This website uses affiliate links which may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Updated: 14th August 2015
The train journey through the hill country of Sri Lanka, which transports you from the second city of Kandy right through to Ella, takes just over six hours. But, it can be broken up to stop along the way. Nuwara Eliya is an ideal place to stop for a few days and explore the local tea plantations.
Often called one of, if not the most beautiful train journey in the world, I was pretty damn excited to get on board. Trying to reserve a seat the day before was a no-go as they had already been booked, so just rocking up on the day was the only option for me, but perhaps these tips will get you better prepared. This train journey is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka.
The Kandy to Ella Train Experience
Train travel in Sri Lanka is relatively cheap; the route is served by both slower trains as well as newer ‘blue’ trains, which are slightly faster. The first leg of the Kandy to Ella train journey involved a crazy scrum in getting on board with bags, babies and anything else being thrown through windows to get a coveted place to sit – you should absolutely book your train ticket for Sri Lanka before the day!
I missed the seat lottery but took prime position hanging out the open doorway for the next few hours, which is kinda right where you want to be and one of the reasons if you get an unreserved ticket, squeezing in last minute might not be such a bad idea.
First class comes with air con which means no windows to get those shots out of, third class looked seriously busy and not suitable for snapping away so a second class ticket is a sure fire bet (see tips on booking tickets below).
The landscape this journey takes you through is, indeed, stunning. Tea plantations, waterfalls, rolling mountains, clouds and mist all add to the picture-perfect movie playing out in front of you. Given how slow you are travelling it goes surprisingly quickly, which with a backdrop like this is not a good thing.
For me, the second leg to Ella, sadly, had two issues going for it. The first is the clouds and mist, pretty much hiding much of the landscape for the journey. The second was the six armed police escorting someone in our carriage, which was shut, so the toilet/door area became a very comfy home for a very amused bunch of us as we made the final leg on to Ella – hopefully, your Kandy to Ella journey comes with better luck!
Booking Kandy to Ella Train Tickets
There are around 3-6 trains serving this route each day, though reports suggest this has now increased. Some are on the slower trains, and some are on the more modern fast trains. Some of the Kandy to Ella train services start in Colombo, some end in Badulla, and others only complete a part of the route.
There are overnight sleeper services straight through from Colombo to Ella. But I only recommend this if you are getting back and have witnessed the journey in the daytime.
Reserved tickets can be booked up to 30 days in advance but only in person (expo rail can be booked online; see below) – 1st, 2nd and sometimes 3rd class offer reserved seating in carts, which then means you are guaranteed a seat no one (perhaps) standing around you. You can either try to book these when you arrive in Colombo/Kandy or ask your accommodation to secure them before you arrive.
Due to how competitive getting these tickets is, many agents will now bulk buy them when the 30-day window opens and then sell them at a more expensive price. Have a Google for reliable agents online, or check the comments below for any recommendations from people who have recently used one.
Unreserved tickets can just be got on the day, but get there early to ensure there is still one available for you. As I said above, 2nd class unreservedly was pleasant, but 3rd class looked much harder to enjoy the views from. Don’t panic if you go a few days ahead to buy tickets and are told the train is full; they just mean advance tickets have sold out but will go on sale again on the day of departure.
Kandy to Ella Train costs
The latest report I got in January 2017, the Kandy to Ella train costs are approx:
1st class 1250Rs (approx $9)
2nd class 650 Rs (approx $4.20)
3rd class 400Rs (approx $2.60)
The expo rail cart is a more expensive option and now appears to add to most journeys with a five-times-a-day service. The bonus of this is the all-glass front or back window, but unless you have the front seats, it will likely be the same view as a first-class – it also completely removes you from the ‘experience’ of Sri Lanka train travel. That said, it can at least be booked easily online.
Getting There / Onwards travel from Ella
To get to Kandy or Ella, for the starting point, you have a few options. The Kandy to Ella train line does actually start from Colombo, meaning should you wish to head straight to Kandy, that is possible.
Bus connections from other parts of the historic triangle are a good bet. Dambulla, in particular, seemed to have regular yet unorganised connections that would take you to Kandy. Hiring a private driver may also be a good, time-saving option.
Ella is a little bit more removed, and here I opted for a private driver to go towards Yala park / Matara and the beaches on the south. Buses leave Ella on the same route around 9 am each day from the Curd shop on the left-hand side of the dusty main street, but check in with locals for more up-to-date timetable information. There seemed to be a handful of taxi drivers based in Ella itself as a backup.
Read more: Sri Lanka travel guide
Where To Stay
There are some beautiful colonial tea stations to stay at on the Kandy to Ella train route, modern and chic apartments and more traditional budget guest houses. I personally stayed at OZone Hotel in Kandy for its rooftop pool looking over the city, The Tenth Hotel in Nuwara Eliya for their sheer hospitality and would highly recommend the eco-lodge feel of 98 acres in Ella, which is set aptly in 98 acres of lush tea plantations.
You can find out more information on all the stunning places I stayed in Sri Lanka here.