There are train rides, and then there are Sri Lankan train rides. The teardrop island in the Indian Ocean may be small, but it packs in some of the world’s most thrilling rail journeys.
You could find yourself rattling past suburbs with a fellow commuter dozing on your shoulder, or perhaps weaving in and out of emerald-green tea gardens and thickets of tropical rainforest while tucking into a packed-to-go meal of curry and rice – and sometimes both in the same trip.
The steam trains that once transported tea and spices along these weaving rail lines have mostly vanished, but the colorful diesel locos that replaced them offer the same evocative effect as they transect the Sri Lankan landscape. If you’re a lover of travel by locomotive, consider booking passage on one of these four epic train journeys around Sri Lanka.
Colombo to Kandy
The best train ride in Sri Lanka
Start – Colombo Fort; End – Kandy; Distance – approx. 80 miles/125km
The one rail journey that features on almost every Sri Lankan itinerary, the three-hour trip from Colombo to Kandy will whisk you away from the big-city sprawl to the genteel greenery of Sri Lanka’s spiritual capital. Some of the services on this line continue onto Badulla (see below), although it’s worth breaking the journey and exploring Kandy, home to the legendary Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, enshrining what’s claimed to be a genuine tooth of Buddha.
On the way there, you’ll rattle past rolling hills, paddy fields, lush stands of tropical forest, palm trees waving like giant hands and miniature village train stations with tin roofs and station attendants standing at attention in immaculate uniforms. You’ll also feel the air cool as you leave the baking coastal plain for the more pleasant climate of the hills.
The Colombo-to-Kandy line was the first major route established by the newly formed Ceylon Government Railway in the 1860s, slicing through the forested hills inland from the capital to bring tea and coffee down to the coast to further the economic ambitions of the British Empire. Today, travelers ride in the opposite direction, on a journey that offers by far the most atmospheric and enjoyable way to reach the Hill Country from Colombo.
Kandy to Badulla
Best for spectacular views
Start – Kandy; End – Badulla; Distance – approx. 100 miles/165km
The trip from Colombo to Kandy is just a warm-up for Sri Lanka’s most beautiful train ride: the British-era Main Line, built as a conduit for Sri Lanka’s most famous export: tea.
The journey from Kandy to Badulla takes seven to eight hours and carves through Sri Lanka’s tea country, passing swirling, curling plantations that appear hollowed into the hilly green landscape like the enormous fingerprints of a giant. Tidy fringes of lemongrass and canna bushes provide an ornamental trim around the edges, while tea pickers in rainbow saris create vivid flashes of color amongst the emerald sea. To make the most of the views, take your turn sitting in one of the open train doorways, with your feet dangling above the track.
The final stage from Ella to Badulla is perhaps the most dramatic section of the journey, with some spectacular feats of 19th-century engineering carrying the train across valleys and ravines and around problem outcrops.
Just north of Ella, the tracks curve over the brick-and-stone Nine Arch Bridge before tackling the Demodara Loop, where the line circles a hilltop and passes back under itself. Many travelers end the journey at Ella and hike to viewpoints around the bridge for one of Sri Lanka’s most popular photo opportunities.
Colombo to Galle
Best coastal rail trip
Start – Colombo Fort; End – Galle; Distance – approx. 75 miles/120km
The Indian Ocean washes almost up to the rail tracks on the ride south from Colombo to the Portuguese-founded city of Galle, bringing fresh breezes and the smell of sea salt right into the carriages. So long as you sit on the right-hand side of the train, you’ll have views of the ocean as the train clatters out of Colombo.
The rail line meets the shore just south of Galle Face Green, a large urban park in the capital, and follows it for almost the entire length of the journey. If the lure of the big blue gets too much, passengers can hop off the train at beachside towns including Moragalla (via Hettimulla station), with snorkeling opportunities amid coral reefs, or Hikkaduwa, where surfers ride the swells and sip smoothies in shorefront cafes.
Whether you choose to temporarily alight or not, make sure you sample the wares of vendors who join the carriages at tiny rural stations. Grab some buttered sweetcorn or packaged curry and rice and take in the bucolic scenes of coastal life, from children and dogs splashing in the surf to stilt fishermen sitting atop their wooden perch, all the way to Galle.
Anuradhapura to Jaffna
Best northern rail trip
Start – Anuradhapura; End – Jaffna; Distance – approx. 120 miles/195km
The rail line to the far north of Sri Lanka was severed by fighting between southern Buddhists and Hindu Tamils during Sri Lanka’s long civil war. When the last Yal Devi Express rolled into Jaffna on June 13, 1990, it was marooned by bombing. Empty carriages were repurposed into military bunkers, tracks were ripped up for scrap metal and stations fell into ruin. For 25 years, rail travel to Sri Lanka’s Hindu north was a distant memory.
And then, in 2014, the shrill whistle of locomotives returned as the Yal Devi Express rumbled back into Jaffna, on gleaming new tracks, for the first time in a generation. Today, the three-and-a-half-hour ride from the ancient Buddhist city at Anuradhapura to Jaffna offers a window onto a different Sri Lanka.
You’ll leave the gleaming white dagobas (stupas) behind at Anuradhapura, and in their place multi-hued kovils (temples) start to color the countryside as you steam into Sri Lanka’s Hindu north. You'll also leave behind Sri Lanka's major tourist crowds, as international visitors short on time tend to skip the splendors of the island's northern coast.
On the final approach to Jaffna, the landscape flattens out, and patches of water and salt pans appear as the train crosses Elephant Pass – the heavily militarized bottleneck guarding the entrance to the Jaffna peninsula. Tall palmyra palms rise over a landscape that still bears the scars of war but also green shoots of rejuvenation, as villages and townships pick themselves up after decades of conflict. Waiting near the line end is Jaffna itself, a vibrant Hindu city with a colonial heart – an easy leaping-off point for some of Sri Lanka’s most idyllic, unspoiled islands and beaches.
Tips for train travel in Sri Lanka
Trains chug out from Colombo to most key destinations, charging slightly more than buses but offering more atmosphere and better views. Sri Lanka Railways has route details as well as a journey planner.
What ticket should I buy?
As a general rule, third class is a free-for-all, where you buy a ticket at the station on the day and fight for space in a carriage as jammed as a sardine tin.
Second class often has both unreserved and reserved options. The unreserved compartments resemble their third-class counterparts, bar some extra seat-padding. Reserved second-class seats, on the other hand, are rightly popular, as they give you windows that open for epic views and photographs, plus reasonably comfy seats and fans overhead to keep cool.
First class brings more comfort and air-conditioning, but sitting behind sealed, often grubby glass can make you feel a little isolated from the country you are passing through. Top of the line are the first class ‘observation saloon’ carriages with a giant window for sightseeing. Increasingly, these carriages are also air-conditioned, and again, the sealed windows can dampen the vibrancy of the shifting scenery.
How do I book trains in Sri Lanka?
It’s possible to make bookings 30 days in advance for reserved first- and second-class seats and berths, as well as for the observation saloon carriages. Demand often outstrips seat supply during high season (December to April), so plan ahead if you can.
In March 2022, the Ministry of Transportation in Sri Lanka launched its own online ticketing system, allowing travelers to reserve train tickets online. Advance reservations are available 30 days from the date of travel and up to two hours before departure. Travelers can choose which class they want to travel in, but seats are allocated automatically.
Note that you will still need to pick up your physical tickets from a station that offers mTicketing services. A full list of the stations which provide the service can be found on the Seatreservation.railway.gov.lk website, and all of the stations featured in this article are included.
Alternatively, you can reserve tickets at the station counters, or go through an agency to book online – 12Go and Visit Lanka Tours have good reputations. If you are using an agent to reserve tickets on the popular Hill Country routes, ideally book at least 32 days ahead to allow the agent to buy the tickets as soon as they go on sale.
For unreserved carriages, just rock up, buy a ticket and take your chances in the scrum. Nearly all tickets on the Colombo to Galle route fall into this category, and it can be worth arriving an hour or so before the train departure for your best chance of a seat.
On most trains, the best spot is on the floor in one of the open doorways between carriages, with the warm breeze blowing through your hair.
What should I bring onboard?
Although sellers are known to sway down the aisles with snacks from time to time, don’t rely on these tasty but unpredictable provisions. Make space in your bag for plenty of food and water. It’s also wise to bring hand sanitizer and toilet roll in case you need to use the onboard restrooms.
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