As the adage goes, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” This is true for the train trip between Kandy and Ella in Sri Lanka (or vice versa). This seven-hour train ride is a destination in itself. The railway snakes through green-covered tea plantations and steep mountains as waterfalls, small villages, unique bridges, and everyday Sri Lankan life slides past the windows.
The trip between Kandy and Ella is very popular with tourists as it provides spectacular views while locals use the train as part of their daily travel. While there are overnight trains that run this route, it’s definitely worth doing this trip during the day so as not to miss the views.
Luxe or less?
You have a few options when opting to explore the country by train. Here they are.
First-class observation car
The first-class observation car or deck is usually the last carriage on some daytime trains travelling on the Main Line (like between Kandy and Ella). In this case, passengers sit ‘backwards’ looking out of the back of the train – which gives you amazing views! It is possible that this carriage is connected directly behind the locomotive at times. The observation car offers a panoramic view of the otherworldly landscape.
First-class air-conditioned seats
This carriage offers reserved seats in an air-conditioned carriage. The windows in this section cannot be opened.
This carriage has sleeping berths and is only available on a few overnight trains.
These seats are available on all inter-city trains. You can book a ticket with either a reserved or unreserved seat option. The second class carriages have fans and the windows can be opened. This is a popular option for those who want to take a selfie with your head/torso out of the window. You know the one… with the train in the background. Please always be safe when taking pictures. It’s super easy to forget about your surroundings (and the hazards around you) when you are focused on taking that perfect picture.
Available on most trains, it can get quite full and has only basic facilities.
Feel like splurging? Train rides can be super luxurious too, like these ones in India:
Hopping aboard the Exportrail or Sri Lanka Railways
Same train, different carriages. The difference is that Exportrail is a privately-owned company while Sri Lanka Railways is government-run. As a result, Exportrail carriages are generally more modern, with meals, water, tea, and coffee included in your ticket price. This makes them slightly more expensive, though.
The first and last daytime trains between Kandy and Ella are mixed passenger and goods trains. These trains have carriages that carry goods and oil and generally spend more time at stations along the route. This offers you a chance to see some of the towns along the way. This train is perfect if you really want to turn the journey into the destination, but be warned that it can also get quite crowded in the mornings as many local commuters make use of these trains.
It’s recommended that you buy a ticket for this trip as far in advance as possible –especially if you wish to travel during peak seasons and on weekends. Weekdays will likely see trains that are less full, which could give you a slightly more comfortable trip.
What about the views?
There’s a debate about which side of the train to sit for the best views. The general opinion is that the right side of the train going from Kandy to Ella provides the best views… but I will let you decide that! After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The same goes for which section of the trip is most beautiful. Notable areas are the Hatton to Ella section and the Nanuoya to Ella section. Meanwhile, the area between Ohiya and Ella is likened to Switzerland (another amazing country to take the train). There are 14 tunnels between the Ohiya train station and the Idalgashinne train station. This is the only place in the world where you will find 14 tunnels between two train stations on the same line. At the stations, local vendors board the train to sell food and drinks to passengers.
Train rides give you the opportunity to fully take in the scenery of a country while you travel from one place to another. Unlike a road trip via car or motorbike where you’ll need to pay attention to the road, they offer convenience and comfort that’s slightly off the beaten track. Although it takes longer to get to your destination than a flight, the scenery makes it well worth the time to make a train ride a part of your journey instead of rushing to your destination.