If you’ve ever read about Sri Lanka on a travel website or magazine, chances are the train ride from Kandy to Ella (and vice versa) was prominently featured. A lot of travelers within the country consider this the highlight of their trip and therefore it should not be missed. It can be kinda tricky though if you’re only in the country for a short time and if you have to follow a strict itinerary. It’s because train strikes are frequent these days, and it can really be disheartening to find out that no trains are running on the only day you can ride it. It’s also weather dependent too. I went during the shoulder season and there were days when no trains were running due to horrible weather.
From the cultural triangle, it was easy to find our way back to Kandy by bus. We just had to do our route in reverse. Once we reached Kandy, we stopped by the train station to buy tickets. We had to decide which tickets to buy. First class was out of the question. These tickets get sold out weeks in advance, there would definitely be no more tickets available the day prior. Besides, it would probably be expensive. Also, first class coaches are air conditioned. This might seem like a good thing, but you won’t be able to open the windows. Thus, it would be impossible to take those epic photos you see on social media 😛 So we had to decide if we were taking second class or third class seats. Apparently, almost all tourists and backpackers purchase second class tickets. Very few locals ride second class, it’s practically known as the tourist class. Majority of locals ride third class. We were tempted to buy third class tickets, but we thought it might get quite uncomfortable riding third class for more than 7 hours. We heard that it gets really packed and that some seats were broken… which won’t really matter much since we’d most likely be standing up the entire time. At times you would also see animals (like chickens) on board. A second class ticket to Ella only costs 240 Rupees (only 1.50 US Dollars!). That wasn’t expensive at all, so we decided we’re traveling second class. We were surprised when the person manning the ticket booth told us that we can’t purchase second class tickets for the next day. They only sold first class tickets in advance. Second and third class tickets are sold on the day of departure. He told us there’s no need to worry about second class tickets selling out. They just keep selling those as long as there are people buying tickets lol. He advised us to just come back the next day at 7 in the morning to purchase tickets for the 8:30 AM train.
So we woke up early to be first in line. We stayed at different hostels and since I was farthest, my friend had already bought tickets for both of us. lol. As I’ve mentioned above, a second class ticket to Ella costs 240 Rupees and it takes more than 7 hours to get there. Though there are several vendors selling snacks inside the train and on the rails at every stop, it would be wise to pack some lunch. Some people think 7 hours is too long for a single train ride, so they split the journey into two. Some travelers disembark at Nuwara Eliya which is the half way point. It’s a quaint little town and worth stopping by, especially if you want to make a side trip to Adam’s Peak. If you decide to get off there, a second class ticket only costs 120 Rupees.
When the train arrived at Kandy, understandably there was a mad rush to get in as soon as all passengers disembarked. Most people wanted to sit by the windows as expected— you have to be by the windows to be able to take those epic pictures. If you’re in a good position— i.e. if you’re one of the first to get in, then go for it. You’ll most likely get a window seat. But if you’re on the second or third row of people barging in, I’d say forget it. You’ll most likely end up on an aisle seat or just end up standing or sitting on the aisle. Let everyone in front of you rush to those seats and just stand next to one of those doors across from where you entered. Alternatively, let everyone else get in first so that by the time you get in you’ll be the person standing next to the door where everyone entered. The trick is to make sure you’re standing next to any door once the train starts running because the floor space by the doors are actually the best seats in the house. Trust me. Once everyone else realized that you can take the best photos with you standing by the doors or sitting with your legs dangling out, everyone around us was asking if they could sit where we were seated even for just a few minutes. This isn’t entirely safe though, you have to watch out since there could be some objects along the railroad that could hit your legs. A few months back, some dude hit his legs on a bridge and he got fractures— not a pretty sight. But otherwise, this is the best way to experience this train ride. You just have to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
If you’re going to split the trip and get off at Nuwara Eliya, make sure you sit on the right side— that’s where the best views are. You’ll practically see nothing on the left. If you’re going all the way to Ella, it doesn’t matter which side you’re on. After Nuwara Eliya, the best views would be on the left. So if you’re going all the way to Ella, you’ll see spectacular scenery either way. But if you’d really have to choose, I’d say sit on the left side. I found the scenery from Nuwara Eliya to Ella better, but that’s just my preference. There’s enough variation in the scenery so I didn’t get bored. Those seven hours seemed to just fly by. You also get to see the local way of life along the way. You see lots of farmers and several vendors would try to sell you some of their wares at every stop. Even if you’re in second class and you’re surrounded by fellow visitors, you’d still feel like you’re traveling like a local. Maybe because it’s one of those experiences that you can’t replicate back home.
Ella is a quaint little town by the hills and it’s a great place to relax. You can simply do nothing and just recharge for a couple of days. Keep in mind that it’s cold in Ella. On some days it was quite unbearable walking around without a sweater, especially at night. There are many hiking sites around the area. The most popular one seems to be Little Adam’s Peak— probably because it’s the easiest. It’s an easy walk from the town center— you can reach the start of the trail in about 30-45 minutes. it takes another 30 minutes to reach the peak (there are actually 2 peaks). From a gradual incline around the hill, you’re gonna reach a couple of steps. It’s not too high, i saw a lot of old folks climbing all the way up with no trouble at all. It was quite foggy when we reached the top but we were still rewarded with breathtaking views. I have no idea why they call it Little Adam’s Peak though. It has zero resemblance to Adam’s Peak. For a greater challenge, climb Ella Rock instead. it’s still an easy hike but it takes about 2 hours to reach the peak.
Another attractions is the Nine Arch Bridge. The train you rode would actually pass through here if you didn’t get off at Ella. From the center of town, it takes about 30-45 minutes to get here by walking. We went here as soon as we got off, so sadly we didn’t catch any trains passing by— that would have been awesome.
And of course if you’re staying in Ella you have to try some Sri Lankan tea! You’ve seen so many tea plantations while riding the train on the way to Ella. It’s a no brainer that you should try some tea once you’ve reached the town!
I’d say this train ride was one of the highlights of my trip to Sri Lanka, and Ella was a great place to unwind after being inside a train for 7 hours. Believe the hype. This train ride is a must do activity in Sri Lanka. It doesn’t matter if you plan on doing the trip all the way from Kandy to Ella or just do half of it and get off at Nuwara Eliya. When you find yourself in Sri Lanka, you really need to find the time to fit this scenic train ride on your schedule!