Read on for more practical advice and tips for traveling by train through hill country in Sri Lanka.
There’s more to Sri Lanka than pristine beaches! Sri Lanka’s lush tea country is one of the most popular and iconic sights (check out my earlier post on why Sri Lanka is a must-visit destination!) and on my latest trip to Sri Lanka, I finally had a chance to explore Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.
There was one small catch: I only had three days to complete the trip. If you’re planning on traveling to Sri Lanka on a tight schedule and want to explore both the coast and tea country, fear not: it’s doable! There are certain things you might have to sacrifice and save for another trip (like the trek up to Adam’s Peak, sleep and sometimes your sanity), but three days is plenty of time to drink in what the hilly region has to offer, I swear.
The three most popular towns and cities in tea country are Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella – while it’s possible to see all three places in three days, I wanted to stay in Kandy for two nights so opted to skip Ella this time around. You can choose to do the same, or substitute one of the nights in Kandy with a third destination, or even better: extend your stay!
I started my trip in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka so traveled northbound, but you can do this trip in reverse as well if you’re traveling from Colombo. For example, because we were already in the Matara district, we drove to Nuwara Eliya; if you’re traveling from Colombo, you can catch a train directly to Kandy.
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Here are 12 things you should know before visiting Sri Lanka!
Sri Lanka train travel tips
- Book ahead if you want guaranteed seating traveling by train in Sri Lanka – bookings open 30 days in advance but you need a local number or need someone to visit the station in person. Sri Lanka Railways recently launched an online ticket booking system in early 2022 – it may be glitchy and not all routes may be available, but it is an additional option for you to check out.
- Don’t stress if you can’t purchase a reserved seat – head to the station the morning of your trip and buy a 2nd or 3rd class unreserved seat. This just means that for part of the journey you may find yourself standing by the carriage door, and you’ll get amazing views!
- This website was an incredible resource for train routes and schedules while I was planning the trip. You should also check out the Sri Lanka Railways website to make sure all the information is up-to-date.
- Bring a light jacket as it is cool in the early mornings and evenings, but steaming hot once the sun is up.
- Bring some snacks and water, but avoid drinking too much as the bathrooms on the train are…unpleasant.
- Watching the sunrise across tea plantations is an amazing experience. Try to time your journey with a sunrise or sunset!
Our journey through Sri Lanka’s tea country
We left Talalla Retreat and embarked on a five hour long drive to Nuwara Eliya. The road up was long and winding, and at times fairly terrifying – on no less than three occasions did we come face-to-face with a bus speeding head-on towards us. This drive is not for the faint-hearted or those prone to motion sickness!
Sri Lanka is home to more than a hundred waterfalls, and our first pit stop was Rawana Falls, currently one of the widest waterfalls in the country. Those traveling in the opposite direction from Ella can also get there easily via tuk tuk or scooter.
Nuwara Eliya is often overlooked for Ella, its slightly more popular and trendy sister. But Nuwara Eliya, the “City of Light”, is higher up in the mountains than both Ella and Kandy (which also makes it much much colder in the evening, so bring warm clothes – we found out the hard way!) and the start line for those hoping to visit World’s End and Adam’s Peak. Nuwara Eliya is also home to Lake Gregory, a reservoir in the heart of the tea country: it’s a lovely little spot for a sunset stroll, but be wary of the swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes at dusk – unless you were hoping to catch a glimpse of what a cloud of 100 mosquitoes looks like.
Traveling by train in Sri Lanka is an incredibly cost-effective and picturesque way to get around, and many people believe it’s an integral part of the overall Ceylon travel experience.
Tip: The train route between Ella and Kandy is one of the most popular and scenic journeys (translation: packed like sardines) and reserved seats sell out early, so we decided to take the road less traveled (literally) and beat the crowd by taking the train from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy instead.
Nanu Oya station is a quick 10 minute tuk tuk ride away from the heart of Nuwara Eliya, and we stopped by to try to buy a ticket for the next day. Here’s how the conversation at the ticket counter went:
Me: Hi, can we buy two first class tickets for tomorrow’s 9:25 am train to Kandy?
Guy at the counter (henceforth known as GATC): Sold out.
Me: Are there seats in the second class carriage available?
GATC: Sold out.
Me: Ok…how about 5:30 am?
GATC: No reserved seating.
Me: Ok…how about the train at noon?
GATC: Sold out.
You get the gist. This went on for a little while longer and the backpacking couple behind us with approximately three-too-many-bags become more and more visibly impatient because there was only one ticket counter open. Long story short, we walked away without purchasing a ticket and decided to take our chances and grab unallocated seats the next morning.
Lessons learned: 1) book ahead if you want guaranteed seating – bookings open 30 days in advance, and 2) you can rock up and hop onto any train if you’re willing to beat the crowd and grab the first seat you see in second or third class.
Sunrise journey to Kandy
We decided to bite the bullet and try to catch the 5:30 am train to Kandy. I woke up at 4:30 am freezing, tired, grumpy and had no less than seven mosquito bites on my arms and face thanks to the lack of a mosquito net at our hotel. The tuk tuk driver was late. Guy at the counter 2 (GATC 2) wasn’t sure if the 5:30 am train was going straight to Kandy or if we had to switch trains at some point. Only third class carriage tickets were available. Was this really a good idea?
We hopped on the train in the dark and I looked around the carriage: it wasn’t quite full, but everyone looked sleepy. Some of the other passengers had beanies and lightweight down jackets on, and I wondered to myself if I was going to be able to stay warm enough during the ride. I then inspected the headrest on my seat because it looked ~greasy~, and before I knew it, it was too late to change my mind – the train had started moving and there was no way out.
And then this happened.
Tea country is, as you would imagine, green green green – some of the richest and most vibrant greens I’ve ever seen. We were offered panoramic views of tea plantations, sleepy little towns and Adam’s Peak from a distance. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the cascading layers of mountain ranges separated by cloudy mist, and the colors that form around the peaks during sunrise and sunset – sensational.
The carriages have no doors so you can stand in the doorway (with a very wide, stable stance, might I add) and marvel at the incredible sight of the sun rising across tea plantations and illuminating villages one after another. It didn’t take long before I forgot about how cold my hands were and it didn’t matter how the train squeaked piercingly at every turn. This sunrise train journey quickly became one of my top travel experiences, ever: at two dollars a pop for a ticket to this ride, it’s a must-do in my books for anyone visiting Sri Lanka.
Our train stopped at every single station on the way to Kandy, with more and more people piling on as they went about their everyday lives. At one point, an older lady in a beautiful sari squeezed in next to us when the train was full, and the three of us shared two seats. Two schoolgirls sat in our carriage and did their English homework, occasionally giggling when we glanced over: the train is a great place for people watching.
The train slowed down and we chugged along the last 50 kilometers or so; at one point, the train even went backwards to let a regular express train pass by. And then we arrived in Nawalapitiya. And every single person got off the train. The Type A-side of me was screaming “what the heck is happening?!” Thankfully, a Sri Lankan gentleman took pity and let us know that we had to hop across the tracks to change trains for the rest of the way to Kandy.
Arriving in Kandy
Another hour or so later, we arrived in Kandy later than scheduled: the whole journey had taken nearly five hours. After I regained feeling in my butt and legs, we quickly hopped in a car for the hour-long drive up to Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge, nestled among a tea plantation high in the mountains. Read my review on this incredible hotel as it has joined Solaria, the hotel we stayed in during our trip to the Amalfi Coast, in my list of all-time favorite hotels.
Visiting Kandy? Click here for 7 things to do in the last Kingdom of Sri Lanka
Where to stay in Sri Lanka’s Tea Country
Nuwara Eliya: Unique Cottages offered a comfortable 1 night stay at a reasonable price. The staff are friendly and helpful, and can help to book transport and tours to Horton Plains/World’s End. If you are planning to stay here, try to avoid the attic room as there is only 1 small window for ventilation. Click here to book your stay at Unique Cottages.
I also highly recommend Jetwing St. Andrew’s, a boutique hotel set in a restored colonial mansion. The rooms are slightly dated but comfortable, and the on-site restaurant and bar are both fantastic. For a touch of sophistication check out their afternoon tea offering and treat yourself with a glass of champagne. Click here to book your stay at Jetwing St. Andrew’s or click here for more accommodation options in Nuwara Eliya!
Kandy: Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge is about a 45-minute drive from downtown Kandy: it’s a seriously amazing hotel overlooking the famous Knuckles mountain range as well as the most breathtaking sunrise views from your own private balcony. Click here to book your stay at Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge, or click here for more accommodation options in Kandy!
Ella: For amazing views of the Ella mountain gap, stay at Ella Mountain Heavens, a cozy boutique hotel high up in the hills. Click here to book your stay at Ella Mountain Heavens, or click here for more accommodation options in Ella!
If you are looking for something a little more budget-friendly, I would recommend The Bamboo, a Sri Lankan family-run boutique guesthouse that is convenient located in the heart of town. The room rates are reasonable and the room is massive and tastefully decorated, but because of its location you will hear some street noise. Click here to book your stay at The Bamboo!
Ready to hop on a plane? Here are some Sri Lanka reads to help you plan the perfect trip:
- Don’t miss my 2 week itinerary for Sri Lanka, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean
- And definitely check out this list of essential Sri Lanka must-knows ahead of your journey
- Check out this list of things not to do in Sri Lanka
- For even more trip inspiration read this list of the best destinations in Sri Lanka to add to your itinerary
- Planning on heading to the central highlands? Here is my guide to Kandy, the best things to do in Ella, and how to plan your 1 day trip to Knuckles
Have you traveled by train in Sri Lanka or visited tea country? Comment below and share what your experience was like, or pin this for later!
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