Read this before riding the Kandy to Ella train: info, tips and more

Kandy to Ella train | everything you need to know

Sri Lanka’s Kandy to Ella train ride is undoubtedly one of the world’s most scenic. To help you have the most incredible train adventure, this guide contains everything you need to know, from tickets and timetables to what to expect and photography tips.


I’m sitting in the open doorway of a rickety train; feet dangling over the footboard as the wooden sleepers roll past. 

In front of me, Sri Lanka’s lush hill country rolls out before us; a thick shag pile rug of green tea fields and misty mountains. Flecks of vivid colour dot the landscape, the brightly-coloured saris of pickers who keep the country’s famed tea industry alive. 

Behind, a group of young locals beat a drum and sing local songs with such infectious enthusiasm that before long, the entire carriage is swept up a happy cacophony of laughter and dance.

Somewhere along the train a vendor is calling ‘wade wade,’ and my mouth waters at the thought of those deliciously crispy fried balls of dhal, best washed down with a sweet cup of warm chai. 

Trains pass in the opposite direction, locals precariously balanced on steps below signs that warn against the very same. A train conductor smiles and waves, his starched white uniform crisp and magnificent against the lumbering blue carriages. 

The breeze picks up strands of hair and they dance around my face. I close my eyes, breathe deep, and smile.

This is joy, pure and simple.

Sri Lanka’s train ride from Kandy to Ella is easily one of the most iconic images of this bite-sized Utopia in the Indian Ocean. Having made the journey more than five times in the last three years we can absolutely attest to how incredible it is. In fact, every time we’ve scrambled off that train, seven hours later (and a lot dustier and wearier), we’re even more in love with it than we already were.

In our opinion, this is one of the greatest train rides in the world - and definitely one of the best things you can do in Sri Lanka. Which is why we’ve put together this guide with absolutely everything you need to know, from tickets to timetables and what to expect, to help you have the most incredible time on your own Kandy to Ella train adventure. 

Happy journey, wanderers. 


Kandy to ella train: Sri Lanka’s most scenic train ride


About the KANDY TO ELLA train ride

As with many railways in this part of the world, the Sri Lankan rail network was initially conceived by the British colonial government in 1864. It was initially built to transport tea and coffee (the latter quickly failed after a mystery fungus wiped out entire crops) from the misty hill country to Colombo for export.

For years, these tightly packed crates of tea were the primary passengers on this route, until population growth saw passenger traffic explode past it in the 1960s. Today, the network is one of the cheapest ways to navigate Sri Lanka, and is a vital transport link for locals.

Kandy to Ella train ride | Essential things to know


How to plan your Kandy to Ella train journey: trip essentials


Kandy to Ella train journey Itinerary

The Kandy to Ella train ride forms one section of the ‘Main Line’, the longer Colombo to Kandy to Badulla route that snakes its way through the stunning hill country and tea plantation heart of Sri Lanka. As well as being insanely scenic, many of the key tourist stops can be found along this train line too, making it extra popular with tourists keen to take in the best sights (more on those below).

The journey takes around 7 hours - assuming there are no delays or breakdowns on the route!

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Kandy to Ella Train times (and Ella to Kandy train times)

FROM COLOMBO / KANDY TOWARDS ELLA / BADULLA

From Colombo Fort | 05:55am*, 08:30am*, 09:45am, 20:00pm (doesn’t stop Kandy)

From Peradeniya Junction | 08:32am*, 10:55am*, 12:31pm, 23:06pm (doesn’t stop Kandy)

From Kandy | 08:47am*, 11:10am*, 17:00pm, 03:30am,

From Ella (to Badulla) | 13:36pm, 15:15pm*, 17:28pm*, 06:06am

* = the blue train

FROM BADULLA / ELLA TOWARDS KANDY / COLOMBO FORT

From Badulla | 05:45am*, 08:30am*, 10:00am (doesn’t stop Kandy), 11:00am, 17:50pm (doesn’t stop Kandy)

From Ella | 06:40am*, 09:24am*, 10:57am (doesn’t stop Kandy), 12:06pm, 18:55 (doesn’t stop Kandy)

* = the blue train


Check the most up to date timetable information on the Sri Lankan Railways website here

Kandy to Ella train ride | Essential things to know
Kandy to Ella train ride | Essential things to know
Kandy to Ella train ride | Essential things to know

WHICH CLASS SHOULD YOU BOOK for the Kandy to Ella train? 

Reserved or unreserved? First class or third class? When it comes to buying tickets for your train ride in Sri Lanka, the different ticket options can initially be a little confusing. 

Personally, we strongly believe that this train ride is one of the rare times where the best experience is actually found in the lower ticket classes. First class is stuffy with windows and doors that won’t open and mostly other foreigners occupying the seats next to. Second and third class on the other hand, are a truly authentic taste of what life is really like for locals on the Sri Lankan railway system. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of what each class entails (keep reading for costs!): 

THIRD CLASS UNRESERVED

Third Class Unreserved are the cheapest tickets available for the train, and as such, tend to be the most popular with locals too. The seating here is non-allocated wooden benches (it’s basically a free for all!) so be prepared that at least some of your journey will involve standing. For all that the journey may be a little uncomfortable though, this is where the most authentic taste of Sri Lankan life can be found though. 

Groups of local boys sing and play drums, big families crowd together on one or two benches, sharing meals and passing little ones across the carriage for the best views, while vendors squeeze past with precariously balanced trays of deep-fried delights. The mood is jovial and everyone’s keen to chat - it’s just a super happy place to be! 

THIRD CLASS RESERVED

Exactly as above, but with the difference of allocated seating. It’s a little less chaotic, but the mood is just as fun. This is probably our favourite place to be on the Sri Lankan rail network, as it comes with all the fun and local interaction of third class, but with the slightly more organised aspect of having a (mostly) guaranteed seat.

You can also open the windows and doors here, and the doorways don’t tend to be as crowded as you may find in the unreserved carriages - perfect for dangling your feet over and feeling the wind through your hair!

SECOND CLASS UNRESERVED

A little softer than third class seating-wise, though in a stuffy carriage with hard seating this doesn’t really make too much of an impact! Not too much more expensive than the third class, but again, you’ll probably need to push your way onto the train for this one. These seats tend to be great if you’re travelling in the off or shoulder seasons, as the trains are a lot less busy then. 

SECOND CLASS RESERVED

As above, with allocated seating this time. The price jump for reserved seating in this carriage is about half again of what you’d pay for the other classes, but if you’re travelling during peak season and you know your travel dates in advance, it’s absolutely worth booking these well ahead of your arrival to Sri Lanka (read our top Sri Lanka travel tips for more handy tips). Note that these will often sell out 1-2 months in advance during peak season, so booking online is the best option.

FIRST CLASS

Allocated plush(ish) seating, privacy, and air conditioning are the main features here. We absolutely wouldn’t recommend this carriage if you’re wanting to get a real feel for the train ride though; the windows and doors remain locked, and you’ll be rubbing shoulders mostly with other foreigners. It’s not exactly the most authentic way to experience the country or the train, but if you’ve already taken a few train journeys and just want to get to your destination comfortably, this might be the option for you. 

OBSERVATION CARRIAGE

These are only available on select trains, and are mostly just 1st class carriages with the added feature of wide windows for observing the views. Observation carriages will need to be booked a month or more from your travel date and sell out extremely quickly, so you’ll need to organise them online (check 12go Asia) before your trip. 

Again, we don’t actually recommend the observation carriage, as a) you can’t open the windows and b) the carriages are often at the end of the train, facing backwards. If travelling in the wrong direction makes you nauseated, definitely avoid this one! 

Kandy to Ella / Ella to Kandy train Tickets

Overall, train travel in Sri Lanka is extremely affordable, though there are some big differences in pricing dependent on which class ticket you’re after. From Kandy to Ella (or Ella to Kandy), prices are as follows:

Third class | LKR 175 / £0.77 / USD $1.00 pp

Second class | LKR 310pp / £1.36 / USD $1.77 pp

First class | ~ LKR 1500 / £6.56 / USD $8.59 pp

How to book your ticket for the kandy to ella train ride

The process for booking your ticket depends upon whether you’re travelling on an unreserved or reserved ticket:

UNRESERVED TICKETS

These cannot be purchased before the day of travel. It’s simply a matter of showing up at the station a bit earlier and queueing at the ticket office. Unreserved tickets also can’t sell out - they’re uncapped. If you’re told that tickets have sold out, it’s probably because the seller has assumed that as a foreigner, you’d prefer a reserved seat. You can always buy an unreserved ticket.

RESERVED TICKETS

Reserved seating cannot be purchased on your day of travel, so you must book reserved tickets ahead of time. In the off-season, you can probably get away with booking these at your departure station a few days ahead of time. Otherwise, book online (32 days before) at 12go Asia.

kandy to ella train RIDE Travel time

The journey takes around 7 hours - assuming there are no delays or breakdowns on the route!

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Sri Lanka’s most stunning sights | A guide to Nine Arch Bridge, Ella


Our general tips for the kandy to ella train journey

Prepare to push on board

Sri Lanka has a culture based around politeness and exceptional friendliness - that is, until you’re trying to get on a train. This is one instance where there are no holds barred, and particularly if you’re from the west, you’re going to have to put away your polite ‘no pushing’ mentality here. Elbows out, and respectfully pushing on board is the only way to guarantee a seat (or simply some space to stand) here.

Don’t worry though, as soon as everyone’s settled in their places, the mood returns to one of utmost care and concern for those around you!

The most scenic part of the journey is between Haputale and Badulla

The whole train ride from Colombo to Badulla is pretty scenic, but the best parts are absolutely between Haputale and Ella, and then Ella and Badulla.

From Haputale to Ella, the landscape shifts to misty forests and beautiful mountain views, as the train runs along a narrow mountain ridge. From Ella to Badulla, the train line has a Swiss-like ‘knot’, where the train loops back on itself and crosses its own path at a different level. It’s unique and absolutely stunning too.

Badulla is just 30 minutes by tuk tuk, or about an hour from Ella, if you wish to make the journey then head back to Ella.

If you want to go over Nine Arch Bridge, book a ticket to DEMODARA

If you’re keen to tick off two attractions at once by travelling over the Nine Arch Bridge, you’ll actually need to book a ticket past Ella towards Badulla. Demodara is the next stop, although we’re not sure if all trains stop there so you’d be best to check when booking your tickets.

Demodara is only about 3km past Ella station, so it’s simple to jump in a tuk tuk between the two, if need be.

Not all trains are blue

Some are blue, others are red. Both are beautiful and travel along the same tracks with the same epic views. If you have your heart set on taking the blue train though, take the express train. The red ones are either mail and goods trains, or are super slow as they stop all stations.

See the timetable above for more info!

There are toilets on board

There are toilets on board the trains, and while they’re definitely not the greatest we’ve ever encountered, they’re also not the worst. They are squat toilets - so best avoided on particularly windy parts of the track - and always take some toilet paper in with you, as we’re yet to encounter any that provide it!

Avoid taking the train during Sinhalese New Year (April) and Christmas AT ALL COSTS

When we first travelled to Sri Lanka in April 2016, we had no idea that we were walking into the biggest celebration the island sees all year: Sinhalese Tamil New Year, aka Avurudu/Puththandu (check our Sri Lanka travel tips post for more essential travel info!).

From the 13th-15th of April every year, Sri Lankans welcome in the new year with a colourful festival of firecrackers, sweet treats, and loads of family time. It’s a wonderful time to be travelling in the country, except for one thing: the entire country basically grinds to a halt.

Everything closes, people travel from one side of the country to see family, and the transport network is heaving beyond any comprehension. It makes travel between destinations extremely difficult. On one occasion we couldn’t physically get onto our train in Hatton, considering we would have had to dangle out of the doorway on top of the four people already doing so.

We hear the same goes for Christmas time, so avoid these dates like the plague, settle into one destination (and its celebrations!) and avoid the bedlam on the rails!

Bring your own snacks and drinks

The train journey is long and tiring, so be sure you’ve got plenty of food and water with you.

There may be a few vendors wandering the train with snacks (see below for the one you must try!), although there generally won’t be anything overly substantial to purchase while on board. If you feel you’ll need something more than samosas to keep you going, organise some food the night before.

If you spot the tea wallah making his way through the carriage, be sure to get a cup of steaming, sweet milk tea for about LKR 40-50

Buy all the Delicious wade (Sri Lankan street food snacks!)

If you encounter someone moving through the carriages carrying trays of calling ‘wade wade wade wade [wah-deh]’; make a beeline for them and buy allllll the snacks.

These are deep fried dhal balls, and they’re a quintessential street food snack in Sri Lanka. They’re also bloody delicious, and we are obsessed with them (so please, eat an extra one for us!).

Consider starting your journey at Peradeniya junction to get a seat

Trying to get on the train at Kandy can be nigh on impossible, especially at peak times. But fret not, travellers, we have a sneaky tip for you that might even win you a seat!

Rather than concertina yourself on board here, grab a tuk tuk and head ten minutes away to Peradeniya Junction station, on the outskirts of Kandy. Sure, boarding here will be busy, you’ll already be in the carriage when everyone disembarks at Kandy, and in prime position to snatch up a seat before the hordes of people embark shortly after.

Thank us later.

Sit on the right hand side of the Kandy to Ella train

This is one of, if not the most important tips: if you’re coming from Kandy, sit on the right side of the train, unless you want to be gawking at an up-close view of the cliff side (you don’t). The right side is significantly more beautiful than the left, with views over the rolling tea plantations, misty mountains, and lush valleys.

Obviously this is flipped if you’re travelling from Ella back to Kandy; be sure to sit on the left then.

First is the worst, second and third are the best

As we mentioned above; skip first class and head straight to the second and third class carriages for the best experience ever.

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Photography tips for the Kandy to Ella train ride

Chances are if you’re reading this post, you’re after a few tips to maximise your photography on this insanely photogenic train ride too. We don’t blame you; we’ve now taken this train more times than we can count, and it still takes our breath away every single time. To help you get the most from photographing this train ride, here are a few of our top photography tips:

take the first train between Ella and Haputale

As with most things in photography, the early bird gets the worm (or in this case, the banger shot).

On our recent visit, we decided to take the first train from Ella to Haputale one morning so we could see Lipton’s Seat and the tea plantations in the early morning light. As it happened, Lipton’s Seat and the valley were both hidden under thick, oppressive fog - but we did get a half empty train on our way there (check out our best things to do in Ella).

This provided the perfect opportunity to run between windows and doors, lean out in wonder, and snap away to our heart’s content without also having to worry about our backpacks or jostling with others. If you’ve got a morning to spare and you want a stress-free photography experience, we’d highly recommend doing the same!

focus your camera inside the train too

It’s a real shame that so many travellers jump aboard this train to snap photos hanging out the doors, when the real magic of the train ride is the life that’s happening within its carriages. The entire journey is a super unique and authentic cultural experience, and one that’s absolutely worthy of being documented - respectfully - too.

you’ll need a fast shutter speed, Auto focus + burst mode

Hanging your arm out a door or window and trying to take a photo whilst the train is lurching from side to side is a pretty impossible mission, particularly if your shutter speed is too low. Set your shutter to a minimum speed of a 250th, set your focus to auto, turn on burst mode, and fire away (while hoping that at least one shot turns out okay!).

Mountain areas can be quite dark so bump up your ISO

It can get pretty moody and foggy through the mountain areas, so bump up your ISO to add more light to your shot without sacrificing on that super speedy shutter setting from above.

Don’t be reckless to get ‘the shot’

In recent times, a couple of Instagrammers have been called out for recklessly hanging out of train doors for Instagram photos. Let’s be clear here: it is possible to hang out of trains in Sri Lanka (after all, we’ve done it ourselves!), and they do move pretty slow at times.

BUT.

There is a limit to pushing these boundaries responsibly and safety should always be your number one priority. Running along the tracks are all manner of potentially dangerous objects; branches, poles, wires, tunnels, etc, that - should they hit you as you hang backwards by a fingernail out a doorway - could cause serious damage and/or topple you out of the train.

So by all means, have some fun and dangle a limb here or there, hang your feet of the edge, lean out to feel the freedom of the road. But please, be acutely aware of your surroundings and don’t go endangering your life for a stupid photo for social media.

Travel responsibly on the Kandy to Ella train ride

In addition to not endangering the lives of yourself or your fellow passengers, there are a few responsible travel tips to keep in mind for your journey:

Be respectful | Please remember that this train ride is more than just a tourist hotspot in Sri Lanka; locals depend on this railway network for their everyday lives and livelihoods. Be mindful of that, and behave respectfully.

Don’t throw your trash out the window | This is something we saw too many times on the train ride, and it’s super disappointing to see. Try to minimise your trash, and for the love of god, take it off the train with you to dispose of properly.

Respect your reservation | If you’ve booked a specific ticket and seat, don’t go sitting in someone else’s seat or a different carriage just because it suits you.


Our Camera gear

Ask Mark and it’s all about Sony’s mirrorless beasts. Ask Mim, and it’s all about Canon’s well made, reliable DSLR’s. Regardless of our gear, we love photography and shooting in foreign destinations (click here to see what’s in our camera bag).

This is the photography gear we used to get all of our shots on the Kandy to Ella train ride (and all of Sri Lanka, too).

  • The Sony A7RII produces brilliant stills and video

  • The original stills beast which keeps going strong, the Canon 5D MKIII produces the best colours

  • The Canon 24-70mm is known as one of the best zoom lenses on the market; it's exceptionally sharp, small and lightweight, which makes it perfect for travel photography

  • The Canon 70-200mm f4 is our favourite lens, hands down. The image stabilisation works a treat, even on moving trains!

If you like our photography, be sure to follow us on Instagram, too.

Kandy to Ella train | everything you need to know
Kandy to Ella train | everything you need to know

The cultural capital of Sri Lanka | The best things to do in Kandy


Sightseeing along the Kandy to Ella train ride

While the train ride itself is a truly spectacular experience, there’s just as much to be seen off the tracks as there is on them. If you’re keen to break up your journey and add some sightseeing into the mix (which we totally recommend doing), here are the best places to add to your itinerary:

KANDY

Many travellers overlook Kandy as merely the gateway to the famous blue train and their hill country adventures , but the City of Kings is also Sri Lanka’s undisputed cultural capital, and worthy of at least one night’s stay. There are plenty of significant historic and religious sites, such as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, the Botanic Gardens, and the Kandy Lake, and it’s a great place to get better acquainted with the cultural side of Sri Lanka.

Read our essential guide to the best things to do in Kandy.

NUWARA ELIYA (NANU OUYA)

Nanu Ouya is the station for Nuwara Eliya; the gateway to the tea plantations and ‘Little England’. Once the favoured getaway for English and Scottish tea-growers seeking cooler climes, the area is dotted with old colonial villas and bungalows, as well as the most obvious relic of that time; the green tapestry of tea fields and vegetable gardens.

The Nanu Ouya to Haputale leg of the train ride is also by far the most scenic, through misty mountains and dense forest. If you only have time for a short train journey, prioritise this section right here.

HAPUTALE (LIPTON’S SEAT + HORTON PLAINS)

Haputale town itself isn’t a huge drawcard; a dusty, busy little town that seems to always be enveloped in traffic despite its size - but what Haputale lacks in urban delight it has in droves when it comes to natural surroundings.

Perched upon a craggy mountain ridge, this is the gateway to both Horton Plains National Park and the infamous Lipton Seat (where Sir Lipton sipped his tea and pondered his vast estates).

Read our guide to Ella and surrounds, including Lipton Seat

HATTON (ADAM’S PEAK)

Hatton is the gateway for most travellers en route to Adam’s Peak, one of Sri Lanka’s most stunning natural vistas as well as an important pilgrimage site. Adam’s Peak is revered by both Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike, and most Sri Lankans will undertake the pilgrimage to the top at least once in their lives.

Climbing Adam’s Peak involves scaling 5,500 stairs (yes, you read that right!), generally in the dark, to watch the sunrise over the peak. We timed our visit in 2016 for ‘new years eve’, and the spirituality and happiness felt at the top during that time was something we’ll remember forever.

NINE ARCH BRIDGE

Probably the second-most famous train-related activity in Sri Lanka, the Nine Arch bridge is a colonial-era train bridge spanning a lush green valley just outside of Ella town. This moody, insta-famous bridge is built entirely out of stone and is a pretty spectacular architectural feat - and a stunning one at that!

There are two ways to visit the bridge; either on the train, or by staying in Ella and hiking to the bridge itself to watch the train pass. For all the details, check out our full guide to the Nine Arch Bridge here.

Nine Arch Bridge, Best things to do in Sri Lanka

Explore the best of Sri Lanka | the best things to see and do in Sri Lanka


Essential trip planning information for Kandy and Ella

We’ve already written comprehensive travel guides for both Kandy and Ella, full of awesome things to do and essential travel information, but in the meantime here are some recommendations for hotels:

Where to stay in Kandy

HELGA’S FOLLY | Decorated whimsically with traditional Sri-Lankan artwork, this is a super unique place to stay. Prices and availability here

OZO KANDY | Sophisticated, chic, stylish - Ozo is a stunning, well located hotel with an epic rooftop pool. Prices and availability here

KANDY CITY VIEW | Where we spent three nights in Kandy. Simple, sizable rooms close to town. Prices and availability here

Where to stay in Ella

98 ACRES RESORT AND SPA | a chic-luxury hotel with amazing views set amongst the tea fields of Ella. Prices and availability here

CHILL VILLE VIEWPOINT HOTEL | good value hotel set amongst beautiful gardens close to the Nine Arch Bridge. Prices and availability here

ELLA ROHAMPTON HOTEL | great value for money close to town. Includes a delicious brekky. Prices and availability here


We hope this Kandy to Ella train ride (and Ella to Kandy train ride!) guide gives you all the information you need, but if we’ve missed anything, let us know in the comments!


Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? You’ll want to read these travel guides too!

 

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