I can’t remember the last time any travel experience was quite as hyped by blogs and travel magazines as the scenic train from Kandy to Ella in Sri Lanka. This 6+ hour ride goes through the mountainous region of Sri Lanka, through small villages and vast tea plantations. It’s widely heralded as the most beautiful train ride in the world. What most travel magazines don’t tell you is that it’s an absolute shitshow. We took the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, which is about halfway to Ella. Here is everything you need to know about getting tickets, getting a seat, and the experience.
Advance train tickets
If you’re aiming for 1st class or assigned 2nd class tickets, you must book train tickets for the Kandy to Nuwara Eliya/Kandy to Ella train in advance online at 12Go.Asia. These should be booked at least a month in advance, and they cost up to $15 for assigned 2nd class seats and around $20 for 1st class seats to go all the way to Ella. But it will be cheaper if you’re going halfway to Nuwara Eliya. If you missed the boat on these tickets, you can go through tour agencies like this one that hike up the price but will get you an assigned seat on shorter notice. They need at least 48 hours assuming there is availability.
Outside of these online options, tickets are also sold up to 30 days in advance in person. So if you want to eliminate the peril of not being able to get on the train or having to endure long lines at the Kandy station, you can and should book ahead. These tickets can only be bought in person at train stations in Sri Lanka. My suggestion is to go to the Colombo Fort station as soon as you arrive in Sri Lanka and see if you can reserve tickets for your trip ahead of time. Your other option is to get unassigned tickets on the day of travel, and I’ll get to that below.
1st class vs. 2nd class vs. 3rd class
The Kandy to Nuwara Eliya/Kandy to Ella train was once one of the country’s main transportation arteries, but is now a huge tourism mindfuck. This means that the higher class tickets are a hot commodity all year round, because most of the tourists in Sri Lanka are excited to partake in the “authentic” train ride experience, without actually having to slum it in 3rd class with locals and their chickens.
Having been on the train, I think that 3rd class might have actually been the best deal because it was completely empty. Even locals are like fuck this noise with these 30,000 tourists. They’re probably just taking buses to get around their country now.
The main difference between first class and the others is that it’s air conditioned, which also means the windows don’t open. So in my opinion, this is the absolute worst option. Sure, you have an assigned seat and there’s no one standing in the aisles, but if you have to enjoy the view behind dirty scratched windows, what’s the point?
If you’re buying tickets on the day of travel, you have two options: unassigned 2nd class and unassigned 3rd class. The main difference between second and third class is that second class has individual seats and third class has bench seating, so several people can try to cram onto the same bench. But with how empty we saw it, it didn’t seem like there would be much cramming.
They pretty much never stop selling these tickets on the day of travel, so it’s up to you to get yourself into a train car if you have a ticket. This is considerably harder on weekends, so I suggest you plan for weekday travel if you don’t have an assigned seat.
The good thing is that these tickets are very cheap. We decided we would buy a ticket and if we didn’t get a seat, we would just exit the train. The ticket from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was less than $1 for 2nd class and less than 50 cents for 3rd class, so the investment isn’t huge.
The Peradeniya station hack
Perhaps the best tip I can give for anyone boarding in Kandy on the way to Nuwara Eliya or Ella is that you shouldn’t board at the Kandy Railway Station. That’s because every tourist within 50 miles is heading to the Kandy station and it’s going to be packed. However, if you take a tuk tuk or taxi to Peradeniya Station, which isn’t too far – this is where the Royal Botanic Gardens is – you can get on the train before it arrives at Kandy. This way, you have first pick at a seat when everyone on the train going from Colombo to Kandy get off and before the hordes of tourists get on at Kandy.
A major word of caution: we tried to do this for the 8 am train, but since it’s rush hour, those 8 kilometers from Kandy to Peradeniya took too long. We spent 45 minutes getting just close enough to the Kandy station and ended up getting dropped off there. So leave very early just in case. The train from Peradeniya leaves around 10 minutes before Kandy’s departure time at 8:47 am (give or take 15-30 minutes because it’s often late). However, the train almost emptied out at Kandy Station, so this would have been perfect.
Buying tickets and boarding the train at Kandy Station
You can’t buy unassigned tickets just a few days out. They have to be bought the day of travel. Though we were told to arrive by 7:30 am by a station attendant, we definitely only got there with about 30 minutes before the train departed and there was basically no line to buy tickets. Note that we traveled on a Friday in March, which is high season but not peak season and not on a weekend, though I’m sure with more passengers than on a Tuesday or Wednesday.
You will have to go to the 2nd or 3rd class window to buy the tickets you want. Before you’re allowed to enter the area with the train platforms, you’ll have your ticket checked and validated. You’ll need to hold onto your ticket because it gets checked on the train and collected when you leave the station at your destination.
Once you’re on the platform, you’ll see crowds of people slowly begin to gather with their backpacks getting ready to cut everyone around them to get on this train. The train boards from both sides, so it’s an absolute shitshow of passengers entering and exiting the train.
The train arrives and departs at Kandy station in the same direction in this order: 3rd class, 2nd class, and the 1st class observation car. If you wait close to the area where 2nd and 3rd class meet, you have an opportunity to hop over to 3rd class if it’s emptier. I’m not sure if this would be a problem when they check your ticket on the train, though.
You will want to get a seat on the right side of the train in the direction of travel, because that has, without a doubt, the best views. We got a seat on the left side, and we didn’t really even have a window, only one in front and behind us and a large panel directly beside to us. While the views were nice enough, especially for the last hour or so, the most impressive views are definitely on the right.
How to get a seat with unassigned tickets
This is a toughie and with all the people there, you have about a 20% chance of getting a seat and half that of getting a good seat (so adjust your expecations accordingly). We managed to because by luck the train doors stopped almost right in front of where we were waiting. We also didn’t have any bags so we were able to hop sprightly past all the people traveling with luggage and backpacks.
We also managed to get on the train before everyone who was getting off in Kandy got off, so we snagged the seats of two people who had just gotten up. If you board at Peradeniya, you would already be on the train and have first dibs on those emptying seats.
The train ride from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
If you take the train halfway to Ella from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, your stop will be Nunaoya, which is a short tuk tuk ride outside of Nuwara Eliya. There are three trains a day (you can check the official schedule here), at 3:30 am, at 8:47 am, and at 11:10 am, with the latter two being the express trains. They’re supposed to take about 3.5 hours to Nuwara Eliya, but don’t rely on the timetables too much. We arrived at Nanuoya around 1:30 pm instead of the scheduled 12:40 pm. The train stops at random for 15-20 minutes, and it’s generally pretty slow.
If you’re in an unassigned compartment, it’s going to be packed. Even if you have a seat, you will be surrounded by people and their bags. There are people sitting on the floor in aisles and by the door, and even one girl sitting on my arm rest, until the ticket checker told her not to. If you want those “iconic” shots of you hanging out the open train door with the lush green mountains behind you, you will have to climb over the 60 people who are crowding the area in front of the door, and I have no idea where the photographer is supposed to sit. Godspeed, my friend.
There are bathrooms, but those are also past an obstacle course of people and God knows what would happen if you left your seat empty for 2 seconds. When we boarded, two vicious bitches moved the bags that were holding someone’s place while they used the bathroom. So we just didn’t drink anything and kept our asses in our seats.
Somehow, despite how crowded it is, people come by selling fruits and pastries and drinks, so you definitely won’t go hungry.
The good thing is that since it’s moving, it really isn’t too hot. It’s a comfortable temperature with a breeze coming in through the windows, especially when you get to higher altitudes. If you’re too close to other people, you probably would sweat a bit though.
So how are the views? Is the train worth it?
Look, I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but I’m going to keep it real. That train ride was just okay. It was outrageously uncomfortable, despite the fact that we had seats. Aside from the girl who wouldn’t get up off our arm rest, the people selling stuff push everyone out of the way and their baskets are grazing up against you as they walk by.
If I was standing, I would have 100% gotten off at the station after Kandy and done something else with my day. And I don’t think I would have missed much, because the views from the train are alright, but that’s it. A lot of trains have nice countryside views. That’s sort of the cool thing about trains. This isn’t that special. And what’s nice about it is definitely only captivating for 30-45 minutes. After 4 hours, you’re just on this stupid crowded train seeing the same thing pass you by. And I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that, because a lot of people were falling asleep in their seats or on their luggage in the aisle. So what was happening outside couldn’t have been that enthralling.
If you’re on the left side, like we were, the views only get good the last hour or so before Nuwara Eliya. Until then, you’re either up against a wall of bushes or generic towns. The valleys on the right side are definitely much better views, but is it worth the hassle? Most people seem to think so. I respectfully disagree.
If you have to get from one place to another, this is a good option. It’s certainly cheap enough, though having to board with bags would make it even more uncomfortable. But I think the collective interest in this train route as “the most beautiful train ride in the world” is overblown. It’s definitely the most uncomfortable train ride in the world, though. You can put that in your guide book.