The train journey between Kandy and Ella through Sri Lanka’s central highlands is well-documented.
You may recognise the scene above – a train crossing over Nine Arches Bridge near Ella – from innumerable sepia-toned travel blogs with the word “nomad” clumsily shoe-horned into the title.
A quick search of the route on YouTube will yield dozens of tanned influencers who have documented their journey hanging out of the doors over verdant tea terraces.
Despite all the puffery, though, nothing could have prepared us for what the journey was actually like.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel on a number of extraordinary train journeys, from bullet trains through southern China to the Venice Simplon Orient Express through the British countryside. The 8:47 from Kandy to Ella topped them all, though – and it only cost me $US3.
Scroll down to see exactly what it’s like to make the seven-hour journey, from start to finish.
We arrived at Kandy station, which is in the heart of Sri Lanka, bright and early. We wanted to catch the 8:47 train to Ella, in the island’s famous hill country. To get our tickets, though, we would have to be fast. Second-class tickets are only available on the day and sell out rapidly. Third-class tickets are also available but we didn’t fancy standing in a cramped carriage with other travellers for seven hours straight.
Why didn’t we opt for first class? Well, for starters, tickets sell out months in advance, and you have to book via a travel agency, and nobody has time to be that organised. Secondly, while there is luxurious AC, you can’t open the windows in first-class — meaning you’ll never get the same picture-perfect views that you will in second or third class.
The train tickets in Sri Lanka are absurdly cheap. Our seven-hour, 158 km trip from Kandy to Ella cost us just 210 Sri Lankan Rupees, which is around $US3.
An hour before the train was due to arrive, the platform was already full of locals and tourists for whom this is an extremely popular route.
Sri Lanka’s larger train stations have two types of bathrooms: one for locals and one for foreigners. I tried to check out the locals’ lavatories but a guard quickly redirected me to the foreigners’ restrooms.
It was a bring your own toilet roll situation, which — luckily — I’d come prepared for.
Finally, the train arrived and in the ensuing crush, we jumped on the first seats we could find — which turned out to be third class, not second. We were just glad we managed to get a seat, which was more than could be said for many.
Sri Lanka’s trains are a mish-mash of diesel locomotives from China and India, and vary in quality significantly. We were on one of the newer Chinese-built cars, which — while certainly more modern than the classic Sri Lankan stock — was still uncomfortable and provided minimal legroom.
Source: The Man in Seat 61.
Rail travel was introduced in Sri Lanka by British colonists in the second half of the 19th century when it was needed to carry tea and coffee from the plantations in the island’s central highlands to the capital of Colombo on the west coast. The country’s rail network suffered devastation at the hands of the Tamil Tigers during the civil war, who saw the railways as a symbol of the state.
The first few hours of the journey were gruelling and monotonous as the packed-out carriages trundled through minor settlements at a snail’s pace.
At various intervals, food vendors somehow weaved their way through the packed carriages offering everything from fried prawn balls, to spicy peanuts, to fresh fruit.
For the entire seven hours, the aisles remained crammed with standing passengers as locals got on and got off at the innumerable stops along the slow journey. If you needed the toilet, you would have to devote at least a few minutes to squeezing your way there and make sure there was someone guarding your seat in the meantime.
Finally, though, we started to climb, and small towns were replaced by rolling tea terraces.
The tea industry employs around 5% of the Sri Lankan population, but most in the billion-dollar industry are paid a pittance. The majority of tea pickers are ethnically Indian Tamils descended from those brought over by the British colonists. They are paid between 300-600 LKR ($US1.70-$US3.40) for a day’s work.
As we climbed ever higher, the views got more and more stunning.
The pace of the train, which had once been agonizing, was suddenly not slow enough as we drank in the sumptuous scenery.
Some passengers — especially tourists — chose to hang out the side doors, which actually didn’t seem that dangerous given the speed we were travelling at.
I couldn’t get enough photos of the train winding through the scenery behind us.
Here’s one of us coming out of a tunnel. While the train passed through the route’s numerous tunnels, kids shrieked out the doors and windows to hear their echoes bouncing back at them — a novelty that quickly wore off.
Even the train stations up in the hill country were more attractive. Each one had beautifully maintained flower beds — like they were all in competition with each other.
The station guards’ uniforms were pretty snappy.
We also passed some local lads playing what must have been the most picturesque game of cricket ever played.
When we finally arrived at our destination in Ella, we were exhausted but blown away by the experience.
Ella itself has an abundance of hiking routes and tea factories that tourists can visit, like Newburgh Green Tea Factory (pictured below), which is owned by Finlays, one of the world’s largest tea producers.
Source: Lonely Planet.
On our second day in Ella, we hiked to the Nine Arches Bridge — one of the most famous railway bridges in the world — that was constructed by the British in 1921. The area was full of tourists who sat daringly on the bridge’s edge getting the perfect photo. Some people even walked along the edge, despite the fact the drop reaches 80 feet at its highest.
Source: Life Times Sri Lanka.
The train heading over the bridge was one of the highlights of our trip — it had a certain sub-tropical Hogwarts Express vibe to it.
While the first few hours of our trip between Kandy and Ella were somewhat insufferable, it was totally worth it for the second half of the journey, which was characterised by awe-inspiring scenery. In hindsight, we might have preferred the much shorter trip between Nuwara Eliya (or “Little England”) and Ella, which was definitely where the views became truly breathtaking. Whatever you decide, I cannot recommend visiting Sri Lanka enough, and I’m convinced it’s going to be South Asia’s next big tourist hub.
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