaxed affair, certainly much more so than in neighbouring India. Advance buying of tickets is rarely necessary, with the exception of some of the tourist trains on the Colombo – Kandy line.
Here are some general pointers:
- Most trains in Sri Lanka only have Second and Third class carriages, which means no air conditioning. It can make travel very hot in summer months, but personally I see this is a good thing: open windows make for better photos and plenty of air. The doors stay open on most trains, and doorways (be sure to hold on though!) are one of the best spots to stand if you’re looking to enjoy the view or take pictures.
- First class (air conditioned) is available on trains to Kandy, and a special ‘Observation Car’ (very large windows) is available on tourist trains, run by a private company. These are popular and require advance booking at Exporail.
- Almost all trains in Sri Lanka are day trains, as distances are mostly not long enough for sleeper trains. There is one sleeper ‘night mail’ train that runs from Colombo to Batticaloa in the north.
- For unreserved seats, you can just turn up at the station and buy these. Some trains are all unreserved (all trains on the line to Galle are like this), whereas most trains have reserved and unreserved carriages. The unreserved carriages will always be fuller and can get extremely crowded.
- For reserved seats you can buy these in advance from the station. Online booking is not possible via Sri Lankan railways. If for any reason you are keen to buy your train tickets before you arrive in the country, you can use travel agent to buy them for you.
- For further train information, The man in seat 61 has one of the best websites out there for information about train travel, in Sri Lanka and other countries.
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Have you been to Sri Lanka or are you thinking of travelling there? What do you think of train travel? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!