There are train rides, then there are Sri Lankan train rides. The teardrop island in the Laccadive Sea may be small, but it packs in some of the world’s most thrilling rail journeys. You could find yourself rattling past suburbs with a fellow commuter dozing on your shoulder or perhaps weaving in and out of emerald-green tea gardens and thickets of tropical rainforest while tucking into a packed-to-go meal of curry and rice; sometimes both in the same journey.
The steam trains that once transported tea and spices along these weaving rail lines have mostly vanished, but the colourful diesel locos that replaced them offer the same evocative transect through the Sri Lankan landscape. If you’re a lover of travel by locomotive, make sure you book tickets (in advance!) for one of these four epic train journeys around Sri Lanka.
Colombo to Kandy
The one rail journey that features on almost every Sri Lankan itinerary, the three-hour trip from Colombo to Kandy will whisk you away from the big city sprawl to the genteel greenery of Sri Lanka’s spiritual capital, home to the legendary Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, enshrining what’s claimed to be a genuine tooth of Buddha.
On the way, you’ll rattle past rolling hills, paddy fields, lush stands of tropical forest, palm trees waving like giant hands, and miniature village train stations with tin roofs and station attendants standing to attention in immaculate uniforms. You’ll also feel the air cool as you leave the baking coastal plain for the more pleasant climate of the hills.
The Colombo to Kandy line was the first major route established by the newly formed Ceylon Government Railway in the 1860s, slicing through the forested hills inland from the capital to bring tea and coffee down to the coast, to further the economic ambitions of the British Empire.
Today, travelers ride in the opposite direction, on a journey that serves as the perfect introduction to Sri Lankan train travel, and offers by far the most atmospheric and enjoyable way to reach the Hill Country from Colombo.
The trip from Colombo to Kandy is just a warm up for Sri Lanka’s most spectacular train ride: the British-era Main Line, built as a conduit for Sri Lanka’s most famous export – tea.
The journey from Kandy to Badulla takes seven to eight hours, and carves through Sri Lanka’s tea country, passing swirling, curling plantations that appear hollowed into the hilly green landscape like the enormous fingerprints of a giant. Tidy fringes of lemongrass and canna bushes provide an ornamental trim around the edges, while tea-pickers in rainbow saris create vivid flashes of colour amongst the emerald sea. To make the most of the views, stake out a vantage point in one of the open train doorways, with your feet dangling above the track.
The final stage from Ella to Badulla is perhaps the most dramatic section of the journey, with some spectacular feats of 19th-century engineering carrying the train across valleys and ravines and around problem outcrops.
Just north of Ella, the tracks curve over the brick-and-stone Nine Arch Bridge before tackling the Demodara Loop, where the line circles a hilltop and passes back under itself. Many travelers end the journey at Ella and hike to viewpoints around the bridge, for one of Sri Lanka’s most popular photo opportunities.
The Indian Ocean washes almost up to the rail tracks on the ride south from Colombo to the Portuguese-founded city of Galle, bringing fresh breezes and the smell of sea salt right into the carriages. So long as you sit on the right-hand side of the train, you’ll have views out over the ocean as the train clatters out of Colombo.
The rail line meets the shore just south of Galle Face Green, a large urban park on the outskirts of the capital, and follows it for almost the entire length of the journey. If the lure of the big blue gets too much, passengers can hop off the train at beachside towns including Moragalla (via Hettimulla station), with snorkeling opportunities amidst coral reefs, or Hikkaduwa, where surfers ride the swells and sip smoothies in shorefront cafes.
Whether you choose to temporarily alight or not, make sure you sample the wares of vendors who join the carriages at tiny rural stations. Grab some buttered sweetcorn, sliced fruit or packaged curry and rice and take in the bucolic scenes of coastal life – from children and dogs splashing in the surf to stilt fishermen sat atop their wooden perch – all the way to Galle.
The rail line to the far north of Sri Lanka was severed by fighting between southern Buddhists and Hindu Tamils during Sri Lanka’s long civil war. When the last Yal Devi Express rolled into Jaffna on 13 June 1990, it was marooned by bombing. Empty carriages were repurposed into military bunkers, tracks were ripped up for scrap metal and stations fell into ruin. For 25 years, rail travel to Sri Lanka’s Hindu north was a distant memory.
And then, in 2014, the shrill whistle of locomotives returned to the north as the Yal Devi Express rumbled back into Jaffna, on gleaming new tracks, for the first time in a generation. Today, the three-and-a-half-hour ride from the ancient Buddhist city at Anuradhapura to Jaffna offers a window onto a different Sri Lanka. You’ll leave the gleaming white dagobas (stupas) behind at Anuradhapura, and in their place multi-hued kovils (temples) start to colour the countryside as you steam into Sri Lanka’s Hindu north. You'll also leave behind Sri Lanka's major tourist crowds, with international visitors short on time skipping the splendours of the island's northern coast.
On the final approach to Jaffna, the landscape flattens out, and patches of water and saltpans appear as the train crosses Elephant Pass – the heavily militarized bottleneck guarding the entrance to the Jaffna peninsula. Tall palmyra palms rise over a landscape that still bears the scars of war, but also green shoots of rejuvenation, as villages and townships pick themselves up after decades of conflict. Waiting at the end is Jaffna itself, a vibrant Hindu city with a colonial heart – an easy leaping-off point for some of Sri Lanka’s most idyllic, unspoiled islands and beaches.
COPEID FROM LONELY PLANET.COM
"CyrilWe are now back at home after the lovely time with you in Sri Lanka, andvisiting Hong Kong.Thank you for driving for us while we were in Sri Lanka.In particular, we appreciated - your smooth, calm and efficient driving through varied traffic conditions - your calmness when things did not go quite as expected - your being available at all times of day - I'm remembering our late arrival at the airport, and our late departure - your information about all sorts of ..." Cliff Hooker and Jean from Australia
"We had a great time on last 10 days in on our honeymoon in beautiful Sri Lanka. Thank you very much for the stories, the explanations, driving, tips, care and always with a smile. Big thanks for you Cyril. We had an amazing honeymoon in this beautiful island! and you are the best guide and friend that we could have here!!! We will sure tell our friends and family about the trip and you!!! We will stay in touch and may be one day meet you again. Oded & Carol Israel 10 Oct 2014" Naim & Coral Fisher from Israel
"Thank you so much for your great service and making our honeymoon in Sri Lanka, so special and joyful. Best regards from Yuffa and Elad Abbo – Israel- 10 July 2008 " Yuffa and Elad Abbo - Israel
"11th April 2014 01 week tour around Sri Lanka A fantastic week was had by all with Cyril, exploring Kandy, Nuwaraeliya and Bentota. Your meaningful insights & excellent explanations of the Sri Lanka’s culture, nature and traditions were invaluable. Your smile and charm helped is feel related and comfortable. Not getting stressed once. With your guidance & tips, the holiday flew by with only one problem: it was very short! Your comprehensive list of talents ranges from findin..." Ian Price and family from UK
"We had an excellent and memorable trip and all credits to Cyril. In-depth knowledge about the places, roads and history and culture. From the airport assistance - Food, accommodation provided and the vehicle was excellent. Very matured and patient, We being on safe hands. Thanks for making it a memorable experience for all of us. " Aubry De Souza and group from Dubai
"Cyril is one of the best experienced person in the industry" Ahamed Anver
"We came for a wedding and then embarked on an amazing holiday. Cyril show us magnificent sights and scenery of Sri Lanka. To do the country just we need to return with more time. Many of the sites we visited just made us want to know more about them, even though Cyril was a fountain of knowledge. We have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Cyril and his excellent company, and it was so nice to go home a guardian angel looking after us. He is consistently courteous & good humored and now fe..." Andy Powell UK
"I want to thank Mr. Cyril for this 17 days long tour. He is an excellent chauffeur guide, always on time with a car more than the clean. He knows all the places in the Island and organized very well. Most of all, he is very kind person, always with a smile and ready to help. I want to reccommond him to all my friends. Ria Deleu Belgium Travel period 25 Jan 2020 - 10 Feb 2020 ( 17 days)" Mrs. Ria Deleu from Belgium
"Dear Cyril, We want to thank you so much for making our trip so unforgetable and delightful. We received your name from our friends lives in Geneva who travelled with you in January 2009 and they gave you such a high recommendation that we decided to conbtact you for our two weeks trip this year. Although we have been to Sri Lanka a few times already. We have never found such an excellent driver and guide. It has been a great pleasure to visit Colombo with you and then to Koggala for two day tr..." Mr.Gabor Kato & Mrs.Ann Kato
"Dear Cyril, Thank you for truly amazing oneweek tour your beautiful country.We have seen so many amazing sites in such a short space of time. From Sigiriya to beautiful temples, Scenic tea gardens of Nuwaraeliya the colonial land ark hotel Mount Lavinia. We have seen so much more. You have made this an utterly memorable holiday with your expert knowledge, amazing, facinating stories, patience, careful+safe drivingand your unforgetable smile. We will cetainly recommonding your tours to all of fr..." Sara Kitson - UK