Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting by the window of a train. A tea picker dressed in a colourful sari turns and waves. You hear the laughter of children, the chatter of passengers. Your nostrils pick up the scent of delicious deep fried lentil snacks and sweet tea. The train gently rocks as it rounds a bend, the comforting sound lulling you into a happy silence.
Sri Lanka’s Ella to Kandy train ride might just be one of the world’s greatest railway journeys!
In this travel tip, we’ll share:
• The best time to visit Sri Lanka
• How to get to Ella
• The best things to do in Ella
• How to get tickets for the Ella to Kandy train
• The best things to see on the Ella to Kandy train
When is the best time to visit Sri Lanka?
When planning a trip to Sri Lanka, the most important thing to consider is the timing of the two major monsoons, plus the inter-monsoonal period between:
- Yala monsoon: April-September rains in the west/south west coasts and the hill country (including Ella)
- Maha monsoon: November-March rains in the east coast.
- Inter-monsoonal: October/November heavy rainfall and thunderstorms can occur anywhere across the island.
So, for trips to the west/south coasts and importantly, this Ella to Kandy train journey starting in the hill country, the best time to visit is April, October and November.
What’s more, by travelling in shoulder and low seasons, you’ll help spread the impact of tourists and travellers on local destinations.
Check out our itinerary for 8 days in Sri Lanka.
How to get to Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean. So, the only viable way to get to Sri Lanka is by plane!
You’ll land at Bandaranaike International Airport, about 30km north of the capital Colombo. Be ready for a slow journey into Colombo city centre which can take over an hour.
Search for flights to Sri Lanka here.
How to get to Ella?
The beautifully-named town of Ella or ‘waterfall’ is situated about 200km east of Columbo in the district of Badulla. Surrounded by misty green hills, verdant tea plantations and striking waterfalls, Ella is just over 1000m above sea level, and has a cooler climate than the lowlands. It’s one of Sri Lanka’s best places to relax and enjoy nature.
Ella can be reached by road (bus, private car/van with driver, shared taxi/minibus) from a number of locations. You can also get the train from Colombo via Kandy if you want to do the train journey in reverse, but this is a long day’s train travel.
- Colombo – Ella: approx 5 hours by road; 327 km
- Galle/Mirissa – Ella: 3.5 hours by road; 200 km
- Uda Walawe National Park – Ella: 2 hours by road; 100 km
- Batticloa – Ella: 4.5 hours by road; 176km
- Colombo – Ella by public bus: c. 9 hours; take the bus heading to Badulla and get off at Kumbalwela junction. From here, it’s a short tuk-tuk or local bus ride to Ella.
- Uda Walawe – Ella by public bus: c. 3 hours. Take a bus from Uda Walawe to Thanamalwila then change for the bus to Ella. Some waiting time; ask for help to find the right bus.
Best things to do in Ella
There are plenty of great things to do in and around Ella, so this is just a taster of what’s to come if you spend a few days in this stunning spot.
• Walk to Ella Rock for views of Ella Gap and stunning countryside (3-4 hours round trip).
• Take photographs galore at iconic Nine Arch Bridge, an engineering feat not to be missed.
• Walk up to Little Adam’s Peak for views of Ella Rock and Ella Gap (2 hours round trip).
• Learn to cook Sri Lankan-style in one of the local cooking schools.
• Check out thundering Rawana Falls just out of town by tuk tuk on the road to Wellawaya.
Where to stay in Ella?
Two decent mid-range options include The Chillout, situated at the start of the trail to Little Adam’s Peak, just a short walk from the centre of Ella. Comfy rooms, a tasty breakfast and a large balcony for those views.
Even closer to the trailhead is the well-kept Ella Flower Garden Resort, with a range of well-appointed rooms and chalets to choose from with TV and terrace. Lovely gardens, great views and an on-site restaurant.
If you want to splash the cash and stay in the midst of neatly spaced tea bushes, you could try the 98 Acres Resort. You get modern luxurious rooms with swimming pool and in house spa plus fabulous views for you to enjoy over your breakfast.
Where to eat in Ella?
Ella has a number of good places to eat and drink. Indeed, you could say this is the closest you’ll get to a bit of (gentle) nightlife!
We particularly liked Adam’s Breeze, a down-to-earth, friendly place on the road to the trail to Little Adam’s Peak. Try the Kotthu Roti, curries and juices.
One of the nicest options on the main drag is Cafe Chill, which does everything from coffee to tasty local and Western dishes to a beer in the evening.
Lots of people eat their guest house or homestay, which is a great option for authentic Sri Lankan food. Let them know in advance if you want to eat.
How to get tickets for the Ella to Kandy train?
There are several options for securing your train tickets in Sri Lanka and it depends on how fixed your itinerary is and how relaxed you are about having a specific seat.
If you like to book ahead, one of the easiest ways to secure your preferred seat and class of carriage is to book with 12goAsia and pick up your tickets when you arrive in Colombo. You can only book tickets for 37 days or more in advance via this route.
If you are happy to make a decision when you arrive, you can buy tickets from any Sri Lankan train station up to 30 days before you travel, either in Colombo or another main station like Galle.
If you are totally relaxed, you can take your chance much closer to the time, either the day you arrive in Ella or even the day of departure. The 1st and 2nd class will most likely have sold out, but you can buy a third class ticket (either reserved if possible, or unreserved which are uncapped) and take your chances.
Which train class should I travel when in Sri Lanka?
We recommend travel in 2nd class reserved seats. We bought the tickets on arrival in Colombo about a week ahead, met local families travelling in 2nd class, had access to train vendors for snacks and didn’t have to stand, which meant we could enjoy the scenery and relax!
What are the train times for the Ella to Kandy train?
The first train in the morning from Ella leaves at 6.40am and arrives in Kandy just after 1pm. You could go for this option if you’re late to buy tickets and/or keen to see the most scenic part of the route in the early morning. Just beware the morning mist and fog, which might mean you don’t see what you were hoping for.
We would recommend the second departure at 9.24am, arriving in Kandy just before 4pm. The light was great during the most scenic section of the route from Ella through to Haputale and on to Nanu-Oya. There were plenty of food vendors on the train for a lunchtime snack and we arrived in Kandy at a perfect afternoon time to check in and get our bearings before sun set.
You can check more train times and options on the Sri Lankan Railways site.
What to look for on the Ella to Kandy train journey
There are around 20 stops in total between Ella and Kandy, but depending on your train, you won’t call at every stop. A full route map can be found here. You’ll either be on a blue or red train depending on the service you take. The journey should take around 7 hours barring any mechanical issues.
- Ella to Haputale | The first phase from Ella through to Haputale is particularly gorgeous, as you slowly move along the narrow ridge and through the misty hills and velvet blanket of green forest. Look out for landmarks like Ella Rock and the local waterfalls.
- Haputale to Nanu-Oya | From Haputale, you start to move into full-on tea plantation country. Keep your eyes peeled for tea factories and villages as you roll up to Nanu–Oya, the stop for famed Nuwara Eliya, the retreat for the colonial tea growers. Rolling tea meadows, well-tended gardens and an air of colonial grandeur abound. You’ll also see lots of the tea pickers in their colourful saris, working hard to get the best leaves
- Nanu-Oya to Hatton | The train then leisurely makes its way towards the tea capital of Hatton, traversing the stunning Horton’s Plains (close to the stop of Ohiya) on the way. Keep an eye out for Adam’s Peak amongst the views of wild grasslands, waterfalls and lakes.
- Hatton to Kandy | The section from Hatton to Kandy has fewer sights, but the views of misty green hill country remain dreamily pretty until you reach the outskirts of Kandy, when the buildings come into view and you rejoin bustling Sri Lankan life at its finest.
Top tips for the Ella to Kandy train journey
• Make sure you’re in the right spot for your carriage class on the station before the train goes (just ask the station master) and don’t be too polite when the train arrives, especially if you’re in 3rd class. Be firm and confident and snag your seats.
• Bring your own dry snacks and water to make sure you can graze for the length of the journey, especially the early stages if you didn’t manage to grab breakfast!
• Don’t be afraid to try out the street food sold on the train by experienced hawkers, such as delicious fried dhal balls or vadai (deep fried doughnut-shaped snacks), nuts and fruit.
• Remember to aim to sit on the left of the train coming from Ella and on the right if you’re starting your journey in Kandy. It’s also best to get your obligatory photo from the open door early on, as it gets much busier once you get towards Nanuoya.
• Enjoy the opportunity to take as many photos as you want, but don’t miss out on the experience of being on the train and enjoying the views for the pure joy of it!
• Store your backpacks and small bags in the overhead racks if you can. If you have larger cases, aim to get them in behind the last row if seats or tucked into the doorway.
• Be ready for the toilets. They are fine, but they will be squat toilets and you’ll need your own loo paper and trusty hand sanitiser!
• Respect the locals: Take the chance to interact with local families and those travelling on the train, but be respectful. If you want to take someone’s photo, ask politely and show them the results.
Time to Travel Better
To finish, close your eyes once more. Drop your shoulders. Breathe. Pause. Reflect. It’s time to slow down. To re-think travel. To travel better. What better place to start than Sri Lanka’s Ella to Kandy train ride – one of the greatest railway journeys in the world.
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Here are a few more Sri Lanka travel tips: