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After three nights in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, we said goodbye to our friends Kimi and Trevor and our driver Raj. We were ditching them to take one of the most scenic train rides in the world: Kandy to Ella on the iconic blue train.
If you know exactly when and where you are going, it’s advisable to book your tickets more than 37 days in advance on 12go.
Otherwise, tickets are not available for purchase online. Tickets for assigned seats must be bought at the station. However, you can go to any station in Sri Lanka and buy tickets for any train ride on the system. I probably should have gone to the train station in Trincomalee as soon as we set a date and bought all the tickets.
But I also wasn’t sure what it would be like in the different classes. I wanted assigned seats and I didn’t want to fight for a good seat. Plus, I wasn’t sure if the train ride was really worth all the hype.
First class seats are assigned and in an air-conditioned car. The windows don’t open (because of the air conditioning). Tip for photos: clean the outside of your window while at the station. Our window was filthy with dirt and dust, making photos out the window hard until I made David clean it!
The second class is assigned seating, with open windows, and is the most popular option.
The third class is not assigned. Tickets are sold for this class 30 minutes prior to the train’s departure.
This leg, from Kandy to Ella, or vice versa, is VERY popular. If you are booking unassigned seats, it may be worth it to take a cheap tuk-tuk to the next station out and hop on there.
HOLD ON TO YOUR TICKET! You must show the ticket when exiting the station.
In Kandy, we arrived at the train station about a half-hour before the 7:40 am train. Each class has a different ticket counter, so if the class you want is sold out for the train you have to start all over in line again.
Second class tickets were available for the second train, but not the first one. I hopped over to the other line and bought first-class seats instead.
We were seated right next to the door at the end of the train, which wouldn’t stay closed. The outer doors between the trains (which all have signs that say they must remain closed) are opened so that tourists can lean out and take photos for their Instagram. So, the air conditioning was null anyway.
The cars are outdated and not in the best condition, but I’ve been on dirtier transport in the US.
Several times during the trip, a samosa vendor walked up and down the aisle, selling vegetarian samosas that were really good! We had also bought some pastries at the Kandy station.
As we traveled through the middle of Sri Lanka, the views were absolutely spectacular. I assumed we would go through a few tea plantations as we got close to Nuwara Eliya, but no, it was at least 50% tea plantations out our window the entire 6-hour trip. The rest of the time was small towns, mountain ranges, pine forests with babbling brooks, and even clouds.
The best part of all this? Our tickets were $8 each.
After checking into our hotel, David and I hiked out to view the Nine Arches Bridge, 3 km to the east of the Ella train station.
There are several options to see the bridge. You can actually walk on the tracks to the bridge, and you can sit on the bridge while the train goes by or watch from a viewing platform on the east side.
We followed the B113 on Google Maps headed east out of town until we saw the parking lot and sign on the left, advertising the Nine Arches Bridge.
I hustled us along at a nice clip, worried we would miss the 17:15 train headed east. From the sign, it was down the valley and then up again, which we covered in 10 minutes by really pushing it.
When we arrived at the viewpoint, there were a lot of people around the bridge, but only a few shared the viewpoint with us. We determined that the train hadn’t come through yet. Many of the people at the viewpoint hiked out just to look at the bridge and did not stay for the train.
It was getting darker and darker, and we were worried we were going to have to pack it up. However, the train made it through at 18:00, so we waited quite a while for about ten seconds of action. But the bridge is beautiful in its own right, and with the train going through….wow!
When we had arrived in Ella I went to the ticket counter to buy our tickets for the next day to Nuwara Eliya, but there was a sign that said “all tickets for tomorrow sold out. Come back 30 minutes before the train for unassigned tickets”. I went ahead and bought our tickets for a train three days later from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy – only first-class seats were available.
Instead, we hired a car to take us the hour and a half from Ella to Nuwara Eliya. I don’t think I have ever been so carsick in my life! I didn’t vomit, but the winding roads and Sri Lankan aggressive driving made me miserable. Next time, I might risk unassigned seats on the train instead.
Even worse, we paid $47!
Having already procured first-class tickets, we took a tuk-tuk from Nuwara Eliya to Nanu Oya, the closest train station. We boarded the train, once again on time, and enjoyed the ride towards Kandy. This time, multiple vendors selling food came through; roasted peanuts, fruit, samosas, tea. It was quite the party.
We got off a few stops early to stay at a beautiful and secluded hotel in the outskirts of Kandy. In retrospect, the train ride was so pleasant, we should have just stayed on until the end of the line – Anuradhapura. It would have been a much cheaper way to get to our next destination. Instead, we hired a driver to take us from Kandy to Wilpattu National Park.
We stayed at the moderately priced Ravana Heights, which has a stunning view and is a perfect location – we walked everywhere.
If you need a break from Sri Lankan food, Ceylon Tea Factory serves both Western food and Sri Lankan, but at a higher price. Our lunch, a salad and a sandwich with specialty iced tea, came to $26 USD.
We had an amazing Sri Lankan dinner for about $11 USD at Cafe C.
Since Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second-largest city, it tends to be crowded and loud. This was our second time through Kandy, so we opted for a quieter, secluded place to stay. The Eagle Regency, a moderately priced hotel, was just the ticket!
There are plenty of budget accommodations in town. though. Sweet Kandy Lanka and Serene Kandy are both located on the south side of the lake, in a quieter part of town (not far from where we stayed our first time through).