Sri Lanka was never on my travel bucket list. Sure, I've had friends who went on trips 2-3 weeks long and they came back telling stories of their great adventures, and I always wondered to myself, "Wow 2-3 weeks in Sri Lanka? This country must be pretty amazing!" But all it took was a twist of fate before I booked a flight to Sri Lanka. My friends and I had initially wanted to visit Iran but flight prices went up and we were frantically looking for another destination. Then, one friend suggested visiting Sri Lanka and the rest was history ?
[P.S. We've got 10 incredible reasons why you need to visit Sri Lanka!]
Little did I know that Sri Lanka is known for having one of the world's most scenic train rides - the famous train route between Ella and Kandy. That made me really excited because I love train rides. It isn't just about the impressive views. There's something about the chugging sound of trains and the hiss and screech of the brakes that fascinate me too.
The train ride between Ella and Kandy is one of the must-try and popular experiences in Sri Lanka because of its gorgeous views. Do note that you can ride the train in either direction or even from Ella to Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, and vice-versa but the impressive views can only be found on the train ride between Ella and Kandy!
Me and my travel buddies in Ella
For those who are unfamiliar with Sri Lanka, this gorgeous country is made up of various terrains, from mountains to plains and of course, its well-known beaches. My friends and I spent a good 2-3 days in the mountain town of Ella before taking the famous train ride. We were super stoked about this train ride being the highlight of our trip!
We booked our ticket online via a third-party site for USD 17 (LKR 3076) as we were afraid that we couldn't get seats on the train. But you can actually spend way less (from LKR 125 - 420/USD 0.70 - 2.32) than we did by getting the tickets directly at the station. There were 3 classes to choose from and we picked the second class with reserved seating. The first class is air-conditioned while the rest aren't. But I'd recommend getting the second or third class tickets as you'd be able to mingle with the locals who actually travel on the train on a daily basis. Plus, did I mention that most of the train ride will be in the highlands? So, you can definitely forgo the air-con and enjoy the cool mountain breeze instead ?
My friends and I took the 6.40 am train ride as the journey from Ella to Kandy takes about 6-7 hours and we wanted to reach Kandy just in time for lunch. This was where our journey started - Ella train station. The station was unassuming. I remember stepping into the station and it felt like I was walking down memory lane. There wasn't any fancy technology or gantry system, except for a train conductor who checked our tickets. There was hardly any crowd except for locals and other travellers like ourselves. The train conductor ushered us to the "second-class" area and we waited eagerly for our train to arrive, while the occasional cool breeze greeted us.
Shortly after, the train arrived on time and everyone boarded the train in an orderly manner. Thankfully, getting on the train was less chaotic than I had imagined it to be!
Credit: @at.angelica on Instagram
After storing my backpack in the overhead compartment, the train ride that I had been anticipating began. It started out slow, alternating between trees and mountain views.
The sight of the train moving through the winding tracks through the mountains was simply out of this world. At times, it felt as if I was in a movie ?
Credit: Pamela Goh on Facebook
What really surprised me initially were the food vendors who peddled from cabin to cabin to sell all sorts of snacks - from plain vadai to curry puffs, peanuts and even fruits. And what's interesting is that these peddlers would hop on and hop off the train at different stations. Of course, I was famished and couldn't resist getting a bite or two! There was also a peddler who carried around a hot water flask dispenser selling hot milk tea. Sipping hot tea in the cooling weather truly warmed my heart. There's really no need to worry if you didn't prepare any snacks to eat onboard. Trust me, the vendors will come to your rescue ?
Credit: @at.angelica on Instagram
After filling our tummies, my friends and I decided to snap some photos, like this window shot ? As the train wasn't moving really fast, we could walk around the train and experiment with different shots from the train doors.
If you aren't catching up on sleep or watching Netflix (why would you?!) I'd recommend leaving your seat to snap some insta-worthy shots from the train doors. Most of the train doors weren't shut so we were able to stand there.
Credit: @candelle on Instagram
Just be careful to hold on tight to your cameras and the handles of the train! We weren't daring enough to try out different poses but there were other travellers who went all out to get that perfect shot. You can probably find hundreds of these photos on Instagram ? Do note that there will be other travellers who will hog the doors but what I learnt was to just be patient and gracious about it. If need be, just let them know that you'd like to snap a photo!
Credit: @at.angelica on Instagram
As our train ride was pretty early, we were also in time to catch some dramatic "morning light" shots like this too ? But do note that you won't always get such luck with the sun! There were moments where we were going through clouds, so my advice to you is to seize the moment while you can.
It's no surprise that we passed by tea plantations as well. After all, the Sri Lankan train tracks were built by the British colonialists so that tea could be transported from the highlands to Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. But to see the plantations up close was a really breathtaking sight. At some points during the ride, we also saw locals working on the plantations.
As the train moved higher into the mountains, we were greeted with a scenic overview of the hills and tea plantations beneath. Not to mention that the temperature was probably around 17-18 degrees so it was really cooling too! It's hard to encapsulate the experience in photos. You really have to be right there to see it for yourself ?
Even though the ride took 6-7 hours, it certainly didn't feel long at all. I was living in the moment and soaking in all the beauty that I could. I remember looking out into the mountains and feeling blessed and in awe of Allah's creations ❤️
As if the picturesque views of the rolling hills and tea plantations weren't enough, what made my trip sweeter was meeting this bunch of students and their teacher on the train. I didn't know what it was that drew me to speak to them. Perhaps it was their youthful energy which signalled that it was okay for us to approach them. So, my friends and I decided to strike a conversation with them. It turns out that they were actually 17-year-old madrasah students who were heading back to Colombo after a religious trip. Seeing that my friends and I were a mix of races, they were curious to find out where we were from. When we told them that we were from Singapore, they were intrigued to know more and they were fascinated to find out that I was Muslim too ☺️
I loved how candid some of the students were, like the boy in this picture. I had posed for my friend's picture but this boy just cheekily snuck his head out of the window and joined in!
Before the trip, I had never met a Sri Lankan and so I never had any impression of them. But almost every local we talked to during our trip had embraced us with open arms, just like how these boys treated us. I came to a realisation that when you don't have any stereotypes about others and you're just talking to them, human to human, the encounter can be really heartwarming ❤️ It's definitely a reminder of why we should continue to travel.
Besides meeting the friendly locals, one of the things that I enjoyed about the train ride was the colourful stops along the way. I always find it intriguing to observe the locals when they are off-guard and going about their daily lives, and I love that I could do just that while on a train. I saw friends having meaningful conversations with one another, families rushing to get on the train, food vendors selling their snacks and mostly just locals waiting patiently for their trains to arrive.
There's no doubt that the train ride from Ella to Kandy was full of surprises. I had expected the mountains and tea plantations but I didn't expect them to be a thousand times more stunning in real life than in photos. And I totally didn't expect to make friends at all, but I did!
As the train came to a stop in Kandy, a part of me couldn't bear to leave the train. We managed to snap a last-minute photo with the madrasah kids. But as heavy as my heart was, it was full knowing that I had gained incredible memories from the train journey.
I hope my experience travelling by train through Sri Lanka has inspired you to do the same. For those of you who've been toying with the idea but never got down to planning it, perhaps it's time that you take that leap and take a ride on this amazing train journey. This train ride might not have been in my travel bucket list but now I'd tell everyone to try it at least once!
[P.S. Looking for more train rides? We've rounded up the 10 best train journeys in the world!]