If you’re thinking of doing Sri Lanka’s scenic train route, you’ve definitely come to the right place! To sum Sri Lanka up in a coconut shell, it’s pretty much the most perfect little island country to take a scenic train route around. Train tickets only cost a couple dollars, if that, and it doesn’t even matter if you have your own seat, because hanging out of the doorways is way more fun!
The train routes run through local villages bustling with people, along endless hillsides of tea plantations, and even along Sri Lanka’s sandy beaches!
Actually, to be completely honest, there are pricey tours that “take you” on the known “Sri Lanka scenic train route” which goes from Kandy to Ella, but it’s super easy to do on your own! Plus there’s a lot of places to see in between those two popular towns, so doing it on your own time will give you the option to hop off!
Oh, and another thing! I found Sri Lanka to be very safe, and very catering to travelers. Locals are friendly, and interested to know where you’re from, and you’ll see on the trains that everyone is trusting enough to keep their luggage or backpacks overhead or on the floor! The trains do get quite crowded, in fact I had to sit on my luggage for a couple of long rides, but it really wasn’t bad, especially since I was sitting next to the open door!
Below you’ll find the scenic train route I kind of created as I went during my 2 weeks in Sri Lanka, but you can adjust it on your own, and use the resources to add in other destination. I’ll also list some places that seemed cool but I didn’t have time to go to at the end!
Also, if you want to stay connected in Sri Lanka, including most portions of the scenic train routes, check out the portable wifi and unlimited data hotspot that I use called Skyroam!
Options: Travel an hour South to see Colombo; Stay the night in Negombo; Immediately start your journey to Pinnawala
When you book your flight to Sri Lanka, it will say that you’re flying into Colombo, but really you’re flying into Negombo, which is an hour north of Colombo’s city center. If you want to see Colombo, go for it, but I didn’t really find it particularly enthralling compared to the rest of the areas of Sri Lanka that I experienced. To get down to Colombo, you can either take the local train (cheapest), a rickshaw if your luggage is small enough (second cheapest), an Uber if you can find one, or a taxi.
I would recommend stopping in Colombo last though, as it’s a good base to stay in before your flight out of Sri Lanka. Also because if you follow my little scenic train route, it makes more sense to just get going to the next destination as soon as you arrive.
I arrived in Sri Lanka late at night due to a little mishap in my flight bookings, and booked a hotel last minute in Pinnawala on Booking.com which got me an extra discount. I didn’t know much about the area, other than that’s where Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was and that I HAD to see the elephants. So, I figured staying the night there and waking up early AF to be the first person to see them was a genius idea.
It was a MEGA genius idea. Why? Because the majority of people who go to see Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage do day trips from Kandy or Colombo, and never stay the night. AKA I actually saved money, and got a VIP seating area! I knew the elephants were brought to the river that my hotel was on twice a day, but I didn’t know some are brought earlier than others. That meant I got to WAKE UP to them with no one else there! So for that reason, I’d highly recommend staying a night at one of the river hotels in Pinnawala before hoping back on your scenic train route!
-Train: From the Negombo Train Station, take the Colombo Communter ($1-2 USD, leaves hourly) south to the Ragama Train Station, where you’ll need to switch to the Express Train ($1-2, leaves 4 times a day so check the schedule), which you’ll take to Rambukkana Train Station.
-Uber: I actually got super lucky and was able to snag one of the like, only Ubers on the whole island from the airport (I arrived late at night, so taking the train wasn’t an option). It costed about $30, and took only about 1 hour 45 minutes rather than the 3 hour train ride. If you happen to find an Uber driver, make sure you keep their information!
-Taxi: Taxis are the most expensive, but also easiest to arrange since they have tourism companies in booths lined up right as you exit the arrival area. You can even have a company give you an exact price to pay for the trip, just make sure you let them know you only want that one ride. Otherwise they’ll try to sell you an entire tour. You can probably expect to pay between $45-60 for the ride to Pinnawala in a taxi.
The only downside about this stop is that you’ll also get a front row view of how the elephants are treated. As much as I was hoping to get there and see free roaming elephants, the reality was that they were marched from the orphanage to the river twice a day, usually with chains on their ankles and the keepers riding on their heads. I’m not an elephant expert, but I also didn’t think it was necessary for the keepers to scrub them down twice a day.
In fact, it looked like it was pretty stressful for them to lay down and get scrubbed with brushes. It was also hard for me to watch the keepers demand money from all of the tourists to feed the elephants bananas and take photos with them. I wrote my full opinion and more information about the “orphanage” in the link below if you’re interested in reading more…
For full details about Pinnawala and my opinion on the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, see: How to Wake Up to Elephants in Sri Lanka for Less Than $50
Kandy isn’t too far from Pinnawala, and in my opinion, it also isn’t terribly exciting. I say that mostly because I’m not a fan of places that turn too much into tourist-centered destinations, where there’s constantly something trying to be sold to you, and you feel more like you’re at a foreign amusement park than a local city.
I did get extremely lucky with timing, and got to catch the biggest cultural festival in the world (and also get trapped inside of it for 6 hours) called the Kandy Esala Perahera which was pretty incredible, but other than that the main sites to see are the Kandy Lake, and the Temple of the Tooth.
-Train: Take the Express Train from Rambukkana ($1, departs 3 times per day) to Kandy Station (about 1 hour).
-Rickshaw: As I was getting a rickshaw to take me to the train station, he somehow talked me into just driving me since it was a holiday and the trains were likely to be packed. I thought it would be fun since it’s all open, and I was able to bargain the 1 hour ride (with my luggage) for about $18.
I again found a last minute deal on Booking called the Jasmine Villa Homestay which was actually a room in a guest house up in the hills that overlook the city. It was cute, but a bit far, so if you’re only staying for the night I’d recommend something closer to the city/train station.
Kandy is the official starting point of the known Sri Lanka scenic train route, so you’ll probably see a difference in the trains and people riding them once you board. Get a second class ticket just because it’s less crowded, but don’t bother with any of the first class AC cabin options because you’ll want to hang out the windows and doors anyway.
The first hour or so is mostly through towns and stuff, but the second half of the journey is all through lush green hillsides and tea plantations! That being said, be sure to take the trains during the day when it’s light out!
– Station: Kandy Station
– Times: 3:30am, 8:47am, 11:10am, 5:00pm (*Note: times may change, so it’s best to check the boards at the station beforehand)
– Cost: Between $3-10 depending if you want a sleeper/aircon train or a regular one (I did 2nd class for $5 and hung my feet out of the door)
– Time: 4 hours (to Nuwara Eliya)
Get more information on the different seat class options and additional train stops/times from this helpful post by Seat61: A Beginner’s Guide to Train Travel in Sri Lanka
Talawakelle isn’t a town many people stop in. In fact, there are only two options for accommodation there, BUT, there are also two really cool waterfalls! To be completely honest, the reason why I ended up in this town was because I accidentally knocked my friend’s iPhone off the moving train with my GoPro pole, so after riding the train all the way to Nuwara Eliya 45 minutes later we had to take a rickshaw all the way back so he could look for it (somehow a local found it, found him, and gave it back), and since it was getting late we just stayed the night.
It turned out to be a great idea since two of the biggest waterfalls that are “recommended to see in Nuwara Eliya” are actually in Talawakele! That being said, you can jump off the train at the Talawakele station, stay the night, wake up early to see the waterfalls (hire a rickshaw for the day), stop at the Tea Palace, then have your driver just bring you to Nuwara Eliya! There’s only two options for accommodation, but the one I stayed at was called Talawakele Rest House.
– Station: Talawakelle Station
– Waterfalls: Devon Falls, St. Claire Falls
For Devon Falls: Have your rickshaw driver take you to the “temple entrance”; it’s closer to the falls than the “scenic viewpoint” even though you can only go as far as the private temple at the end of it. From the entrance you’ll hike down steps and a winding pathway to a little old privately-owned temple, which is the closest view you can get. Someone actually lives there so be sure to take off your shoes, be respectful, and leave them a donation!
For St. Claire Falls: Again you can only really see it from the viewpoint since it’s situated in the middle of tea fields, BUT! If you’re nice and friendly to the locals and your rickshaw driver, you can hike down the steep, dirt pathways in between the tea plants to a rock ledge that gives you a closer view of the wide, awesome waterfall!
TIP: Invest in a destruction-proof phone case like the Nuud Lifeproof Case and a finger strap to avoid losing your phone on a moving train. If you do happen to lose something off a moving train, try to go back to the station closest to where it happened, and ask the locals working there; apparently it’s a known thing that people actually return lost items there!
Nuwara Eliya reminds me of a sparkling green emerald or something. Locals refer to it as “The Hills”, which is appropriate since it’s nestled in the tea-leaf covered hills of many plantations, and the much-cooler climate just gives it an overall refreshing feel. In fact, Nuwara Eliya is so much cooler than the rest of Sri Lanka, that you’ll see many street vendors selling cheap jackets and winter wear! It was actually really cold, especially at night!
– Train Station: Nanuoya Station (in Nuwara Eliya)
Tea Factories: The most popular tea plantation there is called Pedro Tea Factory, and it’s pretty to see, plus you can chat with the tea pickers (just be sure to tip them!) however the people running the tours and tasting room were pretty rude and seemed like they just wanted our money. We just walked through the tea field instead of doing the tour, then walked back out to the main road to haggle with a rickshaw driver to take us up to Lover’s Leap Waterfall.
Lover’s Leap Waterfall: You can hike up to it if you’re a big fan of hiking…but if you’re not, or you’re limited on time and hiking shoes like we were, you can haggle with a rickshaw driver to drive you up to it, wait for you to hike the walking part to it and back, then bring you back down. It’s an easy hike once you get to the top of it, and there are lots of massive flat rocks for you to sit or lay on and enjoy the view of the waterfall. It’s not a ton of water flow-age, but the rock wall it flows down is what makes it stand out. You can also opt to do the vertical path climb up to the rock that juts out in the center of it like I did…just be careful and whatnot.
Strawberry Field & Food: On your way back to town from Lover’s Leap waterfall, ask your rickshaw driver to take you to the Strawberry shop near Lake Gregory. It’s not a massive strawberry field like there are in areas farther away from the main area (we were running low on time), but it literally had THE BEST strawberry icecream crepes, and strawberry milkshake that I’ve ever tasted in my whole entire life!!!
City Center: There’s a small city center that consists of one main street where there are several shops selling sarees, western clothes, winter clothes, jewelry, spices, and a few restaurants and food shops. There is one supermarket, which coincidentally is in front of the local fresh market that’s somewhat hidden on a narrow dirt road behind the building. There’s also a couple of food places that were good there, but the pizza place was absolute crap.
If you want a drink, there’s a bar a block or so away next to the Windsor, but it only serves beer, and the Windsor itself serves drinks and food which are pretty reasonably priced. I actually stayed two nights at that hotel because it was closer to everything than where I stayed the first night at Princess Bungalows.
This stretch of the Sri Lanka scenic train route is also incredibly scenic, especially since it crosses over several cool bridges and rivers. You’ll definitely notice that the majority of passengers are travelers, which is cool, but also a little meh, because unlike locals who will always make space for one more person, the travelers tend to stake their ground and try to claim as much space as possible rather than let more people pack in. Don’t be like that. It’s not cool.
– Station: Nanuoya Station to Ella Station
– Times: 3:11am, 9:30am, 12:45pm, 3:01pm, 3:55pm (Check at the station for updates)
– Cost: $3-7
– Time: 3 hours
Tip: Backpacks are great and all, but I had no problem using my hard-shell carry-on sized roller while traveling around, and I found that it took up less space than a backpack, put less stress on my back and shoulders, AND always doubled as a seat when all of the ones on the train were taken! For tips on how I pack my carry-on, check out: How to Pack 1 Carry On for 3 Countries
Everyone who got off at the Ella station was a traveler. Probably because Ella is a town in the middle of nature that was basically built to cater to travelers. I didn’t experience any other area of Sri Lanka that was so similar to what I’m used to in westernized areas, and although it gave me no sense of the culture, it was honestly a nice break from all of the traveling.
Station: Ella Station
I’d recommend renting a motorbike to get around, especially if you want to go see Rawana Cave, Ravana Falls (which is usually packed with people, including locals who bathe there), and the stunning views from Little Adam’s Peak. You can actually drive the motorbike almost to the top of the mountain/hill that Little Adam’s Peak is on, then hike for only 15minutes more to the very top.
There are several really good restaurants (all of which have wifi), and one really massive popular one called Chill that everyone seems to go to, and that had really good food and drinks. The hotel I stayed at was The Tenth Hotel, which was nice, new, and had an awesome view of Ella Rock, and was reasonably priced although I thought it was a lot cheaper since I accidentally booked it in the wrong currency.
You don’t have to ride the fancy train back, nor do you have to go straight back to Colombo. I wanted to continue on to the South shore of Sri Lanka or take a bus to another National Park with wild elephants, but I didn’t have time, and also the transportation options were limited. So I opted for the fancy train so that I could have a comfortable seat, clean bathroom, my own table to work from, a power outlet for my laptop, lunch included (but not dinner so bring snacks), and a bar…which only had beer.
There’s only 24 seats in the fancy train car, so it’s relatively quiet, and definitely not crowded. The last stop is Colombo Station, so you might have to either switch trains if you get in in time to take one, or take an Uber or rickshaw to wherever you’re staying for the night. If you get in at night, you might as well stay the night, otherwise you won’t be able to even see the beach during the train ride. I did another last minute random booking on booking.com that was the cheapest/most decent place nearby, and just got up early to take the train the next day.
Train: Veceroy II Carriage from Kandy Station to Colombo Fort
Times: 6:39am, 9:23am, 10:56am, 12:04pm, 6:55pm (*Book your train ticket at least a day in advance because seats are limited!)
Cost: $27 (Includes a reserved seat in the fancy AC cabin, and lunch)
Time: 10 hours
Where to get tickets: You must get reserved tickets at least a day in advance, and you can get them at T-Sips in town.
One last thing that I wanted to do in Sri Lanka, was go see the beach, and especially ride the local train along the coast to get there. The train literally runs just a few feet from the shore in a few places, and also passes over a few cool lakes and rivers as well. There’s also a portion that runs through the local towns, and gets so close to the houses that you think you’re going to hit them! This is a local train so the majority of people on it will be locals, and depending on what time you go, there’s a chance that it will be extremely crowded (think of it as rush hour times).
Station: Colombo Fort
Train Times: 6:55am, 8:35am, 10:30am, 2:25pm, 3:50pm, 4:46pm, 5:25pm, 5:30pm, 6:05pm, 6:55pm, 7:30pm
Time: 2 hours
Best things to see/do:
Just before Induruwa is a beach town called Bentota, which consists mostly of ocean front resorts, with lots of beach activities for sale, and shops on the streets. It’s popular for its bazaars and markets as well, where you can find souvenirs and antiques.
Induruwa is further south, and is a lot less touristy then Bentota. There aren’t a ton of massive resorts, just a couple that have cool laid-back seating on the beach for food and drinks. There are budget accommodation options, but to be completely honest again, I was invited to Induruwa to check out a boutique resort called Cocoon Hotels and Villas, which is tucked back in the jungle-ey area of Induruwa, just a few minutes from the actual beach.
Cocoon is actually a really good word to describe the place, because it’s like its own little pod of an area that you feel safe to run around in and not have to worry about getting lost or knowing where things are. It was transformed into a resort and villas from an actual mansion, which is now the main area of the property where the restaurant and bar area is. The pool is beautiful, with a massive high-tech waterfall that splashes down into it, and there’s tons of tropical palm trees everywhere to give it that tropical vacation vibe.
We were given one of the basic rooms to stay in, which was fairly big (each has it’s own floor and there are only two per structure), and had a nice wrap-around deck, and massive bathroom. The whole place had a bit of Indian flare, which gave it that exotic, secluded vacation vibe that’s great for travelers wanted to disconnect.
I didn’t get to try much of the food at Cocoon other than breakfast, but they did recommend a restaurant at another hotel on the beach which had insanely good dinner and fresh seafood. I had a delicious grilled prawn skewer there, and would have had a nice glass of wine except when I went it was a full moon, and alcohol is not allowed to be served on full moons.
Cocoon did offer free bicycles to ride, which we took to the beach, and to a little turtle conservation that was across the street which had baby sea turtles and a few large rescues. There was also supposedly a cool cinnamon field and factory nearby but we never ended up hearing more information about it. So yeah, if you’re looking for a family resort, or a place to hideaway in privacy for a few days, Cocoon is a great option!
As I mentioned before, I got a complimentary stay there in order to review the property, so there’s my review and my disclaimer! 😉 The rest of my Sri Lanka trip was 100% paid for by me!
If you have any questions about the Sri Lanka scenic train route, please leave them in the comments below so I can answer them publicly in case someone else has the same question! And as always, please feel free to share photos from your trip!
Collapsable Water-Resistant Backpack Scrubba washbag/drybag
Go-strap (so you don’t drop it) LifeProof Case
Natural Sunscreen Natural Bug Spray
Travel Towl (Quick drying) Self-filtering Water Bottles
GoPro Hero 4 Black (waterproof) GoPro Hero 4 Session (waterproof)
Tri-pod selfie stick pole Memory card for GoPros