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My Sri Lankan rail adventure - part I: From frantic Colombo to the Kingdom of Kandy

Colombo is frantic, suffocating, blistering hot. Like in any true Asian city, colourful contrasts are sharp and they are everywhere. In our expensive air-conditioned car, we sail past the rambling slums, where stallholders shout out from under their plastic awnings, and brake - sharply - to avoid hitting the barefoot woman chasing a flock of chickens down the congested highway. A man on homemade crutches bangs on the car window, as tuk tuks and tinted 4x4s weave past him, fumes billowing from their exhausts.

Colombo under construction.

Soon after, we hit the Sri Lankan capital's business district, where men in business dress stride purposefully outside the high-rise hotels that dominate the skyline, and our driver points out the expansive white walls of the presidential palace with more than a little disdain in his voice.

A man with a megaphone rallies a crowd against "neoliberal imperialism" just a few metres away from where the new Chinese port is being constructed in the sea, cranes hovering over the scene. A woman on a ladder polishes security cameras ahead of the Labour Day protests that will take place the next day. Our driver turns to us.

"Tomorrow is a very bad day to travel in Sri Lanka."

He says, concern etched across his face, and again:

"A very bad day."

After a long journey, this was not the news we wanted to hear.

He'd been enquiring as to our plans, and we'd set out our itinerary. One night in Colombo, then straight on the train to Kandy for a couple of nights, before another train to Ella - where we'd spend time hiking - and then down to the south coast, probably. If the weather didn't hold up we'd consider the east coast instead. We'd booked little accommodation and had no concrete plans.

Colombo to Kandy - 5 facts.

This was great news to our driver, who immediately embarked on a one-man marketing campaign to sell his friends' tour guide services to us. We somehow made it out of the car with just a business card and a soon-to-be-broken promise to call him the next day.

Inside our beachfront hotel, the story was much the same. Shaking his head, the hotel owner warned that the next day's protests would cause gridlock in the city. We should put off our travels up to Kandy if possible, or at least allow three hours to get to the train station, usually a 15-minute drive away.

Setting aside our travel concerns, we asked where we could find some food after our long journey, and our host proudly directed us to a Burger King, a McDonalds and a Subway - all newly built in the expensive end of town. Ignoring his advice, we set off in search of a Sri Lankan curry and a frosty beer, only to be sadly disappointed. During our hour-long walk in the stifling evening heat, we found only Western fast food joints, and absolutely nowhere we could buy alcohol. Even the supermarkets were dry. We concluded that we were just in the wrong part of town, and resigned ourselves to eating at the hotel, where the chef was off sick but the concierge managed to rustle us up some Pad Thai and a couple of local Lion beers. Little did we know, the hunt for alcohol by two thirsty Brits would be a common theme of our time in Sri Lanka.

A train passing along the coast of Colombo.

We woke up the next morning, fresh from that special sort of deep sleep you only get after a long-haul journey, to a loud clanking sound. Dashing out onto our balcony, we observed a rusty maroon train chugging along the coast, just out of reach of the waves. The creaking British carriages were crammed full of passengers, their heads pushed out of the open windows and their legs dangling from the doors. This was our introduction to Sri Lankan rail, and it was one of those rare times in travel where the reality is exactly how you pictured it in your mind. With a bit of luck, we'd be on a similar train in just a couple of hours. But first it was time for a sweltering walk in search of a McDonald's breakfast!

The railroad to Kandy

After the ominous warnings bestowed upon us the previous day, we were surprised to reach the train station via tuk tuk with minimal disruption. At the urging of all the advice we'd read, we'd booked our rail tickets online a few weeks before in order to secure the much-sought-after "observation class" tickets. We struggled through the narrow doors of the booking office with our giant backpacks, and joined the back of the queue. Upon first observation, the tiled room was rustic and charming, with hand written signs dangling on strings, Victorian clocks ticking overhead, and bulky mechanical tills dinging on the polished wooden counters with every transaction. However, after 45 minutes of waiting in the sweltering heat, the magic had worn off somewhat, and the man behind us was standing much too close for comfort. When we finally reached the front of the queue and the cashier looked at our reservation and incredulously exclaimed:


We were slightly annoyed with ourselves to say the least.

The 1st class observation carriage on the Colombo to Kandy train.

The train was everything we'd dreamed it would be. Deep red, with hand-painted gold lettering stencilled on each carriage; even in the midst of tropical Sri Lanka, the sight of these diesel locomotives transported us back to olden day Britain, and the storybooks of our childhoods. The railways were originally set up by the British in 1864, with the purpose of transporting tea and coffee from the hill country to Colombo. Sri Lanka Railways may have installed air conditioning and reclining seats, but it's still easy to imagine these same carriages transporting wealthy colonial-era Brits to the cooler climes and plantations of the hill country.

We boarded the carriage with the bold '1' on the side, and entered a cool, air-conditioned compartment with two huge windows stuck on the very back of the train, from which to view the countryside. There were a couple of Sri Lankan families sat near us, but these seats were mainly populated by travellers like us.

Lush scenery and communities that live by the train line.

The train set off and we quickly left the urban sprawl of Colombo behind. As we chugged gently into the countryside, the train passed clusters of rustic wooden huts, washing lines strung up between trees as bonfires crackled nearby, inhabitants shading their eyes from the strong sun. The greenery on this journey was like nothing I'd ever seen before: dewy fields of long grass, forests thick with fir trees, tea pickers moving among the manicured bushes of plantations, and neverending palm trees; the verdant view punctuated every so often by stretches of glassy paddy fields. We gleefully hung out of the open train door, enjoying the warm breeze and the gorgeous scenery, and every so often quickly withdrawing back into the compartment as the train passed through tunnels hewn out of stone. We spied some Sri Lankans with selfie sticks doing the same thing. It was absolutely the best train ride we'd ever experienced.

Hanging out of the train on the way to Kandy.

The Kingdom of Kandy: Temples, tea and teeth!

The train slowly pulled into Kandy roughly three hours after leaving Colombo, and it was clear it wasn't exactly the small hill country town I'd envisaged. The city was abuzz with labour day events: we sped past roads crammed with cars and tuk tuks, soldiers in fatigues directing traffic, and large crowds swarming around big screens and stages.

We hopped off the train and - after picking up some pricy rip-off Pringles - exited the station. We didn't get far before we were accosted by a group of men offering us transport. Tired from the journey, we went with the most insistent person in the group, who shepherded us into the back of a large white van. After navigating the busy city centre roads, we began to ascend into the hills where our hotel was located. Shops and houses lined the winding roads, even at their steepest points, and locals walked up and down the slopes with enviable ease. Almost at the top of the hill, we took a sharp turn onto a hidden dirt track, and proceeded to drive along that for an uncomfortable ten minutes - the driver complaining about his suspension - until reaching our verdant hideout.

Sunset at Kandy mountains.

The hotel, which consisted of cabins set in the leafy jungle, teeming with wildlife, was absolutely incredible - and the fact we saw no other guests during our stay there just added to the feeling that we were lost in the wilderness. Being so high in the hills, this was also a fantastic location at which to watch the dusky pink sun descend behind the horizon.

On the first morning we walked down to the large terrace area to be met by a huge breakfast: melon, banana, the native and somewhat pungent jackfruit, passion fruit, scrambled egg, toast, omelette, fruit juice and the obligatory pot of tea, served in an ornate tea pot. There were so many plates that the staff struggled to fit them all on the table. This would be the first of two weeks of these incredible breakfasts, and upon returning home we would reflect that Brits simply don't do spreads like Sri Lankans do.

The Temple of the Tooth from outside.

The monarchy of the Kingdom of Kandy was founded in the late 15th century. Fiercely independent from the rest of the country, Kandy was the final region of Sri Lanka to succumb to colonial rule, holding out until 1818, thanks to a combination of skillful diplomacy and mastery of its oft-impenetrable terrain. These days the city is a hotbed of religions and cultures, and boasts the iconic Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic: one of the most sacred Buddhist sites anywhere in the world.

This was our one day to explore Kandy, so we set straight out for the temple.

We got a tuk tuk back into town, with our driver trying to sell us a tour even as he careened around steep corners. At one junction he stopped abruptly and jumped out to grab a USB stick from a guy who was apparently waiting for him on the corner.

"My boss from my other job."

He offered, by way of explanation. He marched us into the train station so we could secure tickets for the next leg of our journey - the famously scenic route from Kandy to Ella, which is often dubbed one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. After some heated negotiating with the man behind the counter, he turned to us with a smirk and said:

"Third class tickets okay?"

Travelling third class certainly hadn't been the plan, but with the queue growing behind us, we felt pressured to assent, and left the station very apprehensive about the journey we'd take in two days.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Kandy Lake.

We were dropped off at Kandy Lake, which was built in 1807 at the request of the last King of Kandy. The lake was pretty, but so busy it was a little overwhelming. At that point I would have been surprised to learn that our day in Kandy would end up being both memorable and enjoyable.

As an experienced temple tourist, I had prepared extensively, and turned up to the temple in a long dress with a covering over my shoulders for good measure. My boyfriend Phil, however, had characteristically ignored my warnings, and approached the temple in shorts. Needless to say, I had the last laugh, as he was soon bedecked in a long lilac sarong at a steep cost of 2,000 LKR (around £10), and had to face the mirth of the security guy at the temple ("you look very beautiful") as we were finally granted access.

Lotus flowers in hand, we approached the temple - situated within the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy - where we handed in our shoes, and were soon approached by a tour guide. We had definitively agreed to avoid paying a guide to show us around the temple before we arrived, but his tenacity met with our British manners meant that he was soon showing us everything the temple had to offer.

In the the scared Temple of the Tooth: one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world.

The interior is gilded and colourful, with Buddhist flags strung from the many pillars, and monkeys swinging from the rafters. After entering, you're immediately faced with the ornate pagoda said to contain the relic itself. Floral offerings to Buddha are laid out on tables, and we gradually added our own to the displays as we progressed upwards through the temple. Outside there are peaceful gardens, sprawling trees that provide glorious pools of shade, and a glass structure with hundreds of candles burning inside.

The experience at the temple helped us to realise what a special and deeply religious city Kandy is, and it was also incredible that a place that felt so peaceful could be surrounded by so much chaos outside its walls.

The standard Sri Lankan tuk tuk tour of tea factories and spice gardens

We stepped back into the fray, looking for refreshment, and as we sipped Diet Coke at a tiny cafe, a tuk tuk driver sidled up to us. He offered us every tour and attraction available - from Sigiriya Rock to a "traditional Kandyan dance recital" that night. After we turned down all his offers, he threw his hands up in mock-exasperation and asked:

"Well, what CAN I do for you?"

Shortly afterwards, we found ourselves in his friend's tuk tuk about to take a tour.

On the way to a tea factory, the driver asked us if we'd ever been to China. He then talked at length about his side business selling shoes, and how he took regular trips to China to restock. We were quickly learning that Sri Lanka has something of a gig economy, with everyone we met having numerous income streams.

Being such a religious city, there were many monuments on our route, and at some of the Hindu ones, the driver would hop out of the tuk tuk to touch them, or just do a small bow in their direction as we were going past.

Tuk tuks waiting for passengers near Kandy.

I should take a second here to talk about the Sri Lankan tuk tuks. I've caught tuk tuks in congested Bangkok, and ridden motorbikes on the terrifying roads of Ho Chi Minh City, but never have I had a cross-city journey quite like the ones we experienced in Sri Lanka. The drivers hurtle at breakneck speed towards the smallest gaps in traffic, and by some form of magic, somehow squeeze their vehicles into the smallest spaces. These rides leave you somewhat shaken and choking on traffic fumes. As a bit of a thrillseeker, I quite enjoy the adrenaline rush, though there were a lot of times where my life quite literally flashed before my eyes - particularly when our driver was navigating Kandy while swigging the strong Arac spirit favoured by the nation's older generation.

Inside the tea factory.

Our first stop was a tea factory, which was fascinating and incredibly warm inside. We learnt about all the different forms of tea, got to see the archaic machines working away, enjoyed a cuppa with some of the traditional kithul sweetener, and came away with armfuls of colourful Kandyan tea.

Our driver then took us to a spice garden, where we learned a lot about the healing properties of various colourful plants - from pineapple to aloe vera. We were then herded into the gift shop where we felt obliged to buy some aloe vera for the steep price of £20.

"It had better work."

Phil grumbled as we left, and - sure enough - later in the trip it would prove a godsend when it came to treating our sunburn.

View of Sigiriya Rock from the outskirts of Kandy.

On the way back, our driver took us to a vantage point where he let us pose for pictures in the driving seat of his tuk tuk, and we could see the iconic Sigiriya Rock in the distance. This was an exciting moment because the next day we'd be getting a much closer look at this stunning natural feature. On a tour run by our driver's friend, of course.

Exhausted from our long day of sightseeing, we headed to The Empire Cafe in Kandy for an authentic Sri Lankan curry, but our requests for chilled beer were met with a:

"We don't serve alcohol here Sir."

Neither of us had ever been to a dry restaurant before, and this was the moment we realised we might struggle to find any alcoholic drinks in Sri Lanka. Our desire for beer was soon forgotten, however, when we were presented with a truly extensive and delicious dahl.

Sigiriya: Climbing the Lion's Rock

Sigiriya Rock.

The ancient Sigiriya Rock Fortress is striking, and the way it rises out of the surrounding landscape reminded me somewhat of Rio's Sugar Loaf. The 200-metre-high grey-brown rock is dramatically streaked with oranges and blacks, and as you approach it, its sheer size takes your breath away.

Beyond its sensational aesthetic, Sigiriya is also a deeply historical site, which is evidenced by the scars the people of ancient kingdoms and distant dynasties left on the rock face. Indeed, King Kasyapa chose it to be the capital of his new Kingdom of Kassapa all the way back in the fifth century. His palace was quickly constructed atop the rock, the sides decorated with frescoes, and the famous lion's gateway carved near the peak. It is also rumoured he installed an elephant-operated lift to save his friends from enduring a challenging climb every time they wanted to see him. After the King's death in 495AD, the capital and palace were abandoned, and the location was subsequently used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.

5 facts about Sigiriya Rock.

Whether it's due to Sigiriya's imposing presence, or its links to the past, there is no denying that this UNESCO World Heritage Site feels somewhat mystical.

Our guide had driven us the three hours from Kandy to Sigiriya, which is located near Dambulla in the Central Province, in an off-road jeep, which was a lot of fun to ride in. Half way there we stopped at a woodwork shop - despite our protests - where we were given a tour by a shop assistant, and subsequently disappointed him by buying only a keyring. However, once we arrived at the bottom of the rock, our guide peeled off - clearly keen not to do a tiring climb in the midday heat. Indeed, if I could change anything about our Sigiriya experience, we would have arrived much earlier in the morning, before the heat became so extreme.

The views while climbing Sigiriya Rock are incredible.

We set off up the stone staircases in the rock, admiring the view - which just got better and better as we climbed. We passed the colourful frescos and then the mirror wall - where art fans as far back as the eighth century had graffitied their lustful thoughts about the naked women depicted in the frescoes. After many, many more steps (despite a man halfway up promising us we were nearly there!) we reached the famous lion's paws, for which Sigiriya (roughly translated as "Lion's Rock") is named. There were many signs erected in this area warning visitors to be quiet so as not to anger the wasps that reside in the many nests dotted ominously around the rock. This worried me slightly - the last thing you want to do is attract hundreds of angry wasps when you're half way up the side of a massive rock, with no way of getting any medical attention.

The famous Lions gateway up Sigiriya Rock.

Then it was time to pass through the lion's paws and ascend the metal steps that take you right to the peak. We struggled up accompanied by a number of tiny monkeys that were running up and down the rock with ease.

By the time we reached the top we were boiling, relatively dehydrated and Phil had embarrassingly wrapped his sarong around his head as a makeshift sweatband. We bolted for the first tree we saw and - once sufficiently in the shade - surveyed our surroundings.

From the flat top of the rock, the view across the landscape is simply unparalleled. The tranquil water gardens, distant mountains and unending greenery come together for an epic panorama. Taking it all in as we meandered around the ruins of an ancient kingdom, it felt positively magical. At that moment I couldn't imagine a more stunning view.

The magical view from the Top of Sigiriya Rock.

Could anything improve on Sigiriya?

By this point in our trip, I was firmly in love with Sri Lanka - from the friendly people and delicious cuisine to the incredible landscape, I couldn't have imagined a more stunning country.

Next on our itinerary was Ella, which we would reach by the famously beautiful Kandy to Ella train journey. We had two treks planned for our time in the tranquil hill country town - but after Sigiriya would any view be an anti-climax? Would six hours in third class ruin the trip up to Ella? After an incredible introduction to Sri Lanka in Kandy, could it get any better? These were the questions we were asking ourselves as we hopped in a tuk tuk for a final bumpy ride down the steep hills of the Kandy countryside.

Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

Follow the adventures of a writer who decided to one day leave everything behind and go in a...

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