Riding Trains in Sri Lanka
There was a while when my white noise was the clatter of Sri Lankan trains.
As I sat at quiet tables in hotels eating curry or attempted to clear my mind to sleep, all I could hear rattling in my ears was the repetitive sound of our rickety second-class train car rolling over colonial tracks, the swoop of air rushing past open windows, the cry of hawkers selling fried food and chocolate Milo.
“It’s about the journey, not the destination,” or so the saying goes. I don’t know how many people really believe that. Usually, the travel between-times are what I endure– the layovers, the buses, the metros– to get the place where I can finally put my bag down and explore unencumbered. But my three days through Sri Lanka’s tea country were specifically about the journey, not the destination. The only thing I wanted to do once I arrived in Sri Lanka was ride the trains.
It’s probably because it’s one of the few things I knew about Sri Lanka. Way back last March, as I sat in an empty hotel in Konya drinking red wine with Bridget, we watched GoPro videos she’d taken on her recent honeymoon in–surprise!–Sri Lanka. Those images of curving tracks and lush green scenery stuck with me. It was the first time I ever considered going to Sri Lanka, even if the impulse was fleeting.
When I got the opportunity to go to TBCAsia while in London, I had a day or two to decide if I would stay in Sri Lanka past the duration of the conference. I hadn’t done a drop of research about the country so it was almost impossible to decide how long I should stay… but I knew I wanted to ride those trains. I booked five extra days.
Becki, ever the willing travel companion, and I planned the first day of train-riding for the morning after the conference ended: an early bird departure and an eight-hour-long journey to Nurawa Eliya, a small town in tea country. I hadn’t taken into account that the conference’s after party would stretch into the night; I dragged myself away early and managed four hours of sleep before my alarm went off. Bleary-eyed and giddy, we took a tuk-tuk to the Colombo Fort Station and bought our dirt-cheap second class tickets.
Second class was definitely the right choice. I had actually already traveled first-class in Sri Lanka while on the TBCAsia trip, and though it was lovely—air-conditioned cars, a complimentary meal, a television showing recent movies—it wasn’t what I craved. I wanted to feel the wind in my hair and smell the lush green trees. In second class, ceiling fans whir sporadically, but otherwise the cool breeze comes from the open windows. It’s perfectly acceptable to stick your head out the window (cautiously!) and watch the tracks curve around mountains. As soon as the train pulled out of the station, I was entranced.
From the perch of a Sri Lankan train car, real-life looks like a movie. The journey is hours upon hours of cinematic lushness. The first half of the journey, from Colombo to Kandy, was gorgeous, with the overcast skies complementing the rolling green of the countryside.
But after Kandy, when our train car emptied out and we pushed onward to Nurawa Eliya, the truly breathtaking part of the trip began. The journey from Kandy to Nurawa Eliya far and away the most beautiful train ride I’ve ever taken, usurping from its first-place-ranking the train I rode from Sarajevo to Ploce, Croatia. The green tea hills were covered in fog and the train curved and twisted and every new view made me gasp. I burned through my film. I’ve never been so riveted by the view from a window.
By the time we arrived in Nurawa Eliya, we were completely beat. Intentions to explore were thwarted by our exhaustion and the unexpected chill of the air—Nurawa Eliya was the only place in Sri Lanka where I felt cold. The train journey makes Nurawa Eliya worth the whole stay, and the town itself is quiet and a good base for further explorations of tea plantations. The place has the feel of the English countryside, which perhaps isn’t so bizarre given its colonial history. We stayed at Cocoon Resorts and they gave us hot water bottles before bedtime, which is possibly the greatest hotel amenity I’ve ever received—I was cold, and tired, and all I wanted to do was curl into bed. The wifi was lousy, but it forced us to explore the gorgeous grounds and then to actually go to sleep. I thought the point of the journey would be the cities along the way, but in Nuraway Eliya I realized they were just resting stations between the true wonder of the train journey.
It resumed the next morning. We retraced our steps, going backwards to Kandy, which gave us the splendid opportunity to experience the most beautiful part of the train journey again. This day, though, the fog and gray were replaced with blue skies and sunshine, which made the whole scene wildly different. The train bends through mountains and cuts through tunnels, and its necessary to stay aware so you can pull your head or hand back inside the train. I loved it; staring out the window might seem like a passive activity, but I have never watched scenery roll by so actively.
Any plans we had in Kandy were immediately revised due to unexpected rain and the impending darkness of evening, though we did manage to find some hole-in-the-wall curry place that served homemade food so spicy that I almost cried with joy. Afterwards, we retreated to our top floor room at the Amaara Sky Hotel, with its stunning overview of Kandy. The sunrise should have been splendid from this room, and I dutifully set my alarm for 5am—why waste such a view?!—but at the appointed hour, the rain and clouds still lingered. However, at sunrise, a persistent chanting begins. This is a Buddhist tradition. Kandy is the home of the Temple of the Tooth which is purported to hold the tooth of Buddha, so it made sense that sunrise would be greeted traditionally. The chanting combined with the sound of the rushing rain gave us a gorgeously eerie morning view of Kandy.
We left early again, for we had to be back in Colombo with enough time to catch our transfer to the Galle Jazz Festival. Though we bought our usual second-class tickets, we accidentally ended up smooshed in third. Luckily, we had seats, but there was barely room for us and our backpacks, and the sweaty heat was barely offset by the open windows. No matter. It was the last piece of the Sri Lanka train experience, and the people we sat next to were friendly and laughing. The green landscape rolling by the window still revealed new wonders, but this time I was content to sit back and let the rumbling train cars lull me to sleep.
I visited Sri Lanka as part of the TBCAsia conference, thanks to Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts and Sri Lankan Airlines, as well as the Professional Travel Blogger Association. This train journey was not part of the conference, but my stays in Nurawa Eliya and Kandy were thanks to Cocoon Resorts and Amaara Sky Hotel, respectively. All opinions are my own, naturally.