Trip Tip: Bring Beer and Patience for Your Sri Lanka Train Adventure

I know I talked a little bit about the traffic and road conditions in Sri Lanka, but there actually is another more peaceful, maybe even more scenic way to see the country.

Sri Lanka Railway
Meet the red menace.

Sri Lanka Railway.

A little background: the Sri Lanka Railway was originally known as the Ceylon Government Railways when it opened in 1858, and was built to “transport coffee from the Hill Country to the coastal port of Colombo, then when the coffee crop was wiped out by disease, the embryonic crops of tea that Sri Lanka is now famed for were transported to the coast for exportation.”

Mad rush at the train station
Trains: Once used to transport tea and now, motorcycles.

There are three main rail lines in Sri Lanka, according to Lonely Planet, and they are used by both government and privately-run rail services (I believe there are like, 2 private companies).

We took the government-run red train from Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) to Ella, through some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful hills and valleys. It’s a trip that, while it’s only 60 kilometers, will take you about 3-4 hours (plus an hour delay on arrival, in our case.)

Nanu Oya station in Sri Lanka
Fly like a bird on a Sri Lanka train? Nope.

The whole train ticket process was kind of confusing….we had to order then ahead of time but the SLR website was a bit of a mess. So we thought we should be able to easily order them through our tour guide company. But then, picking them up turned into a bit of a hassle and we spent the first 4-5 days of our vacation unsure of whether we even had train tickets. Finally, we got them at the last minute—while we were standing on the platform—from someone who physically brought them on the train where Tilly was able to grab them in person. No idea why this was the preferred process, but again, a bit of a hassle.

Train timetable in Sri Lanka
Train timetable in Sri Lanka

We booked “first-class,” observation car tickets for the mid-day trip, which set us back around 1,000 rupees each or $8. Totally a bargain and a great way to see the country. It is particularly important to purchase seats in the observation car, since the seats are assigned. On the day of our trip, when the train finally pulled into the Nanu Oya station over an hour late, there was a mad rush of Asian tourists who crushed onto the train and plopped themselves into the 24 observation car seats. But Tilly and another tour guide got on and explained the arranged seating situation to them and soon we were in our assigned seats.

Boarding the train in Sri Lanka

I did say the train was peaceful, but let me stress that these are not exactly high-tech, modern bullet trains, as you can tell from the photos. So, if you don’t necessarily equate peaceful with safety or modernity or being on time, then by all means, you’ll love train travel in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka train
“More peaceful” = “but also pretty sketchy on the safety front.”


But, having said that, it really can be very peaceful. You can get downright drowsy in the warm, oppressive air that’s a combination of lots of passengers, velvet seats and curtains, and a lack of air conditioning.

Fan on the Sri Lanka train
Oh look, a fan! But it’s not working.

The clack of the railcars on the ancient rail lines is slightly hypnotizing. The ever-so-gentle sway of the railcar back and forth is likely to lull you into a nap.

Observation car on Sri Lanka train
A few of our 24 new best friends.

Our seats (19 & 20) weren’t great from a view perspective (we were actually between two windows, rather than next to one), but that was fine because we just took turns going out to the area between the cars where the doors are wide open.

Spaces in between on Sri Lanka train

It’s pretty exciting to be back there, clinging to the open doorframe while the train plunges into a pitch black tunnel and the sound roars in your ears. Then, just when you get used to the deafening, all-encompassing noise and lack of any sense of sight, the train comes out of the tunnel and there’s a steep cliff drop that has sprung up right below your feet.

Sri Lanka countryside

A guy came by selling some lovely warm salted peanuts out of a paper cone for 100 rupees, and of course we bought some, which made us wish we’d had the foresight to bring some cans of beer with us.

peanuts on the train

The train makes frequent stops at stations along the way and you get a glimpse of Sri Lankan life and the major role the train plays in helping connect people. At one station, a bunch of military guys were coming in from some exercise or patrol mission, all sweaty and tired, dumping their heavy backpacks on the platform before checking in at a table with an officer and a clipboard. Another group was just heading out, walking along the train tracks for a bit before veering off to scale up the sides of the tall hills and then disappearing entirely.

Military in Sri Lanka

At another station stop, a couple of tuk tuks were waiting to pick up arriving passengers, the tuk tuk drivers reclined back in their seats and by all appearances, napping in the mid-day sun. One of them, however, was blaring some Indian techno music, which made XFE start bobbing his head, much to the consternation of the loudly grumbling older British man seated behind us. All of which, had me giggling.

Railroad crossing in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuks at a railroad crossing in Sri Lanka

I’ll admit, the train trip was not my idea (it was XFE’s), and I was a bit hesitant about it, truth be told. But after several days on Sri Lankan roads, it turned out to be the perfect antidote and a great way to get from Nuwara Eliya to Ella.



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