Riding the Cultural Rails in Sri Lanka

May 5, 2011 18 Comments »

train station

Waiting at an empty train station in Kandy

I remember being in the locomotive peering out over the tracks from my high vantage point. My hand was on the lever and the train was moving slowly forward. Cars disregarded the flashing crossbucks when they saw how slow I was going and crossed the tracks anyway. I looked at my instructor and said, “Don’t they know that I have no idea what I’m doing?!” while I simultaneously blew the horn once again.

That was my introduction to becoming a train engineer. Yes, that’s right. At the age of 23 I became a licensed train engineer when I worked for Union Pacific Railroad. Yes – there’s a whole long story there, but I’ll save that for another day. Suffice it to say that I do love trains, and I love to cross countries by trains most of all.

I traveled by train in Vietnam, China, Morocco, Italy, France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Thailand. Now I can add Sri Lanka to that list.

One of the best ways to get around the little island nation of Sri Lanka is by train. They are old, crowded, slow; but there’s really no need to ever be in a hurry in Sri Lanka – so we just sat back, relaxed, and watched the green hills go by.

Sri Lanka Train Corner

Chugging through the Bend

Train Window

Train Window Seats Had the Best Views

Yeah right…I never really sit back and relax…instead I was snapping away trying to capture this unique transportation culture. I’m not sure why I’m fascinated with transportation culture – but I am; the riders, food, vendors, conductors, stations, and equipment associated with the train culture are a joy to capture.

In the name of research, we ended up riding each class level they had to offer in Sri Lanka, 3rd, 2nd, and yes – we snuck in and promptly got kicked out of the first class car. Quite frankly – none of the ‘levels’ were anything to write home about – but for Sri Lanka travel they were fine.

In 2nd and 3rd class, don’t expect cushioned seat,s or for that matter don’t expect any sort of reserved seat. When the train pulled into the station it was a free for all. I watched as old women dressed in colorful sari’s push their way onto a crowded train. I watched as luggage and babies were passed through the windows in order to save seats quickly. In fact, since I was traveling as a couple, we picked up on this ‘tag team’ way to get a seat and used it quite often. No, Russ didn’t hoist me through the window, but he did put the bags through the window while I raced on as quickly as possible trying to claim our bag and seat. Most of the time it worked.

Train Boarding

Ensuring a Seat with a Short Cut

Train Boarding Sri Lanka

A Colorful Entrance

boarding a train

Calm Inside, Chaos Outside

However we did experience one memorable train ride on a holiday weekend that was so tightly packed with people that I couldn’t move. We had to stand for 3 hours in a train that was wall-to-wall people. Twice as many people as were intended were piled into the seats so quite frankly no one could move. Needless to say it was a long ride, but strangely one of my favorite.  Why is it the best travel memories are the worst experiences at the time?

Trains plodded along slowly and normally you could go to the end of the car and stand next to the open door for air and a better view. The view on the tracks was just as interesting. The tracks were like a trail to the locals, everyone walked on them to/from their destinations and simply stood to the side to let the trains pass.

Sri Lanka Train

Peep Show

train conductor green flag

All Systems Go!

Walking the Rails

Walking the Rails

If you are in Sri Lanka, I highly recommend using the trains as your mode of transportation whenever possible. The costs are under $2 for a 4+ hour train ride, and it is a place where you can really experience the culture. A perfect way to travel!

train station sri lanka


If you really like train travel, then be sure to follow the The Ultimate Train Challenge this summer. While I’m driving across Central Europe towards Mongolia, other travel bloggers will be participating in the challenge of taking a train from Lisbon to Saigon!  Yeah – we are all a bit crazy!

It’s hard to find a good site with Sri Lanka train travel info – but this by far was the best – How to Travel By Train in Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Railways (timetables)

View all Sri Lanka Train Photography

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