One of the highlights of travelling through Sri Lanka is journeying from one destination to another by train. The Colombo to Kandy train didn’t disappoint at all.
Sure, there have been plenty of train travels, mostly in India and also around the world, including on one of the most famous train journeys that I am sure is on everyone’s bucket list if they haven’t done it already – the Reunification Express. However, nothing prepared me for my train journey from Colombo Fort station to Kandy station, or through Sri Lanka.
What you pay is what you get
While we are planning our trip a month or so before we landed in Sri Lanka, I had surfed through a couple of websites, some recommended by other bloggers, and others that I had chanced upon. Several of them recommended booking tickets as early as possible and preferably in the air-conditioned or 2nd class reserved couches.
However, that came with its own set of issues. For one, I wasn’t very keen on being cocooned inside an air-conditioned coach for three or more hours. More importantly though, the Sri Lankan railway website doesn’t allow you to buy tickets online. That means you are left to the mercy of travel websites who will buy you a ticket, at a premium. Most mentioned a price of anything upwards of USD 10. That converts to about LKR 1,800 odd per ticket. While surfing for ticket information, I had also read that buying it across the counter would cost us about USD 2. Something I was prepared to do.
While I won’t get into the pros and cons of purchasing your ticket well in advance, there is absolutely nothing wrong in buying it on the day of your journey. And so long as you don’t mind a bit of a crowd between stations, or sharing seats with total strangers, Sri Lankans and tourists, you will be fine. While the trains may not be up to the standards of some of the other trains I have travelled in, especially in western Europe, travelling by train in Sri Lanka is a great way to experience the many flavours and charm of the country and its people.
To rush or not to rush
My travel buddy, who had reached Colombo a day before, was entrusted with the job of trying to see if we could get a reserved seat in 2nd class. No luck. Turns out all the reserved seats were already booked weeks in advance. Our only option was to reach the station on the day of our journey and buy an unreserved ticket from across the counter. That didn’t deter us one bit. The only question was whether to wake up early and make a dash to the station to catch the 10:35 am train or take our own time and aim for the 12:40 pm. Wisely, we chose the latter. I had only reached the hotel well past the midnight hour. So, a good night’s sleep was an absolute necessity.
On the morning of our journey, after a few cups of tea at our hotel room, we checked out and headed downstairs to the reception. The only question was whether to try and walk to the station, which my friend had assured me wasn’t too far, but not worth it with our wheeled bags, or hail a tuk-tuk. As we were debating outside the hotel, we had our answer almost immediately.
The previous night, I had got chatting with the guard outside the hotel, who was friendly and talkative. Thankfully, he was still there the next morning. Upon querying with him, he immediately shouted for one of the tuk-tuk drivers at the end of the street, who promptly heeded his call. A rate of LKR 100 was haggled quickly, our bags stuffed behind the seat of the tuk-tuk, and we were off. Five minutes later, we were at Colombo Fort station. Seriously! We could have walked.
Along the short ride to the station, we also managed to exchange mobile numbers with the tuk-tuk driver and promised him that we would do a tour of Colombo city with him. As a bonus, we also told him we were open to the idea of riding with him from our hotel in Colombo all the way to the airport on our return leg of the journey. Smart thinking on his part. He offered to pick us up from the station when we were back in the city a week later. Of course, we weren’t going to say no, considering we would be back at Colombo Fort station at around five in the morning, about a week hence.
After paying him, we headed to the ticket counter to enquire if we could still make it for the 10:35am train. It was still there at the platform. We were assured it was cutting it a little too tight as it was ready to leave in another three or four minutes. Not enough time to pay for the tickets, collect our bags and make a dash across platforms. We opted for the next train, at 12:40pm. The only tickets available were 2nd and 3rd class unreserved. We had to take our chances and hope that the train would be empty when it got into the platform, or keep our fingers crossed that we would eventually find a seat along the journey.
Besides, having travelled on Mumbai’s packed suburban trains, sometimes sandwiched between people, but mostly hanging out of the door, I was looking forward to it. Didn’t seem like a problem, so we chose the 2nd class unreserved coach. It cost us just LKR 190 per ticket. That’s barely a little more than a dollar. I’d opt for it any day. Besides, it is more money kept aside from plenty more chilled beverages.
Chatting with strangers
Tickets in hand, we ambled out of the station to try and see if we could park ourselves in a restaurant for a late breakfast. Walking on either side of the station, we finally chose a restaurant and promptly ordered what felt like lunch. In any case, we weren’t sure if we would get anything to eat on the journey. A sweet cup of tea later, we were back to pacing outside the station, whiling away time. We still had more than an hour to go.
The sun was also bearing down on us by this time. Initially, we went into the station to try and see if it was any cooler in the waiting room. Bad choice. It was hotter than standing outside the station.
Instead, we decided to sit on the floor outside the station. A one-sided conversation with a sleeping dog later, better sense prevailed, and we found ourselves a shaded platform under a tree. And that is where we sat, until we were ready to head back in.
It was also a good opportunity to catch up with some of the locals hanging around there, including an elderly gentleman, dressed in a traditional lungi. Upon realising we were Indians, he immediately warmed up and started to tell us about his ancestors back in Tamil Nadu. He also very graciously agreed to be photographed.
While we were chatting, another elderly chap joined in on our conversation. Turns out he was a former sailor and had a couple of friends back in Mumbai. He was also nicely drunk at that time of the day and wanted to continue with our conversation.
At about 11:45, assuming there was still plenty of time, we walked back into the station only to realise that the train was already on the platform. There goes my window seat. After parking our bags on the overhead luggage rack, I inched my way to one of the doors and that is where I stood, right through the journey. Better to stand here than inside in this heat.
My first impressions of the train took my back to my childhood and long-distance travel. Basic carriages and a diesel locomotive from another age. Looking up and down the track, I realised that the signalling system were manually operated. Even the tickets issued for our journey took me back in time, printed on grey board. Aah, the joys of train travel.
While waiting for the train to start its journey, we were joined by a couple of Sri Lankan students, heading to the central parts of Sri Lanka for the weekend. Turns out there were studying to be chartered accountants. They also decided it was preferable to hang around near the door.
As we were shuffling a bit, trying to figure out who gets to stand where, the conductor blew his whistle, the engine driver blew his horn and we were finally off, a few minutes after the scheduled departure time.
The train to Kandy
The train journey is roughly around 3:40 odd minutes, with about 17 stops on this Express train. However, don’t expect to reach on time. Often, the train is delayed for a few reasons. One of them being that most parts along the route are single track. That means, at some stations, expect to wait at the platform for up to 20 minutes until the train from the opposite direction has crossed. That wasn’t a concern at all. Besides, I had the luxury of an open and uninterrupted view from the door and the wind cooling my bald pate.
As the train pulled out of Colombo Fort station, leaving behind the hot weather, the first sight that greeted me was the Lotus Tower. While not yet a popular tourist attraction, you can’t help but not spot it every time your tuk-tuk weaves through the traffic in Colombo.
Then, as the train slowly started to pick up steam as we passed through the suburbs of Colombo, I saw a sight that immediately brought a smile – people walking along the tracks. A sight that is all too familiar in most parts of India.
Then, once out of the city, it was the beautiful countryside, with its lush green paddy fields. These scenes were interspersed with railway crossings, trains speeding by in the opposite direction and small stations with artfully done graffiti painted on the side walls.
A few hours after the start of our journey, as the lowlands gave way to the highlands, the train engine slowly started to pull the carriages uphill, through tunnels, forests and valleys.
As we came to a stop at a station up in the mountains, what greeted us were sights of people patiently waiting for their train along with monkeys, always watchful for a donation from one of the passengers or an eagle hovering high above. Seeing sights like this is what makes for a pleasurable train journey, and I was glad we had done it by rail after all.
By this time, so late in the afternoon, my stomach was growling. It had been over four hours since I had anything to eat. It was also perhaps an hour or less to Kandy. Thankfully, one of the charms of train travel through Sri Lanka are the number of snack and cold drink vendors who come in at each station.
The future chartered accountants had initially bought themselves a pack of masala vadai with fried red chillies which they had willingly offered to share with me. I loved it. So, at the next opportunity, when the snack vendor passed by, I bought a couple of packs that was promptly shared with my new-found friends and anybody else willing to try it, including a few other tourists who had chosen to make the area around the door their spot.
Finally, after journeying for roughly about four hours, I knew we were close to Kandy. The signages on shops along the road next to the track and leading into the city confirmed that. The coach we were in was also practically empty, except for a few passengers, either Sri Lankans heading back home or tourists, looking forward to experiencing the charm of this cultural city of Sri Lanka.
Shortly thereafter, with a blow of the horn, the train finally chugged in and came to a halt at Kandy station.