Train travel in Sri Lanka: 10 top tips to keep you on track

After two long train journeys in Sri Lanka, we learnt a lot. Here are our top 10 tips:

P1030053Plan ahead

Many of the longer distance trains have reserved carriages set aside in 1st, 2nd and 3rd class sections, which will guarantee you a seat. Some go on sale a month in advance, but go fast. If you miss out on an advanced, reserved seat, you have to buy your ticket on the day of travel and chances are that you will have to stand for at least part of your journey.

We always find the well-researched detail from Mark Smith (aka ‘the man in Seat 61’) invaluable. His Sri Lanka page is here.

We also used up-to-date timetable information from this site whilst we were away.

Find your spot

On the platform, ask someone local, or whoever looks like a seasoned traveller, roughly where the different ‘classes’ of train carriage will arrive. Platforms can be ten deep with passengers clamouring to get on board; so avoid the scrum!

Ask nicely…..

If you haven’t been able to reserve a seat, see if someone will agree to let you sit down for a breather midway– such as a youngish, fittish fellow traveller! As an aside, we saw an American lady offering cash for a seat to a local man. It looked crass and while he turned down her money and let her sit down, it was embarrassing all round.

Share it around!

If you do get a seat–share it! You might not feel like swapping it, or your window view, for a crush in the aisle, but someone will love you for life if you offer them a ‘turn’ at sitting down for half an hour or so on a long journey.

P1030347Gotta go?

There were toilets on board the trains we used, but to be honest, by  western standards, they were pretty grim. You’ll probably find a mix of western toilets and holes in the floor, so think hard about what you’ll be wearing that day! An Australian woman told us she just didn’t drink in advance of journeys like that, but in 38 degree heat, you need to rehydrate as often as you can! Take tissues and hand sanitiser.

Food on the move

Most trains–however tightly packed with passengers in the aisles–have a range of traders squeezing through with locally prepared and cooked food: sweet and savoury. These usually smell delicious and are very inexpensive, but if you don’t think they’re your thing, pack a snack as well as your drink for the journey.

Keep an eye on your stuff

We spent three hours standing on one train, with our luggage edging further away from us at every stop. And you can be almost nose to nose with your fellow travellers on really busy services, so stash any cash and valuables well away.

P1030051Hold on tight!

All the trains we used had windows and doors open for the entire trip. Some people sit on the steps by the door; with fellow passengers, some with babies, close behind. Take care and keep an eye on those around you.

Enjoy the view

Sri Lanka offers some of the most beautiful train views in the world: from the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean on the coast line from Colombo to Galle; to the tea plantations on the slow climb from Ella to Kandy–unforgettable.

Don’t worry….

… if the entire carriage starts hooting and screaming when you go through a tunnel. It might feel like a theme park ghost train ride…but we soon learned that it seems to be a *thing* in Sri Lanka–just scream along and smile!


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