Sri Lanka 🇱🇰: Magnificent Kandy-Ella train journey & Ceylon Tea Basics

After our time in and around Kandy, it was time for our second train journey on what is advertised as a most spectacular route (some say the most beautiful in the world).

Message from Anatoly, St. Petersburg 🇷🇺: ‘I have a friend, she was in Sri Lanka and said “if you didn’t travel by train, you didn’t see that country”.’ We agree wholeheartedly!

Route basics

The route from Kandy to Ella takes about 7h to cover something like 150km – yep, about 20-25kmh on average. There are options to jump off in many places on the way to explore tea plantations and hike in the lush green hills. We went all the way.

As usual, you have three classes on offer. 1st is usually booked up weeks in advance. So we opted for 2nd (about 1USD each) well knowing that it might mean standing for the entire journey.

Timing wise, there are two trains completely in day time – 8.30am and 11am. We were told to get to the station early to get a ticket and take the early train. Not sure if that is true, as the 11am train couldn’t have been much busier!

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Getting on the train

All passengers were keenly aware that seats are limited. So some positioning games on the platform unti the train arrived. To the surprise of most, the train and in particular 2nd class was already full. Damn!

So 3rd class it was. Standing. By the open door. Generally it is best to be on the right hand side of the train for the first half and left for the remainder (in direction of travel). Further, the train gets gradually emptier as time passes.

And now… Take in the scenery

Green valleys with tea plantations, cosy villages, ever often a tuk-tuk on a nearby road and lovely old school railway stations don’t fail to impress as the train meanders slowly through the hilly landscape. Pictures speak a thousand words…

People on the journey

Below a selection of portraits and other shots showing people in their life – be it in the train, the tea plantations or else.

A word of caution

It is very popular to hang on the train for cool pics using the permanently opened doors. People get hurt and die doing that, one girl only the day before we travelled (in response, there was a safety officer in each wagon now). So if you do it, hold on well!!!

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Tea of Sri Lanka

Tea production

Let’s start with a few facts. No-one will be surprised to hear that tea production is a key industry for Sri Lanka and most of us will have tried it (knowingly or not). Tea is a U$1.5-2bn trade, a key source of FX revenues and employs c1m people directly and indirectly (vs. 22m population and 8m employed population).

Tea was introduced by Brit James Taylor in 1867 who understood the excellent tea growing conditions – humidity, cool temperatures and rainfall – in the central highlands. Kandy region is the main area and at the time of Taylor, also still the cultural center of Sri Lanka with c1/3rd of the population and the last kingdom until 1815.

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In terms of production (about 340m kg per year), Sri Lanka is no4 producer globally (after China, India and Kenya) and second largest exporter having lost the top spot recently to China).

Types of tea

The main tea of Sri Lanka is black tea, which is considered a subgroup of the Indian black tea. The below infographic breaks it out superwell (just zoom in enough). This blog breaks it out really well (top right in the poster are Sri Lankan black teas). There are also green and white teas available (green tea is from the same plant yet not fermented meaning it retains more antioxidants). Quality of teas are divided into many subcategories from BOP (best) to DUST (worst). See here for details. 

Arriving in chilled out Ella

The train suddenly emptied as we arrived at our destinations and 7h journey time. Tuk-tuks already waiting for their many guests.

After quickly refreshing ourselves we headed to town for some good food, a foot massage and some life music. Really decent vibes here. And the fog that moved in at night created a mystical athmosphere. 🐺 🌕 🌫

Sri Lanka 🇱🇰: No Kandy crush 🍬

First train experience

Laura was already waiting for me at the airport and since we had time, we decided to head straight to the railway station (aka Colombo Fort) in a ‘pick me’ taxi (the local ride hailing app) in order to catch a connection to Kandy. It was hot and humid.

A single journey in 2nd class is Rp190 pP (about US$1.10). Seeing how packed 3rd class was… Definitely worth it (many fellow travellers went for 2nd too). 1st class gets you even A/C (vs. ceiling mounted fans in 2nd), but is not required for a comfortable journey and often fully booked well in advance. Even though we arrived only 10mins prior to departure and had to stand initially, we got a seat next stop. Towards Kandy there were plenty seats available.

By the time we arrived it was already dark and by now with a pleasant temperature. Our Sri Lanka adventure had begun…

Highlights of Kandy

We had one full day (well, half for me after jetlag forced a sleep in 😴) and an additional afternoon to check out Kandy – a key point on a Sri Lanka travel itinerary and the capital of the former Kandyan kingdom – Sri Lanka’s last kingdom.

The temple of the sacred tooth relic: Meant to display the old tooth of Buddha. The relic has played an important role in local politics because it is believed that whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country.

Great White Buddha: A bit of a hike uphill to see this large statue (the 2nd largest in Sri Lanka). Great views of Kandy and its surroundings.

Kandy National Museum: A bit of history and artefacts of the last Sri Lankan kingdom called Kandyan period (1592 to 1815), afterwards Sri Lanka was under british control. The golden lion in Sri Lanka’s flag originates from the royal banner. The kingdom was the origin of Kandyan dancing that is on display in town every day between 5pm to 6pm. Apart from a Kandyan dance figure i have no pictures… Makes you wonder 🤔.

Central market: Typical Asian market place.

Kandy lake: Central feature of the former royal city. Boat trips possible. Swimming seemingly not 😂

Getting blessed (for a few bucks…)

Did we get scammed? Who cares, this was probably the best and funniest experience in Kandy. In a random pagoda a monk approached us and explained a little about the temple. Right after we received a blessing and he foresaw babies by 2020.

According to him it will be two starting with a girl 👶👶. Lets enjoy our few last month of freedom i guess…

We donated Rp2000 for the service and were promised a special request to Buddha at the tooth temple next morning. Let’s see. Maybe it was just a very entertaining way to spend some money.

What to make of it all?

I wasn’t as impressed as the Kandy advertising had promised. In particular the night life sucks (does it exist?) and food options are poor. When we arrived 9.30pm on our first night we had to rush to get anything at all – very different from many other Asian places we visited before.

In particular we found it hard to find a restaurant not made just for tourists – do Sri Lankan’s never eat out? On our 2nd night we skipped looking and went to pizza hut. Generally speaking, the green cafe is not a bad option for some Sri Lankan taste though.

As for the sights – pretty average though i have been told the botanic garden near Kandy is great. Still, worthwhile going for a day be it just to hop on the train to Ella. But that is another days tale…