When you think of train journeys, the first things to pop into your head will usually be the Orient Express, or the Trans-Siberian Railway. And while those rides both have the option of being extremely luxurious, most of the beauty is inside the train, and not outside. The train ride from Kandy to Ella in the hill country of Sri Lanka is considered one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It is definitely one of the most scenic rides I’ve ever taken.
Sri Lanka really just opened up to tourism about 10 years ago. Before that there was about a 30 years civil war. Today I consider it one of the best countries I’ve ever visited (and I’ve been to quite a few). There are tropical forests, beautiful beaches, mountains and rolling hills. The food is tasty and what really surprised me was how clean it is. Having just arrived from India I was shocked that I saw a street cleaner picking up trash within my first hour of landing. The country is really trying to push cleanliness, and respect for the environment, and I really appreciate that as a visitor.
Two of the most popular cities for tourists are Kandy and Ella. Kandy is actually the second largest city in the country after Colombo, and is home to a few historic places. Ella didn’t become popular until about 2012 when tourists decided to break up their trip down south and stop in Ella for a night. Now it is one of the most popular places to visit. Thus the train ride from Kandy to Ella is in itself one of the most popular activities for both local and international tourists.
There are a few trains that make this trip, but the most famous (that you see on most Instagram pictures) is the blue one. The entire ride you’ll see people hanging off the side of the train trying to get that perfect picture. We took the blue train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, and then two days later took the red train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. If you do it in one go, the Kandy to Ella train ride takes around 7 hours.
It does not matter if you go from Kandy to Ella or from Ella to Kandy, as you will get the same views. What is more important is what side of the train you are sitting on. If you are going south, you’ll want to sit on the right side of the train for the first half of the journey, and the left side for the second. However if you don’t like your seat, you can always stand in between the cars and get the best view possible.
We left Kandy at 7:45. Our tickets were for reserved First Class which means a guaranteed seat in an air conditioned car. While this is not necessary at all since the weather in hill country is fairly cool, it isn’t that much more expensive than second class. About $5 more per ticket. The seats were fairly comfortable (although not as good as what we’ve gotten in Western Europe or East Asia). But, as this trip was only 3.5 hours it was perfectly fine.
As soon as the train left the city, we noticed people heading for the doors for picture taking. What surprised me was that the train was almost entirely foreigners. I later learned that there is an even cheaper and slower train that locals use, which we ended up using it for the second half of our trip.
The center of Sri Lanka is known as hill country, and the reason for this is obvious on the train from Kandy to Ella. As the train ascends in elevation, on windy tracks overlooking lush valleys, you can see views of these gorgeous hills. I can only imagine what the British experienced as they hiked this region in the late 19th century.
The halfway mark (about) of this trip is a little town called Nuwara Eliya. This was actually created by Englishman Samuel Baker in 1946 as a sort of base for their tea manufacturing ventures. As the train climbs higher and higher, you begin to see huge plantations of tea bushes and if you look closely you can see women picking the tea leaves. Only women do this job, as it is said they have a more delicate touch to not damage the tea leaves.
Around this time you may also notice a heavy fog and temperature drop. Nuwara Eliya sits at 1,868 meters, or 6,128 feet in elevation making it the highest town in Sri Lanka. About three and a half hours after departing Kandy the train pulls into Nanu Oya station, which is just a short tuktuk or taxi ride away from Nuwara Eliya center, and should cost around 500 rupees for a car. It is at this point we alighted the train to spend a couple nights in “Little England.”
Click Here to read my articles about Nuwara Eliya
Continuing on our train ride from Kandy to Ella we headed back to Nanu Oya station from Nuwara Eliya early in the morning. As we were in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the high season, the beautiful blue express train was sold out. This meant we were traveling like locals on the dusty red-brown train. Less stunning pictures, but still a great experience. For this part you’ll want to sit on the left side of the train as that is where the best views are. We actually were able to sit in the Observation Car, which has a huge window facing backwards. If you cannot sit backwards in a moving vehicle I would however recommend not sitting in this car.
While the first half of the trip wound up the hills, the second half descends. Looking out the window you can still see tea plantations, but you can also see sweeping valleys dotted with cute towns down below. It was during this ride that we got that famous “kiss picture.” Well, we got about 100 of them since you may not know this, but it is quite difficult to focus a camera on a moving train when the subject is hanging out the side of a train. Luckily we made friends with a lovely Polish couple sitting near us so we were able to trade photographer roles with them.
If you are considering doing this trip (which I highly recommend) make sure your gadgets are fully charged. I also suggest getting a hand gimbal as this really helped us with video stabilization. I use the DJI Osmo 3 Hand Gimbal, but there are a variety of choices for you to choose from in this industry.