It would be fair to say that I’d come to Sri Lanka for the trains. Certainly not the only reason for visiting this fantastic place, however a big draw. I’ve just passed my 20th year of epic train journeys around the world, and after online investigation it really seemed like Sri Lanka was worth a look.
Sri Lankan railways consist primarily of a ‘spine’ down the eastern coast and the central highlands, running from Jaffna in the North, past Colombo and colonial Galle right down to Matara on the south coast. In fact, this line is steadily expanding westwards. In addition there are a series of incredible hill railways in the highlands. With my limited time in the country, these were to be my focus.
And so it came to pass that I found myself at Colombo Fort railway station, unreasonably early in the vain hope of securing a seat on the 0700 express to Kandy.
Good news and bad news: Sri Lankan trains are never ‘full’. By that I mean, they will always sell you a ticket for the unreserved second and class carriages. However, as my experience will come to demonstrate, ‘full’ is a fluid concept in this corner of the world. So, trying to get a reserved second or first class ticket is your best bet.
Much like India, the popular lines get booked up ages in advance, particularly in high season, however unlike India there is no state run online reservation system, a few online agencies sell tickets months in advance at a premium.
Your next option is taking your chances at the station reservation office. Once all of the ‘advance’ tickets sell out there are a few up for grabs an hour before departure. As I shuffled along the queue in the office, a few glum-faced Westerners coming out in front of me, I didn’t hold out much hope. However, in an amazing stroke of travel luck there was ONE first-class ticket available. One… what are the chances? Solo travel does occasionally have its benefits. I gladly paid my 1000 rupees, and headed to Platform 2.
I was still exceptionally early, so popped into the station tea bar to secure some breakfast. A helpful chai wallah helped me out greatly by navigating the somewhat incomprehensible dine in/dine out/tea queuing system and after handing over a little grateful baksheesh I enjoyed a samosa and a typically amazing cup of tea. Sri Lanka, as a country, really gets tea, and I’m wholeheartedly into that.
Around 20 to seven a dishhevelled and thoroughly ancient brown train pulled into the platform and I instantly dismissed it as a local commuter however quickly realised that this was our ride up to the hills. The Man in Seat 61 has a wealth of knowledge about Sri Lankan trains on his website, and this does indicate whether specified services use the ancient brown rolling stock, or the ‘excellent’ new blue Chinese carriages, if these things matter to you.
Some of the hill country services on the iconic line have observation cars- This wasn’t something I had planned on, however I was super happy when I checked my last-minute ticket to find that I was here. I then checked the seat number and, as I made my way up the carriage it dawned on me that my assigned seat was in the middle front. Quite literally the best seat on the train, a complete stroke of luck.
I was seated next to a nice Japanese woman with an orange wheeled suitcase which was approximately the size of her. After clambering over the behemoth and getting seated, she informed me that she worked as a conductor on the Japanese railways. A trainwoman’s holiday, then.
Before we creaked out of Colombo Fort station, I was approached by an earnest-looking man at my seat. He thrust a card into my hand. “Something school for the deaf”. Rank: Scout. A 40-something deaf scout, seemed legit. He didn’t receive any cash. As we set off on the urban line through Colombo, my Japanese seatmate repeatedly commented “This wouldn’t happen on the Japanese railways!”, aghast at all of the people wandering along the tracks and general rail disorder.
The first hour and a half of the journey was nothing to write home about, passing through the suburbs of Colombo and out into the nearby farmland, past hordes of commuters heading the other way into work. However you start to notice a subtle change, as the line becomes somewhat more winding and the jungle closes in.
The observation car gives a fantastic view, although travelling backwards is at times somewhat disconcerting, particularly with such 180 degree vision. The window seats are the place to go, although I can’t speak for the newer blue Chinese coaches.
We continued the wind into the hills, and finished up at Kandy station, effectively the first of the ‘hill stations’ in the highlands. There I spent an enjoyable couple of days in the heart of tea country. Read about my experiences HERE: