I love to tell stories about how my adventures unfold. So if you want to read all bout my experience in-depth including getting to Colombo Fort from Negombo, picking up tickets etc, please read on! However, if you just want some cold, hard facts, you may wish to jump to it.
I felt like I had barely rested my head on the pillow when the alarm went off. It couldn't possibly be morning already? A reservation on the morning train from the capital city of Colombo to Kandy meant that we had to set our alarms for ridiculous-o'clock, also known as 6am. Doesn't sound too bad? Factor in the 4 and a half hour time difference and the fact that I'm used to waking up about 9am. My body was confused as heck!
It wasn't ideal to be booked on such an early train but we didn't have too many options as we wanted to arrive in Kandy before dark. We were staying in Negombo, 1 hour out from Colombo where the station was. The reason for choosing Negombo for our first night as opposed to Colombo was the fact that Sri Lanka's international airport is located in Negombo, meaning we had a nice 30 minute drive from the airport the day before.
Our ever-hospitable AirBnB hosts were dropping us off in Colombo for what equated to £20. We could have got cheaper transport elsewhere but the ease of the journey was what appealed to me the most. Plus £20 is still inexpensive compared to what I'm used to living in the UK.
To top it all off, our hosts had prepared a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast for us. Again, this was an extra cost but it worked out as £2 per person which seemed very reasonable for the quantity and quality of food provided.
Breakfast consisted of a pot of fresh black Sri Lankan tea (which was growing on me by the day!), sweet pancakes, egg hoppers, chickpeas, jam on toast and fresh mango from the garden. The food was divine! My only regret was having a small appetite although what I didn't manage to eat, Lewis hoovered up for me.
The breakfast is what's considered a typical Sri Lankan Breakfast. 'Sweet Pancakes' as they call them are made from coconut milk and rice flour. They are filled with chopped coconut flesh and special honey syrup called 'Kithul' which comes from a tree. Lewis immediately fell in love with the sweet pancakes. I took a little longer to get used to them, being the fussy eater that I am!
The other new dish was the 'hoppers'. They're very similar to pancakes but are much thinner and normally have an omelette or whole egg within them. I thoroughly enjoyed these immediately, especially when I also wrapped the chickpeas in them.
It was difficult to try and eat all the lovely food so fast! I don't have the biggest appetite in the mornings and it shrinks even more if I know there's a rush and will end up eating my food at the rate that a sloth crawls along a branch. It was a shame as I really wanted to savour the food! However, we had an adventure ahead of us.
We set off towards Colombo after breakfast. On our way we passed Negombo Lagoon, a shining oasis at the side of the motorway. I listened intently as Kris (our host) described what it was like there. One thing is for sure, he was very proud of not just his country, but his town of Negombo. He seemed regretful that we hadn't seen more of it. To be honest, so was I. How is it that I always manage to make our trips as jam-packed as possible?
He pointed out the various temples in Negombo town, giving us a fleeting tour of the area. I listened with interest and watched intently out of the car window at all the passing tuk-tuks and locals carrying fresh produce.
It became apparent that Kris was not as keen on the capital of Colombo. He thought it was too big and busy, lacking any of the beauty that most of Sri Lanka held. He also could not stand the traffic.
In contrast, I was mesmerised by the bustling capital. I watched as we passed numerous fresh fruit stalls, vibrant bananas hanging from hooks. Locals on bicycles would pull up at the stalls and purchase their produce before placing them in the wire baskets at the back of their bikes.
Crows and stray dogs were abundant in Colombo, making themselves at home amongst the chaos of the day-to-day lives of the locals. Life for the dogs of Colombo was clearly hard and I felt my heart twist as I watched a scraggly mutt limping down the pavement amongst the rubble of a crumbling building.
Colombo was a city of contrasts. Whereas at one point I was gazing at the tall, majestic Lotus Tower, shimmering in the sunlight, at others we were driving down narrow streets enclosed by decaying ruins.
Mostly, I felt perfectly comfortable as we drove through the city except for one moment where hawkers got eerily close to the car, trying to sell through our closed windows. But then again, we had complete trust in our host who ushered the hawkers on and ensured our doors were locked.
At last we arrived at Colombo Fort Station.
I didn't realise how hot it was until I leapt out of our nicely air-conditioned car. Holy crap, I thought to myself. I'm going to melt. I grimaced as I picked up my 10kg backpack and strapped it on. The joys of travelling as a blogger! My bag was loaded with camera gear - nothing else. Lewis' backpack which was a similar weight to mine was stuffed to the brim full of clothing and other essentials, basically everything we needed for the trip. It was nice to know that had I not been a camera nerd that we could easily pack lightly between us for a backpacking trip like this one.
We waved goodbye to Kris and stepped towards the station. Now we were alone, just us two, trying to navigate through the bustling station in the scorching heat. I was wary of everyone who passed, especially as Kris' parting words to us was to be careful at this station. Be careful of what exactly? I was mostly worried for my bag, laden with my gear. It would be a wonderful prize for a thief.
Fortunately it didn't take too long for us to find the ticketing office which was specifically designated to tourists. There was no air-conditioning in there and the seats were full as we waited our turn to be served, swatting away buzzing flies from our faces. I was pleased that I'd been organised enough to book our tickets in advance as now all we needed to do was present our booking references to pick-up the tickets. The back-packing duo in front of us weren't so savvy and seemed to be planning out their entire trip on the spot, going through a huge map of Sri Lanka with one of the ticketing officers. Yes, I did feel a tad smug.
Although I didn't realise it at the time, that was the easy bit out the way. Looking for the correct platform proved to be a total chore and I found myself staring blankly at the flickering screens, laden with symbols that I didn't recognise. I decided to look for the tourists, after all, it's a typical tourist route to venture from Colombo to Kandy so there would be a high likelihood that any tourists we saw were going on the same train. If only I could find any.
The station guards are in fact very helpful and not only told us which platform we needed to be on but they told us exactly where to stand so that when the train arrived we would be by our carriage. I was very grateful for his kindness.
To add to my confusion however, there was a train already at our platform and I spent a good ten minutes deliberating on whether or not this was our train. Turned out it wasn't.
Two female backpackers approached us, looking hot and bothered. "Is this the train to Galle?" One asked.
"No, this platform is for the Kandy train."
The women looked extremely flustered. I could understand why. It was like we were standing in a sauna and not only did they have their small rucksacks, similar size to ours, they also had huge rucksacks on their backs. I was glad we decided to travel light as I probably would have collapsed under all that weight.
We waited as another train arrived on a different platform. Hordes of people were exiting the locomotive and streaming across the bridge towards the exit. I nearly got flung out of the way, there were that many people. The station was alive with the murmurs of people, each going about the daily lives.
Then our train drew into the station. A brilliant cyan vehicle, whistling as it chugged towards a gradual standstill. The brakes screeched and any doors that were not already gaping wide crashed open and people began to exit. I patiently waited, excitement bubbling up inside my stomach. The train was here! We ere going to Kandy! I was also thrilled that we got to travel on this vibrant blue train. I knew that you could get two options with trains in Sri Lanka: the blue trains or more rugged, orange ones. The blue ones look better in pictures which is why I wanted those. Plus, the name 'Kandy' reminds me of the colour 'candy blue' and the train colour felt fitting for a place that reminds me of blue sweets.
Once the train was empty, I dived aboard, frantically searching for a suitable seat. I hadn't realised at this point that we had designated seat numbers which were highlighted on our tickets. Call me stupid, but I found the tickets a little tricky to digest.
A friendly local pointed us in the right direction, examining our tickets before taking us to our actual seats which were actually in another carriage. I was amazed by his kindness. He was a passenger, just like us, who had gone out of his way to help two confused tourists. He began to tell us about his story and how he had set up a school to help blind children in Sri Lanka. He didn't demand any money but we gave him a donation to his school as a thank you for his kindness.
Settled into our seats, it was time for our journey to begin.
The lotus tower in Colombo
Everything You Need to Know About Booking Tickets from Colombo to Kandy
We had booked our train tickets online through a website called Visit Sri Lanka Tours. They had cost us £12 per person as opposed to £2 per person which you could have paid had you bought a ticket on the day. The reason we paid 'over-the-odds' for a pre-booked ticket as it's never guaranteed that you can get tickets on the day and had we not been able to, our trip would have been messed-up. We had accommodation pre-booked in Kandy for that night so had we not got there in time, we'd have to re-jiggle the whole thing which isn't much fun. The extra money felt worth it to guarantee we'd make it to our accommodation that night.
As well as price, the other draw-back of booking online is you can't always get the seats you want. For instance, only 1st class seats were available to book on this train from Colombo to Kandy. Why is that a problem? You may ask. 1st class seats are bound to be the best, right? Wrong. 2nd class seats are the ones you really want. The windows in 1st class are always closed and freezing air-con blasts you. Some may like that but it is much more pleasant to have an open window and be able to stick your head out into the tropic Sri Lankan air. The wind blowing through the windows alone is enough to keep you cool.
The other drawback of 1st class is that you are not embracing the local culture. Locals will mostly travel by 3rd class but sometimes they take 2nd class so you are immersed with the locals and getting a taster of what 3rd class is like. 1st class is really just full of tourists or business people so you're not really experiencing much different to what you'd get travelling via train at home.
If 3rd class is embracing the local culture, why is 2nd class better? 3rd class is very, very busy. You cannot actually book seats in 3rd class and most people are forced to stand. Of course, this may be right up your street in which case, go for it. But 2nd class is more like the happy-medium between the two which is therefore a better option for most travellers.
A final point is that there are actually two types of 2nd class: 2nd class pre-booked and regular 2nd class. If you book your tickets online and manage to get 2nd class, you will be in the pre-booked section whereas booking on the day and not getting an allocated seat puts you in regular 2nd class. The carriages are all labelled so you can easily locate which section you are in.
Issues with Booking Train Tickets Online
A little research on 'Visit Sri Lanka Tours' will show you that there are some drawbacks to booking with them. Before we go into it, let's talk about how this website works.
At the moment, there is no way to actually buy tickets for Sri Lanka trains online. What? You may be thinking. But you just said there was through Visit Sri Lanka Tours? Let me explain, you cannot buy tickets online but you can pay for someone to buy tickets for you. When you pay through Visit Sri Lanka Tours, the company then has to go to the station and buy the tickets for you. Therefore, when you pay, there is no guarantee that you will get tickets. You will have to wait a few hours, or sometimes days, for the company to go to the station and buy your tickets. You will then get a confirmation email confirming that you have tickets.
What happens if they are unable to get tickets? Well, your money will be 100% refunded so you haven't lost out. It just means that the pre-booked tickets for that particular train are sold-out. You can then risk getting the regular tickets on the day or try for another train.
The best way to ensure that you do get the tickets that you want is to book them in advance. Tickets are available up to 30 days before your train is due to depart and I recommend booking them as soon as possible. I don't advise leaving it any later than 14 days in advance, especially if you are taking a popular route in the busy season.
The Journey from Colombo to Kandy
The train trundled out of the station, hauling its long body filled with countless carriages. The whistle blew as the wheels clunked down the track. I stared out of my window, fascinated by all the sights about me. One of the first things I noticed was how the Sri Lankan people walked down the railway lines, something which is unheard of back at home in UK. However here, in Sri Lanka, it is the norm. Train tracks are often the most direct route to get to places so it makes sense for them to travel that way, especially when the trains are slow and infrequent.
Being a big city in a third-world country, Colombo wasn't the most scenic place to ride through. The quantity of rubbish beside the tracks was alarming but understandable when you think how difficult it is to dispose of it. The buildings were more rugged as well as you reached the outskirts of the city, away from the gleaming office-blocks of central Colombo. However, once we were out of the city, the beautiful countryside opened up around us.
Rice paddies dominated the landscape. The lush green shoots stood in still water, tantalisingly fresh. Amongst them stood egrets, proudly striding through the clear water on the hunt for unlucky fish or amphibians. Occasionally we would see people working in the rice paddies, tending to their produce.
As well as paddies were numerous fields dotted with the occasional cow. The final animal which was in abundance was the dog. Stray dogs frequently travelled along the tracks beside us, trotting along purposefully like they did this activity every day.
In between the fields and rice paddies stood small villages, hidden amongst the lush palm trees. Their houses were painted in vibrant colours and you couldn't help but smile at them. Families and children ran about outside, playing amongst the nature and chickens. Smiles were plastered across their faces as they skipped about, their mothers watching on whilst holding colourful, patterned umbrellas. Were they for the promise of rain or to shelter from the sun? That I was not sure as the weather was changing like the wind. The now valiant sun was being engulfed rapidly by dark clouds.
Drowned out by the earthy rumbling of the train was the tooting of tuk-tuks, waiting at train crossings with their motors grumbling impatiently. Motorbikes weaved amongst them, their roars threatening to take over from that of the passing locomotive.
Trains in Sri Lanka are renowned for their open doors that you can hang out of. I didn't want to end this journey without trying it for myself so I ventured towards the end of the carriage where I had a feeling one may be. Sure enough there was an open door, with two young lads, likely tourists, taking it in turns to hang out of the door.
I was worried I'd have to ask them if I could have a go but they politely offered that I stand beside it at once, advising me that i had to be careful of the door itself as it kept threatening to close. The door was heavier than I could have imagined and it was in fact very difficult to position myself beside the doorway whilst having a foot on the ever-swinging door.
The train rattled and shook, threatening to throw me off at every bend we went on. This was not quite like I imagined. Pictures online make it look so peaceful and you can almost float out the side of the door as the train moves elegantly down the tracks. This could not have been further from the truth. It felt like the train was racing and a million miles an hour, leaping over bumps in the track and rattling from side so side erratically. I slipped and lost balance, countless times, gripping on to the metallic handle with my life.
I got my priorities in place and asked one of the lads to take a photo of me. If you don't have a photo hanging out of a train door, did it ever happen?
I swear my legs were trembling as I feebly popped my head outside of the train. Trying to calm my racing heart, I took deep breaths. Maybe I can edge a little further. I had to at least attempt to hang out. The train jolted again and I lost my balance, steadying myself on the rail. The sudden jerk of the train caused me to lose my footing and the door threw itself at me, slamming into the side of my trembling foot. This was not going to plan.
I had to fight all of my instincts to finally risk leaning out, even if it was for a few heart-beats. The wind buffeted humid air in my face and the clattering of the wheels chugging down the track was ringing in my ears. It was a very liberating feeling being out in the open as we raced through the countryside.
After a few minutes, I retreated to my seat, determined not to hog the doorway. I felt the adrenaline pumping now. What an experience!
About 3 hours into the journey, we left the low-lands behind and began crawling up the sides of mountains. I stared in awe as a deep valley opened up beside us, surrounded by majestic forest-coated peaks. For as far as the I could see stood numerous mountains, each one a unique shape.
Despite my amazement at the view, my tiredness was really starting to hit him. We'd been up since 6am and the train ride was taking slightly longer than anticipated. Plus it had been hours since I last ate and I was feeling slightly nauseous with hunger. Lewis was grumbling beside me, repeatedly asking how much longer it was going to take. We can be fun, I swear!
As our time on the train approached 3 and a half hours, I felt the vehicle begin to grumble as it slowed. The squealing brakes rang in my ears, still just audible over the noise of the air-conditioning that was threatening to freeze us all alive. The train crawled slowly into Kandy station, tooting a greeting to the town. We were here!
I threw my bag over my aching shoulders as we began to make our way down the carriage, stretching off our stiff legs. My stomach growled again, persistently reminding me of just how empty it was. Like I needed telling; my head was almost swimming with fatigue. At least we'd remembered to bring plenty of water along for our journey.
The doors to the outside world opened and I felt a blast of warm air, coaxing my goosebumps to retire for the day. We were here. We were in Kandy.