Ella : The Scenic Train Ride
The train rides around the hill country of Sri Lanka are touted to be the “World’s most scenic train ride”. That is, of course, a grave exaggeration, but it might be the most beautiful train ride in Sri Lanka.
Just google that Sri lanka trains/Sri Lanka Scenic trains/Kandy train/Ella train. There are a million travel bloggers spewing the same headlines. It almost seems as if the hype is copy and pasted, with similar pictures of everyone hanging out of the train carriages.
The “World most beautiful scenic train ride” to me is actually just another train ride through the hill country. There are many debates on which portion is the best. As most tourists hit mainly Kandy or Ella, most of the debate focuses there.
From Ella – Hatton
Day 2. This was the day to travel to Dalhousie for Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada). To get there, we will first have to get to Hatton and take a bus from Hatton to Dalhousie. I thought we could kill 2 birds with 1 stone by taking the famed “scenic train ride” from Ella – Hatton.
As we had a really tiring Day 1 in Ella, we decided to sleep in and set off slightly later, choosing the 10.57am train to Hatton. It would be an easy day of resting on our butts while admiring the scenery for 5 hours.
Information on the “Scenic Train”
|Badulla, Elle, Haputale, Nuwara Eliya ► Kandy ► Colombo|
|Days of running:||Daily||Sat, Mon||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Sat,Sun||Daily||Daily|
|Reserved seat classes:||–||1||O,2,3,Raj||–||–||–||–||1,2,3||O,2,3,Exo||1||1,2,3||O,Exo,Raj||O,2||O||Sleeper|
|Unreserved seat classes:||2,3||–||2,3||2,3||3||2,3||3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3|
|Nanuoya (for Nuwara Eliya)||–||–||–||–||–||05:30||–||09:25||–||–||12:02||13:50||–||17:30||22:17|
|Hatton (for Adam’s Peak)||–||–||–||–||05:10||07:10||08:45||10:39||–||–||13:20||15:12||–||19:15||23:43|
|Colombo Fort arrive:||08:23||08:42||08:52||09:45||–||14:03||–||15:27||17:36||18:50||18:57||20:53||19:30||–||05:17|
Here are a list of the the different classes :
- 1st class sleeper/observation car : There will be no point taking the 1st class sleeper on the scenic train ride. The observation car is located at the rear of the train and surrounded by glass. I wouldn’t suggest this as I like the feeling of the wind blowing through my hair and the carriage. Also, the photos wouldn’t be nice with the glass blocking your camera and the scenery.
- 2nd class seats : These are the most common. Try to get the reservation class, which are usually 50% higher priced. If not, 2nd class is the best. They are available on all trains.
- 3rd class seats : The most crowded class. Most of the locals squeeze on this as it is the cheapest. Take these if you are really on a budget and want a truly localized experience.
There are also two privately run train services : Rajadhani Express and Expo Rail. There is almost no difference. So don’t get confused, the timings and destination is the most important.
We arrived a day earlier to check if we could reserve the tickets. As expected, we were not able to. It is hard to get the reservation tickets unless you are there a few days earlier or book way earlier via a local.
The train ride goes through the hilly region of Sri Lanka. It meanders through forests, woodlands and tea plantations and skirts around villages, giving a panoramic viewpoint of the area.
If you are looking to enjoy the scenic train rides, here are some tips you might wish to know.
- The more common way of travelling is to travel from Kandy to Ella. Therefore, there is a high chance that the route is extremely crowded. Taking the reverse direction might gives you a high chance of the carriage being almost empty. Our train ride was almost empty half the time, except for another couple.
- Some have said that the most scenic portion is the stretch from Hatton to Haputale. Guess that was our ride!
- Don’t get the 1st class ticket, you often go backwards and are blocked by glass.
- Show up to the train station earlier by at least half an hour to make sure you have your ticket. Our ticket only cost LKR160 (1 USD) to Hatton.
- Don’t bother with reserved tickets unless you need a guaranteed seat. With no reserved ticket, you can hop around the seats for pictures easily. Even if you don’t have seats, you can chill at the carriage door which is the real VIP seat.
- More often than not, you would be at the carriage door looking out. That is also where the photo taking opportunities are.
- Some have suggested that you should sit on the right side of the train from Kandy – Ella and on the left side of the train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella.
- Learn to open and close the windows on the carriage, just in case it starts to rain. Nobody is going to help you if the rain starts coming through the side. The lock mechanism is at the side of the window. Pushing it up is easy, but closing it requires you to use your fingers to keep the mechanism up while pulling it down.
- The best moments for the train photos are the moments it goes over a valley or gorge, or when the train is turning.
- Don’t be that dumb tourist in the news that died for pictures. Just be careful when you stick your head out or body out. A final destination scenario with a signboard or rock wall hitting you might be one of the scenarios if you don’t look.
- The train ride will get repetitive after awhile and you will get bored. You will be staring at grassland and forest most of the time, interspersed with one of those “Wow” moments.
- The best is perhaps the part where the local teens will scream every time it goes through a tunnel. The trains go through a lot of tunnels.
- Do not throw away your ticket! You will need it at the station you exit.
Due to its “fame”, I personally think it is over-hyped.
There are definitely much more amazing train rides out there in the world. I feel that perceptions are tinted by the recent need to hype everything (click bait), by the nostalgia or rustic syndrome.. It reeks of this checklist. Some greenery, check. Tea plantations, check. Lady working in a field, check. Rustic feeling or old train, check. Poor looking locals around, check.
If it was a modern train ride speeding through the hill country, not many will talk about it.
Having said that, the train rides through hill country are still amazing and beautiful in its own right. They are an architectural marvel and I am amazed thinking of the manual labour that goes into maintaining it in such a hilly region. It is also not a “tourist train” experience, where only tourists use the trains while locals use the buses. The locals definitely love their trains. They will also crowd and hang by the doors, excitedly snapping pictures with their phones as if it was their first time.
In terms of time, there are not many faster ways of getting around. A private car will cost a lot more and take the same road as buses. Buses take the same time as the train but are slightly cheaper. It all depends on which breaks down. A train delay can cost you half a day.
Therefore, if you are in hill country, do take some time to take the “most scenic train ride!”
This was done as part of my 1-week itinerary in Sri Lanka. where we explored other areas like Adam’s Peak, Dambulla and Pidurangala, Kandy and Ella. You can also read up on my guide to how to travel Sri Lanka on a budget.