Ella to Nuwara Eliya Train, Sri Lanka

Next stop on the journey turned out to be a real adventure and one of the highlights of the trip. We had originally wanted to take the train from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy, but due to the military needing to potentially use the train network, our reserved 2nd class tickets were cancelled by the provider a few days before the trip.

Ella Station; GFX 50R 45mm ISO-2500 1/1000sec f/11

As we got closer to the date of the train ride, we were able to buy tickets at Colombo Fort Station, but taking a train in Sri Lanka is not as straightforward as you’d expect. Some of the names aren’t obvious; for example, Nanu Oya is the station closest to Nuwara Eliya, and the station in Ella is sometimes called Ella or Elle. 

The station attendants at Colombo Fort were overwhelmed with inquiries when we went and were apathetic and perhaps annoyed with questions from the throngs of tourists and locals alike. Add in the mass of people coming and going that makes Beijing seem quiet and you’re in for a real adventure! 

GFX 50R 45mm ISO-200 1/150sec f/4
GFX 50R 45mm ISO-200 1/240sec f/2.8
GFX 50R 45mm ISO-200 1/200sec f/2.8

At Colombo Fort, expect to be sent from window to window depending on whether you want to buy tickets for today or for the future (if memory serves, you can buy tickets for the future from Window 17 and for today from Window 4).

While we were in Sri Lanka, a number of people told us that the scenery from Ella to Nuwara Eliya is even more beautiful than from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy. Since going to Kandy was somewhat off-route for our itinerary, we decided to try our luck and try to take the train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya instead.

GFX 50R 45mm ISO-200 1/105sec f/2.8
Bandarawela Station; GFX 50R 45mm ISO-640 1/100sec f/5.6

We went to the local train station in Matara to buy tickets the morning of, but were told you can only buy day-of tickets at the departing train station. We also tried mobile phone reservations but were told they need two days advance notice. For future use, mobile reservations seems to be the way to go as they have English speaking staff and were very helpful.

Mobile reservations seems to be the way to go as they have English speaking staff and were very helpful.

We took the chance and drove the 430km from Matara to Ella. Fortunately, the train station at Ella is much calmer than the one in Colombo or Matara. In fact, the Ella station is very charming. The attendant at this station notified us that we could only buy tickets for the train 30 minutes before departure. With the train leaving at 2:40pm, we took some time to eat at a wonderful food stall across the street.

GFX 50R 50mm ISO-250 1/100sec f/1

When the window opened for sales, we were able to buy third class tickets for 60 Rupees (USD$0.30) each. This “slow” train only had two classes, first and third; first class cabins have assigned seating and are enclosed with fixed windows and AC. We wanted the opportunity to feel the fresh air so we chose third class with windows that open. The downside to third class is that seats are “first come, first served” and you could end up standing.

While waiting on the platform, we met a family that wanted to learn more about where we were from. We chatted for a while and I asked if I could take their picture. They were more than happy to accommodate my request, even the very shy son. While chatting with the family, we hadn’t noticed the build up of people waiting on the platform.

Stunning scenery from the train; GFX 50R 45mm ISO-400 1/500sec f/5

When the train arrived, a MAD RUSH of people disembarked and embarked simultaneously. People squeezed by each other in order to get a seat, but with our backpacks and timid approach, we managed to get on once the crowd had cleared. This resulted in us getting only one of the two seats we required. 

The kindness of Sri Lankan people came through once again when a gentleman offered his young son’s seat to us. We of course declined the offer as his son had worked hard to get that seat! I did however strike up a conversation with the gentleman to learn more about him and his son and their hometown.

The entire journey is like this, incredible scenery! GFX 50R 50mm ISO-1000 1/100sec f/1

Actually, the genuine kindness of people came forward throughout our train ride with people offering to move when we were taking pictures, or offering up window seats so we could enjoy the view. We took the opportunity instead to chat with them and had the best experience in getting to know more locals. After a few stations, seats opened up and we were able to eventually get two seats together.

The genuine kindness of people came forward throughout our train ride.

I don’t want to give away something very cool that happens on the train because it needs to be experienced without any idea it’s coming for it to be fun, but I hope you enjoy the experience of going through tunnels as much as we did.

GFX 50R 50mm ISO-4000 1/100sec f/1

A number of locals told us to be very careful not to stick our head, arms or legs outside the window while the train is in motion. Apparently, it’s common for tourists to get injuries from the hard solid objects that the train comes very close to along the journey.

If you’re taking the same route we did from Ella to Nuwara Eliya, I recommend sitting on the right side for the best view, and what a view it is! It’s stunning and definitely best enjoyed while there’s daylight. The weather changes dramatically from Ella to Nuwara Eliya and you’ll see the locals pack jackets for the journey which they change into as the train nears the destination; bring a sweater or something warm as you’ll definitely need it.

GFX 50R 45mm ISO-250 1/100sec f/2.8

While it took some effort to get the train tickets, the experience was very much worth it. It ended up being one of the highlights of the trip and we highly recommend that people experience it.

The experience was very much worth it. It ended up being one of the highlights of the trip.

I should note that our experience would have been totally different if we chose first class. We noted that first class was primarily tourists and they would have missed out on taking in the fresh highlands air and all the interesting interactions we were lucky to experience in third class.

Next up, we’ll arrive in the lush tea planting highlands of Nuwara Eliya. The trip takes on new momentum as we fall for the gorgeous scenery in this part of Sri Lanka.

Other articles from the Sri Lanka series:

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