Sri Lanka’s Hill Country by Train

I love trains. I find them infinitely preferable to buses, especially in the Third World. Unfortunately, in many countries, notably much of India, train travel, while more comfortable than buses, is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. When I came to Sri Lanka, with its short distances and cheap first-class travel, I was agreeably surprised to rediscover how pleasant train journeys can be, and nowhere more so than on the line connecting Colombo with Kandy and the hill country beyond.

First of all, I must point out that the quality of the experience was entirely due to travelling in the lone first-class observation car at the end of the train.

I was in Sri Lanka during the April Sinhala New Year holidays, when the whole country is on the move, and already overloaded trains and buses become surreally crowded. I met a British woman who was on the same train that I was, from Kandy to Haputale; she got off partway, at Nuwara Eliya, because she could not see or move her feet, and could barely breathe amidst the throng in second class.

Peering out my window, I could see passengers hanging precariously out of the doors of the other carriages to escape the crush of humanity, being pulled back in to safety when we went through tunnels. In contrast, for relatively little money (200 rupees, or US$3.30, from Kandy to Haputale, and 360 rupees, or US$6, for the entire length of the railway from Badulla to Colombo), I was in soft, reclining, spacious seats and could spend my entire journey soaking up the views.

And what views they were! From Colombo to Kandy, the line runs first across flat jungle and rice paddies, then starts to climb into the first range of hills around Kandy, through native hardwood forest, dense and lush.

Rivers and grey stone cliffs pass by the window. Several beautiful rock formations and waterfalls are visible in the distance, and the oppressive humidity of Colombo starts to lift. By the time Peradeniya, the rail junction for Kandy’s short spur line, is reached, it’s noticeably cooler: the elevation is 500 metres above sea level, and a steady gain in elevation marks the start of the second level of the hill country.

From shortly after Kandy, the landscape changes dramatically. The train rounds a bend, and suddenly the vast tracts of native forest are gone. In their place stand plantations of pine, tall and stately eucalyptus trees and Sri Lanka’s best known export: tea. From this point on, the train line will rarely be out-of-sight of the dark green mottled patchwork of tea estates, spread across the hillsides like slightly worn felt.

The train winds its way slowly up a valley, curving in and out as it follows the contours of the land. A chorus of shrieks greets each of the numerous tunnels. There are occasional views of huge waterfalls cascading down the hillsides, and the Tamil women who pick the tea make a colourful contrast to the all-pervasive green.

The line climbs steadily to Hatton, then Nanu Oya, the station for the hill station of Nuwara Eliya. Adam’s Peak, a sharply-pointed triangle, juts up dramatically to the south; this is the most famous mountain to climb in Sri Lanka, and it is also an important Buddhist pilgrimage site.

By now the tracks run along the single high ridge that dominates the lower levels of hills. Passing Horton’s Plains National Park, the line reaches its apex of 1,891 metres above sea level, and passes through a forested stretch that’s too high for tea to grow. From here, the train descends gradually into the magical landscape around Haputale, then on to Ella and the end of the line at Badulla.

From Colombo the entire trip takes almost 11 hours, but it is probably more enjoyable to break up the journey some, to get off and take in the scenery. Kandy has the Temple of the Tooth, other Sinhalese cultural monuments, Kandyan dance and marvellous botanical gardens. Hatton is the jumping off point for Adam’s Peak. Nuwara Eliya offers a very English atmosphere, and Haputale is the base for visiting Horton’s Plains and World’s End, a beautiful high-altitude natural landscape, as well as Diyaluma Falls. Ella and Badulla both offer waterfalls and wonderful walks.

On the way back there’s a night train, but who wants to miss a chance to see this green and enchanting landscape again?

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