Hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful train trips, the Kandy to Ella train was a highlight of our trip to Sri Lanka.
The 7-hour journey takes you through the emerald carpet of tea country to the chill town of Ella, high up in the cooler hills.
Don’t miss it when you visit the teardrop-shaped island!
Kandy to Ella train
We’ve jostled along on some pretty epic train rides in our lives – Norway’s Flam Railway comes to mind.
But the scenery we gawked at on the train from Kandy to Ella was perhaps even more hynotic (certainly more exotic).
Rolling rice terraces. Then pine forests.
Later, lush tea plantations, where tea pickers with green woven baskets attached to their backs moved slowly among tea plants like upright turtles.
The higher we climbed, the mistier it got – the white mist blending in with the white jasmine that grows wild over the bushes and trees.
About Sri Lanka Railways
Dating back to 1864, Sri Lanka Railways was originally built by the British to transport tea and coffee from the inland hill country to Colombo.
Today, Sri Lanka Railways is the country’s national railway.
It links Colombo with several major tourist destinations in Sri Lanka (like Galle and Kandy).
And it also operates in the island’s scenic interior (like the train between Kandy and Ella).
We were forewarned to stock up on bottled water and snacks ahead of time, so we bought pre-packaged cheese puffs and lemon cookies at the Kandy train station.
As it turns out, vendors hop onboard at different train stops, carrying baskets of freshly roasted peanuts, mandarin oranges, cans of Pringles and even samosas for sale.
You should still bring your own food and drinks with you, so you have what you want. But you’re unlikely to starve if you don’t.
Check out our Kandy travel guide! You won’t want to miss these 9 incredible places to visit in Kandy
First class Kandy to Ella train experience
We booked “first-class” seats on the popsicle blue train.
That gave us access to two Western-style flush toilets in the carriage and our own allocated space in reserved seats.
But mashing our noses against glass windows in an air-conditioned carriage couldn’t match the thrill of fresh mountain air whooshing in through the open doorway at the end of the carriage.
We ended up gleefully hanging out the open train door much of the time, gripping the grab bars tightly, watching Sri Lanka’s lush tea plantations fly by.
Some travelers, braver than us, sat on the floor with their legs dangling out as we clackety-clacked our way through the mist-streaked hills, ribboned with rows of tea plants.
The train reached Ella late in the afternoon.
At the train station, we bargained with a tuk-tuk driver to zip us up to our Ella hotel – checking in just in time to catch a brilliant sunset.
Where to stay in Ella? Read our hotel reviews of 15 gorgeous places to stay in Sri Lanka (including in Ella)
Kandy to Ella train schedule
You can find information about the train schedules on the official Sri Lanka Railways website.
For the Ella train station, look for “Elle” (not “Ella”) on the schedule.
There are usually two government-run express trains a day from Kandy to Ella.
We recommend booking the train that leaves around 9:00 am.
The schedule indicates you should arrive in Ella by around 3:20 pm.
But the trains from Kandy to Ella are often late. So plan on an arrival time in Ella closer to 4:00 or 4:30 pm.
If you take the later morning train from Kandy, you risk arriving in Ella after dark – and it’s nice to see your surroundings when you first arrive at someplace new!
Kandy to Ella train: First-class or second-class?
Don’t listen to the naysayers who discourage you from buying first-class tickets for the Kandy to Ella train (and Ella to Kandy train).
They portend that you won’t get a “real feel” for the ride, sharing the carriage with mostly other foreigners in a locked carriage where the windows don’t open.
In second-class, which isn’t air-conditioned, the windows open. In third-class, you can really experience some local color on wooden benches; seating is a free for all!
We understand the toilets in second- and third-class carriages are squat ones. (Reason enough to book first class?)
But you actually get the best of both worlds in first-class.
You can make like a local and get that heads-out-the-train experience on the platform between the first-class carriage and the next. The door to our carriage wasn’t locked, and we could come and go from that platform and our carriage as we pleased.
Yet when we wanted to sit down and rest awhile, we could do so in relative comfort. We appreciated the air-conditioning too – and the clean loos.
Our advice? Go first-class :-).
Buying Kandy to Ella train tickets
The Kandy to Ella train is very popular. In the high season especially, you have to reserve train tickets in advance if you want to guarantee snagging a seat.
You can buy your Kandy to Ella train tickets online through 12Go.Asia.
12Go is a reliable train ticket agent that sells online train tickets for Sri Lanka.
Don’t dally. You must book Sri Lanka train tickets at 12Go at least 37 days in advance. We recommend booking at least 2 months in advance.
We paid something like $20 USD each for our Kandy to Ella first-class train tickets.
Once your tickets are confirmed, you’ll get a PDF ticket voucher by email. We received ours about a month before the train departure date.
The voucher doesn’t constitute your actual train ticket, however. You still need to pick up your physical paper tickets in Sri Lanka.
Picking up your online train tickets
You have two choices.
You can opt for delivery of the 12Go train tickets to your Colombo hotel for a $10 USD fee.
Or you can choose to pick up the tickets yourself at 12Go’s partner’s office in Colombo.
We chose the second option, as we wanted to make sure we’d actually get our highly coveted tickets!
We took a taxi to the travel agency office (12Go’s partner), shown on the PDF ticket voucher emailed to us in advance. It was a bit difficult to find the actual office in the smallish mall with some boarded-up doors, and we wondered if we were in the right place.
But do persist – the office does exist!
And it was all quite amusingly old-school when we got there. The agent had to riffle through a wooden box to find the envelope with our tickets.
Recommended reading: Check out the 8 epic UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka
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Photo credits: 4 to 8 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase