Train Journeys in Sri Lanka

The train was the main form of the transportation which we used when travelling in Sri Lanka. There are people who love train journeys but I’m not one of them… (even after living in Japan, a country with an excellent train network). But I must admit that travelling on the Sri Lankan trains have been a great and unforgettable experience.

The first time we took a train was our first morning in Sri Lanka. We took a 5hr train ride from Colombo to Hatton. When we went to Colombo train station to buy tickets, we were directed to the “Reservation office”. There was no staff at the window that serves the train route we want to get on and there was a bit of confusion. Finally, our man came in with his breakfast and started serving the queue. Unfortunately, he told us that the routes we were looking at were fully booked for all classes for the dates we wanted. It was a huge disappointment, especially when it was the first day in Sri Lanka. It would mean we have to relook at our itinerary and reschedule our plans and reservations!! We had 30mins before the departure of the train we wanted to board and we didn’t really know what to do. We went outside and there were queues at the ticket counters for 2nd/3rd class tickets. So we decided to try our luck and immediately were issued tickets without much questioning!!! Wow!

So here’s the tip:

It turns out that, there are two types of tickets..reserved seats and free seats. Reserved seats (for 1st, 2nd and 3rd class) are limited in number and you can reserve these tickets way in advance by calling in, or going down to the reservation office where we were directed to. The free seats (only 2nd and 3rd class) are free for all. These tickets you can get at the ticket counters. Anyone with a ticket and can squeeze onto the carriage is entitled to a ride. Yes, I said squeeze because there is no limit on the number of tickets sold. If you are unable to get on the train you wanted, get the next one. That said, everyone usually manage to get up the train. It’s a miracle. And trust me, it’s way more impressive than the morning subway in Tokyo.

So it was a mad rush to our first train ride. We clambered on (because the entrance was so high above the platforms) with our backpacks and had to stay in the connectors because the carriage was full but still more people were coming up. The train only got more and more packed and my view out of the train was through a tiny slit in the connector. Having to stand in the connector was a test of my balancing skills. There were people everywhere and I exchanged many smiles with the lady stuck next to me. Occasionally, a man selling snacks or drinks would come by and I was impressed that he actually managed to go through the crowd. A lot of the crowd got off at Kandy and we could move into the carriage where the ventilation and scenery was better. One of the locals who were standing with us since Colombo came and talked to us, giving us some information about where to get off and such. I realised there really was no concept of “personal space”. In the carriage, the aisle was so narrow we had to lean over the people who were seated when someone is passing by. Many people who were standing initially also ended up sitting on the armrest of the seats. Anyway the 290rps ticket for the five hour journey was unbelievably cheap, so I can’t complain much.

Our second train ride was an epic three hour journey from Hatton to Ella, through the “tea country” of Sri Lanka. The famed beauty of the scenery on this route was one of the first things I read about Sri Lanka before I went (see thisΒ blog), and I was very insistent that we take the train for this leg of the journey. Well, turns out that all the tourists have heard about it too so EVERYONE was on the train. When it came, everyone was rushing to get on the already-packed train. At the entrance I was eyeing, already four big Caucasians have got on with their backpacks and were jamming up the entryway. Well, the carriage was already crowded but it was clear people could move in more. (That’s always the case, isn’t it?) There was no way I’m not getting on that train so we just forced our way on board. After us, several more locals also hopped on the train, the last one leaning seemingly-dangerously out the door. It was amazing that when the train departed, no one was left behind at the station. The train came in full and yet everyone could still get on! The tiny entryway we were in, about 1m by 3m, had about 20 of us and our luggages. We were packed shoulder-to-shoulder. My hip was in someone’s ass and someone’s shoulder was in my back, and someone’s arm was stretched across in front of my face. At one point I said “I’m gonna fall” to Alan, and a local smiled and said “Don’t worry you won’t”. The Sri Lankans never fail to amaze me with their hospitality and friendliness. I was craning my neck to look out of the train when one of them volunteered to swap places with me so I could get a better view.

We kept thinking that people will get off at the next stop. But for every one person who got off, three more would get on. Eventually we started talking to the locals standing around us. Where are you from? Where are you going? What do you do? We made friends with a group of young lads from Colombo. They’re all living together, some studying, some working, and were headed for Badulla for a weekend trip. We talked about travelling, about Sri Lanka, about music, about our lives… They taught us some important Sri lankan words “estootie” and “ayubowan”, and also pointed out some places of interest in Ella. Time passed really quickly as we laughed and chatted. Although we’ve missed out a lot on the beautiful scenery of the tea country, I can easily say this is one of the best train journeys I’ve ever had.

The last train ride we had in Sri Lanka was a 2.5hrs ride along the southwestern coast, from Galle back to Colombo. The other two trains we took were on the Colombo-Badulla line were pretty new. This time round though, the train was older but the interior was painted a vintage red and turqoise colour. It was not as crowded this time, although we still were not able to get any seats. We stood next to the door and leaned out to look at the scenery from time to time, waving to the people at the crossings or by their houses along the track. I read my book and soon, we were back in Colombo, marking the end of our grand tour of Sri Lanka.

Travel info:
Colombo – Hatton: 290rps, 5hours
Hatton – Ella: , 3hours
Galle – Colombo: 180rps, 2.5hours


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