Choo Choo! The essential guide to train travel in Sri Lanka

Train travel in Sri Lanka is cheap, practical and endlessly entertaining. It is an experience not to be missed.

The sunning views and the charismatic people are guaranteed to give you a memorable journey, whichever route you take.

10 things you absolutely must know before travelling by train in Sri Lanka

Take note of the below travel tips and settle in for the ride of a lifetime:-

Train alongside jungle
The train from Colombo Fort passes through jungle and along the beach en route to Galle.

1. No seat? No problem.

The main tourist routes, particularly Kandy – Ella and Nanu Oya (Nuarwa Eliya), get booked up well in advance, but fully reserved does not necessarily mean you can’t travel.

Check with your guest house / hotel as they may be able to purchase a ticket off another driver or agent who reserved them in the hope of re-selling.

Turn up early morning on the day of your travel. Often the Station Managers will release additional reserved seats, first come first served.

Expect to pay more for both of these options, but at around Rs. 500 for a 4-5 hour 1st class journey it is still a steal.

View from the train of rice paddies and stormy clouds
Views of rice paddies just north of Colombo. About ten minutes later the storm crashed around us.

2. Stand up for adventure

If no reserved seats are available. Do not fear. Get an unreserved ticket and find yourself a spot in the isle, or near a door way for perfect views. Don’t be afraid to ask other travelers where they are getting off and station yourself nearby, but be prepared to make a quick move for the seat the second they stand up.


3. Go low class

Travelling in 1st class might mean air con, but it also means you miss out on the more charismatic elements of these wonderful journeys. Often 2nd class is very similar in seat comfort (minus the recline), but with the windows pushed all the way up, the breeze blowing in and the ability to take endless photos of unobstructed views, 2nd class gets my vote every time.

3rd class can’t be reserved but is still a good option, particularly for shorter journeys. If going a longer way, take something soft to sit on – your bottom will thank you for it!

Train waiting at Colombo Fort station
A moment of calm in a usually hectic place – Colombo Fort station on a poya day.

4. Squish in

On busy routes it is normal to have to squish up in 2nd and 3rd class with one or two extra people per row. If you’re not to comfortable being sandwiched in, take the window seat. Bags and suitcases will be tucked up under willing legs. Don’t be too concerned if you’re handed a baby to sit on your lap!


5. Check the signs

Some seats are reserved at the end of most carriages for clergy. Ladies should not sit in these even if empty, as monks getting on would not sit next to you. This is also the case on most buses. There should be a sign above the seats to clearly label them.

Don’t forget to offer seats to elderly or less able passengers. A little consideration goes a long way, especially on bumpy routes.

Two deer on the train tracks
Deer on the train tracks at Trincomalee station. These beauties can also be found hanging out at the local market.

6. Go on a food journey too

It’s a great idea to bring water and a few snacks with you on any train journey, but an even better one to say yes to the snacks sold onboard.

Vendors will hop on and travel for a few stations before making their way back in the other direction. If you like the look of something, buy it as soon as they walk by; there’s no guarantee they will come back.

My all time favourites are the Wade, fried patties made of lentils, spiced with chili and caramalised onions. The best are topped with a prawn and served with dried chilies to munch alongside. Salty, crunchy and delicious. Perfect travel treats.

Man selling Wade - fried lentil snacks
Delicious snacks! Be sure to pick up some of these dhal wade, they’re my favourite!

7. Sharing is caring

Keep a few extra to share with your fellow travellers. You may find yourself pulled up alongside a train going in the opposite direction. Make friends across the tracks, offer up some munchies and enjoy the smiles, you may even get passed back a homemade delicacy in return.


8. Snap sensibly

Everyone has seen and loves the ubiquitous ‘I’m on a train in Sri Lanka’ photos. But be cautious if you intend to take a shot leaning out of the doorway – every year a few unfortunate souls fall and are injured or killed doing this. Not worth it for a selfie!


9. Exit with class

At smaller stations the trains are not stationary for long! Make sure you gather up all your belongings for a quick exit and keep your ticket handy. They may be collected & checked at platform exits.

Small train station and palm trees
A beautiful train station near to Jaffna

10. Continue on cleverly

Train stations are perfect haunts for the ‘tuk-tuk mafia’ who will pounce the moment you exit and try to charge you extortionate prices. In Kandy & Colombo, Uber and PickMe are ideal apps to get a tuk or a car with safety and sensible prices. In other cities, try walking a short distance away to flag down a tuk. Have an idea of the distance you need to travel to negotiate prices – as a general rule Rs. 40 per km plus a Rs. 50 pick up fee.

If arriving at night time, it’s best to arrange a pick up via your hotel or guesthouse or to use one of the above apps.


A final note:

Traveling by train is on the whole, a very safe experience provided you apply a normal level of common sense. Don’t leave luggage or valuables unattended. Be extra vigilant at night, as you would be in any country. If you intend to sleep, make sure handbags / phones are out of sight. I find putting a sarong over my knees is a perfect way to remain modest in a skirt, and disguise a handbag – win win!

Do you have any other tips? Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!

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