How to Travel by Train in Sri Lanka – Colombo to Galle
Sri Lanka is expected to re-open to international tourism in August 2020. For more information about the COVID-19 protocols, click here. At this time, tourists are not permitted to take public transit in Sri Lanka.
Haunting, is one way to describe the opening scene of No Reservations Sri Lanka in which Anthony Bourdain’s ominous monologue is set against an auspicious backdrop focused on his train journey as colorful images of life in Sri Lanka are interjected. Fast-forward to almost 10 years later and we’re back home, writing this blog post after taking the train from Colombo to Galle. When I look at the photos we took and close my eyes, I can still hear the clanking of the train on the tracks while watching the surf break onto shore as forests of green palm trees filled the void, only to be interrupted by other trains passing by the other way, with the faces of the other passengers coming into focus for a few moments before being blurred away.
Our train ride from Colombo to Galle was very memorable but it was also a challenge to coordinate. As two people who work in operations, we research all logistics associated with our travels way in advance to minimize issues and delays and despite intensive research prior to our departure, there were still pieces missing in our plan prior to our arrival into Sri Lanka. We did find some blog posts that were helpful but there were no definitives so we armed ourselves with all the information we had found and made last minute decisions on how to travel to Galle by train pretty much at the last minute. In this post, we’ll share details about how we completed this journey by train.
If you are travelling to Galle from Colombo, you can hire private transportation, take the bus, or take a train. Galle is about 130 kms south of Colombo and the train takes about 2.5-3.5 hours, depending on traffic on the tracks. We decided to take the train to go to Galle and book a private taxi for the return to Colombo airport. We really wanted to experience the train journey for the scenery and since we were traveling very light with only a carry-on with backpack straps, we felt better about undertaking this journey this way.
Ticket Class: First Class vs Second Class:
We chose to ride 2nd class because the windows open and you get the best view of the scenery. At one point, we contemplated buying 1st class and 2nd class tickets on the same train but the 1st class was not available because the trains were out of service for refurbishment. Looking back on it now, this plan didn’t really make sense anyways and we would advise against this now. The reasoning behind this strategy was that if things were too uncomfortable and crowded in 2nd class, we could retreat to the comfort of assigned seating in 1st class.
I’m not really sure what the difference is between 2nd and 3rd class other than the price because everyone boards the same trains and no one checks the tickets until you disembark at the final station.
Choosing Your Train – The Timetable and Train Stations in Colombo:
There are two stations in Colombo; Maradana Station and the Fort Railway Station. Maradana Station is further out of the way compared to the Fort Railway Station but the rail starts at Maradana Station and while it’s not guaranteed, you stand a better chance of finding a seat.
You can search for the timetable online on the Sri Lanka railways website: https://eservices.railway.gov.lk. Based on the availability, we chose the 06:30 Express Train #8050 that would get us to Galle around 09:20. We were debating between the 06:30 and the 08:10 train and chose the earlier one since we didn’t really feel the need to sleep in.
At the Train Station: Buying Tickets and Boarding:
We would have liked to purchase the tickets online, but this was not an option in November 2017. We checked out of our hotel at 05:00 and grabbed an Uber at 05:10 and arrived to Maradana Station by 05:30. Since we were coffee deprived, we felt this would give us enough time to go buy our tickets, scope out the surroundings, wait for the train and give us a bit of a buffer in case things went wrong.
It was fairly easy to purchase our tickets from the booth; each 2nd class ticket was 180 Sri Lankan Rupees which is about $1.50CAD. Please be advised that when we were there, only cash was accepted. The train station was very quiet at this time which was good and bad; good in the sense it led us to believe the train wouldn’t be too crowded but bad in the sense we worry more about personal safety when there aren’t a lot of people around. In some reviews, people have reported being approached by a local person who offers to buy the tickets for them and then ends up keeping some money to purchase themselves a ticket but we didn’t encounter this.
Once our tickets were purchased, we glanced at the board to see which platform our train was departing from and made our way there to wait patiently. We toured the station and there isn’t much to it, just a few benches and local shops that sell snacks and beverages. We decided to pack our own snacks and beverages for the journey while being mindful we would not be able to use a real toilet for quite a few hours.
As we waited for the train, we each took turns going up to check the board since we had heard that they can change the departure platform frequently and announcements are not made in English or the local language in most cases. Eventually, 06:15 came around and after one last glance at the board, we tried to anticipate where we would be able to board the train to get a seat and positioned ourselves strategically on the platform. We’ve heard while Sri Lankans are really kind and well mannered people overall, but all manners disapear when it comes to boarding the train and it’s every person and their baggage for themselves. We don’t really like these rushed and hectic situations but we also didn’t want to stand for close to 3 hours on a rickety old train so we were prepared to move quickly.
We saw the train pull in and rushed onboard to find seats trying to guess which ones would face forward. Maybe it was luck or our planning but the train was not very busy and not only was it easy to find 2 seats, we also got to pick them without having to rush too much. Thankfully, no elbows were used and we were not pushed either.
The train left on time and made its way to Fort Railway Station to pick up more passengers. By this time, the train got full and there were no more seats. For us, boarding at Maradana Station paid off after all.
The Train Journey:
On its way to Galle, the Express train does make stops at stations along the way to pick-up and drop off other commuters. It is also very common for vendors to board the train and sell snacks to passengers and disembark a few stations later.
From the old diesel locomotive on the 160 year old railway, in some ways, taking this train was an immersion into the past and in some spots, there really wasn’t anything to show indication of modern life as we know it. Interestingly enough, we were on a diesel locomotive that listed Canada as its country of origin and is believed to have been gifted by our government in 1954.
Most of the railway’s path follows the coast and the scenery varies from just ocean and palm trees to small villages where you can see people’s homes and their daily life. Despite progress in reducing urban and rural poverty, you start to see the lack of infrastructure and poverty of those who live in those small villages by the rail and the sea.
As the train keeps going, your thoughts might drift to the devastation that hit this railway in 2004 when the tsunami hit, causing the worst rail disaster in history thus far and how terrible that must have been. Thankfully, tsunami warning systems have now been installed in Sri Lanka as they were non-existent before 2004.
It’s very tempting to hang out the door of the train like you’ve Anthony Bourdain and other Instagrammers do for that glamour shot, it’s not as easy as it looks to get those amazing shots: the trains move quite fast while, the oncoming trains appear to be closer than they are, the train is rickety and rocks side-to-side a little and they will stop abruptly without notice. Those hanging out the train photos and videos are a little dangerous and risky but not impossible to capture. When the train did stop for a while, we took our chances and tried to take a few photos from outside the train for posterity. For the record, the train is not filthy but it’s not clean either and we chose to wear some casual clothing we weren’t worried about getting dirty so I don’t recommend wearing white, even if those will make for the best photos.
It was nice to get the breeze and see out the window but for the last hour, it started to rain a lot and we had to close the window. Unfortunately, this is when we realized our choice of seat may not have been the best as we could smell the not so pleasant odor from the toilet a couple of rows back. The toilet reall is a hole in the floor and that’s why we didn’t have any coffee earlier in the morning. Thankfully, the odor came and went and was diffused by the lavender sniff boxes I got on Emirates First Class, which come in handy when traveling so places with unpleasant smells.
Arriving in Galle:
We arrived in Galle about 45 minutes behind schedule. It was a great train ride and we loved experiencing it and seeing so much beautiful scenery but we were happy and relieved to arrive in Galle. We left the station with our carry-ons on our back, handed over out ticket and slowly made our way into Galle Fort where we were staying to grab some much needed coffee and food before checking in to our hotel, the Fort Bazaar by Teardrop Hotels.
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Have you take the train in Sri Lanka? What did you think of the experience? Am I forgetting any tips?