How to cross Sri Lanka with the train?

Crossing Sri Lanka with the train is very easy and inexpensive and a great way to interact with locals. The train ride between Nuwara Eliya and Elle was one of our favorite experiences from the entire journey through the country. The ride through the tea plantages in the Central Highlights of Sri Lanka is probably the most scenic rail journey you will ever take in  your life.


1. How to buy tickets?

According to me, it is not necessary to book your train tickets in advance unless you want first class seats as these are quickly booked up by tour groups. We simply went to the train station, bought tickets for 2nd or 3rd class and hopped on the train. It’s that simple. Boards will show you which ticket counter sell your desired route. Tickets for seats in 2nd or 3rd class cost less than €1 per hour. Train times can be found at the official Sri Lanka Railways website, click on the pink button for train schedules.


2. How do the trains look like?

The typical Sri Lankan train rides with doors and windows wide open, so no need for a fan. In all carriages you can store your backpacks overhead. Seats in 2nd class are padded, while 3rd class seats have little padding and are thus harder. More locals travel in 3rd class, so interaction is easiest in this class. Our favorite ‘seats’ were located in the open doorways and are the perfect place for pictures of the scenery. Don’t make our mistake and do not sit in a reserved seat for Clergy, because you will be standing in the aisle for the remaining of the trip if a monk enters your carriage.


3. Where do the trains ride?

Begginer's guide to crossing Sri Lanka with the train
Photo Credit: Joho Maps

Three main lines cross the country:

-South from the capital Colombo: Runs past Hikkaduwa and Galle and ends in Matara.

-East from Colombo: On this route through the Central Highlands you will be amazed by the gorgeous views. The train runs past Kandy, Nuwara Eliya (get out at Nanu Oya), Ella and ends in Badulla.

-North from Colombo: This line consists of several branches ending in Puttalam, Talaimannar, Kankasanturai, Tricolmalee and Batticaloa.


4. More tips

Bring snacks and water. Vendors often cross the carriages to sell snacks and water but the frequency of their passage is unpredictable. Besides, the chance is real that locals want to share some specialties with you (especially in 3rd class) and then it is polite to offer them something too. However I have to admit that we did not really liked the spicy biscuits a friendly local wanted to share with us. While my boyfriend Wiebe had difficulties keeping the biscuit inside, I tried to smuggle the biscuit outside the window unnoticed. I am so sorry, friendly old man! Next to several biscuits, rice and curry wrapped in newspaper can also be bought on the train. Be aware that all food is very spicy.

Hold your ticket. Keep your ticket ready at the end of the ride because it will be collected when you leave the station.

Always right. When you travel in the direction from the capital to the Central Highlands, the best views are found on your right hand side.

Take your time. The typical Sri Lankan trains don’t go very fast and barely exceed 40 km per hour. So even short distances will take a while.

Toilets. The toilets on the train are basic and not very hygienic. I advise you to bring toilet paper and antibacterial gel.


What was your experience with the Sri Lankan trains? Please share below.


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Traveling in Sri Lanka (Asia). Tips for train rides and exploring the most beautiful train journey in the world through the Central Hill Country (Kandy-Ella).

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