Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 3: Trains

Here is part three of my four-part public service announcement; my attempt to throw back into the blogosphere, that which has given me so much, pratical information given in an entertaining way, for those considering travel to the wondrous isle of Sri Lanka. Parts one and two, on food and buses, are here are here.

Trains, oh trains. There’s something undeniably appealing about train travel, at least I think so anyway. Maybe it’s a lifetime of using trains as an everyday form of transport, maybe it’s that trains don’t travel on roads so give a slightly different perspective, a different view? I don’t know, it’s definitely not Maybelline, but I find myself drawn to train travel and will use it over and above other forms if available and practical.

As in other former British colonies, a working train system is one of the (perhaps few) beneficial practical things to remain from Sri Lanka’s long colonial period (dating back to the Portuguese). We took a number of trains, riding in different classes and using a few different ways to get out tickets, so here’s our experience.

First are foremost, seat61.com is THE best source of information for travelling on trains in Sri Lanka (and many other Asian countries!).  Its wealth of information is encyclopedic! The Sri Lankan Railways website was also a good way to look up timetables and train options.

Colombo to Galle (on the Matara line); difficulty level: easy as.

Our first train ride and experience of the Sri Lankan railway system was on the popular southern coast line. You cannot book tickets, so, as seat61.com says, you turn up on the day one hour before the train leaves, buy a ticket, and get on.  

We were there a little earlier, using the intercity reservation system (discussed below) and, like clockwork, the counter I was standing at was suddenly ticket-operational at 9.30am, for the 10.30am train. The front of Colombo’s Fort station is open to the road, so you just walk along and find the counter(s) selling tickets for the line you want. I went to the counter selling ‘all classes’ tickets for the Matara line (closest to the road side), as I knew you could get unreserved tickets for both second and third classes. As I say, like clockwork, at 9.30am, the man on the other side of the counter, who seemed to be filling some kind of money change order and ignoring the world, suddenly looked at me, and it was all go.

“Two second class tickets for Galle please” (yes, it’s pronounced Gaul or Gaul-ey, or Gaul-er…it’s seems to be all and any; go with Gaul though).

“The 10.30 train?”

“Yes, thank you” (remember your manners).  

He told me the price, I gave him the money, he gave me the change and tickets and told me the platform to go to (platform 5). It was as easy as that, and two other railway workers made sure we were on the right platform, one as we were crossing the overbridge, and another who was working a train that stopped on our platform; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere: helpful!

So yes, it is a lolly scramble for seats on the Colombo-Matara line (and on any unreserved carriage ticket), and we were just plain lucky that the doors were very close to us when the train came to a full stop, so we were able to get seats on the left-hand side (which is not the coast side).  

But, actually, we were fine on this side, able to see both the sea and also the villages, towns and estuaries we passed alongside. Also, we found the patronage quite fluid throughout. At one point we were able to move over to the right hand side, and the group of Germans originally standing were able to sit down after not too long a time, as people got off the train at other stops.  

In terms of baggage, just find a space! We were able to, just, squeeze our backpacks into the overhead racks.

My advice, just enjoy it wherever you are perched. It’s not worth fighting over a seat/position unless you’ve never seen a (tropical) coastline. Also, those who boarded last, probably strategically so, and perched in the open doors, were evidently having a great time. In short: it’s fluid in unreserved, man.

…where the most annoying thing will likely be tourists and their damn heads!

Ella to Nanuoya to Kandy; difficulty level: we pre-booked.

This is the somewhat famed train ride through Sri Lanka’s glorious and picturesque hill country. We broke this up into two trips, pausing at Nanuoya to spend a few nights in Nuwara Eliya and do the Adam’s Peak pilgrimage.

You cannot currently book trains before you arrive into the country via Sri Lankan Railways’ website. I wanted to make sure we had reserved seats for these trains, and in second class too, so the carriages would have windows we could open (i.e. not an air-conditioned carriage). Therefore, I used a service recommended on seat61.com: Visit Sri Lanka Tours.

I followed the instructions there and it worked just as it said it would. I received an email with reservation numbers, which I took to the Ella train station, along with my passport, and got both printed out at the same time. It did cost more than double the normal in-Sri Lanka prices to use this service – paying via Paypal – but it was worth it to secure reserved seats in a carriage that was never going to be squashed, and no jostling for space and views with people standing.

The first leg, to Nanuoya, was an extremely pleasant experience. The seats in the observation saloon were very comfortable with plenty of leg space, and the carriage itself was very roomy, making it easy to get up and move about, go and see the views from the full-length windows at the end of the trains, and so on. The windows pull up, the breeze is delicious, and you can poke your heads (and cameras) in and out across the entire journey.

This journey starts with rolling tea country, which is truly picturesque, and you’ll like see loads of locals and tourists alike moving in and around the train tracks as you pass. The valleys and mountains you steam through will have you wanting to capture the moment at each new turn. Eventually, the scenery becomes a bit more forestry, before returning to more tea country as you get closer to Nanuoya. Without wanting to overhype it, it is the train journey you’ve read about, it’s well worth doing, and I think worth securing good seats for (at our Nuwara Eliya our fellow housemates had fought out the Kandy – Nanuoya leg in uneserved third, and it sounded like a pretty hideous experience overall; it’s all luck of the draw in third).

The second leg, onto the cultural capital of Kandy, picks up where the first leaves off: loads of luscious views, tea, tea and more tea, although it does become noticeably more tropical-looking again, as you descend into the area around Kandy. For this leg, we were on the newer Chinese-built blue trains, and the ride and carriage was just as spacious and comfortable.

Polonnaruwa to Batticoloa; difficulty level: easy as.

If you are going to go to Batti – and I’m not entirely convinced it’s visit-worthy; at least not yet – the train ride is a real joy, winding your way out to the coast through rice paddy country. I’m not too sure how typical our experience was, but we turned up at 9.30am, for the 10.20am train, sat inside the clean and quiet station until tickets became available (10am) and then bought third-class unreserved tickets.

Rather than packed to the brim, we enjoyed a truly breezy and leisurely ride in an almost empty carriage the entire way, sitting in the open doors, or otherwise watching the countryside pass us by. It was truly a pleasant ride, and redunkulous value at around one NZ dollar each.

Jaffna to Anuradhapura to Colombo; difficulty level: easy as

For our last trains, we again broke up the trip with a stop in Anuradhapura, the first ancient capital.  For these tickets, we went to the intercity reservations office at Colombo Fort Station when we first arrived in the country (counter 17; it’s actually an office), again following the instructions on seat61.com.  

Inside, there are different counters for different trains, and it is somewhat confusing, so what I would recommend is this: use the timetable feature on the Sri Lankan railways website to find the trains you want to take, write down the stations you want to travel between, the date you want to travel, and the train number and name (e.g. #4004; Anuradhapura to Colombo Fort; 25 January) and take this with you.  As trains do apparently sell out quickly, it is helpful to know what other trains are travelling on the day you wish to travel, the times and train numbers, so you can book alternatives if your first choices are not available.

We were lucky and got the ones we wanted, and the experience was pretty straight forward, as straightforward as it is ever going to be anyway in these cross-cultural, cross-lingua franca situations!

The north of the country is quite radically different, as I’ve written about elsewhere. The first leg of the train ride was essentially a repetition of what we saw on the bus ride north: a quite pleasant but sparse landscape; lots of rice paddies, very few people. Our train, which was going all the way to Colombo, was quite empty all the way (I suspect it gets more and more full the closer to the capital you get, and certainly a lot of people got on at Anuradhapura). What this meant is that I was able to quite freely move around the carriage during the journey, moving from left to right sides. It was overall a pleasant ride, although quite bumpy in places; the kind of bumpy where you look at each other and think, “is this carriage about to come loose or derail?”, and you are calmed only by the fact that no local seems at all perturbed (that old trick!).

Plenty of room at the Inn.

The final train ride of our month, Anuradhapura back to Colombo, was an early start from another of Sri Lanka’s charming deco-era stations. It was really a rinse-and-repeat of the previous leg, just a whole lot more packed (as I predicted it would be) and, because we were seated in a group of four (two inward-facing seats with no table), not quite as charming or comfortable as our other rides. No biggie by this stage.

And that’s a wrap on our train adventures; hope some of the information is helpful for anyone intending to travel to Sri Lanks in the near future (as you should).

Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 2: Buses

Here’s part two of my four-part summary of our treks and travails across this most wonderful South Asian jewel. Part one, about its luscious, luscious food, is here.

If you choose to use them, you’ll quickly come to see how buses are the lifeblood of the nation. This makes bus stands, as they’re called here, fascinating places to see the nation in action. They’re a hive of activity, with people and goods moving about, on and off buses, in and out of eateries and other produce/goods shops that circle the areas. They are also fairly easy to navigate. We used both buses (and trains) to get around the pearl isle, and found signage straight forward and people overhwelmingly helpful, eager to see us on the right bus.

When you enter a bus stand, it’s not a front door situation; just walk up from whichever angle you are approaching. Essentially, you just need to walk around and look for the bus you want to catch. Red buses belong to the state corp, blue buses are private. Side note: in reality, the blue buses are a little more blingy and comfortable, and they be a little more expensive (??), but we found very little difference between them, and would just jump on the first going wherever wanted to go.

Each bus gate will likely have a sign telling you which route is served by that spot. Easier, each bus will have signs on the front of the bus that will state its origin and its destination, e.g. Colombo and Matara (a popular south coast route). On the side of some buses, the main stops along the route are also printed. So, for example, we caught the Wellawaya to Badulla bus to get to Ella, which was one of the stops along its brightly-coloured exterior (and the interiors of buses are treats within themselves!).

Each bus has a ticket seller, standing outside the bus yelling out his final destination. If you understand Sinhalese as it’s spoken colloquially then great, you’ll be able to make your way even easier. If, like me, you were looking at the name of your destination in a book/on a map and trying to imagine how you might say it, you’re imagining it wrong! What you hear will bear little relation to your imagination.

It’s more likely that you’ll stick out like a sore thumb, like all the other foreigners, he’ll make eye contact, ask you where you’re going, you’ll fumble something out that he’ll realise as a mispronunciation of where you actually want to go, and tell you to jump on!  

Moreover, we found all of these gents to be keen for us to do so, helping us to either put our bags up front with the driver, on the less busy/touristed routes, or in a storage compartment at the back of the bus, where it’ll be waiting for you when you arrive at your destination.  

The only slightly confusing occurence was, sometimes, multiple buses seemed to get plying the same route and more than one man was keen for us to jump on his bus. I’d like to think it is because they confused me with some dashing celebrity, and they wanted the bragging rights to be able to say, ‘you’ll never guess what…?’; more realistically, it’s probably just a kind of game, a bit of friendly conductor rivalry, maybe they get a certain commission from whatever they take.

If they are on commission, then certainly it didn’t feel like they saw an opportunity to charge ‘tourist prices’, as is the case elsewhere (not looking at anyone in particular, India). In fact, on some buses, the conductors had little ticket machines they used to print out tickets; on others they wrote it on a ticket and showed it to us, so we knew what the price was.

Only once were we told what the price was, which was more than we were told it should be, and given no ticket. However we’re literally talking cents here, and anyway, I had read that we might have to pay a second ticket price for our bags if the bus is busy; this never happened.  

Indeed, we found people to be overwhelmingly honest throughout Sri Lanka. Obviously we have no way to really qualify this; you only have your gut feeling. But we just didn’t feel the same kind of ‘everyone’s out to make a dollar off everyone in anyway possible’ mentally that we find in India. This is not a criticism of India, just a reality: girl’s gotta make a buck; get that cash gurrl!

Scenes from a bus…

In truth, the helpfulness we encountered is also likely just plain old efficiency. As I opened with, buses are the lifeblood of the country, vital vital networks, and bus stands are busy places. Bus operators don’t have time to ass about with befuddled tourists standing around trying to grasp the basics of Sinhalese and public transport. You gotta go go go…

Only once did we come across an attempted scam. At Wellawaya, on our way up to Ella, a ‘very helpful’ young chap told us that the bus would be leaving at 3pm (it was just after 2pm), and from the road side of the bus station. He then started to try and engage us in conversation about where we were from, where we were going, did we have a booking…the usual story.

As I had read previously – thanks Lonely Planet – buses from Wella to Ella, a main route, leave every 30 minutes or so. I was therefore suspicious, so, I thanked him and said to my compadre, “let’s go find something to eat while we wait, eh?” We wandered back over to the other side of the station, and quickly found the bus to Badulla, which stops in Ella, and left about 10 mins later.

Scams are scams are scams; a part of life on the road. I rarely get angry or show frustration, at least I try not to. I just tell myself that life can be hard in these places, and that these people are just being entrepreneurial and trying to make a buck. If they can do so via a little nefarious manipulation of tourists that nonetheless still provides the service – transport or accommodation – then, well, it’s just how it is.  

You have to have your wits about you, and if you’re at all suspicious, thank the happy helper person, make an excuse to wander off (or just wander off), and go looking for a second opinion or option. This is also where doing some reading and research prior to travelling is very helpful (although never foolproof).

Here’s the buses we took:

1. Galle to Unawatuna (day trip); difficulty level: extremely easy as.

Sri Lanka’s south coast is populated in what seems like one endless stream of villages and towns, and it felt like both locals and tourists were casually hopping on and off buses all along the coast for all sorts of purposes; it felt like quite a fluid approach to movement. I got this impression from doing a day trip to the beachside village of Unawatuna. It’s harder to tie your shoelaces drunk.

Get on the Matara bus (or indeed the Tangalle bus, if you want to go further along the coast), tell the man where you want to get off, enjoy the ride, get off the bus. Repeat in the other direction. I guess the only thing you’d want to make sure beforehand is that there are buses coming back in the other direction at the end of the day.

2. Galle to Udawalawe; difficulty level: easy as.

We jumped onto the Matara bus at Galle bus stand, switched at Matara to an Embilipitiya bus, where we ran into a plate of fried food heaven, and then boarded a final, smaller bus, to Udawalawe.  Fortunately, we were staying right beside the junction/clock tower, so got off there (there are marked bus stops, but it otherwise appear you just kinda make moves like you are going to get off, and it’ll stop somewhere soon).  The main bus stand – literally just a bus stop in this dusty one main street town – is around the corner (on the main road to the national park).

3. Udawalawe to Ella; difficulty level: again, easy as.  

Our guest house owner graciously dropped us to said bus stand above, where we awaited the number 98 bus to Wellawaya.  At the bus stand, some friendly men tried to sell us a van to Ella for 6000lkr, for up to six of us. In retrospect, if there had been six of us willing – there were some other tourists about – we might have taken up the offer as the bus was very busy and already quite packed by the time it got to us, as they said it would be!

We did manage to squeeze into a seat, but it was an uncomfortable, head-lolling-around-on-a-stick typa ride, remembering that we had been up since 4.40am for a safari, and it was hot. Oh well. The bus from Wella to Ella was much more spacious and super lovely once we started the road up into the hills, both in terms of views, and also as the heat started to dissipate, just a little.

Yup. Just is.

4. Nuwara Eliya to Dalhousie (day trip); difficulty level: pretty easy.

We did this trip as part of our midnight mountain climb of Adam’s Peak adventure. The day before we wanted to travel, we visited the bus stand and asked at the office about a direct bus. We were told there was one at 4pm and, when we returned the next day at just before this time, sure enough we found ourselves on the bog standard public bus, going all the way to Dalhousie, with a stop for refilling of passengers at Hatton. 

What is a little less clear about this route is how many direct buses there are and when they run, as I believe they only run direct during the pilgrimage season to Adam’s Peak.

However, the next morning, post-climb, we were on buses within minutes that took us from Dalhousie to nearby Maskeliya, where we joined a Hatton-bound bus and, once there, there were big and small bus options immediately available to bring us back to Nuwara Eliya (and so, it’s no doubt just as easy to do this in the other direction).  

In other words, nada to worry about; I just wouldn’t recommend leaving too late in the day, especially out of pilgrim season (the season runs full moon December through full moon in May).

One tip, if you are going to do the midnight pilgrimage: once you leave Hatton, the road becomes incredibly windy, dark and unsealed towards Dalhousie; the bus driver doesn’t slow down for these factors, and is in fact a driving legend. But it will feel like you are heading more and more into the middle of absolutely nowhere, and, if it’s not a busy pilgrimage night, could make you feel like you’ve made a bad life choice.  Fear not, all will be fine!

Scenes from an unexpected stop on the road to Dalhousie…

5. Kandy to Sirigiya; difficulty level: easy; a little uncomfortable between Dambulla and Sigiriya.

This trip requires a change of bus in Dambulla. The most difficult part about the Kandy-Dambulla leg was locating the right bus stand, as Kandy has a few and the most obvious one – by the clocktower – is not the one.

Guides talk about it being beside the Good’s Shed (which appears to refer to the name of a building used for storing goods needing to be shipped by train; now it appears to be just a busy marketplace). This is correct. More easily remembered, though, is that it’s simply back down beside the train station, where you may well have entered Kandy.

Walk around until you find the right bus, or, more likely, someone will ask where you’re going and point you there. This was one of the least easy bus stands to work out, due to immense numbers of buses and no sense of logical placement, so I’d just ask straight away.

At Dambulla, you’ll get off on the side of the road opposite the bus stand. When we did, some guys, trying to be helpful, told us that the bus to Sigiriya would pass by here. We were a little suspect so walked over to the bus stand, where we found the bus and jumped on. They were actually right, and the bus stopped there also. However it was already quite full, so at least we did get seats.

Lonely Planet advises that the bus leaves from north of the clocktower. This is also right as, inexplicably, the bus stopped there for ages. We left the bus stand on the hour, and didn’t leave from the clocktower stop until half-passed the hour, having only covered a distance of minutes. I guess LP is trying to save you the wait, the squash, and the sweat. Because it was all of those things both times we took it, and quite uncomfortable in the end. Maybe worth tuk-tuk-ing the last leg?

Awaiting the bus to Sigiriya.

6. Sirigiya to Dambulla (day trip); difficulty level: so easy.

Buses leave Dambulla and Sigiriya every half hour in each direction, so the only thing to consider is the comfort level on the return journey (as above). A bus stop was right outside our guesthoue; I imagine you could probably wave it down wherever you are, or just check for the nearest wait spot.

7. Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa; difficulty level: so easy.

We’re basically local bus pros by this point, so taking a bus to a random junction to then wave down a second one sounds like a sinch. You simply grab the Dambulla bus to Inamaluwa Junction (just give it your best shot; he’ll know where you mean), then walk up to the bus stop (a couple of minutes away, and easily visible) and wait for the bus.

I thought we might have to try to quickly read the bus destination sign and wave the right one down, but the reality was the first one that came along was going who knows where, but the man leaned out, asked us where we were going, and told us to (quickly) jump on board. As easy as that, and we were in Polonnaruwa just after midday, after leaving about 10am

8. Batticoloa to Jaffna; difficulty level: easy, just uncomfortable.

There’s no other way to do this trip, unfortunately, although I’m not entirely convinced there’s any point in going to Batticoloa in the first place, really. Not right now, anyway. However, if you must, it’s fairly easily achieved.

The only buses making this ludicrous trip are the state ones; no private blue buses. The main bus stand has a full timetable painted on its side, which told us that the only logical option departed at 11am (the others were early, early morning, or late afternoon, which meant a middle of the night arrival; I’ll save that craziness for India).

I don’t know if the fact that it was a Saturday and/or the day before a puja holiday, but it was pretty packed, the whole time. The bus starts in Akkaraipattu, 50-odd kilometres south, so was already quite full by the time it arrived (and that’s why the waiting passengers all stormed the bus!). There’s an opening in the middle of the long bus stand, where buses can presumably U-turn, presmably to avoid having to go right the way around (remember: go go go!). This is where the bus pulls in and stops.

We had to stand for the first two hours, literally all the way back to where we’d come from (the bus goes inland back to Polonnaruwa, onto Anuradhapura, and then up from there). Thankfully, seats opened up there – the ticket man had helpfully told us to stay standing beside them – and we sat the rest of the way. As I say, it waxed and waned across the day, but was pretty consistently full. Just one of these things you have to do to get where you’re going right? A long day.

9. Colombo to Negombo; difficulty level: slightly more complicated.

But really only marginally. We caught the train back from Anuradhapura, and were continuing straight on without stopping. We wandered along from Fort station, and you are confronted two bus stands: the private and the public. The fast aircon buses you want leave from the CTB bus stand, and you’re looking for route 240. Hopefully this will save you from walking around, packs on back, in the steaming afternoon heat like we did!