Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 3: Trains

Here is part three of my four-part public service announcement; my attempt to throw back into the blogosphere, that which has given me so much, pratical information given in an entertaining way, for those considering travel to the wondrous isle of Sri Lanka. Parts one and two, on food and buses, are here are here.

Trains, oh trains. There’s something undeniably appealing about train travel, at least I think so anyway. Maybe it’s a lifetime of using trains as an everyday form of transport, maybe it’s that trains don’t travel on roads so give a slightly different perspective, a different view? I don’t know, it’s definitely not Maybelline, but I find myself drawn to train travel and will use it over and above other forms if available and practical.

As in other former British colonies, a working train system is one of the (perhaps few) beneficial practical things to remain from Sri Lanka’s long colonial period (dating back to the Portuguese). We took a number of trains, riding in different classes and using a few different ways to get out tickets, so here’s our experience.

First are foremost, seat61.com is THE best source of information for travelling on trains in Sri Lanka (and many other Asian countries!).  Its wealth of information is encyclopedic! The Sri Lankan Railways website was also a good way to look up timetables and train options.

Colombo to Galle (on the Matara line); difficulty level: easy as.

Our first train ride and experience of the Sri Lankan railway system was on the popular southern coast line. You cannot book tickets, so, as seat61.com says, you turn up on the day one hour before the train leaves, buy a ticket, and get on.  

We were there a little earlier, using the intercity reservation system (discussed below) and, like clockwork, the counter I was standing at was suddenly ticket-operational at 9.30am, for the 10.30am train. The front of Colombo’s Fort station is open to the road, so you just walk along and find the counter(s) selling tickets for the line you want. I went to the counter selling ‘all classes’ tickets for the Matara line (closest to the road side), as I knew you could get unreserved tickets for both second and third classes. As I say, like clockwork, at 9.30am, the man on the other side of the counter, who seemed to be filling some kind of money change order and ignoring the world, suddenly looked at me, and it was all go.

“Two second class tickets for Galle please” (yes, it’s pronounced Gaul or Gaul-ey, or Gaul-er…it’s seems to be all and any; go with Gaul though).

“The 10.30 train?”

“Yes, thank you” (remember your manners).  

He told me the price, I gave him the money, he gave me the change and tickets and told me the platform to go to (platform 5). It was as easy as that, and two other railway workers made sure we were on the right platform, one as we were crossing the overbridge, and another who was working a train that stopped on our platform; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere: helpful!

So yes, it is a lolly scramble for seats on the Colombo-Matara line (and on any unreserved carriage ticket), and we were just plain lucky that the doors were very close to us when the train came to a full stop, so we were able to get seats on the left-hand side (which is not the coast side).  

But, actually, we were fine on this side, able to see both the sea and also the villages, towns and estuaries we passed alongside. Also, we found the patronage quite fluid throughout. At one point we were able to move over to the right hand side, and the group of Germans originally standing were able to sit down after not too long a time, as people got off the train at other stops.  

In terms of baggage, just find a space! We were able to, just, squeeze our backpacks into the overhead racks.

My advice, just enjoy it wherever you are perched. It’s not worth fighting over a seat/position unless you’ve never seen a (tropical) coastline. Also, those who boarded last, probably strategically so, and perched in the open doors, were evidently having a great time. In short: it’s fluid in unreserved, man.

…where the most annoying thing will likely be tourists and their damn heads!

Ella to Nanuoya to Kandy; difficulty level: we pre-booked.

This is the somewhat famed train ride through Sri Lanka’s glorious and picturesque hill country. We broke this up into two trips, pausing at Nanuoya to spend a few nights in Nuwara Eliya and do the Adam’s Peak pilgrimage.

You cannot currently book trains before you arrive into the country via Sri Lankan Railways’ website. I wanted to make sure we had reserved seats for these trains, and in second class too, so the carriages would have windows we could open (i.e. not an air-conditioned carriage). Therefore, I used a service recommended on seat61.com: Visit Sri Lanka Tours.

I followed the instructions there and it worked just as it said it would. I received an email with reservation numbers, which I took to the Ella train station, along with my passport, and got both printed out at the same time. It did cost more than double the normal in-Sri Lanka prices to use this service – paying via Paypal – but it was worth it to secure reserved seats in a carriage that was never going to be squashed, and no jostling for space and views with people standing.

The first leg, to Nanuoya, was an extremely pleasant experience. The seats in the observation saloon were very comfortable with plenty of leg space, and the carriage itself was very roomy, making it easy to get up and move about, go and see the views from the full-length windows at the end of the trains, and so on. The windows pull up, the breeze is delicious, and you can poke your heads (and cameras) in and out across the entire journey.

This journey starts with rolling tea country, which is truly picturesque, and you’ll like see loads of locals and tourists alike moving in and around the train tracks as you pass. The valleys and mountains you steam through will have you wanting to capture the moment at each new turn. Eventually, the scenery becomes a bit more forestry, before returning to more tea country as you get closer to Nanuoya. Without wanting to overhype it, it is the train journey you’ve read about, it’s well worth doing, and I think worth securing good seats for (at our Nuwara Eliya our fellow housemates had fought out the Kandy – Nanuoya leg in uneserved third, and it sounded like a pretty hideous experience overall; it’s all luck of the draw in third).

The second leg, onto the cultural capital of Kandy, picks up where the first leaves off: loads of luscious views, tea, tea and more tea, although it does become noticeably more tropical-looking again, as you descend into the area around Kandy. For this leg, we were on the newer Chinese-built blue trains, and the ride and carriage was just as spacious and comfortable.

Polonnaruwa to Batticoloa; difficulty level: easy as.

If you are going to go to Batti – and I’m not entirely convinced it’s visit-worthy; at least not yet – the train ride is a real joy, winding your way out to the coast through rice paddy country. I’m not too sure how typical our experience was, but we turned up at 9.30am, for the 10.20am train, sat inside the clean and quiet station until tickets became available (10am) and then bought third-class unreserved tickets.

Rather than packed to the brim, we enjoyed a truly breezy and leisurely ride in an almost empty carriage the entire way, sitting in the open doors, or otherwise watching the countryside pass us by. It was truly a pleasant ride, and redunkulous value at around one NZ dollar each.

Jaffna to Anuradhapura to Colombo; difficulty level: easy as

For our last trains, we again broke up the trip with a stop in Anuradhapura, the first ancient capital.  For these tickets, we went to the intercity reservations office at Colombo Fort Station when we first arrived in the country (counter 17; it’s actually an office), again following the instructions on seat61.com.  

Inside, there are different counters for different trains, and it is somewhat confusing, so what I would recommend is this: use the timetable feature on the Sri Lankan railways website to find the trains you want to take, write down the stations you want to travel between, the date you want to travel, and the train number and name (e.g. #4004; Anuradhapura to Colombo Fort; 25 January) and take this with you.  As trains do apparently sell out quickly, it is helpful to know what other trains are travelling on the day you wish to travel, the times and train numbers, so you can book alternatives if your first choices are not available.

We were lucky and got the ones we wanted, and the experience was pretty straight forward, as straightforward as it is ever going to be anyway in these cross-cultural, cross-lingua franca situations!

The north of the country is quite radically different, as I’ve written about elsewhere. The first leg of the train ride was essentially a repetition of what we saw on the bus ride north: a quite pleasant but sparse landscape; lots of rice paddies, very few people. Our train, which was going all the way to Colombo, was quite empty all the way (I suspect it gets more and more full the closer to the capital you get, and certainly a lot of people got on at Anuradhapura). What this meant is that I was able to quite freely move around the carriage during the journey, moving from left to right sides. It was overall a pleasant ride, although quite bumpy in places; the kind of bumpy where you look at each other and think, “is this carriage about to come loose or derail?”, and you are calmed only by the fact that no local seems at all perturbed (that old trick!).

Plenty of room at the Inn.

The final train ride of our month, Anuradhapura back to Colombo, was an early start from another of Sri Lanka’s charming deco-era stations. It was really a rinse-and-repeat of the previous leg, just a whole lot more packed (as I predicted it would be) and, because we were seated in a group of four (two inward-facing seats with no table), not quite as charming or comfortable as our other rides. No biggie by this stage.

And that’s a wrap on our train adventures; hope some of the information is helpful for anyone intending to travel to Sri Lanks in the near future (as you should).

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