It was our first time in Sri Lanka and instead of dipping our feet slowly into this tropical paradise of a country, we decide to dive head first in the deep end. See, we had heard wonders about traveling Sri Lanka by train and wanted a taste of that as soon as we landed. To experience the way locals do it while seeing as much of the country as quickly as possible.
Having arrived pretty late around midnight and reaching our hotel at 2 am, we only had a few hours till we had to catch the train to our first proper destination – Polonnaruwa. We used the time wisely by checking-in to a basic backpacker hostel and catching a quick shut eye – a power nap to supercharge us for what was ahead.
Catching the train
Full of anxiety, we got up well in advance of our departure and reached Colombo Fort station. When we reached, the station was packed with locals and few foreigners scampering about. It was a real hustle and bustle atmosphere. We knew we weren't going to get first class tickets as they sell out fast, something we knew by taking some advice from other travel bloggers and reading online resources such as seat61.
Yet, it was still all quite overwhelming.
We entered a room where our Tuk Tuk driver directed us to. We looked like two lost seals at sea ready to be picked up by hungry sharks. Sure enough, a man appeared from the corner and asked us where we wanted to go. We took his lead as he maneuvered through crowds of locals to get us to the right counter and managed to get us the ticket without us even lifting a finger.
He stuck with us and took us through the gates, over the stairs, to our platform and even helped us get on board the train. In between he would disappear and reappear out of thin air but he was always there at the right time, if we needed him or not. All it took was an extra 1,000 LKR, which he never demanded but gave that silent, patient look the end, right after he made sure we were in our seats. Perhaps he wasn't a shark but rather an opportunistic fox.
The journey begins with an apocalyptic horn and crashing of metals that launches the train into a moving frenzy. It starts out really slow and you wonder how will you ever reach your destination?
But don't let that fool you because things really speed up soon after. The train becomes an unstoppable beast, rushing through the winds as you pass cities, towns, villages and even open rice fields as far as the eyes can see.
Note: this is the scenic route we took between Colombo to Polonnaruwa (a 6-hour journey). There are even more beautiful ones such as the picturesque mountain views between Colombo – Kandy and Kandy – Ella or the stunning coastal sights between of the Southern line between Colombo to Matara. You could spend months exploring Sri Lanka through its vast network of railways.
We were quite amazed at the scenic views from the train that we often miss while traveling by bus or car, even though it all passes by in a fleeting moment. So quick, we often could not keep up in taking pictures of the changing landscape and passing towns. We could only appreciate the view.
As we continued to charge down the railway, the roaring sounds of the engine and tracks banging against the train rails didn't seem to take away from the scenic beauty. And when we were bored at gazing out the window, we'd indulge on some delicious, albeit greasy local snacks that were sold by mobile vendors who would make their up and down the train barrels. The smell of onions and spices would fill the cabins, making us either more hungry or nauseous.
Other times, we'd share smiles with passing locals or a light conversation with a seated neighbor. We got the pleasure to talk to a local Sri Lankan who apparently travels for 16+ hours by train every weekend for work. Quite impressive, we thought but to him it's all in a day's work.
The sights, sounds and smells while traveling on the train are simply magical as they come together to form a memorable cultural experience and adventure. For the locals, however, it's an everyday life – a routine reality.
3 Must-do things to do on the train
To really have the best experience of discovering Sri Lanka by train, here are a few things to note or try.
- If you're in the second or third class seaters, you have to try out the local snacks that comes through
- Stand by the doors and enjoy the view as the wind blows through your hair
- Strike up a conversation with a local
An extra tip: always ask locals about schedule of the trains as they are always more than willing to help. Sri Lankans are such friendly, amazing people. Also if you want to travel 1st class, you have to book in advance, which you can do at Expo Rail or buy them directly at the station counters. Again, just ask the locals.
Truly, traveling through Sri Lanka by train is one of the most fun, eco-friendly interesting thing we have ever done and sure you would also love traveling Sri Lanka by train as we did. It's really not as overwhelming as you might think.