Seven Hours in Sri Lanka’s Highlands

Taking the Train from Kandy to Ella

The sinuous stretch of railway between Kandy – Sri Lanka’s mountain-fringed former capital – and Ella – a bucolic town amid lush tea plantations – is classed by many as one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world.


The journey, which winds through emerald-green hills and tiny towns, takes around seven hours. You can depart Kandy at 8.47am or 11.10am, and arrive in Ella at 3.15pm or 5.28pm respectively – which might sound like a long time to be on public transport – but this isn’t your average commute.

There’s a choice of first, second or third class carriages, but second class reserved seating gives you a little more comfort, without losing the entire reason you’re here – the authentic train experience. The first class carriages can feel stuffy – plus the windows and doors aren’t wide open like you find elsewhere – a shame, given one of the best parts of this trip is the ability to be half in, half outside the train. Sit at the doors with your legs brushing the bushes, or dangle your entire body out for a wind-in-your-hair adrenaline rush moment (no really, you’ll see locals doing this with ease).

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You’ll begin in the cultural chaos of Kandy – the streets here are filled to bursting with history and heritage (monkeys, too, so keep an eye on any shiny possessions). Fuel up with coffee, pancakes or a smoothie bowl at the Secret Alley Café before making your way to the train station. Do prepare yourself for crowds and ticket touters (that said, London commuters will have no problem) – but you needn’t worry too much – we’ll have sorted everything for you ahead of time. With that, breeze straight through to the platform, which is almost always a-buzz, as locals and travellers alike wait in anticipation.

The train arrives – a sky blue that you’ll later notice offers a stark contrast to the rich green landscape – and you follow the sea of people to your carriage. Don’t delay, you’ll need to jump on quickly to secure your window seat. Try to not appear too smug as you hear the groans of latecomers, who arrived to standing room only or not at all (the train guards notoriously wait for no one).

It’s a kaleidoscope of colour from the moment you leave the station, the beat of the track providing the tune as you trundle past sky-scraper palm trees, thick forests and rural farms. After an hour or so, you’ll hit tea country (Sri Lanka is the fourth largest producer of brews in the world) – these highlands are carefully layered, ripe and rolling. They might be speckled with a dwelling here or there – but much of these hills are unpopulated, and so any houses appear exposed, and almost vulnerable. The towns that you do pass through include Nanu Oya and Haputale, both rich in colour and culture, should you wish to add an extra stop to your trip. Speaking of – you can actually continue on this track past Ella to Badulla, where the train snakes over the Nina Arch Bridge – but we prefer to jump off at Ella and stay a while, spending time hiking around the peaks and tracks, and getting to the bridge on foot, where you can stand by as trains rush past and locals wave with vigour (more on Ella coming soon).

And so, after around 100 green miles and a few servings of dhal vade (sold steaming-hot on the train), you’;; arrive with a new appreciation for train travel: the kind that does far more than simply getting you from a to b.




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Written and Travelled by Hannah Dace, Wanderlux Editor

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