The scenic but busy train ride from Kandy to Ella

The scenic but busy train ride from Kandy to Ella

We knew that we were traveling at a busy time, just after Christmas, which seems to be the peak season for tourism in Sri Lanka. Many visitors book the train from Kandy to Ella ahead of time, when sales start several months in advance. We didn’t. A little bit because we didn’t want to be limited by a certain time we had to be somewhere, but mostly because we didn’t get around to planning until just before we left home.

Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

Buying the tickets at Ella station, easier said than done

What we did know was that we wanted to take the train to Ella. We travel by train as often as we can, and this journey in particular had come recommended by many. So upon our arrival in Kandy we went to the train station to try and find tickets, and were told that they were sold out for the next two weeks.

However, unreserved second and third class tickets cannot sell out, so in the morning on the day of our departure we lined up with many other people outside the ticket office at Ella station before it opened and got ourselves some unreserved second class tickets. The train was scheduled to leave at 8.45 AM and the ticket office opened at 8.00. At 7.40 the line outside was already quite long, so make sure you get there on time to buy your ticket.

Crowded train


Now, I suppose there are upsides to having your own seat, especially as the journey to Ella takes six hours. We were really lucky, as we first of all got on the train which not all tourists did, and second were standing next to a local family that got off after less than two hours, so we got their seats for the rest of the journey. Many others had to stand up the whole time.

Reserve a seat if you want to take pictures

If you’re going to take this train, you should really try to get a reserved seat. Only then can you look out the window and take good pictures, and standing for six hours with vendors and others constantly pushing through is mostly painful. Some travelers were lucky and got the spot by the door, but if you wait to get on there’s the risk of not getting on the train at all.

I did really enjoy the ride. The views were spectacular, and the slow pace was nice. Train rides are usually a good chance to spend some time with locals, and this one was no exception.

View from the train between Kandy and Ella

However, to me it wasn’t THAT amazing. I can’t really see how some people put this train ride as the highlight of their Sri Lanka trip. Maybe if I’d scored a seat in the observation car I would’ve understood better.

What to do on a day out in Ella

Train ride from Kandy to Ella
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Dambulla and Sigiriya on your own

Dambulla and Sigiriya on your own

In Kandy there are many offers of transportation or tours to visit the UNESCO World Heritages Dambulla cave temples (also known as the Golden Temple) and Sigiriya Rock. We didn’t want to rush it, so we decided to spend a night in Sigiriya.

Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

First stop: Dambulla

We had breakfast and checked out of our hotel in Kandy, then went to Goods Shed bus station next to the train station. It’s a bit messy, but we just asked someone who pointed us in the right direction, and soon enough we were on a bus leaving for Dambulla. We were some of the first to get on the bus but it filled really fast, so I’m guessing the buses leave at least every half hour. The temples are just before the bus enters Dambulla town, and you will know you’re there when you see a gigantic golden Buddha on your left.

Buddha statues in Dambulla cave temple

You pay for your ticket at the bottom, where you can also leave your luggage in the ticket office, then climb up the steps to the temples at the top of the hill. Once you’re up, there are five caves, each of them elaborately decorated. I had been recommended to start with the one furthest from the entrance and work my way back, and I’m glad we did, because they get more impressive as you get closer to the beginning.

Buddha statues at Dambulla

Spending the night in Sigiriya

After we had seen the temples, we went out to the road and caught another bus onward to Sigiriya. We had booked accommodation at a homestay called Nirwana, a neat little place with a restaurant and two rooms in the back away from the road and a porch with a friendly dog. In the evening, they served up a delicious curry, and the restaurant filled up with people. You’re advised not to go out on your own in the dark, as there have been incidents with wild elephants passing through. I’m not sure if this is a real threat, but would rather be safe than sorry!

Elephant warning sign

Visiting Sigiriya Rock

In the morning, after having been served an early breakfast on the porch, we went to Sigiriya Rock as they opened. Our homestay was really close to the entrance so we walked, but we seemed to be the only ones doing that. We bought our tickets at the separate ticket office for foreigners inside the museum, where there also are bathrooms to use while you wait, and as we were leaving the national anthem started to play and everyone around froze for a minute while it played.

There are some other things to see in the park apart from the rock itself, but we decided to head straight for the climb as we were fearing busloads of people were going to arrive at any minute. I think that was a good call, lines were already building up on the stairs up.

Balcony on Sigiriya Rock

While I didn’t really enjoy climbing a crowded staircase nailed to the outside of a rock very high above the ground, the views were spectacular, and I really enjoyed walking around the palace ruins at the top of the rock. There were also some construction workers up there, and I can only assume that they have to do the same climb to get to work everyday.

When we got down we strolled around the rest of the site, and although nothing is quite as impressive as the rock, there was another large rock that was shaped like a snake. After a few hours we were quite tired, and walked back to the homestay to pick up our bags and have a drink in the restaurant, then caught a passing bus back toward Kandy. I’m really glad we did it like this instead of going on a daytrip with a tour bus!

Local bus in Sri Lanka

Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Here’s our itinerary!

Dambulla and Sigiriya pinnable
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Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

Kandy, the perfect start of a trip to Sri Lanka

We landed at the Bandaranaike International Airport outside of Colombo and were picked up by a driver from the accommodation we had booked in Kandy. We arrived in the afternoon and didn’t want to spend a night in Colombo before traveling to Kandy, so this was a much more convenient way which probably saved us a day.

The driving time to Kandy was around three hours, so we arrived in the dark and went to sleep immediately. In the morning, we opened the curtains to an amazing view over Kandy and the hills on the other side. We were ready for vacation!

What we did in Kandy

The main attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth Relic, a temple where Buddha’s tooth is said to be stored. We visited on a public holiday along with the rest of the country it seemed, and the lines were long and the temple crowded. Locals brought lotus flowers and all kinds of offerings. The temple grounds are quite large with various buildings, and we found some refuge from the crowds in the galleries out back. I did enjoy seeing the thick cloud of smoke coming from the room where everyone lit their incense, but from a distance.

The entrance is the same for tourists and locals, but there was a separate automatic ticket machine for tourists at the side of the temple, not at the main entrance. There was also a separate storage for tourists’ shoes. Ask the guards to make sure you don’t wait in the wrong line!

Shade at Kandy lake

Another attraction is the Kandy Lake, or Kiri Muhuda, just outside the temple in the middle of town. It has a promenade around it with trees for shade, which makes for an excellent afternoon stroll.

There is so much to just look at in the Kandy, monkeys everywhere and lively shopping streets. The traffic is a bit much sometimes, but it’s still easy to walk and there are sidewalks almost everywhere in the center.

Where we stayed

We booked our stay in advance with Blinkbonnie Inn, a place up the hill offering good value for money and also a competitively priced airport pickup service. We chose one of their nicer rooms with a private balcony, because you don’t get a view like that everyday. Still, all guests could enjoy the view from the terrace by the restaurant.

The walk down the hill to the lake takes about ten or fifteen minutes, and it’s also possible to walk back up but many opt for a tuktuk. There are many other hotels around, but we had dinner at our hotel, which was excellent. Just make sure you close all windows up there, because monkeys are everywhere in Kandy.

Decorated tuktuk

If you’re taking the train to Ella

We later came back to Kandy for one night to take the train to Ella in the morning, and stayed at Kandy City Rooms and Hostel very close to the train station in order to save time. Traffic outside is a bit on the heavy side, but the room was very clean and had a luxurious feel to it even though it was a cheapie. The walk to the train station from there was about five minutes, very straight-forward.

The scenic but busy train ride from Kandy to Ella

Pinnable picture from Kandy
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