Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive & intriguing

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
Traveling by train is a quintessential Sri Lankan experience. Your trip to Sri Lanka won't be panoramic enough in case you miss those unhurried and quaint train journeys. If you care for my opinion, I would suggest- hop onto a train whenever and wherever you can, while you are backpacking Sri Lanka. Before I proceed let me clarify, I haven't been commissioned by Sri Lanka Railways to promote their service. Forget about sponsoring a travel blogger, they are so happy-go-lucky in their attitude that they haven't set up an online reservation facility yet to boost the railway tourism in the country. The second disclaimer is, I'm a train buff. If you go through my Sri Lanka backpacking itinerary you'll find I had commuted on trains in multiple occasions. Keeping aside my intrinsic bias towards train rides, in this article I'll try to give you a comprehensive idea of exploring Sri Lanka on trains, especially from a backpacker's point of view. I'll also mention other transportation options at your disposal, so that you don't feel logically deprived when I emphasize- train rides are mandatory components of your Sri Lankan travel plan. But then, investing your faith on a railway network that still thrives on technologies and infrastructures dating back to nineteenth century might not seem like the smartest move to many of you. It'll be like judging a book by its cover. Today we'll turn more pages before drawing the ineluctable inference- train travel is the most comfortable, affordable and kaleidoscopic mode for getting around this tropical backpacker's paradise
   
Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
The majestic Indian Ocean accompanies you for hours on your journey to Galle. 
Let us explore other available modes of transport at first. If you've landed here exclusively to widen your horizon on Sri Lankan train journeys, then skip five paragraphs including this one. The most common transportation option in Sri Lanka is the three-wheeler, popular among tourists as 'Tuktuk'. These operate in a manner similar to taxis, and in many situations is a convenient as well as cost-effective way to get around. Tuktuks are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. On any given street, you'll hardly have to wait more than a couple of minutes without one passing by that you can flag down. For a solo traveler or a couple, space inside a tuktuk is hardly of any concern, but for a small group of travelers with luggage tuktuk might not be roomy enough. Some tuktuks are fitted with meters for displaying the fare while many aren't. The preferred option, if available, is obviously the metered one, because nobody wants to consume his travel vigor in haggling with the driver. Always ensure that your driver switches his meter on at the start of your journey. This trip will cost you much lesser to an agreed price in a non-metered tuktuk. From my personal experience, except Colombo metered tuktuks are non-existent in other parts of the island. So, you want it or not you've to avail such tuktuks while backpacking Sri Lanka. At least negotiate on a total fare before commencing your journey. While it may be the most novel way to get around, it may not be the most cost efficient for backpackers on a budget.

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
Lying at 6,225 feet, Pattipola is the highest railway station in Sri Lanka.
Although Indians have good reputations for their bargaining prowess I'm probably a black sheep in that field. Mostly I covered short distances by walking. Yet there were instances where my feet gave up and I had to hire a tuktuk. Public transport is cheaper by far, and like many other Asian countries most tuktuk drivers in Sri Lanka tend to over-price foreigners. So, do not agree to the first quotation you receive. Check the distance beforehand in Google Maps and maximum you agree for each kilometer is 0.5 USD for commuting inside a city/town. In Colombo, your best bet would be a Uber tuktuk. It was as cheap as 0.2 USD/ kilometer ride! For travelers with more experimental mindset, there're rentals for self-drive tuktuk in Colombo. Even tuktuk drivers at many places may propose you with a price for intercity travel. I find both of these options quite tiring and miles away from being wallet friendly to a backpacker. But, of course, as long as your wallet can sustain it's harmless to to let your bums vibrate for a couple of hours while the friendly tuktuk driver stops at few worthy tourist attractions en route, partly to impress you and partly to minimize his risk of future piles. Rented self-drive cars usually turn out cheaper than tuktuks and are less prone to road mishaps. But to enjoy that freedom, you'll need an international driving license from your own country which you'll have to get validated in Sri Lanka licensing center. Otherwise self-driving a rented car is illegal in Sri Lanka. Thankfully, the process is not lengthy.

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
While traveling to hill country, your visual bounty will be higher on the left side.
All self-drive rental companies will direct you to the right place or take you there with their driver to help you through the brief official documentation process. There are several rental companies that operate inside as well as outside of the Bandaranaike International Airport. Better avail it in Colombo city for a fairer deal. Sri Lankan road rules require you to drive on the left of the road which is convenient to Indians, but unfamiliar to westerners as well as central Asian tourists. Moreover you'll often encounter bumper to bumper traffic while traversing Sri Lankan urban areas. So, rent a self-drive only if you're genuinely passionate about driving and flexible with the budget. Just like self-drive cars, one can rent motorbikes and non-geared scooters from many touristy locations around the country. The roads are generally decent, and distances between two tourist destinations are mostly short, allowing the motorcyclist flexibility, safety, and freedom to travel wherever he wishes. If you wish to ride a two-wheeler in Sri Lanka, you must possess a valid motorbike license, in addition to third party insurance and a helmet. Well, for local sightseeing renting a non-geared scooter is easy to grab and cheap, especially for solo travelers or couples. Trust me, island cops don't disturb sane tourists. Make sure to rent it from a reliable vendor, like your home-stay/hotel owner, to avoid those dodgy situations while returning the vehicle.  

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
A typical unreserved ticket issued by the Sri Lanka Railways.
Tourists arriving in Sri Lanka for a relaxing, hassle-free vacation experience can opt for taxis hired from car companies located at various places in Colombo. Checkout for the rate-chart and any other fee associated before signing for one. This option for getting around the country is not only plush, but also the fastest. You are free to set up your own itinerary and commence your journey. Drivers provided by such operators are usually quite friendly and speak manageable English to let you explore at your comfort zone. Some drivers are also tourist guides. They are often multilingual, with extensive knowledgeable in history, culture and environment embedded in your itinerary. It goes without saying, such comfy transport and reliable chauffeur rich with inputs won't come dirt cheap. If you're a backpacker like me, you already know it's not your cake. Now comes something practically useful for a budget traveler. The second best transport in Sri Lanka for a backpacker is public bus. You'll find buses literally everywhere. They're sometimes crowded and uncomfortable, but they can help you get around for almost nothing. It costs a dollar to get about halfway across the country on a non-deluxe red bus run by Sri Lanka Transport Board! I have survived quite a few bus journeys in the island so far, and to be brutally honest they were not bad at all, in comparison to India or Nepal. Apart from routine maintenance of roads, driving sense of majority of Sri Lankans is way better than what I find in my own country, which makes road travel safe and smooth. 

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
Candid ecstasy of fellow tourists captured on the way to Kandy from Nanu Oya.
If you're able to spend more, although lesser in frequency, air-conditioned buses ply most routes for twice/thrice the price. AC bus guarantees you a seat apart from the protection from unforgiving island heat. There's no reliable single online portal to get bus info. Even many buses do not originate from the designated central bus stand of a town. So, for longer trips, to be on the safe side inquire about your bus options, frequency and place of availability from locals one day prior to your journey. Practice of reserving a bus seat in advance is uncommon throughout the island. You just arrive there half an hour before the departure, wait for your bus and get a spot ticket. Try to board buses at their origin of departure even if it requires a short tuktuk ride to reach there, otherwise finding a place for your backpack might become a headache. It is local etiquette in most buses to provide or give up the very front seats to members of the clergy such as monks or priests whenever they board the bus. So, be careful while choosing your seat. Although it'll be of little interest to any backpacker, Cinnamon Air operates a small sea-plane service to destinations such as Galle, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and few more popular tourist towns. These flights are perfect for documenting a breathtaking bird's eye perspective of Sri Lanka, and undoubtedly fun when they land on picturesque lakes, but too expensive for any common man's wallet. As if you didn't know that!

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
Sri Lankan trains are quite spacious irrespective of the class of carriage.
Here comes the champion transport option, inexpensive and intriguing for travelers of every budget. Sri Lanka has an extensive railway system serving all major towns and cities in the island. Trains can be slower than buses, depending on whether you are on a rail route that offers an express train or not, but are generally more comfortable and even less expensive than buses. There are thousands of pages on the internet which speak about scenic Sri Lankan train journeys, but not a single one is convincing enough to clear apprehension from the mind of a backpacker on essential aspects like buying a train ticket, or reserving a seat. After giving you the basic outline of train travel in Sri Lanka, I will tell you how to look up for your required train connection and purchase the train ticket. There are three classes of railway cars, although 1st and 2nd class are only available on some intercity and express trains. Traveling 3rd class is not as bad as it may sound however, and often the only difference between 3rd and 2nd class is a missing armrest between 2*2 seats. It is highly recommended to travel by train if you are traveling outside the capital. The hill train to Badulla is an exclusively spectacular journey. Yes, the railway system in Sri Lanka crosses some very picture-perfect terrains, particularly when entering the hill country, because of the winding tracks along the mountains, most prominent being the Nanu Oya - Badulla span.

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
The yellow portion of the map represents my Sri Lankan railway travel.
I'll tell you which side of the carriage you should cling to for getting best photo opportunities. The newly renovated Jaffna railway line has been expanded up to Palai station in the north, letting you to travel to the fag north end of the country comfortably from Colombo without getting cramped in an overnight bus. Unfortunately, due to paucity of time I couldn't include the northernmost parts of Sri Lanka in my backpacking itinerary, particularly Jaffna and Mannar. Nonetheless, I could cover half of the railway route connecting the country. In the above rail-route map, the yellow portion represents my Sri Lankan railway travel. It is advisable to choose the express train, and try to secure a reservation beforehand where possible. One can reserve his seat in Intercity, AC-intercity, Express and Night Mail Train, thirty days before the date of journey by visiting any railway station, or dialing 365 from his Mobitel number. That being said, how can a foreign traveler reserve his ticket before arriving in Sri Lanka? There are few third party agencies who do the booking remotely for foreigners. But, besides steep charging, their services are often unavailable. So, you better refrain from investing your money and expectation on them. Although you can't book your ticket online, you can manage it confidently from the railway ticketing counter in 99% situations, provided you know your destination station, available trains, classes and their routes. It is actually pretty simple.

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
The famous Nine Arch Bridge at Demodara, en route to Badulla.
After you've drafted your Sri Lanka backpacking itinerary, check in Wikipedia/Wikitravel which of your travel destinations are connected by railways. Note the railway station names. Some towns are not directly connected, but have a railway station at close vicinity. Few examples will iron out your confusions. For traveling to Nuwara Eliya, I had to board a train for Nanu Oya. Nanu Oya railway station is just 5-6 kilometers of tuktuk ride away from the center of Nuwara Eliya. For reaching Yapahuwa Rock Fortress, I had to get down at Maho Junction. Someone willing to hike Adam's Peak, has to board a train for Hatton. So, you can see it is important to find out the station name of your destination, or the one nearest to your destination. Thankfully, Sri Lanka Railways portal has a "Search Train" functionality page where you can find name/number of all direct trains plying between two stations at any given date and time-frame. It shows you- arrival time, departure time, expected time of reaching your destination station, total distance, train name, number, type, available classes and also unreserved ticket prices. Keep screenshots of all search results relevant to your travel plan. Be very particular about dates. It'll be a shame to turn up with a reserved 1st class ticket on a wrong day!

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
A typical reserved ticket issued by the Sri Lanka Railways.
With all information ready and organized, go to any railway station nearest to you. Usually, most of the stations have separate counter for reserved and unreserved tickets. Politely inquire about ticket availability. If tickets of one train are already sold out, do not lose hope, you always have more options in your hand. When I had inquired for a reserved ticket to Ella at Fort railway station on the the first day of my arrival, it was disheartening to know that tickets for next 30 days were all sold out. Sometimes ticketing official assumes certain things seeing a foreign tourist. What he had meant was- tickets of all trains plying in the daytime were sold out. On retrying at Galle station next afternoon, I could reserve a 3rd class ticket in the Night Mail Train. This time I was there in peak tourist season. Colombo-Badulla rail route is extremely scenic and popular among tourists. Everyone wants to document the quaint journey by availing those daytime trains. So, it wasn't exactly the fault of the railway staff to presume that a tourist won't be interested in an overnight train journey to hill country. As soon as I could reserve a overnight ticket to Ella, I did the quick mental math and reserved subsequent daytime journeys- Ella to Nanu Oya and Nanu Oya to Kandy, to make up for what I was ready to miss in the night train. All I'm trying to say is, being flexible and calm is important if you want to explore Sri Lanka by trains.

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
Night Mail Train from Colombo Fort, gleefully heading to Badulla.
Also remember, not all express trains have provisions for reservation. For such trains, you have to purchase the ticket on the date of journey, at most one hour prior to its departure. The seat is not guaranteed. If the train is originating from your station itself then getting a seat is easy. Otherwise crack a friendly conversation with some station staff and deduce the probability of getting a vacant seat. Railway personnel are mostly very friendly to travelers and try to help them despite the language barrier. For a journey of couple hours, gambling with an unreserved ticket is no big deal. You'll find many locals as well as foreigners enjoying the train journey while sitting on the doorway or posing on the foot-board of an unreserved carriage. Despite their unprepossessing exterior, Sri Lankan trains are quite spacious, and provide respectable legroom to passengers irrespective of the class of carriage. Do not misplace the ticket till your journey gets over, as tickets are collected back from passengers at every station exit point. In my earlier visit to Sri Lanka, I had traveled to Anuradhapura from Colombo Fort on an early morning AC intercity train, and that was my first contact with Sri Lanka Railways. The prime and busiest station in Sri Lankan railway map- Colombo Fort, with its colonial architecture, several non-functional clocks, outdated railway timetables and wooden over-bridges shall surely instill an old-world aura into your mind. The archaic ambiance in the station itself is a striking contrast to the bustling surrounding. 

Train Travel in Sri Lanka - inexpensive and intriguing
Sri Lanka Railways thrives on infrastructures dating back to nineteenth century!
If you want to soak the beauty of the land, avoid traveling in air-conditioned carriages. Reserving 2nd and 3rd class ticket shall not only fetch you almost equal comfort, but also help you in truncating your expenses. When traveling to Galle from Colombo, occupy a seat on the right side of the train to get continuous company of the majestic Indian Ocean. While traveling to hill country from Colombo, your visual bounty will be higher on the left side. The view gets charming only after crossing Kandy though. Countless tea estates, flower gardens, woods and distant hilltops keep you engaged. Your train shall halt at Pattipola. Lying at an altitude of 6,225 feet from mean sea level, Pattipola is the highest railway station in Sri Lanka. I bet, you won't get tired of clicking photos. Wow-factor of this train route is explicit from the candid ecstasy of your fellow tourists who'll be leaning out from the carriage door relentlessly. I would suggest you to travel till Badulla. You'll thank me later for this unexplained recommendation. If you have any query regarding train travel in Sri Lanka, or need suggestion on your train itinerary, do mail me. In upcoming posts you'll get to see lot more of this beautiful country. Take care till we meet again... Ciao! 

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