Train from Kandy to Colombo and back

Kris and I just returned from Colombo where we did some Christmas shopping. This time we went by train, thus completing our sampling of the various ways to get to Colombo and back. Previously we had rented a car and driver (about $40 each way) and had taken the so-called “air con, intercity express bus” (about $2.50 each, each way). A first class ticket in the observation car cost us about $3.60 each, each way.

Now Colombo is 115 kilometers (71 miles) from Kandy and all three methods take approximately the same time, two and a half to three and a half hours. We got up early in the morning to make the 6:15AM intercity express train, so our travel time was on the low end of that range.

Our train was of older stock. We rode in the first class observation car. The observation car is the last car on the train. The seats face to the rear and there are two, large, picture windows giving a rearward, panoramic view. There are also the usual side windows, so one has pretty much a 270 degree view from ones seat. There is a single center aisle with two seats on either side of the aisle, so one is never far from either the windows or the aisle. Seating is assigned when you buy your ticket and you generally need to purchase your ticket in advance if you want to ride in the observation car.

The observation car has definitely seen better days. The only word to describe the level of cleanliness was “dingy.” The seats did not leave stains on ones clothes, but I unwisely steadied my legs by digging my knees into the seat in front of me and came away with marks on my pants. The curtains were ratty and seemed not to have been cleaned in awhile. Even though they call this “first class” there was no air conditioning. This was not a big problem as all the windows open and there are three oscillating fans mounted above the aisle along the length of the car.

The ride was as rough or rougher than the train ride we took in Vietnam from Hanoi to Hue that I blogged about earlier. The car often lurched from side to side throwing me against Kris. Bumps in the vertical direction led to nearly undamped vertical oscillations that continued for quite some time. Our first encounter with one of these coincided with Kris pouring herself her first cup  of coffee in the morning. Lover of coffee that she is, she rode the wave, her hand swinging up and down to keep the cup steady and she did not lose a single drop.

But even considering the down sides, we decided that the train was the superior means of travel between Kandy and Colombo. With the car or the bus, one travels on the highway from one town to the next constantly keeping your eyes on the traffic or the visual overload of the many advertisements that crowd the margins of the road. It is a decidedly ant-like view, mostly of the businesses that have grown up along the highway. But with the train, especially the first hour out of Kandy, the view is dominated by the countryside. And the train tracks hug the side of the formidable hills and give vistas out over the valleys below. The mountains are shrouded in mists, perfect for a watercolor painting. Everything is so green that Sri Lanka might well take away from Ireland the designation as the “Emerald Isle.” Next to the view of the Indian Ocean from the Lighthouse Hotel near Galle, the view from the train gave me a sense of just how stunningly beautiful Sri Lanka can be. (And, oh my God, I just realized that I never posted about our trip to Galle! I am horribly behind…)

Closer to Colombo, one gets some very nice views of paddy fields with the green, green rice plants, the always orderly and often intricately terraced rice paddies, the oxen used for plowing, cows grazing in the company of their symbiotic cattle egrets. The egrets are either down on the ground near the cows legs waiting for the slowly moving cows to flush tasty insects from the grass, or sitting on the cows “shoulders” looking down from this perch, searching for frogs and bugs to eat while keeping their feet warm and dry.

We also had a team-building exercise with the other passengers in the observation car on the way back to Kaandy today. I was snoozing and was started awake by a commotion among our fellow passengers. The train was passing under a thunderhead and it had started to pour rain through the open windows. Semi-frantically, the passengers rushed to lower the windows. A few of us, i.e. me and some Sri Lankan children under the age of 13, had no clue how the mechanism worked, but set about pushing, pulling, prying at levers, all to no avail. Fortunately there were experienced train riders who lowered their own windows and then moved to calm the newbies,  i.e. me and some Sri Lankan children under the age of 13, by demonstrating how really easy it is to lower a train window with just a few basic actions.

Time for bed.




  1. Kris said,

    December 15, 2008 at 11:39 am

    I’d like to add to Tim’s observations two of my own. Waiting in the dark (5:30 a.m.) for our tuk-tuk to the train station, we hesitated to walk out to the main road, which would have spared our neighbors the tuk-tuk noise. I hesitated because of the five-foot snake I saw last week, but there are no outdoor lights, and street lights are few and far between. It was a lovely velvet darkness, though, and cool. On the way into Kandy we saw a brilliantly lit white Buddha–white seems to be the color of choice for holy images–smiling from inside his glass box. It reminded me of the neon crosses we have seen in the U.S. in the dark drives to and from the airport, a reminder to pray before it’s too late? And I also saw a woman standing by the road in the area where many buses stop, waiting for a bus in the dark, with her parasol open above her head! It is a practical habit here–in the daytime everyone avoids either sun or rain–but that was the first I have seen in the dark. Maybe she was just sleepy.
    Train stations for Sri Lanka Railways are in pretty good condition, with graceful crowns on the pillars of the sheds, and decorative transoms over the official barred service windows. We passed brand new diesel engines and cars, too–can’t remember why they are not in service. A letter to the editor complained that the new Chinese made dining cars are not usable because they lack a handwashing basin, a necessity for Sri Lankan eating.
    I agree with Tim, tho–even with the bouncing, which threw me against the steel wall of the car rather hard, it was a less stressful trip than the automotive means we have tried. The rock tunnels in the hills are quite handsome, and we saw waterfalls and villages and passed through a few small stations. As long as the train was moving there was some air flow, so it wasn’t as miserably hot as it could have been. The condition of the car emphasized the contrast between tourist luxury and everyday Sri Lankan life, though–we had a lovely room at a luxury hotel in Colombo and enjoyed every amenity in it: water pressure, hot water, clean sheets and towels, a marvelous view, a refrigerator full of liquid refreshment, and complimentary tea! We also had a very fine Thai dinner in one of the restaurants in the hotel. It had fine food and a beautifully designed setting. We don’t go out for dinner often in Kandy–fewer restaurants, I guess?

  2. Charles said,

    December 15, 2008 at 7:04 pm

    The woman in the dark, with her parasol open above her head at such an ungodly time in the Kandy bus stand (even when there was no rain) was only being very sensible: she was simply protecting her head from crow-shit. Our crows, like many of us, are very active early in the day, and so, many a time an unsuspecting traveler to Kandy had been blessed copiously by the bird’s whitish “excreta”. One Frenchman who experienced a deadly accurate lateral hit on his face, was thankful that our pigs do not fly. People also chew betel and spit often from open windows in trains and buses. Getting this on your face is worse than the becoming the target for the turd from the bird. (On the ground, it looks as if someone had vomited blood or been murdered in cold blood). Well, life in Sri Lanka has always a few surprises.

  3. Kris said,

    December 16, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Thank you, Charles! I suspected there was a good reason, but from our tuk-tuk couldn’t see what was above the woman–likely power lines or a tree.

  4. Tim said,

    December 16, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    So, Charles, what we thought was an odd extension of reason-to-carry-an-umbrella-in-Sri-Lanka numbers 1 and 2, was really just a disguised version of reason-to-carry-an-umbrella-in-Sri-Lanka number 8?


  5. mazhar said,

    February 19, 2012 at 5:06 am

    very informative articles to get first hand information before going to sri lanka, well done all

  6. Kristina Replogle Sullivan said,

    July 22, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    To add to the above: We discovered after a number of train trips that the second class coaches actually ride better, and they are cheaper as well. So our last few trips to Colombo left fewer bruises. I think the vinyl seats were cleaner too.

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