a comprehensive guide to the Kandy to Ella train: everything you need to know about the famous Sri Lankan train ride

The journey from Kandy to Ella is considered one of the most stunning train rides in the world, which is obviously a massive call to make. I was chomping at the bit to catch the views for myself. I couldn’t wait to make my way down from the northern part of Sri Lanka to board the train in Kandy and head to Ella. The truth is, however, I didn’t know exactly what to expect or how to go about booking my seat.

I’ve created this guide filled with all the information I gathered over my time in Sri Lanka and many, many train rides so that you know what to expect, how to book the best seat in the house, information about the train timetables, and how to have the best overall experience.


KEEP READING FOR ALL THE SRI LANKAN TRAIN DETAILS


A GUIDE TO THE TRAINS IN SRI LANKA

ABOUT THE TRAIN RIDE

The railway system was introduced in Sri Lanka by the British in 1864. Originally, it was built to help bring tea to the capital city, Colombo, from where it is grown inland. The trains were powered by steam until the 50s, when they switched to diesel fuel.

The famous train ride from Kandy to Ella takes approximately 7-8 hours if there are no delays. It’s more than just beautiful; it conveniently goes through towns and by attractions you’ll likely want to visit. Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Adam’s Peak {not the little one}, Haputale, and even Nine Arches Bridge are all along the train route!

SRI LANKA TRAIN GUIDE
a comprehensive guide to the Kandy to Ella train

TRAIN PHOTO TRUTHS

THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE ON THE TRAIN…

First thing’s first, a little transparency. The trains in Sri Lanka, particularly the blue express trains from Kandy to Ella are chalked full of people. The cool picture you see of people standing carelessly out the train door or looking poetically outside of the window? They are either taken with careful timing or a lot of patience. The train car doorways are golden photo spots and so, on almost every train journey I took during my time in Sri Lanka, people were hunkered down to take pictures. The doors were constantly overcrowded with people, as were the aisles. It makes for a fun and exciting experience, but it also makes it hard to snap the “perfect” picture.

…AND ALMOST ALL OF THEM WANT PHOTOS

I was pretty over taking photos on the train by the time I left Sri Lanka. I preferred to enjoy the views and listen to my music. I went on quite a few train rides while in Sri Lanka, including the coastal journey from Unawatuna to Colombo. Honestly, on all but a few of those rides, there were people who seemed properly stressed about “getting their shot” and it wasn’t fun to hear them snapping at their partners, asking locals to switch them seats so they could snap a picture from the window, or hogging the doorways for ages while others waited. Luckily, I also saw people who shared the spots everyone eyes equally. These people took turns snapping photos for one another and seemed to be having a good time! Find a train car with these people.

A GUIDE TO THE KANDY TO ELLA TRAIN JOURNEY IN SRI LANKA
A TRAIN GUIDE TO SRI LANKA

UNRESERVED VS. RESERVED + how to book your ticket

Now that you have more realistic expectations of the train journey, let’s get you prepped to book your ticket! Train tickets fall into two categories: unreserved and reserved.

UNRESERVED TICKETS

Unreserved seats are purchased on the day of travel. Show up and book your ticket at the counter, it’s as easy as that. There is also no limit on unreserved tickets. This means if the ticket seller tells you there are no more seats he’s assuming you’re looking for a reserved ticket {since you’re a foreigner}. Make sure to reiterate that you would like an unreserved ticket.

RESERVED TICKETS

Reserved tickets can be booked ahead of time and go on sale a month in advance. What makes reserving a seat even harder is that you need a Sri Lankan SIM card to do so. Many people who get reserved seats pay a Sri Lankan travel agency to book their tickets for them. While this is super convenient, it’s not cost effective in the slightest. If you’ll be in the country for an extended amount of time and want to reserve seating online, you can do so at 12go Asia. Having a reserved ticket makes your trip to Sri Lanka less flexible, since you’ve already bought your tickets. However, the upside is that you’ve secured a seat!

LOCAL SNACKS ON THE TRAIN FROM KANDY TO NUWARA ELIYA

LOCAL SNACKS ON THE TRAIN FROM KANDY TO NUWARA ELIYA


TRAIN TICKET CLASSES 

Now that you understand the difference between unreserved and reserved tickets, you’ll need to get an understanding of the train ticket classes. I’ve outlined all of them below from least to most expensive. The ticket prices listed are for the journey from Kandy to Ella. Prices for your journey will vary on your destination. I broke up the train journey with a stop in Nuwara Eliya, so my train ticket prices were different.

Personally, we strongly believe that this train ride is one of the rare times where the best experience is actually found in the lower ticket classes. First class is stuffy with windows and doors that won’t open and mostly other foreigners occupying the seats next to. Second and third class on the other hand, are a truly authentic taste of what life is really like for locals on the Sri Lankan railway system. 

THIRD CLASS- 175 LKR | USD $1.00

Third class seats are the cheapest you’ll find. The seating style for this class is cushioned benches that face each other. My train experiences showed that few-to-zero foreigners ride int third class. The locals are super hospitable and smiled every time we made our way to the benches at the back of the train. The windows and doors are open in third class and there are mini fans attached to the ceiling that rotate the sticky air around. The doorways in third class are less crowded, so you can head back this way if you are looking for a better photo opportunity.

SECOND CLASS- 310 LKR | USD $1.78

The individual seats in second class are a tad softer than the cushioned bench seating in third class. The seats in this class also face forward. The price difference between second and third class isn’t huge, so I’m not sure you should factor this into your decision-making unless you are on a budget so strict the USD $0.77 makes a difference.

FIRST CLASS- ~1500 LKR | USD $8.60

The main perk of first class tickets is the air conditioning. Because there is air-con, the windows and doors remain locked. It’s also a less…authentic….experience, as you’ll likely be hanging out with only foreigners. Even if I had wanted to splurge on a first class ticket, I wouldn’t have bought one. The second and third class tickets are extremely affordable and the ride feels like you’re truly in Sri Lanka. However, if you are seeking comfort, first class is a good option.

For the best train timetable information, visit the Sri Lankan Railways website here

A GUIDE TO THE KANDY TO ELLA IN SRI LANKA

FINAL TRAIN TIPS

ASK TO KNOW WHERE EACH CLASS STOPS

If you want to be prepared for boarding, ask train staff or one of the locals where the cars of your ticket class stop. That way, you can be waiting in the right approximate area when the train arrives.

BOARDING IS A PUSHY PROCESS

Sri Lankan people are some of the most hospitable I’ve come across in my many travels. However, when it comes to boarding trains there isn’t a single elbow kept in place. Pushing and shoving chaotically into the train carriage is just the way it’s done. Everyone is friendly and no one means any malice, but the first few minutes are not smooth at all.

break up the journey

One of the best decisions I made was to break up the 7-8 hour journey from Kandy to Ella with a stopover in the highest town in Sri Lanka, Nuwara Eliya. The tea fields and cooler temperatures were a lovely way to see more of the country.

BLUE + RED TRAINS are different, BUT BOTH GET YOU THERE

Blue trains are express trains. There are also red trains that are used for mail and goods. The red trains are much slower than the blue trains. I rode on both trains a number of times and both have their perks.

THE TRAINS HAVE TOILETS

The toilets on the trains are squat toilets, which aren’t ideal for a wiggly train ride. Some toilets are better than none, however. I’d suggest avoiding them if you can, but if you cannot bring toilet paper and hand-sanitizer with you.

SECOND OR THIRD CLASS MAKE FOR A MORE AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCE

As we mentioned above; skip first class and head straight to the second and third class carriages for the best experience ever.

SPEAKING OF SEATS…THE SIDE YOU SIT ON ALTERS YOUR VIEWS

Valleys, cliffs, and tea fields can all be seen better from a specific side depending on your direction of travel. Those coming from Kandy should sit on the right side of the train for the best views of the stunning Sri Lankan landscape. If you are traveling from Ella to Kandy, sitting on the left side becomes the scenic side.

BRING LOTS OF WATER

The train ride is super hot, even early in the morning. I wish we would have brought more water than we initially did, as the ride got hotter as the day passed.

ECO TIP: Try to eliminate your plastic consumption by bringing your own refillable water bottle and filling it up at your accommodation before you head to the station

TO UP YOUR CHANCES OF A SEAT, BOARD AT PERADENIYA JUNCTION

I boarded the train from the station in Kandy city center. Getting a seat was fairly easy, however, I read only a little later that the easiest way to improve your odds for a seat is to board at Peradeniya Junction. While it isn’t impossible to get a seat at the Kandy Station {we managed to snag one not too far into our trip to Nuwara Eliya}, this tip could have come in handy. Learn from my mistake and do better research, guys! You can catch the train at Perdeniya Junction by grabbing a tuk-tuk. It’s said to be approximately a 10-minute ride. Read more about this tip here.

BOOK YOUR TICKET TO DEMODARA TO RIDE OVER NINE ARCHES BRIDGE

You can visit the famous Nine Arches Bridge once you’ve arrived in Ella with just a small hike or by tuk-tuk. Alternatively, you can ride the train over the famous bridge by booking a ticket to Demodara Station.

VIEWS FROM NUWARA ELIYA TO ELLA

VIEWS FROM NUWARA ELIYA TO ELLA

The landscapes of Sri Lanka, many of which I got my first glimpses of via the train, are one of the many reasons the country quickly rose amongst my favourite destinations. The train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, and then again from Nuwara Eliya to Ella, offered picturesque views I can’t help but smile when I think about. I did wonder whether or not the locals feel strangely about hordes of foreign visitors crowding the trains they often use to get from one town to the next. Ultimately, however, I feel as though at least one train trip should be on your itinerary.


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A GUIDE TO THE TRAIN FROM KANDY TO ELLA: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
A COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE SRI LANKAN TRAIN: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU BOARD