Picturesque Sri Lanka Train Routes: Ella to Kandy Scenic Ride
You’ve heard it before: there’s this picture-prefect blue train, winding its way trough Ceylon like a lazy dragon. You’ve seen the hanging-out-the-door insta pics, you’ve watched the cerulean wagons slither around mountain bends in numerous videos. Most likely. And now you’re thinking of visiting gorgeous Sri Lanka to do it yourself! We’ve done the (perhaps) most notorious one of Sri Lanka train routes and are happy to give you some tried and tested helpful tips on how to avoid common pitfalls of this tricky train adventure. On top of that, expect a short overview of Kandy as well as a quick Ella travel guide to give you an impression of what to expect in these oft-coupled cities in Ceylon’s lush green center.
5 Tips on Mastering the Most Popular Sri Lanka Train Ride
I’m not joking when I say that everyone and their momma wants to do the picture-pretty route through Sri Lanka’s hilly middle and feast on some gorgeous nature views. And though there are different modes of transport (shared or private taxis, train, rental car), taking the signature blue train has become the go-to solution for many travellers and tourists alike. Those who’d like to explore Ceylon’s significance in tea trade can make stops along the way, and even if you’re not that into tea plantations (btw, women picking the tea leaves are among some of the lowest-paid workforce in the country), you might be happy to visually experience the breath-taking vistas of rolling hills covered in carefully maintained bushes, sleepy villages, and valleys covered in a blanket of thick fog.
As a follow-up, I’ve got some questions for you: Do you dislike crowded places? Do you like to sit comfortably? Are you a tiny bit of a non-conformist? If you’ve answered yes to at least two of those, we’ve got some tips of you on how to make the most sought-after Sri Lanka train ride more fun and hassle-free.
1. Travel from Ella to Kandy, Early in the Day
Most people sifting through the island of Ceylon will land on the most obvious route: Colombo-Kandy-Ella, followed by one or more of the beach towns. We decided to hit up Trincomalee first, followed by Arugam Bay, and only after that hit up Ella for the train ride. We have heard many personal accounts from fellow travellers (supported by 90% of Sri Lanka travel blogs) attesting to the fact that the trains from Kandy to Ella are almost always a lot more crowded than picking the opposite direction, from Ella to Kandy. And when I say crowded, I mean ‘standing or sitting in the aisle for 6 hours’ type of crowded. Do you want that? I wouldn’t. So stay with me on this and you’ll significantly lower your chances of landing in this precarious seat-less position: book the opposite of what everyone seems to be doing.
Another crucial element are Sri Lanka train departures for this route. Typically, there’ll be an early morning train and an afternoon train. Now, it’s a fact of life that people like to not get up at the ass crack of dawn. However, it’s also a fact of life that the afternoon trains tend to be more crowded, precisely due to the above. As much as you might hate heading to the train station with crusty eyes and barely any cognition of what day it is, we’d strongly recommend getting over yourself and catching the 6.40 train from Ella. Besides the crowdedness factor, you’ll pass through the most scenic areas in the gorgeous morning light, and you’ll arrive in Kandy in good time to settle into your accommodation and still have a full afternoon. As a bonus, this might also lower your chances of boiling in the afternoon heat (depending on the season).
2. Book well in advance
Before we get down to business with advance bookings, there is one fundamental thing to note: you can (and should) book your Sri Lanka train tickets by going directly to a train station – in any city – and sorting it out right then and there, in person. The fare for this route is 400 LKR as of August 2018.
There seems to be somewhat of a lack of completely consistent information on just how far in advance you can book your train tickets. Some fellow travellers have been told they can’t reserve more than just a day or two in advance – which I’m almost 100% certain is false, while our tuk tuk driver in Trinco advised us to book at least a week in advance, or two weeks if a major event is coming up. It turned out, our planned Ella to Kandy trip coincided with the start of summer holidays for some Sri Lankan regions (beginning of August), so when we walked up to the ticket counter at the station six days before our planned departure, we received a friendly-yet-concerned ‘almost everything is full, sorry’ retort. This was yet another reminder to always double-check any major upcoming events as part of your travel planning. In any case, being tardy to the party turned out to have a silver lining for us. And this brings us to my next tip.
3. Book 3rd class reserved
You see, most travellers gravitate towards second class wagons, knowing that, while first class is nice, it doesn’t give you the same picture-taking opportunities since you can’t open the windows. We initially fell for this trap. It was gonna be second class or bust. However, when our plans got derailed by the impending summer break movement of the masses, we were left with only the option: reserving a 3rd class ticket. After the cashier informed us that it was ‘pretty much the same’ as second class, we went for this option. Also – we had no other choice. Not really sure what we expected, but the TCR (‘third class reserved’) was as comfy as could be!
We had assigned seats, of course, and there were fans throughout the wagon (though they’re not really needed if you take the morning train). Yes the seats are a bit narrow, considering what they call a three-seater should actually fit three people comfortably. But the benefit of this ticket type is that, unlike with 2nd class, the train company holds the TCR wagon on this for the TCR ticket holders with assigned seats only, no standing tickets allowed. I mean, we have heard of people having to physically elbow and push through and over fellow travellers just to get a good spot on a non-reserved seat ticket. It sounded like a nightmare. This may be a good choice for you if you like mosh pits, perhaps. Neither me or my husband like being pushed and shoved, only to then stand two thirds of the way, so we were more than pleased with a spacious and relatively empty train car. Trust me on this: third class reserved is where it’s at. And don’t worry – you’ll still have the option of doing the awful cliché of hanging out the door and having your travel buddy capture that on Instagram for eternity.
4. Have camera ready for 1st half of the trip
Sometimes it’s good to know what to anticipate – especially if that anticipation might involve you being perched at the open window or hanging out the door, hoping for the perfect picture. With the Ella to Kandy train ride, it’s easy: prepare to take most of your shots during the first half or the first two thirds of the trip. Starting in Ella, you’ll be taken along beautiful winding hills, sprawling valleys and the occasional tea plantation. Grade A stuff. Later on, the higher you go, the greener it gets. Wait for close-up shots of tea fields, dramatic hill and rock formations, and the occasional creek or small waterfall.
The final third of the trip will likely be a bit less eventful in terms of the sights. But it’s also a good opportunity to take some time out and chill a bit. Buy some snacks from the vendors, or perhaps a cup of hot tea, or simply watch the countryside roll by. You’ll arrive in Kandy in no time.
5. Dress in layers
Sri Lanka is a tropical place, that much is true. However, this epic train ride from Ella to Kandy will take you trough some epic mountains as well. In the second third of the trip, you’ll start hitting 1000m above sea level going up, and when you hit Nuwara Eliya, you’ll be way past the point of needing a light jacket. Have something ready for when the chills come, and don’t be surprised if it rains in the hilly and misty highland areas as well.
I usually keep a simple sarong on hand for these purposes, the basic type you can buy in the many markets of Indonesia for 20,000 IDR and a thin jacket. If you’re considering getting off the train in the mountains, I’d recommend investing in something that might be warm and rain-resistant. I’ve used a simple rainjacket/hoodie from Jack Wolfskin on numerous occasions, and it was just perfect for just slightly chilly but not too cold climates.
Ella Travel Guide and Tips
We got into Ella via a taxi share from Arugam Bay, which was easy to organize via the dedicated Sri Lanka Taxi Share website. As soon as we pulled up at our homestay at Rohamton Inn, we were greeted by our hosts, a lovely and super caring elderly couple. Paul, the grandpa, even complimented Flo on his dashing looks, which is a curious but sweet thing to hear after you get out of a shakey 4-hour-long car ride.
Ella Sights and Activities: The hills are alive
Hundreds of people flock into Ella for its unspoiled nature and epic vistas. Take any of the treks on the map – you’ve got yourself a winner. The most common – and the easiest – is to start off with Little Adam’s Peak – a gorgeous viewpoint that will make you feel like the king of the world. Peep the peak of Ella Rock across or marvel at the amazing valleys beneath you – all of that after just a 30-40 minute walk.
One word of advice, though: go early. It gets crowded, fast, for one, and you don’t want to be battling the heat while going up the dusty slopes. Some people recommend this as a great sunrise spot, so, again, if you’ve got nothing better to do than get up at 4:30 am, by all means, knock yourself out. It’s meant to be super beautiful and will give you enough time to get back into town by breakfast time.
We also attempted going up Ella Rock, but, considering it was high noon and we severely underestimated the difficulty of the trail we were on, we gave up probably about 3/4 of the way up. Probably could’ve made it but it was just too damn hot, and I was at the end of my comfort zone big time.
Ella Accommodation and Dining
Since it’s quite a highly frequented place, Ella accommodation is plenty and densely packed. You’ll have your pick out of family-run guesthouses, like Rohamton Inn, where we stayed for two nights. Breakfast was indcluded and the hosts were super kind and accommodating, even providing us with candles and lanterns when the electricity went out (which is quite a common occurence in Ella, by the way). On our last day, we had to check out super early to arrive at the train station at 6 am, and we received a carefully packed and plentiful takeaway bag with our breakfast, in time for our long train ride. The only downside to staying here – which is not an issue of the guesthouse, but rather a general issue – is that the street dogs go OFF at night, barking and fighting for what seems like eternity. Surely it also depends on the day as well, though, so it might be better to come prepared with some earplugs.
In terms of food, you won’t be too spoiled for choice if you have a low budget – though there are plenty of mid-to-high budged options. We went to a lower budget place called Raha, located at the main intersection. It was good food, for good price. Just look at the size of this dosa!
Kandy Travel Tips: Skip or Stay?
Having started in Ella and taking probably the prettiest train ride of your life might set you up for a slight disappointment with Kandy – especially if you’ve already seen imposing, big-deal temples and Buddha statues on hilltops before. This bustling town is nonetheless worth a stay of a day or two, either to recharge, have a relaxed stroll around the lake, explore the local eateries or get stuck at a mountain hideaway guesthouse with a bomb ass view. If you’ve already done a fair share of traveling around Southeast Asia, you probably won’t love Kandy, so a day or two might be just enough.
If you do decide to explore the cultural heritage, be prepared to pay a hefty fee of 1,000 LKR for the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, while other sites charge similar entry fees. I don’t blame them – there’s a lot to see in terms of culture and heritage. At the same time, it seems a bit blown out of proportion. We chose to skip the temple, partly for this reason, but mainly because we saw a Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore – and that one was completely free to visit (as of 2014), including the museum part.
Kandy Accommodation Tips
In terms of lodging, you’ll find that Kandy doesn’t deliver what might be expected of a town its size. If you think that downtown would be littered with guesthouses – you’re wrong, I’m sorry to say. There are only a couple of budget options downtown, one of which we stayed at. So if central location is key for you, check out Charleton Kandy Rest. However, I would only advise you to take the nicer room with A/C there, as the standard rooms have shared bathroom, which are not in great shape and all. On the upside, you do get free hot and cold refreshments any time. If you dont mind straying off the center a bit, you’ll have a lot more options – most of which will require you to take a tuk tuk. We decided to switch to another budget option, but with a better standard: Mountain View homestay, just up a winding road not too far from the temple. If you’re after a very calm and quiet place with stunning views, Mountain View is perfect. You will enjoy a balcony or terrace room looking out at the hills surrounding Kandy, a good wifi connection, simple but clean room, and lovely hosts. Breakfast is optional at an additional 450 Rupees per person, and taking a tuk tuk up from the road behind the temple should set you back 150 Rupees or less.
Final Verdict: Truly the Best Sri Lanka Train Ride?
If you’ve been around Sri Lanka on a train more than just once, you might be a better judge. However, given the fact that there is a finite set of train connections, as well as the topography of the country, I don’t think travelers are lying when they say it’s a beautiful trip to go to from Ella to Kandy (or vice versa). For us, it was definitely a highlight and a much needed break from the oppresive heat of the coastal beach cities we just came back from. Was it the most beatiful ride I’ve even taken? To be honest – no – but I’m also still very much hung up on New Zealand’s west coast, (because rugged cliffs are my thing). Nevertheless, I’d still recommend doing this picturesque Sri Lanka train ride to get a glimpse of the coutryside, support local transport, and take in the greenery of Ceylon’s middle.