The train ride to and from Ella in Sri Lanka is said to be one of the most picturesque journeys. I took it, and it wasn’t quite as expected.
Prior to our Sri Lanka trip, we read and heard amazing things about the train ride to Ella. The legendary train ride is from Kandy to Ella, but we wanted a shorter journey to better fit our itinerary. And also because we had full access to a car, so we didn’t need this as transportation.
We opted for a ride from Nuna Oya, the station at Nuwara Eliya, to Ella, which would take 2.5 hours.
Since our trip was less than a month away, we weren’t able to buy tickets online. Instead, we bought our tickets on the day of travel itself. You can only purchase 2nd and 3rd class unreserved tickets then.
We purchased the 2nd class unreserved tickets. The tickets are cheap: RS 150 for 2nd class, RS80 for 3rd class.
The ticket purchase was super easy and straightforward – just go up to the counter, ask for the tickets, and the staff would rip ticket slips for you.
If you’re a better planner than we were, purchase tickets to 1st class or 2nd class reserved, which are available a month in advance and beyond online or through travel agents.
Apparently this is where you can pre-purchase the tickets online: https://12go.asia/en
Not too sure if this is something I should be revealing online… but the train conductor asked if we wanted to buy tickets to 2nd class reserved from him in an under-the-table sort of way. He said that it would be a full train. It seemed scammy so we didn’t get it of course, but seems like that’s an option if you’re up for it.
The 2nd and 3rd Class Difference
You can only buy 2nd or 3rd class tickets on the day itself. We got 2nd class thinking that’s a less crowded option.
Besides the price difference, the other difference is that there is no fan in 3rd class. Instead of two seaters in 2nd class, there were benches in 3rd class. On hindsight, this might have been a better choice since you can sit more people at a time. I didn’t think the fan was an upgrade either. As long as the windows are up, you get a nice breeze flowing through constantly.
At Nuna Oya Station
We arrived at Nuna Oya rather early, about an hour before the train was slated to leave. We purchased our tickets and waiting at the platform. Ok I lie, we took some nice photos at the train station too.
About half an hour before the train was to run through, the station became very crowded. Most travelers were foreign tourists.
Our driver/guide was with us the whole time, and he told us we might not be able to get a seat.
At 12.45pm, the train finally rolled through (very on time, might I add), and all of us rushed to the door. The moment the train stopped, people started getting on. Our door was at a bit of a standstill. We assumed someone was getting off, but no one got off. Someone was blocking the doorway, and we all looked at each other, confused. Eventually someone ahead pushed through and we all clamoured on after.
It turns out that this “block” was a tourist with his giant backpack. He was desperately trying to keep his space at the door. You’ll find out why as you read on.
We squeezed into the middle of the train, and realised it was getting jam-packed, and there were no available seats.
Our guide quickly waved at us from outside and beckoned to us: “You want to get off and we drive?”
The train began to move and we waved back a sad goodbye. I have never regretted our slow wit to realise that we should have taken up his offer.
We realised that we were going to have to endure this ride standing for the next 2.5 hours. It was painfully obvious from the cranky faces of the tourists around us that this was not what we all had expected.
After we got over that initial… surprise, we peeked out the windows as the train began rumbling through lush greenery. How scenic was it? Very. As gorgeous green forests unfolded before our eyes, we spotted a waterfall in a distance. Beautiful.
That said, a lot of people were dozing off in their seats after a while. So it mustn’t have been that exciting.
From the aisle, it was a lot of awkward bending and contorting the body to get a good view. After taking some terrible pictures and videos, I looked over at my mates and showed them my phone.
I had typed out a text to our guide: “Are there other stops along the way before we get to Ella……….”
They looked back at me, nodded their heads fervently, and I hit send.
Funny thing about this train being in the middle of the jungle – there’s no reception. It took a while before our message got through, but it didn’t get seen. Our guide was in the midst of driving to meet us at Ella station.
The train did have stops along the way, and we contemplated hard to get off and wait.
I’m complaining, but halfway through the journey, some travellers began giving up their seats to the rest of us standing. The couple in front of us stood up and gestured us to sit and we have never been more grateful.
I get why people were dozing off. It was beautiful to look at all the green, but after some ten minutes of marveling, you realise that everything began to look… the same.
The train was extremely clean. At least the cabin that we were in. Unfortunately I can’t say much about the toilet; somehow I managed to hold it in in that long ride.
Throughout the journey, vendors would squeeze past with huge baskets selling drinks and snacks like samosas and nuts.
The “Prime” Instagram Spot
Circling back to my earlier gripe about that dude who was so adamant to keep his spot by the door – that’s the prime spot if it’s that Instagram shot you’re after. You know, the one where you hang out the door.
I hope your photo was worth all our dirty looks dude.
At some of the stops we saw people rushing from one door to the next because people were just blocking the way in.
This train ride really. I saw such polarising types of travelers. On one hand, we came across many kind ones who gave up seats so us standing could get a turn. On the other hand the ugly tourists blocking the way for a photo.
If you really must…
At the end of the trip, all of us collectively agreed: we should have gotten on the car with our driver instead of this.
If you’re not traveling with a car like we were, and this is purely for transportation purposes, go for it because the tickets are incredibly cheap for such a long journey.
If like us, you’re after an enjoyable train ride and definitely want to enjoy the gorgeous views, get the first class or 2nd class reserved tickets. It will cost more and you’ll have to book them beforehand but it’s a better option than trying your luck with seats.
If that’s not available to you, then i would opt for the 3rd class unreserved tickets instead of 2nd. You’ll get to hang out with the locals and highly probably have a roomier space – since everyone’s dumb enough to buy 2nd class.
TLDR; stay away from 2nd class unreserved.