The Kandy to Ella train (or vice versa) is certainly the most famous train ride in the country, thanks to the marvelous landscapes it winds through in the Sri Lankan hill country. Undulating terrain, tea plantations, and small villages all add to the charm of the journey. Of course with tourist numbers picking up in Sri Lanka and the fact that it was peak peak season, getting a ticket for this train was no easy task. All 1st and 2nd class tickets were all booked up and the only option left is buying 3rd class tickets the morning of, which basically means you'll be crammed in the car standing for most of the trip.
A popular trick to avoid this is to go the Kadugannawa station, 30 minutes outside of Kandy, and board there, waiting for people to get off in Kandy so you can snag a seat. But I've heard that this method isn't so secret anymore and doing this in no way guarantees you a seat during peak season.
So what to do? I already took one standing train ride from Colombo to Kandy and it was miserable! So if it was likely that I was going to have to stand again, I'd much rather take the bus. But to many this train journey is the highlight of their whole Sri Lanka trip and I didn't want to miss out on it. Fortunately there is one last option, the 3:30am goods train! This is also a slower train because it stops at each station to load/unload stuff, so what is normally a 7 hour ride turns into 10. Obviously a 3:30 start on the slow train isn't for everyone, but you do get avoid the hordes of tourists during the day trains!
This train had four other tourists and the rest were locals. I was easily able to snag a forward facing window seat on the right side, the optimum seat for the views. And there was plenty of room to lay out on my bench seat and 'try' to sleep until the sun came up. There was one interesting quirk about this train. In my car and in one other car were a group of Sri Lankan teens, and they brought with them drums and their singing voices. Normally this would be a welcome cultural experience, hearing all of their traditional songs, which everyone in the group knew, enthusiastically. But not at 3:30 in the morning!
With my noise cancelling headphones in I did manage some sleep and eventually got up when the sky started turning a faint blue. I could start seeing the outlines of the tumultuous landscape and the fog that sat in the valleys. It was Christmas morning and as others back home were waiting for daybreak to run downstairs and see what was under the tree, I was waiting for daybreak to see these lush green tea plantations illuminated in the soft, warm light. It was a very nice experience watching the sunrise from the train in the hill country while listening to some traditional Sri Lankan music.
With so few people on the train you're free to get up and walk around the cabins and hang out the door to get a better view if you'd like. We'd stop for a few minutes in each station so you could hop off and stretch your legs a bit and not worry about having someone take your seat. So much more laid back than the other train I had been on. Vendors would hop on occasionally and sell some fried snacks, which were pretty tasty! After a few hours the train finally started filling up and all the seats were taken. A Sri Lankan family packed in around me. They didn't speak much English and their children eyed me curiously, but they did offer me some sweet snacks, which I happily accepted!
After 6 hours we arrived at Nuwara Eliya, which is one of the hill station hot spots. The whole station was filled with tourists getting on this train! At this point there were almost no seats left so the vast majority of the people getting on would have to stand, at least for now. Eventually Sri Lankans would get off and people would snag those seats, and some very polite Sri Lankans actually voluntarily gave up their seats, knowing that it's such a novelty to foreigners. But still, a lot people were standing the four hours to Ella. I was pretty content with my spot! Although the majority of the views switched over from right side to the left side, but I guess you can't have everything.
After 10 hours we finally rolled into Ella station at 1:30 pm. At this point my butt was thoroughly sore and I couldn't wait to get off the train. I hadn't booked anything yet, so I basically found the nearest guesthouse, checked in, and promptly passed out for the next few hours. I'll get into Ella in the next post!