I wasn’t particularly looking forward to my train journey to Kandy. Even though I had booked a first class ticket, I had heard horror stories about Sri Lankan trains. Nevertheless, I had a very early start in Colombo, as I wanted to get out of the city fumes and get to the relative calm of Kandy as quickly as possible. Colombo is not a city you should be spending too much time in. Lovely people there, of course, but really nothing to interest the tourist, and certainly not for the solo backpacker like me. At Colombo Fort Railway Station, I purchased my ticket to the Sri Lankan countryside the day beforehand; this was to avoid any chance of the tickets running out!
Trains from Colombo to Kandy run many times each day (and onwards to Nuwara Eliya before terminating at Badulla). I took the earliest train from Colombo and this allowed me to get to Kandy in plenty of time to enjoy a full day there. Remember that your hotel or hostel won’t probably allocate your room until mid-afternoon, so arriving in Kandy in the early morning means perhaps a little waiting around upon arrival. Then again, do you really want to chance a later train and not be able to enjoy the journey due to overcrowding? If my travels have taught me anything, it’s that the early bird always catches the worm!
Purchasing train tickets to Kandy from Colombo Fort Station is a straightforward affair. Train travel in Sri Lanka requires you do purchase tickets at the station of departure (up to 45 days before departure). You cannot book online. When travelling by train in Sri Lanka, I’d strongly suggest pre-booking first class tickets. There are two types of trains currently operating: the Government-run InterCity trains and the private, more expensive ExpoRail service. ExpoRail often have a couple of carriages attached to the regular trains, but to use them you obviously need a valid ticket (this costs over 2000 Rupees – but you do get an observation car to enjoy the scenery, at-seat catering, and “free WIFI”. However, for only 500 Sri Lankan Rupees on the regular trains, you will still find very comfortable seats, air-conditioning, and spotless toilets – unlike the trains I experienced in Myanmar!
Sri Lankan people are incredibly resourceful, and this was apparent as soon we left Colombo Fort. Leaning from the open door of the train, I spotted several antique, disused railway carriages that had been converted into homes, sitting by the side of the track. These ingenious dwellings looked beautiful to me, decadently decaying and being reclaimed by the vines and flowers of the jungle beyond.
Travelling by train from Colombo to Kandy (or the other way around) is not the occasion to read or fall asleep. You’re likely to put your neck out as you strain to take in every little bit of the view. You won’t want to miss a thing. The first thing that struck me was how vivid the colours are. It suddenly felt as if the saturation had been turned up on the world. It’s all so green, and there’s a quality to the light that gives all you survey a wonderful clarity. Winding tracks snake around verdant mountains, covered with dense foliage and palms so tall, they defy gravity. The corners with the sheer drops are the best, and even if you’re scared of heights, you’ll struggle to look away.
In the end, I thought the ride from Colombo to Kandy was probably the most scenic train journey I had taken. I have bulleted past Mount Fuji on the Shinkansen, rode into the Blue Mountains in Australia, and travelled across Java by train in Indonesia, but all of them paled into insignificance really, as I was so impressed with my experience in Sri Lanka. Lanka is not an easy country to navigate, especially not for first-timers like I was then, but when you get to grips with the daily way of life (and train timetables!) then you will surely feel at home!
When all was said and done, we arrived in Kandy and our adventures in central Lanka could begin in earnest. Unlike Colombo, Kandy is welcoming to the foreign tourist, and the locals here have a curiosity as to why you have come to their town in the heart of the countryside. As such, you may find very friendly (or persistent) taxi drivers and shop owners trying to talk to you, but this is all part of the Sri Lankan experience!