Sri Lanka's rail system was introduced by the British in 1864 to transport tea from the Hill Country estates to the international port at Colombo. Today, these scenic rail routes are some of the world's most magnificent and, with many trains and stations dating back to the early/mid-20th century, there's a wonderful sense of nostalgia, with polished teak and vintage ceiling fans taking you back to the colonial era.
Visitors and locals agree that the most scenic stretch of the Hill Country railway runs between the tourist hub of Ella in the south, and the cultural capital of Kandy further north. The journey can be made in either direction and completed in around six hours.
It's possible to simply turn up at the station before the train departs, and buy a second or third-class ticket but, for the best experience, book in advance for a seat in the Observation carriage, which has large viewing windows. Alternatively, choose the privately run Expo Rail or Rajadhani Express carriages, for added luxuries like air-con, all-inclusive meals. Some trains also give you access to an outside viewing carriage.
Ella to Hatton
Travelling south to north, I broke my journey up by stopping half way at Hatton. For the Ella to Hatton stretch I booked the Observation carriage and was thrilled to get a seat right at the back of the train, facing backwards out of a huge, cinema screen-sized window.
As we departed Ella I watched the steely tracks reel away as the train chugged slowly down the line. This train, like many others in Sri Lanka, wasn't super-speedy – don't come expecting an express ride. Instead, it's a chance to sit back and take in the stunning scenery as the carriages rattle and sway along the tracks.
Soon, Sri Lanka's lush rural landscapes burst into life. Exotic green trees hung over the tracks, grassy banks were dotted with violet-coloured flowers, and tall trees grew out of vivid red earth. As we climbed higher, clouds of mist rose above the greenery, pink and blue houses hung off the hillsides, little green cottages lay camouflaged by huge banana leaves, and Buddhist stupas punctuated each little settlement.
My view through the train's back window added an extra thrill, as there was no knowing what lay ahead. Luxurious forests would suddenly disappear into darkness as the train plunged into long tunnels; here, the clickedy-clack-clickedy-clack of the tracks would echo loudly and the smell of diesel would seep into the carriage.
Hill Country splendours
Along the route, we stopped at little towns where a few people would alight and new passengers would board. With the engine cut, the air would fill with the sounds of birdsong, the shouts of children in nearby schoolyards or, at one stop, the cheers of a local cricket match.
Each time we pulled away from a station, I watched through my enormous back window as the alighted passengers would hop off the platform and walk down the train tracks, holding colourful umbrellas over their heads to shield them from the hot sun or frequent rains often experienced up here in the hills.
The higher we climbed, the lusher the scenery became. To my right, rushing waterfalls splashed over rocky cliffs and trickled down towards the tracks while, to my left, tea terraces cascaded down the hillside where sari-wearing women plucked furiously at the leaves as if tapping at typewriters.
I could feel the air grow cooler and damper as we gained more altitude and, soon, the atmosphere turned almost alpine. Paper-like bark peeled off the tall trees and littered the tracks with golden curls while, after winding up through a deep valley, we climbed up to a breath-taking ridge that tracked above the clouds where I peered down on tea terraces and red-roofed houses. Eventually, we reached our summit – a high point marked by a sign stating that we'd reached 6226-feet.
After just over four hours on board, we arrived at Hatton station, where I hopped off and caught a bus to the village of Dalhousie to climb the sacred mountain of Adam's Peak at night – read more about this experience in my Adam's Peak post here.
Hatton to Kandy
The following morning, I returned to Hatton station to continue my journey to Kandy. Arriving minutes before the train departed, I bought a second-class ticket from the booth but, after peering into the crowded cart, I decided to sit in one of the open spaces between the carriages instead.
Here, the open doors give a great view of the passing scenery, and you'll often see locals dangling their legs out of the doors – apparently a safe way to travel, but I didn't fancy taking the risk myself.
Although not quite as spectacular as the Ella to Hatton stretch, the views outside were beautiful, with thick forests, verdant tea hills and pretty villages lining the route. But having rushed for the train that morning, my rumbling stomach was distracting me from the scenery.
Luckily, there was no shortage of snacks available on board, with food vendors plying their wares in the carriages – particularly in second and third classes – and displaying them outside the windows at each station stop.
The snacks on offer range from biscuits and milkshakes, to rice and curry or shell-on prawns. Once you've detected something you'd like, a quick wave or smile is enough to get a vendor's attention. Seeing as it was morning, I started with hot coffee from a huge thermos flask.
Sweet and watery, it's the sort of drink you'd throw down the sink back home but, travelling on a vintage train through the tea hills, it tasted wonderful. Next up were oranges – big, shiny and deliciously juicy – followed by deep fried wadi-wadi – a popular train snack of spicy chickpeas and curry leaves, shaped into a ball.
Enchanted by train travel
Arriving in Kandy, I'd enjoyed my two days of train travel so much, that I cancelled my plan to take a private car to Colombo at the end of my holiday, and booked the train instead. Considerably cheaper than a car or tuk-tuk and, in my opinion, more comfortable, I'd urge anyone visiting Sri Lanka to give the trains a go. And, as many-a guidebook or tour operator will advise you, if you only experience one train journey in Sri Lanka, it's simply got to be the stretch between Ella and Kandy.