Sri Lanka’s Kandy to Ella train meanders through manicured tea plantations, cool misty mountains and the local towns of Tamil tea pickers. It is a unique and essential experience.


The English have many faults, but we know how to queue.

Get two of us together and we will instinctively form a queue, even if we don’t want anything. It is perfectly straight unless a bend is required, in which case we create a beautiful sweeping arc. Head down, not speaking, full concentration. If one person shifts we all shift. The preservation of the queue is everything.

Sri Lankans have many qualities, but queueing is not one of them.

We are standing in front of the ticket windows at Kandy station, or so I am told. For all I can see is a ruck of bodies and a sea of flailing arms as cries of anguish and tears of frustration puncture the sultry morning heat. Off to the side, travellers rest forlornly on their backpacks, others curled on benches are asleep or swatting away the flies.

We have come to pick up our tickets for, what we understand, is one of the greatest train journeys in the world. We will spend the next 2 days making our way through the Sri Lankan highlands on the Kandy to Ella train. Will this iconic Sri Lankan journey live up to the hype?

KANDY TRAIN STATION

Sri Lanka’s railway network was conceived, designed and introduced by the British colonial government in 1864. The original purpose was to transport tea – also a British introduction – from the mountain highlands north to Colombo. Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, is set at the base of these highlands. The first train pulled into the station here in 1867.

But our Kandy to Ella train is running late, and no one seems concerned. Least of all the platform conductor, perfectly attired in a black jacket with gold buttons. A whistle hangs out of one pocket and keys from another. His trousers are a crisp white; the straight crease down the centre is as precise as an English queue.

We ask him how much longer. He smiles, “It is the journey that counts.” But we haven’t left yet, we tell him. He looks around, at the tourists swapping stories, the local families sharing food, and at this glorious station. We realise our journey has already begun.

The station exterior is a beautiful sweep of white Modernist architecture. The platforms, long and straight, boast Victorian shelters of curling wrought iron and sheet metal roofs. The interior is more traditional.

A large wooden departure board, with gold writing, informs us of the trains scheduled to leave, those that should have left but haven’t, and those that probably won’t go at all. The destinations of Badulla, Nawalapitiya and Polgahwela conjure up images of early travellers, voyages to unknown places and the excitement of the undiscovered.

There are two sets of toilets, one for locals and one for foreigners. Paul picks the wrong one and quickly returns looking more uncomfortable than when he left. Soon, the well-worn tracks begin to rumble. The sound is unmistakable, and yet it takes a few minutes before the hulking blue Kandy to Ella train lumbers into view.  It creaks and grumbles, crackles and growls, like an old grandparent at Christmas. Yet by the time this magnificent blue machine pulls into the station, it already feels like home.

ICONIC KANDY TO NUWARA ELIYA TRAIN

The Kandy to Ella train runs all the way to Badulla and was completed in 1924. While today this Sri Lankan institution pushes 200,000 smiling locals and slightly confused tourists around, it wasn’t until 1960 that passenger traffic overtook freight (mainly tea) as the main source of revenue.

We make our way onto the train, plonk ourselves down in our pre-booked seats while the guard moves our luggage to a spot between the carriages. No sooner are we seated than this iconic blue bone rattler pulls away, as slowly as it arrived.

We bought first class tickets, because they were little more than second-class (£1 more), and included air conditioning. But we soon realise it was a mistake. As the train slowly chugs into the mountains the mist descends and the temperature drops. The air conditioning is not needed, and the windows – scratched and stained – won’t open. So, we head back into second class, where the seats are a bit less comfortable, but the open windows allow the cool fresh air and vibrant scenery to crash into our senses.

And what glorious scenery it is. Sweeping views of steep-sided valleys packed with lush verdant vegetation. Of carefully manicured tea plantations, luminescing in the morning light. And of villages, lurking in the mist, where Tamil tea pickers (earning £2.70 a day) eat, drink and sleep before returning to their back-breaking work in the field.

We stop regularly. As locals jump off to meet friends and family, others jump on. One sells the sweetest most delicious chai tea you have ever tasted. Another, spicy peanuts, where it is wise to only have one at a time. And another a selection of perfectly crisp samosas.

Satiated, we discover an even better place to be, an open doorway. We sit on the floor, legs dangling out the door. Peering down the length of the train, with the wind in our hair and through our shirts, we see excited faces staring back at us. Every window wears a smile or holds a camera. Every door has a pair of knees and a pair of feet.

Time flies as the train follows the twists and turns of the track into the never-ending distance. And after the third tea, the fourth hour, and the hundredth blurred photo, we arrive at Nanuoya station, the gateway to Nuwara Eliya.

TWISTY TURNING ROADS TO RAMBODA FALLS

Taxis are lined up outside the station. This is their bread and butter for the day. We spend one minute doing some appalling haggling and jump in the back seat. Nuwara Eliya is the centre of the highlands. A mix of British colonialism and Sri Lankan life, it is set in a bowl on a high plateau often shrouded in mist. We had been told the town itself is not great, but the scenery around it is, so we head off to Ramboda Falls to explore.

The cloud is low, but the fresh green leaves of tea shimmer through the mist. Pickers in light shirts and tightly curled turbans appear above the bushes before dropping down to pick more leaves. The tea factories are slowly closing for the day and some pickers are walking alongside us. Others wait for a ride.

After an hour the high plateau suddenly stops and drops steeply down to the valley floor. The taxi drops with it, twisting and turning on the precipitous road. Rivers either side of us collapse over the valley edge as our hotel, perched just under an old tea factory, looms out of the mist.

TAMIL PICKERS, TEA FACTORIES & WORKERS

It is an average hotel in a stunning location. Balconies either face the crashing falls or the sweeping views. As the early morning light rises we head out a small door at the back of the breakfast room to meander through the tea fields. The bright green leaves, dappled in the early morning light, radiate freshness and health. Pickers slowly arrive, appearing through the spray and mist to begin their day.

Pinching the tea they place it in their baskets before it is transported to the factory. We follow the tea and head to the Blue Fields Tea Factory. Three hundred staff sort, select, and dry leaves in this slightly antiquated building, reminiscent of an imperial past. The free 15-minute tour is just about audible above the constant hum of the machines. We learn about black tea, green tea and white tea. About different categories; orange pekoe, broken orange pekoe, flowery orange pekoe and, not to be outdone, flowery broken orange pekoe fanning extra special. Tea is not quite as simple as we thought.

Warmed up by the tea from their café, we make our return taxi journey, to re-join the Kandy to Ella train at Nanuoya. We stop briefly at Damro Labookellie Tea Lounge & Factory. Its short tour is average but its location is excellent. Our camera is loving it. The grey sky looks a bit brighter. We pray for sun. But it never comes.

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UNWINDING IN BACKPACKER ELLA

Our train is running late. But we don’t care.

We are devouring some ridiculously delicious cupcakes on sale at the shop in the station and Paul has found the foreigners toilets. As the bone-rattler pulls into the station, like old pros, we ignore our first class seats and find an empty doorway.

If anything the scenic 2 hours, 30-minute journey today is even better. The valleys are a little steeper, the tea fields more bulbously perfect, the light a little brighter, the green a little greener.

We arrive in Ella, a local town clinging to the cliff face, that has become a backpacker’s haunt. Our Mountain Relax Cottage may have standard rooms but the balcony hangs over a sheer drop and the views are staggering. We try to read as the sun goes down but cannot drag our eyes from the darkening horizon.

As night descends, the cloud departs and the stars rise, we are ecstatic to find lively music, a cool vibe and more importantly a plethora of bean bags that cover every inch of the floor upstairs at Chill café. We snuggle into them, rubbing away the ridges that the train’s wooden benches have inserted into our butt cheeks. Two beers and a Sri Lankan curry later, they are almost gone.

After the deepest sleep, we make the short sunrise walk to Little Adam’s peak. Well, it was supposed to be sunrise, but our bodies are not listening. So an hour later than planned we make our way while most others are returning. We find ourselves alone, perched on a hill at the edge of the Sri Lankan highlands. Before us lies the southern plains, and on a clear day, one can see the sea. We are not that lucky, but as we perch at the end of the world, grins plastered on our faces, we think back on two truly remarkable days.

KANDY TO ELLA TRAIN / ALL THE DETAILS YOU NEED TO BOOK YOUR OWN AWESOME TRAIN JOURNEY

Tickets for the Kandy to Ella train can be booked online in advance. If you intend to do the journey in two stages you will need to book two tickets: one from Kandy to Nanuoya and one from Nanuoya to Ella the next day. We recommend booking second class tickets and collecting them from Kandy train station the afternoon before you depart.

There are two trains a day. They depart Kandy at 8:47 and 11:10 and arrive at Nanuoya at 12:40 and 14:57 and at Ella at 15:14 and 17:27.

NIGHT 1 / STAYING AT RAMBODA FALLS

The town of Nuwara Eliya is nothing special but the scenery around it is. We chose to stay at Ramboda for the tea factories, stunning waterfalls and sweeping views next to the hotel. Getting to Ramboda Fall from the train station at Nuwara Eliya is 1 hour by taxi. There are plenty of taxis waiting at the train station. Agree your price up front, but expect to pay around Rs3,000.

We stayed at Ramboda Fall’s hotel which was basic, but the views were spectacular.

BOOK YOUR RAMBODA STAY

NIGHT 2 / STAYING IN ELLA

Ella has a relaxed backpacker feel in a small town set in the hills. We stayed at Ella Mount Relax Cottage which potentially had the best view of any hotel we’ve ever stayed in. The accommodation is simply furnished but they do an excellent traditional breakfast served by friendly staff.

If you have bulky luggage, take a tuk-tuk from the station to avoid a tricky walk. The hike to Little Adam’s Peak is 45 minutes each way, not particularly challenging, and very rewarding.

BOOK YOUR ELLA STAY

OTHER OPTIONS

If two days on the train and an hour each way taxi to Ramboda, does not appeal, you could complete the 6 hour, 30 minute journey in one day. Another option is to take a taxi from Kandy to Nanuoya (2 hours, 45 minutes), stopping at Ramboda Falls and Nuwara Eliya, before boarding the train to Ella for the most scenic part of the journey.

MORE READING

If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, check out our 10-day itinerary as well as our trips to Sigiriya rock fortress and the fun Kandy Cultural Show. For a two-wheeled adventure, our cycling tour of Polonnaruwa was a great day out in Sri Lanka.

Two Traveling Texans

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All the details for an epic journey on Sri Lanka’s train service. / Kandy to Ella train / #kandy #srilanka #ella

All the details for an epic journey on Sri Lanka’s train service. / Kandy to Ella train / #kandy #srilanka #ella

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