A Buddhist paradise of sandy beaches, rolling hills and historic tea plantations dotted with picturesque towns, stunning temples and fascinating wildlife. Many visitors choose to explore this compact island by bus, others by hired car and some even hopping between towns in iconic three-wheeled Tuk-Tuks! Having spent a number of months living and working in the capital, Colombo, my favourite mode of transport, however, was by train. Don’t expect a smooth ride or any significant comfort, but there’s something about trundling across this tranquil island on the old colonial railway that is simply impossible to beat!
With an extensive network covering the majority of the island, wonderfully cheap fares and English language timetables, train travel in Sri Lanka is a breeze. While it’s possible to cover the vast majority of the country by train, there is one route that stands out for its absolutely stunning scenery. So much so, in fact, that the journey from Colombo to Badulla via the backpacker hub of Ella is now a highlight of many people’s time in Sri Lanka! With only three trains per day making the whole trip from Colombo’s historic Fort Station through to Badulla, booking in advance is highly recommended. Train number 1015 departs Fort at 8.30am, reaching its destination around 6.30pm the same evening, although minor delays are fairly common!
The next question for most travellers is which class to book. Some departures feature what is called a “First Class Observation Car” which, if available, certainly does offer some of the best views. Attached to the very back of the train, this carriage provides first-class style seating with large windows, including a vast panoramic window looking back out over the tracks. If this car is fully booked, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t travel second or even third class! Local Sri Lankans make for wonderful company on the journey, and the seats are perfectly comfortable. In fact, as the lower-class cars are not air-conditioned, they have fully opening windows meaning you can get some exceptional photographs! Considering a 3rd class fare for the entire trip costs just 400 Rupees (Around $3), it doesn’t get much better than that!
So, you’ve got yourself a ticket, and you arrive at Colombo Fort station, only to be greeted by swarms of taxi drivers, street vendors and tour guides, all trying to get your attention. Confidence here is key. Walk into the station through the main entrance as if you know exactly where you’re going, and check the large overhead display to find your train’s platform. It’s simply a case then of finding your seat and settling in for the ride! You’ll find that all manner of vendor pass through the train at almost every station offering drinks and snacks, although unless you’re an expert haggler, it may be cheaper to stock up in a supermarket before leaving Colombo.
For the first hour or so, the train snakes its way through the sprawling Colombo suburbs, heading towards Sri Lanka’s second city, Kandy. Rambukkana station marks the final stop for the regular Colombo Commuter services, and it’s just a single track from here as you begin the gentle climb up into the central hills. At times, it will feel as if the train line has been carved out of the jungle while at others, you’ll marvel at how the track clings to the edge of the ever-steepening mountainsides. Kadugannawa is one of the last major stations stops before Kandy and is also home to Sri Lana’s National Railway Museum. To the right-hand side of the train, as you pass through the station, you will catch a fleeting glimpse of some of the historic locomotives and carriages that date back to the days of the British Empire.
While some trains make the detour down a small branch line to the very centre of Kandy, others simply stop at nearby Peradeniya Junction station, before returning to the single track to begin the long, slow climb up into the hills. Slowly, dense jungle gives way to rolling hills, which in turn give way to dramatic mountains and valleys. At Hatton Station, the gateway to the famous Adam’s Peak, the train stops just long enough for you to jump out and snap a couple of photographs. From here on after, there is a noticeable chill in the air, and the scenery transforms rapidly into rolling tea plantations punctuated with colonial-era bungalows.
The colonial town of Nuwara Eliya is home to a picturesque lake, a wonderful golf course and some charming villas and mansions which have been lovingly converted into guest houses and hotels. For those who find the prospect of some 10 hours on a train a little daunting, breaking the journey here is a great option and the 3 pm arrival time gives you plenty of time to explore town before the sun goes down.
The next few hours are spent trundling serenely through tea country, with regular stops at small local stations. This is the stretch of track that has earned the journey it’s incredible reputation, and the scenery certainly delivers. Towering viaducts, sprawling tea plantation, deep valleys and staggering mountains set the backdrop, and the leisurely speed lets you soak up this unique mountain atmosphere.
The small town of Ella is somewhat legendary amongst backpackers for being the starting point for some of the country’s best hikes, and for having a great selection of bars, restaurants and accommodation. If you had time to spare, it’s well worth alighting here and spending a few days in and around this quaint mountain town. If you choose to stay on board for the final leg on to Badulla, you will be treated with a rare ride across the famous and aptly named 9 Arch Bridge. Built by the British in 1921, the bridge is a feat of engineering, spanning an enormous valley at almost dizzying heights! From there, it’s just a short ride through more tea hills to the charming town of Badulla, arriving just in time for a sunset cup of tea!