A train passing over the Nine Arch Bridge in Ella
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Sri Lanka's main train line runs from Colombo - Kandy - Ella, but the most scenic section of the route is from Kandy - Ella. This section of the train line is often referred to as one of the world's most beautiful train rides, but what is the experience really like? Read this post before booking the Kandy - Ella train ride!
Let me start by saying that the scenery and views from the train really are spectacular (phew!), but it's not all as idyllic as some photos and Instagram posts may make it appear, it is definitely a case of Instagram vs reality i'm afraid.
This post contains 8 things no-one tells you about the Kandy - Ella train ride. It includes my honest feedback, tips and advice for your journey on the most beautiful train ride in Sri Lanka...
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The truth about Sri Lanka's most beautiful train ride
The most beautiful section of Sri Lanka's main train line runs from Kandy to Ella, passing through various hill country towns along the way.
We had two weeks travelling round Sri Lanka (see here for my full 14 day Sri Lanka itinerary). As Kandy was not on our route, we started our train journey to Ella from Nuwara Eliya - a quiet hilltop town famous for its surrounding tea plantations. Nuwara Eliya doesn't have it's own train station, so if you are joining the train from here, you will need to get a taxi or tuk tuk to Nanu Oya station, which is just 20 minutes from Nuwara Eliya.
The quaint Nanu Oya train station on Sri Lanka's beautiful Kandy - Ella train line
Truth #1. There are lots of other people!
This sounds pretty obvious, but be prepared to be surrounded by lots (and lots!) of people. Sri Lanka does not have a huge network of trains, so this being the main line, it gets very busy, particularly if you travel on the weekends - in fact try and avoid travelling at the weekends and on holidays if you can.
Truth #2 The slow trains are not better for taking in the view
You might think that the slower trains are better for taking in the views, but they are much busier than the express trains. This not only makes it quite hot and uncomfortable but puts a dampener on the experience when you can only see someone's sweaty back instead of the gorgeous views.
Truth #3. There's no point arriving early
Trains are often late (ours was over an hour late), so there's no point in arriving at the station ages before the scheduled time. Plus, there's no queuing system so getting onto the train is a bit of a 'free for all' and can feel a bit manic.
Truth #4. You will need to book weeks in advance if you want a seat
If you want to secure a seat on the train, then you will need to pre-book your ticket, either for first class or reserved second class, which you can do on sites like 12go. If you don't know the exact date you will be travelling, don't worry, you can easily buy your ticket at the train station for unreserved second class or third class.
In unreserved second class you might be lucky enough to get a seat if it is not busy (i.e you travel out of season and mid week), but you won't get a seat in third class.
Truth #5. You will need to queue for 'that' photo
If you've already done a bit of research on the 'most beautiful train ride in Sri Lanka', from Kandy - Ella, then you probably will have seen gorgeous photos of people leaning out of the train doors, with stunning views of surrounding tea plantations. Don't get me wrong, the view really is stunning, but just be prepared to wait your turn to get that photo and share the small space with others trying to get the same shot.
Truth #6. If you want to take 'that' photo, don't book third class!
We were in second class but the next carriage along was third class and honestly, it looked so uncomfortable. People were cramped, hot, standing with their bags on and could barely see out of the window. So if you don't want to stand in someone else's armpit looking at the floor, don't book third class!
Truth #7. The views on the right side are better
For the best views, try and get a seat on the right side (if you're lucky enough to get a seat). Unfortunately we were on the left side and for a while you are just passing long tall grass verges on this side.
Truth #8. Be aware of local systems between tour operators and train staff and manage your expectations!
We had hired a driver in Colombo to take us around Sri Lanka for part of our two week trip as we were short on time and knew that we wanted to get to places quicker. (This is quite common in Sri Lanka and is a great way to get around the country with flexibility to go where and when you want). However, we wanted to incorporate this scenic train journey from Nuwara Eliya - Ella into trip, so we agreed with the tour company that first class tickets for this section would be included and our driver would arrange this for us.
What actually happened was that our driver purchased us standing fare tickets at Nanu Oya train station to get us through the barriers, then proceeded to negotiate with the train manager to get us a seat on the train. It's a strange system but one which was obviously common, as we saw other drivers doing the same thing. We were ushered into second class, at first standing in the aisle, whilst the train manager assigned available seats to standing passengers (it's not the case of if a spare seat opens up, anyone can sit in it). We did eventually get a seat in second class, which had fans to keep us cool, but it wasn't quite what we were expecting.
Views from the open door on the Kandy - Ella train across villages tea plantations
Overall, I'm pleased that we did the train journey as it offered stunning views which would not have been seen from the road, however it is important for me to be honest – the Instagram photos you see of people hanging out of the train door over beautiful landscapes is a result of waiting for your turn for quite a while to get the photo opportunity. You also don’t get to spend long enjoying the views from the open train door as there is a queue of people waiting.
Plus, this photo opportunity is only if you are in a first or second class cabin. If you’re not lucky enough to get a first or second class ticket, you will spend the journey cramped in the third class carriage, standing up against other hot, sweaty travellers!
Is the Kandy - Ella Train ride worth it?
This post may sound like I'm being overly negative, but if you asked me 'Is the Kandy - Ella train worth it?' I would say yes!
There's no doubt that the train journey we took between Nuwara Eliya and Ella is very picturesque, and you can see why it is known as the best train journey in Sri Lanka and one of the world's most beautiful train rides. From the train you have sweeping views across luscious tea plantations, stunning landscapes and beautiful waterfalls. You'll also pass small local villages with children waving as you trudge by.
It is a great journey, but just make sure that you plan ahead (and manage your expectations), to try and get the best experience on Sri Lanka's most beautiful train ride.