First things first: the Kandy to Ella train is magnificent. We're not about to say that it is overrated or anything so you can breathe a sigh of relief. However, when you are embarking on one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, which has become an Instagram sensation, it only means one thing: people.
Lots of people.
Of course, it's not just tourists, it's also a popular mode of transport for locals. It's not hard to see why it's such a popular journey. About an hour out of Kandy you'll begin entering tea country. The landscape changes from palm jungle to incredibly steep hills covered in tea bushes with huge open vistas - as long as you're sitting on the right side of the train - but more on that later.
We travelled to Sri Lanka for five weeks in low season, where often we were the only people staying in the guest houses, so were shocked when we saw how crowded the train was.
But don't worry, we are about to share everything we learnt on taking this train journey on three separate stages. We hope it helps you get even more out of one of the most magical train journeys in the world.
Here are 8 things no one tells you about the Kandy to Ella train
1. It matters which side of the train you sit on
Before taking this train we didn't realise that one side of the train is significantly more scenic than the other on the leg between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. You really want to be on the right side of the train for this journey.
We started the left and for many hours you will mainly see tall grass and a cliff. Whereas the other side are seeing glorious tea plantations and huge open views.
From Nuwara Eliya to Ella the difference is not as marked but would recommend you sit on the left side.
Next stop: Best things to do in Nuwara Eliya
2. You will share the open door
Everything you see on Instagram suggests that you nab one of those fantastic open doorways and happily hang out the door for the rest of the journey. The reality is everyone loves hanging out the door way and none more so than the locals. We were joined by no less than six locals on our first journey who sat next to us and hovered in front and over us, so closely that at any one time I was touching five other people.
On the second time we took the train the same happened but with less people, two to four. It's still a great experience but not as relaxing as having a bit of personal space.
Read more: Best things to do in Kandy
3. Only get the express trains
We made the mistake of getting one of the slow (goods) trains when the timing better suited us. This was a huge mistake. They are far busier than the express trains and we got neither a seat nor doorway in second or third class. It was packed to the rafters, much like a London tube, making the journey really unenjoyable.
South Coast inspiration: Best things to do in Unawatuna
4. You don't need to turn up really early for the train
We read a few articles that suggested you had to be at the station anywhere between one and two hours in advance. Our reality has been that the train was delayed for a minimum of one hour on each leg we took.
Even if it wasn't late there is still no point in turning up very early, there is no queuing system so it won't secure you a great spot. Save yourself the lengthy sit at the platform and enjoy another cuppa at your guest house.
South Coast inspiration: The best things to do in Mirissa, Dikwella and the South Coast
5. Get the second class carriage that borders the third class carriage (the one nearest the back)
Just trust us on this one, it's a great place to be.
Now this goes against everything we experienced on Indian trains when the third class carriages were always packed. We might have got lucky, but on each train journey we could not get anywhere near a seat in second class but third class had bags of room!
The seats are slightly longer bench style, rather than the individual seats in groups of two in second class, but they are still comfortable. Whilst hanging out the train is by far our preferred option, if it starts raining or you get a numb bum it's nice to have a seat to fall back on.
If you have a second class ticket and you nab a seat there great, but if not being able to get into the third class carriage gives you another option.
6. Getting that perfect shot is not so easy
The problem with getting on one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world is that everyone else wants to be there too. This means when you try to get one of those awesome shots hanging out the train, chances are that you will have five other people hanging out the doors ahead of you and clearly in shot.
Add a few arms and legs hanging out the doorway from a lower seated position and a few heads popping out through the windows and you have for a difficult photography situation. You'll also face some obstacles outside the train that get surprisingly close (we hit several bushes when our legs hanged out the side). '
Patience is definitely key.
7. Don't even think about getting a train on the weekend
Midday and the weekends are by far the busiest times for the trains. It is not only when tourists jump onboard, but it is also when Sri Lankans tend to travel as well. This means it can get very crowded in the unreserved section.
Unless you reserve a seat in advance - which requires a fair bit of notice according to Seat 61 (something our happy go lucky take each day as it comes current mode of travel did not allow) - you are even less likely to score a seat or a doorway than any other time. If you have no choice then of course go for it, but try to go either very early or late in the day as it's these seem to be quieter. But if you have any flexibility it is far quieter mid week.
8. Second class reserved and second class unreserved are of course different
You cannot buy a second class reserved seat at the train station on the day of travel. You must book in advance. The ticket you are buying in second class on the day of travel at the train station is second class unreserved. These tickets do not guarantee you a seat, as mentioned we never got one.
If you know your dates and you want to book in advance, but are unable to go to the station, various tour operators can book for you for a fee. When we did a quick check you are paying many times the price of the original ticket, but they are so cheap anyway it really isn't so bad if you want a reserved seat.
How to plan your trip on the Kandy to Ella Train
Kandy to Ella Train Travel Schedule
The timetable for the Kandy to Ella train should only be used as a guide as it is ALWAYS late, especially the further down the line you go. You can check the latest version with this link.
There are five trains a day that go from Colombo to Kandy, but two of them skip Kandy. We'd advise getting the 8.50am from Kandy as this will have the least amount of tourist on board.
If you are hopping on at Hatton (Adam's Peak), Nanuoya (Nuwara Eliya) or Haputale, you'll have four trains to choose from, running between 7am and 4pm (depending on which train station you get on at). There is also a night mail train that runs in the middle of the night, but obviously no views makes this one a losing option.
Kandy to Ella Train Stops
The main stops for travellers on the Kandy to Ella train are Hatton (Adam's Peak), Nanuoya (Nuwara Eliaya) and Haputale, but there are several other stops on top of this.
We really enjoyed our stay at Nuwara Eliya despite constant rain. Here are some tips on places to go in Nuwara Eliya.
Where to sit on the Kandy to Ella Train
It pays to have a plan for this train, otherwise you'll be stuck facing a cliff for a lot of the trip! For the first section (Kandy to Nuwara Eliya), sit on the right side of the train. As you walk in Kandy Railway station, head to the far right (making sure you're on the right hand version of platform 2). This will ensure you get those epic views.
At Nuwara Eliya, hop to the left hand side. This is where the close up tea plantations change to huge, wide open landscape.
Kandy to Ella Travel Time
Ignore the timetables, this train will take longer than you think. The timetable claims the journey will take 7 - 8 hours.
In truth, you can add at least another 1-2 hours on top of this. For this reason, we'd recommend stopping along the way to break up the journey. Whilst it is picturesque, the train isn't luxurious or particularly comfortable.
This why we suggest taking.....
The Kandy to Nuwara Eliya Train
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
The Kandy to Nuwara Eliya section is one of the most picturesque train journeys in the world. Plan it right (as we described above) and it will be one of the highlights of your trip.
There's only three trains a day (one at 3.30am!). Realistically you can get either the 8.50 or 11.10 to Nuwara Eliya.
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya duration
Whilst the time table states that the journey should take just under four hours. When we took the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, it was much closer to five hours as we arrived after 3pm.
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Have you taken the glorious Kandy to Ella train? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments below.
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