After spending my summer taking the train across Canada followed by a month of taking the train across Sri Lanka, I can tell you the two experiences are about as opposite that you can have. With that said, train travel in Sri Lanka is both an affordable and incredible way to see the country. Anyone visiting Sri Lanka should take at least ONE train ride while visiting Sri Lanka.
The post will go over everything you need to know about taking the train in Sri Lanka including where it goes, how to get tickets, the best train routes to take, and tips and tricks for making the most of your Sri Lanka train experience.
Sri Lanka Train Map
The train in Sri Lanka doesn’t go everywhere, but it does cover a large area of the country including many of the most popular spots to visit. Check out this Sri Lanka train map below to see the cities where the train stops.
Negombo is where you will start your journey into Sri Lanka as this where the international airport is. The capital city, Colombo, is actually an hour away from the airport. From Colombo, you can either start your train journey South towards the beaches, East to Kandy/Ella, or North to Anuradhapura and Trincomalee.
For more information on planning your itinerary in Sri Lanka, check out this post:
Popular Train Routes in Sri Lanka
Train from Colombo to Galle
One of the most popular towns to visit on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka is the historic town of Galle. It is easy to grab a train from Colombo to Galle which takes about two hours. This was my first train ride in Sri Lanka and it was lovely to get out of the big city of Colombo and into the nature of Sri Lanka. After getting out of the city of Colombo, we followed the coastline all the way to Galle and could see the ocean and palm trees outside of the window/doors.
The train from Colombo also stops at the beach town of Hikkaduwa just before Galle. I never got a chance to visit Hikkaduwa, but I’ve heard great reviews about it. Even if you you don’t want to stay in Galle, taking the train from Colombo to Galle is a good way to reach other beach towns. It’s just a short 15-minute drive to the beautiful beach town of Unawatuna or 40-minute drive to Weligama, which are both great towns for surfing. You can take the train as far south as Matara, which is close to Mirissa. Mirissa is a popular beach town for surf, yoga, and beach parties.
Taking the train from Colombo to Kandy
If you want to get straight to the culture instead of the beaches, take the Colombo to Kandy train.
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second biggest city and it’s worth spending at least a day there. It tends to be more popular with travelers then Colombo, and is home to some important cultural sites of Sri Lanka including the temple of the tooth.
Kandy to Ella Train
The most famous train route in Sri Lanka is from Kandy to Ella (or vise versa taking the train from Ella to Kandy). This is a breathtaking train route that passes through mountains full of bright, green tea plantations. The journey takes about seven hours in total.
Alternatively, you could break it up and take the train from either Kandy or Ella to Nuwara Eliya, and then from Nuwara Eliya to either Kandy or Ella. It’s the same route, but it provides a chance to break up the journey and stop in Nuwara Eliya where you can hike in Horton Plains National Park or climb up Adam’s peak.
Sri Lanka Railway Ticket Prices
Taking the Sri Lanka Railway is one of the most affordable methods of transportation to get across the country. The most expensive Sri Lanka Railway ticket price I paid was 170 rupees/$1.50 USD, and that was for 7 hours of travel. The majority of the railway tickets cost less than a dollar for hours of transport. There are different classes of railway tickets that range from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class.
How to book the train in Sri Lanka
You don’t need to book the Sri Lanka Railway tickets in advance unless you want to travel first class. I always bought my tickets at the ticket counter right before the train arrived, but was only offered 2nd and 3rd class tickets. In my experience doing this first-class tickets were never available. You can reserve tickets online in advance and see the Sri Lanka Railway ticket prices beween destinations.
If you buy tickets at the counter you can choose between second and third class. I didn’t notice much of a difference between the two. More locals take 3rd class since it is the cheapest option but generally the train will be full either way. You don’t have to worry about train tickets selling out because it’s not possible. They will just keep selling tickets and people will squish in and hang it doors in order to get on the train. Throw everything you know about train safety out the window. You will probably be hanging out a window, but it’s so much fun.
The Accommodation on the train in Sri Lanka
They train only has seats (no beds), and the ratio of seats to people is poor. Out of all six trains I took there was only one where I got a seat, and it was glorious. The other times I had to stand with everyone else. There is a large variance in how crowded it can get on the train. Sometimes I had a decent amount of space, other times there were 50 people around me.
The worst I experienced was from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy. I made the mistake of getting the train on a holiday at the end of the long weekend, so there was no sense of personal space.
In my experience, the best time to take the train is midday as fewer people travel then. The first train in the morning and the last train in the afternoon are usually crowded. Learn from my mistakes, avoid traveling on any local holiday!
The scenery on the train in Sri Lanka
The best part about taking the train across Sri Lanka is the incredible scenery along the way. On the Southern coast you will follow along the coastline with ocean and beach views right outside the window. As you head towards the middle of the country from Ella to Nuwara Eliya & Kandy, you see breathtaking views of rolling hills filled with bright green tea plantations. The train also goes all the way up north to Jaffna, more off the beaten spot in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to visit Jaffna, but I’ve heard it ’s lovely seeing the vegetation change along the way.
Food on the train in Sri Lanka
The most amazing part of being on a jam-packed train in Sri Lanka is seeing the local vendors walk through the sea of people carrying a massive basket of food on top of their heads. I want to take these guys to a concert to get me to the front row.
The food they sell is dirt cheap but not that good, so it’s a good idea to bring your own snacks if you want to eat. The foods I saw available for sale included samosas, chickpea balls, and other random questionable fried items. I ate the train food and didn’t get sick. It just wasn’t that good.
The entertainment on the train in Sri Lanka
There’s definitely no planned activities on the train, but the locals are social and friendly. They will be happy to have a chat with you on the train and tell you about their country, and if you’re lucky they’ll share some arrack (local whiskey). Locals often also play music on the train and are happy to have you join in.
Other than that, bring a book or just enjoy the scenery. The coolest part about taking train travel in Sri Lanka is that the doors and windows stay open. It’s a paradise for photo opportunities!
Taking the train in Sri Lanka is a great way to see the country, meet locals, and cut down on transportation costs. If you are going to Sri Lanka, definitely travel by train at least once!
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